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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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holy objects TabernacleBack in the day, they had some seriously sacred and holy objects. Everything in the Tabernacle (tent of meeting) was holy and could only be handled, touched, or carried by certain people and in a certain way. Any deviation could mean death. Does anything in our contemporary world compare?

They [Kohathites clan] are the ones who shall deal with the most sacred objects associated with the congregation tent. . . . When Aaron and his sons are done covering all the holy objects and furnishings, then and only then (so that they don’t touch the sacred things and die), the Kohathites can approach. They are the ones who shall transport these items of the congregation tent. [Numbers 4:4, 15]

There are religions around the world that do have sacred objects and although none have the death penalty, they do carry severe holy eucharistpenalties. In Western culture, mostly it’s the high church denominations such as Catholicism and Orthodox who revere things, be it the Eucharist (sacramental bread), icons, relics, or specific objects that have been blessed or designated for holy use. In Muslim culture, it’s my understanding that the Quran (book itself) should never touch the floor or have anything laid on top of it and believers should not touch its pages without formal ablutions.

But the idea of holiness in our midst, whether in objects or places, has been lost, in large degree, by the vast numbers of believers who have embraced a friendlier God whose grace extends to jeans, casual environments, electronic texts, and handy communion elements. I am not condemning the practice per se; after all, I attend such a church myself. It’s modern and relevant and loud; it appeals to a broad range of people and is designed to be accessible to both believers and non-believers alike.

cross and rosaryIn Christianity, the cross, the instrument of torture used by the Romans to execute criminals has become so ubiquitous that both believers and non-believers can be seen wearing t-shirts, earrings, and tattoos with the cross prominently displayed. Go figure.

What is holy in my own life? I find myself hungering sometimes for the holy or sacred experience. In new cities, I love finding older church buildings and sitting in the quiet spaciousness of the place. I love to listen to sacred music alone or practice the praying of the hours. There is a respect for the time and the place that feels different, that engages me spiritually in a way that other things do not. Don’t get me wrong, I love contemporary worship with its upbeat sound, waving hands, and corporate experience. But it does not speak of holiness. It’s praise and adoration of a type, but I would never assign the word holiness to it.

There are times in nature when I have felt a holy presence, but it cannot be re-created at home. And I have had remarkable revelations while reading my Bible and yet, I know I treat the book itself somewhat cavalierly (besides, I must have about twenty different versions all over my house). If I can’t find one, there’s always a back up. It’s not holy or sacred in that other way at all.

Of course, one cbasilicaan ask if holiness or sacred objects are needful in today’s culture? Perhaps not. But I wonder, are we missing something?

My husband’s conversion story includes a moment when he heard the voice of God ask what he would do if Christ appeared to him in the flesh? And Mike’s internal response would be that he would bow down and worship him. For him, a holy moment, no doubt. But we have so few of those moments today. Bowing down as a symbolic gesture of surrender or subservience is foreign to most of us. In the face of foreign “royalty,” Americans tend to bristle a little at the idea of bowing to them. Even the idea of a “king of kings” is honestly unfamiliar. These are merely words, not actual feelings of reverence or awe.

As I think about Lent, I want to search out the holy in my heart as well as my environment. It will be the focal point, I think, to my 40 day journey.

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jubilee2Just try to figure out how that actually worked back in Old Testament times. If you think scholarship over the New Testament issues is hot and contested, check out the controversies over this Levitical proclamation in chapters 26 and 27. At first, it seems relatively clear cut, but apparently, a closer examination reveals a number of issues.

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. [Leviticus 26:8-13, NIV]

Entire articles are written on whether the Year of Jubilee is indeed the 50th year in addition to the 49th year which would make it a Sabbath Year times two (really? two years with no planting?). Others argue over the start date, when is year one? And then still others question the intricacies of all of these transfers of property and slaves in the same year throughout the land. Havoc.

