Thursday, December 30, 2010

An End to Christmas?

Yesterday was "pack up Christmas" day at our house.  This is always an upsetting time for me.  i always hate to see our Christmas "stuff" put away, & i'm always down during the time when that is taking place.  i know that this is a bigger job for my wife than it is for me, and i understand why she is always ready to get everything put away after Christmas and to return the house to its normal state.  i prayed that i would be there to help her without the appearance of the grumpiness that i usually feel on the annual workday after Christmas.  i was largely successful in being an extra pair of helping hands and doing my share of the work without complaining.  i can't say that i enjoyed it, but when i collapsed in the early evening, and my wife got her second wind and kept going, i have to say that i felt joy in seeing that she was relishing the fact that the end of the work was in sight.  i also had to acknowledge that the work was more pleasant for me that it has ever been before.

This morning as i prayed and meditated i tried to look at my reactions objectively.  i realized that my tiredness was as much an emotional weariness as a physical one.  Seeing the end of the Christmas celebration, while at the same time being there for my wife, had left me totally worn out mentally and physically, and that's OK.  My prayer is that i can carry the spirit of Christmas forward into the new year and that i can remember that even though decorations have come down in our home, the liturgical season is not yet over.  i can have the joy that Christmas brings all year long, because Christmas is the celebration of the gift of Jesus to us

i felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety this morning, though.  i have taken on a new responsibility at church, i have agreed to fill in for a friend in his church for a couple of Sundays in January so he can have some much needed time away, i have a performance this month with our local community chorus & symphony to which i am obligated, and we have friends that are wanting us to come spend a few days with them.  This morning, all of this seemed to be weighing down on me.  i know that God is there to help me, and if i just let go, everything will fall into place.  i am praying that i will be able to open my heart to God's leading and quit thinking that it is the all-imporant me that must take care of all these responsibilities.

In my mind, i know that part of the anxiety is tied into the un-decorating of our house, and i know, too, that through these seemingly overwhelming responsibilities and obligations God is leading me to learn that God gives us a perfect day each day.  It is my wanting to control the day that causes the problem.  Today, i'm asking God to help me let go of that desire for control and acknowledge the perfection that my need to control sees as imperfection.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To Become a Servant

This morning i read about the earliest followers of Jesus.  As i quickly looked at some of the writings that are available on the internet, i saw that many of these were intent on promoting the various writers' points-of-view concerning the differences between orthodox Christianity as is was codified in the centuries following the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world and the "genuine" Christianity that was practiced by the earliest followers of Jesus.  Only a few seemed to be presenting objective evidence of the little that we now know of the earliest Christian practices and thinking.

As i read, and later as i prayer and meditated, it seemed that God was leading me to focus on the teachings of Jesus as we know them from the record in the gospels.  There seems to be so much emphasis in our thinking as Christians on the death of Jesus as a necessary atonement for sin that the teachings of Jesus about how we are to live our lives is pushed to the background.  i am not arguing for or against a doctrine of atonement or any other theological concept.  Instead, i believe that i am being led to think about the practical considerations of living as a follower of Jesus.

We Christians have become so focused on our narrow doctrinal debates and our emphasis on sin and redemption that we may be forgetting the essential element of our faith: that we are followers of Jesus, a teacher who taught that these religious arguments obscure the true meaning of religion.  The message of love and service is for me the central teaching of Jesus, and my focus must be on how to live out that teaching in my own life without worry about saving my own soul through adherence to a set of prescribed theological tenets.  To save my life is to lose it in love for and service to others.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jesus, the Buddha, and Perfection

This morning in preparation for my time of prayer & meditation, i looked at some similarities between the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha.  i am a child of western culture, and yet the teachings of Buddhism are very comforting to me, reinforcing my Christian beliefs.  Since i began to explore Buddhist thought, i have become more devoted to the teachings of Jesus & more accepting of myself and the world around me.  Each day it seems that God is leading me to a deeper understanding of truth and preparing my heart for continuing change.

One of my favorite blogs is zen habits.  This morning there was a new post which referred back to the top zen habits posts of the past year.  One of my daily practices will be to read one of those "top twenty" each day until i have read all of them.  Today's reading was "you're already perfect."  i'll have to re-read it several times and think about what Leo Babauta, the blog author, is saying.  My immediate reaction was that this post ties into my abandonment of the struggle to be better, my turning that struggle into acceptance that God is active in transforming my life from one of constant striving for self-improvement and anxiety about the future into one of acceptance that each day is perfect as God gives it to us, that we are here to serve rather than to acquire both our own perfection and things that we hope will make our lives better.

There are so many blog authors who are speaking to me, and i believe God has placed their writings in my path to lead me to the truth that God has for me.  My prayer for myself and for you is that we can all open our hearts to the truth that is ours if we allow God to do the work of leading us to it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

i Was Glad When They Said . . .

Every Lord's Day, i wake up excited about the opportunity of worship.  Yesterday was no different.  Though i longed to stay home with my family who were here for Christmas, i longed to be with my larger family at church.  After all, i only have the chance to worship with them once a week for an hour or so, and i had the remainder of the day to spend with my immediate family.  i wished that all my family had come to worship with me, but they didn't choose to do so, and i accept their choice of doing what they needed to do, just as they accepted my choice of needing to be in worship.

As i sat in church, some insights came to me.  Our minister was preaching on the New Testament reading of the day: the account of the murder of the Holy Innocents at the hands of Herod the Great, as recorded in Matthew's gospel.  As she preached, i was struck by the conflict between Matthew's account of the events following the birth of Jesus and Luke's account. It occurred to me that those who read the Bible, interpreting every word literally miss much of the point.  One doesn't read the fable of the hare and the tortoise to learn factual truths about hares and tortoises, and one shouldn't read the Bible as if it were a history book.  The Bible is about a much larger truth: it is the epic account of the Creator's relationship with the Created.  As we read the stories of the Bible, we should ask God to reveal to us the truth that is intended, not for literal accounts of historical facts.  We must not become worshipers of the Bible, but must instead be worshipers of the God whose story of eternally seeking to restore us to companionship with the One who created us is recorded in the Bible.  We must read the Bible with our hearts open to the truth.

Next, i thought about leaving my family at home and the anxiety i felt in doing that.  i remembered Jesus as he visited with Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.  One sister was busy doing the chores that had to be done for her guests, while another sat with Jesus, rejoicing in his presence.  i had chosen "the better part" by spending time rejoicing with others who were present in worship.  The other members of my family had made a different choice.  Both were the right choices according to our needs. i didn't need to feel guilty about leaving them to be in worship for a brief time, nor did they need to feel guilty about staying home to take care of necessary tasks there and to enjoy their time together.  i offered a prayer of thanks for the removal of any sense of guilt about leaving my family to be a part of worship and for the removal of any sense of moral superiority i had felt for choosing to participate in corporate worship while the rest of my family stayed home.  We had chosen what we needed, and God was blessing both choices.

One more insight was revealed this morning as i prayed.  One member of our family had to arrive later than the rest, and we didn't know when he might arrive.  My wife & i had planned our traditional Christmas meal for everyone to enjoy, and all day i was anxious because i didn't know when we would be able to serve the meal.  i always cook our Christmas dinner, and i wanted it to be perfect.  Yet, i couldn't plan for when to have it ready because i couldn't know when everyone would be present.  As it turned out, i went ahead and completed the meal preparations so that our meal would be ready about 5:00 PM.  At 4:50, our long-awaited guest arrived, just in time for us to sit down together.  The meal was as perfect as a meal can be.  By allowing myself to become anxious, i missed the peace of Christmas that i could have enjoyed all day.  God had given me a long day of quiet before the family festivities, and i had chosen to make it a day filled with frustration and tension.  The lesson for me to learn is that i need to trust God to give me a perfect day every day, to realize that everything is as it should be, and thank God for whatever comes.

May your day be the perfect one that God provides for you.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Guide and Shepherd

A couple of years ago our family traveled to a city in Europe to spend our Thanksgiving holiday.  It happened that a former student of mine was studying there at the time.  We planned to worship on Sunday in a church there on the first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday following Thanksgiving that year.  On our first full day there, i wanted to find the church, and i was walking with my family through the streets near the church, trying to read the map i had with me.  i'm usually a good map reader and have a good sense of direction, but i simply could not find my way through the twisted streets of this ancient city.  i was becoming increasingly frustrated, when i looked up to see my former student standing in front of our family group, smiling at us.  i was overjoyed to see him and, after we greeted each other, i told him of my difficulty in finding my way.  He said that we were almost where we wanted to be and guided us to the church, where he often worshipped.  He was so familiar with the church that he was able to give us a detailed history of the church as he led us through it, pointing out the wonderful artwork and alerting us to many features of the church that we would have missed had we found it on our own.  After our visit to the church, he led us to a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch and learned that the restaurant itself was filled with amazing history, having been there for over two hundred years.

