Finding Good News in the World

Where is God?

I believe he is with us, all around us.  With us in spirit every hour of every day.  He is teaching, inspiring, guiding whether we are seated in a quiet sanctuary or walking along a crowded sidewalk or watching secular movies or reading novels.  His beauty, love and grace abound in our natural surroundings and he dwells in the warmth of human hearts.

Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Grounded, speaks of a spiritual revolution in which we recognize God in the nitty gritty of daily life and elevate common experience to sacred revelation.  Some are uncomfortable with this idea, yet didn’t Jesus go by ‘Emmanuel: God with us?’  Are we to settle for the idea that God is only ‘with us’ in church?

Movies tell stories.  Some movies tell clear stories of redemption even when they probably didn’t intend to. I watched one such movie the other night.

Burnt is a cliche-laden, R-rated, not-foodie-enough story about a talented chef.  That said, Bradley Cooper is a pleasure to watch on screen.  His character has serious problems.  He is rude, extremely arrogant, and passionate about the kitchen. He admits past failures, like drug addiction, squandering resources, and treating his friends badly.  He is trying to pull himself back up.  But he owes a large debt — a really large amount to some unsavory characters who keep showing up to collect.  He knows he has great talent, and is determined to regain his dignity by trying harder for culinary perfection, using and abusing many people in his pursuit of self-redemption. Fortunately for Cooper’s character, his friends want to help.  As it turns out, he only realizes this circle of friends when one of them pays his debt for him.

Isn’t this the gospel story?  We get ourselves into deep trouble. We hit bottom and all looks dismal.  We cannot see the love of God or the love of our family and friends.  And then we notice someone has paid our debt.  When that debt is lifted, we experience acceptance instead of guilt.  Cooper’s character could release his quest for perfection and know he could thrive within the circle of friends he was privileged to be part of.

By his death we are saved.  By his wounds we are healed.  Christ died to pay our debt to sin.

Another recent movie, The Intern, demonstrates how servant leadership works.  The story here involves a retired man taking a volunteer internship at a young woman’s startup company.  His example of humble compassion and service was noticeably different from the other employees.  He never sought credit for himself, always shared his thoughts when asked for, and was never defensive about his old-school ways.  He did not worry about fitting in, rather looked for ways to help those around him all the time. Somehow that reminds me of Jesus.When service to others is our motivation, we can make a real difference in their lives.

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  Mark 9:35

The photo above shows my daughter helping remove dried maize from corncobs with the women of a Swaziland village. She was there in 2009 on a short mission trip.  She helped in whatever way she could. She made a difference in their daily chores by simply sharing the work.  The experience made a big difference in her life, too.  She continues to serve young people in her community.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this post is we can find God’s truth in the movies and elsewhere in the world if we just look for it. Maybe pointing out that kind of truth in the world will draw more people to consider God than just inviting them to church.  Let’s try it, shall we?

 

Christmas Carol Resolutions

Sometimes song lyrics take on new import when my mind is on something else.  This year, while singing Joy to the World  the Sunday after Christmas, I was also thinking about the new year coming.

In fact, I was thinking about resolutions and what, if any, resolve I had for the coming year.  Just at that moment the screen flashed the words of a familiar verse:

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.  He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.  

This seems like a good start for a New Year’s Resolution list.  And it is a personal list.  And it gets to things that matter. So I put it to use.

First, no more growing of sins.  I need to take a serious look at my sins, my weaknesses, my tendencies, and stop watering them as if they were treasured orchids.  No more growth.  I need to stop feeding my impatience, my anger, my thoughtless words.  If we stop allowing our weaknesses to grow, maybe they will shrivel up and die, making room for our better qualities to move in.  The garden of our hearts, my heart, will be healthier.

Second, no more growing of sorrows.  This includes regrets and shame. Because the past is over, revisiting hurts and difficult times only serves to re-infect us.  It is like the common winter cold that moves from one family member to another and then back again.  Not healthy.  I need to strengthen memories of joyful times, of things for which I am grateful.  I can stop the growth of sorrow if I put those hurtful and painful things out in the freezing cold.  Warm up, O heart, to the joy that Christ brings, and the joy he has already brought to my life.  Blessings outnumber sorrows every day.

Thorns infesting the ground.  We live in a thorny world.  Our home is in a very thistly landscape and these thistles pop up every spring, invading the flower beds, the garden, and generally every part of every view.  They often reach gargantuan proportions, outpacing even our nicest shrubs.  We learned a couple of years ago that placing PREEN on the beds in early spring, then mulching, keeps the thistles to a minimum.  No more let thorns infest the ground. It turned out that pulling them always seemed to bring more because the tap root was seldom removed and new shoots would simply form even if I pulled weeds all summer long.

Our world and its geopolitical issues are thorny.  Just like the thistles in my yard, they proliferate even when pulled one by one.  Jesus once talked about the tares and the wheat, saying it was better to leave them growing side by side, so as not to pull the good stuff out with the bad.  A point worth pondering this new year, both in our personal lives and in our global community.

