Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blessing and Letting Go, Part I

“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”1

As Lauryn nears the end of her high school career and the beginning of the rest of her life, the more dread and panic creep into my heart. It will soon be my turn to experience separation anxiety, a feeling I have not known since about age 4. As our children grow up, we know they will all eventually leave our nest, but we don’t like to dwell too much on that fact. Most of us as parents of very young children have the luxury of quickly dismissing these thoughts since that reality will not be most of ours for quite some time. But with a teenager halfway through high school, it is far too quickly becoming my reality.

Parents “inevitably begin losing their children as soon as they are born…”1

This anxiety hits each one of us though along the journey of parenthood – when our child takes his first step (away from us), when she boards the school bus for the first time, when he has his first sleepover away from home, when she goes out on her first date – all of these milestones remind us of the speed of life and how short the time we have our children to ourselves. The author calls this “mundane grief.” The whole subject of “mundane grief” – the daily nontragic grief so rooted in family life- is remarkably absent from most discussions of loss, as well as from discussions of the family. It is not a coincidence, then, that one of the most overlooked daily practices of faith in families is the practice of blessing and letting go of the other person and your own lament and sorrow. The problem is you can’t just up and bless someone you love out of the blue. Blessing commits us to a way of being with one another and comes with some very sticky strings attached: the strings of attachment, separation, loss, and failure. To get to blessing, you have to go through (or maybe it’s best to say “muck around in”) its component parts. You have to acknowledge life’s limits. You have to offer and receive forgiveness as a step toward receiving and bestowing blessing. Finally, you have to let go in trust.

The author mentions the story of Jesus as a 12-year-old teaching in the temple as his parents search for him for three days. In one translation, Mary, who speaks so few words in the scriptural canon, exclaims, “Behold, your father and I have been looking for you in anguish,”… Mary and Joseph searched for three whole days – an almost unfathomable amount of time compared to parents nowadays who become hysterical when a child fails to show up at an appointed time and place. In essence, we are not all that different from Mary, the mother of God, who, as Gaventa2 notes, contends with a child that is “profoundly hers and yet not hers at all.”

In blessing, we find reprieve and release. We step under the wide umbrella of God’s grace.

According to dictionary.com, certain definitions of bless include “to request of God the bestowal of divine favor on”, “to bestow good of any kind upon” and “to protect and guard from evil.” As our children grow and we repeat the phrases common in everyday life – “Have a good day”, “God bless”, “Goodbye”, “Love you” – we bless our loved ones. A hug, a touch, a kiss, a tear. These are all blessings we give all the time, marking our gratitude and care and granting peace and goodwill as our loved ones come and go. Blessings are also gestures that speak when words don’t… These small words and movements can feel so inadequate, so utterly mundane that we don’t even notice them. Yet they actually have great importance, and it can be helpful to recognize them for what they are. They are the blessings we bestow daily, coming and going, gracing others with our love, assuring them of our continued presence, and turning them over in trust to God and the wider world. Blessing is not an easy practice, nor is it one that calls attention to itself. But it is a trust-filled, hope-filled, love-filled practice at the core of Christian faith.

Blessings abound in Scripture, New and Old Testament alike. Some are given without much fanfare, others are wrestled over (Jacob w/the angel), lied for (Esau’s stolen birthright), create controversy (disciples shooing away the little children) and descend as a dove upon the receiver (Jesus’ baptism). Our society may not accord blessing the same status and power it assumed in Jacob and Esau’s time. But we underestimate its importance at our own risk and loss.

The practice of blessing, like a good benediction, declares our willingness to live joyously and gratefully within finite existence and to set our loves ones free to do the same.

We will continue with the subject of letting go next...



1. A favorite closing benediction of the author she heard given at a family retreat village.

2. Quote from historian Anne Higonnet from Chapter 9 of In the Midst of Chaos

3. In reference to biblical theologian Beverly Roberts Gaventa mentioned in this chapter.

All green text comes from Chapter 9 of In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Swapping Misplaced and Dashed Hope for Better Days