As i thought of Jesus as our guide this morning, the day after Christmas, i as reminded of the great joy i felt when my student appeared as if out of nowhere at just the time i needed a guide.  Suddenly my anxiety disappeared.  i knew that i could rely on my student and friend to lead us where we wanted to go, that the pressure of finding our way was taken away from me and replaced by reliance on someone who knew the way, having already traveled that way many times before.  In just the same way, i know that i can rely on Jesus to be my guide.  i have only to look up from the study of my own map and turn the anxiety and worry of finding my way over to him, confident in the knowledge that he will guide me to the place of peace and service that i seek.

This morning, i thought of Jesus as a shepherd, too.  As i reflected on Jesus-as-shepherd, two images popped into my mind.  First, came the familiar images of Psalm 23, of the shepherd who leads us to a pleasant place, who protects us from danger, who provides for our needs and blesses us forever.  Next, i remembered Jesus' story of the lost sheep and was reminded of the phrase from Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray."  Like a shepherd, God seeks us as we wander lost in a wilderness of our own making.  Once God has found us, then we can rely on God and the teachings of Jesus to be our guide, but it is God that does the seeking and finding.  Think of how David was called from his duties as a shepherd while still a boy to be anointed by Samuel to be the future king of Israel.  It was not David who sought such a future, it was God who sent Samuel to seek out David.  It was God who called David, rather than David saying, "God be my guide so that I can become someone great."

God seeks us and, if we don't run from God, God rescues us.  God provides a guide for us, if we lift our heads from poring over the map we have devised for our lives, the map that has led us into the wilderness that separates us from God.  i pray that this day i will allow God to guide me, giving me the peace that comes from following God rather than stumbling along on my own.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hope, Joy, Peace, Love

Last night we left all our Christmas lights on when we went to bed to symbolize the coming of light into the world in the little child whose birth we celebrate this day.  This child is the embodiment of the four words that are the title of this post.  As i sat in the silence this morning, with the lights of the Christmas tree twinkling, i thought of the immensity of God, of this great mind that created all that was and is and will come to be, and i wondered how could such a mind so large as to be incomprehensible be concerned for one insignificant person like me.  i can't comprehend it, but i can comprehend the love i feel for this little child in the manger and the love that child teaches us.  Here is the embodiment of the love of God in terms i /we can understand.  i am not concerned this morning about the mystery of incarnation, about questions of theology; i am only concerned with hope, joy, peace, and (especially) love.

i made a conscious decision to quit using the capital "I" in referring to the first person singular in my devotional writing to symbolize my own quest to make the love that flows from God through the teachings of Jesus the center of my life, to acknowledge that there is one great "I am" that is the cause of all things and that this person who "i am" has no greater calling than to become a reflection of a love that is so powerful that all things flow from it.

The rule of God is just that: hope, joy, peace, love.  We are subjects of God's rule and our greatest service is to allow God who is around us in everything and in us to become the ruler of our hearts.  My prayer for each person is that you will be filled with the magic and mystery of Christmas and that all of us will carry that magic and mystery with us through all the days of our lives.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Savior Who Is Christ the Lord

My last Advent study was that of Jesus as "savior."  As I read various views of this name for Jesus, two points-of-view were evident.  One was that of Jesus as "my" savior, while the other was that of Jesus as "the" savior.  For many Christians, Jesus is the only savior, the only way of approaching God, the Savior, with a capital "S."  For those who hold this view, persons who don't share their view are not Christians; for them, Christianity is the only true religion, and Jesus must be worshiped as God incarnate, the savior who redeems the world from sin by his sacrificial death, and this path of reconciliation to God is the only true faith.

I cannot subscribe to this belief.  I only know what I experience in my heart.  I know that Jesus is my savior, who guides me along the path of service to God by serving others.  For me, Jesus is the savior of the world because his teachings of love for God and our neighbors lead us to a profound change in our hearts, replacing the selfish egocentricity of our lives with a love-centered existence that views all others as children of God deserving of our love, compassion, and service.   Jesus saves us by setting an example of unconditional love that accepts people as they are, not demanding that they must change in order to be worthy of love.

If we follow the teachings of Jesus, if we accept his pattern for our lives, he saves us from an empty existence that values things more than people.  Can we live this life of love without accepting Jesus as "savior?"  Each human heart must make that decision, and as I observe many loving people and read about the unselfish service that many non-Christians practice in the world, I cannot condemn these who are living lives that are consistent with Jesus' teachings, even though they may not call themselves Christians.  If that makes me a "pluralist," and for some a non-Christian, so be it.  I can only follow the path along which I believe God is leading me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Born a Child and Yet a King

This phrase from the Wesley hymn, "Come, thou long-expected Jesus," was the subject of my Advent study on this eve of Christmas Eve.  The text with its list of names for Jesus fascinates me, and I've thought about many of the phrases Wesley uses in his text.  I found little directly referring to the phrase that is the title of this post, but what I read led me to think about what the birth of Jesus means to me and in what sense Jesus is a "king."

Whether one subscribes to all the miraculous accounts in the gospels about the birth of Jesus, these beautiful stories of angels, shepherds, wise men, mangers, stars, a young mother and an often-ignored husband, seems irrelevant to me this morning.  I can only speak to the profound impact that the birth of Jesus so long ago has had on my life.  This wonderful child whose life began in such humble, gentle circumstances grew to become a poor itinerant preacher/teacher/healer, the leader of a disparate band of disciples.  How can such a person be regarded as a king?

And yet, he is the king of my heart.  If I am coming away from my Advent studies this season with any new insight, it is that Jesus still calls on us to serve him by serving others.  This, for me, is the great message that Jesus has handed down across the centuries and still speaks to us about in our hearts: that to serve others is to serve him.  The question then becomes, "how do I serve?"

Is it enough to live my life trying to be compassionate to all those I encounter?  Is it enough to search in my budget for more money to give to causes that help others?  Is it enough to pray for others?  In our western culture, we continue to consume too much of the world's resources.  In our country, we elect leaders who blame the poor for their own misfortunes, who continue policies that further enrich the already wealthy at the expense of those who have the least.  How do I change the direction in which we're headed?

Across the centuries and in my heart, Jesus is calling me to ponder these questions, to seek God's leading in finding answers.  The power of the child-king Jesus is far greater than the power of every government in the world, stronger than every army.  Look at what this poverty-stricken Jewish man has accomplished.  He is calling me this Advent to serve and love, and my prayer as I look forward to the wonderful celebration of his birth is that I will follow God's leading to answer the call of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Day with No Regrets

Yesterday was Monday, and my feelings throughout the day puzzled me.  After filling in for ailing pianists all last week, I rushed from singing the anthem with our church choir Sunday morning to spend six hours rehearsing and singing in two back-to-back performances with our local community chorus and symphony.  I kept thinking all day yesterday that I should be full of Christmas cheer on the Monday before Christmas, and yet I felt completely "blah."  As I told my wife, I was stricken with "people fatigue," only wanting to be by myself and do as little as possible.  Of course, that wasn't possible; there were many preparations that required our attention.  As I moved through the day, I kept praying that I would open my heart to what the day was supposed to bring.  I fell asleep last night, still wondering why the day had gone as it had.  Nothing bad had happened, yet I just felt a numbness about the experiences of the day.

When I prayed this morning, I asked God to help me think objectively about my feelings about yesterday.  A little later that morning, I suddenly realized that yesterday was as it was supposed to be.  For days, I had been running non-stop, taking little time for myself.  I should have been exhausted.  I should be feeling the need for some time alone.  I'm not supposed to feel exuberant joy all the time.  God had given me yesterday to recharge.  Despite my tiredness and my desire to do nothing, I did not allow my frustrations to cause me to be inconsiderate of others, I did not balk at shouldering my share of the Christmas preparations.  Just by patiently going through the motions of the day, I had experienced what I was supposed to experience and had no reason to feel any regrets.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hope of the World, Thou Christ of Great Compassion

Yesterday I struggled with writing about Jesus as the "hope of the world."  The title of this blog refers to a great hymn by Georgia Harkness, as well as to the Wesley hymn, "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus."  As I wrestled with my thoughts on Jesus as the hope of the world, I thought of how different Christians think of the hope that we have in Jesus.  For some, Jesus is the only hope of the world, believing that without faith in Jesus as God incarnate, one is doomed to spend an eternity of suffering.  Some who are devout Christians experience long periods of hopelessness, living much of their lives in a "dark night of the soul."  For me, Jesus is the hope of the world in that he taught us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, parent the orphans, free the prisoners, bring water to the thirsty, for in taking care of others we are in reality ministering to Jesus himself and bringing his message of hope to the world.  Without a sense of the need to serve others, as the Samaritan cared for the injured Jew he found along the road or the father welcomed the prodigal son, we are abandoning others to hopelessness.  Can one truly be a servant of Jesus without being a Christian?  Jesus himself said that we could, telling us that when we love and serve others, we are loving and serving Jesus.  God is in our hearts whether we believe or not and God reveals God's essence in our work of giving hope through service.  This is our great hope, that we serve Jesus by serving others.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Great Physician

Today, my readings were about Jesus as "healer."  One commentary that I found particularly helpful discussed the fact that the healings of Jesus not only healed physical illnesses, but also restored the ill to fellowship in the community, removing "uncleanness" that forced them to be separated from "God’s holy community," as the writer put it.  This is the "shalom," the wholeness that is the peace of God.

