When the most unlikely thing happens

I place a certain amount of faith in numbers. I think we all do, consciously or subconsciously. But sometimes, seemingly out of the blue, all of the odds, all of the polls, all of the numbers let us down. The most unlikely thing sometimes does happen. And the sails drop and our jaws drop and we are stunned, leaving us momentarily useless.

I rather like that feeling while I’m watching Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater. You know, he calculates probability in a seemingly supernatural way, predicting (accurately) two weeks in advance where his partner John will be and with whom at a particular time on a particular day. But the rest of us are surprised – surprised at the accuracy of Sherlock’s ability and surprised by our own inability to make a similarly calculated prediction. But even Sherlock has to regain his balance when the unpredictable, unlikely thing happens.sherlock

We might feel empowered when the unlikely thing happens for good … such as hitting the Powerball numbers perfectly. Or dodging a tragic accident by a hair. And power is a drug like no other. So, finding empowerment through lucky chance is, well, far more often disappointing than empowering.

Typically, we either thank God or blame God for these unlikely events. When those of us who claim to have faith in God are shaken by the failure of the odds or the polls, we are shaken more likely by the fact that God didn’t outweigh the odds or the polls to restore order and balance in our suddenly-chaotic universe. And that shows up as fear and anger. (It shows up as fear and anger in those who do not claim any faith, too. That’s just the human default.) If we aren’t careful, we take on the role of the victim. You see it on social media all the time – the scrappy victim who defies everything the “other side” stands for in articles and memes, but who does nothing to be a proactive champion of what is good and right in the world. We all see what victims are against, but never what they are for.

So, what do you do when the most unlikely things happen? I mean, after you get over the stunned phase. After you recover and realize that some things remain predictable after the unpredictable thing shook your confidence. What do you do?

The way you answer that question has everything to do with where your faith lies.

And everyone has faith in something.

Ironic loss: an ALS story

I’ve  said that I “lost my voice” on several occasions, usually related to overuse, allergy symptoms or an infection. But, when I say my mother “lost her voice,” I’m describing something much more sacred, more real, much more permanent than the common way I’ve used that phrase in the past.

My mother has been a singer and musician most of her life. She was a self-taught pianist who got her first position as church pianist at the ripe old age of 10. She served as music director in church most of her life and still to this day plays piano at church when she can attend. But, more than a pianist, my mom is well-known for her beautiful, emotional, belting voice and the songs she has written. She thinks about music and lyrics all day long, every day. But not any and all kinds of music – just Christian worship. All Jesus, all the time. The music she wrote and recorded (plus some songs that never were recorded) is a testimony of her faith in Jesus.

That’s why this disease that has overtaken her seems so ironically cruel. Her tongue – the one that confessed Jesus so consistently throughout her life – has now betrayed her. The particular form of ALS she has been diagnosed with has robbed her of the ability to speak or sing. Swallowing is typically a traumatic ordeal, too. Yet, as she lies in bed in-between naps and bitter attempts to take in nourishment, song recordings in her former voice play constantly at her bedside, singing out a message of hope for a better future in heaven. Healed and restored. Whole again in the presence of Jesus and loved ones who have died before us.

If you have a few minutes, please listen to her sing just a few of the many songs she wrote: Angels, It Was For This, Forever His.

My sister gave her a whiteboard to help us (my siblings and I) communicate more easily since it’s nearly impossible to understand her anymore. Rather than using it to speak to us, this is what she wrote: ”

 

With everything she has left to give, she means it.

JanS

For supernatural mercy and grace in the days my mom has remaining here, God, I pray. And for the courage to follow her example and use what we are given to testify to Your love and greatness in all our days – the best and the worst – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our Triune God, we pray.

 

To listen to and purchase Sandy’s music, visit her music page here.

Tuning in to God

Some things are hard to describe – like the smell of a thrift store. (I just smelled that particular smell while walking down a long hallway at the hospital where I work. I recognized it right away, but I’m still trying to figure out why the otherwise empty hallway smelled that way…)

How about the sound your tires make as they’re wearing down to the no-tread zone? A faint roar? (Or a loud roar, depending on just how worn they are.) If you’re not prone to procrastinate or else take a trip to the land of denial, then you will recognize and respond to the sound pretty quickly, however you feel it or describe it.

