Sunday, April 29, 2018

The True Vine

" I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me, you can do nothing." -[John 15: 1-8].

Several years ago, when my life turned upside down, I came to realize fairly quickly that I needed some rock-solid support if I was to get through this period in one piece.

I had, in a span of two years, lost my father, my best friend, a long-time friend of my in-laws (like an aunt to their kids), my mother-in-law, then my own mother. At that, everything I thought to be True went upside down.

After much prayer and meditation, I ultimately joined my church - where for decades, I had been sitting literally on the sidelines, not daring to walk up the aisle to receive the Eucharist, not daring to become more involved in any of the beautiful ministries at the church - packing medicines for Haiti, knitting for the ill or the homeless, decorating the altar, etc.

The parting blessing from my pastor, after I had undergone my initiation, was, "Stay in community."

At the time, I thought that was odd advice. I didn't even understand what "stay in community" meant!

Growing up, everyone in my family was out for themselves. My mother was emotionally fragile and remote, unavailable to my sibling and me, let alone to my dad. Unless she suddenly lashed out, usually at me, in an angry attempt to control her world . . . . I learned to stay away from her. My dad became angry at my mother's unavailability, and took his anger out on me. I learned to stay away from my dad. My sibling, sensing that in a backwards way, I was the center of attention, began to grab whatever resources he could - more food, more toys, a more expensive bike. My sibling also began to take his anger out on me. I learned to stay away from my sibling. Then my dad lashed out at my mother for "favoring" my sibling.

"Stay in community"? - I had never experienced such a thing!

In fact, very soon as a child, I figured out that I couldn't trust any human being to be connected to me, in a safe and loving way.

I have heard unsolicited advice from near strangers over the years, admonishing me, "You cannot expect God to rescue you. You need to rescue yourself!"

That advice to glorify my independence is a quintessentially American notion. We believe in, and live by, the ideal of the Pioneer setting out with only a compass and some meager supplies, to make it in the world alone.

But, the truth is, when I hit rock bottom in crisis that time several years ago, I could not have rescued myself alone. I still say, today, Do NOT ask me to rescue myself!

I remember, after I officially joined my church, that I began a two year program of Biblical School. The nun who taught us was erudite in knowledge of the Bible, but also, truly wise. She used to say to us, IF you look back at all your hard times, you may say that God was missing; BUT, He was there, I know He was there!"

I look back over those traumatic childhood years, and I remember the neighbors who fed me. That was God, right there. I remember the mothers who gave me rides to school in the rain. That was God.

I remember the librarian in my grade school library who told me what a beautiful smile I had- on a day when I was believing what my family told me, about how ugly I was. That was God, right there, seeing me as I truly was.

I remember my girlfriend in high school, who let me keep an escape kit in her bedroom closet, "just in case."  That was the Love of God, promising to keep me safe.

Some today want to claim that we are all the same. Maybe then, we hope that if we erase our differences, refuse to talk about them or acknowledge them, then we will be safe and we will have Peace. But, we are not all the same.  We are just willfully blind.

Some today want to claim that if we highlight our differences, then each group will finally get recognition and get "what is theirs." But identity politics to the extreme has become War : Black vs. white; women vs. men; one religion pitted against another. That is not Peace, that is everyone for himself.

Christianity is just as distrusted as always. But, that is a shame. Because, Jesus taught that we BELONG to each other. We are all part of the same vine. IF we stay in His Commandment, to Love one another, we stay together. If we pull, each in our own direction, the vine falls apart.

Martin Luther King said, "We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. This is the way God's Universe is made."

What King said, here, descends directly from John 15!  We revere what King said, but so many today seem threatened by what Jesus said. Yet, the message is the same, "Love one another, as I have loved you. Love your neighbor as yourself."

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 23, 2018

She Talks to God

"Jesus said: 'I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. . . . I know mine and mine know me. . . And they will hear my voice.' " -[ John 10: 11-18].

I have friends who know that I write in this space, and they ask me, How do you possibly have anything new to write each week?

The Truth is, there is NEVER any shortage of misperception, or downright vilification, of Christianity.

In February, 2018, one of the hosts of the popular talk show "The View", Joy Behar, called Vice President Mike Pence "mentally ill" for saying that he talks to Jesus.

During this conversation, Behar stated that "hearing voices" is a mental illness. Then she said that, "It's one thing to talk to Jesus. It's another thing when Jesus talks to YOU."

The thing is, a central part of being a Christian is to pray. That is "talking to God", (or Jesus), right?

But, as another panelist, Sherri Shepard clarified, "As a Christian, that's just par for the course. You talk to Jesus, Jesus talks back."

The thing is, a central part of being a Christian is to pray. Prayer IS "talking to God", (or Jesus), right?

This "talking to God" is not some sort of New Age-y, "Whoo-Hoo" practice. Prayer and a relationship with Jesus are central to being a Christian.

If anyone is willing to lose the sarcasm and really read this Scripture, they will see that talking to Jesus,  and gaining a relationship through prayer, go all the way back to the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

I have a girlfriend who was trying to help her son make a decision in his life. A non-believer asked her, "Have you decided yet?" My friend said, "We are waiting on God."  The non-believer shot back, "Yeah?! How's THAT working for 'ya?"

