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Sunday, February 21, 2010

If My People


simplicity composed the following on November 4, 2006:

If My People
who are called by My Name
will humble themselves and pray
and seek My face
and turn from their wicked ways,
then I will hear from heaven,
will forgive their sin,
and will heal their land

But if My People
who are called by My Name proclaim,
“Our Kingdom is not of this world,”
yet they weep and wail
when their kingdom of the world
goes the way of the world
and, for this, they trust not in My Kingdom,
then My people have not heard My voice

And if My People
who are called by My Name cry out,
”Change their hearts and minds!”
and cry not, “Change my heart and mind!”
and pound their fist in prayer,
“Cleanse their heart, Oh Lord”
and not, “Cleanse my heart, Oh Lord,”
then My people have not heard My voice

And if My people
who are called by My Name say
“If the sinners stop killing babies,
if the men stop marrying men,
if the movie makers dawn modesty,
if Caesar cuts taxes,
if the schools discipline,
and if these people and those people ad nauseum,”
and, for this, if My People think
their marriages will be saved,
their children will follow Me,
and their land will be healed
because those I seek to save
have been rescued by politics,
then My people have not heard My voice

If only My people
who are called by My Name
will loosen the bonds of wickedness,
let the oppressed go free,
bring the homeless into their home,
clothe the naked,
and feed the hungry,
then I will hear from heaven
and will heal their land

But if My people
who are called by My Name say
“We are children of great fathers,
so God is with us,”
and they honor Me with their lips
and claim Me in their hearts,
but they have set up their high places,
and turned My gift into a god
and cry for the right to pledge allegiance to their god,
then My people have not heard My voice

And if My people
who are called by My Name
render more unto Caesar
than the taxes and votes that are Caesar’s
and render less unto Me
than the humility and trust that is Mine,
and with Caesar commit adultery,
and if My shepherds preach politics for salvation
and garner power for themselves
through their flock as a voting block,
then My people have not heard My voice

If only My People
who are called by My Name
will seek and save the lost
not by Caesar,
but by My Power and by My Cross,
and show compassion to the oppressed
and honor to My Creation,
then I will hear from heaven
and will heal their land

But if My People
proclaim My Law
upon those I seek to save
and petition My Law become a shrine,
and if My people do not themselves follow My Law,
and if they weep, wail and whine
when those I seek to save
grumble against a shrine for My Law,
then My people have not heard My voice

And if My people
who are called by My Name
cry out in fear,
“Touch not the wine or the oil!”
and cry out in anger,
“Tax us not!”
and worry not just for bread, but for luxuries too,
and trust not in Me
or My promise to clothe them
then My people have not heard My voice

If only My people
who are called by My Name
will humble themselves
and return to Me,
and trust in Me for all their needs,
and trust they can do all things through Me,
and even obey My Law they seek to enshrine,
then I will hear from heaven
and will heal their land

But if My people
who are called by My Name
see not with their eyes,
and hear not with their ears
the dreams I send them of Caesar's sickness,
warning them to flee adultery,
and tell them in dreams,
“Get out of her, My People,”
and if instead, they urgently tell thousands
to pray for Caesar 
and not for their own repentance,
then My people have not heard My voice

And if My people
who are called by My name
behead My prophets
who say to them,
“Repent! 
For the Kingdom of God is near!”
and if My people keep for themselves
the body of the prophesy,
and cut off the head of the prophesy,
and display the head on a silver platter,
then My people have not heard My voice

If only My people
who are called by My Name
will love Me with all their heart,
with all their soul and with all their strength,
and love their neighbor as themselves,
then they will hear My voice,
and I will hear from heaven
and will heal their land

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Transcending Trials


“Then to Adam He said,
‘. . . Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you shall eat of the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You shall eat bread”
(Genesis 3:17-19)

                The year 2004 marked the peak of my earthly desperation.  Our second child, Melanie, was born at the end of 2003 and our first child, Andrew, was an unwilling potty-trainer.  To maintain enrollment at preschool, Andrew’s preschool director required he be potty-trained by a certain date, which arrived without any success.  Desperate, I met with his pediatrician.  After asking both me and Andrew a series of questions, our pediatrician reported what any mother of a reluctant potty-trainer already knows: he wasn’t ready yet and pushing him to be was futile.  “Could you tell that to his preschool director, please?” I pleaded.  She gave me her business card and said she’d be happy to have the director call her.

