Monday, February 18, 2019

The Empty Earth

"Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit." -[Jeremiah 17: 5-8].

The first time my husband came to see me at my parents' house, he was uncharacteristically quiet. Usually relaxed and telling stories, full of humor and life, he shut down, sitting on the couch hunched over and silent.

I attributed this to his nervousness over meeting my parents in their home for the first time.

But his change in demeanor continued, visit after visit. I asked him, What came over him when he entered my family home?

He confessed, ' Their house is like a quiet death. Lifeless. Lacking compassion or Love. No joy, full of grim outlooks, like everyone just came from a funeral.'

It took me awhile to even see what my husband was talking about. I guess I was used to it, all my life.  I wasn't even sure the reason for the lifelessness.

Until it hit me- I grew up in a home lacking in Faith. My mother used to lecture my sibling and me about how Christian were the worst sinners of all. She said Christians sat in the pews on Sundays, but drank, lied, stole, and cheated on their spouses every other day of the week. She called Christianity, "the opiate of the masses." In other words, it was a sucker belief system, designed to have people become complacent- satisfied with mediocrity or even misery- because the people were trained to ignore the desperation in this life, in promise of a better life in the Great Beyond.

But she did not believe in God or the Great Beyond. She thought it was all a fairy tale, a foolish myth to prop up people who were not capable enough to succeed in life on their own.

My mother worshipped at the Altar of Human Achievement. If someone suffered a tragedy, she blamed them for being weak. There were no "accidents", only fools.

Yes, she trusted fully in human beings. Because in the book, there was No One else to rely on.

I will always remember the day when my mother told me that she had almost died in childbirth with me, and I had almost never been born. She praised the skill and excellence of the obstetrician. I had not doubt she told the truth here, but I also believed that God had guided the hand of that doctor that day. There is no inevitability about Life! - I was born, but could have just as well died that day, and my mother as well! And so, when I heard this story of my birth, I silently professed, "Praise God."

Without Faith and Hope, my mother turned to despair. When anything went wrong in Life, she blamed others. Or, she blamed herself. She turned to anxiety, because if she could not do it all by herself, she thought there was No One to turn to.

When she died several years ago, my mother was anxious and depressed. She had no Hope. I came to see, as she navigated life, that it was her efforts alone which she drew upon. And, of course, when we understand that we humans are so faulty, and have such limited perspective, just getting through the day becomes fraught with peril.

I don't know why I suddenly understood as a young girl, that there is a God, and that He was always there at my elbow, walking with me in good times and bad. I came to see that I don't have to do everything myself perfectly. I can become as proficient as I can at what I need to do. I can strive for excellence . . .

But if everything fails, I am not alone! I trust God and I have Hope in Him. I have Faith that, like a tree planted beside a deep stream, I can draw deeply from the presence of God.

The presence of God is not just a shallow, isolated belief. I have had many prayers answered, both for myself and for family and friends.

God is a source of Joy, because I can let my worries go, and let God take over at the point where my abilities fade in fruitfulness. Where I leave off, God begins.

In times of grief, chaos or crisis, I am strong because I "borrow" strength from God. It is not I who is strong, alone, but who is strong in leaning on God. He is the One who makes me strong.

[Related Postings: "A Living Death", 6/30/12; "Dry Bones", 4/7/14.]

(C) Spiritual Devotional 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Least

"Last of all, as to one born abnormally, Jesus appeared to me [Paul]. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me. Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed." -[1 Corinthians 15: 1-11].

In this Scripture, Paul calls himself "the least of the Apostles."  He is not talking about his station in life, as the first-named apostles were largely fishermen.

Paul is talking, not about what he was, but about what he DID. In the early days of the church, he was someone who persecuted Christians. He went on to a cathartic conversion (Acts 9). Paul had to work harder as an apostle, because everywhere he went, he had to combat the power of his previous reputation.

Paul calls himself "abnormally born", because he never knew Jesus when He was alive on earth. Paul knew Jesus only as "the Risen Christ." Paul considers this as not organically grown, but in a way, derivative, or second generation. And yet, arguably Paul became the most traveled apostle, and certainly highly respected for all the obstacles hat he overcame.

I return to this verse often, especially today. I wonder what History would have been like, or what the present day would be, without the deeply sinful and flawed men and women, who went on to change the world?