I find it important that those who were healed by Jesus came to him; he did not seek them out.  While many of Jesus' healing miracles are described in some detail in the gospels, there are even more that are not.  On several occasions, the gospels report that great numbers of people came to Jesus bringing the sick, all of whom Jesus healed.  It is significant, too, that the only person Jesus addressed as "daughter" was the woman "with an issue of blood" who was healed simply by touching Jesus' garment.  It seems to me that there was a special connection between Jesus and those he healed, and I often wonder what became of all those who were healed by Jesus.  Did they go on to live abundant lives, transformed and restored to community as they were by the power of Jesus?

One writer commented on the fact that God chooses to heal some people and not others.  I don't recall an instance in the gospels where Jesus ever failed to heal one who came to him for healing.  That doesn't mean that everyone who asks God for healing will be healed instantaneously as was the case in the ministry of Jesus, but I do believe that God does heal every illness when God is asked for healing.  That healing may not come immediately; it may not take place in this life, but I believe that God grants wholeness to every person who seeks it.

It is wonderful to me that Jesus continues to bring wholeness, to restore us to community, to heal the broken and injured.  What is our role in this healing ministry?  What can we do to promote healing and wholeness, to bring the shalom of Jesus to all those who are hurting?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No Fear

Yesterday, an amazing thing happened.  I had my day mapped out when a friend called just as I was on my way out to do some volunteer work at the church, where another friend was awaiting my help.  My friend who called is the director of our community women's chorus, in which my wife sings.  It seemed that their regular accompanist, a wonderful pianist, was quite ill.  Another accompanist had been lined up to take her place, and he, too, was ill.  My friend, the director, asked if I would be willing to fill in.  Mind you, this call came just before 10:00 AM, and the choir was to rehearse at 11:00 AM for a performance at 11:45 on music I had never seen before.  Some of the music was quite difficult, and I knew to play it with accuracy would have required hours of preparation for me.

Without hesitation I agreed to help the choir out.  I took my wife's folder to the piano and began playing through each of the pieces the choir was to perform that day, trying to identify what was absolutely essential from the accompaniments and what could be omitted without throwing the singers off or doing serious musical harm.  Within thirty minutes, I had gotten through each piece, leaving me fifteen minutes to dress and get to the rehearsal.

My wife was very nervous for me.  The amazing thing was that I was absolutely fearless about what I was about to do.  My focus was on enabling this dedicated choir to perform as they had planned and taking pressure off their director so that she could conduct with confidence.  I accepted the fact that I would make some mistakes, would have to omit much that was on the printed page, and would even have to replace the written accompaniments with my own improvised accompaniment at times, but I knew that unless I stepped in, the performance would have to be cancelled.

In the past, before I began my practice of meditation and altered my pattern of prayer, I would have been terrified to take on this responsibility.  Even had I agreed to do something like this, I would have been a nervous wreck, making many errors because of my own fear and out of the sense that much attention would be focused on me.  None of that anxiety was present.  I did what needed to be done with joy and accepted that perfection was not the goal.  The goal was helping out when I was needed and centering my attention on the well-being of my friend and the choir she directed.  What a wonderful sense of freedom this new attitude of peace and joy brought to me, this gift that God was giving me.  I no longer needed to be fearful or feel inadequate because I was incapable of attaining perfection in my playing.  I only needed to think of doing what would be beneficial to others.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Am the Vine

The "Jesus word" I explored today was "Vine."  In John 15, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener."  One of the writers who commented on the opening verses of this chapter of John discussed the somewhat violent imagery of God pruning the branches.  He compared this to other violent images of God, such as God being like a "refiner's fire" or a potter who smashes a vessel in order to reshape it into a better vessel or a father who must discipline his children.  I thought of myself, when I must cut back shrubbery in our yard.  Pruning is a job I don't like doing, so I tend to hack away until the shrubs are beaten into submission, so to speak.  This is not the image I see in the idea of God's pruning.  Rather, I see the image of the gardener who enjoys the work, lovingly and gently cutting the branches so that the shape of the plant is more pleasing to the eye, the branches are all receiving the needed light, and the fruit or blossoms are more bountiful.  For me, the image of God as the gardener pruning is a gentle, loving image, though I understand the ideas the priest in the link above is conveying, and I found his commentary to be thought-provoking.

As I considered the imagery of this parable of Jesus, I thought about this vine of which Jesus speaks.  The vine is anchored in the ground, carrying nourishment to all the branches, giving life to the branches. Independent of the vine, the branches cannot survive.  The vine and its branches are an organic whole.  Yet the vine and its branches do not grow willy-nilly.  They are being trained by a master gardener who knows just when and where to prune to insure the maximum beauty, growth, and production of fruit for the vine.

The idea that, as disciples, we share in the work of ministry that Jesus began just as the branches bear the fruit of the vine is a beautiful, yet frightening, image.  It places a great responsibility on those who would be Jesus' followers.  Still, we can have faith that there is One who is at work to equip us for the ministry to which we are called, One who is shaping us and transforming us into something more beautiful and fruitful with the action of the pruning shears, causing us to bear that fruit which brings us into greater harmony with each other and with God.  This pruning is not the hacking of a gardener who is rushing to be done with a distasteful task, but rather that of a gardener who loves the work and does it with care and compassion.  I pray that I will be open to the transforming actions of the Master Gardener.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christ, Be My Leader

When I began to look at Jesus as Leader, I was disturbed to find so many commentaries comparing Jesus to a CEO, whatever that is.  (I'm not sure what that abbreviation stands for, and quite frankly, I'm not curious enough to find out.  The idea of Jesus as a model of corporate leadership is repugnant to me.)  I didn't want to learn about Jesus' "leadership style."  What I wanted to explore was Jesus as the leader of a band of followers with disparate personalities, needs, talents, and faults.  What emerged to me as important qualities of Jesus as such a leader were:

Jesus led by example. He modeled the human quality of tenderness as he encouraged children to come to him.  He showed both sympathy and empathy when he came to Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus.

Jesus inspired confidence.  When he taught, he taught with authority.  Even when Jesus was a child, the religious elders in the temple were amazed at the depth of understanding evident in the boy Jesus (Luke 2:41-47).  People were aware that there was something in Jesus' manner of teaching that was different from the teaching of other religious leaders (Matthew 7:28).

Jesus led by serving.  Jesus taught that the path to greatness came by serving (Matthew 20: 25-28).  In his last visit with his disciples before his arrest, Jesus served them by washing their feet (John 13: 1-17).

Jesus inspired loyalty.  Though one of his disciples betrayed him and one denied him at the end of his life, Jesus spent his earthly ministry traveling with a group of disciples who left everything that was familiar to learn from him.  These disciples were willing to return with Jesus to Bethany when Lazarus died, even though they knew they were facing great difficulties by doing so.

Jesus equipped his followers for ministry.  After the disciples had traveled with Jesus for a time, he sent them out in groups of two to carry out his mission among the people, as if they were apprentices.  When it became apparent that he would have to leave his group of disciples, Jesus prepared them for what was to come, assuring them that he would be present with them in spirit whenever they needed him, even though he would no longer present physically.

In his brief ministry, Jesus accomplished amazing things with and for his disciples, leaving a legacy that enables millions of his followers to walk in faith with him every day.  He inspired great leaders to continue his work of serving others.  May the life of Jesus be an example for each of us who accepts him as our leader.

Friday, December 10, 2010


My word for today was "guide."  I began to search on the internet for commentaries on Jesus as our guide. My search came up pretty much empty.  There were discussions of guides about Jesus, there were study guides themselves, but little on Jesus as guide.  One link that struck me was a translation of the hymn by Nicholas von Zinzendorf that I know as "Jesus, Still Lead On."  In this translation, the text began, "Jesus! Guide our Way."  This made me think about the words, "guide" and "leader."  Pretty soon I felt like I was in the Bing search engine commercial in which "googlers" are free-associating "ala google," a problem which the focused searches in Bing are supposed to avoid.  My next association was with the word "shepherd."

My prayer/study time ran out.  Later today I decided to spend fifteen minutes in meditation and prayed before beginning my meditation that God would lead me to some understanding of those three words, all of which were study words that I had not posted about.  Maybe that's why God hadn't given me the time: God knew I wasn't finished digesting their meanings for me.

At the end of meditation time, I began to think about what the differences between "guide," "leader," and "shepherd" are for me, not the dictionary definitions, but my own personal definitions.  For me, a guide is one who accompanies us into uncharted territory on a journey of our own choosing, one who has explored this territory that is new for us and is able to lead past any pitfalls and to enlighten us about what might otherwise have escaped us had we journeyed on our own.  A leader is one who points us in ways we might not have chosen to go on our own, giving us direction without our seeking that direction.  A shepherd leads without explaining the journey; the flock simply goes where the shepherd takes it, not knowing until the journey is over what the destination is.

