Why Doom and Gloom are Not the Way to Go

doom and gloomThere will be ripples from the recent SCOTUS decision to permit same-sex marriage nationwide, but how far they will extend remains to be seen. Fear-mongers paint doom and gloom scenarios, and slippery slope skiers are lined up for a fast run down Exile, but nobody’s long-range vision is 20/20. We’re not even sure how we got here.

To get to this 5-4 vote, a major cultural shift occurred. Unlike Roe v. Wade where the SCOTUS decision shaped lifestyle practices and jurisprudence, same-sex marriage was legal in thirty-six states before this decision came down. (Granted, that number includes several states where federal court judges overruled the popular vote against same-sex marriage.) Still, the narrow majority vote for approval wasn’t surprising. If the ruling came in 1955 instead of 2015, the seismic shift would have registered on the cultural Richter scale. This year thousands marched in celebratory parades with confetti and rainbows, and many exercised their new legal right to marry a member of the same sex.

Future social historians will be able to analyze the forces behind the gradual acceptance of homosexual behavior. Right now we’re living it, and can’t remove ourselves enough to rightly judge the catalysts and methods that coalesced to result in this change. With that in mind, we’d be foolish to think the weak beam of our flashlight into the future can accurately reveal the path ahead. All we can be certain of is where we are now.

The Supreme Court decision put the nation on this game board square, and the question for each of us is, “How will I respond?”  Many evangelical Christians and social conservatives are sounding the death knell of Life as We Know It and wringing their hands about the future their grandchildren will face. Such a response isn’t new, students of church history confirm the bells chime this tune in every generation. Then we’ll cry, “But it’s never been this bad before” — that’s what previous generations said, too.

A major downside of this doom and gloom mindset is its influence on our view of God; it makes him too small. It makes him smaller than nine, black-robed justices, smaller than the laws man writes. Reacting out of this framework is like taking a five-minute segment of a movie with a running time of thousands of years and writing a review. It’s like watching the hustle and bustle of a movie set and forgetting there’s a director to pull the confusion together. In the case of world events, there’s a loving director who lets the actors pick a weak script, forget their lines, screw up the day’s filming and still he crafts a masterpiece.

Let’s keep our footing and long-term perspective as the ripples spread out. We can be confident one legal ruling will not extinguish the Church that has survived two thousand years, though those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons will face increased opposition. We will need to articulate our thoughts and beliefs in ways we haven’t, as they weren’t particularly counter cultural before. This creates an opening for conservative thinkers and theologians to refine (or finally construct) a theology of sex, marriage and gender; let’s not head for the bomb shelter and miss it.

The societal acceptance of lifestyles and sexual behavior we wouldn’t choose or find acceptable will make us uncomfortable and push our buttons. But our hope is in the director, and a long-range view can mitigate our fears, and keep us in a dialogue with those who see things differently. This is an opportunity to be counter cultural with humility rather than fearful, self-righteous, and condemning. Can we do it? Will we do it?

The Power of Forgiveness on Display in Charleston

emmanuel AME churchThere’s power, mighty power, in the declarations of forgiveness made by the relatives and friends of Dylann Roof’s murder victims. Less than forty-eight hours after Roof opened fire in a Wednesday night prayer meeting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC killing nine, he heard, “I forgive you, my family forgives you” from the grandson of one of the victims. It was the echo of Jesus’ words spoken on the cross resounding two thousand years later.

One national network news broadcaster struggled to describe the day’s happenings. Twenty-one year old Dylann Roof, flanked by two heavily armed security guards, listened without expression  to the sorrow and pain of those with emotional holes in their hearts. Their family members lay in the morgue with physical holes where his bullets shattered their bodies, and via video they let Roof know he had killed beautiful people. They were loving, generous, welcoming people, not merely black faces–they had names.

In the bond hearing, a setting where words of vengeance, anger, pain, outrage, bitterness, and retaliation were expected, the watching world heard words of compassion and forgiveness intermingled with the grief.  The vocabulary of prayer meetings, religious sanctuaries, and the Bible invaded the courtroom. That was the point when confusion flowed across the broadcaster’s face, and justifiably so.

