Vultures or eagles

 Vultures or Eagles


For weeks I’ve been watching the birds circling over the mountains as I pray each morning.  They have made me want to soar like eagles.  They reminded me of eagles.

Today, as I sat watching them fly in circles, in organized groups, I came to a horrible realization.  I don’t know if we have eagles in Guatemala, but even if we do, I don’t think they fly in groups, even if the do fly in circles (I really do not know much about eagles).  I was struck between the eyes with the reality of what I was seeing.

Given what I know about Guatemala, the birds that I had been so romantically watching and longing to be like were most probably vultures!  Why had I not known this earlier?

My frame of reference growing up in the Chicago was to look for eagles.  If they were in Chicago, I never saw one, but they were our national bird.  Even the Bible tells us we can soar as on wings of eagles.  My experience had taught me, “See a big bird, think of an eagle.”

Vultures were totally foreign to my life prior to Guatemala.  I remember the first time I saw a flock of vultures scavenging a trash heap on the way to Santa Maria.  I was scared and revolted at the same time.  I actually felt nauseous , though could not bring myself to look away.  Their was something fascinating about these awful creatures.  (I’m sure they do fill some plan in God’s creation, but in my limited experience, they indicated death.  Thank you to the westerns I had watched with my Dad on TV as I was growing up.)

What this experience has taught me is how easily my past experiences and the culture in which I grew up color how I interpret what I see and hear.  It’s almost automatic, and surely was unconscious in this case. I believe this is where prejudices come from.  Our prior experiences cause us to try to construct meaning out of what we see and hear, but we are limited in our ability to interpret the facts correctly because we have only the lens of our personal past through which to view them.

How often do I think something is good and beautiful, only to find out on closer inspection it is ugly and dangerous.  Isn't this what sin is like?

From our human experience and our physical appetites, something can look beautiful and appealing.  Because we are drawn to it, we pursue this desire, thinking we are heading to our best.  Only too late do we realize that what we are seeking is a predator, seeking only to pick over our bones.

This is where God’s commands are designed to protect us.  Because of his perspective which is so much higher and clearer than ours, he can distinguish the vultures from the eagles before we are able to.  He gives us law to put a barrier between us and the vultures, and asks us to trust him not to go closer.

And we must decide.  Will we trust and obey his greater and grander frame of reference to lead us, or will we rely on our own puny perspective to guide us?  The choice is ours.

I pray I am humble enough to make the right one.

What does it mean to be blessed?

I am often saying to people, "God bless you" or "have a blessed New Year."  Today God has led me to reflect on what I mean by this, as well as how those I say it to might interpret it.

In Western society we have distorted the meaning of being bless as having good fortune, getting what we desire, or living in comfort.  We are so accustomed to wealth and a life of relative ease (in comparison to most of the world) that we have developed an incredibly low tolerance for pain and even inconvenience.  

Few of us feel blessed in 2020 due to the inconvenience and uncertainty imposed on us by the Covid pandemic.  Our lives as we have known and liked them have drastically changed.  We find ourselves frustrated, fearful and filled with discontent.  Yet, for some of us, 2020 has been a year of great blessing and we have learned to be quiet, be alone with God, and begin to understand what it means to live with God's favor.

I have learned this distinction living in a country of extreme poverty, among people who have very little in the way of material possessions, comfort, or convenience, yet believe themselves (correctly) to be greatly blessed by God.  It is this Biblical blessing I wish for you this coming year.

In searching for the meaning of being blessed, I first, of course, look to Scripture.  The passage in the Bible where the word "blessed" is used most frequently is found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus himself tells us what it means to be blessed.  Careful examinations of this Scripture shows me just how much I have distorted the meaning of being blessed, exchanging it for temporal comforts and pleasures, and forsaking the offer of those things which last for eternity.

Seldom to I wish for others to be "poor in spirit," "persecuted for the sake of righteousness," "mourn," or live as one who is "meek." But these are who, along with the merciful, those who long for justice and peace, and remain pure of heart in a world of darkness, are those who are called "Blessed" by Jesus.  (Matt. 5: 3-10). 

He goes on to say, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." (Matt. 5:11)   How can I wish these things for those I love and care for?  But isn't this exactly what Jesus is saying we should see to be and desire to have present in our lives? 

How can any of these things make me "happy" (a word often used to demonstrate the meaning of blessed)?  

Don't we often used the word "blessed" to refer to those good things in life which we do not deserve,  and identifying these things as signs of God's love for us?  The problem with this is that the things of the "good life" can make us self-sufficient and proud, depending on ourselves while giving lip-service to the provision of God in our lives.  The more I have in terms of material possessions, the more I seem to "need" just a "little bit more."  

Can God give us good gifts materially?  Of course.  He gives us these things, though, as a means of serving Him.  We are blessed so we can bless others, not accumulate more for ourselves.  This was the challenge Jesus posed to the rich young ruler in the Gospel (Matt. 19:21).  It would seem that his possessions are precisely what kept him from following Jesus.  This too can happen to us when we are comfortable and secure in our lives in this world.  Perhaps this is why Jesus spends so much time in the Beatitudes to teach us what it means to be blessed spiritually, and eternally.

