“Christians Are Made of a Different Substance”

Cross in ChurchIt wasn’t a bomb—even “the mother of all bombs—that captivated the television commentator’s attention. It wasn’t the promise of a president or the sight of a goose stepping military phalanx. It wasn’t the sight of parading protestors of even of praying believers. No, the well-known Egyptian Muslim journalist* listened in stunned and rapt silence to the widow of a man killed in recent church bombings. Through her tears, she expressed her faith, her prayer that God would forgive the perpetrators of the tragedy and that she herself forgave them.

He, trained to be an objective observer and reporter of fact, was forced to say with awe in his voice and perplexity on his face, “Egyptian Christians are made of steel…how great is the amount of forgiveness you have…these people have so much forgiveness…if it was my father, I could never say this…these (Christians) are made of a different kind of substance.”

And that’s why we have Easter. That’s why Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” That’s why we are called to proclaim and practice the same forgiveness. Yes, we are “made of a different kind of substance.” The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you (Romans 8:11), and so—impossible as it seems to human understanding—the call upon us is as great as was the call upon Him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

*Forgiveness Incarnated on Vimeo

Maundy Thursday

Maunday ThursdayIn three hours we will sit in a quieted church sanctuary preparing for the Maundy Thursday service. This beautiful commemoration of Christ’s meeting with his disciples for the last time before his trial and crucifixion wasn’t a part of my religious tradition, but it has become one of the most meaningful events of my faith walk. Derived from a Latin word meaning command, maundy refers to Jesus’ words as he ate his final meal with his friends: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

He had just demonstrated the culturally astounding kind of love he was talking about when, without fanfare, he carried out the role of the lowest servant in a household: washing the dusty feet of his disciples, even one who would soon deny that he ever knew Jesus and another who would, with a traitor’s kiss, identify this Lord as the one to be crucified.

Last times, events, experiences become especially meaningful after the death of a loved one. “Remember the Christmas when…?” “This would have been his twenty first birthday…” “She always loved going for dinner on our anniversary.” And in the same manner this “last supper” is celebrated around the world among followers of Christ. Not because he is dead but because he lives!

The celebration goes by many names—eucharist, communion, blessing, Lord’s Supper—but when we eat the bread and drink from the cup with a sense of the holy, we are transported back to that upper room where questioning, sorrowful, confused disciples sat with Jesus. He had warned them about what was to come but in no way did they understand the horror that lay ahead. This one last time they gathered with the friend they love and with whom they’d walked for three years.

Tonight we too sit and contemplate–often confused, questioning and sorrowful–this one we love.

Thoughts on Cuba

Cuban FlagShe was once the star of Hollywood and Broadway. Cameras rolled and flashbulbs popped as she strutted down the red carpet. Cosmopolitan and Elle vied for interviews. The White House beckoned and Downing Street looked on in envy.

But the years rolled by and starring roles evaporated. Directors no longer offered supporting roles and bit parts were scorned as beneath her once-grand talent. Flowing gowns of yesteryear found their way to thrift shops where teens bought them as retro and pennies of their value were used to buy her life’s necessities. The face once known as the palette for famed makeup artists was now deeply lined and painted with Walmart lipstick and foundation.

I call this woman Cuba. True, my stay was a mere eight days but first impressions are often indications of reality. Old and famous buildings are slowly being renovated but gaping, pane-free windows still line Old Havana. Artists display their colorful wares on the famous Esplanade along with people of all ages advertising their rooms and apartments for rent or sale. At the pier a gleaming cruise ship is docked at the one terminal in “working order” while other terminals lie vacant and deserted. Two old men slowly pull a cart with a barrel of water to an apartment.

Fresh paint covered the walls of our “three star” hotel, bathroom floor tile appeared new, clean towels were formed into animal shapes and laid on our beds each day. But water flowed with hesitation most days with hot water appearing only occasionally. The one standing lamp remained without a bulb during our stay. Electrical sockets hung from the wall. The unexpected hair dryer roared like a Mack truck when turned on and the aroma of burning electric wires cautioned against its use. Advertised internet service–something also not really expected–was “no longer available.”* But the large flat screen television set worked and we could watch newscasts originating in China and documentaries highlighting the Cuban military. Surprisingly, we even saw snatches of what seemed an American movie from the not-so-distance past. One of many anomalies.