When every inch of your being screams in agony, when there are no more tears because the weeping has moved to the soul, who can think of forgiveness?  Who in the midst of profound pain and sorrow can look beyond themselves and offer forgiveness to the very one that caused the heartache? The kind of people who go to prayer meetings and welcome strangers. They’re the ones who know they have been forgiven by God and can extend that forgiveness to others. They are living reverberations of the Lord’s Prayer, “And forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”

This isn’t the “forgive and forget” type of forgiveness; it’s questionable whether that is even possible. Those who claim remembering misdeeds means we haven’t forgiven probably haven’t experienced hard-core injustice. The abused child or woman, the college student drugged and raped, the wrongfully convicted inmate, the friends and family of a murder victim can’t and shouldn’t forget. Without a memory of the hurt, you can’t celebrate the healing.

palm branch crossNo, this is the “forgive and let go” type of forgiveness; the kind that frees the anger within and prevents bitterness from taking root. It’s the kind that knows refusing to forgive hurts the one with the white-knuckle grip the most. It means letting go of the right to “repay evil for evil” or to “take revenge”; it means feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink. It means not letting evil win, but overcoming it with good (Romans 12:17-21). It’s a forgiveness that costs, like Jesus choosing to lay down his life for the forgiveness of sins (Romans 5:6-8).

Those who spoke words of forgiveness within days of a senseless tragedy demonstrated the power of the gospel in a deeply tangible way. This act of hatred will soon fade from the news headlines, but may we long remember that it is the healing balm of forgiveness that overcomes evil with good.

The Secret to Strength and Growth – It’s Not What You Think It Is

men weight liftingHang around a health club, and you’ll meet the die-hards. The ones you don’t talk to for fear of breaking their focus. The ones with a list of their upper body, lower body, cardio, interval training, strength and flexibility workouts ready when you ask. The ones who can tell you how many years it’s been since they missed more than a day of exercise. The ones without an ounce of fat. Yeah, I’ve envied them, too.

To attain a level of fitness requires effort, and it comes at a price. When we strenuously exert ourselves physically, our body’s energy storehouse is ransacked, we lose fluids, and muscle tissue fibers are torn. It seems logical to push the same muscles hard on consecutive days as science has shown it’s the breaking down that leads to greater strength and endurance.

All well and good, but if the body doesn’t have time to regenerate itself and repair the damage caused by physical exertion, progress stops. We think it’s the relentless pushing and striving to achieve that makes Olympic champions and die-hard gym rats. Actually it leads to injuries and overtraining—that point when you’re tired and sore for days after your workout.

The real secret to strength and growth? It’s counterintuitive–rest. It’s taking a break, one more substantial than eight hours of sleep. Depending on the situation, it might be three or four days, it might be a month. Without it, the body can’t recuperate and patch up the muscle tears and depleted storehouses. Ripping more fibers in the same muscles you taxed yesterday isn’t helping, it’s hurting you.  When training and rest are regularly out of balance, fitness levels actually decline.

When we’re used to regular work-outs and have a goal in sight, it’s hard to rest. It’s true whether we’re training for a marathon or slogging through rehab. We feel like slackers with idle hands ready for the devil’s workshop. We miss the adrenaline fix, that competitive spot in our solar plexus  pleads for food, and our mind plays host to an ongoing debate between “Don’t stop; don’t be a quitter” and “I’m exhausted.”

Today’s physiological science substantiates the need our bodies have for rest; a model set in place as early as God’s institution of the Sabbath in Genesis 1 and 2. Scripture’s not just about rest; Paul used the athletic metaphor regularly in his writings about the Christian life, about soul and spirit (and body) matters. For example, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” Or, “Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize?”*

What’s true for our bodies is true for our souls; true for our spirits. They’re interwoven, and all three need rest. All three need time for restoration. It’s easy to overtrain our physical body; it’s twice as easy to overtrain our souls and our spirits, and twice as hard to detect.  If we sprain an ankle, others will notice, but our souls’ limping will be invisible. We probably don’t notice when our soul/spirit reserves are running low, but we need to develop an inventory. We are wise when we take the lessons gathered from physiological expertise and apply them to our interior experience.

