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Posts Tagged ‘trust’

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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passover angelBack in the day when the Israelites were finally released from Egypt, it happened at great cost, the lives of all firstborn children and animals throughout the land (not to mention the previous nine plagues), except for those protected by God in Goshen: the chosen ones were passed over. How often are we passed over, thinking it’s a bad thing, when in reality, it is for a greater good?

On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. [Exodus 12:12-13]

So often, God’s timing is unclear in the moment. Only in hindsight, can we see the consequences.

I remember how disappointed I was when I was passed over for promotion after promotion in my work. And yet, looking back, the outcomes had their own blessings. In one case, a less challenging position offered me the opportunity to get a second Master’s degree. In another case, I was able to learn and grow in the cyber world and non-traditional librarianship (at the time). I learned what it meant to become an early adopter and to forge new paths in the computerized world. And later, another loss, merely opened a door that brought me back to my own community, where I now live, work, and worship. I am content here.

Perhaps it is a wisdom that comes with age and experience. The very thing that appears to be a calamity transforms into a grace.

Of course, in the Exodus time, the Israelites were saved from the grief of losing their firstborn children, but then they also left everything they knew to flee into a desert that challenged them daily. Not everyone was so sure that this passing over would come to good. Not all could not see that promised land of milk and honey; only those who embraced their faith in God.

It is no different today. I must believe in God’s ultimate plan for my good, or at the least, the good that may come after me because of where I live or how I live or the children I send forth into the world.

Today, in the New York Times, I read an OpEd piece by Frank Bruni, and although this piece was driven by his observations about age and wisdom in sports, specifically Peyton Manning, he included additional observations about maturity and our response to life events.

And it’s no accident that many of us, while remembering and sometimes yearning for the electricity of first loves and the metabolism of our salad days, don’t really want to turn back the clock. We know that for everything that’s been taken away from us, something else has been given. . . . We’re short on flat-out exuberance. We’re long on perspective. . . . Life is about learning to look past what’s lost to what’s found in the process . . . [Frank Bruni, Maturity's Victories]

 

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make a wayWe all were. Sent ahead. In some cases, that is more obvious than in others, but if you think about it, we can each lay a path or new ground for our descendants and loved ones.

But God sent me [Joseph] ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. [Genesis 45:7, NIV]

My mother and father left Europe and came to America and worked hard for the sake of their children and a new life. My mother’s mother left her village in Lithuania to go to Riga to experience city life. In my own life, bouncing from city to city, I eventually landed with a husband and a home here in Maryland and drew three orphaned children to us from Latvia and St. Petersburg, Russia, their lives forever changed.

We can each make a way. We can cut the brambles to the best of our ability so that others can walk behind.

But of course, some people refuse. The road ahead seems too difficult, too overwhelming. And so they sit in what small space they can carve out and wait. Reminds me of the parable of the “talents.” Three servants were entrusted with wealth to invest for the Master while he journeyed away. Two took risks and plunged ahead. But the one merely buried what he was given and although he returned it all, he had made not change or increase.

Humans are given gifts as well as challenges that make us who we are but also help make us what God intends. It is not about the money but about the attitude, the response to life’s events, accepting the truth of what is and making the very best of what that truth can contribute.

This process is true for organizations as well as individuals. Churches, in particular, have a mission to reach out to those stagnant souls who have lost their will or hope toward the next step. The Church, the Body of Christ, can do corporately what cannot always be done by the one. But it must be done in unity and love.

Look back: who is following you? Whose steps are landing in your footprints?

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dream and forgivenessIt’s not like Joseph had one God dream after another. He had a couple of foretelling dreams as a teen and no other dreams of his are shared through his time in Egypt. Instead, he turned to dream interpretation, but again, only a few. He known for being an honorable man, but not necessarily a diviner. Yet, God used him in this way at a point of need.

[Joseph said:] And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt . . . Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.” . . .  Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  [Genesis 41:33, 39-40, 46a; NIV]

After twelve years of servitude, Joseph is raised up to one of the highest positions in that world, second only to Pharaoh at the age of thirty, all because of a dream, an interpretation, a vision, and twelve years of leading in lower positions. Every year of his captivity was actually a year of practice and preparation for the big leap. He had no way of knowing that such a day would come.

What we don’t see is any record of built up resentments toward his half-brothers. The only hint that memories cause him pain comes in the naming of his sons: Manasseh (which appears to mean “forget” and Joseph writes that his son has been born to help him forget his father’s household) and Ephraim (which seems to mean “twice fruitful,” and Joseph writes that this birth symbolizes a new life of fruitfulness in the place of suffering). Suffering? Interesting.

By the time the brothers finally come from Canaan to ask Egypt for grain, Joseph has been away at least twenty years. He has a new name, a new life, and his own family. And yet, the moment of reckoning arrives–the moment of payback, the moment when he could, at a word, destroy all ten of his brothers for their betrayal. During this first visit, he is tempted but there is also his integrity fighting against it.

Resentments build fast in my world. I know it. I see it. I feel it. People will say, “oh, I forgave, but I will never forget.” I think it was my old friend, Mma Precious Ramotswe, from the mystery series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, who said (more or less), “If we don’t choose to forget as well, the memory may very well erase the forgiveness.”

