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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Capacity For Wonder; Capacity For God.

As many of you are aware, Tricia and I've been counseling folks since the late 80's. We continue to do so today. Lately, I've been struck by the sad reality when people run aground in their lives, or get entangled in unhealthy (sometimes destructive) attitudes and behaviors, or suffer binding wounds at the hands of other people, their capacity for wonder goes dark. It makes sense because along with its happy companions, fascination and delight, wonder requires an unforced ability to look beyond to catch a glimpse of stunning beauty, goodness, order, or transcendent Being animating all life.

True wonder and awe carries with it what Rudolf Otto termed in The Idea of the Holy: mysterium tremendum et fascinans (fearful and fascinating mystery). When we are captivated by something and our natural response is unself-conscious wonder, we experience the wholly Other such as when I received as a Christmas present, my first drum set. Later that evening I set it up in my room and lie there for a long while under the snare drum with my head next to the bass drum and pedal. Slowly and carefully I took in every inch of what I could see in disbelief that I possessed such a fascinating instrument. I was chock full of wonder!

You see, the capacity for wonder is the capacity to be intrigued and drawn by something or someone intrinsically compelling. Desire pursues a perceived opportunity for delight, maybe even inspiration and joy.
When you experience wonder you feel fully alive; your senses are heightened to take in full what you are apprehending. You want more of what is so fascinating. You are "taken" by it.

Ultimately, wisdom can summon us to the ultimate, wholly Other: God

Listen to King David:

1 I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.

4 One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.

10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your saints shall bless you!
11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
and tell of your power,
12 to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

[The Lord is faithful in all his words
and kind in all his works.]

Listen to the Apostle Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Both men are filled with wonder and fascination at who God is and what he's done. They apprehend the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. They are captivated by and drawn to him. They acknowledged his sovereign Lordship as one who undividedly holds all the keys to life and death; He is to be respected and feared, but more importantly loved and enjoyed. His greatness and revelation are a noumenal signal light.

I consider our capacity for wonder an exquisite gift of God through which we can peer into (however briefly from this side of eternity), the unseen Real behind all our existence. More importantly, this capacity for wonder is, in turn, a capacity us to be drawn in when he reveals something of himself to us, and what really is. We can respond and move close to him (because of  Jesus, by the Spirit), or away from what seems to sparkle, but carries with it the sting of death. Capacity for wonder is a capacity for life and life in/with/for God. We were made for relationship and relationship with him, It is our true being; He is our true home.

So when people are turned away by the sorrows, trials and tribulations of life, they fall away from this capacity. It stills because pain and trouble, or sin takes center stage. All of us have experienced such a temporary "blindness." Some of us have been made so blind by it we cannot see the wonderful or truly worthwhile all around us. We trudge in a dry and dreary place reacting to impulse and experience, but never really seeing into/beyond as God invites us. Such is a true (but not irredeemable) and fearful tragedy.

So more and more I'm inviting folks to return or hold fast to their capacity for wonder as a means through troubles and suffering. I see many get caught in the problem and seem not to be able to reverse course or move beyond. For instance, I talked to someone who's had more than what would seem his fair share of trials and tribulations over many years. His capacity for wonder had been substantially been turned aside. He, at some point in our conversations, related he enjoyed being in nature and fly fishing. It clearly helped him feel alive and engaged. I encouraged him to make time for this opportunity for wonder in his life, and to begin seeing the beauty and goodness of God in what he has created. It would have a healing effect.

I hope he takes my counsel.

I am convinced that capacity for wonder leads to a capacity for God is we look "behind the veil," to consider God's works and ponder often just Who this is Who made anything at all, including us. Doing so brings us ever nearer to what we were made for:

 What is the chief End of Man? Answer: Man's chief End is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." (Westminster Catechism)

Open your eyes and ears. Open your heart. Confess your dullness and ask God to captivate your heart with wonder so you can see beauty and goodness and truth and a fascinating reality. Ask him to "do whatever it takes" to make it so.

Friday, September 7, 2012

8 Essential Questions For The Church; What If?

For the last two weeks, I've been riveted to the Republican and Democrat Conventions. Even though I grew up in a very politically vigorous family of staunch Irish Democrats (my grandmother even played a role on the national level in the 40's), I'm not a political animal per se. I'll never tell you who I support or which way I'll vote in an election.

But I have to say I was struck to the degree I've never been with the depth of faith and hope people are resting on the shoulders of the Presidential candidates, especially the Democrats' adoration of Barack Obama. It feels almost akin to worship. I know similar adoration has been given other candidates in other elections over the last 200 years. People place all sorts of hope and trust in charismatic leaders who represent to them a better life, or an inspiring message of freedom or prosperity. The longing of the human heart for a happy and liberated life gets ignited by gifted communicators who know the heart's language and how to move it. When that occurs people feel lifted and loyal. Tears flow, smiles abound, cheers ring forth and happy days look likely to be here again because so and so is going to bring them. It's a potent alchemy.