Now that there is some clarity in my thinking about these three names for, or characteristics of, Jesus, I think that I can proceed to explore them in subsequent posts.  I'm open to others' views about distinctions between these three words, if anyone is compelled to comment.

Everlasting Father/Earthly Son?

At the beginning of Advent, when I began my investigations of some of the names used to describe Jesus, I wanted to post some of my thoughts each day.  I knew that with the busyness of this time of year, I probably wouldn't be able to, and I resolved not to obsess about it.  Today, I'll try to do a little catching up.

So far, I've written about Jesus as Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Friend, Virgin-born, Teacher, Revolutionary, and Comforter.  Next on my list was "Everlasting Father."  This was an especially difficult name to research.  Every commentary on these words was unsatisfactory; each read into "everlasting father" meanings that I rejected.  Jesus was so clear that we should only address God as "father."  Yet here is Isaiah saying that the Messiah would be called "eternal (or "everlasting") father."  This caused me to think about the text from Isaiah.  Do I understand what Isaiah's intentions were in this text?  Have I simply accepted that this text is about Jesus because so many of us associate it with the prophecies of Jesus as Messiah that we recall every Advent?  Do I immediately associate this text with Jesus because the Messiah chorus, "For unto us a child is born," quotes this text, and throughout Advent this chorus is running through my mind?

In the end, I have to say that understanding the name, "everlasting father," is not essential to my faith in God or my feeble attempts to be a follower of Jesus.  I'm able to put the effort to understand its meaning  into one of the file drawers of my mind with the intention of returning to it again to explore what Jewish thinking about the Messiah was and is, to try to understand what Isaiah's intentions were, and to study the gospels to determine if God is leading me to a deeper understanding of the nature of the human Jesus.  I would love to have insights that anyone can share with me in this exploration.  For right, though, I'm moving on!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Comfort Ye

Last night I attempted to write a post on Jesus as comforter and got bogged down in one instance where Jesus acted as comforter, that is, in Jesus' returning to Bethany to comfort Mary and Martha when Lazarus died.  For me, this story in John 11 reveals Jesus' humanity more than any other story in the gospels.  In it we see the profoundness of Jesus' love for this family.  When I gave up on finishing this post, I began to think of other situations when Jesus acted as comforter.  One that popped into my mind was his comforting of the disciples as he told them of his imminent death in John 14.  Jesus realized how hard it was for the disciples to accept that Jesus would no longer be with them, and he knew that the days ahead would be trying for them.  He comforted them and helped them to understand that his departure was but one stage in his journey on earth.  Another was Jesus comforting his mother as he hung from the cross, assuring her that she would be cared for by the disciple Jesus loved (John 19:26).  His words of comfort to the dying thief who recognized Jesus' mission on earth more clearly than many of Jesus' disciples is another (Luke 23:39-43).

When I hear the word, "comfort," I always think of the words that begin Isaiah 40: "Comfort, comfort you my people," a portion of the passage that is used as a prophecy of the role of John the Baptizer in the gospels.  I am reminded, too, of the tenor recitative near the beginning of Messiah that quotes this text, leading to the aria, "Every valley . . ."  Comfort is a wonderful word, and one that I need to hear during the bustle of the season leading up to Christmas.  I am enjoying the comfort of Jesus' presence in my heart as I prepare for this Monday and pray that you are also.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Revolution of the Heart

The topic for my Advent study this morning was "Jesus as revolutionary."  As one expect, I found conflicting commentaries on this topic.  It seemed to me that many writers were imposing what they wished to see in the teachings of Jesus, interpreting Jesus' teachings to fit their views, finding in them what they wanted to find.  Some saw Jesus as little more than a reformer of Judaism in Roman-occupied Palestine, while others saw Jesus as a rebel who sought the radical restructuring of society.  Like some commentators that I read, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.

Certainly, Jesus sought to free Judaism from the legalism that obscured the true purpose of the law.  He included at least one zealot in his inner circle of disciples.  He treated women, members of reviled ethnic and social groups, and the outcasts of society in ways that scandalized the orthodox religious leaders.  He refused to conform to the expectations of those who were seeking a politico-religious champion, making it clear that his kingdom was something completely different.

It was through the power of love, a love that is concerned with right intentions from which flow right actions, that Jesus sought to change the world.  This was a different sort of revolution.  It was a revolution that believed the world could only be transformed one heart at a time, that peace was more powerful than war, that forgiveness was more powerful than retribution, that service was the path to greatness.

Was Jesus' revolution successful?  It continues today and, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, it is succeeding insofar as we allow our hearts to be transformed by the work of God in them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Jesus the Teacher

My topic of today's study was less problematic for me than that of the past two days.  Today, I looked at Jesus as "teacher."  I found an excellent essay on this subject written by Nicholas C. Burbules of the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign.  In it he spoke of Jesus' assertion that before learning can occur, the learner must be prepared to receive the learning: "Whoever has ears, let them hear" (Matthew 11:15).  Teaching those not ready to learn, Jesus said, is futile, as he explained in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.  Burbeles' essay discusses four types of teaching exhibited during Jesus' ministry: (1) questioning which was often leading, directing those hearing the question and response to a truth that Jesus wants to impart, (2) "discursive" teaching, like that of the Sermon on the Mount, (3) proverbs or aphorisms, like "the first shall be last and the last shall be first," (Mark 10:31), often involving paradox or using common metaphors, and (4) parables.  Jesus moral teaching seems to have been focused on the intention of the individual, that is, Jesus taught that one cannot be truly righteous even in the performance of good deeds, if the motives that caused the good deeds are not righteous.  The giving of alms in order to receive earthly praise may benefit the receiver but has no moral value for the giver, since the giver is not truly concerned for the welfare of the recipient.

I believe that through this brief examination of Jesus the Teacher, God is leading me to explore the gospels, seeking out the totality of the Jesus' teaching in them once I have finished reading and meditating of John's gospel.  This will be the focus on how I will begin to "harmonize" the gospels as a body of material that records what we know of Jesus' earthly life.

Born of a Maiden/Born of a Virgin?

It seems that I have chosen to place many of the names associated with Jesus that give me the greatest difficulty at the top of my Advent study list.  First, the appellation, "mighty god," followed by "virgin-born," my topic for yesterday.  As I investigated, I again encountered the difficulties of translation, and I cannot speak to the accuracy of any translation from ancient Hebrew or 1st-century Greek.  I'm barely competent in contemporary English!  Most of the writers on the virgin birth spoke of the inaccuracy of translating the Hebrew word most properly translated "maiden" into the Greek Old Testament.  In the Greek translation, Isaiah's use of this term was mistranslated as "virgin."  It would seem that Matthew, relying on the Greek, made much of the virginity of Mary as fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, when the prophecy spoke instead of "maiden-born," rather than "virgin-born," and referred to a much earlier event in Jewish history.

For many of us, the virgin birth doctrine is problematic, but I must respect the millions of Christians who consider it a cornerstone of the faith from which their entire understanding of Jesus and Christianity flows.  Again, we are confronted with looking back at ancient prophecy with modern, Christian eyes, and we may not understand Isaiah's intentions at all.  Would it be consistent with Jewish understanding to have God become incarnate through a virgin birth, or would that seem to the Jews of either Isaiah's or Jesus' time to have been a characteristic of a pagan religion, something blasphemous that is not consistent with the God of Abraham's interaction with humankind?

Again, I am forced to say that on this question, like so many others that puzzle me about orthodox Christian dogma, I must wait for God to speak to my heart when I'm ready for understanding.  Until then, I will have to say, "I honestly don't know."  I have to rely on the revelation of God in my heart in God's own good time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mighty Warrior?

Yesterday, my morning scripture study explored the term "mighty god" from Isaiah 9:6 as part of my daily Advent reflections on twenty-five of the names often applied to Jesus.  As I began to try to write a post on that topic, I found writing it quite difficult.  I have some doubts about the dogma of the Trinity and am uncertain whether Jesus would consider it appropriate to be referred to as "god."  These uncertainties have been a part of my Christian life for almost as long as I've been a follower of Jesus, though some would say that I can't be a follower of Jesus and have these doubts.  I am always encouraged to find others, like Jason Boyett who writes a blog called, "O Me of Little Faith," and find it comforting to know that others struggle as I do.  I have confidence that God is leading me to the truth, either in this life or the next, and that assurance comforts me, too.

I am not a biblical scholar, and I feel very inadequate, especially when I read the Old Testament.  It seems to me that when we reflect back on these ancient prophecies through Christian eyes, we may not see what is truly there.  We may read into these writings meanings that reflect our own backgrounds and modes of thinking that are quite foreign to the intention of the original writer.  Too, we are reading a translation that may not be capable of expressing the nuances of an ancient Hebrew word or phrase.  I was interested in the observations of one writer about this particular phrase, "mighty god," which many make much of as evidence that Jesus should be regarded as God, but which he translated as "mighty warrior."  The writer is a proponent of what he calls "Chritian monothesim" and so approaches the text with an inclination to interpret the text in a certain way to support his point-of-view, an example of the difficulty we face as we look back at any text coming from another age and culture.

