True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Mind Blowing Art Glass

Some artists attempt to mimic nature; others draw inspiration from nature without trying to copy it. Glass artist John de Wit takes the latter approach. His playful abstract pieces blend color and texture in surprising ways while subtly evoking natural forms such as tree bark, cascading water, and bird nests. The following images are from the website of Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery, which represents the artist.

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These asymmetrical forms are both whimsical and sophisticated. This isn’t your grandmother’s Tiffany vase. There’s something more organic and spiritual going on here. I’m blown away by this blown-glass artist.

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Thankful for Suffering

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What would you have tomorrow, if you only had what you thanked God for today? Would you have health? A roof over your head? What about clean drinking water, breathable air, and the ability to read? Would you have freedom to worship and express your opinions?

The Bible tells us to give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Yet we take so many of God’s blessings for granted.

Luke 17:11-17 tells the story of a leper who was thankful for being healed by Jesus. Ten lepers were healed but only one turned back and thanked him. What would have shocked the original hearers most was the fact that he, the hero of the story, was a Samaritan, not a Jew. It’s a lesson about racism as much as gratitude.

It’s wonderful to thank God for healing, but what about those who aren’t healed? Almost 50 years ago Christian author and radio host Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed in a diving accident that left her in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. She begged God for healing but no healing came. Here’s what she wrote in Charisma Magazine about that experience:

God’s “no” answer to my physical healing more than 40 years ago was a “yes” to a deeper healing—a better one. His answer bound me to other believers and taught me so much about myself. It has purged sin from my life, it has strengthened my commitment to Him, forced me to depend on His grace. His wiser, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, and helped me to know Him better.

It isn’t easy, but many people have learned the wisdom of being thankful not only in suffering but for suffering. I haven’t mastered this art. Not by a longshot. My natural reaction when God allows hardship into my life is to wallow in self-pity and ask, Why me? What I have I done to deserve this? That approach reveals a misunderstanding of God’s will. God wants what’s best for us, not what’s easiest.

People who haven’t suffered are insufferable. People who endure hardship and suffering have an opportunity to become better people, but it doesn’t work automatically. Suffering can make us better or it can make us bitter. The choice is ours. We must make up our minds how we will choose, because suffering is universal. Eventually everyone suffers in this life. It’s as inescapable as death and taxes.

There’s much good that can come out of suffering. For starters, suffering humbles us. It’s difficult to remain proud, when pain and hardship has laid you low. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest churches in the world. It sits over the cave where ancient tradition tells us Jesus was born. To enter and see the place where Jesus was born, you have to go through a small door called the Door of Humility. It may have been built small to keep people from entering the church on horseback. It has an important effect on those who walk in. The tiny door forces visitors to bow as they enter. By bending down as they approach the holy site, they symbolically check their pride and egos at the door. Suffering is the real door of humility.

Not only does suffering promote humility, it changes lives for the better. History is full of stories of people powerfully transformed and made better by suffering. Our lives can be changed by suffering too, if we offer our suffering to God and allow God to use it for our good.

The greatest example of God using suffering for a greater good is the passion of Christ. The suffering of Jesus brought about the salvation of the world. It provided a channel of mercy through which the healing streams flow from God to man. Because he suffered on the cross in this life, we don’t have to suffer separation from God in the next. That’s Good News worth believing and sharing.

But there’s another benefit of suffering that most have never heard of. God invites us to participate in Christ’s saving death not only by believing but also by joining our suffering to the suffering of Christ for the good of others (Colossians 1:24). Don’t ask me how that works. I don’t know. But I believe it because it’s in Scripture.

Mother Teresa dedicated her whole life to serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India. Here’s what she said about suffering: “Suffering is nothing by itself. But suffering shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift, the most beautiful, a token of love.”

As we count our blessings this Thanksgiving for all the good gifts God’s given us, let’s not forget to thank God for one of his greatest gifts: the gift of suffering.

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Scared to Death

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I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org), “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Disappointment in Prayer

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“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Jesus understood how easy it is for his followers to become discouraged. That’s why he told his disciples “to pray always and not lose heart.”

The first time I remember being disappointed with prayer was when I was 12. My uncle was dying of lung cancer. The phone would ring early in the morning. It was my Aunt Laura calling from Connecticut to give my mother the latest update on Uncle Ray’s condition. When she hung up the phone, my mother would do two things. She’d go in the bathroom and throw up. The stress was too much for her. And she would pray. She prayed more for my Uncle Ray’s healing than I had ever known her to pray for anything. She sent money to a prominent televangelist, because he said if she did God would work a miracle. As my uncle slid closer toward death, she prayed more and gave more. It didn’t work. Despite all the praying and giving, Uncle Ray died.