So I have to say, I felt saddened by how much faith, hope, and even love is being lavished on mere mortals. I've never felt that before. It was palpable. There was a kind of "No!" echoing in my head because I'm convinced, such devotion rightly belongs to Christ alone.Only he is the light of the world, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only Name under heaven by which men can be saved. Neither Romney nor Obama can fulfill the deepest or most abiding needs of the human heart. Don't get me wrong, the "American Experiment" is a unique light in the world. I've spent the last number of years examining the founding, and the key players involved. Miracles were involved. And through the decades, God has blessed the United States repeatedly, and given it prominent influence around the world. Great leaders in government have done remarkable things benefiting generations. At the same time there have been horrors, atrocities and betrayals.

Jesus, the LORD of Lords is the One Americans should ultimately owe their greatest fealty.

If they only knew.

If they could but peer into the unseen REAL.

But don't really know and they don't see.


Do you know who represents His salvific interests in America and in the world? You and I do. We're called the Church. We, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, bring the Kingdom of God with us whatever we happen to be doing, even if we're unawares. It's our singular mission, not government or business, or unions, or PACs, Social Service organizations, NGO's, the 4th Estate, lobbies, or sports and entertainment figures, political pundits, or Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC, the military or the schools, colleges and universities. The Kingdom mission is the singular dominion and calling of the Church, i.e., anyone who calls on the Name of the LORD, and sees being a Jesus follower as his or her primary identity and calling in their every sphere of influence.

This morning on the porch in Ventnor, I was reading a book by Joel C. Rosenberg called Implosion: Can America Recover From Its Economic and Spiritual Challenges In Time?  I don't know about you, but the "last days" are more and more on my mind and have been for two or three years. I've tended to stay away from reading or speculating about such things, but I'm noticing in a way I've never before. Something's up and Rosenberg, a Jewish Christian, keeps his feet on the ground.

Anyway, I titled my post this way because I want to call your attention to what the author poses to the Church (ppg. 291-2), noting such questions are: "what we should expect and pray for in the American church,". (p.292)

He begins the list with the following passage:

"There are an estimated 340,000 church congregations in the United States. That's an average of 6,800 per state. That's about one congregation for every 900 people. Imagine how rapidly America would change if all of these 340,000 congregations were healthy, strong, brightly shining lighthouses, as God intended.

1.What if they were all faithfully teaching the Word of God book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse so the people of God would know the whole counsel of God?

2. What if they were truly helping people repent of their sins, purify their hearts, and heal from their emotional and spiritual wounds?

3.What if they were all actively assisting those recovering people to be able to turn around and care for others who are needy and suffering?

4.What if they were all training their people to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors?

5.What if every pastor was modeling the kind of personal one-on-one and small-group discipleship that Jesus and Paul modeled?

6.What if they were equipping and training young people in the Word of God and their spiritual gifts and helping them plant new congregations in the U.S. and around the world?

7.What if they were truly caring for the poor and the needy in their communities and in countries around the globe, not in lieu of sharing the gospel but as part of fulfilling the great commission?

8. What if they were teaching their congregations to bless Israel and her neighbors in the name of Jesus and to show unconditional love and unwavering support to both the Jewish and Palestinian people?

I recommend you reflect carefully on each question for yourself and for the church where you serve. What is God asking of you? Where do you need to repent? Where are you sleepwalking and need to wake up? How is you church addressing these concerns? Should you raise the issues? 

A Prayer For Us All:

Father of all power, liberty, and truth,
Wake us from where we are slumbering or sleepwalking,
Warm our hearts where we've grown cold and indifferent.
Encourage us where we are anxious and timid.
Dislodge us from where we are stuck.
Summon us from where we are distracted by trifles or overwhelming troubles.
Give us voices to speak the truth with words that enliven and heal;
   that teach and motivate.
Make us people of the Way such that all can yield and want to find it.
Help us follow Jesus in what He is doing all around no matter the cost,
no matter the odds against us, no matter the mockery of the blind and wandering.
Give us tears which liberate and a stubborn resolve that on our watch, you will be seen  and heard in and through us all, your Church.

By Christ, for Christ, in and through Christ.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Meeting Eve, the Woman in the Outdoor Shower.

Yesterday I wrote of encountering an old woman taking a shower fully clothed next to the Boardwalk. At the end of the piece I mentioned wanting to be able to meet her, and perhaps talk with her. I was frustrated I didn't turn around and do so when we had the chance.

Well, early this morning she was again taking a shower fully clothed in the place where we first saw her. And again too, I didn't want to embarrass her by interrupting such a personal act as bathing -- even though she had to do it publicly with her back to the Boardwalk where people were passing by.

As we walked by both Tricia and I wanted to see her again. I prayed quietly God would arrange that. Sure enough, he did. Not more than 20-25 minutes later there she was heading toward us in the opposite direction. Immediately, we walked up to her. Curious thing is, as soon as she saw us she started to smile. I'm not sure why.  Her deeply-tanned face just lit up even though she had no teeth. We stopped to talk, and Tricia handed her some money telling her to have something to eat. She thanked her. I asked her name. Immediately she said, "Eve." We offered our names and shook her hand. She didn't appear nervous or perturbed by our little meeting.