                Fully equipped with all my arguments, our pediatrician’s business card, and my nursing baby in my arms, I met with the director.  Melanie was my first line of defense: how was a nursing mom to potty train a toddler who wasn’t yet ready?  The director claimed lots of women (including herself) had done it, so could I.  While such a remark usually makes my blood boil, I maintained composure and continued with my need to return to work, Andrew’s lack of readiness, our pediatrician’s perspective, and even her willingness to talk to the director herself.  That offer went over with the director about as well as her comment went over with me that she potty-trained while nursing just fine.  Finally, she offered a compromise: if I continued to work on potty-training, Andrew could stay for three more months, and then we’d revisit his enrollment. 

Three weeks before that next deadline arrived, Andrew was finally ready.  Although he wasn’t fully potty-trained by the second deadline, he had made so much progress in the previous few weeks that he was welcomed to stay.  A few weeks later, potty-training was complete.  As all the experts say, once a child is ready to potty-train, it’s quick and easy.  Six months of painful prodding went by before six quick and easy weeks did the trick.  I was both relieved and frustrated.  Why had I, as a working and nursing mother, been required to expend such unnecessary energy?  And why had my little boy?

Potty-training Andrew was just one of a myriad of earthly pressures pounding unnecessary anxiety into life.  Many of these are about one stressful word that makes our culture tick: “Now!”  Potty-training Andrew felt representative, symbolic even.  It was like this one experience explained it all.  Life doesn’t have to be futile. 

I sensed that we women not only face what Eve was told she’d face, but we also face the one to Adam.  While our tradition has tended to call these “curses,” by the way, I’d like to call them “trials,” just as thorns are “trials” to the gardener tending the plants they occupy.  At the time, I had yet to perceive the benefit of “trials,” and instead complained that life shouldn’t have to be consumed with “thorns” and “toil.”   If only our culture was willing to be patient, I thought in frustration, we could all be set free from a great deal of anxiety.   Instead, we toil by the sweat of our brow, and we do so unnecessarily.  We do so, in part, because our culture expects us to.  Andrew could have been easy to potty-train, but I had made a promise to the preschool director to try – in other words, I had promised to “toil.”

As a mother of young children, I couldn’t see any way out.  My own anxiety level had reached a point that worried me as a mother.  Little things set me into a rage.  How could I teach my three year old to avoid tantrums when I was having them myself?  It was especially his tantrums that set me off.  I couldn’t handle them.  He’d scream and I’d scream right back, “Don’t you dare scream!  I need peace!”

Eventually, I discovered a mystery: God has been committed from the beginning to set us free from the trials He spoke "in the beginning."  He is not waiting for the Messiah, the “second-coming,” the after-life, or some "salvation" we experience later.  Would not complete “salvation” bring us the power to face the trials, name them, confront them, battle them, declare victory over them and transcend them?  This hints at a competing yet complementary mystery: to declare victory, we must enter the battle.  In faith and with God's great power, we battle a great trial.  As God miraculously helps us overcome the great one, He also helps us to transcend the little ones.

Notice Genesis explores the development of human trials and how they play out in mankind.  The rest of the Bible and, especially, the very next book, Exodus, is all about God working to rescue His people from those trials!  Too often, we're led to believe God waits thousands of years to set us free (with the Messiah), or thousands more (with the “second-coming”), or after we die (in the after-life).  But scripture shows in the very next book after God proclaims the trials, He is already rescuing his people from those same ones!

Perhaps we're led to believe freedom is so far away because it is not at all easy for us to get there . . .

At the beginning of Exodus, we find Adam and Eve’s descendents in the most bitter and ultimate end of Adam’s trial: slavery.  Not only do Adam’s sons till “in toil,” “by sweat,” with “thorns and thistles,” but now their trial has become so extreme that Exodus records it as follows:

“And the Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously;
and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks
and all kinds of labor in the field,
all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them”
                                                                                                                (Exodus 1:13-14)

What happens after this?  Most of us already know: God sends his prophet Moses to “set My people free” and then ushers them into a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  We may “know” this story, but do we know it?  Have we internalized it into our being, our soul and our life?  Once we do, we find ourselves living this story.

In a nutshell, what is that story?  It’s the story that begins – like the Book of Exodus – when we discover ourselves in slavery.  We had already been there, but we hadn’t known it; and our story starts when we discover it.  Our story continues as we struggle, with divine help, to be set free.  This is the moment when we are likely to face a very great trial.  We thought we were miserable before.  Oh how little we knew of misery!  Thank goodness we knew so little.  Had we known the magnitude of the trial for our breakthrough, we may never have left the land of slavery.  This hints at why the Israelites begged Moses to send them back to Egypt

We continue in our great trial, wandering around lost and wondering whether the benefits of freedom are worth the price of freedom.   The climax occurs when we bravely enter the place of blessing – typically by confronting even mightier trials, like the well-armed enemies at Jericho

Our story concludes when we enter the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.  No longer do we “toil” against “thorns” “all the days of our life” by “the sweat of our face.”  Instead, our needs (“milk”) and even our wants (“honey”) “flow” for us.  We need not toil; the ground “flows” its most precious nutrients.  Even any circumstances we face that others would call “trials,” we have transcended, as St. Paul, who learned the secret of being content in all things.  This is the story God desires for every one of us.