I think of King David in the Bible who had an affair with Bathsheba and who even arranged the death of her husband Uriah, in wartime battle. From the branch of David, came the root of Jesse.

I think of John Newton, who wrote the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace". Newton was a notorious slave trader in the mid-1700's. He was not particularly religious, and so his story is even more miraculous from that standpoint. In 1748, his slave ship was caught in a dangerous storm. Newton cried out to God for mercy and his ship was saved. He went on to study theology and became ordained in the Church of England. He is best remembered for the hymn Amazing Grace.

Or, I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who - History shows - was a known womanizer who had many affairs, despite being married with four children.

Or, I think of Thomas Jefferson, who penned the history-changing words, "all men are created equal" - who owned slaves his whole life, and who carried out an affair with a slave he owned, Sally Hemings, and fathered children with her.

In current news, Jermaine Wilson, the mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas, was in prison in maximum security for dealing drugs. He had lost the ability to see his infant son. He sat in prison and plotted how to redeem himself. This included reading stories in the Bible about how "God uses people who made mistakes."

We want our heroes to be flawless. Well, they are not. Neither are you. Neither am I. Welcome to the human condition.

In no way do great second-acts wipe clean the sins of the past!  Today, forgiveness and reconciliation are greatly misunderstood. We erroneously believe that if anyone did anything wrong, that forgiveness means that the bad act never occurred! That is foolish. We all need to live in community, and we need to call each other out for our mistakes, whether for everyday errors, or for egregious sins. If we all had amnesia over Sin, we could not battle the Evil which we could not even name.

Forgiveness does not equate with ignoring the Evil that went on. Pretending Evil does not exist is just as foolish as committing the Evil to begin with. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "He who passively accepts Evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it."

But Christianity believes in Redemption. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Forgiveness is a "process" - ideally, we call out the immoral act; the person recognizes his sin, then asks for forgiveness; then, the transgressor works to CHANGE in the future.

Today, I detect a viciousness in calling out others for their sins and misdeeds. Once we call out a sin, we can never move past it. We drive the transgressor "outside the city gates", as if the person is forever marked with the sign of Sin. The transgressor can never live down his misdeed, can never pay his debt to society, can never live openly or freely. The transgressor cannot make a living, and loses his wife and his financial stability. He is hunted down and destroyed.

In America, former prison convicts cannot get credit or find a job. People who file for bankruptcy have a very hard time obtaining a place to live, let alone buying a car or even finding a job. We treat people who acted very badly as if they were scapegoats, forever hounded and cornered, and flung off a cliff.

We erroneously believe that people are either all good, or all bad. We judge everyone by the one worst thing they did, many years ago. We give no chance to the person to grow, to change and to find a way to become good again.

What would our world be like if everyone with the capacity for greatness were to be hounded, cornered and destroyed? Is every single mistake "unforgivable"?

Jesus said, at His crucifixion, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And three days later, he rose again.

Out of loss and even violent Sin comes Redemption.

[Related Posting: " Confronting Sin", 9/3/11].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Love Never Ends

"But do you strengthen yourself for battle; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; for it is I this day, who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land. . They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord." -[Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19].

In my childhood home of cruel dysfunction, I gradually shut down, over a period of years.

My mother would admonish me about my brother's taunts, and his hitting of me. She told me, "If you do not react, he will not do those things. You are too sensitive." So, I concluded, this abuse was all my fault.

He would singsong ugly names at me. I would get angry or cry. Since my mother did not stop him, his abuse expanded. He would get physical - he would hit me. I would go to school with black eyes. My mother would tell me, Do not get any more black eyes, you embarrass me.

I tried to stop his abuse. First, I practiced showing no emotion. His abuse continued. Maybe he could "see my emotions" inside of me?

Next, I practiced feeling no emotion. His abuse continued. Maybe it was my fault because I spoke to him?  I stopped speaking altogether.

My family had means. We were not poor. My mother fed me four-day old left-overs. I gagged on it. I largely stopped eating.

My family sent me to school in fancy dresses, fancier than most of the school girls. But I had black eyes and rarely spoke.

I stayed awake at night, until all in the house were asleep. I thought it was safer not to sleep when they were still up and prowling about.

