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Archive for the ‘Ordinary Time’ Category

When Jesus was giving a hard lesson on forgiveness, the disciples paled (so I imagine).

“Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” [Luke 17:4-5]

And then he gave the now-famous (or infamous) line about mustard seed faith. For the first time, as I reread this passage, I heard a smile in Jesus’ voice, almost like a little tease. I had a startling discovery. Faith is a lot more like a light switch than a thermometer. We aren’t really supposed to be in the business of “heating up” our faith. The amount of faith is not measurable in that way. How many years have I sat under teaching in which believers were chastised for not having enough faith to experience God, either in healing or miracles or whatever? But now, I’m thinking otherwise. Faith is or faith isn’t. (Another kind of Yoda phrase indeed.)

Certainly, I can gain more understanding and I can enrich my relationship to the Holy, but does that mean my faith is more or just includes something else? If I go back to my first days as a believer, I can remember the glories of my conviction about Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. Real. All real. I was in a whirlwind of gratitude and love. I turned on the light. But as I continued my journey of faith, I don’t believe the light got brighter, I just opened more doors. I surrendered.

I feel a great relief really. I don’t have to collect mustard seeds. I’m gonna plant the one I have so that it can die and transform into a living, breathing me/God union.

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Of course, we all know, there are hundreds of references in scripture about fear and more than a hundred that specifically tell us to “fear not” or “do not be afraid.” But I think the repetition is for good reason. How many of us really turn off the fear button? Can we stop our thumping heart or self-talk our way out of the moment? Flight or fight is the normal reaction.

Perhaps I have become more aware of this inability to handle emotions while taking care of my 5-year-old grandson. His biggest issue is not usually fear, but sadness. When things don’t go his way, he tells me how sad he is. And what is my immediate response? “Don’t be sad.” Really, how’s that working? It doesn’t.

Can anyone really act on a “not” command? How many times have parents discovered that telling their kids “not” to do something usually has the opposite effect? Is it better to say, “fear not” or “take courage?”

Changing our feelings is not easy, no matter how we go about it. But we do have to admit the feeling is there, don’t we?

Then again, maybe the “fear not” scriptures are saying, “I see you are afraid of this situation (or person), but I can assure you, it’s under God’s control and you are safe.” In other words, maybe God is trying to help me identify the feeling. Unfortunately, at least for me, it usually takes a few rounds of comfort words, logic, examples, and proof, before I can even think about moving out of fear. I mean, honestly, I can grovel around in fear for a long time and never identify it.

OK, but let’s say I finally get it. I admit it: I’m afraid. Don’t I need to know why I’m afraid?

Oh wait. I know this answer: No trust. Sigh.

I have been a believer for more than forty years. You would think I’d have this trust thing down. Theoretically, I know, the only way to truly face fear (that is walk into it) is to trust God is in the midst of the circumstances. We have stories to make this point. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fire [don’t tell me they weren’t afraid], but a fourth person was in the flames with them and when Nebuchadnezzar called them out of the flames, their bodies were untouched [Daniel 3:8-30]. We are not told that they saw God in the flames ahead of time; they didn’t really know how this could turn out well, but they went anyway.

Perhaps that’s the real clue. It’s not that we don’t fear, but we move forward anyway with one hand holding the hand of Jesus.

In Russia, Alexei Navalny, after being poisoned by players in the Putin administration, recovered out of country, but then turned around and returned to his homeland. He knew he would be arrested. He walked into the flames (again). Nelson Mandela of South Africa spent twenty-seven years in prison before he was released. Four years later, he became the country’s first black president. He walked into the flames.

My flames are nothing much compared to many others who have sacrificed their lives, on the battle fields both real and political. But the principal is the same.

Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchoress who suffered through the ravages of the Bubonic Plague that devastated her city three times, killing over half its residents. She knew suffering and hardship, and yet she is best known for her radical optimism and absolute faith in the God of love who told her, unequivocally, that “all will be well; all will be well; all manner of thing will be well.”

Our country has suffered much in the last four years (and beyond), from racial strife and poverty to political corruption and the undermining of our democracy to the ravages of a global pandemic and to the devastating effects of climate change. It is easy to be afraid; at any point, one of these things could touch me or my family directly. What if? What if?

Some say the new administration (inaugurated on January 20, 2021) will make a difference. Perhaps. But until fear is faced and conquered in the hearts of the people, distrust will rule.

I don’t know about you, but I can only lean heavily now on my faith in a good God who summons me to be a light in the darkness, and to speak with radical optimism that God is in the flames and we will be well: all will be well. So it’s not just “fear not,” but “be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33]

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In recent days, I have been practicing Lectio Divina again** with some regularity and have found it profoundly illuminating. Partly, I believe it’s because of the familiarity of the Christmas season scripture passages. Most of us know them well, and it’s often difficult to hear/read something new from them. This practice is perfect for a renewal and discovery in God’s Word.

