Connecting the Dots

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holy spirit connect the dotsConnect the dots. I’d spend hours on those puzzles as a kid. I’d stare at the paper full of numbers and dots and try to imagine what picture it held. But I rarely could.

My pencil would scramble to #1 and then quickly through the sequence. I’d stop after each few to see if I could figure it out. And then rush to connect more. When I’d see the finished image, I’d sit back and smile. I had brought order out of chaos, beauty out of sequence.

I really need those puzzles now. When I look around at the devastation in the world—mass shootings, thousands of refugees fleeing with crying children in their arms, and ISIS, a perpetual threat growing daily with our fears. I’m having a hard time believing there is a big picture.

Sometimes it feels like we are sinking in a sea of space. We are told that there are buoys and markers out there, to hold on to, to guide us on our journey toward the end. But the wrenched stomach, the distorted boundaries, and the fear all but cripple my hope that there is a plan for good.

But I know there is…Not because I see it. Sure, I see the dots, the buoys to cling to for a while, until I catch my bearings. I take a breath and scan to see if I can see the big picture yet. But I can’t. I am just refreshed enough to take a few more strokes on the blank paper sea.

That’s pretty much how I see my spiritual life as well. Most of the time I’m running so hard from marker to marker that I don’t take time to stop and catch my bearings.   Then, when I get to the end of the picture, I’m too exhausted to enjoy the view. I just want the next picture, next image, next experience–collecting them like a visceral junky so I can post them for “oohs” and “ahs” on a synthetic internet galaxy.

All the while, what I really crave is a broad line stroke, something I can touch. I want a connection with the infinite that binds me together with others in this cosmos. Call it what you will—the transcendent, the ultimate, the Namaste of life that acknowledges my soul’s connection to yours. It’s what makes me move forward through the course instead of randomly through some numbers on a page.

But I guess, first you have to believe that those numbers hold a meaning and a plan. That’s easy for me because I have had many people connecting the dots for me–loving, wise people who have modeled the path of hope, patience, peace and joy. They have encouraged, directed, and corrected me on my course.

Because of their influence, I have come to believe that the dots on the page are a plan of wholeness, health, and joy for all to savor because those are the tenets of my country—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and my God—“I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But so many do not have any dot connectors in their life. They don’t believe the dots hold a plan, or worse, they can’t even see the dots. I’ve heard some tragic stories and can understand why, to them, the horizon is gloomy. But that is not my business. My business is connecting the dots. Just as those before did for me—offering understanding smiles when my child was screaming in the library, and coffee and a prayer when I felt alone. The most memorable dot connector for me was Audrey, who taught me about Sabbath rest–a way to hang out on the marker and find my bearings.

So you can keep coming at me with your fear, anger, and resentment. And I will respond with love, prayers, and gentle hands pointing you to the markers. The markers may not be easy to see or understand, but if we hang out long enough on them, wrestling with the poignancy of Jesus’ words and actions, even though we can’t see the next buoy, we may just find we have enough strength to get through these storms together.

I may not agree with you. I may not understand you. But that outstretched hand is restorative when we are sinking and gasping for breath. And who knows, one day when we look back, we may just find that our strokes have connected a picture of order, peace, and beauty, when before, all we could see was chaos in that storm tossed sea of space.

Torchbearers

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passing-torch I just received SOS flares from two of my friends. Not so coincidentally, they are mothers, with concerns for their sons, asking for prayers, as I have time and time again. And so I mingle mine with theirs:

God, you know too well the heart of the torchbearer

When the handle is heavy

and the light seems but a tiny spark

surrounded by a dark abyss

 

The lethal words,

whether diagnosis,

judgment, or disillusionment,

hang heavy on our bones

 

Though we try with all our might

To focus on the light

Hopelessness sucks the life out of our dreams

Please, keep our flame

 

For the night is long

Our panted breaths that clamor for oxygen,

Don’t have enough energy to cry out to you,

and our feet that carry the weight of the world,

are finding it hard to move another step

So we ask for prayer–

A gathering of that tiny cinder of hope that is left in our heart

Offered out as a torch, to you and to others

In confidence that it can become ablaze

 

Perhaps by raising it up

It can help us believe again

That all will be well

And it will be well

 

Because when we raise to you our burdens

Our vulnerabilities, our very souls

It moves us from isolated ashes in the abyss of night

To a communion of fire combatting the wind

 

And the tiny sparks that others offered me

That kept me, and my (now grown) children alive

As we faced battlefields, and playgrounds together

Are now part of my fire, which I’ve added to yours

 

Flames that are joined together into a glow of strength,

Pointing us in the right direction,

Illuminating us to the truth

That somewhere out there in this dark, dismal world

There is a peace that passes all understanding

And the path of light we leave

Will mark the steps of our children.

