Friday, July 31, 2009

God's Time Is Now

Ministers and elders, friends and acquaintances, often share a common wisdom. I'm sure you've heard it, too. Things will happen "in God's time". More importantly, God's time is not our own, and there is a need for great patience when we're not on the same timeline as God.

I've been reading a Love Inspired romance (by now, you've guessed this is one of my favorite fiction lines) entitled Marrying Minister Right by Annie Jones. The hero of the story is a minister named Michael and during the story, he freely gives his longtime friend and love-to-be, Heather, advice about praying and thinking before leaping and looking for God's timing, not her own. Michael is skilled in handling conflict, but he's the type of guy who would just as soon avoid it whenever possible and has been known to use a delaying tactic or two. This advice about waiting for God's timing comes easy for him, and he lives it every day. At one point in the story, Michael is deciding when to tell his niece the unwelcome news that she will staying in this small, podunk (in her eyes) Kansas town with him for the whole summer.

Heather returns his favor with some advice of her own.
"Some things can not be put off until you are ready to deal with them", Heather tells him. "Doing things in God's time doesn't always mean waiting...Sometimes, God's time is now."
Whew! Smack me up the side of the head. I'm accustomed to waiting for God's timing and mine to coincide. Like Michael, I'm not fond of conflict, and I consider choices and new directions with such great deliberation that I often forget the lesson Heather shares. There is a time for deliberation, for research, for discussion, even for delaying--and then there is a time for action. My husband has commented that I've got to stop thinking something to death, gnawing over it endlessly. Finally, I have to take the leap of faith and JUST DO IT.

We all need Heather's reminder that when God is ready for us to move, whether we're ready or not, more waiting, more delay could spell disaster or failure or unseen hurdles that will make life more complicated. There is a reason we're supposed to act. "Whoever obeys a command [like Get Moving!] will meet no harm and the wise mind will know the time and way." (Ecclesiastes 8:5) A sign of wisdom is knowing how to recognize that the time is now. To save a life, to fight injustice, to do a kind act, to give our very best, to pray. Sometimes, maybe more often than we think, God's time is NOW.

Are you waiting for God's timing on something? Do you need to consider that God's timing is today, this hour? How do you know when the time is now? How does the Spirit of Life give you a shove?

Are you listening? Do you feel it? Is the time...Now?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Looking for the Wise

The readings from the Common Lectonary for last Sunday suggest Psalm 14. In both the New Revised Standard Version and in Gary Chamberlain's translation, Verse 2 says that God looks down from heaven on all humankind (descendants of Adam) to see if anyone is wise, if anyone seeks for God. And in Verse 3, the answer seems to be an emphatic "No".

This Psalm is one of the most depressing I've ever read. In the last verse, Israel still needs deliverance and though the refuge of the poor is the Lord, the people are still waiting for their fortunes to be restored. Until that time, the lot of those who take refuge in God is to look on the fools of the world--those who have gone astray and have convinced themselves there is no God--and wait.

The only hope held out is one word in verse 7. When.

Not "If". Not "Maybe". "When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,..."

I'm in a good place right now. I'm blessed with good health, no major problems, doing fairly well financially. What I want to do is throw this psalm at the wall, shred it, burn it, so that it can't remind me of the flip side of life--the side, mind you, I have experienced in the past. The side where the ripples of life turn negative and the waves batter me. When life's wheel turns back into the muck. But I don't want to know that now. I want to enjoy these good times. Save the memories up. Smile at the pleasures. Rejoice at the wonderful experiences.

Instead, Psalm 14 has stayed with me since Sunday. Urging me to remember that when the negative ripples come at me and life begins pelting lemons and rotten tomatoes, I am to take refuge in the Lord.

And to say over and over that one, powerful word, WHEN.
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Reacting to Hardship

I have a story to share that I heard this week. I had just finished my workout at Curves (a small, franchise exercise gym for women for my out-of-U.S. readers). This particular Curves is in a small shopping center with about 15 other stores. We've been having lovely weather, not yet the Southern sweltering summer heat and no rain. The shopping center management decided to re-surface the parking lot, so over a week, a section of the lot was blocked off each day for the trucks to do their work.