I found a lovely app for my phone called “Ritual” and on it, a daily Lectio podcast presented by theologian, Kathleen Cahalan. The other day, she read a passage about Simeon and Anna from Luke 2. The part about Anna struck me the deepest [Luke 2:36-38]:

“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” [emphasis mine]

In the past, I simply found her devotion admirable albeit somewhat extreme, and moved on. Or, how lovely for Mary and Joseph to have received two prophetic utterances on the same day, etc. But on this day, I was captured by the Temple itself and the conundrum of the temple within and the temple without. After all, scripture is clear, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” [I Corinthians 3:16, NKJV] And all I could think about was the wonder of never leaving the Temple within. If I could really remain in the holy place, dwell there, and from that vantage point, look out, wouldn’t my view of others and the world around me be transformed?

So, with the help of my “Monk Manual” [MonkManual.com], I was drawn to this idea and have embraced it as my theme for the month of January. There’s no real “doing” in this theme, there’s no success or failure, no comparison, no wrong or right. It’s a small globe of thought on which I want to rest each day and allow myself to wonder again and again: I am in the temple of God and the temple is in me; I am not alone there.

**Lectio Divina is a contemplative way of reading the Bible. It dates back to the early centuries of the Christian Church and was established as a monastic practice by Benedict in the 6th century. It is a way of praying the scriptures that leads us deeper into God’s word. We slow down. We read a short passage more than once. We chew it over slowly and carefully. We savour it. Scripture begins to speak to us in a new way. It speaks to us personally, and aids that union we have with God through Christ who is himself the Living Word.

From the Anglican Communion.org

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Note 1: This topic is too big for a single blog post; I know that. I can only address a few aspects of sex in order to make a point.

Note 2: As a heterosexual female, I can only reasonably speak to sex between men and women. Not to necessarily discount the rest, I am simply unfamiliar with other practices, nor do they help in my argument about the relationship between longing, sex, and unwanted pregnancies.

Spoiler Alert: If you have trouble with the words vagina, coitus, sexual intercourse, orgasm, ejaculation, or copulation, you may want to skip this post.

Random Facts and Processes

  • Sex is noted throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments. Most of the time, it’s a warning. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immortality;” [I Thess 4:3, ESV]
  • Sex (as a word) has become, over time, an over-arching term for the whole she-bang (no pun intended): foreplay, coitus, and recovery.
  • Sexual intercourse can be a pleasant and satisfying experience often culminating in orgasm. In some cases, both partners (the ideal) have orgasms, but far too often, only one does, generally the man.
  • When two people agree to have sex, the immediate outcome is often pleasant.

However–

  • In the case of non-mutual consent, sexual intercourse is primarily one-sided with the male forcibly entering the female for personal satisfaction.
  • A male can also weaponize sexual intercourse, commonly called rape.
  • A woman, in these situations, is an “object.”

Nonetheless–

  • In all cases, if the man has successfully ejaculated inside a woman’s vagina, sperm laden semen will move through the vagina and into the cervix and beyond. In the case of withdrawing, also known as coitus interruptus or pulling out, it is possible for some sperm/semen to find its way up the path.

Long Term Outcomes

  • If either the man or the woman has an STD (sexually transmitted disease), that disease will likely pass to the partner.
  • Depending on the female cycle, a single sperm can successfully travel into the cervix and fertilize a waiting egg, create a single cell zygote, and in essence, create a pregnancy.

Why Do People Engage in Sex if One of the Key Long-Term Outcomes is Pregnancy?

  • They want to have a child together.
  • One or both use contraceptives to prevent a pregnancy. In other words, they don’t want a child. Unfortunately, they tend to forget that a surprise pregnancy can still happen. No contraceptive is completely foolproof.
  • Sex is fun.
  • Sex, particularly orgasms, release a number of hormones that specifically impact the partners. [see https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-orgasm] Among them are:
    • dopamine: releases feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation.
    • oxytocin: releases feelings of bonding (the same hormone releases during breastfeeding), a sense of love and attachment. Note: after orgasm, oxytocin continues to be release in women which often explains their desire for post-coital closeness and “cuddling.”
    • prolactin: releases feelings of satisfaction.
    • serotonin: releases feelings of happiness and sleepiness, a good mood, and relaxation.
  • Having an orgasm stimulates the brain in the same way as “doing” drugs or listening to your favorite music.
  • One of the chemicals released during sex can even desensitize a person to pain.
  • All of these feelings and “hormone releases” are a “reward” for sex.