Blessed does not mean we will be comfortable, or secure.  Rather, Jesus promises us that if we embrace the life style He identifies in the Sermon on the Mount that we all be shown mercy, comforted, and filled with good things.  We will inherit not only the earth but the kingdom of God, and be privileged to be call children of God.  We will become holy, and more like Him.

This, then, is what I wish for you.  To be blessed with all the blessings promised by Jesus, and experience the satisfaction of growing closer to Him daily.  This can be done, regardless of our circumstances, if we set our heart of the things of God.  

May you be blessed and be a blessing to others.


Liberation from my disappointment

 My wish for you for 2021 is liberation from the disappointment of 2020.  I wish you the ability to forgive “the reality of 2020” for all the things you perceive it has robbed you of and look for the transformation God has brought about through challenging our life-styles.

There are many disappointments which want to carry themselves over from 2020 into the new year. 

 

Of course, the pandemic is the first that comes to mind and the fears we have associated with it.  Whether it is fear that this is a conspiracy of a shadow government, and attempt to control people by use of masks and quarantine, a fear of contracting the virus itself, or the fear of what is happening to the economy because of the shut-down, we need to let them go.  None of this surprised our all-powerful God, and I have to trust that He will make all things work together for our good if we love Him and surrender and follow the purpose for which He created us.  I need to trust in His love for me, and allow His perfect love to cast out fear of the effects of the past and the possibilities of the future.

 

I have stubbornly refused to use the term the “new normal” because I won’t embrace the way we are having to live right now as the way we will live in the future.  I prefer “inter-rim normal” as it indicates we are in a time of transition.  I doubt we will ever return to the life-style we lived prior to 2020, but I trust that the “normal” we are creating for the future will be passed through God’s hands.  I may not like it, but I will surrender to it—since really all my fears, complaints and arguments will change nothing . My self-focus only leads me into a self-preservation stance which serves to harden my heart toward those I am called to love.

 

The election of 2020 was another major disappointment, no matter which side of the aisle you choose to sit on.  One of the telling “disappointments” for me was watching the first debate with some of our staff who, shocked at the disrespectful behavior of the candidates asked me, “These are the people who run your country?”  I can find little to respect in the campaign, election, or transition of 2020.  I also find little to respect in the way many of us Christ-followers have responded to these situations.  So the election has produced a deep disappointment in me.

 

I am disappointed by the lack of fellowship forced on us by the closing of churches, the halt of meeting in Bible Studies and just the fun activities of being part of the Body of Christ.  Some feel that this is destroying the church.  Perhaps God is using these times to transform the His church. 

 

Rather than relying on a pastor to “feed” me, as an adult, I am forced to feed myself on the Word, and disciple those under my authority, whether they be children, employees, or residents.  I can no longer give over to the institution of the church those things which are required of me as a member of the church.  

 

Fellowship has looked different for me this year. The organizational fellowship fostered by the institutional church has enabled me to take little responsibility for the fellowship of believers beyond just showing up.  I have been forced outside of my comfort zone to reach out to people to connect with them on a more intimate level than ever before.  I may have fellowshipped with fewer believers during the shut-down, but the encounters I have had have been richer and more meaningful—have been more life giving—than any group activities I have attended in churches.  I am grateful for Zoom and Facebook Video Messenger which have given me the ability to see those I reach out to, whether in Guatemala or far away.  

 

I am sorely disappointed in the way the pandemic has affected those who are most vulnerable: children, the elderly, the homeless, those with disabilities.  The structures of government, social services, education and even the church have failed to care for those who are easily forgotten.  Again, though, I see how, as a society, we have handed over to institutions those responsibilities which rightfully belong to families and to the Body of Christ.  I have personally been challenged to find new and creative ways of reaching out to these disenfranchised groups.  It is much harder to do now, it requires more of me personally, but it is not impossible.  I am learning how to die to myself, to my own comfort, to serve those around me.

 

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  

 

But:  

 

What if the challenges of the current moment are actually offering us an invitation to let go of our ideas of freedom and mobility and to consciously participate with reality in a new way?” ~~Richard Rohr

 

Can you consider this for just one moment?  Will you open yourself to the possibility that God is calling us to die to our ideas of what life should be and live in the moment of the life that IS?

 

Please don’t think I am asking you to ignore the disappointments you have suffered at the hands of 2020.  Far from it.  I am asking you to join me in acknowledging the disappointments, feel their pain, lament them to the Father, and surrender 2021 to His good pleasure.  I am asking you to no longer hold on to the hurts of 2020, but embrace with hope what the Lord has for you in 2021, trusting that His heart toward you is good.

 

Happy New Year!  Let’s make it the best year yet.