I don’t know about you, but I really would like to have a whole string of great days in a row. Unfortunately, I’ve gotten into this nasty habit of gauging a day by how cooperative the children were, by how many things I could cross of the "to do" list, whether I found a great deal shopping or if I feel slim, energetic and sexy or bloated, greasy, and gray haired. I started to meditate on this emotional roller coaster and God convicted me of a spiritual virus in my pattern of thinking called misplaced hope.
To a large degree, barring Job like circumstances, lousy days are the result of misplaced hopes and expectations. The day went as my misplaced expectations went and so followed the roller coaster of emotions. The key to long strings of good days is identifying the misplaced hopes and expectations and properly placing them back where they belong, on God.
This viral pattern of misplaced hopes focused its target in three large areas: self, others and things/ideas. By design, all of these false targets will eventually leave us feeling short-changed. Regardless of whether they are intentionally or unintentionally elevated above our hope in God, they become idols, and idols are designed to disappoint, because God is most concerned about the intimacy of our relationship with Him.
Misplaced hope in self leaves us feeling self-condemnation, self-conscious, burnt out, inferior or proud. Misplaced hope in others leads to anger, unforgiveness, co-dependency or feeling trapped. Misplaced hope in something or idea leads to debt, stress (due to lack of time), and/or exhaustion (due to lack of rest and genuine refreshment).
Replacing misplaced hope for the real article happens in a process. First you have to recognize a counterfeit hope. Here are a few verses for helping with that.
John 14:27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
John 10:10 The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy; I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.
Matthew 11:28 Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
John 7:37-38 In the last day, that great [day] of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
Proverbs 13:10 Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised [is] wisdom
Matthew 5:23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee: Leave there thy gift before the altar and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother; and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 19:6 Wherefore they are no more twain (two), but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (separate).
Misplaced hope in others can lead to bitterness, unforgiveness, strife, divorce etc..
What Jesus gives is rest, peace, refreshment, and life. However, if the thief has duped us onto buying into false hope, we feel empty, stressed, fearful and exhausted. Misplaced hopes give the thief, Satan, room to sow despair, destruction, death.
Try filling in the blank.
My _____ (children, house, job, finances, schedule, body, marriage, etc…) gives me stress.
Don’t dwell here. Just acknowledge where God puts his conviction of misplaced hope and confess it to Him.
1 Thessalonians 5:24 Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.
In plain English this means, if God wants you to do it, He will do it by the enabling power of His Holy Spirit through you. Perhaps there are some areas of life that you know you are supposed to do (legalism/law), I mean called to, but haven’t discovered how to let Him do it through you. Perhaps there are areas that we you were not meant to take on at all. Beware of cultural standards of normalcy that you may not be called to…
Romans 14:4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yeah, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
Truly, if you have faith in Jesus, you have the mind of Christ and He can show you the difference. Would you give Him the time to show you? Uncertain of some things, focus on crystal clear priorities first like getting to know the One in whom you are supposed to hope. Remember that the One you are transferring your hope to is the God of creation and resurrection. If anyone can remake (fill in the blank) that has been ravaged by misplaced hope and exceed expectations, He can.
1 Cor. 2:16 For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
Can God fix it? He can do better than fix it, he can take a junker and recondition it into a priceless one of a kind classic that others ooh and ah over. The key to this is realizing that we don’t know how. It is like He’s the pro and we are the shop hand, just co-operating as much as we understand and relaxing with the knowledge that we don’t understand much of what is going on in the beginning, but knowing that it is going to be really good.
2 Corinthians 3:5-6 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life

Phillipians 2:13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Zec. 4.6 Then he answered and spake unto me, saying, This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts.

Is. 40:31 But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Properly placed hope in God’s promises of enabling grace for the moment, lead to peace, wisdom, love, rest and refreshment, creativity, joy, a thankful heart and abundant life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Take, Read: From Seuss to Scripture - Part II

When our children first learn how to read, a whole new world opens up to them. Reading is about expanding one’s horizons. We are going through this process right now as Jayce is slowly mastering the sounds and way words are put together. Yesterday when he started reading to me, you could see the spark of excitement in the knowledge of this new power of which he was taking hold. His horizons are definitely expanding right now. And with this new power comes a safe yet challenging place – a sanctioned place for fantasy and imagination to acquire the ability to make moral and spiritual choices later in life. He will be able to “transcend the artificial boundaries of race, gender, class, and things.” He will “learn from the wisdom and joys and mistakes of others.” The practice of reading shapes us morally and intellectually. We master certain ideas, broach new values, and stretch our minds and hearts.

Most of you know I love books and am an avid reader though one of my favorite quotes by Einstein gives us some cautionary instruction on the subject: Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. Certain books as “brain candy” aside, I can see where using any books too much as an escape from the reality and adventure of living can be fruitless and even dangerous. Done right however, reading can reap enormous benefits in our lives mentally, emotionally and spiritually. With the “right books” and a “fruitful method”, [St.] Augustine was convinced, “truth could be found."

Reading aloud, reading silently, reading together, reading alone, meditation on words, meditating on the Word, listening for the Word among all the words – all of these deeply spiritual practices immensely enrich our daily life. If words are important, and if the Gospel of John pictures God’s own beginning as “Word” (the “Word of God”; John 1:1), then not surprisingly reading and its companion practices of writing and telling stories – the art of seeing and composing a life through words – have rich potential for faith. Christians are “people of the Word.”