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love is not in him. For everything that is in the world does not come from the Father. The desires of our flesh and the things our eyes see and want and the pride of this life come from the world.” [I John 2:15-16, NLV]

Is There Any Wonder?

  • In review, my previous post about “longing” was the set up for this simple truth: sex fills a lot of longings.
  • If a person is sad, lonely, anxious, afraid, disappointed, insecure, unloved, or just have any number of unmet needs, sex can fill the bill. For those moments, it all goes away, just like a drug-induced state of mind.
  • In a time of loss or deprivation, sex is usually still available. For such a reason, total strangers will have sex, like a drug, to forget their circumstances.

Historically–

Because, we must remember, for centuries, women were possessions or slaves (although some cultures have female goddesses and have created myths about women). But in practicality, ordinary women had many social restrictions, few rights, and lived in the home at the whim of men. There have been pioneer women in every age who stepped out of the norms, but true self-discovery for average women came in the last century, beginning with the right to vote.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27, ESV]

What I really want to highlight is that, in this modern era, sexual relations are different. Earlier, women were used for a man’s pleasure only, and at his demand, in addition to bearing children. Today, more women believe they should have equal say about when and how and with whom they have sex and they also want control over the outcomes.

For some people, this change for women is too brazen, outrageous, and merely sets the stage for widespread sexual immorality. For other people, this change for women means the freedom to experience intimacy in a variety of different ways.

But whether sex is forbidden or permissible, it is the drive to have sex and it’s “rewards,” that puts women at the locus where pregnancy can happen. The man plays a vital role and yet, a resulting pregnancy is still primarily viewed as the woman’s responsibility to carry.

So, in this era, most women want to have a say. They want a full participation and mutual responsibility. And yet, whichever partner has longings, needs, or desires, if a child is created, it’s still regarded as “her” problem and in some circles, her “sin” or “punishment.” In my mind, this view is held both in and out of marriage (a topic to be considered at another time – that of fidelity and infidelity).

I believe too many people have lost the ability to recognize sex as an intimate expression of love and a medium for spiritual union. Sexual encounters have become physical and hormonal experiences exclusively. Whether that’s good or bad, the result is a monumental disconnect between sex and the production of children.

“Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” [Genesis 2:24, ESV]

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Psalm 143:6
I stretch out my hands to You;
My soul longs for You, as a parched land. Selah.

Certainly, when it comes to scripture and to God, there is no greater thirst than the desire for God, to taste and see, to know and to be known. That is, if we recognize the source of our yearning. In discussion on this topic today, I was reminded of the fragility of our understanding. My friend said, in essence, that she believes longing for God is planted within all of us and that we are all, in one way or another, searching to return to who we are meant to be, in communion with God. How this resonated with me.

But what happens when we don’t know the source or true nature of what we are desiring or yearning to know? What if that longing is corrupted along the way? What if the idols of our world or the temporary “feel good” moments clamor to become the objects of our desire?

How many men and women have allowed sex to fill that void, or power, or success?

Longing is usually accompanied by vulnerability. In the language of faith, that is a good thing. Our hearts and spirits open to the Presence of God, we hear God’s “voice,” holy words are revealed in scripture, and we are willing to surrender–“Thy will be done.” But if our longing is misdirected and we are vulnerable as well, then we may find ourselves abused, physically or emotionally. We mistake sex for love, power for influence, and success for self-discovery.

In human psychology, longing is considered a “secondary” emotion, usually associated with the primary emotions of love and sadness. Often, longing is looking for a change. I love you, but I long for you to love me. I am sad, but I long for you to change so I won’t be sad anymore.

In my mind, the only truly safe place to put our longings is in God. When focus on other human beings, we move out of alignment. Like a car, we can still move forward, but with each mile, we become more and more damaged.

I long for a world where peace and justice and kindness reign. I long for understanding and trust and renewal. I long for unity. But my current ideas or thoughts about how our cultural losses can be undone, are misplaced. I have missed the point. No state of being can be mandated. No human law will change the course that is being set today through abused longings. Too many of us are looking for results before we look for the source of our fractures. We ignore our interdependence and play the “blame game.” We have become like two fans on separate sports teams “praying” to win. Whose prayers will God hear? Both and neither, because we are longing for the wrong result.

Let them give thanks to the Lord’s unfailing love
    and wonderful deeds for humankind,
for God satisfies the thirsty
    and fills the hungry with good things.
(Ps 109-8-9, NIV, pronoun edits my own)

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I’m sure some of you may be surprised that I am writing about prayer as a dilemma. After all, isn’t it fundamental to our faith? How could that be a problem? But then, if it’s not problematic in some way or another, why are there thousands of books written about prayer: how to do it, when to do it, why we do it, etc. From what I can see, most people spend a good deal of time lamenting how little they pray. I should–I could– if only and so on.