When I’m noodling through a problem, whether it’s personal or a formatting battle with Microsoft Word, my tendency is to push and relentlessly pursue a solution. If my to-do plate is piled high, a break is not in the stack. Yet that would be the best thing for my mind, my heart and my soul. Small breaks every 60-90 minutes help replenish, but there’s still a need to set aside longer periods for restoration.

What can that look like? One friend schedules quarterly silent retreats for herself and her church; another spends thirty minutes a day in silence and solitude. One woman listens to praise music and spends the evening journaling her thoughts and prayers; another paddles her kayak on the lake or takes long walks. One pastor regularly joins a monastic community for a week and follows their Divine Offices of prayer and study; another schedules a sabbatical month every few years.

The battle to claim space for soul and spirit rest mimics the battle for physical rest, and the results do, too. It will be a challenge, but it’s the counter-intuitive secret to strength and growth we all need to know—and do.

*Galatians 5:7, I Corinthians 9:24

Finding Hope on the Wings of Butterflies and Birds

In the middle of a May week full of parties and ceremonies to commemorate achievement and new beginnings, I received notice of a friend’s death. The wedding date was saved months ago, the ordination service announced weeks ago, and my friend, a doctoral student, targeted this graduation ceremony two years ago. But Kendall’s funeral wasn’t penciled in, he didn’t know his 54-year-old heart would quit last week.

Into a time of balloons, cakes, cheers, smiles and forward-facing optimism landed this backward-facing service filled with damp cheeks, black clothing and wads of Kleenex. To move from celebrating longed-for transitions to a remembrance of the final transition was like the jerk of a wooden roller coaster when the chain grabs the underside of your car at the base of the steep incline. The track rises ahead and you know this section is part of the journey, but the sudden motion and the gears grinding still surprises and sharpens the senses.

At the graveside, time slowed and the brain registered details in HD. Family members and the elderly sat in two rows of green-velour draped chairs alongside the elevated casket. Splays of flowers on the casket lid infused the color dissipated by the light gray skies, and the song of a love-hungry bird mingled with and occasionally drowned out the pastor’s words. Perched high in a nearby tree whose leaves needed more warm days before they’d open, Mr. Crooner sang, unaffected by the crowd and solemn service below.

two butterfliesThroughout the observance, two butterflies slalomed among the stooped shoulders like dancing shards of light from a stained glass window. We stood with bowed heads and sorrowful hearts, and they swooped and twirled in search of springtime nectar. We had stopped our routines to gather and honor this kind soul who encouraged others and loved God and his creation, and God sent his creatures to join us.

King David’s vignettes from Psalm 103, read at the funeral home, played at the outdoor screening room. The open grave spoke, “You are dust; your mortal life is like grass. You flourish briefly like a flower until the wind blows away its memory.” The songbird provided the soundtrack of praises to the Lord, and the butterflies a Disney touch. The open Bible reminded, “Your life has been redeemed from the pit, and God’s love is as high as these gray skies above the springtime earth.” And the mourners’ compassion for the widow and fatherless son mirrored the Father’s compassion.

We wept knowing Kendall’s youth won’t be restored like the eagle’s in this lifetime; there won’t be a Lazarus incident in Illinois this weekend. But in the lush cemetery dotted with stone markers of end, death, and finitude, faith, hope and love made an appearance. Invisible at times through our pain and grief and loss, they are with us everywhere and in all things–sometimes disguised as a songbird or a butterfly.

Grandma, the Twentieth Century and the iWatch

A banner headline on Apple’s web site announces, “The Watch is here.” Launch date for the iWatch was April 24, 2015 though only the earliest pre-orders could be fulfilled. There is buzz, there is hype, and there is momentum. The iWatch is a new gadget, but is it NEW? How many of the latest developments are NEW?