If, after all this, you’re not sure of your own feelings about the written word, I’ve come up with some pretty good indicators (in a Jeff Foxworthy-style manner) as to whether you are a lover of books.

You just might be a book lover if…

…walking through a book shop is considered “Me” time.

…upon receiving a new book, you crack it open to smell the “fresh”, new book smell.

…you're sleep deprived because you just can’t put it down.

…80% of your wish list for Christmas or birthday is books.

…you enter a library as if it were a sanctuary.

…you’ve put Amazon.com as an icon on your desktop.

…you consider the printed word more precious than gold...and therefore spend much "gold" on the printed word.

…you recognize the act of picking up a book in some way feeds your soul.

…you have a pile of books by your bedside your are currently reading – all at the same time.

…you have more books than bookshelves.

So we read for pleasure. We read to learn, grow, experience new worlds, and connect to others. Ultimately we also read out of a fundamental spiritual need. We seek meaning and answers to profound questions of existence.

Just as food determines the state and shape of one’s body, books can form the soul. Reading, like eating, provides essential nourishment and communion. We cannot live without eating. We cannot live fully without reading. Take, eat. Take, read. Reading is this elementary, this basic to life and faith.

So if your main courses comprise of Scripture, nonfiction and "educational" books, your snacks of miscellany and your desserts of fiction, it sounds to me like you're a pretty healthy reader. Whatever it may be, enjoy your next read!

All green text comes from Chapter 8 of In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Take, Read: From Seuss to Scripture - Part I

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” ~ John 1:1

Words have a certain power, whether spoken or written. The Bible is the greatest example of the power of the Word, however many books over the centuries have instructed us, influenced us and captured our imagination. One must have a certain appreciation for books whether one is an avid book reader or not or whether the last book read was Goodnight, Moon or something written by C.S. Lewis. We cannot take lightly the privilege of being literate when the majority of the world’s population since the beginning of time has not been. And in this day and age with libraries, bookstores and the internet, we have the world and its knowledge at our fingertips.

If we go back several centuries, suggests Steve Jones, a communications professor, we find that “people were enormously suspicious about the printed word. Somebody’s words, written down and distributed on a mass scale, were thought to be dangerous.” There must still be anxiety about the disruptive danger of reading, or books wouldn’t continue to be banned from schools and burned by political regimes. Books arouse us, challenge accepted ideas, and stimulate new ones.*

Many of the stories that first captured our heart and imagination were read to us while sitting on our mother’s or father’s lap. We probably all have our favorite children’s books we still remember and treasure and have possibly even carried on the tradition by reading them to our own children. For many of us, our lives take shape, as another author says “under the curve” of a parent’s arm or surrounded by the “calm caress” of a parent’s reading voice.

Having children rewards an adult with the privilege of reading just for fun. It gives us permission to read children’s books, read aloud, and read with a warm body or two or three pressed close. Children are a gift. Books are a gift. Engaging both can be an immense pleasure in life.

But reading for pleasure and capturing our imagination is one thing. Can we truly enhance our spiritual life simply by reading? What does Dr. Seuss have to do with Scripture anyway? For young children, a story is true not because it is factual, says theologian Ann Thurston, but because it “connects with their own experience.” Children who recognize such imaginative truth are especially open to the “myth and poetry and truth of the biblical stories.” She likens story to both play and liturgy. So there is a benefit to opening up fantastical and imaginative worlds through stories for children. Maybe that’s why the lore of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy still persist, and most of us are ok with that (though some have decided to use alternative methods to teach similar messages). Several centuries ago the father of eastern orthodoxy, John Chrysostom, ranked storytelling high on his list of ways to nurture children in a Christian “pattern of life.” Stories from scripture are best, he says, but he also encourages parents to use the heroes and marvels of pagan stories to stir a child’s imagination and prepare them for stories of faith. The author is quick to mention that though books need not be overtly religious to be valuable, reading as a practice of faith must include books that offer an alternative to some of the prominent stories of wider culture.

Seuss may seem to have written nonsensical stories that are simply for fun and pleasure (in fact, his first script was rejected 27 times for not having any purpose or moral to the story) however through his many books, there is an undercurrent of morality without being preachy. “Without being a moralist, “ assents Anderson, Seuss “managed to provoke the moral imagination of children ‘who have ears to hear.’”

Books bring us into deeper moral and intellectual relationship with ourselves, others, our world, and God.

* italics mine

All text in green comes from Chapter 8 of In the Midst of Chaos by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore

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