Category Archives: Uncategorized

Re:Connect and Re:Create

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A couple years ago I reconnected with a college friend. I was looking at a church’s website and saw an unusual, but familiar, name. Turns out it was my friend, now on staff at the church. It also turns out that she, like me, is a writer. Early this year, my friend invited me and a number of others to guest post on her blog with the theme, “Re:create.” Specifically, in her words, “we’re thinking about create with a healthy dose of play and how both can lead to transformation.

My post combines several elements: a relationship that transformed how I view the Bible; an appreciation for God’s creativity; and a healthy dose of “sanctified imagination.” You’ll need to click over there to see what that means (at least until I post about it myself).

I’d love it, of course, if you would read my guest post on my friend’s blog, “Miracles in the Mundane.” But don’t stop there; look at some of the other things she’s written—like the story of her son deciding to grow his hair to donate for wigs for kids. Check out other guest posts (the “re:create” series will run most Wednesdays), like this one that offers some helpful insights into those pesky New Year’s Resolutions.

The blog can be found at https://milagromama.wordpress.com/.

Walls

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Berlin Wall

A section of the Berlin Wall now on display at Fort Huachuca, AZ

China. Berlin. Jericho. Three “great walls” of history. Three walls that failed in their purpose of protecting their citizens. (NOTE: There is evidence to suggest that the walls of Jericho were built more to protect against flooding than invasion, but it was in an invasion that the walls collapsed.)

In the words of one researcher, “the city wall began as a way to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ socially, and evolved later into a way to prevent our enemies from laying waste to our homes.” Early walls divided neighborhoods, cities, and eventually whole countries.

As now-President Donald Trump begins to move forward to fulfill his campaign promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border,” it would be worth a look back into history to see just how effective walls have been at protecting nations.

The Great Wall of China
It stretches nearly 6,000 miles, joining numerous smaller walls in an effort to protect the expanding Chinese empire from incursions by outsiders. It’s wide enough to drive a car on today – or a chariot in its early years. Construction began as early as the third century B.C. and continued off and on over the next two thousand years.

It is an architectural wonder, employing construction methods still used today. It may also be the world’s largest graveyard: as many as 400,000 workers died during construction, many of whom were buried within the wall itself.

For all its wonders, though, the wall was doomed to failure as a protective barrier. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was responsible for most of the wall’s construction, but nonetheless came to an end when the Manchus broke through. Ever since, it has been only a colossal monument to futility.

The Berlin Wall
On the night of August 12-13, 1961, nearly 30 miles of razor wire were laid, dividing a historic city. Unlike the Great Wall of China, however, this barrier was meant to keep people in, not out. I’ve often said to young students I teach, “imagine waking up in the morning to find a fence running down the middle of your street, separating you from your best friend on the other side.”

After World War II, some 2.5 million Germans fled from the Soviet-controlled East Germany into free and democratic West Germany. By mid-1961, nearly 2,000 East Germans a day crossed the border into the west – most through the divided city of Berlin. The razor wire fence was the beginning of the end of the exodus.

Over the next several months, the barbed wire was replaced with concrete walls up to 15 feet high and stretching roughly 100 miles through and around Berlin. Another barrier was built along the 850-mile border between East and West Germany. Nearly 200 East Germans were killed trying to cross the wall into the West. Thousands more were captured – many of whom, undoubtedly, were tortured and/or died in prison. Were their deaths in vain? Or were they the valiant front-line soldiers in the battle for freedom? A mere 28 years after that razor wire was stretched through Berlin, the 72-year-old Soviet Union collapsed in 1989; a year later, the Berlin Wall came down.

The Trump Wall
The wall President Donald Trump wants to build along the southern border of the U.S. would have the purpose of China and the look of Berlin. Trump’s Executive Order calls for “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier” along “the land border between the United States and Mexico.” Estimates of the cost to build such a wall—stretching more than 1,900 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico—are put at $8-10 billion dollars. It would take as much as four years to build.

The President’s thinking falls short on several fronts, not the least of which is the simple ineffectiveness of a wall to keep out those who desperately want in. The people of San Diego—where I have lived nearly half my life—are all-to-familiar with the tunnels under our existing and quite secure border. Every year, it seems, another tunnel is discovered opening into a border warehouse, designed to transport everything from people to drugs. And these are not just dirt tunnels a few feet in diameter; one of the longest was an 800-yard long concrete hallway complete with “rail and ventilation systems, lights, and an elevator.” A $10 billion wall is no match for the $64-billion dollar a year drug business that will just dig under.