My son and I have been on a bit of a Star Wars kick since we saw Episode 7: The Force Awakens over the holidays. Since then, we’ve re-watched episodes 1-3 and now we’re finishing up 4-6 (the oldest ones.) Episode 5 (The Empire Strikes Back) is the one where Darth Vader famously corrects Luke that he’s Luke’s father. (Luke’s reaction at 2:20) After several death-defying slips and falls, Luke speaks to Leia telepathically or through “the force,” and she hears him, just in time to rescue him from certain death. (Click here to see the scene. You know you want to see the whole movie again now.) Sorry, I am digressing …

Whether through certain smells, or sounds, or through other clear-yet-difficult-to-explain messages we receive in our head, I think we have all experienced a sense of recognizing something that is relatively hard to describe. It’s important for us to recognize the normal nature of this when we begin thinking about the notion of hearing from God. Does God still speak to us today? Well, I have to say, “YES!” As a matter of fact, I wonder about the person/people who ever started the nasty rumor that God doesn’t speak to humans any more … (I suppose “if it doesn’t happen to me specifically, then it doesn’t happen to anyone?” I’m sure we all can think of several hundred ways that line of thinking has played out in history. Ex: “Racism doesn’t exist any more …”, “Everyone has access to jobs and food!” Get it? It’s called “bias.” And it wrecks your perspective when you don’t weigh your bias against the experiences of other people.) And I digressed again ..

tunerI believe the question of how to hear from God is less about whether or not God is speaking and more about how well we are tuned in. We could be so distracted that we simply don’t sense God (the way some people don’t smell or hear what another person smells or hears until it’s pointed out.) We may get a message that we don’t like or don’t trust, so we just dismiss it. (When you do that very many times, dismissal becomes your default mode.) The fact that we miss it does not mean that communication was not attempted. It merely means we’re not listening.

I am currently on a journey – along with the members of the church where I serve – of very intentional discernment of what God is saying we should be and do. Spiritual discernment comes when we engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, study of scriptures, silence and reflection – both individually and collectively. These disciplines are life-changing not because of what we are doing but because of what GOD DOES through us in this process of opening ourselves up to the Spirit.

If you have been seeking to hear from God, I assure you, God is speaking. Take the time to quiet your mind and get away from the distractions that would deafen, mislead and blind you. The Spirit of God is very much at work in these days and times. The message God sends is recognizable because it is always – ALWAYS – based on genuine, sincere love and a desire to lead others into that knowledge and experience.

The Spirit of God never contradicts the teachings of Jesus but instead reminds us of what Jesus modeled. If someone hates his or her neighbor and claims to be following Jesus, then you can know you’re dealing with a confused person – not someone to follow on your journey toward faith in God lived out in the context of your world.

Practice listening for God. You might “hear” that voice in unexpected ways. The more you listen, the more you will recognize the voice of God in contrast to the screaming, contradictory voices that vie for your attention on a daily basis. Once you get tuned in, you won’t want to ever change the dial …

 

 

The lost art of consensus building 

Making sense of situations isn’t always possible. That never stops me from trying, though. I believe that understanding grows with every puzzle piece we add toward the big picture.

I have been deeply puzzled lately by a combination of two phenomena in our culture. The first is the great difficulty churches are experiencing in maintaining their communities. The second is the circus unfolding in our 2016 Presidential race. As I see it, there is a common issue – that being the tyranny of personal opinion and its twin desire to amass majority agreement through strategic influence. In other words, our culture places value in not only having strong personal opinions, but also in having enough charisma to persuade others to agree with that opinion. When we can persuade the coveted majority to our opinion, we achieve celebrity status.

The problem – as I see it – is that all of our tendencies to forge opinions, argue our point, develop allies and enemies along arbitrary lines of agreement and disagreement do nothing to establish or even encourage unity.

It is no wonder we are all so divided. But, there is no doubt that God’s people are being drawn toward repentance for our divisiveness and to search for ways to become an example of true unity.

consensus-logo-on-blue-large1One piece of the puzzle, as far as I understand it, seems to be the lost art of making decisions by consensus. Here’s what consensus is not: majority vote. Here’s some of what consensus requires:

  • Inclusion of all members
  • Accountability to the larger community as well as the process
  • Ground rules for process
  • Commitment to implementation

In consensus-building, levels of agreement still exist. Not everyone agrees wholeheartedly with the final decision, but everyone accepts the decision or else agrees not to block it, for the good of the whole and for the sake of making the best decision for the community involved.

If you are interested in the concept, check out this document developed by the American Heart Association.

Clearly, consensus unifies in ways that voting cannot. Consensus helps us see and honor a continuum of ideas while voting sets us up to think in binary comparisons. 

Somewhere along the line, we started believing that we experience unity when we find our particular tribe of like-minded people. There, we all have the same basic opinions and values. Most likely, we all wear the same brands of clothes and drive similar vehicles. We all look and think practically the same way, so this must be unity!

What I’m saying is … that is not unity. Unity is something much more challenging. Unity happens when you find yourself working alongside someone who is quite different from yourself, achieving a common goal and forming bonds of trust and honor. Even love. True community happens in this type of mold-stretching unity.