One of the gym instructors shared that just the day before, a woman (a regular gym patron) came into the gym ready to do her workout. "I had to walk all the way from the bank!" she declared with extreme exasperation. Mind you, the bank is maybe the length of a tennis court away, maybe a court and a half. The instructor said simply, "Perhaps you can consider the walk your warm-up." At which the woman glared at the instructor and moved off, her irritation all over her body and proceeded to do a 30-minute cardio workout.

As the instructor said, "I was amazed. I mean, she was coming in to exercise after all."

So, question for the day. We're all trying to live as good Christians. What do you do in a situation like this, where the emotion is coming in waves and someone makes a comment that doesn't seem to make sense? There's a gut reaction in me that wants to state firmly, "Can you hear yourself and how illogical that comment is?" Do we ignore it (obviously she's having a bad day), wade in (I need to find out what's bothering her), or commiserate (yes, what a pain this re-surface work is)?

What would you do? Is there a right way to react? A Christian way?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Rant Against Evil

I'm jumping around the Psalms, and opened to Psalm 52. The translations for this Psalm are all over the map. Different words, different rhythms, different phrasing. But what struck me immediately was that the writer was taking the first seven verses to rant, not just at the world in general or evil in general, but against someone. In this Psalm, it seems that the writer knows someone personally who is a tyrant, boastful, deceitful, wealthy, and this wicked person pushes all his buttons. The writer is incensed, furious. And he lets this fury fly out in words.

What is very intriguing is that even with so much ire spewing forth, the writer does not say "Hey God, give me the strength to take this guy down. I want my chance to pummel him, bring him to his knees. Let me do it, God, let me at him." No, the psalmist says:
Oh, that God would demolish you utterly, topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling, and root you out of the land of the living! Verse 5
God gets to take revenge and even in anger the writer is willing to let God to do that because...

Writer takes a deep breath. Boy, did I need to get that off my chest. Takes another cleansing breath. I'm good now. Because...

I am "...a flourishing olive tree planted within the house of God." I trust God's mercy, I trust God's love, I give thanks. I am that tree, solidly rooted. I am God's own. I don't need to waste energy on revenge. I need to take my energy out to declare God's " the presence of the godly". Priorities straight. Goal in sight.

It's a wonderful Psalm that I never read before. It reminds me that I may need to rant at the evil in the world. I may need that release. I need to recognize that it's not in my power to right every wrong. Where I can't, then I must be the olive tree, rooted in God, allowing God to resolve the issue. My job is to get back to the work of building the Beloved Community.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Muzzle On My Mouth

I missed my Friday post because I had to take a quick trip out of town on business. While settling down after maneuvering through airports and delayed flights, I pulled the hotel Bible out of the drawer (thank you, Gideons) and decided to jump into the Psalms for that evening and for this blog. In the hotel, I let the Bible open at random and came to Psalm 39. I'm using the NRSV translation as well as The Psalms translated by Gary Chamberlain.

Psalm 39 turned out to be a good choice of the page flip since the first four verses promise that I will watch what I say. Given that I was about to give a presentation to a prospective client, that seemed like excellent and timely advice. In the next breath, the psalmist reminded me that in the scheme of things, what I was about to do was pretty small stuff and transitory. I should rely upon the Lord to keep me in line and from looking like a fool--reminding me again to keep silent when the Lord is trying to correct me.

Other than the second verse which provides a strong recommendation to "...put a muzzle on my mouth", the most surprising verse is Verse 15:
Turn your gaze from me, that I may be glad again, before I go my way and am no more.
I am accustomed to the cry from the Psalms for the Lord to come near, to not forsake us, to continue showering loving-kindness on us. In Psalm 39, it seems that God has been handing out rebukes for the author's transgressions, so in this case, it's logical that the plea would be to go away. Please. Right now. So that I can be happy again.

My hope is that the writer is actually saying, "Hey, I get the messsage. I'm changing, Okay?" But the words have the flavor of, "I'm a puff of wind, I get that. So can I have a little happiness before I puff out completely?"

A little depressing. A little sobering. Mixed messages. Deliver me. Stay away. Hear my prayer. Turn your gaze from me.

Even in our human relationships, we give out mixed signals. I want to belong, but don't get too close. I want you in my life, but don't ask too much of me.

We're fortunate that God understands this.