Take for example the pleasurable diversion of listening to music. To stay current we’ve migrated from 78’s to 45’s to LP’s to 8-track tapes to cassette tapes to CD’s to MP3 files. Each format change seemed cutting-edge, yet none was a groundbreaking advancement in an historical sense, none of them was NEW. They were only different formats to accomplish the same thing – transporting and replaying previously recorded sound waves.

phonographNEW was the phonautograph developed by Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville in 1857 and regarded as “the first device that could record sound waves as they passed through the air.” Better known is the phonograph patented by Thomas Edison in 1878 that used a stylus to etch grooves in a soft material like wax or lead, and later vinyl.

Today we attribute much of life’s stress to the changes that come our way at lightning fast speed, faster than any previous generation.  Can we make that claim? How many NEW, ground-breaking technologies have hatched since the 1950’s? In November 2013 The Atlantic published an article describing the “50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” Of the 50 listed, only four have occurred in the Baby Boomer era.

In the mid-twentieth century, the semi-conductor provided the “physical foundation of the virtual world.” Anything with a computer chip uses a semiconductor – think microwaves, smartphones, computers, calculators, video games, TV’s, stereos and radios. Around the same time fertilizers, pesticides and specialized plant breeding dramatically increased world-wide food production, the Green Revolution. The final two, the internet and personal computer (PC), took the second half of the twentieth century by storm. The speed at which information can be processed, transmitted and communicated on a daily basis was only an electrical engineer’s dream fifty years ago.

All four are life-altering advancements, but my maternal grandmother born in 1899 knew NEW. During her ninety-plus years, Geraldine witnessed the automobile, airplanes, rocketry, air conditioning, the radio, penicillin, the combine, television, and electricity in individual homes.  She went from horse-drawn buggy to a car to a man on the moon, from phonographs to radios to televisions, from an outhouse with lime and Sears catalogues to a flush toilet. Funny thing is, I don’t remember her being stressed; she celebrated each as it came.

My uncle nicknamed her Lead Foot Annie, and she drove her enormous Buick like it was the only car on the road. Eavesdroppers on the party telephone line didn’t phase her, though she made me hang-up when I wanted to listen to strangers’ conversations. She was hooked on General Hospital and Days of our Lives, and the Lawrence Welk Show. Her work-load lightened substantially when the farmhouse was wired for electricity and chest freezers replaced canning as a way to store the farm’s produce,

She extracted the positives of each breakthrough and adapted them to fit her life; they didn’t take over. Rather than being stressed or anxious, she filled the time saved with pleasurable activities.  Now that she didn’t have to hitch up the horses to visit a nearby friend or talk the switchboard operator into putting her call through, she had more time to serve at her Methodist Church and participate in civic organizations like Altrusa and Daughters of the American Revolution.

Maybe it’s easier when a NEW first appears as there aren’t any expectations or the necessity of constantly adapting as the NEW morphs and changes formats. Prior to the phonograph, no one expected to be able to play music in their home, and only the wealthy could at first. Now nearly everyone in a developed country expects music to be available. When the NEW becomes normal, we can’t see how it makes our lives better or saves us time; it’s so integrated into our lives that we’ve lost a standard to measure it against.

Who knows how many more breakthroughs I’ll live to see, but I’ll refrain from complaining about the pace of change. Geraldine and her generation won that contest. She adapted, had fun, and took the time the changes afforded her to invest in what mattered to her. Using her approach as a model, I’m skipping the iWatch.

 

 

Whose Words Do You Treasure?

old book opened“Who are some of your favorite authors?” the seminary student inquired of the guest speaker, a veteran ministry leader. “The dead ones,” she replied.

She went on to explain, “It’s easy to write a book when you’re on the upswing of ministry growth and things are going well. When you’re in the middle of success others will listen to you. But I prefer to read their books after they’ve died, when I can know how their life turned out. Did they remain faithful to the gospel? What were the long-term results of their ministry? Did they build others up or damage them? Were they tireless workers to the end like John Stott or C.S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers or Dallas Willard? Those are the authors I want to read.”

Her comments transported me to two recent funerals. Cancer struck my friend in his mid-40’s and ravaged his body within eighteen months. He was the first person to ask for a book recommendation. A voracious reader across a range of fields, he was eager to learn, look at issues from another perspective, and humble (though opinionated) in his convictions. He’d served on the mission field, on the staff of a suburban American church, and as a field representative for an international mission agency. At his core, he longed to see people around the world come to faith, and constantly thought about how to contextualize the gospel and reach more souls.