Effectiveness aside, the engineering and political challenges are enormous. If my research is correct, 1,255 miles of the border is actually water: the Rio Grande River between the Gulf of Mexico and El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Would a wall not be constructed their because it isn’t a “land border”? Or would the wall be built on land north of the river (preventing American access to water that is rightfully ours)? Or would Trump try to convince Mexico to build a wall on the southern banks of the Rio Grande, with the same effect on their access to the river?

A border wall may be counterproductive to President Trump’s desire to control immigration. Professor Elisabeth Vallet of the University of Quebec at Montreal suggests that immigrants who risk crossing the border are more likely to remain in the U.S. because the wall would make it more difficult to cross back. In that scenario, people who would otherwise maintain a home and family in Mexico would have greater motivation to stay in the U.S. rather than increasing the risk and cost of returning home.

Most ludicrous of all was presidential-candidate Trump’s vow that Mexico would pay for the wall. Short of war and occupation, the United States has virtually no way to compel Mexico to foot the bill for a wall they don’t want. Trump certainly won’t get help from the community of nations, especially in light of his antipathy toward the UN. And his blustering pronouncements may sell reality TV, but certainly will not win friends on the international diplomatic stage.

If a wall is to be built, know that it will be American tax dollars poured into the concrete, American security threatened by new enemies who were once allies, and American children who will pay the price of an increasingly divided nation and world.

That is the terrifying reality of President Trump’s “America First” mantra.

God Knows – Know God

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You do not know what you are going to do; the only thing you know is that God knows what He is doing.*

God Knows. The great challenge of faith is that we live and move in uncertainty. I chuckle to myself whenever I hear people lay out life plans: we’re going to finish college before we get married; we’ll wait a few years and get settled into jobs, then start a family. Or, We’re going to move to a cheaper area and work for a while so we can save money, then we’ll move back and be able to buy a house.

The encourager in me cheers on the young couple; the realist wants to start asking, “But what if…?”; the arrogant Bible student in me (yes, he’s there) wants to quote James 4:13-17.

God didn’t tell Abram where to go, he just told him to go; I wonder how Sarai felt about that. Jonah was told exactly where to go, and he went the other direction; God compelled a smelly, messy u-turn. Saul (the future evangelist, not the king) was following his plan when God interrupted with a blinding flash; he ended up finishing that journey, but with a very different purpose.

Plans are good and necessary; they help us make decisions today that would be more difficult without some idea of what we wanted to do tomorrow. But for those who want to follow God, our plans need to be held loosely. And when they don’t work out, we must lean on the One who is always certain.


God does not tell you what He is going to do; He reveals to you who He is.*

Know God. No matter how well planned, the future is always uncertain. Even when plans are going just as we … well, planned, life can change in an instant: Cancer. Car accident. Market crash. Layoff. Miscarriage. Or, as with a student teacher I met recently, someone else’s innocent mistake years back has rippled forward and disrupted everything, potentially laying to waste all the work and schooling and training she has done.

When plans are interrupted, life can spiral out of control. Emotions spin, hearts drain, motivation dies. We go from living to existing, and that in the cold, persistent grey of a Seattle winter. Questions drip from the dark clouds, slowly building in intensity until all life is a storm and spiritual vertigo blinds us to any sense of direction.

And it is there amid the tempest that God meets us. There we—like the Psalmist—find in God a refuge. He becomes shield and shepherd, guide and guardian. In the cancer, he is Comforter. After the layoff, he is Provider. In the waiting, he is Emmanuel, God With Us. In the injustice, Merciful.

God is not always who we want him to be, when we want him to be it. In the hospital, we want Healer more than Comforter. In the courthouse we want Judge, not Mercy (unless I am the one on trial). After the layoff, I want a job, not charity.

God rarely meets our expectations—and always exceeds them. 