What does the phrase "mighty god' mean, then, if it is a reference to Jesus?  I haven't been able to draw any conclusions, and so the search for the truth will go on for me.  Too often we interpret Scripture to mean what we want it to mean, and I know that the message God places in my heart is the one God wants me to have.  One day, God will reveal to me what this term means and how it should be properly applied when God knows I'm ready.

What A Friend We Have in Jesus

This morning I explored the concept of Jesus as “friend.”  The first reading began by pointing out that the Bible refers to both Abraham and Moses as friends of God.  The idea of God regarding humans as friends surprised me.  I can't remember having read those passages before.  The same writer went on to point out several characteristics of Jesus that were indicative of his friendship with others, including his disciples.  He confided in them, he was not hesitant to speak frankly to them when they failed to understand his teachings, he loved them despite their failings, he even called his betrayer “friend.”  More importantly Jesus was a friend to those who needed him most, those regarded by Jewish society as “sinners,” who were so impure as to be shunned.  Jesus was condemned for eating and drinking with such people, for entering their homes.  The Pharisees accused him of being a “friend to sinners.”  This is the most remarkable thing to me about Jesus: that he reached out to those who were the outcasts of society, befriending them when the religious elite refused to associate with them.  Jesus didn’t tell these “sinners” to first abandon their sins and he would associate with them.  He accepted them as they were and shared his love with them as one would with friends.  For me that is the greatest of Jesus’ teachings, that he regarded all people as his “neighbors,” caring for them despite their station in life, their lack of devotion to God, their gender, or their ethnicity.  All were treated as friends, except those who snubbed the very people Jesus befriended.  I thank God for this teaching and for the fact that Jesus was and is a friend of sinners.  I pray that I will remember that Jesus never considered himself to be above associating with those that society considered “unclean.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Prince of Peace

Today in my morning prayers I explored Jesus, the "Prince of Peace."  I focused on the word, "shalom," a  word that means so much more than our English word, "peace."  I read a commentary on "Jesus Christ, the prince of peace" by Joon Surh Park which helped me understand how complex the Hebrew word is.  Shalom connotes wholeness, restoration of relationships that have been broken by our failure to acknowledge the presence of God in our lives, and a return to the pattern that God intends for our lives.  Only through opening our hearts to God can we have the shalom that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, exemplifies.  May God's shalom be yours this Advent and Christmas season.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The First Sunday in Advent

This morning I began my discipline for Advent, in which I explore some of the names referring to Jesus.  Today I looked at the name, "Wonderful Counselor."  I read a sermon in which the term "counselor" as it applied to Jesus was discussed.  I was struck in this sermon by the idea of Jesus as one who is a wise counselor, one who has experienced the hurt and joy of every human's existence, one who is able to prescribe exactly what we need, who advised us to love God, ourselves, and our neighbors and who expanded the meaning of who a neighbor is, who taught us that we must forgive others just as God forgives us, who taught us that true greatness comes from serving others.  I had never thought of Jesus in the role of a human counselor despite having sung the words in Messiah many times.  This morning's meditation on the words "Wonderful Counselor" convinced me that I was doing the right thing by centering my morning prayers and meditation on the names of Jesus.  Who knows what new perspectives thinking about what Jesus means to so many different people will reveal to me this Advent?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


My family is spending Thanksgiving with relatives in another town, and I woke up excited about the day that we will have with our extended family.  My prayer this morning is that we don't become so caught up with enjoying each other and the good food that we forgot the source of the blessings that are ours today and every day.  I wish anyone who may read this post a day filled with gratitude for the wonderful gifts that God has given us, even if you are not an American celebrating this day of special significance in American history.

Ordering My Days

The past several days have been quite busy, and this morning I prayed that I would be more open to God's leading in the ordering of my days.  I find that I am spending an inordinate amount of time on the computer and yet am finding little fulfillment in what I am doing.  I see that this time is taking away from my time with others, and so I have prayed that God would lead me to discern what is necessary and beneficial to me in my computer use and what needs to be set aside for other times.  There are so many wonderful blogs that I want to follow, I want to post regularly on my own blog, and I want to use my computer to find needed information and for my own recreation.  I have confined myself to using the computer only in the early morning as an aid to my prayer life and for recreation and to using the computer during other times in the day when it will not take my attention away from others and from work that I want to do, and I believe that God is leading me to a healthier use of all my time, including my computer time.

My prayer each day is that I will allow God to order my days.  I have not reached the point that I have been able to turn the planning of my days over to God completely.  I still make plans and then have to pray that God will bless the plans I've made or reorder them according to God's will.  When I do make plans before I've prayed about them, I ask for acceptance of whatever may come, even when my plans are altered, praying that I will recognize God's hand at work in the re-ordering of the plans I've made.  I find that I am becoming less rigid about sticking to my previously made plans when circumstances alter them and have been able to let go of the frustrations that used to bedevil me when I was unable to follow through on my plans.  I know that if I continue to seek God's leading, I will be able through God's grace to turn the ordering of my days over completely to God.  Until that transformation is complete, I am content to learn the discipline of having my own orders for the day altered.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Advent Is Almost Here

Today's project in our home was to decorate for the Holidays.  We decided that when we return home from our Thanksgiving visit with family we wanted to return ready for the beginning of Advent, since the Sunday following Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in Advent this year.  Most of the work is done, though we do have a few things to finish up tomorrow.  I'm exhausted, but excited.  I love the Holiday season, but this year I feel a special anticipation of the coming of Christmas.  I am longing for Christmas to come and sense that Advent will be the time of preparation that it is supposed to be.  For me, like most Americans, Advent is usually treated as part of an extended Christmas celebration, but this year Advent will have a special significance for me, complementary to, but distinctive from, Christmas.  During this Advent, I'm asking God to lead me to understand some of the differences that the birth and ministry of Jesus have made in our lives, to contemplate what life might have been like had Jesus not come into the world.  As we decorated our home, I became aware that none of the joys that these decorations represent would be present in our hearts if Jesus had not been born.  May the coming season of Advent be a time of repentance, contemplation, and preparation for me and all who follow Jesus.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Answers to Prayer

Today didn't go as planned.  A friend dropped by this morning unexpectedly and spent the morning visiting with us.  All that I had planned to accomplished was set aside, and, to my surprise, I wasn't upset at all.  I sat down, had a cup of coffee, and rejoiced that our friend had stopped by.  Earlier I had prayed that no matter how my plans were altered by the circumstances of the day, I would accept whatever came with joy, and I discovered that this morning I was able to do that, with God's help.

This afternoon I worked hard at cleaning up our yard.  The first "crop" of autumn leaves had fallen, and I was anxious to get ahead of them before they became too much to manage.  Ordinarily, this is a job I despise, but this afternoon I felt differently.  As I worked, I remembered that I had prayed that I would be able to offer every task of the day as a joyful offering, and I sensed God transforming my attitude of thinking of my yard work as drudgery into a pleasant experience.  Though I was completely exhausted by the end of the afternoon, I felt great satisfaction and I knew that my morning prayers had been answered.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Asking Questions, Seeking Answers

Lately, I have been reading the gospel of John and, as I compare it in a very cursory way to the synoptic gospels that I read first, I find it to be perplexing, raising more questions than it answers.  The purpose of this gospel seems to be quite different from that of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and I will have to spend much more time seeking answers to the questions John's gospel raises for me.  I have read the gospels many times before, but the act of writing summaries of the passages I read and listing questions that are raised has made me read them in a completely new way.  I look forward to going back to compare the four gospels directly and then exploring in detail possible answers to the questions that have been raised by reading research of scholars and commentators who know far more than I about the interpretations of the gospels' teachings and the backgrounds against which the gospels were written.

For me, understanding more about the life and ministry of Jesus is increasingly important in my faith journey, and I long to be more knowledgable about everything about the life and times of the man who continues to be a great mystery for me.  After a half-century of calling myself a Christian, I still have so little understanding of who and why Jesus was and is.  I feel certain that I am not alone in feeling this way, and it is something about which I pray every day.  I would love to hear the thoughts of others about how best to explore what the gospels have to teach about Jesus and how others who are full of questions seek to have their questions answered.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Magic of Autumn

Earlier this month, I wrote a post that began with some words about autumn in our area.  In it I mentioned that our autumns are not as spectacular as those in some other parts of the country because of the large number of evergreen trees in our forests.  Last fall, we made our first trip to New England, and the trees there were spectacular.  We encountered autumn's beauty around every bend in the road and each time we stepped outside our lodgings.  I had never seen forests where every tree seemed to glow with colors of such great beauty.

I didn't believe we would have much in the way of autumn color this year.  We've had a very dry summer, and I fully expected the leaves of most trees to turn brown and fall quickly from the trees.  Over the past few days, I've had occasion to drive through the countryside in several directions, and today I went for a bike ride in the park across from our house.  Suddenly in just a matter of days, the trees have begun to turn beautiful reds, yellows, and golds.  I recognized that the beauty of the New England autumn was so amazing because I had never seen forests in which almost all the trees were deciduous.  I saw our autumn show of color through new eyes this fall, recognizing that, while different from New England's, it can be just as beautiful, with the deep green of the pines contrasting with the colors of the sweet gums, dogwoods, maples, sycamores, hickories, and oaks.

