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May 3, 2016, 8:55 PM

Of Grace and a Bum Pancreas


   For the last few months, I have been dealing with a medical condition that can range in effect from occasional discomfort, to chronic pain, to  a disorder so serious that it can lead to hospitalization, and in extreme cases…death.

   No, I’m not terminally ill (at least no more than anyone else).  But, to be honest, I did worry that I might have cancer.  I was experiencing pain in my abdominal area, and back, which caused me growing concern as it steadily worsened.  As this mysterious condition intensified,  it struck me that the pain began after I started using an injectable diabetes drug (Victoza).  One weekend, the pain became so bad that I decided to discontinue the shots and go back to my old medicine.  The pain did not disappear, but it did seem to abate a little bit, and I called my doctor who had me tested for pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, the organ which naturally produces insulin.

   As a Type-2 diabetic, my pancreas still functions, but not adequately.  Type-1 diabetes (the most serious form) occurs when the pancreas fails completely.  If that happens, I will have to go on insulin for the rest of my life.

   The tests confirmed I have pancreatitis.  In reading about the disorder, I noted that there doesn’t seem to be a cure.  While my condition has improved since changing medicines, I don’t know if it will ever get entirely better.   I still feel discomfort, and sometimes  outright pain, and it seems to be impossible to know when those moments will strike.  I am feeling discomfort, even as I write this, but earlier today, I felt fine.

   It seems possible that I will have to contend with this condition to some degree for a long time.  Maybe for the rest of my life.

   That makes two chronic, currently uncurable, and even potentially life-threatening conditions, with which I must deal.  It was treating the first, that caused the second.

   I know many of you have had similar experiences.

   The human body is an astonishingly complex organism that functions through a series of incredibly delicate balances.  If one thing goes out of whack, it can easily knock others off-track.  Even the act of trying to fix a problem can lead to more problems.  Sometimes, worse problems.

   When confronted with situations like this, one can choose to rail against the unfairness of it all.  And, I don’t mind telling you I am a bit ticked-off to have to deal with all this.  But then, I remember how many other astounding processes continue to go smoothly…even in my ageing body.  Actually, the amazing thing isn’t that some of them have gone somewhat painfully and dangerously awry, but that so many continue to work with such reliability and resilience.

   Years ago, a colleague of mine attended a symposium on medicine and religion.  During a panel discussion, an immunologist was asked, “Why do we get sick?” 

   The doctor laughed and said, “Sick?!?  We don’t know why we are ever well!  There’s stuff floating in every one of our systems right now, that ought to kill us, and yet our bodies silently and efficiently hold them at bay without us even noticing!”

   I’ve always thought that was a pretty good example of grace.  And, it provides needed perspective.

   The day may come when my injured and faltering pancreas fails completely.  I will not be happy about that.  But, it need not be a death sentence, as it was in this country, not so long ago, and as it is in so many others, even today.

   It frustrates me that I can’t eat any more  S’Mores.  In fact,  I am currently struggling with a low-carb diet that is dreadfully dull, and which can cause my blood sugar to plummet so that I go weak in the knees.  (That happened just an hour before I wrote this.)

   I’m peeved that a medicine we hoped would make me better has actually made me worse.  But, I also understand that no medicine is without risks, and I’m not planning on suing anybody because I got the short-end of the stick on this one.

   All in all, I would rather be lying in a hammock in Tahiti eating Krispy Kremes.  But that’s not gonna happen. If I choose to just resent my status and gripe about it, I will not get either physically or spiritually better.  I can guarantee I will only worsen.

   But, if I use this experience to better understand the difficulties of others and to better appreciate what DOES work in my life and my body, then I can draw something positive from this.  The process of redemption is the application of grace to suffering in such a way that it eases the pain of the world.

   God’s grace was able to transform the cross…an instrument of oppression, terror, cruelty, and suffering, and turn it to a symbol of hope for forgiveness, mercy, and new life.  Jesus did not enjoy every aspect of this process, and I’m not so narcissistic as to believe God owes me a comfortable ride just because I’m a Christian.

   After Job has his life basically blown to smithereens, his exasperated and grieving wife tells him he should just curse God and die.  Job responds, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?"

   Some people like to believe that God only sends us happiness and comfort.  But, often what is good for us, tastes like Castor Oil, and what God needs us to do for the larger world is seriously inconvenient and downright painful.  What we do with that pain is what can give hope to the world and purpose to our existence.

   I don’t believe God gave me diabetes or pancreatitis to make some point.  But, I think my situation can be used for good, if I am open to the possibility that grace can work in difficult and painful circumstances.  With that faith, I can bring something good out of my situation, and that is redemptive.

   That is my hope.

  




March 3, 2016, 1:17 PM

A Taste of Spring


As I write this on Leap Day, the weather outside is absolutely Spring-like.  A  day like this one helps to remind and reassure us that Spring is coming.

That’s also what Easter does for a world that knows too much “winter.”

