Mountaintop…or valley?

A friend of mine loaned me a wonderful little book titled Meditations for Misfits because we had been talking about how our congregation is–in some ways–a congregation of misfits…people who don’t fit into a traditional congregation but who have found a home at Open Arms (the name of our congregation).

As I’ve been reading through it, a meditation I read yesterday really struck me. The author began with a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” Not what you usually think of!

Much of the time in my church experience, the emphasis is on the “mountaintop experiences”…those wonderful times when you feel so close to God that you want to stay there. For many in my faith tradition, those experiences occur at summer family camps–and we often look longingly back at them, wondering what happened to throw us back into the valley!

But the valley has its own value. Sometimes we’re unable to see it, precisely because God is working in our lives when we’re in the valley. I had my own experience with that when I felt like I was wandering in a deep, dark canyon for a couple of years.

I think David must have had his own wanderings in the valley as well, wondering what on earth had happened. Yet out of those valley experiences came psalms that are statements of hope and confidence…

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!…I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;…with the Lord there is steadfast love. (Psalm 130)

I will life up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121)

The valleys are where we receive the training–the discipline, as hard as it is–to make the ascent to the high places. They’re the places where we see the “great things” that call us to be more than we are.

So let’s look up…and dream. Dream of what can be…and then accept the training and discipline in the valleys so that we have the strength to climb the mountains…with God’s help.

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Almost conned…

I’m a soft touch. I freely admit it. I’d rather believe someone when they tell me a sob story…would rather believe the best of someone.

In some ways, I don’t think that is a bad thing. But it does sometimes leave me open to (almost) being conned.

Yesterday I was just heading out to my car to go to the library when I was accosted by a large out-of-breath man with a sob story. He and his two daughters had just moved to our town…were living in a motel on the edge of town…and needed some food just for the one night (and bus fare to get back to the motel). He’d been to a few other churches with no luck…had gone to a community food bank, and it was closed… Could I give him some help?

I wanted to believe him…wanted to help. But his story caught me totally off-guard, and I wasn’t sure what to do or how to react. The one thing that I did know was that I wasn’t comfortable taking him someplace by myself.

So I asked him to sit on our front porch while I went inside to ask my husband to help. Then I headed off to the library!

While I was there, my husband called and told me he was taking the individual back to his hotel. But then…another call a few minutes later.

The man didn’t want to be driven all the way to the motel…was fine with being dropped off at a church they passed. His daughters weren’t at the motel…they were staying with a woman next door who had helped them a few days already. He needed bus fare for a job interview the next day…but couldn’t describe the job. The place where he described the community food bank was where it had been…but it’s been moved for a couple of years. The story kept changing, depending on what our responses were.

I feel bad about the situation. I really wanted to believe him…but now I wonder just how much (if any) of the story was true. And if (or more likely when) someone else approaches me for help, will this “almost-con experience” make me hesitate?

I still think that being a soft touch is okay. But I guess I also need a little bit more skepticism…and that’s too bad.

It’s personal…

When I hear some of the language being used in our political discourse–and some of the discussion in my faith tradition–I cringe. It’s personal.

I’m not someone who spends a lot of time talking about sex…discussing my personal sexual orientation…or enjoying shows that flaunt sex…but today sex (in various forms) seems to be the primary topic of discussion…and it gets personal.

“Homosexuality is a choice.” Interesting…I don’t remember ever choosing to be heterosexual. I remember having crushes as a child…my crushes were on teachers or friends of the opposite sex. I’ve heard the same thing from my LGBT friends–except that their crushes were on people of the same sex. If I didn’t choose, why do people insist that LGBT must have? That’s personal.

I hear how “those” people–members of the LGBT community–have chosen to live that lifestyle, and I go “huh?” What is that lifestyle? The people I know go to work (or school), wash their cars, go to church, raise kids, go grocery shopping… That lifestyle sounds amazingly like my straight lifestyle.

“Those people” are an abomination, according to one reading of the Bible. (There are other interpretations of those scriptures every bit as valid that contradict that reading.) That’s personal. I think of my brother who has spent years in public education–well-respected, well-liked. He married his husband during the brief opportunity for marriage equality in California–does that make him (or both of them) an abomination? Not in my eyes.

“Someone who is bisexual just thinks about having sex with both men and women.” That gets personal. Why? Because my husband came out as bisexual to me after 40 years of marriage…and we’re still married. Yes, he is attracted to both men and women–but he wants to be married to me. He’s not interested in sexual relations with anyone else…but that’s where so many people’s minds go when they hear that about him. And that gets personal.