A dedicated family man who wouldn’t live to see his children graduate or walk down the aisle, he treasured the moments he’d already had and the present ones without fretting about what the ones he wouldn’t. Not that he didn’t grieve, but the dark days couldn’t extinguish his light and love of life. Through his final weeks, he lived beyond his circumstances with a deep concern for the souls of others.

I’d known the seventy-something woman in the casket for over thirty years. We hadn’t been close, but family occasions kept us in contact. As her relatives reminisced, it struck me– in that box lay the same woman I’d met decades ago. Burdened by an impoverished past and a life which hadn’t met her standards, she hadn’t changed her approach to life, her way of reacting to life’s inevitable challenges, or her methods of handling conflict. Physically she’d aged; emotionally and psychologically she’d clung to over-expectant dreams that disappointed early and often.. Creative and sensitive, the shadows from her past blocked the expression of her gifts. She walked through increasingly dark and lonely days, and wouldn’t look beyond them.

Both of them experienced challenging and painful situations over many years, and taught me a great deal. The one whose advice and example I want to follow is the one who never lost his desire to grow or his thankfulness for what God had provided. He lived his life well to his final days; his are the words I treasure,

All I Needed to Know I Learned in First Grade

first gradePublished in 1988, the book All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten made a splash. American pastor Robert Fulghum compiled 50 short essays originally written to friends and family about essential lessons he learned early that adults would do well to remember. The book sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year and spawned multiple parodies and late-night TV comedic sketches. Robert Fulghum got his start in kindergarten, but I’m a bit slow. Mrs. Call’s first grade class was my training ground.

My parents infrequently attended church when I was little, but they enrolled me in an evangelical, Christian, elementary school for kindergarten, first and second grades. While we hadn’t relocated, each school day I entered another land. The bible stories and verses seemed like a foreign language, and prayers in the morning and before lunch were new practices. As a class we pledged allegiance to the Christian flag.* Discovering a subculture existed alongside my world fascinated me, but it was as disorienting as jumping into a book at chapter seven and trying to figure out the characters and plot line.

Confusion came through other means. One was the flip charts, a state-of-the-art educational tool used in the 1960’s. Now teachers use Smartboards and white boards, in my school they used wobbly metal frames with binder rings at the top to hold poster-sized pages. My favorite pages were featured the words for hymns and Bible passages on colorful backgrounds. The images for The Old Rugged Cross pictured hand-hewn timbers like the ones in Grandpa’s barn. While the fuzzy sheep and gentle shepherd illustrating Psalm 23 drew me in, the first verse repelled me.

KJVBefore the NIV (New International Version) and ESV (English Standard Version) were available, the King James Version (KJV) took center stage. Many still prefer it. Eighteenth-century English is tough for adults to read, for a six year old with little church background it was another language to learn. My first grade translation of the verse was, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” Hmmm. If Jesus is the shepherd we’re supposed to ask into our hearts, why would we do that when we don’t want him?

Years later, I’m embarrassed to admit how many, I noticed the KJV has a semi-colon after “shepherd.” It wasn’t until I read the NIV version,** “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want,” that the childhood fog lifted completely.  OHHH, David the Psalmist isn’t saying we don’t want the shepherd, he’s saying the shepherd cares for us and we don’t lack anything. He satisfies completely and other things are superfluous in comparison.

For the first year of Christian school, I dogpaddled through the cultural immersion and barely kept my head above water. Through the struggles, I learned to be observant, listen closely and catch social cues from others. These tools still work well in other parts of the US, foreign countries, or when I enter a new subculture. When others step into a subculture familiar to me, I remember that they may feel disoriented and try to offer a few whispered tips to smooth the way.

Reading a book, especially the Bible, requires diligence as there is plenty of room for misinterpretation; misunderstanding can come from something as minor as an overlooked semi-colon. My seventh-grade grammar teacher affirmed the principles I appreciate as an adult: words are powerful, proper punctuation essential.