The Christians I met were pray-ers of deep faith. The large churches and small chapels are maintained with pride. Pastors tell of their original call and lifelong commitment to minister in their homeland. (Many endured prison for their convictions.) Congregations of all sizes feed the hungry, clothe the poor and minister to the imprisoned. Neighborhood children are noisy, smiling, active in Sunday School where they find love, the story of Jesus and a small sandwich to sustain them for the day.

Cubans sing and dance with vivacity. Children giggle and play in the city square.  Teenaged girls coyly glance at the handsomest boy in the room.  Boys of all ages dream, eat, sleep and play baseball. But when I asked a knowledgeable friend to describe the dream of most Cuban youth, after extended thought she quietly responded:  “To get off the island.”

Government concerned primarily with pride and politics has clothed once magnificent and beautiful Cuba with worn and patched garments. Promises, like makeup, cover society’s crevices. Can people again be free to pursue their dreams within their own borders? Will families regain their reputation for standing together in strength? Will media be free to broadcast all views? Will Christians be allowed to gather in groups large and small? Will a teenager’s dream be fulfilled on the island?

I don’t know the answer to those questions but I vividly recall watching the gigantic stone wall between West and East Germany be pounded into powder. I heard stories of Christians who wept and prayed for hours in churches lit only by candles for totalitarian regimes to fall. I know of others who lost their lives in the fight for freedom. Can it happen again on an island in the Caribbean?

 

*I was on a humanitarian mission trip to Cuba and so even occasional water was a blessing and clean towels a luxury rarely experienced on similar trips.

Long Term Teaching

womenconnectBlank looks, averted eyes, glances at the clock. Anyone who’s had teaching experience is acquainted with these indicators. You’ve worked hard and long (and even prayed!) over a Bible study lesson, talk or sermon, but no obvious “a-ha” moments are visible from the audience. No questions from participants as they linger. An even worse scenario: they don’t linger!

My first opportunity to teach (though “teach” is hyperbole) was with preschoolers when hair-pulled-back-in-a-bun “Aunt Mary” from the church in which I grew up asked if I would help with these tots. I was only about twelve so a class in hermeneutics wasn’t required to get the attention of these wigglers. Just supply crayons, a three-minute story about David or Jesus (why, oh why, didn’t we teach more about women in the Bible?), an enthusiastic rendering of “Jesus Loves Me” and the morning was a success.

As a young wife and mother I taught an after school neighborhood Bible club. Because the materials—think flannelgraph (look it up on Wikipedia!)—were supplied by the sponsoring organization, little study was necessary. The promised after-session KoolAid© and cookies also helped secure audience attention.

Decades have slipped by and myriad teaching opportunities for which I am profoundly grateful have been my lot. Topics have varied from time management to Bible survey; audiences have been as diverse as international women in Bonn, Germany to twelve men sitting on tree stumps in a Zambian village. Some opportunities have been planned and prepared, others not so much (the men on tree stumps!).

Each Sunday I sit among a dozen or more women who gather to hear from God and each other. (Pictured here on a celebration Sunday some time ago.) It’s not necessarily a time when I teach, though learning takes place. In this group I’m cast as the teacher though I’m more comfortable with the term “facilitator,” and I’m grateful that God has graciously allowed me to participate in the teaching/learning process. To be honest, I would probably study even if no one asked me to teach, but what a thrill to sit together with eager learners and see God’s Spirit minister to us all. Each week I spend hours in prayer and study and yet that very human side of me occasionally wonders if anything I’ve shared contributes to the listeners’ growth in Christ.

Such wondering is not necessarily a negative, nor is it a plea for praise. I take seriously these words: Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). I’ll keep looking for the “a-ha” moments, but even when I see a few blank looks, averted eyes, glances at the clock, I’m committed for the long haul.