I did not believe in the money they threw at me to try to control my behavior. My life was scripted - what colors to wear, what school to attend, what to study, with whom to be friends, where to work, what department to work in. If I did not do as they said, they would withdraw money and threaten abandonment.

When I began dating, they would hiss at me if they disapproved: "This is not how we raised you." All because I was a different denomination of Christian than my beau.

So, I could not believe in their blackmail, or their money, or their materialism, or their superiority over others, or their deeply cold hearts.

What could I believe in?

Years later, my father died abruptly one early spring day- here one moment, gone the next. Suddenly, I was free. A long-time friend said I looked ten years younger.

I ran to speak with my pastor. How could I begin anew? My pastor told me he was amazed at how I had turned out.

I told him, "I believed in Love."

When a lifetime of crushing memories came down on me like a sudden downpour, a lifetime of trauma hitting like a tsunami, I had to find a way to strengthen myself for battle all over again. Trauma visits in spiraling rounds of grief and fear- the first experience is the real life one, the next experiences come in flashbacks and nightmares.

One day, I sat in a church pew and opened the Missal. The page fell to Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I dedicated you." I read on about the fortified city, the pillar of iron, the wall of brass. Tears fell on the page. I didn't have to be their daughter, I was God's child.

I memorized these words, I recited them to myself each time I felt weak from the horrible memories.

Since that day, I have studied the Bible. I know the meaning of what St. Paul says in Corinthians about Love: "If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have Love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. If I comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have faith so as to move mountains, but do not have Love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have Love, I gain nothing."

For all their educated lectures, all their worldly assets, their weekly trips to church, their standing in the community, their self-satisfied belief in their own abilities - without Love to give, or Love in their hearts, my parents were sad, clashing, self-important cymbals, signifying nothing.

During my childhood, I walked away from their abuse, I displayed Love where they showed Hate, I gave grace and patience where they gave jealousy and bitterness.

All that they had, their beautiful home, their respect in the community, their lovely material things - were temporary.

But, Love? Love never ends.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Joy Is Strength

"Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength." -[Nehemiah 8: 8-10].

It is very difficult today to admit that one is a Christian. I am not talking about the prospect of violent persecution. That kind of severe backlash is all too common in our world, as it is.

What I am talking about is the constant commentary about Christians, even in the supposedly enlightened developed Western world.

I am hearing of a new movement among Christians, which is essentially a vow to live under the radar as a Christian; because it is all too difficult to explain that, being Christian does not mean that one is ignorant, uneducated, backwards, or superstitious.

Misperceptions about Christians die hard. In the early days of the church, some observers believed that Christians were so "unnaturally" joyful, that they must be either drunk, or insane.

In today's world, Joy is in short supply. To be joyful is to be labeled foolish or seriously in denial.

HOW can one ever be joyful- (Pick one)- 1) With this American President?; 2) With global climate change?; 3) With pervasive racism and patriarchy?; 4) With nuclear weapons in the hands of madmen?; 5) With gender inequality and even sexual assault?; 6) With layers of poverty and despair in our society? - Oh, I could go on and on.

The inventors of social media, such as Mark Zuckerberg, sincerely believe that outlets such as Facebook open the world to a global discussion, and have the capacity to "change the world."  But in many ways, social media has promoted the negative, the scurrilous and the downright dangerous.

Today, people who are joyful are viewed with suspicion. Joy has become synonymous with naivety.

Today, St. Paul's advice to the Colossians seems antiquated and ridiculously idealized: "Therefore, as the elect [representative] of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive any complaint you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on Love which is the bond of perfect unity."

Today, as Pope Francis has said, we have become the Gotcha Police. The news and social media are rife with calling out others' bad behavior.

In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks commented: "Back in the old days, morality was about loving and serving others. But now its about displaying indignation about things that other people are doing wrong."

We seek to gain daily points in gloating over the mistakes and sins of others. We believe that we are elevated, only to the extent of tearing others down, and in a very public way. Jesus was perhaps the greatest warrior against sin and corruption, but I have never read of one instance where he broadcast His finding of personal Sin across the land to humiliate another, or publicly gloated over it.

