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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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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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CATHARSIS

I’m studying catharsis.  I have a play to direct, which is written in the form of Greek tragedy, and I need to understand catharsis.  I know I’ve experienced it. In fact, I experienced it this evening, watching a movie.  I don’t think anyone reads this blog any more, so this is as good a place as any to try to vent a bit of what I felt tonight.

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you haven’t seen The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and you’re actually reading this post, you might want to stop right here.  It’s a film set in Germany during WWII, and revolves around the unlikely (and nearly impossible) friendship between the 8-year-old son of the commandant of an extermination camp, and an 8-year-old Jewish prisoner on the other side of the fence.

We see the seemingly “normal” happy German family begin to disintegrate after the mother learns what kind of a place her husband has charge of.  The horrible smells that waft over their home every few days are puzzling to little Bruno, but to his mother they change her husband from hero to monster.  Meanwhile, Bruno’s older sister is being indoctrinated into belief in the Fatherland and its righteous cause.

But all this is in the background.  It is the story we see through Bruno’s eyes which has the greatest impact, and which the film stays focused on.  His moment of moral cowardice in not sticking up for his ‘friend’ Shmuel leads Bruno to offer to help find the Jewish boy’s father, who has gone missing somewhere in the camp.  Bruno, whose naivete is at the heart of the film, is sure if he just pokes around, the papa will certainly turn up.  Donning a cast-off pair of the funny striped pajamas that Shmuel always wears (there’s a room with hundreds of them, Shmuel tells him), Bruno digs a hole and crawls under the electrified barbed wire.

I begin to squirm.  “This is not going to end well,” I think.

And I’m right.  Through the worst possible bad timing, the boys arrive in Shmuel’s hut at the moment when it is being evacuated to the gas chambers.  Of course Bruno’s absence is noticed at home; of course father, mother, sister, other soldiers all run through the woods, in the pouring rain, to find the hole and the discarded clothes.  And of course they are too late.

All of this, with the superb actors, script, music (James Horner) and camera work, is harrowing.  But what horrified me most was my own reaction.  Because of the power of point of view, I was pulled into the story of this enchanting little blue-eyed boy, and everything in me wanted him to somehow, some way, be spared.   As I watched the huddle of gray-striped prisoners being  herded toward their fate, it was Bruno I was watching.

And then it hit me.  Here was one little boy, beautiful to be sure, but just one of a hundred or more who were going to be executed without any reason.  If none of the rest of them could be saved…why should he be? How would that be right?

We seek to put an individual face on tragedy to help us comprehend it, but at some point we need to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals… each one had a family somewhere who mourned them, each one had promise, gifts, moments of happiness.  And then they were gone.

As I study the Pan Am 103 bombing, which killed 270 people in a fire ball over Lockerbie, Scotland, I think of the reaction to the Hindenberg, the helpless grief of a reporter who simply sobbed, “Oh, the humanity!”

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He drowsed again in the heat, the jumbled voices of a crowd acting like so many bees, droning him to sleep. Then he was jolted by a sudden upward movement. He opened his eyes to see his lifeless feet dangling below him as the cot was hauled upwards…were they carrying him up a ladder? Then the cot straightened a bit, the sky reappeared and he both saw and heard that ropes were being used to raise him off the ground. But why?

The cot made slow, jerking progress, punctuated by grunts and muttered, “Careful there! Try to keep him level.”

Then their faces came in view again, hauling on ropes, hand over hand, and they were coming closer. No, he was coming closer. With a last groaning effort, they grabbed his bed and dragged it onto the…roof? He lay still, and listened to his friends panting, gasping for breath. Where were they? Why this heroism? How could this help? He squeezed his eyes shut against the glare of sun beating down. It felt even hotter up here than on the ground.

“All right. Are you ready?” They murmured assent to each other, as if bracing themselves for some more herculean task. What in the world–? They pushed him, bed and all, along the level surface.

And all at once his stomach seemed to drop, and then his head caught up. He cried out in panic–had they pushed him too far? Was he going to fall off this roof now and finish the job? But no. He’d hardly had time to think this was the end, when he felt his progress slow. They were lowering him now, more smoothly than they’d lifted him.

Somewhere below he was aware of a commotion–yelling. Someone was upset about something. “What do you think you’re doing?? My roof!!” Some other voices were talking all at once, and a few seemed to be laughing. Were they laughing at him?

He realized that the sun’s harsh kiss was gone. The light against his closed lids felt cooler, dimmer. He blinked open his eyes, still squinting out of habit. Four little boys looked back at him…

No! He almost burst out laughing himself. It was his four friends, looking through a window at him. They were leaning out and…oh. It was the roof. They’d cut a hole, and he was looking straight up at them.

Suddenly his view was cut off by a single face, quite close to him, which stared into his intently. Was this the owner? Would he be blamed now for the damages? How fitting–damaged goods himself, and now he’d be scolded for destroying something else. How much more do I have to bear? Will they throw me in jail to rot? Was this their plan to get rid of me once and for all? O God, why couldn’t I just have died long ago? Why was I ever born? Life is nothing but pain and trouble.

Slowly his eyes refocused–a weathered face, warm eyes, steady, understanding…knowing. Too much. They looked through him. And then–the eyes smiled. The silent man turned his head and looked up, up at the four anxious faces who still waited breathlessly above him. He seemed to nod, as if he agreed with some unspoken plea. Then the knowing eyes turned back to his own.

Though he lay helpless and still, his heart began to pound as if he’d scaled the wall himself and lowered his own broken body by a rope with his own once-strong hands. He didn’t know what would happen next–what could happen? And yet he was afraid.

Unhurried, quiet, the stranger spoke. His voice, though low, was pitched to carry to the crowd around him, and it resonated with authority. “Your sins are forgiven,” he said.

 

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