Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What ISIS Can Teach Us About The True Meaning Of Christmas

I don't have much time to compose this, so it's going to be really slapdash. Sorry!

- Many Americans think of "the true meaning of Christmas" as something to do with the spirit of giving and spending quality time with loved ones. More-religious types often point out that it's "really"about the birth of Jesus. Very few discuss the connection between the festival's pagan roots as a winter solstice celebration and the traditional Christian understanding that the time leading up to Christmas is actually a season called "Advent" (NOT Christmastide), which is a time of looking forward to the end of the world (Armageddon).

- Christians adopted and adapted the pagan winter solstice festival as a time of celebrating the first advent of the Messiah and anticipating his second coming because the original meaning of the holiday was the hope of light and life returning to a world shrouded in darkness and death. Advent was traditionally a solemn season wherein people felt more keenly aware of the world's need of a savior.

- ISIS is actually much closer than many Christians to getting into the true spirit of Christmas. Most American Christians have no burning desire to see Christ return because they are so comfortable with the way things are now. They are aware that other people are facing problems, but their preferred response to this is to denounce from a place of complacent indolence the "bad people" whom they blame for all the world's problems. They may be blaming terrorists, members of an opposing political party, corporations, politicians, immigrants--you name it. As long as it is someone other than themselves, they can continue living the same way they always have and feel no compulsion to make significant sacrifices.

- Members of ISIS, on the other hand, are people who feel profoundly the world's need of political, economic, and spiritual renewal. They are experiencing so deeply the world's need for radical transformation that they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to hasten its coming. Strange as it may sound, that is about as close to the true meaning of Christmas as it gets.

- On the other hand, trying to hasten Armageddon by killing people is about as far from the true meaning of Christmas as it gets. Clearly, their methods are shockingly evil. Westerners are generally agreed on that.

- But if we dismiss members of ISIS as out-and-out evil people with not a shred of humanity left in them, we will fail to learn the vital lesson they have to teach us. The fact is, they are a mixture of good and evil, just like us. They have some noble hopes and worthy aspirations, just like us. And they are making some fatal mistakes, just like us.

- Americans desperately need to wake up to the fact that our secure and comfortable lifestyles are artificially produced at the expense of countless living beings, from the sweatshop workers who make our clothes to the cows held in pens so small they can't turn around; from the "collateral damage" of "precision drone strikes" to the ailing honey bee.

- We will not be able to overcome our enemies until we understand them--and until we are able to see ourselves in them. Often times people take up causes by making an "I am" statement that identifies them with the victim of some kind of injustice. I think it would be even better (but probably way too spiritually advanced for the general population to understand) if people were to start saying "I am [insert name of person who committed an atrocity]." The fact is, we are all one. The darkness we see in the hearts of mass murderers is a part of all of us. And WE are making the world a terrible place of pain and suffering every day with hundreds of little decisions.

- Here's something more to the true meaning of Christmas that ISIS cannot teach us because they don't know the Lord Jesus: the kingdom of God is going to come like a thief in the night, in a manner that people do not expect. Even now, the new world order is growing like a tiny seed in the hearts of people who have beaten their swords into plowshares. God himself is hastening the second coming by turning people away from the ways of hatred and violence, softening the soil of our souls so that something fresh and new can grow. It is not our job to violently impose our will upon others. Instead, we will see the life of Christ springing up again and again when we return goodness for evil and return hatred for love. The good news is that just like the latent spring beneath a winter frost, as the world hurtles along the course of its destiny, it's already happening and nothing to can stop it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Worth Doing Badly (Pastor Mom Devotion #4)

G. K. Chesterton famously said that anything worth doing is worth doing badly. I thought about this while I was pregnant and I tried to prepare for the fact that soon it would be even more the case than ever that there is not enough time to do everything I want to or to perfect things. I worked to get myself into the habit of "just doing it," whatever "it" was--usually household chores--like deep cleaning the oven--which I did(!), though in a half-assed way (case in point). 

I'm still working on this lesson. The fact I still need improvement is, in part, how I got out of the habit of doing these devotions. When Joshua died, I wanted to write something in his honor, but I was afraid of doing a poor job of it, and what I posted eventually was not as good as what he deserved. But it was what I could manage. And it was better to write something than nothing.

It's the same with most writing that I do. I could probably improve by revising and editing further--or even starting over. But I don't have time for that. So I just have to trust that readers will be forgiving and perhaps fill in the missing pieces.

I'm only just starting to see how I should be doing this career-wise. I have all kinds of ideas for ministry, but I am hesitant about trying a lot of them because I feel I don't have the credentials or experience, or because I haven't thought it out well enough. But I can only expect to be on this earth for so much longer, and the needs out there are great and I don't want to waste any more time.