Jesus was compassionate, kind, loving, humble, gentle, forgiving, joyful and patient. And yet, He quite fiercely fought against injustice and corruption, with all He had. In fighting the corruption and sin of Rome, He gave His very Life. No one would call Jesus, with all of His compassion, humility, joy or kindness - weak. No one would call Him deranged. Or on the wrong side of the Fight.

Or naive. Jesus knew exactly what Sin was. He was resolute and powerful in the battle against Evil.

I truly pray that today's Christians are not afraid to shine their Light onto the world.  Matthew says, "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick. Let your light shine so before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father . . in Heaven."

Many cannot understand why or how Christians can be so joyful? Or they cannot understand why this joy is not misplaced, or a sign of weakness. The answer lies in our Faith.

For God always has the last word. We say to God: "Yet, You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel. My body and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart." -[Psalm 73: 23-26].

We pray, as St. Paul did, "I have fought the good fight. I have kept the Faith. I have completed the race."

[Related Postings: "Rejoice!!, 12/18/17; "Comfort and Joy", 12/15/14; "Got Faith?", 11/28/12].

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Martin Luther King and #MeToo

"Remember- if I am stopped, this movement is not stopped because God is with the movement."

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not just "cast himself" as a man of God - He WAS a Baptist minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

No, he did not always preach in a church, but his speeches bore the unmistakeable cadence of a Baptist preacher.

King's roots in Baptist culture ran deep, so deep that he counted Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as an inspiration AND a friend. Often, when King was on the road, he would call Mahalia just to hear her sing.

It was Mahalia Jackson who prompted Martin Luther King to the heights of preaching, during the 1963 March on Washington. King had written a well-thought out and logical speech. But when King stumbled a bit over a complex sentence, Mahalia Jackson called out, "Tell them about the area, Martin!"

It was then that King improvised, crying out, "Go back to Mississippi . . to Alabama . . to South Carolina. . to Georgia. . to Louisiana. . to the slums and ghettos. . "

We would not have Martin Luther King, Jr. in all his greatness without Mahalia Jackson, and without the Baptist church.

Yet - almost lost to history is the personal story of Martin Luther King, Jr.    King cast himself as a family man, with a beautiful wife and four children. But there was a darker side.

The FBI considered King equal to a Communist for his beliefs. The FBI surveilled him and recorded tapes of King having intimate relations with women who were not his wife. Then, the FBI would call his wife at home, and play the tapes over the phone.

There are even whispers that King was abusive to some of the women he was with.

We long for our heroes to be perfect. I know I DO. But I don't know any human being who is perfect.

In this day of #MeToo, I wonder, would the long tendrils of social media dig up the dirt on Martin Luther King, if he were alive today? Would the newest rights movement - #MeToo- chew up and toss out Martin Luther King?

As a woman who has had my full share of #MeToo moments, I can never accept, condone, excuse or forget what some men have done to women.

And yet - I cannot foresee nor accept a world without Martin Luther King.

As a Christian, I live with the power of Forgiveness. Martin Luther King, himself, said- "Forgiveness does NOT mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. . There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us."

As a Christian, I remember the story of David and Bathsheba.  King David is relaxing on the roof of his home, while his army is off fighting in other nations, when he spies the beautiful Bathsheba. Despite knowing that Bathsheba is already married, he sleeps with her. Then he commands his military chief to put her husband on the front lines, so that the husband is killed in battle. David is well aware of the depths of his evil sin.

And yet, King David goes on to be the root and ancestor of Jesus Himself.

There are other stories in Christian lore of, for example, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, John Newton. Newton was an evil slave trader, who went on the become a minister, and the author of this beloved hymn. He underwent a complete conversion, which allowed him to change history.

In his book, "Just Mercy", Bryan Stevenson asks, 'Can a man be summed up entirely by the worst thing he has ever done?'

Christianity recognizes fully our Sin. It also recognizes the power of Redemption. Forgiveness never accepts the Sin, but forgiveness does mean a process of working THROUGH the Sin and coming out the other side.

I once went to my pastor because of the weight of the abuses that had been heaped upon me as a child. I was living a kind of Spiritual Death. It was as if the abuses inhabited me like a dark Spirit that would not leave. I asked my pastor, "Is there anything that is unforgivable?" To my utter surprise, he said, "No! Because Jesus forgave absolutely everyone, even his crucifiers."

