Friday, July 30, 2010

Life's Difficulties Faced With Faith

The three pieces of mail arrived on the same day.

A “notice of exhaustion” from the Virginia Employment Commission concerning the end of the husband’s unemployment benefits.

A Weavings magazine with this issue’s theme emblazoned on the cover: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

A free-lance writing check for $200.

Who could be worried with such a mailboxful?

As of this writing, the Senate has passed another extension of unemployment benefits. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that they are deepening the nation’s debt to do so.

In his campaign speech at JMU in October of 2008, President Obama said that to get out of the economic mess our country is in, we would all have to “tighten our belts.” Had he and our other leaders set an example of this, they would have been worthy of my deep respect.

It would have been honorable of the President to extend benefits by tapping into stimulus money or to appropriate actual tax money or to let another, less pressing program suffer for the moment.

As it is, they put the suffering off to the future. Is this how mature people manage a budget?

The husband has not had a paying job for one year and four months. I work part time. We are getting through this time because we have only one debt, our mortgage. No credit card bills, no car payments.

No, we don’t have a huge-screen TV. My car is 14 years old. We have no techno-gadgets. I bet most U.S. senators—on both sides of the aisle—own lots of shiny new things. Perhaps “tighten our belts” is a relative term.

Several weeks ago, two of my kids lost their jobs, too. They both worked for the same company, which was forced to close its doors. When the husband lost his job last year, the kids were my plan B. I thought, okay, if we lose our house, we could always move in with one of them. Ha!

“Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” Jesus said this to his followers in Matthew 6:34.

Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty. It may be our initial response. It certainly was mine, in those first few days after the husband lost his job. But living in a state of anxiety is crippling. God is here today, supplying our needs. We don’t need to rob from tomorrow, because God will be here then, too.

On the other hand, we cannot be presumptuous. We cannot spend our money extravagantly today, on unnecessary things, believing there will be more tomorrow.

While Jesus did not want us to be anxious about tomorrow, he also told us to prepare for it. Remember the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids? The wise ones were cool, calm and collected because they had prepared for the future, while the foolish ones got into a panic. They wasted today’s resources, and when tomorrow came they had nothing for it.

When we were younger, we always bought new cars. But buying a $30,000 car and paying it off over six years with tons of interest is crazy, just plain crazy. You make that decision based on today, but you have no way of knowing whether you’ll be able to make the payment in three years.

Making those rip-off car payments kept us near-broke for years. Anyone who makes big payments on anything knows the strangle-hold that debt has on you.

The thing with the national debt is that it’s been growing for years, into the trillions of dollars. At this moment, the debt is $13,222,756,362,421. To whom do we owe this money? To the Federal Reserve, which is part-public, part-private, to Japan, China, the United Kingdom.

It’s like it doesn’t matter. Will there ever be a day of reckoning? Apparently, our leaders do not think so or do not care.

Alas, we citizens must not follow their example.

When I came in from collecting the mail the other day, I had a huge smile on my face. I handed each piece to the husband, one by one. The letter from VEC, the magazine and the check.

No matter what happens, it’s going to be alright.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Trees Are Ministers of Health and Grace

Sunday morning was glorious, a dream come true.

Conflicted about going to church on Sunday mornings, I have often chosen instead to spend the time out of doors: walking in the woods near my home or heading up to the mountains.

Once several years ago when I skipped church, the husband and I were motorcycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway when I had a spiritual encounter with trees. The trees on either side reached over the road, forming a canopy. It seemed the trees were joining “hands,” and that they were protecting me, even praying for me, as I passed through the cool green tunnel.

Last Sunday, for the first time ever, I did not have to choose. My pastor decided a few months ago to hold some services outdoors on the church property. He called the husband and others from our parish to prepare the woods for worship. They made a clearing and leveled a parking area on the field at the woods’ edge.

They created two “entrances” into the worship space. As I stepped from the open field into the woods, the coolness greeted me with gentle caresses. The canopy overhead creating a green cathedral. Everyone’s face reflected joy.