Honestly, I’m not that interested in the intricacies of implementing this law. But I do find the concept fascinating. In essence, ownership of land or slaves had an original possessor (in this case, based on the tribes and families who entered the promised land upon leaving Egypt). And as a result, anything and everything after that, was a lease, a rental, a borrowing contract. Nothing outside of the original grant was permanent.

native americansThis idea reminds me of some of the historical documents that reveal a basic misunderstanding between the Native Americans and the white interlopers from Europe. While the pilgrims and pioneers thought they were buying the lands, the Native Americans always considered these agreements to be temporary and somewhat silly. How could they sell to the whites what they did not own. The land belonged to nature, to God, to Spirit.

How different things would be if we understood today that our lands as well as our wealth and buildings, out cities and our systems are merely leased for a season. God can take them all back in a moment. Nature can easily supersede our so-called ownership and if left fallow, even for a short time, man-made things are engulfed and buried, if necessary, to start anew.

I don’t know when year one is in God’s eyes either. But there is some evidence that our lives and our world do run in cycles. I seriously doubt I could figure out that cycle, but in the spirit of Jubilee, I could proclaim it. I could choose a year of Jubilee, a year of letting go, a year of freedom, a year of rest, a year of renewal. What would I do in a year like that? A true sabbatical.

ResetI don’t really honor the cycle of seven days, resting on the seventh (as in Sunday). Every day is full of activity and obligations, shoulds and musts. Nor have I considered the seven year cycle, re-evaluating my world each seventh year. It’s not required anymore, I know that, but there might be something in this idea of rest and renewal, stopping and starting, taking a deep breath and releasing the past.

In October of 2014, I will reach the 9th set of sabbatical years. I would like to mark the following year as a Jubilee. I’m not sure what that will be exactly, but I’m putting it out there now. To ponder, to think, to imagine, to plan, to reset.

What would you do in a year of Jubilee?

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freedomInteresting. In today’s world, how often does a person use as their defense, “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me.” And as a result, they believe this lack of knowledge absolves them of the crime. You’d think we’d get over it. After all, the “I didn’t see the stop sign” defense does not work in court, nor does “I didn’t know the speed limit” prevent an officer from giving us a ticket. And yet, we still say it and claim it and believe it.

 If anyone commits a sin by violating the directives I have given you—even if he was unaware of it—once he realizes it, he bears the guilt and must still accept the consequences. [Leviticus 5:17, The Voice]

The law works differently than grace. The law is immutable and enduring. The law has not gone away because of grace, it still exists; it is only our relationship to the breaking of law that has changed through Christ. For this reason, “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] Sin still exists. Intentional or unintentional, blatant or secret, repeated or isolated, sin happens. Mistakes happen.

mercy on meInitially, I wasn’t fond of the centuries old Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” because I didn’t see myself as a sinner. I saw myself as foolish perhaps or selfish, but honestly, it wasn’t like I had killed anyone. (Why killing seems to be norm for being a sinner, I don’t know, but most people who say this phrase, use that act as the litmus test.)

During Jesus’s ministry, he called his disciples to the highest plateau of faith by telling us to walk the paradox line: love enemies, go the second mile, enter through the narrow gate, turn the other cheek, and so forth. And then, he tops these off with the ultimate impossibility: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect!” [Matthew 5:48] What? Absurd. That’s inaccessible. No one can do that. No one can be even close to the perfection of God. And I can just imagine Jesus smiling: “Yep. That’s the point.” And apparently, anything less than perfect is sin.

Sin is part of life. But how do we respond to it? Do we yield to sin and its backlash (as they say, “Karma is a bitch”) or do we call on the power of the Cross of Christ to stand between? It is the point.

sacrificePeter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” [I Peter 4:8] But Christ’s love covers ALL sins. We are encouraged to model our behaviors after Christ and practice love so that we can learn to be more generous of heart to one another. But there is only One who covers them all, from small to large.

Own up to the sin. But even better, own up to the sacrifice of blood that protects us all from the kismet of life’s choices.

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