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Can the Center Hold?

I have been gone for a while, my attention being given to other pressing matters. But I am back. However, today’s short post is not normal because it touches on political matters. Nevertheless, I think it points to a spiritual path that we can follow.

In today’s political climate, those on the right and the left throw stones at one another. That is a problem for those of us in the center. We can get pelted from both sides. Suffering painful bruises, we may begin to echo the famous line of W. B. Yeats, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” If we are indeed the center, Yeats is prophetic.

Colossians 1:15-20 is one of the deepest thoughts ever written by St. Paul. In this short passage, he affirms that we are not the center. No, Jesus Christ is the center–the center that holds all things together.

Because Christ is the center, rocks can be transformed into roses, hatred into hope, and loathing into love. May it be so in your life and in mine.

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Healthy Growth

How an organism responds to its environment determines, in large part, how it will grow. Human organisms are no different. C S Lewis affirmed in various places that we are shaped by the choices we make. So it becomes vitally important how we respond to incidents like the one that recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When we are confronted by people who espouse racism or any type of racial superiority, how can we or should we respond? Violence begets violence. Hatred breeds hatred. I think I understand the angry responses of some who opposed the marchers supporting a philosophy of white-supremacy. It was easy for me to get swept up in that anger as well. In most of these cases however, anger simply increases anger. We may feel righteous after it is all over, but have we grown in a healthy way in those moments? Have those responses caused us to be more loving, kind, and generous? I suspect not.

I don’t always make Christian choices, but as a Christian, I live under sweet constraints that have been placed on me. Restraints that call on me to love my enemies, speak the truth in love, and pray for those who would persecute me.

There are other options than screaming words of hatred. Choirs could coalesce along the marchers’ parade route and sing “they will know we are Christians by our love” or “Jesus loves the little children”. Groups of men and women could join together and in unison pray aloud over the marchers, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I am certain that there are better loving responses that can be given than the two I have just mentioned! But my point in all of this is to affirm that we can respond to bigotry and racism in ways that will promote love, compassion, peace, and understanding. In so doing, we grow in the image of Christ.

 

 

 

Be Extravagant

Recently I heard a fine sermon by Sarah Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham Alabama.  She referred to Jesus’ parable of the sower. In the parable, the sower strews seed over various kinds of soil, e.g. hard trodden down soil, rocky soil, weed-infested soil, and rich soil.

I confess that for years I struggled with those different types of soil. Assuming that ‘soil’ referred to human hearts, I kept asking the question of how do soils or hearts become characterized as in the parable. What makes them, hard or rocky or weedy or rich? Detesting the answers of either Calvinism or Gnosticism, I always ended up shaking my head in sad confusion.

However, the quagmire into which I had waded did not lead to the meaning of the parable. It was, as Sarah pointed out, all about the extravagance of the sower. He or she did not pick and choose just certain places to strew his seed. No, the seed was cast far and wide with no concern about any so-called worthiness of the soil.

What a wonderful reminder to us not to be stingy or discriminating with our acts of love, compassion, and care. Toss them out here, there, and everywhere! Trust that some will bear good fruit. And it may even be in ‘soil’ we might have thought unworthy or unproductive. Extravagance in love is never bad.

Glimpses of God

I’m not really sure where the idea came from, but in the last couple of weeks I have been thinking that we can be the answer to the question “what is God like?”. I am not suggesting that any one of us or all of us taken together–even in our best moments–are crystal clear images of God. But I do believe we can catch glimpses of God in many of us more often than we might think.

For example, I am something like God when I do some of the following. Feed our cat, Jinx. Pet our little dog, Trixie. Water our plants. Hold my wife Pat’s hand. Encourage our grandchildren. Promote peace instead of war. Encourage forgiveness instead of insult, hatred, and violence.

The name of my blog site is “Pathways to God”. Some of what I write connects to that theme directly. Other pieces don’t seem to touch it at all. But I think this one does.

How would our lives be different if we began consciously to look for simple or not so simple actions in the lives of the people around us that could remind us of God. When we see two people holding hands, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone repairing a house, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone carrying a little baby, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone protecting another from a bully, we can think, “God is like that.” And on and on and on.