Another take-away: what we’re confident we know, what we learned as a child, what we’ve memorized and said one hundred times probably needs to be re-examined. If we don’t, we could continue with misconceptions of who God is and how he works based on what could grasp before our brain could process abstract concepts. Not that children don’t have faith or can’t understand the cross and resurrection or the biblical stories, but our assimilation even as adults is fragmented at best.

Fulghum is right; elementary school lessons are valuable. Later in life we can detect their positive influence, see how they framed our foundation, and apply putty in the places where something is missing. Good teachers infect students with a love for learning and show them the necessary tools. Our challenge is to keep learning and use the tools wisely.

*PLEDGE TO THE CHRISTIAN FLAG
I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.

**In the ©1984 NIV translation. The ©2011 version states, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

What early lessons influenced your life? 

The Real Afterlife Tourist

CT recently reported on the decision by LifeWay Christian Resources to pull “heaven tourism” books from the store shelves. Included in the spring cleaning are mega-selling titles 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is For Real. A decision made easier as the veracity of these experiences eroded when Alex Malarkey disclosed he lied about experiencing heaven as a 6-year old, the story behind The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven bestseller. Now merchandise selection will follow the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution to turn only to Scripture for information on life after death. Trouble is, there’s not much to go on.

The verifiable afterlife tale with stellar eyewitnesses by a reputable author is the story of Lazarus. In chapters 11 and 12, John the EvangelistCH1975.01 details the reactions of Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus, the mourners from the village, and the disciples, but nothing from Lazarus, the resuscitated grave dweller, himself.* Unlike the sidelined best-sellers, Scripture doesn’t describe what Lazarus experienced when he was in the grave. He wasn’t dead for an hour and a half in a hospital bed either; he spent four days wrapped in grave clothes stashed behind a heavy stone. Enough time for Martha to be concerned about the potential stench when Jesus commands them to roll away the stone, but not enough for John the Evangelist to include the story angle a 21st century publisher would crave.

We want to know: what did Lazarus think and feel? He’d been sick for several days and presumably knew Jesus’ presence had been requested before he died. Was he angry to see the Jesus who hadn’t shown up when he was ill standing outside the tomb? Did he wonder why he hadn’t come before he died?  What did he experience during the four days? How had his life changed? Did he create a bucket list or had the thrills of earthly life lost their allure?

Instead, the scene ends after the dead man walks out of his grave and Jesus tells the bystanders to free him from the binding cloths. Maybe Martha bustles around getting him a change of clothing, a washbasin and a bar of soap. Maybe Mary falls at Jesus’ feet in worship and then runs to greet her brother. Maybe Jesus hugs Lazarus, looks deeply into his eyes and expresses sympathy in a way Lazarus understands after the crucifixion.

The next and last time Lazarus is on stage, he’s an extra at the dinner when Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume and Judas Iscariot complains about the waste. Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus, but no conversation is recorded. Maybe the dinner guests pummel Lazarus with questions, but John shows the focus was on the one who supernaturally raised a thoroughly dead man from the grave when he writes, “Here [in Bethany] a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor.”

Jesus’ miracle of bringing someone back from death didn’t amuse or entertain, it divided people. One group believed, spread the word and wanted to meet Jesus; the second group turned away, and some tattled to the religious authorities. As the miracle buzz grew, the Pharisees and Sadducees added Lazarus to the Most Wanted List not the best-seller list.

Scripture’s silence on Lazarus’ personal experience frustrates, but it keeps the spotlight centered. Rather than details to spark debates about Lazarus’ afterlife ordeal, such as, “Is this the norm?”, we know Jesus. We know he keeps a puzzling timetable, consoles the grieving, weeps at the loss of a friend, conquers death, and celebrates.

That’s where the afterlife tourism books fall short. They may give hope to the grieving or inspire thought about the afterlife, but when the focus is on anyone but the giver of life, they miss the mark. Rather than honoring those whose earthly bodies will fail again, let’s prepare our hearts during Holy Week to celebrate the Risen One who conquered death once and for all.

*Since Lazarus experienced physical death again at some point, he was resuscitated, not resurrected.

Found Yourself Saying, “But I Did All the Right Things”?