                At the end of my year of desperation, my pastor posed a challenge to us all in his sermon.  It was the day after Christmas and he asked us whether we “got what we wanted for Christmas.”   Then he asked, “Did you ask God for anything for Christmas?  How about a character gift?”  Then came his challenge: “if you haven’t asked God for a character gift for Christmas, why not ask Him for one in place of a New Year’s Resolution?”

                After a year of tearing out my hair, I was ready for this challenge and took my pastor up on it.  I decided I would pray every day of 2005 for a quality in 1 Peter: “a quiet and gentle spirit.”  Unlike typical “New Year’s Resolutions,” this was one I diligently followed and I really did pray every day for God to perform this miracle.  The trials that arrived, in order to usher in the miracle, made me chuckle at the “trials” of trying to work, nurse and potty-training at once.  Thankfully, I was desperate enough for God to change me that I submitted to the suffering of the greater trials, and by battling them, I began to find victory over the original ones.

At the other end of God’s radical work in me, not only was I developing a quiet and gentle spirit, but I was also gaining a new understanding of myself, Christ, God, life, humanity, femininity, and the scriptures.  That great trial we face just before entering the promised land is beautifully symbolized by the cross.  Upon perceiving a few of these mysteries, I recorded the following into my journal:

Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross was not given to us so that we could obtain a “get into heaven for free” pass.  The cross was designed to give us the power to become the men and women God created us to be, in His image.  Once we choose to internalize this mystery and God chooses to grace us with it, the cross mystically bestows upon us the capacity to live like Christ.

Learning to live like Christ is certainly a life-long journey and process.  Once we've tasted the fruits in the promised land, however, this journey is a remarkable adventure.  May we each discover God’s desire to set us free and the power He has given us to do so.  May we face the trials, call upon the Lord in faith for His strength, and declare victory over them in Christ.  May we transcend them by faithfully recognizing that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.  Amen.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On becoming a Princess


“To the woman He said,
‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth,
In pain you shall bring forth children;
Yet your desire shall be for your husband,
And he shall rule over you”
(Genesis 3:16)

                “Mommy!  Mommy!  Sarah’s going to be a princess for Halloween too!  And Jessica’s going to be a princess!  And Abby too!  We’re all princesses for Halloween!!”  My little four-year old Melanie shrieked with delight a couple of years ago when I picked her up from pre-school on Halloween.  “What a surprise!” I laughed.  “Yeah!” cried Melanie jumping up and down for joy.  To Melanie, the discovery that all of her little girlfriends also wanted to be princesses was a true revelation.   On that day, just two weeks after her fourth birthday, my little girl had already landed on a new discovery.   It’s one that she will learn many times in different ways throughout her life.  Melanie learned she shares an affinity with every other little girl in the world: she desires to be a princess.

                Yet the deep longing in a girl’s heart is not only to be a princess, but also to marry a prince.  It’s really for us girls that stories end “happily ever after,” with the marriage of the prince and princess.  We never learn what happens after they get married.  Do they really live happily ever after?  We moms chuckle, knowing the answer.  But we let our little girls keep their joyful trust in the happy endings, remembering how much comfort they brought to us when we were also little girls.  Sometimes as we watch our little girls dress up as princesses and play out the princess stories, we get nostalgic and long to return to those days when we also believed the princess marries the prince and lives happily ever after.

                Sobered with age though we may become, do we women ever grow out of this childhood fascination for the princess story?  As we grow, our obsession with fairy tales turns into romance novels, soap operas, volatile adolescent dating relationships, lonely misery in young adult singlehood, frustration in marriage, temptation outside of marriage, possible divorce, and even in a healthy marriage, a longing for something more.  Our obsession also profits billions for an industry promoting external beauty.

We long for our man’s approval, for his adoration, and for his heroic rescue of us when we find ourselves unable to cope on our own.  Although this theme is often discussed in women’s circles and much has been proposed to address it, rarely do we ever hear anyone admit that our obsession is proclaimed in the very beginning: “your desire will be for your husband” (Gen 3:16).  Even less often do we hear anyone at the pulpit admit that this proclamation is expressed as part of a curse to Eve.  Our desire for our man moves far beyond the beautiful, romantic love between a husband and a wife.  Our desire is enveloped in obsession.