I wonder if taking this perspective daily would actually change us. Would we become more positive persons? Would we begin to do these kinds of things ourselves? Would we discover that we seem closer to God than before? I’m going to try it in the days to come.

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God is Like a Mother

Sometimes a pathway to God can be opened up by how we think about God or how we imagine God. One image that I have found helpful is to understand that God is like a mother.

This is not unique with me. Julian of Norwich wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”  In Scripture, the prophet Isaiah used this image as well. “You will nurse and be carried on the hip and bounced on the knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”¹

Isaiah pictures God as nursing us like a new mother. This is a reminder that God feeds us with food and drink. Every meal we consume comes from the bounty of God’s creation. Additionally, our hearts and minds are fed on the Word of God. We also have ‘vitamin enriched’ (for lack of a better phrase!) spiritual food in Holy Communion. And instead of being drunk on wine, we are encouraged to be filled with the Spirit.

Next, Isaiah imagines us as being carried on the hip by God. God never casts us away. God always holds us. Like a mother, God will always carry us through the twists and turns of life.

Then, in a wonderful picture, Isaiah, perhaps remembering his own mother’s actions, thinks of God as bouncing us on God’s knees! The word translated ‘bounce’ is only used three other times in the Hebrew Scripture. There it is translated as ‘play’, ‘cheer’, and ‘delight’. As a mother brings a smile to the face of her child, so can God fill our mouths with laughter and our hearts with joy.

Lastly, Isaiah writes that like a mother, God will comfort us. The Hebrew word translated ‘comfort’ is used in reference to God 9 times in the Book of Isaiah. It is the image of someone sighing over the pain of another. So like a good mother, God notices our pain, takes some of it away, and helps us to live with the rest.

I am thankful that God is as much like a mother as a father.

¹Isaiah 66:12b-13a (Common English Bible). Several translations in verse 12b use ‘her’ instead of ‘the’ which makes the phrases refer back to Mother Zion. The CEB is more literal (there is no ‘her’ in the Hebrew) which allows for the interpretation that I have given.

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God of the Wildflowers

Pat and I love to go to the Gatlinburg area of the Smokies. Every season is a beautiful season in those mountains. But I especially like to go in the Spring to view the wildflowers. A line from Edna St. Vincent Millay describes my experiences each time I go, “I am waylaid by Beauty.”

Some years ago on a contemplative retreat I was asked (if I remember correctly) what kind of plant I would like to be, if I were a plant. Without hesitation I answered, “a wildflower.” Of all the flora in the world, I love wildflowers the most.

I believe that wildflowers can teach is some things about God. R.S. Thomas thought so as well:

It was easier to come out with you                                                                                       into the fields, where birds made no claim                                                                       on my poor knowledge and flowers grow                                                                         with no thought but to declare God.

What do they declare about God? One thing is obvious. God loves beauty. God’s love for beauty is manifest in the stunning profusion of wildflowers. In North America alone there are around 10,000 different types of wildflowers!

Another thing that wildflowers teach about God is that size really does not matter. We humans are more often impressed with bigness. Not so with God. To speak of God in human terms, God is as moved by a little stand of white Trillium trillium

as by a majestic mountain or a deep blue sea.

 

On a recent hike, I found a Mayapple wildflower in bloom. You have to really look carefully for it because when God created this wildflower, the flower was made to appear under the leaves.

mayapple Only by bending down can one see this beauty. Perhaps wildflowers are intended in part to teach us about the beauty of humility.

April 22 is Earth Day. It is a good day to be thankful for the beautiful world created by God–the great Lover of Beauty. It is also a good day to renew our commitment to encouraging those in authority to protect our fragile environment.

A Counter-Cultural Policeman

Baseball season has begun, so I tuned in to the first Braves’ game. They were playing the Mets in New York. Before the game the announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor some persons who had died in the past year. Among those named was former New York city cop, Steven McDonald. The announcer noted that he had been shot in the line of duty and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Oh, but that is only the context for the story of Steven McDonald. In 1986 at the age of 22, McDonald had stopped three teenagers to question them about a stolen bike. One of them, Shavod Jones, pulled out a gun and shot him three times.