This week's devotion: Dear God, please help me to stop waiting and preparing and imagining instead of actually jumping in and getting things done, right now, today, immediately. Relieve the fear of criticism that holds me back, and keep before my mind's eye the real needs that are going unmet and that I could help to address. May I not be too embarrassed or ashamed, but trust that even my half-baked ideas and slap-dash efforts are worth offering. In the name of Jesus, leader of a rag-tag band of misfits, Amen. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Meditation on Joshua Horky's Passing

Sometimes when
at our cry
God stretches out his hand
it is not to pull us up
but to push us down
like a gardener’s finger
pressing firmly
seed into soil

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds …” Hebrews 10:24

At funerals and memorial services, there’s kind of an unspoken rule that you only talk about the deceased in positive terms (which is one reason I suspect that when it comes time for my father to bury his Dad, he will not want to have a service at all). My husband’s best friend—who was also a friend to me—died of cancer a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been considering this. I think at least one reason for it is that we can honor the dead, not just by remembering their highest virtues, but also by emulating them.

I guess that needs a little more “unpacking”:

A friend is normally someone whose company you enjoy, with whom you have shared interests. But a Christian brother or sister will build you up. That’s one of the most important things about regularly gathering for worship and fellowship: the Christian life is not easy, and you need other people who are on the same path to “provoke” you to love and good deeds. (And what was Joshua, if not “provocative”?) Not all friends are a positive influence, but Joshua certainly was for us. He was not just a friend, but a brother in Christ. And in this world, we need as many such friends-and-more-than-friends as we can find, which makes it all the sadder that he’s not here any longer. So, anyway, we can honor Joshua’s friendship now by continuing to spur (spurring?) each other on to continue growing in faith and in love, even in Joshua’s absence.

I think most people found Joshua to be very odd. I also think most people don’t realize that homeschoolers are members of a subculture significantly different from the mainstream American middle-class. It’s a common worry of parents that homeschooled kids will not be socialized properly, and it’s somewhat valid. But it’s not that homeschoolers end up lacking social skills—it’s more that we end up with somewhat different social values and intuitions. Surprisingly enough, though, there seems to be a kind of uniformity in the strangeness of homeschoolers—and so, case in point, I found Joshua to be very “normal” and “familiar” as a fellow homeschooler. And in a way, to me, it makes his death all the more poignant. If that doesn’t make sense to you, try to imagine what it would be like living in a foreign country. The death of a friend who was a fellow expatriate would probably be particularly affecting to you, since there’d be one less of your own “kind” in your social circle. Anyway, I feel that way about Joshua—there is a wistful sense, “Alas; he was one of us.”

I think being a member of the homeschooling subculture encouraged one of Joshua’s virtues which we who've survived him would do well to imitate: he was extremely rational. To the best of his ability, he did not evaluate suggestions based on the usual emotional considerations of how they might cause offense to someone (especially oneself), usually by injuring pride. Instead, he considered as objectively as possible whether something seemed to be in line with biblical principles (according to the interpretive tradition in which his faith was formed).

That may not seem like a huge compliment, but it is nothing to sneeze at. Very few people are that consistent or sincere at striving toward objectivity, and the result is all manner of self-deception and fruitless posturing. When it comes to cutting through frivolous niceties and irrational social expectations, Joshua should be an inspiration to us all.

But, as my father always said, your greatest strengths are also your greatest weaknesses. As I mentioned above, there is a “rule” that (at least in public) you only say nice things about the dead. And in some ways, that makes sense, because the deceased are not able to defend or explain themselves in response to criticism. But at the same time, it can get to be a bit dishonest. We’re all human—and when we acknowledge that someone was flawed and messed up, it stirs up that sense, “Alas; he was one of us.”

I hope that when I die people will not pretend that I didn't make mistakes or have character flaws. I would much rather that they acknowledge the things I did wrong, and forgive me. And in the same way that I think we can best honor the dead by living as if they were still here to inspire us with the virtues they embodied, we can also honor them by avoiding and correcting the kind of mistakes that they made in life. They are not here to work on those problems any longer—so we can do it on their behalf.

When Joshua was in a bad mood, he often felt free to share it with others. But I forgive him for being irritable—not least of all, because I am often the same way. And I can honor Joshua’s memory by making an effort to notice and stop myself when I’m peevishly trying to bring others down (well, it’s usually just Brandon—and I am sure he will approve of this method of honoring Joshua’s memory!).