“Gay marriage will be the ruin of heterosexual marriage.” Really?? Actually, I think heterosexuals have done a good job of discrediting marriage without any help. I fail to see how my brother’s marriage (or LGBT friends’ marriages) are going to impact mine…or any of my other straight friends. I’m very willing to let them meet the same challenges of marriage, because that says that they see something of value in it. Maybe…just maybe…gay marriage can help us understand again the importance and the values found in making that public, long-term, monogamous, committed relationship.

“Approving of homosexuality will start us down the slippery slope of accepting incest, pedophilia, etc., etc., etc…” That gets personal. There’s no connection between homosexuality and those inappropriate sexual behaviors. The people I know who have been involved in them are straight.

The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children. This is not to argue that homosexual and bisexual men never molest children. But there is no scientific basis for asserting that they are more likely than heterosexual men to do so. And, as explained above, many child molesters cannot be characterized as having an adult sexual orientation at all; they are fixated on children.  (http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/facts_molestation.html)

So yes…insisting that my friends and family members who are LGBT are more likely to be child molesters gets very personal.

“We have to support biblical marriage–and gay marriage doesn’t fit that mold.” Oh? Which version of biblical marriage?

Here’s a summary:

1. Polygynous marriage – A man has more than one wife, pretty common in biblical times.

2. Levirate marriage – A man has sex with his widowed childless (without a son) sister-in-law in order to give her late husband an heir.

3. A man, a woman and her property…her slave – Check out the story of Abraham and Sarah, when she told him to go have sex with Hagar (her slave) so that Sarah could have a child.

4. A man, one or more wives, and concubines – David and Solomon fit this category.

5. A male soldier and a female prisoner of war – Women were war booty and could be forced to become wives or concubines.

6. A male rapist and his victim – According to Deuteronomy, an unmarried woman who was raped had to marry her rapist.

7. A male and female slave – The female wasn’t required to consent.

8. A man and a woman – Sort of what we expect today, except that of course, the woman had no say in it; she was her father’s property to be given away and the marriage often was to cement alliances. Of course, interfaith or cross-ethnic marriages were often forbidden.

I’m not sure any of those marriages are ones I’d want to take part in, so that’s personal!

do respect that there are individuals who have very strong feelings that are in opposition to mine, often drawn from different readings of the scriptures. My concern, though, is that far too often we refuse to listen to each others’ understandings, perspectives, stories. And when that happens, we all lose. We lose friends…we lose family…we lose the opportunity to learn and to love.

And that’s personal.

Just human…

My dad was one of the leaders of our church as I was growing up. That had its positives–and also its negatives. The big plus was that it allowed me to see them as human beings first…leaders secondly.

One of the challenges I’ve found as I’ve grown older is that it is too easy to put people on pedestals because of their position (whatever it might be). Then when they do something that is “just” human, they fall off the pedal and we allow that to cause us to lose our faith.

Yes, those who are in leadership positions should–hopefully and ideally–live out their beliefs more effectively. But they are also human beings…flawed human beings.

Does that mean we should excuse everything they do? No…not at all.

But it does mean that we need to understand that they are not perfect–and give them the grace of forgiveness that we desire for ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as my faith tradition is struggling with issues of sexuality and being a worldwide church. I work at my church’s headquarters as well, and that’s also made me think of the topic that’s the title of this post.

Unfortunately, some who have worked at headquarters–and some others who are struggling with this particular issue (as well as some who have struggled with previous issues)–have allowed the humanity of our leaders to cause them to lose faith. It’s not because of a “huge” sin (as they might perceive it). Rather, it’s the little things–the times when someone is not as kind as we think they should have been…times when someone has lost their temper…times when someone’s interpretation of scripture clashes with our own and we wonder how a “godly” leader could think that way…times when we see someone in a situation we think is “not fitting” for a leader…in other words, times when they are human.

As followers of Christ–which is my faith tradition–I am called to live out my understanding to the best of my ability. So are my leaders. I know I’m not perfect; how often have I excused my own behavior by saying something like “Well, I’m just human!” So why is it so difficult for me (us?) to allow others to be “just human”?

That’s where we all are…struggling to understand who we are–and whose we are–and what kind of society we are being called to create. We’re human…and so, despite our best efforts, we are going to fail sometimes. But we only fail completely if we don’t get up, brush ourselves off, and continue working together. After all, we’re all “just human”!

Books…RIP Maurice Sendak

I was saddened yesterday to hear about the death of Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. I remember reading that book to our son many years ago–it was a favorite, especially if he’d had a bad day. Somehow, Sendak’s ability to acknowledge the reality of childrens’ bad days–and affirming their desire to run away–made it possible for them to do just that in their imagination…and come back to reality, knowing that life would be better.

