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Archive for the ‘Meditations’ Category

His eyelids, suddenly heavy, fell shut. Inside his mind, he felt a thick curtain fall, muffling the sound around him. My sins…are forgiven. Forgiven? Wiped out? In stunning succession, images whirled past his mind’s eye: a willful boy, a prideful young man, a demanding friend, an angry husband, a harsh father. Then the accident, and bitterness cloaking the will, the pride, the harsh anger, holding it all in to fester and turn to despair. My sins, yes.

All at once he noticed the quiet in the room, not a peaceful stillness, but a tense waiting, underscored with a buzz of murmuring voices, a kind of hissing disapproval. What were they waiting for, he wondered? Was he supposed to speak, to testify?

He opened his eyes, eager now to look at that Face again, and to heard the Voice. But the Face was gone. Instead, far above, the four friends still hung over the roof hole, staring and silent, seeming…sad. Disappointed.

Oh! They think their effort was for nothing! But He knew what I needed. Forgiveness. Yes. I can go home in peace now. All is well.

Then from somewhere over his head he heard it again, that One who had spoken forgiveness to him. “Why are you thinking these things?”

He started, straining his eye balls to find the Face. Was He talking to me? Does He know my thoughts? Why were they wrong?

“Which is easier?” the Voice continued. “To say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk home’?” No one answered Him. Huh. That’s a good question. Both are impossible, I’d say. But…He did forgive me, I’m sure of it. I feel it. So then…

The Voice was still speaking, “But so you know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins…”

The Face swam into his sight again, smiling. Gentle hands moved purposefully near his waist. The same calm, commanding Voice spoke again. “Go on. Get up on your feet, take your mat and go home now.” The Man glanced up at the four gaping friends with a last smile and nod, then he apparently moved away.

The paralyzed man lay still, but the stillness was different now, he could sense it. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs, once…twice…three times. Lord, I believe, he thought.

And he sat up.

At once there was a new murmur of amazement. But no one moved. The anticipation hung as heavy in the air as smoke in a windowless room.

He continued to breathe, slow and deep. He noticed that the straps hung loose. The Man had untied them for him. Then, with careful deliberation, he bent his knees. Smiling, he braced himself with his arms, and clambered to his feet, a little stiff, but standing nonetheless.

Now he was grinning, and above him he could hear laughter and clapping, then the scurry of feet as his friends scrambled down the ladder from the roof.

Bending down, he grasped the edge of the pallet which had seemed a prison. He lifted it with one hand and straightened again, caught between giddy laughter and sudden tears.

He took one step, then two, and the crowd’s amazed murmur swelled to cheering and shouting. “Hallelu-Yah! Praise to the Almighty One! He has done great things!”

He continued to move, with more confidence now, and found himself face to face with the Stranger, who just smiled. His own eyes watery, he opened his mouth to say, Thank you. But no sound came. Even so, it seemed the Man could read the gratitude in his eyes. Nodding once more, He turned towards the door. Four scruffy men had muscled through the crowd and stood there now, silently joyful.

The man who had been paralyzed, still dragging the useless mat, walked toward them. And then all five friends moved slowly through the reverent crowd who parted to watch them go, walking toward the sunset with strong and steady tread.

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 A few years ago (well, more like ten) a good friend of mine gave me a used copy of this little devotional book, now out of print. It contains a single page for each day of the year, and includes a Bible verse (KJV) and up to three related quotes, sometimes including poetry or hymn lyrics.  The quotes are from various Christian writers from the Renaissance up through the 1800s.  I’ve discovered so many gems in this book over the years, by writers of whom I’d never heard.

Although I always intend to read from it every night, there is often a long lag between times when I open its worn paper cover.  Last night when I turned to the reading for February 12th, I was delighted to read a quote about Lent which I never remembered seeing before. Since today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I thought it would be appropriate to share it here:

“Am I really what I ought to be?  Am I what, in the bottom of my heart, I honestly wish to be? Am I living a life at all like what I myself approve? My secret nature, the true complexion of my character, is hidden from all men, and only I know it. Is it such as I should be wiling to show? Is my soul at all like what my kindest and most intimate friends believe? Is my heart at all such as I should wish the Searcher of Hearts to judge me by? Is every year adding to my devotion, to my unselfishness, to my conscientiousness, to my freedom from the hypocrisy of seeming so much better than I am? When I compare myself with last year, am I more ready to surrender myself at the call of duty? Am I more alive to the commands of conscience? Have I shaken off my besetting sins?”  These are the questions which this season of Lent ought to find us putting fairly and honestly to our hearts.