Anyway, I thank God for Joshua’s life, for the friend he was to Brandon, for the chance to get to know him, for the example that he was, and for the praise and glory I trust he is offering to God even now. We miss you, Joshua. But “love never ends” and we hope to see you again, someday.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Sad" Is Not "Bad" (Pastor Mom Devotion #3)

Earlier this week, the Teacher got very upset in the evening and screamed and cried inconsolably. Nothing would calm her down. So, after trying everything we could think of, I just rocked her and, after what seemed a long time, but I'm sure was less than half an hour, she fell asleep. She dozed for maybe five minutes, then opened her eyes, and smiled like everything was just wonderful!

She's been similarly cranky every night this week. Best we can tell, she's just getting overtired and then has a hard time settling down. It's not fun for us being unable to calm her, but thinking about it, I remember: a few times during my academic career, there were some short periods of time when I stayed up all night or almost all night working and became miserably sleep-deprived--much worse than what I've experienced as a parent of a newborn--and at the end of each of those stints, when the papers had been sent in, the exams completed, etc., I couldn't immediately go to sleep. First I needed a good hard cry. And if someone had been there and tried to stop me from sobbing and weeping, I would not have appreciated it at all.

Since the Teacher's lessons do not yet come in verbal form, I'm not certain I've comprehended correctly, but I think she's teaching me that I shouldn't expect to prevent her from suffering. Of course, I will try to save her unnecessary, pointless suffering, but no one's life will ever be pain-free. 

Actually, this is something my mother talked about when I was a kid. There was a PBS program called Lamb Chop's Play-Along whose theme song had a verse that talked about living by the rule that "sad is bad and happy is cool." And I remember my mother commenting something like, "I don't live by that rule. It isn't bad to feel sad; it's just a part of life." 

This week's prayer: Dear God, please help me to recognize when it's best simply to accept that life comes with some unhappiness and suffering. May I become less anxious and let go of the need for control when it becomes apparent I've already done as much as I can/should to relieve someone's pain. Amen. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Being A Benevolent Despot (Pastor Mom Devotion #2)

I have experienced nothing worse than being at the mercy of someone who abuses their position of power. I guess you could interpret every evil committed by humans as some kind of an abuse of power. But in some cases there is mutual negotiation because the power dynamics are relatively equal. Other times, you are helpless. And having no choice but to suffer the consequences of someone else's selfishness, laziness, denial of reality, irrational fears, and/or vindictiveness is unspeakably infuriating (to me, at least).

In such situations, I have always told myself that the pain I am suffering is teaching me never to do that kind of thing to others when I am the one in a superior position. And oh my gosh, being a parent puts you in the ultimate position of power and authority over someone--especially at the beginning, when your child is completely helpless. So here I am with the opportunity to do as I have vowed in the past and be a benevolent despot.

It's very easy to do right now; the Teacher is three months old today and it feels very natural to rush to meet her need every time she cries. I'm sure that's what Mother Nature intended by making us perceive babies as adorably pathetic.

They say you can't spoil a baby this young--it's only after they've figured out cause-and-effect (yes, by dropping a spoon for you to pick up seven thousand times) that children realize they can manipulate you into giving them things they don't really need.

I wonder, though: is it really the case that children ask for things they don't need at all? I suspect not. Which is not to say that I'm planning to give my children chocolate cake for breakfast or buy them the latest video game as soon as it comes out. But in a sense, there must always be a real and valid need behind any request (whether from a child or an adult), or else they never would have asked for something. The emptiness and lack is there; they just may not have properly identified something that can fill it. I think part of being a benevolent despot is to recognize that; and not to be dismissive of requests that seem unreasonable or inappropriate.

Thankfully, the Teacher is only very gradually easing me into the challenge of learning to exercise authority judiciously.

My prayer for this week: Thank you, God, that I am blessed with the resources to provide for all of my baby's needs. You know it makes me nervous having someone who depends on me so completely, but I can rest my heart, trusting that you are taking care of me so that I can take care of her. Grant me wisdom as the baby becomes more independent so that I may still respond with compassion and understanding even when I have to tell her "no." In the name of Christ, in whom all things find their "yes" ... Amen.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Class Is Now In Session (Pastor Mom Devotion #1)

"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

There's nothing like being part of a family to teach you all kinds of lessons--about yourself, human nature, the divine, the diabolical, etc., etc. In fact, you learn so much, you may be a bit overwhelmed by the time you reach adolescence. A nice long summer recess could be in order. And if you do escape the refining furnace of family life in early adulthood, marriage can be a good way to ease back into your studies. It usually means a gentle start, with challenges of gradually increasing difficulty. But when children arrive, it's like entering an accelerated learning program. At least, that's how I think of it.