Thorns can be sticky.  Once under the skin, they can be very hard to extract.  Paul talked about a thorn in the flesh, which was never removed even with much prayer.  Relative to New Year’s Resolutions, I resolve to not let the thorns in my life control my reactions.  I hope to let go of some of them, and let some of them be, focusing on the good fully-formed flowery blessings that grow alongside.

He comes to make his blessings flow.  For some reason, I wrote this on my crumpled paper:  He comes to make his mercies known.  Either way, I don’t want to stand in his way.  If God wants blessings to flow, I resolve to be a conduit.  I want his blessings to flow through me.  To hoard God’s generous blessings would make me an obstacle to his purpose. In the coming year, I hope to help blessings flow.  Make me more generous with my time, my resources, my smiles and mercy.

And this flow of God’s blessings goes far and wide, far as the curse is found.  That’s everywhere.  My resolution is to look for ways to share blessings beyond my own comfort zone, my family, my community, my nation.  Let me spread God’s love to the least, the most desperate, the most forgotten.  Even to share my blessings with those despised by the world.  God loves them, indeed all of us, so much that he stepped down into our thorny world and lived among us.

Resolutions that matter.  More than consistent recycling, losing weight, getting in shape, and cleaning the clutter, these Christmas Carol Resolutions could make a real difference in my life.

Dear Lord, I pray that your spirit will enable me to put these ideals into practice.  Let us together make your blessings flow.  Amen.

God of Sweet Surprises

God is surprising.
When he wanted to grow a family, a line that would be His people, he took his sweet time. He told Abraham about it, but didn’t do much for a long time. When the possibility of having children with Sarah seemed long gone, Sarah became pregnant. She laughed. No one was more surprised. When things seem especially dark and hopeless to us, God loves sweet surprises.
God has specialized in surprises for generations. Old Testament times were often full of violence and God’s people either turned away or grew hopeless. Yet, time after time he brought them through challenging situations. There were provisional surprises in the desert, like water from a rock and quail at dinnertime. Not to mention manna every morning. There were victorious surprises, like Joshua at Jericho. There was Naomi’s surprise when Ruth stumbled upon Boaz’s field and eventually married him. Naomi, surprised to find herself a grandmother, laughed when Ruth had a baby. When Hannah cried out to the Lord from the depths of her heart, God heard and surprised her with a baby,too. Her son became the great prophet, Samuel. I imagine she didn’t expect that.
When 400 years of silence caused generations of God’s people to wonder if he was still there, a star appeared. When the religious leaders were expecting a powerful prophet-king, God chose Mary and a baby was born King. Surprising? Unexpected?
Jesus surprised people all the time.  He shocked wedding guests at Cana with fine wine when they feared only water remained. Jesus surprised his disciples when a small sack lunch fed five thousand hungry listeners.  When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus had died, he tarried two extra days. But then the glorious surprise as Lazarus walked from the tomb.
It’s as if God is just out of sight, plotting a new way to turn the lights on and reveal the balloons and friends shouting, “Happy Birthday!” to the unsuspecting one.
Darkness overtakes us. All seems frightening and hopeless and we cannot see our hands in front of our faces.
My young friend, a girl in 7th grade, part of my small group of Bible study girls, had a tumor in her brain. The tumor was large and needed to be removed as soon as possible. Imagine her parents’ fear. Imagine her sister’s concern. Imagine her own confusion as to what God would do.
This family knows God. Abraham knew God. Joshua knew God. Mary knew God. And they all experienced God’s glorious surprise. When things seemed hopeless, God pulled out all the balloons. The tumor was benign and Josi is recovering.  God faithfully surprises.
If God were only predictable, readily explainable, He would not be God. Choosing to believe that God always has more surprises up his sleeve: that’s faith.
Thank you God for not doing things exactly the way we would do them. Thank you for saving your great power sometimes for a glorious surprise. Thank you that when our time on earth runs thin, you have yet another surprise waiting for us.

The MV Anna Jackman

This is a wonderful testimony to the ministry of the Anna Jackman in Alaska. Thank you Philip Beisswenger!

The Rooster Crows in Guatemala

After my first year of college, I worked for a summer in Southeast Alaska as a Presbyterian Volunteer in Mission with a group of other college-age students from across the U.S. It was 1979, and my first ever mission experience. We were sent to a variety of settings and remote villages throughout the Alaska panhandle, mostly to lead Vacation Bible Schools at Presbyterian churches. My assignment was to the towns of Wrangell and Skagway, plus the Rainbow Glacier Camp near Haines as a summer camp counselor.

I wasn’t a likely candidate for this VIM program. In my application I’d written that I wasn’t a church member, and furthermore that I was skeptical about Christianity. The truth was that I’d come away from mMV Anna Jackmany freshman year full of incoherent thoughts, a distorted sense of self-importance, and an impulse for questioning authority. By accepting me that summer, the Presbyterian Church extended…

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Pray Very Simply

Pray Very Simply

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant… This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” Matthew 6:7-9 (The Message)

If God is your friend, prayer is your conversation. You don’t repeat the same thing every time you call your best friend. You probably speak casually about news and things important to you and to your friend. You ask questions and listen for answers. You tell your friend about your hurt feelings, your concerns, even your needs or those of your family and friends.