–Frederick Temple (1821 – 1902)

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This morning I finished Still: Notes on a mid-faith crisis,  a book by an author I have long admired, Lauren Winner. Although I was initially shocked and saddened to find that she had divorced her husband and gone through a faith crisis, I am thankful she chose to write this book, and gladdened that she is finding her way through this time with God’s help.

Winner’s writing in this volume is in the form of brief meditations. Early in the book, there is quite a bit of narrative, and we feel we’re getting some of the back story which precipitated this crisis. But as she progresses, the short chapters develop a concentrated, almost poetic voice. Each is a lovely essay which might stand alone. (more…)

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Our snowy season has finally arrived, and now four inches blanket the ground. Part of me feels as if Christmas has finally arrived…the lights and decorations never look quite right until there is a snow on the ground. Introducing my granddaughter to snow has been fun, but mostly we’ve enjoyed being cozy and quiet indoors for the past few days. 

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This past Sunday as I putter around, preparing to go over to church early for worship team practice, a thought occurs to me: the aging process makes practicing contentment even more of a necessity than ever. There is surely no point in dwelling in the past, when I was physically able to do things that I probably will never do again, even if the opportunity arose. There is no reason to long for an imagined future…next big milestone for most of us after 50 is either retirement or death. Since I’m self-employed, well–there you are.

Contentment means that I embrace the present, I accept that THIS is where I am, at this time in history, in THIS town, THIS house, with THIS set of friends and relations. There are many things that I cannot change. Now more than ever I need to seek what God wants me to do with the resources that I have right now.

Because right now is all I have.

In truth, it’s all any of us has. But it’s easier to ignore or deny that when one is young and strong. When the aches and pains kick in and simple tasks get harder, then I have to face the fact that I have no idea how many more earth days I have left. That can be scary, or depressing, or I can see it as a challenge not to waste any more time. “Redeem the time because the days are evil,” says the Psalmist.

Contentment is active trust, saying to the Lord, “This is where You have put me, and You have work for me to do here. Please show me.” This is a lesson I learned long ago, and one I’ve taught many times since. Recently I think I’d lost sight of it. Now is a good time to put it into practice once more.

Happy New Year!

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Our pastor’s devotional message for Christmas Eve was rich with ideas to ponder.  He unwrapped (literally and figuratively) the three gifts of God given us in Christ’s birth, using Luke 2:1-20 as his text.

“For unto you is born this day a Savior…”

The first gift God gave was Salvation. We need to be saved FROM our sins (as a drowning man in rough seas must first be pulled from the water);  we are saved TO a faith community and a relationship with God (as the drowning man is hauled into a lifeboat); we are saved FOR a walk in new life and new purpose (as the man is returned to the safety of dry land).   Forgiveness, repentance and recompense.  If we refuse to forgive a repentant brother in Christ, are we saying that Christ’s death was not sufficient for the task? If God forgives, can we refuse to ?

…”Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.”  

The second gift God gave was Peace.  Peace in this world doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, but the presence of the Savior in the midst of conflict. We will never have true peace among all men on this earth until the Lord’s return, but in the meantime all His children can experience His peace which is beyond human reason and comprehension, because we have His presence with us, living in us.

The third gift of God that night was Hope. While Salvation speaks to what is past, and Peace allows us to live in this present life, Hope looks forward to that blessed day when we shall be with God in glory. Death will be swallowed up in life, every tear will be wiped away. Do you know this verse of “Joy to the World”?

No more let sin or sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground!

He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found…

Far as the curse is found… Far as, far as the curse is found.

May your Christmas be rich with the gifts of Salvation, Peace and Hope.

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I didn’t grow up saying grace.  I didn’t grow up thinking ‘grace’.  I didn’t understand grace, and I couldn’t define it.  But after nearly thirty years of adulthood, and being an active Christ-follower, I was pretty sure that I could define “grace” in a pinch.

Until recently.