In the midst of the storms of his life, Job had endless questions for God; none was answered. In the end, he only had a new glimpse of the Almighty, and that was sufficient. Saul, too, received new spiritual eyes (though, ironically, he is believed to have had very poor physical eyesight). The blind man’s prayer, “I want to see,” should be our cry when life’s circumstances blind us. The vision we need is not to see the road, but to see God, to know him in ways we have not yet perceived.

Jesus said, “This is eternal life: that they may know you….”

When only God knows, may we know God.

 

*Quotes are from My Utmost for His Highest, [January 2], by Oswald Chambers.

Gratitude

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veggie-turkeyNow thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. —Martin Rinkart, 1586-1649

Gratitude is an interesting concept; expressing it even more so – especially if you look at it across different cultures.

In the West we tend toward over-politeness almost to a fault. It’s how we are raised, with “please” and “thank you” among the first words we are taught. Other cultures almost shun verbal expressions as artificial; gratitude is better shown through actions, such as gift-giving … which must then be reciprocated if one is to avoid offending the giver!

Our Western culture is also a highly intellectual one: we will study anything. Anything! Even gratitude. And then publish our findings. And that is just what Robert A. Emmons, PhD, did. The result is his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

Emmons identifies two keys to gratitude: recognizing and acknowledging. “First,” he writes, “gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. … Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; …to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself.”

I guess some of us just need more help then others. Like me. Especially today.

Thanksgiving—the holiday, not the act—is hard. I’m supposed to give thanks; that’s sort of the point. But feeling grateful isn’t an on-demand emotion. Or is it? Of the 70 times in the Bible the words “give thanks” appear, roughly half suggest an obligation or even a command. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”

Maybe what makes Thanksgiving hard isn’t my lack of gratitude, but our culture’s tendency toward over-politeness: we say thanks more because we’re supposed to than because we feel thankful – like when we opened that sweater from Grandma last Christmas!

Maybe Thanksgiving is hard because the words of thankfulness are sandwiched between over-filled dinner plates and Black Friday sales. (Like the internet meme I saw recently that said something like, “Only in America can we give thanks on Thursday for all we have, then wake up at 4:00am on Friday to buy more.“)

But maybe Emmons’ research can help me today when I gather with family around an abundant feast. I can acknowledge the abundance of goodness in my life—and on my plate—and recognize that the goodness didn’t come from me. (Well, except for the mashed potatoes.)

And I’ll give thanks. From the bottom of my heart.

(Psalm 136 is a good example of this acknowledge-and-recognize type of gratitude. Here’s a blog I wrote about that last year.)

 

Fifth Grade

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fifth-gradeBeginning band (clarinet), soccer, and Mr. Dole. That’s about all I remember of fifth grade. Mostly Mr. Dole, whom we also called Mr. Banana or Dole Banana – and not necessarily with the respect due our teacher.

Mr. Dole was the teacher who told me I had bad handwriting. He may not have been that blunt about it, but it’s my enduring memory. For more than forty years, I’ve warned people: “I’ve had bad handwriting since 5th grade.” It’s why these days I type even the shortest note if at all possible.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent several days substitute teaching in fifth grade and I think it may be my favorite grade. Younger kids are little too dependent; older kids are little too independent. Middle schoolers don’t know anything and don’t care; high schoolers know everything already and also don’t care.

Teaching fifth graders is good preparation for leading a church: they’re young enough to still love you just because you’re the teacher; old enough to think for themselves (sort of)—even if their thinking is a little sketchy, or if they choose not to think.

Some church people, like fifth graders, will love you just because you’re the pastor, but some won’t give you the time of day until you’ve shown you love them. Some church people will think for themselves; some want you to do all the thinking, so they don’t have to work too hard.

Fifth graders are very willing to let you know when a classmate isn’t doing the right thing—and what you should do about it. Kind of like some church people. (You’re voting for whom?!? I’m telling the pastor!) Fifth graders want justice (for the other kid) and mercy (for themselves). Kind of like some church people.

Fifth graders can be exhausting or exhilarating. They can be saints or satans, angels or demons.

Kind of like some church people.

Most of all, fifth graders need me to love them, lead them, challenge and encourage them. Kind of like church people.

Father, sometimes I’m like a fifth grader: still learning but too independent and inconsistent; loving but fickle, unfair but merciful. Help me to find in you unending grace, unfailing love, and uplifting correction. Even when my handwriting is bad.