The world is a mess, today.  There is terrible violence, from lunatics randomly killing people in American streets, to religious fanatics committing atrocities in the “Holy Land.”.   A tiny handful of people control more wealth than all the 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population, and the imbalance is worsening.  Just when we got Ebola under control, Zika has gone epidemic.  And don’t get me started about the embarrassingly petty, mean, and increasingly crass circus of our state and national politics…

It is easy to give in to a cold, winter-like despair.

But then, we remember what God did with Jesus.  He was tortured to death by the civil and religious authorities.  Even people who had once cheered him, ended up screaming for his blood.  Hanging naked, humiliated, battered, and rejected on the cross…he literally died of a broken heart.  A friend had to provide a place for him to be buried, or his corpse might have been dumped next to a smoldering garbage pit called Gehenna…a name sometimes used for Hell.

Yet despite his utterly ignominious death, God raised him to new and invincible life.  His demoralized followers, suddenly found the hope and the courage to proclaim that Jesus had defeated death and sin.  Many of them would go to their own deaths insisting that their fantastic claim was the Gospel Truth.

No, it didn’t immediately fix everything.  Jesus didn’t come storming out of the tomb, trounce all the bad guys and right all the world’s wrongs.  To do so would have violated the freedom God has given us.  Ultimately, the messy world we have to live in, is largely the one we have chosen.

But, his resurrection is proof that God does not give up on us, even when all seems have sunk into evil and despair…the relentless grace of God is still at work.  There IS cause for hope!  God is determined to bring the Spring of new life to us.

Yes, it is a long winter.  But, when we take the Good News of Jesus Christ to heart, we find new courage, comfort, and a deepened capacity for compassion.  When we dare to grasp the hope of Easter, we can find the inspiration to live new lives that shine with the light of his grace.  In such moments, the winter is pushed back, and Spring blossoms.

Do not forget that God has not given up on you…or us.  Even in the winter, the promise of Spring is present.

He is Risen!




January 30, 2016, 4:43 PM

Dangerous Jesus and Spiritual Ghettos


The church, like most human institutions, has a tendency to become a ghetto.

I'm not just referring to our tendency to divide up along color lines, though what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said about 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning being the most segregated hour in America is still true, fifty years later.  But, ghettos form along all sorts of lines...class, age, religious persuasion, etc.

Churches make great ghettos​.  They easily become made up of people who hold similar views, are of similar class ​and race, and are even of a similar age.  The people within them grow comfortable and familiar with one another.

As long as life in the ghetto is good, it's easy to neglect and even avoid people who are different.  Why mess up a good thing?  Why change?

So, we slide into comfortable state of stasis, which gradually becomes paralysis.

As time passes, that comfortable klatch of folks who are so much like each other begin to wonder why the world has passed them by?

Way too many churches find themselves in that situation, because they focused...often unconsciously...upon their comfort, rather than the call of Christ, which has always been to seek out the people who are not "churchy."  His focus was on the people who were ignored, rejected, lost, and lonely.  They are often the kind of people who generally distrust, avoid, and disrupt institutions.  As a consequence, they don't tend to just walk into a church, join a committee and start tithing.  (Many don't even know what that word means.)

Years ago, I heard a Christian scholar declare that all institutions, including the church, have an inherently "demonic" aspect, because the first priority of every institution is self-preservation. This makes them risk-averse.  They don't want to change.  They don't want to sacrifice.  They want to hold on to the life they have, even if that means becoming closed-off and irrelevant to the rest of the world.  The self-preservation strategy becomes the path to gradual self-destruction.

Jesus addressed this mindset when he said, "Those who seek to save their lives, shall lose them." 

He then declared, "Those who lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel, shall gain them."

He wasn't talking about martyrdom.  He was talking about giving up old ways, for the sake of gaining new life in Christ.

A church, or an individual Christian, who seeks salvation by keeping things the same has lost sight of the radically transformative nature of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We remain inside a gradually dwindling spiritual ghetto.

This makes Jesus dangerous to a lot of churches, and to a lot of comfortable Christians.

He has always been dangerous.

But, ironically, that danger is what saves us.  He calls individuals and institutions to continual transformation.  He calls us to die to old ways and dare something new...to reach beyond the ghetto and into a tumultuous, changing, and hurting world.

We are called to follow a dangerous Christ. Because he is the one who also calls us into life. Answering any other call is what is truly life-threatening

Choose life.  Choose to follow the Dangerous Christ.

 

 




November 10, 2015, 12:00 AM

It's Not About Your Coffee Cup...


As we enter the holiday season, it seems we must inevitably deal with people who feel divinely called to rant about a "war on Christmas."

This year, the rant is focused upon...of all things...a coffee cup.

Joshua Feuerstein, has made himself a internet celebrity by posting a whole series of angry videos in which he rages against atheists, evolution, and gay marriage.  In his video on same-sex marriages, he claims that Christians are being persecuted  because gay people can marry, and ends up waving his assault rifle around, indicating that he is ready to kill in defense of Christ.  (See picture.)

Just how this comports with what Jesus taught or did, is something he doesn't bother to explain.

Tragically, this guy grabs headlines while all sorts of Christians performing countless acts of everyday compassion are ignored.

Now, he has turned his rage against Starbuck's Coffee cups.