So, as one of those people who's always reached for the "A" (even if I haven't always attained it), and having recently welcomed a darling little daughter into the world, I want to make the most of this opportunity. I'm giving myself a little writing assignment. I will try to post little devotions every week about the lessons Hattie has for me. To keep my head in the right space, I think I'll just refer to her as "the Teacher" for now. Not sure what I'll do when (God-willing) we've got a second child, but I'll figure out my new terminology when that happens. Hopefully that won't be for a while!

The focus of this, my first devotional reflection is that I am learning to learn(!). Yes, of course, we all start our lives learning very rapidly and naturally--but humans are also very lazy and prefer to do things the stupid old way for no good reason. So, I do have to work on my learning skills if I want to keep them sharp.

And as someone wise once pointed out (and probably pointed out many times, actually): people do not learn from experience; they learn from reflecting on their experience.

My prayer for this week: Dear God, I know that I am a poor student of life. It can take many repetitions of the same foolish mistake before I finally start to wise up. Please help me to become a faster learner--to hold more lightly to old ways of doing and thinking--to be open to what you have to teach me, especially through my little almost-three-month old daughter. Amen. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

How Can We Pray Boldly For Healing, Knowing God Might Say 'No'?

How The Question Came Up
My husband's best friend recently found out that his recurrent cancer is inoperable and likely to kill him in the very near future. He and his wife have been encouraging friends and family to read this insightful article by John Piper. And they have asked loved ones to join them in praying for a miracle, even as they prepare for "the worst."

"Not What I Will, But What You Will"
So, I've been considering  the question of how to pray for someone's healing, knowing God's answer may be "No." I've mostly seen people following the example of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, asking that a painful fate be averted and adding, "nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done." Obviously, this is an excellent way to pray, since it was modeled for us by Jesus himself.

Faith That Moves Mountains
But elsewhere in scripture, it is indicated that one should pray boldly--and, in Mark 11:23-24, even with supreme confidence: "Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you" (NASB). 

Kicking People When They're Down
Some people take a passage like that and end up using it in a way that just discourages or angers those who are already desperate and in pain, telling them that they simply don't have enough faith, and if only they would believe in their hearts, then God would heal them. That's one reason people who are more kind and sensible try to sweep that passage under the rug.

Don't Throw Out The Baby
But perhaps Jesus' teaching on mountain-moving faith really can help us in our hour of need. I say "perhaps" because apparently it requires a deeper understanding of the things of God than many people have today--and I have not yet experienced the power of this teaching myself, so I am just trying to piece together a hypothesis from what I have seen, heard, and read.

"Your Heart" = Your Unconscious Mind
To start with, here are some ideas I've taken from a woman named Agnes Sanford (who really had experienced the healing power of faith): believing in such a way that you "do not doubt in your heart" and "believe that you have [already] received" what you're asking for means believing not just with your conscious mind, but with your unconscious mind. And that's tricky, because you do not have direct control over your unconscious mind. So, Sanford recommends that you pray by creating mental images and painting pictures with words of the healing you are asking for, in order to change your unconscious mind. She also recommends thanking God for the healing as if it had already occurred.

Freedom Is Coming; No Doubt About It
I don't like to do anything that seems logically inconsistent, and thanking God for healing that has already occurred when, in fact, it hasn't--and when I know that it may not happen at all--is not something I can do easily or in good conscience. But I can see why that would be helpful to the unconscious mind. So, my thought is, I can thank God for the fact that any ailment someone has today will ultimately be healed--whether in this life, or in the Age To Come (as Jesus liked to call it). And I can thank God for saving them from death, as well--anticipating either restoration in the present or resurrection in the future. 

Sometimes Faith Is Blind
And the other little thing that niggles at my mind is that I'm afraid of putting God to shame by asking for the intervention of the Holy Spirit and then seeing no results. But if I truly believe that God is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving, then it follows that whatever his answer to prayer, it is the best thing possible. It may not look like it, but sometimes I just have to make that assumption. Some people heap scorn on the concept of "blind faith," but if the alternative is to put absolute trust in my puny little brain (which has been proven a profoundly unreliable organ), then I would rather trust a mysterious Someone who is bigger than me. In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus says that no good Father would give a child a snake when they've asked for a fish--and I've always thought it must work the other way around: sometimes we don't realize we're asking for a scorpion and get upset when God hands us an egg. (And an egg is a symbol of the tomb in which Jesus lay between Good Friday and Easter ... How's that for a poetic ending?!)