Suddenly, I saw my chief abuser as a complete human being. Nothing could even condone what he had done. But I saw my abuser as a man hounded by torment, a pain that caused him to carry out unspeakable things. He became far more than the embodiment of the Sin itself. He became all too raw and human.

As I contemplated this, the burden lifted from me. A friend told me that I looked ten years younger.

IF a person commits a terrible Sin . . IF he recognizes his Sin and is willing to atone for it - CAN we ever allow him that redemption, and the possibility to accomplish all that is good in the world ?

This is the challenge of Christianity. Without that process of atonement and redemption, how many good people will we sacrifice at the altar of eternal Unforgiveness?

How many Martin Luther King's and John Newton's will we never even know about?

[Related Postings: "The Need For Martin Luther King", 1/16/13; "Martin Luther King's Dream", 1/15/14; "Martin Luther King", 1/17/11; "Martin Luther King - The Man", 1/14/18; "The Enduring Wisdom of Martin Luther King", 1/8/17; "What would Martin Luther King Say?", 1/14/16]

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The True Handmaid

"Mary set out to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.' " -[ Luke 1: 39-45].

Mary, mother of Jesus, has been identified as the "handmaid of the Lord".  In Luke 1: 38, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she will bear the Son of God, Mary replies to Gabriel: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

A handmaid is a female servant in ancient times. She may have been at times a slave, or a lowly employee. In some stories of the Bible, she is the consort of the mistress's husband.

In 1985, Margaret Atwood wrote the widely read, "The Handmaid's Tale", a dark inversion of the Biblical story, in which powerful, abusive leaders subjugate women, forbidding the women to own property, to work, to manage their finances or even to read. The Handmaids become a fertility class, organized and subjugated, to repopulate the earth after world-wide infertility.

And now this Christmas season, Professor Eric Sprankle, Minn. State University,  has posted on social media that "the virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen."

Besides the immense unfairness of overlaying our modern sensibilities upon an ancient story and expecting a different result, the Atwood and Sprankle interpretations are subversions bordering on blasphemy.

At the same time, I know more than a few Christians who are amused by these misguided interpretations.

At Mary's meeting with Gabriel, she famously says, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

Mary also says, "For nothing shall be impossible with God." -[Luke 1:37]. In accepting with joy her assignation as Mother of Jesus, Mary recognizes the Infinite Possibility of God. This is not a grim "sentence", it is the possibility of redemption and healing in the corrupt world of Rome.

After Mary gives birth to Jesus in the stable, Wise Men from the East visit to pay homage. Luke 2: 18 says, "After they had seen the child, they spread the message they had received about Him. But Mary treasured up all these things in her heart."  Mary knew the special, even Divine qualities of her experiences. And she marveled over them.

Not only did Mary consent, she was honored, she marveled at this event, she was in awe.

Many who are not Catholic forget to keep reading their Bible until they stumble upon the Magnificat, also known as the hymn of praise of the Virgin Mary.

In Luke 1: 46-55, Mary sings glory to God: "My soul magnifies the Lord"- i.e., Mary's soul is a Light to reflect and amplify the glory of God.

"And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because He has regarded [held in utmost esteem] the lowliness of the handmaid; for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."  Mary is no victim here, she has willingly accepted the honor bestowed upon her by God. All generations shall call Mary blessed, because God has esteemed the "lowliness of His handmaid." God has stooped low to make Mary great.

"And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud conceit of the heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty."

Mary is no subjugated and abject victim here. She is a heroine, who is lifted up from lowly status, to become the Mother of Love, and the Mother of a worldwide, eternal movement to topple corrupt power and to elevate the lowly. Through Mary, God has "scattered the proud in [their conceit], and has put down the mighty from their thrones. . . the rich he has sent away empty."
The rich, already being filled with their own conceit, have no room for God. They have already possessed more than enough bounty in this Life, and so they do not thrive in the Next.

Mary is the epitome of, "The humble shall be exalted."

Mary is no passive subject, but an active catalyst for spiritual and social change.  To say she is nothing more than a victim of Divine violence is a total mischaracterization and misreading of the very words on the page.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, "Mary is like a magnifying glass that intensifies our love of her Son."  If we all could emanate only half of her Light, we would live in a vastly brighter world.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2018. All Rights Reserved.