Not being much of a coffee drinker, I hadn't really noticed that Starbuck's coffee cups have normally taken on special colors and designs for the holiday season.  But, Mr. Feuerstein...ever on the watch for reasons to be offended and to claim persecution...noted that this year, the cups are devoid of snowflakes, or pine trees, or anything else.  They're just plain red.

Apparently, this is the work of the Anti-Christ.  Because not having snowflakes on your coffee cup is a clear renunication of the Lord Jesus Christ.  (Surely, it must say this somewhere in Mr. Feuerstein's version of the Bible.)

Not having his rifle at hand, he launched a counter-attack against the heathen coffee shop by telling them his name was "Merry Christmas" so that when the barista called out his order, that's what he had to yell.  He couldn't help but congratulate himself on his cleverness at witnessing for Christ before the godless at Starbuck's.

And that, boys and girls, is how Josh Feuerstein saved Christmas!

Sigh.

Actually, there has long been a war on Christmas, and it has had nothing to do with the color of your coffee cups.

It has to do with how Christmas has been hijacked and turned into an orgy of self-indulgent materialism rather than a grateful and joyful rememberance of how the Creator took on humble flesh to idenitfy with the poor, the powerless, the rejected, and the outcast.  But then, those folks don't exactly boost sales at the shopping malls...

Here is what Christmas is REALLY about...

A dirt poor pair of peasants found themselves dealing with a scandalous and unplanned pregnancy that would have made them the targets of all sorts of judgmental gossip.  The Gospel of Matthew says they got married before the baby actually showed up.  But, the Gospel of Luke only describes them as "betrothed" (engaged) when the child was born.

Luke also says that they were too poor and powerless to get decent lodging.  Something he doesn't mention is the presence of any other family with Mary and Joseph.  In that society, it was traditional for the mother or mother-in-law to be present as a midwife.  Such a helpful presence would be especially useful for a couple forced to travel far from home at such a difficult time.  But, they weren't there.

To ancient readers, this would have indicated that the families of Mary and Joseph were so scandalized and embarrassed by Mary's untimely pregnancy, that they had rejected the young couple because of it.  (Or maybe they just didn't like the color of their coffee mugs.)

Luke also says that the first people to visit the child were shepherds.  Back in that time, shepherds were considered sleazeballs, who couldn't find respectable jobs.  The Savior of the World was greeted by the Scum of the Earth.

So, God chose just about the least likely person through whom to make an entry on earth.  And in so doing, God essentially said..."There is no one so low, so outcast, so worthless, so broken that I do not care for and identify with them.  I love them all!"

In short, the loving presence of God can be found in the most seemingly godless places and people.

That's the Good News.

The challenge is for us to see that and proclaim it.

When you realize that God could use somene as obscure as Mary and Joseph and as unlikely as their son, to change the world, then you also realize that YOU can be a vessel and agent of God's transforming grace!

What if we put our energy into lifting the spirits of someone who feels hopeless or alone and fears there is no love for them?  What if we put time into helping someone who is poor and who feels worthless?  What is we did these things in the name of Jesus Christ, instead of launching petty rants about coffee cups and raging that we are being "persecuted" because not everyone agrees with us?  What if we made Christmas less about scrambling for stuff and more about compassion and community? We make war on Christmas, when we reduce Christmas to Black Friday stampedes and ridiculous rants about being persecuted because your coffee cup doesn't have snowflakes on it

Let's keep our eye on the ball, people.  Better yet, let's keep our eye on the child who came to show us that God's love is for the least of us, as much as anyone else.

"And they will call him 'Emmanuel' which means 'God With Us!'" - Matthew 1:23




July 21, 2015, 12:00 AM

Who Is Welcome Here?


 

 

You are welcome if you are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, trans, or confused. You're welcome if you are filthy rich, but just as welcome if you are dirt poor. If you are black, white, red, brown, yellow or black and blue, you are welcome and you will be safe with us.  We extend a special welcome to crying babies and the parents who worry about them. You’re welcome if you are homies, newbies, or nomads.

 

We welcome you if you can sing like an angel or can’t carry a note in a  very large bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’  or just got out of prison or rehab. You're welcome if you’re more religious than the Pope or haven’t been in church since you were a bridesmaid, groomsman, or a pallbearer.

 

We welcome soccer moms, football dads, starving artists, Cardinal fans, Cub fans, NASCAR  enthusiasts,  opera aficionados, Trekkies, rockers, rednecks, vegans and junk-food junkies.  We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you have issues with ‘organized religion.’ (Don't worry, we can be pretty disorganized.)

 

If you blew your wad at the casino, or came because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church you’re welcome here, along with those who work too hard, don’t work or can't work,.

 

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid  and are afraid you might choke. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, the wounded and wondering.

 

And if we haven't named your issue, yet...well, you're still welcome here, because we all have them.

 

We're here because we believe God loves us, even if we have trouble loving ourselves.  We are loved even with all our differences, issues, faults and foibles.  The church is a place where imperfect people encounter and are transformed by the perfect love of God, as shown to us by Jesus Christ. That means we're in no position to reject you because of your imperfections or differences.  Jesus didn't and wouldn't do that.  Who are we, to disagree with him???


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