I was reading Colossians in my Greek Interlinear New Testament.  (Don’t be too impressed…I only know enough Greek to be dangerous.)  I was looking at the word translated as “thanksgiving” or “gratitude.”  It looked like “eucharist.”  That can’t be right.  Eucharist has to do with communion, I thought.  I never was sure, in my liturgical childhood, exactly what the word meant, but I assumed it meant ‘communion’…and by communion, I meant the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the cup offered to the congregation. (more…)

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(This post originally appeared on a former blog of mine, on  June 28, 2007.  For an updated and illustrated version, check out thabto.wordpress.com on July 15, 2012. )

“Are you condescending to me?”  What emotions does this word conjure in you? Discomfort? Annoyance?  Do your hackles raise, catlike? Are you prepared to be miffed?  The verb ‘to condescend’ has such a strong pejorative sense that it’s hard to think of it in positive terms at all.

But the verse of a hymn has been running through my head:

He is our Guide and Friend;
To us He’ll condescend;
His love shall never end.
Alleluia! Amen!

(“Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, lyrics by Christian H. Bateman, 1843)

I was surprised to find that the original meaning of ‘condescend’, from 1340, was ‘to back down, to submit, yield deferentially’–quite the opposite of its more current meaning, ‘to stoop to the level of one’s inferiors,’ which dates to 1611.  Literally it means to “descend with”, but its most common connotation now is that one has a sense of being superior and doing something beneath one’s dignity.  It tends to be paired with the word ‘patronizing’ and carries the idea that you are doing a great favor to someone or a group by deigning to act in such a manner–and that you let them know it, on no uncertain terms.  One who acts in such a way is labeled a snob, and seems to take pleasure in letting everyone feel his vast superiority.

Being condescending, in this sense, makes people uncomfortable:  they feel guilty that they troubled you, they cower fearful that they’ll do something gauche around you, or they’re insulted that you consider them so obviously beneath you.  But I would contend that someone who makes you feel that way is actually NOT condescending in any real sense, because they are making no attempt to join you at your level.  Rather, they’re making you very much aware of how different your station or situation or education or…whatever…is than their own.  Rather than finding a common ground, they are looking down from a lofty elevation from which they have no intention of descending.

True condescension can be more than uncomfortable for the one who’s doing the stooping; it can be literally painful.  I’ve just finished an excellent series which looks at the story of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of Fitzwilliam Darcy (the author is Pamela Aidan, for those interested).  His actions, undertaken out of love for a woman who is his inferior in fortune (and whose affections he is quite unsure of), are condescending in the literal sense.  His  rescue of  her wayward sister takes him into the most disreputable and dangerous sections of London, where physical filth rubs elbows with moral depravity, and both reach out to accost unwary passersby.

On a more mundane–but practical–level, I condescended tonight to weed and deadhead my perennial garden.  And it was painful to get down on the weeds’ level:  either I was stooping awkwardly and my back complained, or I was squatting or kneeling and my legs were unhappy.  Condescension is no picnic. Think about scrubbing floors, hunting for lost toys under the couch, or even talking to preschoolers by stooping down so you can look them in the eye.  Physically, this is demanding, un-fun stuff.

Want more proof?  How about a great artist who stoops to become part of the work he’s created?  Limiting himself so narrowly that he is confined inside the world that he invented?  What happens when the creatures, in this world of his own making, turn on him?  When they kill him?  Is that evidence enough that condescension may be hazardous to one’s health?

And yet.  “Go into all the world.”  “Look out not only for your own interests, but the interests of others.”  “Care for widows and orphans.”  “Whatever you do for one of the least of these…”  “The servant is not greater than his master.”

The call to community, to servanthood and humility, is the call to condescension, to get down and get our hands dirty, to stoop to the level of those we serve, so that we can really understand their needs.  Banker to the Poor is the memoir of a man who left his university’s ivory tower to see whether the economic theories he was teaching really had any bearing on the lives of the poor wretches barely surviving in the next village.  Thirty years ago Grameen Bank was born out of his overwhelming compulsion to make fair, modest, short-term loans to people–mostly women–who without such simple assistance (in one case, the lack of less than one dollar’s worth of supplies) were trapped in a vise between moneylenders and starvation.  This man, and the majority of his students who are bank employees, are Muslims.  Their compassion and willingness to leave their comfortable lives and go into the most destitute places, patiently and repeatedly, in order to explain the hope they offer, puts me to shame.

Condescension is such a good descriptive word.  Pity it’s gotten to be so negative.  Humility isn’t much better–it feels powerless.   But to humble oneself this way requires strength of character, resolve, perseverance, and a thick skin.  What do you think is a better word for this stooping to understand and come alongside someone in order to help them?  Is there such a word?  Should we coin one?

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