The recipe promised a quick and easy quiche dinner with no need to roll out a crust, instead the ingredients would separate during baking. A lovely crust would form on the bottom while the bacon, eggs and cheese gently browned on top. But after the allotted cooking time, the soupy mixture poured into the pie pan was a soupy mess, and the self-forming crust was nowhere to be seen. I double-checked the ingredients, reread the instructions, checked the oven temperature, and couldn’t find a mistake.

I set the kitchen timer for another ten minutes, then another ten minutes, then another ten minutes. After doubling the baking time and still no crust, I ripped the recipe in pieces and tossed it out. Over delivered pizza I moaned, “The quiche flopped. I can’t figure out why, but I did all the right things.”

Cooks and bakers work hard to develop foolproof recipes; there’s more than 922 cookbooks on amazon with that claim in the title. Make precise measurements, use quality ingredients in an established procedure, and you can reliably crank out tasty products. It usually works in the kitchen, and it seemed reasonable the principles would apply in life. If I ate in moderation, exercised, avoided high fructose corn syrup and ingredients I couldn’t pronounce I would be healthy. If I went to church, studied the Bible, told other people about Jesus, gave money, was baptized, and treated others like I wanted to be treated, my spiritual life would blossom.

But when the crust didn’t form in some relationships, in a few body parts, in my spiritual life, I blamed God. I had used the right ingredients, at least he could brown around the edges. That was the deal, wasn’t it? I had done all the right things, now it was his turn.

Potter's hands shaping clayThe prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah use another creative process as an analogy for our life experiences and our relationship to God. Both reprimand the clay pots (the Israelites) who think they can tell the potter (God) what they should look like or that he’s doing it wrong (Jeremiah 18:1-11; Isaiah 45:9). Paul picks up the theme in Romans 9:20-21 where he warns the pottery (Christians) not to talk back to the potter (God).

When frustrated and perplexed with circumstances and people, I still do. God patiently listens to me rant while waving the recipe card in the air and bemoaning that life that isn’t going as planned. Then Paul’s words prick my heart: Who do I think I am? Who do I think God is? Who do I think is in control? I regularly pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” do I mean it? Yes, and after a serious flop or two I’ll shred the recipe for “A Life without Challenges or Suffering” again. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the longing for such a life means the satisfaction of that kind of desire is possible. But that time won’t come because I do all the right things and God plays along; it will come on God’s timetable when he redeems this world and his clay pots.

It’s a tough space to live in as a pot that forgets it’s pottery and not the potter, a stubborn pot that wants control of the clay. To let other hands shape me, to trust the design plan, to have confidence in the finished product requires surrender and faith in the potter. It’s a simple and foolproof recipe, but a hard one to follow.

Yoga Class Reprise – Touching Each Other’s Lives

calendar date circledToday I returned to my favorite yoga class to celebrate the two-month anniversary of my surgery. At my last pre-surgery class in early January, two people made unhelpful comments which I wrote about here. This time the instructor welcomed me with a huge hug and quietly mentioned that the teenage son of one of the women had open heart surgery less than a month ago.

For over an hour, the instructor pushed us through downward facing dogs, planks, pyramids, triangle poses and the like. Other than chaturangas, a couple moves with arms stretched to the side or behind the head, I plowed through them all. Surreptitiously I’ve been doing balance moves without using my arms for weeks, and the fruits were evident.

The sweetest fruit came afterwards in my conversation with the mother. Her high-school aged son has undergone multiple open-heart surgeries to repeatedly replace his congenitally defective aortic valve as he grows. We knew the medical lingo, the ordeal associated with surgery and recovery, and the lifestyle adjustments required by the procedure. She shared as a mother, me as a sympathetic owner of a pig valve like her son’s.

Call it random, call it coincidence, call it fate; I call it a God Date. Through our connection I see the hands of a loving Father who knew two people who could support and encourage each other would be punishing themselves in the same yoga class for over a year. This omniscient Father knew two heart valves would weaken about the same time and need replacement within weeks of each other. And this faithful Father touched our lives through the comfort we could extend to one another (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

That’s a God Date.