I think that some are skeptical of this "talking to God", because they wrongly paint it in black and white. Non-believers think that Christians sit around just thinking and praying, and that Christians believe they can be totally passive and nevertheless, expect God to rescue them.

But, we do have gifts and talents - and we are never, as Christians, expected to check our brains (or brawn) at the door.

It can be hard for Christians to explain this "talking to God" practice. What could we possibly "hear"? How is this "talking to God" any better than pouring our hearts out to a lifeless journal or to a pet dog who has no idea what we are saying?

I remember when my life fell apart several years ago. I ran to the pastor my husband's church,  in a panic and said, "God is GONE!" The pastor said, "God is NOT gone. BUT, how often do you talk to Him?" Then, when I began to pray regularly, I ran back to the pastor in a panic and said, " I am spooked and terrified, because NOW God is answering me!" The pastor chuckled and said, "Oh. You'll get used to it!"

It became clear over several months, that as childhood traumas came back to haunt me, as my dad died abruptly, I took on my mother who was terminally ill, my chronic lung disease came roaring back, my best friend died, my mother-in-law died, and we lost all our pets within a month - that I could not handle all this alone. I needed to feel that the steadying presence of God in my life was accessible. I needed a Rock to stabilize me.

The pastor told me that my Soul was terribly wounded. That was actually a relief to hear. In our modern, secular life, we forget that we even HAVE a Soul. I could try to eat better, get rest, talk through my losses, even take up yoga but why was there still this intense pain like a cancer inside of me?

So - Who would heal my Soul? As I tried to talk to God and I went through my days, I kept hearing, "Only say the word and my Soul shall be healed."

Back I ran to the pastor. He told me, quite simply, "THAT is the call to Communion." It became clear, I had to join the church. I had sat on the fence for too many decades, not participating in the church service fully. I needed to receive the Eucharist.

I have "heard the Voice" of Jesus since then - When my best friend lay dying, but in a far away city, I didn't know she was so close to death. I "heard", "It is soon finished." A day or so later, I received word that she had died. Those are the words that Jesus said before He died on the Cross. I needed to hear that; Jesus died and went to Heaven first, FOR us, so that we may, too. I miss my friend every day, but I know that I will see her again.

More recently- a Christian friend is facing some serious health issues. She prayed and "heard", "The later house will be greater than the former house, and in this place will I give peace and prosperity." -[Haggai 2:9]. What does this mean? Will she recover her health and be better than ever before?

I cannot wait to see what God's Plan is for her.

[Related Postings: "The Shepherd's Voice", 5/8/17; "Hearing the Shepherd's Voice", 4/19/16; "Where is My Flock?", 4/29/12; "His Flock", 5/16/11].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Is Jesus Real?

"The way we may be sure that we know Him [Jesus] is to keep His commandments. Those who say, 'I know Him', but do not keep His commandments are liars, and the Truth is not in them. But whoever keeps His Word, the Love of God is truly perfected in Him." -[1 John 2: 1-5A].

People in Biblical times debated, even when He was alive- - who Jesus was?

"When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He questioned His disciples, 'Who do people say the Son of Man is?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' "-[Matthew 16:14].

When Jesus came back to earth, to make Himself visible to His disciples, "they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost." - [Luke 24: 35-48]. It took even the disciples many encounters to grasp that Jesus really is the Son of God.

Today, some people claim that believing in Jesus is just about as rational as believing in fairies or unicorns. I have to say that that total dismissal of Christianity hurts my heart.

But I had received plenty of sarcasm and disbelief growing up. When I was young, my parents dutifully took me to church each Sunday, had me baptized, made sure  I received my First Communion, then had me Confirmed. As soon as that was all done, their attitude was that "we had been there, done that." My family identified as Christian - as in "not Jewish", "not Buddhist", etc. But I was confused as to what that really meant? Was it just a label?

After awhile, my mother began telling me that "Christianity is the opiate of the masses." It took me quite awhile to understand what she was even talking about. But after many conversations, she made it clear that religion was for folks who had no intelligence or money or prospects in life. When you have nothing going for you, she explained, the only way society can keep the dissatisfied from rebelling was the illusion of religion. (Ouch!)

Today, I see people trying to deny that Jesus even existed. Important archaeological work is ongoing, to prove Jesus really lived and breathed and walked among us. (In 2016, a tomb long-believed to have been Jesus' own was dug into and examined, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City).

In the end, whether that tomb, or the Shroud of Turin, prove Jesus' existence, it all comes down to personal belief: Even if we prove that Jesus lived, WHO was He and what does His Life mean to us?

What sometimes ensues, for some of us, is a kind of spiritual risk-reward analysis -- "I cannot prove the existence of God, or of His Only Son, Jesus. But I cannot disprove it, either." And so, how to live? As Albert Camus said, "I would rather live my Life as if there IS a God, and die to find out there isn't, THAN live as if there isn't and die to find out there IS."