What do we do when we pray and are discouraged because God doesn’t answer, or says no, or gives us a different answer than the one we wanted? Jesus said the answer is to “pray always and not lose heart.” Easier said than done.

Psalm 136:1 says, “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.” God isn’t just good. He’s good to me. Even when he doesn’t give me what I want, God loves me dearly and wants what’s best for me. The only way I can persevere in prayer is when I trust God and believe in his goodness.

The Parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) reminds us we need to keep on believing and keep on praying no matter what. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a verse that says to just ask God once and then stop asking.

An important part of persevering in prayer is humility. We have to be humble enough to realize that what we want isn’t always what God knows is best. That’s why Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but thy will be done” (Luke 22:42).

According to William Barclay, judges like the one in the parable were paid magistrates who were notorious for taking bribes. A defenseless widow like the one in the story stood little chance of winning her suit. She prevailed because she wore the judge down by her persistence. The story has a happy ending, even if real life often does not.

What do we do with this parable when we know that God doesn’t always fix things the way good people want it, even good people who pray persistently? We have to remember that every promise of scripture isn’t absolute but relative. If God promises to heal or perform miracles for those who have enough faith, that doesn’t mean God is under any obligation to heal or perform miracles. Faith doesn’t just mean believing you’ll get what you want.

Faith means trusting in God, regardless of whether he does what we want him to do. Faith means praying, “Thy will be done,” not “My will be done.” Faith means believing that God will answer us but understanding that he may not give us the answer we want.

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Hungry For Change

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Woman picks through food waste in Kampala, Uganda

October is World Hunger Month. It’s an important time to remember how daunting the problem of hunger is. One billion people in the world are hungry, and over 46 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning they skip meals or cannot afford to eat healthy. That’s surprising since 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually. That’s enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. There’s no shortage of food. There’s an abundance of poverty. Those with enough money eat well whether they live in Washington DC or Timbuktu. There’s also an abundance of greed, corruption, and infrastructure challenges that contribute to the problem of food insecurity.

While I was in Africa I saw up close the devastating effects of a broken global food system. I remember watching a woman picking through a pile of food waste in Uganda and children begging on the streets in war-ravaged Somalia. The hunger problem in America is less obvious. Poor families rely on cheap, unhealthy processed food to get enough calories, which has led to an obesity epidemic. We usually think of skinny, emaciated people as hungry. Overweight people may not be hungry, technically speaking, but obesity is often due to a lack of affordable, healthy food.

Giving food to the hungry is a stop-gap that treats the symptom, not the root problem. What would it look like if we got serious about trying to end hunger and poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem? I’m not sure, but it should start with building relationships with the poor, not just giving them food or money (though sometimes that’s what they need most to help them through a crisis). Using our God-given time, talents, and resources, we could empower those in need to work toward getting out of poverty themselves and helping others to do the same. A hand up rather than a hand out. What’s needed is an approach that captures the spirit of the following quote by Lao Tzu:

Go to the people:

live with them,

learn from them

love them

start with what they know

build with what they have.

 

But of the best leaders,

when the job is done,

the task accomplished,

the people will say:

“We have done it ourselves.”

What would that look like in the context of relief for the poor? Scholarships to help pay for education and job training. Microfinance programs to start small businesses. Childcare co-ops for single mothers. Ride sharing. Community gardens. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes the challenges seem so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. But the problems of poverty and hunger won’t solve themselves. We need to take action. We need to begin. To quote Lao Tzu again, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So let’s get moving.

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Gone Missing

Kindly reader, I am a blog without a blogger

He has gone missing for weeks

and my house is empty. Suffer me awhile,

or go, and if you meet him—

he with a distant look and shambling gait—

tell him the hearth is cooling down.

 

I won’t know a thing for days,

he takes to a walk-about

and never pays me notice.

What kind of life is that?

 

Yet I’ve never expected different—

I’m glad he just comes back at all.

And you could say absence

sometimes makes for a better blog.

 

Adapted from Paul Quenon, “Gone Missing,” in Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2014), 13-14. The words “poem” and “poet” have been replaced with “blog” and “blogger.”

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