And lets us into her inner circle anyway. Amen

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thin Places and the UU Service

I've been reading Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity (see especially Chapter 8), and he suggests that "open hearts" and "thin places" are central to being Christian. You can tell that your heart is open (as opposed to closed) when you "see" the world clearly, notice what's right in front of you; when you are aware of the awe, mystery and wonder that is life; when you have a grateful, physical response, a gut reaction to the blessings life presents you; when you are filled with compassion for the suffering of others and feel an ethical impulse to do something about that suffering and the system that created it; when you are aware of God, the Mystery, the Other, the Spirit. Borg says that an open heart is "in the world" completely, mindful of life, and unbound.

The Spirit of God opens our hearts through thin places.

The mind set that acknowledges "thin places" sees God as Paul does in the book of Acts: God is "the one in whom we live and move and have our being." God is everywhere, right here, more than right here. Borg quotes Thomas Merton:
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.
And occassionally, perhaps often if we "tune in", we experience God shining through.

Borg goes on to say that although one of the purposes of the Christian service is to worship God, another, equally important purpose is to create a sense of the sacred, a thin place. And this is where, in my experience, our Unitarian Universalist services are sometimes lacking. Personally I know with deep certainty that if the Sunday service I attend does not create that thin place on a regular basis, I will not be attending for very long. I attended one UU church for 6 months. The sermons were thought-provoking, the hymns thematically relevant, the setting serene. But in 6months, the only service that created a thin place, that gave me a spiritual hug, that opened my heart to the sacred, was Choir Sunday. I continued to attend the UU Sunday service occassionally, and participated in the life of the UU congregation, but I became a regular Sunday attendee at a nearby Episcopal church. And I was not the only one. Other members of that UU church, many who did not identify as Christians, sought out other services at other churches. This longing for experiencing the Other, the More, is not the exclusive property of Christians.

Borg spends several pages describing the elements that can be considered when planning services that will help to create a sense of the sacred. The hymns chosen, the music performed, silence, the words used in the sermon, the rituals, the physical space--all of these can be used to encourage the deepest recesses of ourselves to open and touch the More, sense the Divine.

Does the Sunday service you now attend create a thin place? Can you, right now, remember the last service in which your heart opened and you sensed the sacred? How long ago was that? Too long? Just enough?

If your service is not creating a thin place for you often enough to nourish you, I guarantee that lack will drain some of your energy and optimism in life. Read Borg's book to get a better sense of what might be missing. Talk with your minister, worship committee, music director, whoever plans the services. Get on the worship committee yourself. In this one life we have, our hearts deserve as many opportunities as possible to be opened, to experience God. Sunday service is the best place to start.

May it be so. Amen.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pause for Thanksgiving

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
This refrain resounds over and over again throughout the Book of Psalms and in Psalm 136, the writer repeats the sentiment four times just to make sure that the congregation remembers.

O give thanks!

Gratitude, gratefulness, thankfulness, appreciation. In our lives we can always find one thing every day for which to be grateful.

So right now, pause. Begin to think of people and events and places for which you are grateful. Close your eyes and let your gratitude swell gently within you. Acknowledge the God of Many Names, the Divine Spirit, which flows around you, through you and in you. Say Thank You. Say it again.

O give thanks!

May it be so. Amen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Truth Will Make You Free

This past Saturday was July 4th, Independence Day here in the United States, and a day during which we celebrate our freedom. I wondered what Jesus had to say about freedom, and I found one passage that scholars feel are his words:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." (John 8:31-32)
He says that commiting sin will make you a slave, so you don't want to go in that direction. "Continue in my word", and you will be a son who has a permanent place in the household. "So if the Son [the Truth?] makes you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

In some ways, John is a difficult Gospel for me. I love the abstractions and symbolism that appear here, yet I often don't understand the underlying message. That puts me in the company of the disciples, so I don't fret overly much about it, but it does make for some dilemmas. Truth leads to freedom, but freedom in what way? Not freedom from oppression. The Jews of the time didn't have much hope of that. Jesus is talking more, I think, of freedom from sin and freedom of the spirit. I believe that the way to freedom hinges on the first of Jesus' instructions "If you continue in my word..."

At Sunday service, when the children were asked what they thought freedom meant, one of them said that you could do what you wanted. My gut reaction was, "But if we all did what we wanted, what would that world look like?" The American Heritage Dictionary groups the synonyms of freedom, liberty, and license and expands on the child's definition. "These nouns refer to the power to act, speak, or think without externally imposed restraints. Freedom is the most general term."