 

Help us to shine brightly

Breathe deeply, and

Keep raising the torch!

 

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.

Desmond Tutu

 

 

Look Up!

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look upI’m going to let you in on a big secret I re-learned this week by taking 14 youth to Montreat Youth Conference. Whether they act like it or not, our youth look to the adults in their families, churches, and communities for hope. But it is not easily found.

American families are teetering on the edge of financial and emotional instability. Our communities are embroiled in bitter battles over flags, guns, and equality. And our churches—which should be offering a sanctuary of hope, guidance and purpose during these turbulent times, are splitting (and even closing) over issues of doctrine and dogma. No matter where they step, the road seems to cave in on our youth—leaving them alone and hopeless to face a multitude of questions about faith, identity, and purpose.

So what can we do to get us all back on track? Let’s keep it simple. Offer them time, hope and a purpose. It works on a multitude of levels. It’s easy to say but very difficult to do because it requires us to LOOK UP. Look up from our phones, our calendars, our social media, and acknowledge that there is something to look up toward. When we look up and engage in our surroundings, we become surprised and grateful for the force that offers a way out of our misery and confusion. There is a force offering love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness. We just have to move our eyes toward it.

When we look up, we give others a sacrifice of time. One hour. (One day, if you really want the world to change!) Turn everything off. Be grateful for what you see. Ask questions about another person’s story, hopes, and dreams. If it sounds too touchy feely for you–take a walk together. The words tend to flow more easily as your feet move. Take a drive together with the radio off. Wheels will turn inside and out, if you let them. The more you engage with others face to face, the more connected you’ll feel and the more optimistic you’ll become.

Unfortunately, America prefers lighted boxes over community. These “devices of delusion”– TV’s, smartphones, computers, and gaming devices–dole out isolation, fear, violence, and greed. Our devices are distracting us from the true community God intended us to live within.

Our Eastminster Power and Light Youth Group watched this you tube video together   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY   Since then, when we see anyone missing out on community, we say, “Look up, friend. There’s a world out there.” I think the video says it best. “Go out into the world. Leave distractions behind. “ Time, hope, purpose—pretty simple things to offer our children. All we have to do is look up. Who knows, we may just find that in doing so, it brings all of us closer to our purpose.

What’s Your Sign?

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“What’s your sign?” In the 70’s that question opened up a lot of conversation. What is your zodiac sign? Were you a Libra, Capricorn or Cancer? It was a connecting question, one that supposedly determined your character traits, and propensity for relationships. “What’s your sign?” was a question that revealed a curiosity, and offered an appetizer of conversation away from the political tensions raging at the time. I am a child of the 60’s, so I grew up among astrological signs, peace signs and smiley faces.

I am sad to say that today we are inundated with signs as well, but signs that are quite the opposite. Today’s signs are neither happy, inviting, nor conversational. We see them everywhere—Confederate, gay pride, and American flags being waved on courthouses and social media as a statement. I am saddened by how the symbols we choose to define us have segregated us. We turn off our listening ears and turn on the name-calling: racists, homophobes, communists, socialists, bigots, and idiots. The list goes on and on.

And so instead of using our signs as guideposts that empower and unite us, we use them as weapons against each other.

Today, we too are at the crossroads. Racial tension is heightening. The Supreme Court has made a ruling for same-sex marriage that has cut to the core of what many hold near and dear. It affronts their understanding of “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous.” And so we take out our signs; we wave our battle flags and we take our battle stances. Finally, people are realizing that there is a war of justice and Godly principles. The battle is on.

Luckily, last time war raged on our land (the civil war) we had a president that believed that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was a call for justice and reconciliation after a time of civil war.

He said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”   His was an amazing response to a nation that was eating itself alive, when hopelessness and despair were its bitter fruit. Sound familiar?

Now anyone who shares Mediterranean roots like mine knows that our ancestor’s remedy to everything was my grandmother’s favorite word, “Eat, eat, eat!” The table is where we hot-headed Mediterraneans lay down the tools, the signs, and the weapons, and share the savory delicacies that define us. With grape leaves and cabbage rolls dripping from our lips, we vet the day. We listen to each other, with curiosity, we ask questions, and make sure that everyone is involved in the conversation.

I wonder what would happen if everyone were invited to the table today. I know it’s hard to imagine, because we are so divided. And I can see why. We are a passionate nation, built on Biblical principles. And those principles are what God expects us to defend. But which Bible passages are we defending? When we say that our country is going down the drain because of the lawlessness of its people, which Biblical laws are we upholding?

Is it Exodus 22:21-22? “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.”