I then asked if she was homeless? She said with no hesitation, "Yes, for 15 years." Tricia asked if she had a place to stay. She added again very quickly  that (her homelessness) "was ending because the issue with the wallpaper store was being taken care of." We took it to mean she'd no longer be homeless and someone was handling the matter for her. Hmmmm.Was it all in her mind? Did something happen to a business she or her family once had? Was she injured in such a store or fired unfairly? Was she mentally ill? We don't know, and very likely she might not either. Being on the street for 15 years, if that's true, changes how a person views reality. Their world has been turned and left upside down, and because of the hardness of street-life, truth and fantasy can blur to suit the situation or sometimes just survive.You and I live a very different reality.

The conversation ended with we saying we were praying for her. Her face brightened again and she exclimed with verve, "Keep up the good work!"

Tomorrow if we see her, I'm going to find out if there's a way we can help her connect with someone to get off the street. She's a veteran of this life to be sure, but perhaps there's someone who has a fresh take on helping people like her in Atlantic City. There are many by the way. It might seem peculiar to say it, but she might not want anything to do with living off the street. We've met a number of folks in Northampton who have said that to us. Who knows if they mean it forever, but some mean it for, "Until I'm ready."

Pray we see her again tomorrow!!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Old Woman Taking a Shower Outdoors Fully-Clothed.

Sometimes you just "chance" upon something profoundly sad and disturbing. It sets you on your heals a little. The scene assaults your sense of "today will be a normal day." But when you experience it, your mind replays what you saw, and each time, you feel a stab of pain, or "I hate this!" How long, Lord?

Earlier this morning, Tricia and I went for a long walk on the Boardwalk, beginning in Ventnor, and heading north to Atlantic City. While there were a usual assortment of walkers, riders and runners, young and old, the "traffic' was lighter than the summer hordes. The day was warm and muggy; there was some fog blowing off the ocean and enshrouding the casinos a couple of miles down where we were heading.

A few minutes past the Ventnor-Atlantic City line, I happened to notice to my right an old woman-taking a cold shower at the outdoor showers near the Boardwalk. Swimmers use it to wash off the sand and salt. What caught my eye was that she stayed fully-clothed while she washed. Her hands were under her clothes as she bathed. I understand why. It must be agonizingly humiliating to have to shower at all in a very public place because you have nowhere else to do so. For an old women to have to do so must be horrifying.

To be honest, I didn't  look for more than 2-3 seconds. I didn't want to embarrass her, and frankly, I was felt a rush of sadness at what her life left her to do. She had to be in her late 60's. She was tanned, wearing what looked to be stuff she's scrounged, or had been given to her in a shelter. She had her possessions in a stroller-like contraption and little else.What shame she's had to bear.

Where was her family? Where were her friends? How did her life get to this place of showering in a public shower with strangers jogging by for their morning constitutional? More than likely she was not "living her dream," -  if she'd ever had the chance try in the first place.

Seeing her suffering (trust me it's suffering, no matter how self-sufficient, high or seemingly OK these folks look to be), left me angry and sad, frustrated, and a little depressed. I really hate that situations such as hers happen at all, no matter who's at fault. The human condition because of sin and failure, and the putrid fruit of inhumanity always feels wrong. The world was not made to be a playscape for sorrow and pain and loneliness.

I've never been OK with what folks like her must endure. I often feel powerless, at best, to do much about it, almost stymied to make any real dent in the waste of lives I witness.

Anyway, our lives crossing with her's did not end there.

Heading back , maybe 20-25 minutes, later we encountered her again. She was sitting on a bench which populate the Boardwalk here and there. As we approached her, about 10 yards in front of us, she got up, gathering her "stroller" and assorted stuff, and started to walk toward us to our left. As she got within earshot she said twice (with increasing vehemence), "That's just shower water!." At first, I had no idea what she was talking about until I looked down at the bench where she'd sat. It was wet.

I almost wanted to cry. Tricia turned back toward her as she walked and said, "That's OK." It all felt very awkward. For some reason, she wanted us to know she'd not relieved herself on the bench. The truth is, I don't know if she did or didn't, and I wouldn't have cared either way. I wanted her to know that she is a person, and I don't know what I'd be like if I was in her shoes.

I wanted to turn and give her some money, but that felt pointless. What would that really do to relieve her of having to take outdoor showers in front of Boardwalkers, or whatever other indignities she's learned to adapt to? We've given money to all sorts of homeless folks in Northampton. After awhile, it seems like an impotent gesture of acquiescence to "it is what it is."

I want to be a part of a more substantial solution. It's tied to the Gospel. It's tied to the Kingdom of Christ. It's tied the the church of the broken and "once we were forlorn and lost."

Seeing her darkened the entire day for me. I just felt low and out of sync. I'm noticing more and more of this kind of thing, even in Northampton. People are slipping through the cracks in increasing numbers, the elderly included. I'm not sure that's going to change because of the milk of human kindness, gift cards and food stamps.

Nevertheless, if I get to see her tomorrow or the next day, I'll give her money for food, and perhaps talk with her -- maybe even pray for her a bit. I don't know, but I need to extend kindness and compassion. I don't think she gets much of that these days or if ever.