What does God desire for us instead?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength”
(Deut. 6:5)

Loving God – our first command – trumps our curse to “desire our man” because we find our longing fulfilled in the Lord.  For us Christians, loving God is complemented with our love for his Son, our Bridegroom.   If we can desire our Bridegroom more than we desire our earthly man, then we can transcend our curse. 

Easier said than done.  How are we to do this when we can’t see the Bridegroom, feel Him, touch Him or be touched by Him?  Until His great mysterious power penetrates into our own personal life, we will remain in the obsession described “in the beginning.”  The paradox is this: until Christ heals each of us on a deeply personal, individual level, we are incapable of loving Him first. 

So we find ourselves in a waiting game for Christ to make the move.  We are like girlfriends yearning – dying – for our boyfriend to finally propose to us.  Do we give up and make the move ourselves because he seems to be waiting for an eternity?  Do we break up with him because he is obviously not as committed to us as we are to him (or he certainly would have proposed by now)?  Do we hint, beg, plead?

Perhaps pleading is part of it.  Determination, faith, love and even desperation may play their parts too.  Will we keep our oil lamps burning as we wait for our Bridegroom?  Or will we fall asleep and find them empty when he arrives?  Will we press forward to our inheritance like Jacob?  Or, like his brother, will we instead satisfy our tummies with a bowl of soup?  Will we have the faith, courage, and commitment to what God has promised that we are willing to battle the enemies like Joshua and Caleb? Or will we retreat in fear like the others? 

                If Christ was crucified on the cross for his bride, do you imagine that He desires a lazy one?  A fearful one?  One satisfied with short-term satisfaction?  If we can glimpse what he did for us, then perhaps we can also glimpse the partner he is longing for us to become.  When we think of our favorite movie, do we see the hero bravely fighting the forces of evil for a wimpy, lazy, shopaholic hooked on soap operas?

                We return to the paradox, of course, that until Christ romances us, we remain in bondage to that wimpy shopaholic.  But do we want to remain like her?

                Too many of us are willing to remain as we are.  If, however, we long to become the bride Christ longs for us to become, then, in His perfect timing, He will grace us into our path.

                Next comes our courage.  The path forward will not be the easy route.  The Israelites may have been called into a “land flowing with milk and honey,” but the road into it was a thirsty desert, the border crossing was an arduous mountain, and the border-crossing guards were big, mighty, well equipped soldiers ready to kill all who entered.

                Courage in pain is best demonstrated for us women through the birthing process.  We women give life and enter life by birthing it into reality.  Consider pregnancy with its myriad of changes, aches, pains, and demands that we slow down and take it easy.  The birthing process doesn’t get easier: it gets harder and harder, with each new month adding a new caveat of discomfort.  Though sometimes there is a moment of grace in the second trimester, the body is clearly telling the mother that she is no longer living for herself.  Moment by moment, the body is ridding mom of selfishness, prompting her to change her own life for the sake of a new one.  In some magical, mystical manner, pregnancy is preparing mom for the great suffering she will face in the final moment before birth.  Notice that the hardest part of entry into life is that moment when life is the closest of all.  This counters our human way of thinking.  In human terms, the closer we get to Paradise, the more beautiful we expect everything to appear.  Likewise, we are often given to believe at the pulpit that some great struggle we are encountering is a sign that we must be further from the kingdom, and that those who are close to the kingdom, at the “very door” shall we say, are living in bliss and prosperity.

But the Israelites had forty years in the wilderness and enemies to fight; Jesus faced forty days tempted by Satan; and the Tree of Life is guarded by angels with swords.  Even in our own modern day, we see great trials before great breakthroughs.  The Civil Rights Movement endured its most painful moments just before its passage; the freedom of slaves was preceded by the very bloody Civil War; the final days of World War II were among the deadliest of them all.  Consider any of your own personal examples.  Is it not the typical case that the moments before freedom are the most painful of them all?

Yes, pray, plead and beg for the Prince to romance you.  Cry to him to mold you into the bride he desires.  And when he leads you into a valley in the shadow of death, call to him in faith for courage and strength.  Then bravely take your step toward breakthrough.

May the Prince romance you.  May the Holy Spirit anoint you.  May you receive epiphanies that carry you into a surprising intimacy and romance with the Creator.  May you become the princess that God created you to be.  Amen.

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