Children learn simple bedtime and mealtime prayers by heart, but as we mature spiritually we learn to pray from the heart. As we gain confidence in the character of God and his genuine love for us we boldly bring everything to him in prayer.

How often do you recite the Lord’s Prayer while thinking of something else? Jesus did not teach his disciples this prayer so they would memorize it and repeat it thoughtlessly. Rather he included all the elements God wishes to see in our prayers: Praise, thanks, requests for needs, confession, recognition of our need for his guidance and deliverance. It is a simple example of a fresh prayer.

In the book Left to Tell, Immaculee Illibagiza, shares how she prayed boldly when in serious peril during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. “Dear God, only You can save me. You promised to take care of me, God — well; I really need taking care of right now. There are devils and vultures at my back, Lord… please protect me.   Take the evil from the hearts of these men, and blind their hatred with your holy love.”   Now that is fresh, bold praying.

Can your prayer life use some freshening? What are some concerns you have not opened up to God? Can you find a place to be alone yet speak aloud to God – perhaps on a walk, or in the shower? You might also try writing your prayers in a journal, as if writing a letter to a friend. As your written prayers are answered, you can note that as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Lydia prayed regularly with others by the river, even before she heard the gospel. She may have prayed from the Psalms. How do you think her prayer life changed after she became a believer in the Lord?

O Lord, I call to you and you always hear. Let’s have a good conversation. Let me share all my joys and pains and fears with you. Show me your way, and help me live like that. Amen.

Psalm 5:1-2 “Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God, for to you I pray.”   (NRSV)

Psalm 69:13 “But I pray to you, Lord,
in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
answer me with your sure salvation. “

Matthew 6:9-13  “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts,
 as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.””

(Immaculee Ilibagiza, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House Press) (1/16/06))

 

God’s Timing Beats Ours

I am working on a biography of a boat.  The boat, the Anna Jackman, was launched in Florida in March, 1958 and sailed to Juneau, Alaska where it served the Presbyterian churches of Southeast Alaska for 25 years.  I won’t go into those wonderful stories now.  You will have to wait til the book comes out.

But how is it that just in the past month I have made so many new connections?  I have been interested in this boat for several years.  I even took a 5 day trip on the 52 year old boat in 2012.  Research is fun. I have found people who rode the boat to camp. People who did mission trips as youths on the boat. People who were babies on this boat.

Here is the really cool thing.  I attended a writers conference last month.  BRMCWC is a really wonderful conference that I have attended before.  This year I invited a friend to join me.  She is working on her first book about difficult medical decisions and the positive outcomes that can be sought.  Because this friend bravely registered for a non-fiction practicum taught by Joseph Bentz, I signed up, too.  My book about the boat had been languishing for a couple of years.

Anyway, I was shocked to have a former Alaska resident in the class.  This guy knew that boats in Alaska are like family.   He encouraged me in my writing as did everyone else in the group.  What were the chances?

One day after our class, I had a meeting with an editor.  Though I did not know the editor’s specialty, since she had not been included in the program, I just told her that I was working on this boat biography. She took a brief look at the draft proposal and suggested I send it in when it’s finished.  Wow. Now I have to finish a proposal. That will get me moving.

On the way to lunch after the editor meeting, I met a woman also headed to lunch.  I was kind of excited about what had just happened, and I told her about it. She told me she was from Seattle and her mom had lived in Petersburg, Alaska for a time growing up.  She also said her grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.  So this week I heard from Jeannette, who lived in Alaska and spent much time on the boat during her 8 years there.  Wow.  What are the chances?

I recently located a blog written by a guy who was an infant on this boat.  He responded to my email and said his father was the chaplain on board in 1959. He is going to contact me soon.  I also got in touch with a woman who did a mission trip on board in 1981.  She has more pictures and stories for me.

Suddenly my writing and research are coming together.  God must have known that I needed all these pieces to put together the book he had in mind.  God meant for me to meet Ron and Sondra and to get in touch with Dave, Jeannette, and Bill by email.

Excitement is building as to what God has in store for the next months as I work to finish and publish this book.

Thanks, God.

Music as a Doorway to Prayer

A beautiful addition to thoughts on music and the soul.

Living Contemplatively


Today’s post is by the late Ann Kulp

Music has called us to prayer through the ages: the shofar, psalm, pipes, harp, trumpet, the peal of bells, the carillon, and symphony. Some of us have been stilled and called through Tibetan bowls, whose sound lingers and leads us into the silence of waiting. There is the music of the gurgling brook, wind in the rustling trees, the chirping of cicadas and other natural sounds. There is the music of Native American flute, a jazz band, a Gregorian chant. It matters not what kind. Each is an echo of some sound heard eons ago, and perhaps remembered. At different times in our lives we may hear sounds that become moments of such recollection, drawing us more deeply into the attitude called prayer.

As I ponder the meaning of music for me, I have a sense of being touched deeply, as though…

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