Good authors do that. They help us inhabit worlds we wouldn’t be able to otherwise–whether those worlds are fictional ones someone has dreamed up or whether they are real worlds in historical periods long before our time. We can find ourselves empathizing with those characters…seeing ourselves in them…imagining what it might have been like to have been them…and then coming back safely to our own world and time, perhaps with a better understanding of ourselves and those we interact with.

I saw a study once that said that the best indicator of the success of a child in school was the number of books in the home. It wasn’t whether a child was read to or not–or even necessarily if the parents did a lot of reading. But if there were many books in the home, the child had a greater chance of success. Obviously, if there are many books in the house, someone is interested in reading!

I can believe that study. I grew up in a home with lots of books…where reading was an acceptable activity (even if it was after I was supposed to be in bed with the lights out–and I was reading under the covers with a flashlight). When my husband and I married, our library grew…and when our son was born, he had his own library in his bedroom–filled with his own books. Our daughter (whom we adopted when she was eight) had difficulties enjoying reading–but once she “clicked” with it, she also developed her own library.

I still read…a lot. Our local library is running a “6 in 12” contest–encouraging patrons to read at least six books in the next twelve months. I looked at that…and laughed. I will easily read six books in a month! All kinds of books…autobiography, biography, science fiction, historical fiction, murder mysteries, “how-to” books… There are very few that I don’t like.

As a matter of fact, because I love books so much, I chose to share some of my choices on my blog–in my “Book of the Month” section. If you’re bored, browse in there and see if something sounds intriguing!

I can’t imagine a life without books. And so…I am grateful to authors who stimulate our imagination. RIP Maurice Sendak. I hope you and Max are enjoying a trip to where the wild things are!

Pecking away…

Where does the title of this post come from? My childhood memories of when my grandmother would buy baby chickens. They were darling little balls of yellow–but if one of them looked weak or had a drop of blood, it was doomed. The rest of the chicks would peck away at it until it died.

If Grandma saw it happening in time, she would rescue the chick, but often it was too late. The chick had been damaged too much, and would end up dying.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I picked up my grandson from his after-school program. He is at that vulnerable age–finishing middle school–and sometimes I think he is one of those baby chicks that have been constantly pecked at.

He has family who loves him–parents and step-parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles… Even within that family, though, there are times he has been damaged by issues beyond his control–mother and step-mothers basically abandoning him. His father has always been there, but there have also been frictions between them that have not made the relationship easy, even though there has been deep love.

He has lost far too many people he has loved through death and abandonment. He is 14–and in those 14 years, he has lost at least 12 loved ones.

This year has been difficult in many ways. At a time when hormones and emotions run high–and it’s a challenge for kids in completely healthy situations to deal with them–he’s had to try to learn how to express them in healthy ways. He hasn’t always succeeded…we’ve dealt with the school and hospitals far too often this year.

But things seem to be getting better. However, just as he’s learning better how to deal with emotions, his peers seem to be stepping up the pecking. Yesterday he called because he had been picked on all day, and he was tired of it. Picked on…because he is a gentle soul…because he dresses like he wants to dress (which isn’t necessarily the “cool” way)…because he’s shown that he’s vulnerable in the past.

There are too many children who seem to be like the baby chick that has shown weakness…too many children who are picked on because they don’t fit in for various reasons.

As adults, we haven’t always been good examples ourselves. But that has to change. We have to show by example that we can look past appearances…that we can value our diversity (and enjoy it)…and help the pecking (bullying) to stop so that our kids can survive and thrive.

Girl Voted the Ugliest Woman on YouTube Makes a Heartfelt Plea

Silence

Last weekend we had our annual silent retreat. Yes…silent.

We gather together on Friday night, catch up on some visiting, and then enter silence with a worship. We stay in silence all day Saturday, and come back out with another worship Sunday morning following a service of the Lord’s Supper…a personal experience with God yet also in community.

It sounds so difficult to some people who are convinced that remaining silent this long is almost impossible. Yet what we find is that coming back out of silence Sunday morning is probably the more difficult part of the weekend.

We spend so much time in noise…and because we (and our environment) are so noisy, we don’t hear the still small voice of God. We find ourselves stressed and rushing from one event/activity to the next, yet never being able to fill the hole in our souls.

It takes most of Saturday morning for us (me especially) to begin to slow down, to understand the importance of just “being” rather than worrying about “doing.” I sometimes find myself walking around the lake as I’m beginning the calming process because I feel like I should be doing something…and just sitting and listening doesn’t always feel like anything other than wasting time.

But “wasting time” in sitting with God is probably the most important thing I can do. It provides the foundation I can build on to have good relationships with others, to accomplish the tasks I need to, to get a sense of those things that are important in my life.

We do this once a year–and every year as we get close to time, I get more excited about the retreat. It is my oasis…the place and time where I am refreshed and renewed.