Perhaps it is Leviticus 19:34? “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

Are we upholding Amos 5:10-17? “You levy a straw tax on the poor, and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them…For you oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”

I wonder about Micah 6:8. Are we living up to what the Lord requires? “To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Which Biblical principles do we choose to follow? We get entangled because we each have our sign, our banner, our cause that is important to us—state’s rights, gender equality, immigration, or healthcare.

Which Godly principles do we claim as “true and righteous”? Those who oppose Shariah law forget that it is directly from the Old Testament. And if we reject the Old for the New Testament, we have a 33-year-old prophet who hung out with tax collectors (modern day thieves), lepers, and prostitutes—not exactly law-abiding citizens.

Yet, Jesus included everyone. He invited all to the Kingdom table. If we keep people from the table (or from marriage) because they don’t follow God’s principles, then face it—we are keeping ourselves from the table too. Who is fit to come? None of us follow all of those principles.

But Jesus keeps inviting us to the table…

 There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

“I no longer call you servants I call you friends because a servant does not know his master’s business. I appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.   Then the father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. “ John 15:15

When you are invited to the table you are cherished, respected and heard.   Once at the table Jesus points each of us toward God and urges us to examine ourselves daily in light of God’s love. Even Judas, his betrayer, was at the table given dignity to the end. “Do what you came for, friend,” were Jesus’ s last words to him. And what is Jesus’s ultimate command? To love each other! And in so doing, we will bear fruit.

What is the fruit we are to bear—the fruit that will last?   They are none other than the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

In working with youth, I urge them daily to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We, as a church group, have admitted together that we have difficulty figuring this out. When the battle is raging and fear and doubt are at every corner, we need a table, some friends, and a guidebook to consult. That is why we meet together regularly. To hold each other accountable—are we bearing fruit?

Some may even want to bring signs. I am one of those. I love my signs. But at this juncture, it is my hope that we choose our signs carefully. And that IF we bring out our signs, we bring them to the table with a heart of listening, learning, and leadership so that the fruit we bear may last.

And let’s remember the words of our wise forefather:

“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Again I ask, “What’s your sign?”

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Pebbles and Paths

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There is so much pain and confusion in the world today. Those in blue that have committed their lives to serve and protect are seen as enemies. Teachers who sacrifice time, energy, and even incomes to inspire are engaged more as wardens than educators. But that is the empire we are building each day with the pebbles we carefully lay. We don’t notice that we are doing it, but we are.

When we feel entitled to dialing three numbers and minutes later officers are there to serve and protect, but we don’t remember the dangers they place themselves in each and every day—we lay a pebble. When we expect our soldiers to serve numerous tours of duty but don’t consider the families they leave behind fretting each day for their safety, we lay a pebble. When we watch countless hours of TV spewing discord and distrust of the teachers, clergy, and social workers who willingly confront the bloody, jagged edges of society so we don’t have to, we lay pebbles.

Now, let me say this clearly: I’m not saying that there are not those who need to be held accountable to the jurisdictions of their profession. But I am saying loudly and clearly that when a society starts collecting pebbles of blame, distrust, and fear, they form solidly and firmly into walls of prejudice, hate and war. Before long, the walls are so high, that no one can protect us anymore because we are encaged in prisons of our own making.

But there is a remedy: Get out of the entitlement mindset and put on the “attitude of gratitude.” Before you pick up that pebble that the media so generously offers you, turn off the TV or the radio. Take a moment to offer a blessing, a word of gratitude for the hundreds of those on the front lines that are going over and beyond their “duty”. Write a few words of encouragement to any teacher, soldier, police officer, fire fighter etc. who step out sacrificially each day so you can feel secure behind your walls. You might find that pebble not so easy to cast.

And if you are really ready to change this society, find a place of prayer. Light a candle of hope, justice, and peace so we can tear down these walls and use our energy to build paths again. Then put your feet behind it. Where there is injustice—speak up—but be mindful of your pebbles.

Our country is built on the premise that “all lives matter”–no matter what race or religion. And we are famous for the paths we have laid in these areas—paths of freedom for slaves, paths of justice and civil rights (which other countries have followed), paths for women, pathways in technology, even the first footprints on the moon. Yes, we have miles to go, but now, we are known more for our walls—racism, riots, and wars. How did we lose our way?

How about this Christmas season, we take notice. Let’s be mindful of our pebbles and place them carefully not into walls, but into pathways of love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, humility, and self-control—with our words and deeds. We might find that our joy returns. We might even find that being mindful of our pebbles isn’t such a bad thing to do “full time.” Building paths of exploration and discovery has always led to more fruitful lives than building walls.

Melody Beattie says it most succinctly: “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, and confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

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The pebbles we place today create the vision for tomorrow.  Let’s place them carefully.