My first realization that there are a variety of ways to pray came from Richard Foster’s book, “Prayer.” Written in the early 90’s, he laid out 21 different types of prayers. Oh dear! I was only really good at the first one: simple prayer. So, I figured I’d read through the book, and one by one, I’d practice these other prayers. Ha! By the time I got to the the third one, I gave up (the prayer of Examen). I didn’t get it. Then.

In later years, I became deft at public prayer. I could really bring the people with me into the holy of holies, calling forth the power of a miraculous God. This was a time of many “Praise the Lords.” In those years, I also practiced praying in the spirit (and singing in the spirit). Looking back, I think the biggest benefit to praying in tongues is that words get out of the way.

I confess I also learned how to pray manipulatively; that is, in such a way as to suggest to God how situations, like my marriage for instance, could be better and what my husband could do to implement that change. He would be sitting next to me. Surely, I was infuriating.

As I began to do more speaking engagements and perform in churches or para-church organizations, I learned to pray for others. That was a sweet time, a meaningful time. There was a flow to touching another person’s spirit with my own through prayer.

When I did my skits, I often made fun of various prayer times: everything from prayer poses to coffee breaks to distractions and of course, falling asleep. People laughed because they recognized themselves in the skits. I drew from my own experience.

I knew and I know that prayer is important: it’s the way we communicate with God. But doesn’t God already know what we need? Healing? Food? Shelter? Work? A new Cadillac. Whoa, should we pray for such things? New acquisitions? A Trip to the Bahamas? More stuff? I don’t think so.

Gradually, year by year, my practice of prayer has changed and changed and changed. And although I can still pray out loud with the best of them, I find that silence is the deeper form of communication with God. In silence, I can experience the Presence of God and surrender to God’s intention. I am with God and God is with me. I am with Christ Jesus and Christ Jesus is with me. Holy Spirit is with me and I am with the Holy Spirit.

Privately, when I pray for others now, I say their names and then I wait. When I pray for our nation or our political turmoil or violence in the street or inequality, I state the situation, and then I release it to God. I read a passage of scripture and sit with it. I read a poem and ponder it. I write. I journal. I sit. I slow down. Prayer is more about listening than speaking. Prayer is dwelling in the secret place, God’s dwelling place. And it is in this place, that the words from that famous song make sense: It is well, it is well, it is well with my soul.

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I am not talking about occupation, just to be clear.

The etymology of vocation goes back to the middle ages and has its roots in vocacioun which loosely means “summons.” Others often use the term “calling.” As soon as that word comes along, people get all religious about it: called to be a pastor or a priest or a nun. It’s some spooky thing a person hears and is led to sacrifice and surrender. I remember the first time I heard about calling after becoming a Christian and shook in my boots for fear of being called to Africa. (This is ironic now that I have delighted in volunteering at the Village of Hope in Zambia in recent years.)

self discoveryBut how does vocation manifest in the lives of regular people? Or does it? Is it a call from God even if the person is not a believer? There is no doubt in my mind that this is so. I can think of no other reason that a person would follow a passion for art (rarely accompanied by financial gain) or service to the poor and disenfranchised or an becoming an unpaid “first responder” or a master gardener or, of course, a true follower of the Christ (or as some now reference God: the Divine).

I have been reading a number of books lately that are catapulting me into my own search (despite my senior citizen status and my nearly 40 years as a believer). If anyone is interested, I recommend Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, The Second Mountain by David Brooks, or The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner, or Walking in Wonder by John O’Donohue. In one form or another, they discuss vocation in terms of self-discovery. But the most important feature in my mind is the idea that vocation (or giftings of the true self) are planted within and are waiting to pair with “need.”

All of these years, I have felt guilty for not actively taking my faith into the streets, befriending the homeless, feeding the poor, visiting the elderly or sick, serving in prison, or teaching children. These are all such wonderful good works. Out of that guilt, I have dabbled in all of these, but I have never really connected to the work. These are all great needs. In fact, our world will never lack need for human compassion and outreach. At one time or another, we all need help, we all fall or fail or suffer. And there will always be people who have it worse than us, whose lives teeter on the brink of death or survival.

What is my vocation in the face of need? What is specifically the perfect match between who I am and what my unique self can bring to the table of scarcity? Day by day, I rest in the certainty of threads being woven together, not just for what lies ahead but also incorporating what has already gone before. Nothing is wasted in God’s time.

“Today I understand vocation quite differently–not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”  –Parker Palmer

“. . . because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” [2nd Timothy 1:12b

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