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Archive for the ‘Meditations’ Category

 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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This is a follow up to my post from Thursday about an article in Christianity Today.  It’s a very long article about a phenomenon within the Church which Professor Bergler calls “juvenilization”.  I am making the case that this is actually true of our entire culture, secular and sacred.

The more I think about the notion that an entire culture has succumbed to the allure of youth, and trapped itself in immaturity, the more troubled I become. Once upon a time, I thought the cult of youth was just the worship of the body beautiful–lithe, smooth-skinned young flesh–and a corresponding fear of aging and death.  But I fear the truth is far more frightening and insidious.  The more we become a “visual” culture, the more easily we fall into this trap of juvenilization…the hypnotic draw of TV, video, computer, and ‘Droid have sucked us in.  We read less, we react more.  We ponder less, we play more.  We don’t reflect, we just “like” reflexively.

We blame it all on being busy…we don’t have time to read something substantial. Give me the news briefs, please. Give me the short sentences, the pithy paragraphs, the headlines.  Read a book?  Well…maybe on Kindle, where I can keep pausing to play Angry Birds.  But our appetite for sound bites seems to leave us empty of deep thought while forever hungry for more hot air.

This vicious cycle–where did it start?  Bergler claims that within the Church community it was a result of trying to “market” Christianity to youth.  I could spend a lot of time researching and reporting to you what I think is at the root of this cultural phenomenon.

But it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that we work to regain a society of mature people who aren’t afraid of careful reading carefully and reasoning logically, who don’t flinch away from ideas that are unsettling or demanding.  So I want to talk about solutions.

This morning my pastor put a book in my hands.  It was a ‘thank you’ for a very minor job I volunteered to do awhile back.  I’ll tell you the title in a minute.  But in the introduction, these words are quoted:  “As a man thinketh, so is he.”  This is from Proverbs 23:7, and in context simply means that you can’t judge what someone thinks of you by their words–they may be outwardly polite and inwardly cursing you.  The author, Robert P. Morgan, wants to make a case for this verse meaning that what we think defines who we are.  This has led him to write a book about what we put into our minds, in this specific case, verses of Scripture.

Although I think the verse in Proverbs is weak as a foundation, I have no problem with his premise:  “garbage in/garbage out” is a truism.  And there are other Scriptures which say much the same thing, my favorite being from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, chapter 4, verse 8:

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,  whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.

So DO we want to be commendable, morally excellent, truthful, honorable, pure?  …Then I suggest that reading, watching, absorbing a steady diet of tripe, gossip, pornography, violence and lies is probably not an effective strategy.   I don’t personally think the majority of Americans want to be trivial, gossipy, thrill-seeking, simplistic and vulgar.  But somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten the idea that we can give lip service to an ideal, then go and do whatever we want, whatever is easy, comfortable, fun, relaxing, low key and unchallenging.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer indicted the Church for doing this to faith.  He called it “cheap grace”…the notion that one can say a prayer of commitment to Jesus, and show up in church on Sundays when convenient, and–no worries, never have to really work at a faithful life, never need to change a habit, strive to do better, seek truth ever again.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

I think this is a real problem within the Church, because we’ve absorbed the attitude of our culture, to do everything the easiest way possible.  Movements like the “Rebelution” Do Hard Things youth conferences were excitingly counter-culture,and I pray that they have ignited a spark of fire in our youth.  Meanwhile, I fear that most of us in this country enjoy “cheap patriotism”: the sense that we’re entitled, as Americans, to all the rights and privileges that pertain thereto, but owe nothing in return…not so much as the duty to be well informed before we enter a voting booth.  

Of course young people want to do what’s quick and easy…it’s human nature.  That doesn’t make it right, wise or best.  That’s why God gave them parents…to model for them that doing what takes more time, energy and thought is not only better in the long run, it brings even short-term satisfaction, and builds character in ways that no short cut ever can.

That book title?  100 Bible Verses everyone should know by heart.  In the interest of countering creeping juvenility, I’m going to start here and now, with this book.   My hope is that the more I fill my mind with God’s truth, the more that Truth will come out in my conversations with those in my circle of influence, including unsaved friends and neighbors…and a precious granddaughter.  That is certainly incentive to avoid cheap grace and cheap patriotism, too.

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