Healthy Vision

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“Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!” Thanks Megan Filston Johnson for a profound sermon on Sunday. I will be savoring nuggets (and teaching from them) for weeks to come. My favorite part: When our eyes are sick, we look at something like Ebola and focus more on the few cases in America that threaten our security, rather than the millions of cases in West Africa that threaten a society. Powerful!

It’s sad how feeling like a victim (full of fear and powerlessness) clouds our perceptions. We make it all about us. Instead of reaching out with generous hands to those who are really suffering, we push away in fear. We have been given not a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline, yet we make our souls sick worrying about what will happen if we dare to be vulnerable.

The squinty-eyed people I know spread fear, hopelessness, and division faster than Ebola. Daily news feeds, email blasts, and hateful words are aimed at those whose views are different from one’s own. We are all so wrapped up in own hurt and fear that we don’t see the hurt we inflict on others. And we have a vaccination for it, but we choose not to use it. It’s called the greatest commandment. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This translates into every part of our existence: from global health, to family life, to politics. Truly, our eyes are windows into our bodies. I hate dank cellars, so I’m choosing to live in the light. As I attempt to keep my squinty-eyed greed and distrust in check, perhaps I can be more of a light bearer. I have a home remedy—hanging around children. If I want eyes wide in wonder and belief, that’s where I’ll start. How about you?Eyes are windows

 

Lessons From Glass #2–Weak Spots

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Everyone thinks I am a strong person. I am in most ways, except one: living in chaos. I am great with chaos, as long as I get to sort, order, and put things away into neat and tidy places of my own choosing. But when the chaos cannot be categorized, analyzed, and put into ordered piles, or when the piles just seem to multiply like Tribbles in a Star Trek episode, then my life gets out of balance. And I don’t handle imbalance very well.

I add rhythms to my life to keep the equilibrium—morning meditation (which includes devotions/solitude), daily writing, and nighttime baths. Each week I take a Sabbath. When I can get those, no matter how cluttered and chaotic my life is, I can stay in balance.

But lately, with our packing, moving and renovating, I cannot find balance. When I unpack one box, three more are found. When I get one room situated, we need to break it down for the sub-contractors to be able to work. Whenever I try to carve a day (or even a few hours) out for Sabbath, some emergency emerges that keeps my wheels spinning. Things just will not stay in their proper places, in their neat and tidy little categories, which bring me such comfort. So my weak spots show through in the form of anger, sarcasm, and general wretchedness. Luckily for me, I have an understanding husband, even though he has been on the receiving end of my tensile stresses.

Isn’t that how it is with life? People and events just won’t stay in the neat little boxes we try to keep them in. They wriggle or ooze out into the rest of our lives causing stress, which in turn reveals our weak spots. In our stressful state, we tend to take things out on those closest to us: our families, coworkers, and friends.

That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with sturdy people. Because when your weak spots are showing, their strength can carry you through, and vice versa. The sarcasm, resentment, and hurtful words I flung at my husband this week were met with his gentle balanced encouraging hugs instead of the rebuke I deserved. (I have done the same for him when he has been in darker hours of despair.) That is what living in community is all about. Our strengths fill in where others are weak.

In glassmaking, there is something known as Prince Rupert’s Drop. Simplified, you drop a piece of molten glass into ice-cold water and it creates a glass object, which resembles a teardrop with a tail. Because of the unique nature of glass, as it quickly cools, the outside layer compresses against the still molten core, causing high compressive stress. The inside has an extremely high tensile stress because it is still somewhat molten.

The amazing part of these stresses is that when they work together, they are almost indestructible. You can even whack the head of the glass drop with a hammer and it will not break. But find it’s weak spot–the tail–and it will shatter. If you twist the tail even a millimeter, the entire piece will not just shatter, but explode into thousands of pieces from the tail up. Prince Rupert’s discovery led to the invention of tempered glass—helping car window glass to shatter into hundreds of tiny pieces instead of one or two dangerously sharp pieces.

 

Rupert's Drop exploding

Rupert’s Drop exploding

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I will never be able to understand all of the intricacies of glass, but I learn from it every day. If life were a Prince Rupert’s Drop, I would prefer to be out on the tail—far away from the maddening crowd. It feels safer and saner there. But I have learned the hard way that I need to be surrounded by people whose stresses can compliment mine and vice versa. Together we create a tempering which not only toughens, but prevents us from shattering.

I can’t imagine my life without my family, my church or my amazing friends, who hold me together from the inside out. Their transparency, resilience, and strength, keep me inspired and coming back for more. Perhaps that’s why I can’t get enough of glass either—its strength is an anomaly, and there are lessons to be learned from it each day.