As I rode my bike this afternoon, I thought about the difference in viewing the autumn show from my car and from my bike.  As I drove, I saw great bursts of color against the evergreens and the sky, but from my bike, I could see the infinite varieties of shading that blend together to make the great sweeps of color I saw from my car.  In one spot along my circuit, I passed a vine glowing with a fiery red that seemed almost alive as it climbed a tree.  In other seasons, this vine would be considered a weed that might one day choke the tree, but now the vine justified its existence by revealing a color so brilliant it can only exist in nature.  One can never underestimate the power of nature to inspire and renew us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pride Goeth Before . . .

For the past several days, I've been mulling over how to write my next post.  Once more, I've let pride get in the way of my relationship with God and with others.  For some time, I have had the impression that my wife was unhappy about the way her life is going and have been praying about how best to help her.  I want so much for her to have the same joy I've been experiencing.  When I thought the time was right, and without much prayer about whether it was indeed the right time, I proceeded to tell her what she needed to do to be happy.  Not surprisingly she took exception to my unsolicited advice and was hurt that I had presumed to try to "improve" her.  Immediately, I knew that I had allowed false pride--an unwarranted belief that I was somehow more "in touch with God," more holy--to cause me to assume things about my wife that were not true.  As she explained to me, her comments that I had interpreted as symptoms of unhappiness were instead heartfelt complaints about matters that were troubling her, comments that she felt she could only share with me and that these comments in no way indicated an underlying unhappiness with life.  Because of my misinterpretation of these comments, she wondered whether she should not keep them from me, too.

My pride had caused the person I care so much about to feel suddenly that she could no longer share her inmost thoughts and doubts with me, lest I use them to "diagnose" her mental state.  After much discussion and my profound apologies for my overweening desire to take upon myself the mission of enabling her to be happy, we came to an understanding that reaffirmed our love for each other.  In the process, I learned much about my wife that I should have known after 40+ years of marriage, and I resolved to continue to ask God help me to open my heart more so that I can replace my excessive pride with a more genuine ability to minister to the needs of those I love.

Friday, November 5, 2010

All of Life Becomes Holy

A few days ago I wrote a post in which I mentioned a chore that I was not looking forward to, suggesting that God was directing me to get on with it.  As I reflect back on that post, I'm not sure I said exactly what I  intended to say, because I don't believe that God is directing every small detail of our lives, like when we should do our chores.  What I wanted to convey then, and hope to convey now, is that as God works in our lives, God changes our attitudes.  By leading me to see all my tasks as opportunities for service, even those tasks that were formerly distasteful, those distasteful tasks become joyful rather than onerous.  Mundane obligations are elevated to sacred offerings, and all of life becomes holy.  This is the transformative power of God, and when one realizes this profound shift in perspective, it is as if God is taking control of the small details of our lives.  This is because we see God's spirit at work in our changed hearts and minds, even when God is not speaking to us at that very moment.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hurt and Forgiveness

This morning my wife made a comment that hurt me deeply.  A little later she repeated the same comment.  When I told her that her comment caused me pain, she immediately apologized, saying that she was only "kidding."  For a while we didn't say much to each other, and as I thought about the interaction in an objective way and prayed about it, it dawned on me that my wife had quickly apologized for the pain she had caused me and that the words "I'm sorry" do not come easy for her.  I realized that something had changed in our relationship and that the change was for the better.  My wife had not intended to hurt me with her remark, and I probably took what she said too seriously.

As I was growing up, my father teased me constantly, and the more he realized that his teasing hurt me or made me angry, the more persistent he was.  That teasing has poisoned our relationship for my entire life, and to this day, I am not close to my father.  My father treated his two grandsons in the same way, and neither of them have ever wanted to spend much time with him because of it.  As I analyzed why my wife's innocuous tease had provoked such a strong reaction in me, I understood that my reaction to my wife's remark grew out of the pain my father's treatment had caused me, and that I was overreacting to her comment.

As an adult, I know that my father's behavior toward his sons and grandsons must stem from some behavior on the part of someone in his own family during his formative years.  As I considered my conversation with my wife over the incident this morning, I thought about how relationships between parents and children affect their offspring for generations, how hurtful behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next.  I prayed that my own relationships with my son and daughter were more loving, that I treated them with more kindness and respect, than I had experienced in my relationship with my father.  May my heart be filled with compassion, respect, and love for all those around me, and may I be quick to forgive those who have wronged me.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Ramble about Joy, Meditation, Inspiration, and God's Leading

Today is a cool, rainy day where I live, my favorite sort of day.  Because we live so far south in the US, our fall starts rather late, and on this second day of November, autumn has just begun.  Out my back windows, I can see my neighbor's red maple, one of the few in our area, and it is turning the most beautiful red imaginable.  Every autumn it is spectacular, and I feel fortunate to have a great view of it.  Autumn is the season I enjoy most, because it is often damp and rainy, and the crisp, cool air is invigorating without being uncomfortably cold.  We don't have as much fall color as many regions of the country because we have so many evergreen trees here, so a tree like the red maple I described is especially appreciated.

I am at home alone for much of the day today, and I have lots of time to appreciate the glory of nature and to think and meditate.  I have found much that inspires me, both outside my windows and on my computer screen, and I wonder if God is not giving me this day as a time of renewal and recharging.  It is the kind of day that everyone needs from time to time.  Though I have run some errands and look forward to taking care of some household chores, I am thankful for having an unhurried day with no deadlines or appointments.  When I prayed this morning, I prayed that God would lead me to what was needed for this day, since I had made few plans, and it seems that is what is happening.

I have a rather onerous chore left to do outside, and the rain seems to have subsided enough to allow me to do it.  As I luxuriated in this long expanse of time to myself and enjoyed the inspiration God is sending me, I wondered if I should tackle this chore.  As I thought about it, it seemed God was reminding me that if I offer the task to God as a joyful offering, it won't be nearly so onerous, and that it is something that needs to be done before we have another hard rain.  It seemed that God was saying, "Think how nice it will be when the next bad storm comes.  You will be able to look outside and be glad that you did this work, rather than be frustrated that you put it off, because if you do procrastinate, the problem will still be there demanding your attention." So, I'm going to follow God's leading in a bit, doing my work as a joyful offering and thanking God for making this task less daunting.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Day of Special Blessing

Today was a day of great peace.  For once, there were no pressing responsibilities.   I began the day in prayer and meditated later in the morning.  We ate a late breakfast, I watered plants outside on our deck, I went for a bike ride, we watched movies and played cards, and I investigated a number of faith and practice blogs, some new and some that I follow regularly.  Throughout the day, I felt a special joy as my heart was filled with gratitude for having a day to rest and reflect.  What a wonderful gift this day has been!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Wrong Choices/Right Choices

Yesterday, my wife and I took the day off from our responsibilities to spend a day away from home in a nearby large city.  We did a little shopping for things we couldn't get in our own town and went out to eat.  I found myself ignoring the presence of God and made some poor choices.

First, I was approached by a woman in a parking lot.  She told me a story that was obviously untrue about why she needed me to give her money.  Instead of praying before responding, I told her I couldn't help her, climbed into the car with my wife, and left.  I could have easily have reached into my pocket and given her a dollar or two, but, without thinking or praying, I didn't do that.  It wasn't my place to judge her or to refuse help, using her bogus story as an excuse.  I pray that the next time I am confronted with this choice, I'll make the right one.

Next, I found myself becoming irritated by the inattention and rudeness of sales people.  I refrained from repaying unprofessionalism with an angry outburst, but I never considered that there might be an underlying reason that I was not receiving the treatment to which I thought I was entitled.  Perhaps there were difficulties in the lives of these sales persons that I knew nothing about.  My obligation was to be compassionate, even when I was not being treated courteously.  I pray that compassion will trump my sensitivity to ill treatment by others.

Today, I went to a great deal of trouble to help my dad.  In the middle of my efforts, he made a very unkind, cutting remark that wounded me deeply.  My initial reaction was to lash out at him.  Instead, I bit my lip and sat in silence for a few moments.  I thought about my anger and hurt and looked at these emotions objectively.  When I replied, I explained in a calm voice why I had made the choice that he was so critical of.  What could have turned into an argument, as similar situations in the past have, instead turned into a pleasant conversation, with my dad realizing that he had jumped to the wrong conclusion, and the remainder of the day was filled with peace rather than anger.  I thanked God that God had spoken to me and helped me make the right choice.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Bike Rides

Once more I am posting about bike rides.  In a previous post, I said that my bike rides are my most extended "think times."  On many days, my bike rides are my most extended "alone times," too.  As much as I enjoy the company of my wife and others, I need time to be alone, also.  Yesterday as I rode, I concentrated on the physical sensations of the ride:  the circular motion of my feet on the pedals, the up and down motion of my knees, and particularly the deep breaths I was taking and the rhythmic relationship of my breathing to the movement of my legs.  Always when I ride, I am breathing very deeply, not from the exertion, but because the rhythmic motion encourages me to breathe deeply.  This may be why I look forward to my rides so much: it feels so good to breathe deeply for a long period of time.  At any rate, the concentration on the physical act of riding helped to keep other thoughts from my mind, in effect clearing my mind of extraneous thoughts.