Puppies, Thunder and a Roaring God

thunder-stormDuring all the years we had children at home, we also had puppies. While no four-footed, furry friends now share our living spaces, we can visit too-cute-to-be-true Zasu in New York, white ball of fur Gracie in San Diego and black, lumbering, lovable Sam in San Francisco. While these much loved pets are about as unlike a trio as can be found, they share one common trait: when thunder roars from the heavens, each prefers to find a cozy place of safety.

Probably few of you think of puppies and thunder when reading the Bible, but lately I’ve been soaking in two Old Testament prophets, Hosea and Amos, and repeatedly I’ve been stopped by phrases like these: The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem and He will roar like a lion. To be honest, I much prefer God and Jesus described as shepherds, mother hens or gentle lambs but there’s no getting around these stop-in-your-tracks words coming down through the ages.

One need not engage in deep theological study to discover why God’s voice rumbled from the heavens. His loved people refused to acknowledge him as Sovereign King, choosing instead to worship idols of their own making. Their worship had turned into self-satisfying acts of pride. They broke a covenant of love designed to both honor God and serve each other. God, with passionate, loving anger, wants them to see how much they’re missing and just exactly how far they’ve obstinately and intentionally strayed from a perfect plan.

It’s a little like a parent who sees a toddler run into the street. This is not the occasion for a gentle, “Johnny, remember how we’ve talked about standing on the curb, how we’re to stop, look and listen?” No, now is the time for a scream from the core of the parent’s being. A life is in danger of being snuffed out. It’s time to roar.

I am emphatically not advocating a return to hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching. My husband was deeply wounded by just one sermon of that ilk, wounds that took decades to heal. I don’t believe that thunder, lion-like roars are God’s preferred way of speaking to his people. But when it’s necessary to save us from ourselves, when gentle prodding has been ignored, when the knee has refused to bow, God’s roar of love is just one more effort to get our—my—attention.

Following the Dots

follow-the-dotsIn the long-ago-far-away days of my childhood—“before the earth’s crust hardened” some might say—I loved My Weekly Reader, a newspaper-like tabloid written especially for elementary school students. Newspapers were highly prized in our family; a picture burned into the memory is my dad sitting in his chair each evening after supper reading The Detroit News. Not a page was skipped and the comics (the “funnies”) were as important as op-ed articles.

My Weekly Reader featured timely news articles from a child’s angle plus “Uncle Ben” letters describing new inventions and discoveries. I seem to remember an activities page that often included my favorite: follow-the-dots pictures. If you looked carefully before putting pencil—always a yellow No. 2—to the numbers, the eye could almost discern the finished product. But it was in going from 1 to 2 to, 36 or 53 or—the challenging 103!—that a feeling of satisfied completion settled over this student.

For some reason I thought of following, or connecting, the dots as I contemplated what it’s like to listen for and then follow God’s leading. Rarely do we see the full picture, the completed plan, when he whispers one or two steps that he asks us to take. In fact, often what he asks seems insignificant. Even more often, I hesitate to take the step because it’s outside my comfort zone: my “pencil” (my abilities, skills, desires) is dull, insufficient for the task. Sometimes my one small step of obedience—following 1 to 2 or 15 to 16—seems absolutely unnecessary for the Big Picture. The pencils of others would do a much better job.

While God frequently leads us through his Word, the Bible, I’m finding that almost as often he speaks to me from words in a novel or the newspaper. Other times, as I sit in my Quiet Chair and contemplate the world in which I live, its tragedy, its people with broken dreams, I hear a whisper that sounds strangely like, “Pick up your pencil and follow the dots in my plan.”

This means, of course, that I’m well acquainted with his plan as revealed in holy scripture, that I don’t ignore the hard words found in Hosea and Amos, that I don’t just sink into the psalms of green pastures but walk boldly into deserts of lament. That I consistently re-examine my long-held (and usually comfortable!) political and societal and economic viewpoints. That I bare my heart and ask God to prick and even do open heart surgery when necessary.

I’m hearing whispers from God; I’m seeing a few dots; I’m on the verge of picking up my pencil. Can it be that part of that picture is described in what I reverently speak each Sunday morning: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

I’ll keep you posted about my following God’s dots. What picture lies before you today? What picture might he be asking you to draw here on earth so that it more closely resembles his heavenly kingdom where he reigns supreme? These are not comfortable questions…