Surely, a Christian Life is not easy. People look at me like I have lost all of my intelligence and common sense. On the new hit show Silicon Valley, a character tells a co-worker, "You can be openly polyamorous and people will call you brave. You can put micro-doses of LSD in your cereal and people will call you a pioneer. But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian."

Christianity has always been a persecuted status. It STILL is. Christianity has also always been misunderstood - as an illusion of Peace, as an affront to civilized society, as a radical foolishness.

Then, the question becomes not just WHO do we believe in, or WHAT to believe, but HOW to live?

I come back to this Scripture in 1 John:  HOW do we know Jesus and who He is? - By keeping His commandments. What are His commandments? - Jesus said: " A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you." - John  13:34.  And, Paul said, "And now these three remain: Faith, Hope, and Love; but the greatest of these is Love." -[ 1 Cor. 13:13].

This Love has saved me, has saved my life. I received no Love as a child. My whole childhood, no one in my family ever hugged me or said, "I love you". I went to school with black eyes. I went hungry. I had no friends.

To know Jesus is to know Love. I always loved my parents, they gave me life. But they seemed incapable of Love. As a two year old, I moved on- I raised myself, finding food, putting myself down for naps. As an adult, I have found, in the model of Jesus, the capacity to love and be loved. I am now married. I got my education. I am a mother, a friend, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a neighbor, a concerned citizen.

If anyone twists Christianity into something other than Love, they do not know Jesus, and they do not tell the Truth. For the Truth IS Love.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Peace Be With You

" On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were [in fear], Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you.' As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'  And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' " -[ John 20: 19-31].

In John 20, the disciples are locked in an upstairs room, in the throes of a fear that they, too, might be crucified.  As soon as Jesus literally walks though the door and the walls to encounter them, the disciples know Jesus by His wounds. . . . By His wounds. . . .

Later in John 20, the disciples tell Thomas, who was not with them at the time, "We have seen the Lord." But Thomas says to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." -[John 20: 25].

A week later, Thomas encounters Jesus, who tells Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe." -[John 20: 27].

I grew up in a family who could admit to no wounds. There was a private war going on in my home, but when teachers became alarmed at my unnatural quietude, my mother told them firmly, "She is just quiet. You know, 'Still waters run deep.' "

My parents lectured me that we were superior: Translate- We were NOT Italian, black, Jewish, poor, immigrants, uneducated. . . .

I was expected to get straight A's. Once, I received a B or even a B- in one class. I knew I would be reprimanded at home. My mother lectured me, "Next time, you will get an A".

In my family, there were to be no wounds, no mistakes or even accidents, no signs of weakness whatsoever.  Everything was "my fault", even if it wasn't. If I made a mistake, my mother would say, "Why did you do this?"  If I fell down, my mother told me, "Get up. Don't cry. You are not hurt." - even with blood running down my leg.

When I graduated from school and took a job at a bank, I wanted to be the "perfect" bank officer. I dressed the part, in my gray suit with matching gray pumps and my perfect silk blouse. I was calm, professional, clinical, logical. But once, I let my guard down.  I was dealing with an unyielding employee in the back office. I came racing out of his workstation, angry and rather loud. I felt ashamed, until my wonderful assistant of many years turned to me and said, " So. You ARE human. Actually, I like you better when you are angry." What a revelation to me.

Jesus is known and beloved even though on a secular level, He "failed". Actually, He is beloved for that very reason.

Jesus is spectacularly, violently wounded. And so are we, on so many levels.

I always wondered how Jesus could possibly have said, "Peace be with you", when he had holes in his hands and sides, nail marks in his fingers, and when He as God's beloved Son was humiliated, crucified and vilified by an angry mob.

But in this first encounter with His disciples after the crucifixion, He literally breathes Peace upon them. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Counselor, stays with them, even as Jesus is "gone", but not really ever "gone".

I realize that Jesus' wounds are proof that I can be quite wounded myself, far less than Perfect, and I will never be alone.

What we are called to believe in is the Truth of His wounds. We are called to believe that we have essential worth, despite our own wounds. We are called to believe in the God who says, " I am the Lord your God, you are my People and I will walk with you."

We are called to believe that the possibility of Redemption and Resurrection are as real as our wounds, His wounds.

We are called to believe that "The possibilities of God begin precisely where human possibilities end." -[Archbishop Blair.]

We are able to finally see and believe that as faulty human beings, we cannot do it all alone and we don't have to! We are allowed to be faulty - in fact, we are supposed to be imperfect. We are, by definition, only human.

In this age of "the tyranny of the individual", it is fashionable to believe that the individual alone can be all, do all, transform all.  But what a huge weight on our shoulders to believe that we are "it". I am fully aware of my faults, weaknesses and wounds. When I fear that I am to accomplish the utmost, nevertheless, I get anxious, confused and depressed.

But, the very Source of my Peace is when Jesus shows me Himself, wounds and all, and says, "Lean on me. " He bears life's wounds WITH us and FOR us. That gives me Infinite Hope.

[Related Postings: "Without a Doubt", 4/26/17; "The Benefit of the Doubt", 4/29/14; "His Divine Mercy", 4/7/13; "The Truth of His Wounds", 4/13/12.; "Doubt", 5/1/11].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2018. All Rights Reserved.