Today, as I rode, I determined to just "be" in the ride, not to think about anything in particular.  Rather, I tried not to think at all.  The strongest sensations were those of the air movement around me, sometimes pushing against me as I rode into the wind, sometimes cooling me as I sped downhill or the breeze was at my back.  I didn't worry about speed or work to maintain my speed as I climbed hills.  I just relaxed in the ride.  When I finished, I felt rested, as if the ride had required no exertion at all.

Both rides were equally pleasurable, and it was nice for a change not to use this time to think through any important matters.  I don't want to always use my rides in this way, but it was what I sensed God wanted me to do to help myself these two days.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to have had these experiences.

Yesterday, I discovered that my email account had been hacked, all of the contacts had been deleted, and the hacker was sending a bogus request for money to all of my contacts.  In the past, this would have sent me into "stress level maximum."  I was surprised at my reaction.  I took logical steps to let everyone I could know that the email they were receiving was not genuine by sending a disclaimer to them through another email list that contained most of the addresses that had been deleted, I went to every account that I used the same user name and password for and changed those and investigated to determine that none of them had been accessed, and I notified the email service that had been used to send the bogus email and my own email service that had been hacked into.  An unexpected outcome was that many friends from whom I had not heard in months sent me emails sympathizing with my situation and offering advice, often hilarious advice.  What I could have seen as a disaster turned out to be a blessing because I was able to examine my emotional first reaction and logically negate the initial panic.

The transforming voice of God inside me and the practices of silence and meditation continue to amaze me and bring me great joy and peace.  What a wonderful thing it is to know that I don't have to solve my problems, because there really aren't any problems, only opportunities to hear God and experience the present fully.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A New Attitude

Yesterday, I served as substitute organist for an Episcopal church service, a beautiful service with wonderful use of the English language, many well-written hymns, as well as a great deal of sung liturgy (Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Lord's Prayer, Agnus Dei).  For me, there was a LOT of music to be played, and ordinarily it would have been a very stressful service to play.  Surprisingly, that was not the case.  I had prayed several times that I would have the right intention in playing the service, that I would be able to offer my playing as a joyful offering to God, and that others would sense my intention as they participated in the service.  I found all of these things to be the case, and when the service was over, though I was exhausted, I felt joy in having opened my heart to the presence of God as I played the service.

As I have begun to try and listen for God speaking in my heart and mind and have begun the practice of daily meditation, I have noticed a great reduction in my stress level.  I feel a sense of peace and calm that is new to me.  I have never been a worrier; I have always believed that God was taking care of me and that "all things work together for good to those who love God."  Yet, lately, I don't sense as much anxiety in my mind and body when I'm in a stressful situation.

This week, I'm working on being more fully present for those I'm with, especially my family.  I hope to let God work in me to help me truly hear what they are saying, to be sensitive to their needs and emotions, and to practice compassion for them more fully than I have in the past.  I am praying each day that I will be open to God as God transforms me into a more caring, engaged follower of Jesus.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Word

Last night, as I set in our den with my wife, I was suddenly aware that I felt a great joy in my heart and mind.  As I reflected on that sense of joy this morning, I speculated that it was God's way of letting me know that I was on the right path, and in my morning prayers I asked God to lead me to the truth about that feeling of joy.

The scripture reading for this morning was full of seeming contradictions, and I prayed about that, too.  I believe that God is leading me to a way of understanding the scriptures that I am reading and about the Bible in general.  Here is where I am right now: I believe that we are spending too much time debating, wondering, discussing, arguing about the contents of the Bible.  I believe that we are taking much of the Bible way too literally.  I believe that we need to start looking at the underlying meanings and reasons for some of the most controversial parts of the Bible rather than trying to explain away the Bible's inconsistencies.  I believe that we need to allow God to write the Scriptures in and on our hearts rather than skimming the surface content of the written Word.  I hasten to say that this is where I am now; these are not fixed conclusions.  I am waiting for God to lead me to the truth, and my perceptions now may or may not be "the truth."

If God is a spirit, then we must truly worship him in spirit and in truth.  The worship of the Bible cannot be a substitute for sensitivity to the spirit of God in us.  The Bible is a source but God is the Teacher, and only the spirit's leading can teach us how to use the Bible as God intended and find its message for each of us individually and collectively.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Vote for Compassion

We are being bombarded by political phone calls in our home.  For each office on the ballot, I know for whom I'm going to vote.  I don't plan to vote early, because some new knowledge about one of the candidates could come to light that would change my mind, and somehow it's more like a "real" election to show up at the polls on election day and wait in line with the majority of people who also vote "on time" rather than "early."

I don't discuss politics much anymore, because we have become so polarized about our positions in this country that real discussion doesn't seem to have much point.  I had a talk with a friend several months ago about politics, though.  He is one of the few people with whom I can discuss politics, even though our political positions are very far apart.  His position was that he voted for the most conservative candidate, regardless of party.  My position was that I voted for the Democratic nominee, regardless of that candidate's position on the issues.

My view has changed, though.  I now examine the candidates of all parties and vote for the candidate that is the most compassionate.  I don't think we can go wrong by electing the most compassionate candidates, and I hope that in the upcoming election the most compassionate candidates will receive the majority of votes.  If that's not how things work out, I will have done my part to make compassion the most important consideration, and perhaps by the next major election in two years, the majority will vote for the "compassion party" instead of the Democratic or Republican party.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

God's Voice or Mere Coincidence?

The last several days, my life seems to have been touched with several "coincidences."  One occurred last Sunday in worship, as one of our co-pastors spoke of how life seems to overwhelm us, with new things--ideas, music, news, fragments from the internet--constantly bombarding us.  As she spoke, I thought, "That's exactly what I've been thinking."  Her husband, our other co-pastor, writes a great blog, The Practical Disciple, and said in his blog that he is entering a "season of listening."  When I read that post, I thought, "That's exactly what I'm seeking to do."  As I explored the web, I discovered a great blog written by Danny Coleman.  His latest post was on "hearing God," and his description of how he "heard" God was so much like mine that I had to send him a comment.  The next coincidence occurred as I was reading the scripture lessons for next week for an Episcopal service where I'm filling in as organist.  The gospel reading was the reading about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.  I had just written a post about pride in my life in which I made reference to that text.

I sit wondering if these are really coincidences, or is God reinforcing the path I'm seeking to follow?  Perhaps our human condition is so similar that such congruencies are inevitable.  We are all victims of sensory and information overload.  That overload may be moving many of us to seek the silence in which we can hear the voice of God if we listen for it.  Maybe many Christians struggle with sin of pride.  Whether these are mere coincidences or God's reassurance that I'm on the right path, these events reinforce my desire to seek out more times of silence, to be more conscious of the presence of God throughout my day, and to give thanks to God and to those who bless my life, like our pastors and Danny, for their positive influence.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Serving Others and Listening for God

Today was a busy day.  When I prayed this morning, I had made few plans for the day and asked God to lead me to what God wanted me to do with my day.  I spent most of the day serving others, which is what God must have wanted of me.  First, I set with my 92-year-old father in the doctor's office for much of the morning, took care of some paper work for him, and visited with him and other family members.  Next, I helped my wife with a task that wound up being more time consuming than either of us had planned.  My last act of service was to take our sixteen-year-old cat (one of five who allow us to feed, water, and pet them) to the vet to be put down.  She had a terminal illness and was slowly starving to death.  This was an extremely difficult task for me.  Though her life might have been prolonged, our decision was based on the fact that prolonging her life might be easier for us to accept, but it would have been a miserable existence for her, with painful tests and probably even more painful treatments that would have kept her alive for only a little while longer.

It seems that my longest uninterrupted "think time" is during my daily bike ride and that was a present I gave myself at the end of the day.  After I returned from the vet's office, that's where I headed, so that I could sort out the emotions of telling our oldest cat good-bye.  As I rode, I thought of the joy Louise had brought to our lives.  She had come to us as a "gift" from a relative who asked us to take her to be spayed and then refused to take her back.  She was long-legged with beautiful black fur accented by white "boots" and chest.  She was awkward and shy, but always greeted me every morning as I went out the back door to feed the outside cats.  To see her so emaciated, stumbling along rather than walking, sniffing at her food dish rather than eating was so painful, and if her condition was painful to watch, it was even more painful for her to live that way.  Thanks, Louise, for all the love you gave us.  I pray that my decision was indeed the most loving gift I could give you at the end of a long life.