After he was rushed to the hospital, the surgeons told his wife that he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. She was 23 and three months pregnant. Six months after the shooting, Patti Ann gave birth to their son, Conor. At his son’s baptism, McDonald publicly forgave the young man who had shot him. Later reflecting on what he had done, McDonald said,

I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me–the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us. I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, p. 13)

McDonald spend the rest of his life–some 30 years–promoting the importance of forgiveness.

I call this counter-cultural. In America today, the majority of citizens (including many, many Christians) believe more in retributive justice than in mercy and forgiveness. In promoting the death penalty, they refuse to follow the example of Steven McDonald. And more importantly, the teaching of Jesus who clearly disavowed the ancient law of retribution–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a death for a death. (Leviticus 24:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-48)

If I ever face an experience as painful as that of Steven McDonald, my prayer is that I will follow his example and the teaching of Jesus Christ rather than our present American culture. Jesus calls us to forgiveness over vengeance.

 

Jesus Was Not a Strict Constructionist

Jesus had regular run-ins with people who affirmed the importance of the letter of the law. They were legalistic literalists. One of the more frequent disagreements revolved around the Law of the Sabbath. Jesus set this law aside time after time after time. The law was pretty clear: “Remember the sabbath day , and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all  your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any  work. . . ” (Exodus 20:8-10, emphasis mine)

One sabbath, Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck heads of grain to eat. They weren’t starving. They could have fasted. Also, Jesus occasionally worked healings on the sabbath day. Generally, these people were not in crisis. He could have waited a day.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke clearly as one who would not be a literalist. In Matthew 5 he rejected three laws: 1) the specific law concerning divorce that had been handed down in the Mosaic code; 2) the law giving permission to make vows; 3) the law of retribution, i.e. an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Jesus was not a literalist. He was an essentialist. He was interested not in the letter of the law, but the essence of the law. He declared both in word and deed that the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s ‘neighbor’. No law could be used to override or ignore the absolute law of love.

The Sound of God

Our little townhouse is located near an interstate highway. Twenty-four hours a day the hum of that motorway can be heard in our neighborhood. Of course pretty quickly after we moved in, that hum was rarely noticed at all. We were unconsciously filtering it out. The only time I usually notice the sounds of the highway is when a siren goes racing by.

My laptop sits on an elevated stand that has a fan in it. When I plug the stand into my computer, the fan begins to whir. It keeps my computer cool. The only time I am aware of the sound is when I unplug it and it stops. Only in the silence do I realize that there had even been a sound.

All of this got me to thinking about the sound of God. Traditional Christian thought affirms the omnipresence of God. God is as ubiquitous as the air around us and within us. Other religions also think of Ultimate Reality, Being, or the Divine as universally present.

If God is present in this way, what is the divine sound? How can we hear it? Can we only notice it when it is strangely absent? Or is it like a vibration in our hearts that can only be sensed when we are silent?

Sunday I told the congregation that if a person has all the answers, this probably means he or she doesn’t know all the questions! Well, I have a lot of questions, but that’s okay because those very questions may be the pathway to God I most need.

Peace, LaMon

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Feeling the Spirit

I recently attended a concert with my wife Pat and our daughter Kari. It may have been my favorite concert of all time. It was Amos Lee and an amazing six piece, multi-talented band. The extended version of Lee’s songs allowed the different musicians to highlight their skills. Amos Lee, himself, was engaging. His singing was moving. My daughter compared him to Otis Redding. I think perhaps a male version of Norah Jones. Though I swear on one song he was channeling a clear-voiced Bob Dylan!

Spirit by Amos Lee

The song that moved me most is entitled Spirit off the cd by the same name. He explained that the song was written in New Orleans. (It begins on Royal Street in the French Quarter.) The repeated chorus is “I just wanna feel the spirit washin’ over me.” The ‘spirit’ in the song is the spirit of singing and music.

I too am a music lover. I know what it means for the spirit to wash over me as I listen to Amos Lee and many others. Music is powerful. Augustine is credited with saying, “To sing is to pray twice.” Of course, he was talking about singing the Psalms with mouth and heart. But all kinds of music, whether strictly religious or not, is powerful to move us.

The spirit of music can move our spirits. And whenever that move generates love, peace or joy, the Spirit of God is also in the mix.

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