I understand from John's Gospel that Jesus asks us to use an internally imposed restraint--"continue in my word". And I like this instruction from the First Letter of Peter:
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.(1 Peter 2:16-17)
In our freedom, God's gift of Free Will, we may, indeed, do what we want. Murderers do, drunk drivers do. But Peter reminds us, " not use your freedom as a pretext for evil," and then goes on to say what we should do. I can wrap my arms around this type of freedom. I take some exception to Peter's "Honor the emperor." Gives me a jolt every time I read it. I don't have an emperor, but I do have a government. I have a set of laws, a system of regulations that help us live together in society. In my world, this is the "emperor" and Peter's advice is still good. I am asked to honor that government, to support it when it's honoring everyone, to help fix it when it's broken.

I'll admit this is not a very coherent post, but freedom is like that. We know what it is when we see it, experience it, but it's hard to express.

What's freedom like for you? Have you found freedom in continuing in Jesus' word? What is the truth that has set you free? I'd like to know.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Teach Us To Pray

There is one prayer that binds Christians together--The Lord's Prayer. If you've spent any time in a Christian community, you know this prayer. No matter what Christian church or service you walk into, no matter that you may be completely unfamiliar with the forms and rituals and perhaps feel uncomfortable, when someone begins "Our Father...", suddenly you can join in, and for that short prayer, you belong. Even in non-English languages, if you know a little of the language, you can follow along, connect with the people around you. Yes, there may be the little tripping over whether we're forgiving debts, sins or trespasses, but this prayer, like no other, marks us as Christians, because we pray in the words that Jesus taught.

For that alone, The Lord's Prayer is powerful stuff.

Let me share some deeper reflection on this amazing prayer. In a Lenten study I did a few years ago, the writer of the study pointed out that Jesus may or may not have said these exact words. The prayer appears in two places in the Bible--Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4--and in both places the words are slightly different. What Jesus was trying to emphasize was that, in contrast to the prayer rituals and hypocrisy seen in the Jewish gatherings of the time, prayer could be simple, private and heartfelt. Prayer should include two basic elements:
  • Praising God, and
  • Asking for the Kingdom of God to be manifest.
Our prayer may continue by asking that we may be instrumental in bringing the Kingdom of God into existence. For that we need:
  • Daily bread for the strength and energy to throw ourselves into the effort;
  • Hearts to forgive others' faults; and
  • Commitment to follow the Way that Jesus taught.
  • Discernment to recognize temptation and to push away from evil.
The words that we use are not as important as the power of our hearts, bodies and minds we put behind the prayer and our actions. I would add, as the letters of the New Testament do, that we need to move out with a heart filled with thanksgiving.

Consider this reworking of the prayer from the Anglican Church's New Zealand Prayer Book (HarperCollins 1997):

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain Bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb form one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthn us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is eveil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

Thing about how Jesus was teaching us to pray. Can you create a simple prayer in your own words to capture the essentials? Or can you read and say this ancient prayer, now mindful of what the words convey and demand of you?

Have you found prayer difficult in the past? Do you think prayer would be easier if you focused on the essentials, as Jesus taught? Whether prayer is easy or difficult, we are encouraged by a letter from Paul, Silvanus and Timothy:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:16-18)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"The First Rule"

Today I want to share a meditation that my husband shared with me and introduce you to a small, but powerful book, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living by John McQuiston II.

The Order of St. Benedict (Benedictines) carries on a monastic tradition that stems from the origins of the Christian monastic movement in the late third century. They regard Saint Benedict as their founder and guide even though he did not establish a Benedictine Order as such. The monasteries or the order originated in the tradition of community life with its common prayer, reading, and work. John McQuiston II has written a book for "modern" Benedictines outside of a monastic setting, for those who wish to bring the order's values and way of life to everday living.

The First Rule
Attend to these instructions,
listen with the heart and the mind;
they are provided in a spirit of goodwill.
These words are addressed to anyone
who is willing to renounce the delusion
that the meaning of life can be learned;
whoever is ready
to take up the greater weapon
of fidelity to a way of living
that transcends understanding.

The first rule is simply this:

Live this life
and do what ever is done,
in a spirit of Thanksgiving.

Abandon attempts to achieve security, they are futile,
give up the search for wealth, it is demeaning,
quit the search for salvation, it is selfish,
and come to comfortable rest
in the certainty that those who participate in this life
with an attitude of Thanksgiving
will receive its full promise.
May it be so. Amen.