Over the past few days, I've been praying for sensitivity to God as God helps me deal with the sin of pride.  In my last post, I wrote about one kind of pride that God is helping me move beyond.  It is not completely gone, but I am able to examine the reasons that underly it, to look at it in an objective way, and to  replace that false competitive pride with pride in work done well and with joy.  I will continue to pray for openness to God's working to completely remove pride that manifests itself in the desire to outdo another person.

One other type of pride that I am praying to be removed from my mind and heart is a pride that looks at others with contempt because I perceive that I am in some way superior to them.  I find myself thinking like the Pharisee who prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like that sinner over there . . ."  As I walked through the grocery store the other day, I saw several obese people, and I found myself putting on a mental air of congratulatory superiority, thanking God that, though I could stand to lose a few pounds, I was not obese like others around me.  One woman in particular was so large that she had difficulty walking and had to lean on her shopping cart to move around.  As I followed her out of the grocery store, I realized how wrong my thinking was.  I began to pray that I might open my heart to God leading me to the right way of thinking.  As I prayed, I thought of what life must be like for this woman, how there might be emotional problems that caused her to overeat or a deep pain that eating helped assuage.  I thought that perhaps her weight problem was caused by a medical problem.  There were so many reasons that she might be overweight, and I knew absolutely nothing about her beyond her appearance.  Inside, she might well be a beautiful, kind person, a deeply spiritual person, a person that it would be a great pleasure to know.  Then, I realized that God was answering my prayer.

Now, my responsibility is to continue to listen for the voice of God within me that wants to transform me into a more faithful servant.

Friday, October 15, 2010

False Pride

This morning, as I was doing the work I had committed to do so that my friend would be free to take care of an urgent family matter, I found myself "in the zone."  My work was going so well, and I found myself thinking, "When others see how well I'm doing this, they'll make comparisons with my friend's work and realize I'm really better at it than he is."  Suddenly the joy of the work left me, and I understood that I had allowed my mind to take the altruistic view that had prompted me to volunteer to help my friend out and turned it into a selfish competition to get the better of the very person I wanted to help.

I immediately stopped to ask God to work in my heart and mind to transform my selfish competitive nature to one that is seeking the best for my friend, to return to me the joy of the work without a selfish sense of pride.  My plan now is to think through what it is about doing this work that brings me so much joy and how I can use the skills I've been given to reflect positively on the friend I want to help.

It is one thing to take pride in work done well, but I need to remember that the skills to do the work well were a gift from God.  My development of those skills would not have been possible without the help of many others who gave of their own knowledge and supported me so that I could be better at my work.  While my own efforts played a role, it was the unselfish assistance I received from teachers, parents, and friends that made what I've accomplished possible.  For this, I am very grateful.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Learning to "Be"

Since returning from our trip, my days have been extremely busy, with little time to write posts for this blog or to write anything else, for that matter.  In the past, this "busyness" would have been very frustrating. Now, it doesn't seem to bother me.  I can think with confidence that this is a temporary state of affairs. No matter how long my list of things that need to be done, I know that I am not compelled to crowd as many of them in each day as is humanly possible; some things can wait until tomorrow (or the day after that or even longer, if necessary).

Last night, my plans for the next several days were turned upside down because of the need to help out a friend.  This meant that several plans I had made would have to be changed.  That, too, didn't upset me.  I know that being there for a friend is more important that carrying out personal plans that can just as easily be completed at another time.

I read this quote this morning in a post by Lori Deschene titled "Tiny Wisdom: On Rushing" at "there’s no reason to stress or rush yourself–you’ll get where you’re going but right now is a perfect time to do and enjoy what you love."  I followed her advice.  Though there were many tasks demanding my attention, I pushed them aside to take time to do something I truly wanted to do.  When I moved on to those things I had planned to do, including helping my friend, I discovered that there was still time for most of them.  The only thing I didn't get around to was my afternoon bike ride, but I'll make up my missed ride by riding my bike when I go to help my friend tomorrow morning, rather than driving there.

I am amazed that changing my prayer life has made such a difference in my perspective.  Stopping to listen for God to speak to me, asking God to help me open my mind and heart, taking time to read other blogs like the ones listed on my blog, simply stopping to just "be," spending time in silent meditation, and trying to rid my mind of negative, critical thoughts about other people has made my life so much more peaceful.  I am confident that God is transforming me into the person I'm intended to be.  I wonder if others have had this same experience.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We are One

As I read blogs and other devotional materials, I am often inspired by the words of Buddhist writers.  Their insights point me in the direction I need to go, and I am increasingly persuaded that the kinship between Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus points to a single God that speaks to all persons of good will.  As I pray each morning and listen for God, I believe God is saying that I must live a life that shows concern for the welfare of others and of the world, a life of contemplation and attention to the light of God within me.  It is not for me to pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of another's beliefs, but rather to follow the light that God gives me.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Simple Joy

This afternoon I went for a bike ride for the first time in two weeks.  What a wonderful experience, as I felt the difference in effort as I shifted from one gear to another, the sensation of the various micro-climates of the park in which I ride--sometimes warm, sometimes cool almost to the point of being chilly, the speed of the downhill portions of the trail!  I noticed the reactions of others as I met them, some smiling a greeting in acknowledgment, others looking down at the trail in concentration.  I watched people walking dogs of many sizes, breeds, and colors and saw the enjoyment of people playing frisbee golf.  At the end of my ride, another rider crossed my path and appeared to be experiencing the joy of riding as well.  I thank God for giving me this great pleasure.

Rectifying Wrongs?

After returning home from our trip, I have been reflecting on some of my impressions.  One of the things that I found notable was the social climate in San Francisco.  As we drove the streets in the neighborhood where we stayed, I was happy to see same-sex partners holding hands without fear of the reaction of others.  

Some of my traveling companions ridiculed those who were expressing affection for each other in this way.  They did this, knowing my own feelings about respecting the sexual orientation of others, and, in the interest of harmony on the trip, I said nothing.  In retrospect, I wonder if I was right in holding my tongue.

This morning I read the words of the Dalai Lama when he said, "When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved."  Would it have been an act of engagement for me to speak out when my companions made fun of same-sex couples?

I work daily to be less judgmental.  I know that one of the great failings of Christians is our quickness to label the actions of others as "right" or "wrong, " despite Jesus' teaching that his followers must refrain from condemning others when their own lives are so full of "wrongs."  Yet, in order to work for social justice in the world, it is necessary to condemn injustice and work to end it.

How should each of us work to end discrimination in our society, to end the practice of labeling others as "sinful" because of their love for another person?  What actions can I, as an individual, take to promote civil rights for every person?  Am I obligated to speak out against injustice every time I hear injustice being promoted and in every circumstance? 

These are the questions that I am contemplating this morning as I prepare my heart and mind for corporate worship.  I pray that God will lead me to the answers to these questions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Today was a day filled with peace, much of it spent marveling at the beauty of creation that surrounded us in the Sierra Nevadas.  I felt an unusually close connection to my traveling companions, but one of the most astounding occurrences was a business meeting that my wife and I had to attend at the very start of the day.  It was a meeting that we had dreaded and that I had prayed about for several days.  Now, this was not a particularly important meeting, but the last time we had attended a similar meeting with a representative of this company, it was most unpleasant.  During my last prayer about this meeting, I sensed God assuring me about the meeting, telling me not to be concerned or anxious, because God would be present as well.  As we entered the meeting, with no forethought, I explained to the man with whom we were meeting what had happened the last time we were in this situation with his company, how unpleasant this had been for us, and exactly what our point-of-view was concerning the business at hand.  He smiled, apologized on behalf of his company, and told us that we would have a better experience this time.  We did, and I left filled with joy that God had worked in me to change my attitude, that God had led me to speak frankly, and that God had answered my prayer by transforming me into a better person from the outset of this meeting.

Once more, I was reminded of the need to be still and wait for God to enter my heart.  Only a few weeks ago, I would have prayed by telling God what I planned to do in this situation and asking God to intervene in some way if I was taking the wrong course of action.  I would have acted on my own initiative with the expectation that it was up to God to stop me if I was wrong.  Now, I am trying to be open to God's leading by being still and waiting on God.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Peace in the Midst of Confusion

Tonight, I am sitting with my computer, writing as the rest of my travel companions play a game of cards.  Ordinarily, I would be there, too, because I love to play.  Tonight, I have chosen to carve out some time for myself.  When we returned from our day of sightseeing, it occurred to me that I have had no time to be alone with my thoughts for many days, and this is something I miss greatly.  Even when I choose to sit apart to pray, write, think, or meditate, there are always several others around.  I have discovered that, even in the midst of activity, I can create a quiet zone for myself and this is a great blessing.  A couple of months ago, I would not have been able to do that.  I notice that when I sit quietly and adopt a reflective posture, things are much quieter around me.  Perhaps this is because those around me are being considerate or perhaps it is because they sense the peace that envelopes me.  I believe that it is the latter, and I pray that this is not vanity on my part.

I know that the quality of my meditation is not as high as when I can be truly alone, but the peace that comes to me is satisfying and renewing, nevertheless.  Do others have this same experience, I wonder?