My heart aches when I see division building rather than unity. It aches because I know it is not our purpose or our calling. I always go back to the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, where Jesus prayed for our unity. Us. OUR unity – with God and with each other.

When we ask God’s will to be done, we are asking for unity.

I beg for it and fully believe it will be reality. On earth, as it is in heaven.

Holy Week Reflection: True Unity in the Body of Christ

“We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together for a common goal.”

In this year of heightened political tensions in the U.S., the subject of unity has been weighing heavily on my mind. Unity sometimes seems like a pie-in-the-sky concept. Is it even attainable?

Differences of belief in political and religious matters are well known obstacles to unity. That fact is more obvious during any presidential election year, but I don’t remember a more contentious election environment than this one.

Speaking from the perspective of a Christian minister to people of varying political persuasions, I truly dislike the current political climate and all the rhetoric. I don’t like the fact that political issues often undermine unity within congregations. Perhaps it is no coincidence that churches are experiencing increased tension and disunity at this time, too. Having served in churches for the past 20 years as a staff member and having been involved in church life for 90% of my time on earth, I can say that congregational unity is incredibly difficult to achieve in any long-term way. But, imagine how difficult it would be for us to manage unity within, say, TWO congregations. Then, following that line of thinking to its end, imagine unity among all followers of Jesus everywhere. Sounds impossible, eh?

It may sound impossible to maintain such radical unity, but disunity was not Jesus’ desire for us, the Church.

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be [one in us], so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21, NRSV)

I’m praying not only for them
But also for those who will believe in me
Because of them and their witness about me.
The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—
Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
So they might be one heart and mind with us.
Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. (John 17:20-21, The Message)

Jesus’ prayer for his disciples was extended beyond their time in history. He prayed also for those of us who would believe based on witnesses who have continued to carry the story and traditions of our faith throughout history. Beyond us, Jesus’ prayer for unity extends to all believers of all eras.

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind.”

Any Church-lover will tell you that the Church (universal) is in a state of transition. It is my personal belief that the transition is not toward anything destructive, but is instead a transition toward unity. In the midst of all of our current denominationalism, “worship wars,” tensions between small churches and mega-congregations and other divisions based on personal preferences and interpretations, I believe that God is impressing upon the Church our goal toward unity.      unity

If dividing ourselves into like-minded groups of people (by way of differing denominations of believers) was something believers did to achieve some measure of unity, then why hasn’t it worked? Why doesn’t unity automatically happen in a group of (supposedly) like-minded people? My opinion is that denominationalism hasn’t worked in attaining unity because it is not Jesus’ desire for the Church.

We will experience true unity by respecting each others’ differences in culture, preferences and opinions while working together toward a common goal.

A key word in this picture of unity is “respect.” This one very important virtue is sorely lacking in our society. Spending a very short time reading through online comments – related to just about ANYTHING – will demonstrate just how comfortable many of us have become with disrespecting others. Yet, we witness daily how quickly disrespect can escalate into something more violent. In order to understand what makes another person feel respected or disrespected, we must genuinely care about him or her. Once we are made aware of something we are doing that is considered disrespectful, then we have to stop doing it. Married couples learn to maintain unity this way … or they don’t remain married. Some families are able to maintain unity while respecting each other’s differences. It requires a commitment to stay together in peaceful times but also through conflict. Our commitment to unity rarely goes beyond the nuclear family, but we must extend that commitment into our church community. It’s a commitment based in love – love that unites God, others and self.

During this Holy Week, the faithful will reflect on the tensions Jesus holds together between love and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness, death and new life. May we also reflect on the prayer of Jesus for us and our calling toward oneness of heart and mind, even in the midst of our intense diversity.

Our Thresholds

I’ve never experienced an actual “swirly” – you know, when someone holds your head in a toilet while flushing it – but life has lately brought that image to mind and I think I may know how it feels.

Another image has come to my mind during this particular stage of life – one of being stuck in a spin cycle (as in washing machines) that never ends. Do you wait for it to stop spinning and then go about your business? Or has something gone wrong with the machine and will the spin cycle continue until you somehow intervene?  And then, this illustration reminds me of those dark, late nights when I’ve been stopped at a light for a really long time (probably 20 seconds) for absolutely no good reason because no one else is on the road. I know what I do in that scenario, but what do you do? Sit and wait, or get on with it despite the red lights in your face?