 

Christmas Cookies as privilege

Note, the pictures from Guatemala in this article are from a Facebook post by a fellow missionary, Lydia RenĂ¡e de Ramos.  Her photos and reflections convicted me today.

Today I started the 2020 Great Cookie Bake-off for our ministry here in Guatemala.  

It has become tradition to have cookie decorating parties in each of the homes, with invited guests.  Sadly, this year it will only be our staff and residents in attendance.  While many seem to forget the threat of Covid, it is very real when working with people with weakened physical stamina like the disabled.  But we will make the best of it.

First come the sugar cookies so they are ready to frost.  As I was finishing up the first batch to put in the refrigerator, I was inwardly grumbling that I miss my dishwasher, and hate having to do all this clean up alone (though I know Dani's wife, Rosi, would be here in a heartbeat to help if I asked her).

Suddenly I was stopped short, convicted by my unconscious addiction to the privilege I have taken for granted as someone who has lived primarily in the US.  This is not to say that I did not work hard for what I had, but my work paid off in the ability to live in luxury compared to most of the world.  

I still do--live in unconscious luxury that is.  Just this morning I shared a post on Facebook written by a missionary who attends our church here.  It was about helping build a home for her neighbor. (You can read her post here--well worth your time.)  It was a reminder of how much we have as people of wealth in comparison to the rest of the world.  And within an hour, I forgot this conviction, and was complaining about having to wash dishes by hand, in my kitchen sink, with hot and cold running water.  


While my kitchen is not elegant by US standards, I have a stove (with an oven) and refrigerator.  These are luxuries in Guatemala and I never want to forget this.  I live in privilege.  I also have the resources to buy the ingredients, a Kitchen-aid mixer (bought 2nd hand from a missionary leaving the field) to mix the batter, and an electric oven (gifted to me by another missionary moving back to the US) to bake in which is even self-cleaning.

For the 57 years I lived in the US, I never thought any of these things were luxuries, but absolute necessities (and throw in the benefit of a dishwasher on top of that).  I had visited empoverished countries on mission trips, but somehow had missed letting these experiences change my perspective and my heart. 

If you are reading this on your smart phone or computer, you ARE privilged in comparison to the majority of the world.  This does not mean you do not work hard to have what you have but that your work has paid off in providing things for you that most of the world does not even know exists or can only dream of if they do. It does not mean we should feel guilty for the good things God has given us. It does mean we need to remember that He gives to us not to make us rich but so we can share with those who have needs.

Still not convinced?  Look at these comparisons of my kitchen with the original home of the lady who received a new home in the post above.  

           Flory's original kitchen sink
     Yes, she's using a stick to clean the pan
       Sponges and soap are luxuries here
                                           Flory's "stove"--a fire pit              


Now, here a a few glimpse of her new home for comparison.



          Enjoying her new kitchen sink
                                                        Her new wood burning stove








 

Authentic Thanksgiving


 "Happy Thanksgiving!"  How many times will we say this today?  Think about it, though.  Do we really consider what this means?  

To say "Happy Thanksgiving" has become no more than a social ritual by which we unthinkingly greet each other during late November.  It has the potential, though, to be so much more.  Done thoughtfully, Thanksgiving has the power to change us.

Another word for thankfulness is gratitude, which comes from the Latin (and Spanish) word "gratis"  which means "free."  So what does gratitude have to do with freedom?

When we are grateful we realize that all we have has been freely given to us by the God who created us and loves us.  Sure, we may have worked hard for what we have, but we need to remember who provides the resources for our work.  The things we use in our work all, in essence, come from creation.  Not one of us has the power to speak anything into existence.  We all rely on something which exists as the basis of our work.  We only build upon what God has given us.


Even our "intellectual" work depends on concrete items for its expression.  Then, too, we need to remember Who gives us the intellect, ability and strength to work at all.  Our very life itself is a gift freely given to us by the Father who loves us.


To be thankful is to recognize that I don't deserve what I have, and have a responsibility to share what I have with others.  To give freely as it has been given to me.  Pretty counter cultural, huh?


A second way in which thanksgiving (gratitude) frees us is to break the chains of anxiety, worry, stress which so strongly bind us in the 21st Century.  When I contemplate why I am thankful, realizing that all I have and all I am is a free gift from my Father, when I seriously and consciously recall all He has done for me throughout my life, I realize that I have nothing about which to be concerned.  God does not change.  He Who has been faithful in my past will be no less faithful in my future.  God's got this (whatever it is that causes you stress).  Thankfulness helps us not only to believe this, but to find the freedom that comes from experiencing it.

Can I encourage you today to make Thanksgiving more than a holiday ritual, but to begin today to make gratitude a way of life?  I know this is my goal.

So, when I say Happy Thanksgiving to you today, I will recall how blessed I am that God has brought you into my life.  I will be grateful for how you impact me and our ministry.  I will praise God for you and your very existence, and the fact that you choose to be my friend.  You make my life richer, and I don't deserve (gratis) all that you are to me.

So:

Happy Thanksgiving!