I can choose drama or I can choose dream. I can choose to forgive and forget. I can allow God’s dream to build a life or I can fight the way. I can complain of the time and the disappointments or I can trust in the preparation.

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Drawing by Oldřich Kulhánek

Drawing by Oldřich Kulhánek

Job did. At least, that’s what is written about him in Job 7:16 and then again in chapter 10, verse one.

I despise [loathe, hate] my life; I would not live forever.
    Let me alone; my days have no meaning. [Job 7:16, NIV]
and . . .
I loathe [hate] my very life;
    therefore I will give free rein to my complaint
    and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. [Job 10:1, NIV]

The dictionary defines “despise” as loathing and “loathing” as a feeling of disgust or intense aversion for something. If we switch over to the word “hate,” it is defined as an intense or passionate dislike, an extreme hostility toward something.

In the early weeks or months of Job’s suffering (no one knows for sure how long he suffered, but most scholars count his time in months and weeks and not years), he hated his life. His suffering was so intense, his dismay at the losses, his “why me” lament, caused him such intense feelings, that he abhorred his very existence.

And yet, he did not kill himself. He was, despite it all, somehow surrendered to God’s will.

There is so much I do not understand about Job, but I do see this: he was in terrible pain. He was distraught and hated his circumstances. He wanted it all to end. He wanted to forget, to stop feeling, to stop experiencing all that was horrible in his life. He was attacked by his own friends and he was misunderstood. Nothing new there. Job was fully human. He was no angel in his torture and so he cried out with intensity and even venom. But he remained.

Even his wife said he should “curse god and die!” She too suffered, but ultimately placed the blame fully on Job’s own shoulders. As did his friends.

Apparently, someone has to be to blame. We do it in our modern times too, don’t we? It’s the boss or the President or the Congress or the neighbor. It’s the parents or the children or the Pastor or the car in front of us. It’s the farmer or the industrialist or the millionaires on Wall Street. It’s the Muslims or the Gays or the Polygamists. It’s the Jews or the Christians or the liberals or the conservatives. They did something! Things are bad. Someone did or said something to bring this on. Right?

Or, maybe, just maybe, it’s up to us to simply stand in the midst of the storm.

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” [Ephesians 6:13, NIV]

When my friend, Mary, died on Mother’s Day, 2013, she endured several months of the ravages of pancreatic cancer. Her disease was inoperable and therefore, nothing could be done but to ride it out. When I visited her early in her death pilgrimmage, I will never forget her words: “I did nothing to cause this. I have been healthy all of my life; I ate well, I exercised, I took care of my body and my spirit. This is simply part of my journey and I will to experience it fully, without blame toward anyone, including Spirit.” And so she touched hundreds of lives in her final months and died with no miraculous healing or recuperation.

She did not despise her life or her God.

Hate and disdain, name-calling and blame-shifting, take up a lot of energy. They suck up valuable human resources.

No more. No more.

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numbersWhat is it with human beings and counting? How many kids do you have? How many dogs and cats? How many people came to church on Sunday? How many books were checked out of the library? I mean, what does it really mean anyway, these sum totals?

 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. [Luke 2:1, NIV]

Apparently, the main reason that censuses were taken in the past was for tax purposes. According to the article in Wikipedia, the census around the time of Jesus birth was actually the Census of Quirinius, based on the history written by Josephus (however, there are historical problems with this date and the generally accepted date of Jesus’s birth–a challenge for the scholars I suppose, but that relevant to me. However, for more about this conflict, read the article). And apparently, the Jews resented the taking of the census anyway because of its implications for the domination of Rome over their country and their livelihoods. The prevailing opinion was that the taxation would be too high (sound familiar?). The zealots began their rebellion during these times.

In modern times, the census (supposedly) ensures that all people will be adequately represented in our government through representatives and senators and the like. However, that system is currently very broken and no census will fix it.

So, let’s go back to the more general idea of counting. Why do we count the number of people or things in a place at a certain time? Why do we believe that the higher the number, the more successful we are or the more plenteous our booty? When it comes to money, the rich get richer and the poor wish harder.

By the way, there’s no census in heaven.

In fact, all of this counting and measuring is human in origin. As is time. How much and how little? How many and how few? How long and how short? We compare to one another and we compare to history (as though the circumstances in the past could actually compare to whatever is now). Sort of silly really.

There is another biblical story about the census that has completely different aspect [I Chronicles 21], in which David declares thatcounting days a census would be taken, without the blessing and/or direction of God. According to one scholar, “. . . God was angry at David, in those times, [because] a man only had the right to count or number what belonged to him.” And I find that concept fascinating. Perhaps we need to consider if we are counting too many things that are not ours to count?

This then begs for the challenge, does God own everything? Have I given over that “ownership” or not?

Read Psalm 50:10-12: ” . . . for every animal of the forest is mine,
    and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
    and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,

    for the world is mine, and all that is in it.

For if everything I own is God’s, then I don’t need to really count or worry about that number being large or small. If I could just stay focused on the quality of my relationships, the quality of my service, the quality of my work and lifestyle, then the numbers game could fall away and into the very hands of the Christ who lives within me: teacher, guide, savior, CEO.

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