If you know me, you know I love theological reflection and making connections to life as it really is. (I add “as it really is” as a nod to my upbringing which paid constant homage to “life as we think it ought to be.”) When my mind begins conjuring images, like the swirly and the spin cycle of my washer, I know it’s time for me to pay attention to the Spirit of God. Something life-giving is happening and God is trying to help me understand it.

liminalspace
from the-liminal-space.com

There is a Latin word, limen, which means “threshold.” From it, comes two terms you probably have encountered before: liminality and liminal space. The concept has been applied to literature, anthropology, psychology, theology and other “‘logies” because it is so rich metaphorically. Basically, liminality and liminal space both take the concept of a threshold and apply it to times of transition, ambiguity and waiting. In theological terms, it becomes a time of growth, learning and spiritual transformation if the person experiencing it embraces the opportunity.

So, what do you do in liminal space? If I make the comparison in my own life to stoplights late at night, then I “bust” through without any regard to legalities in favor of my own comfort and perceived safety. If I compare it to being stuck in a spin cycle, then I apparently stay, hoping and praying that the spinning will stop soon.  I don’t think the swirly comparison applies … that one was probably allowed through just to grab my attention. 🙂 What I can’t ignore in either comparison is the presence of fear.

Fear can either cause us to run impulsively (stoplight) or it can paralyze us (spin cycle.) I suppose for me, this particular liminal space is designed to help me work through some previously unnoticed or unnamed fear.

Today is still early in this year’s season of Lent. If you find yourself in a period of liminality in your own story, I encourage you to embrace this opportunity to pursue the freedom that comes in working together with God to become the man or woman you were created to be. Whether you are wrestling with fear, or an unforgiving spirit, or an unloving attitude, or whatever else, this could be just the space you need to transition to the next phase of your life.

Our love-hate relationship with fear

Our hearts cry today for and with the people of Paris. pray-for-paris-1The effects of terrorism are not foreign to us. We still feel the anger and the grief from 9/11 acutely. Days like yesterday remind us of that. Because the impressions of September 11, 2001 are so deep, we have the ability to feel for our neighbors in France who are suffering in November of 2015. I would like to say that we feel the way we do today because we feel compassion and sadness when we see atrocities or injustices anywhere, but that’s not the case.

Terrorism, you know, doesn’t only occur when ISIS or al-Qaeda or Hamas or name-your-least-favorite-Islamic-terrorist-group plans an attack on Westerners. Terrorism has existed as a tactic of fighting to impact economic, military and religious power balances since some-ancient-somebody figured out you can effectively use fear to manipulate another person’s resources and/or decisions. While the media makes it hard to miss in certain instances these days, terrorism has been happening our whole lives. Heard of the KKK? Yeah, they’re terrorists, too. Remember Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma City? Terrorist.

The whole point of terrorism is psychological warfare. Have you ever considered how far we are willing to go, when we are afraid of something, to protect ourselves from it – whether or not it really exists or is actually happening? Well, if you haven’t, please know that terrorists have. And what they understand about human responses to fear drives their strategic planning in whatever war they choose to wage.

I haven’t been on a plane since 2000. Want to take a guess why? My reaction is small potatoes. One person’s outcome. The effect of 9/11 on us as a nation? Immeasurable.

American culture is confusing. We encourage and indulge fear as evidenced by our love of horror movies as a means of entertaining ourselves. (Not me, by the way. I hate those.) One word: Halloween. We appear to love violence if you judge us by our entertainment appetites. We come across as not being afraid of violence or death. (Zombies DO scare us, apparently.) Consider the violence in schools, for instance, that we have witnessed just since Columbine. We fail to take seriously the gunmen or their social media manifestos and cult followers. We certainly don’t fear them. We just assume they’re crazy. And we hope there aren’t more of them out there. (There are, by the way.)

Terrorists resort to terror when the enemy cannot be engaged by traditional means. Controlling or harming the enemy through traumatic fear becomes the “best option” if war is to be fought.

So, if a) social media isn’t going away, which means, from now on, we are going to know all the way-out, incomprehensible things that happen on earth as soon as they happen, and if b) terrorists have always been and will remain a part of the landscape until all of creation is restored under Jesus, then what are we supposed to do? Hope to avoid terrorists and acts of terror? Just resign ourselves to being bullied by fear-mongers? Pretend it isn’t a real threat because we haven’t been personally hurt?

It’s probably safe to say that we continue to try all of those things. I think it’s important to remind each other that God DOES care about what is happening here. We pray for those families who have lost loved ones and for those who are injured when tragic events like yesterday’s terrorist attacks happen. It’s rightfully our first response.

For those of us who believe in prayer wholeheartedly, we pray believing that God will answer and be present for those who are hurting. We pray believing that God will intervene and good will come. We pray believing that, as we pray, God will transform US. We pray for peace, believing that the God who instructs us to “fear not” will actually build a faith in us that can move mountains. We pray for healing and restoration, believing that God’s love is the answer to all our suffering. Then, after all of that praying and believing, we walk out into a sometimes terrifying world and spread some perfect love, which, according to the God who loves us perfectly, casts out all fear.