We brought our own chairs to set on either side of the “aisle,” indicated by slender ropes secured to the ground. The floor sloped ever-so-slightly downward to the altar: a folding table covered with green cloth, a cross made of two hickory branches.

The birds paid us no mind, but flitted about singing overhead. Or perhaps they sang with us. So did the trees, as the breeze rustled their leaves. And they lifted their leafy arms to pray.

As in a beautiful cathedral, our eyes were drawn up. Rather than praying scrunch-faced, we prayed like Jesus: eyes open, looking up.

The Celts — and I — believe humans have a kinship with trees. They are servants and companions.

- Trees renew our air supply by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.
• The amount of oxygen produced by an acre of trees per year equals the amount consumed by 18 people annually. One tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year.
• One acre of trees removes up to 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
• Shade trees can make buildings up to 20 degrees cooler in the summer.
• Trees lower air temperature by evaporating water in their leaves.
• Tree roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion.
• Trees improve water quality by slowing and filtering rain water, as well as protecting aquifers and watersheds.

God is big on trees. Trees and other vegetation were created on the third day, it says in Genesis. They had to precede the creation of humans, because we need them to survive. Adam and Eve had a relationship with the trees and with one in particular. God made a tree to hold the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as a tree of life, which was protected by angels because anyone who eats of it lives forever.

Also in Genesis, when Abraham (father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths) left his homeland, his journey is marked by his arrival at trees, such as “the great tree of Moreh at Shechem.” And later, “So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the Lord” (Gen. 13:18). Why were these trees important?

Trees are prominent at the end of the Bible, too. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city,” says Revelation 22:1-2. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

The trees ministered healing to us sitting beneath them on Sunday morning. Our church, like many others, like life itself, has had its struggles.

But in the woods, among the trees, worshipping together, I felt healing. An unexplainable, peaceful, gentle, deep healing.

(Visitors are welcome to join our worship in the woods. The plan is to meet there through Aug. 1, but that date may be extended, depending on weather and other practical considerations. The property is on the corner of Port Republic and Boyers roads. Bring a chair.)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Church is Not Getting the Message

Note: This column was first published in August 2003.

Gay, gay, gay.

Gays have been all over the news lately. From the gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire and the all-gay high school in New York City, to the revocation of laws banning gay sex in Texas, the fall line-up of TV shows and the men committing sodomy at a South Main Street business. The pope and President Bush have both recently made policy statements on gays.

We are all getting pulled into the fray. And mainline churches are at the forefront of the gay-rights battle.

In July, the United Church of Christ expressed its support for gays and urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on gay youths from membership. “Transgender people know God loves them; it is time for the UCC to say we love them too,” said Lisa Alston, who headed the committee that prepared the resolution.

Likewise, the newly-confirmed Episcopal bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson, told CNN Live that in spite of his opposition, “I know that God loves me beyond my wildest imagining.”

Apparently, gays have not been getting that message from the Christians they know. In church circles, the fight is over God’s love versus God’s law.

A few weeks ago I was talking with a local activist about a woman we both know and he interrupted me with, “Oh, the lesbian.” With that one word he dismissed this woman’s entire existence. His rejection cut me like a razor. Multiply his attitude times the thousands of Christians with similar sentiments, and you’ve got a church that no longer sings, “Just As I Am,” but “Only If I Conform to Their Demands,” about coming to God.

Once when Jesus went to a Pharisee’s house for dinner, a woman came in and, “weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” In this story from Luke 7:36-50, Jesus’ host is thinking that if Jesus was a real man of God, he would discern that the woman touching him is a sinner. Jesus says to him, “Do you see this woman?” (That’s what I felt like saying to the activist: “Do you see this woman? Or do you just see ‘lesbian?’ ”)

Then Jesus gets on the guy’s case for not being a good host, saying that the woman was much nicer to him. Jesus tells the Pharisee, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much . . .” And he turns to the woman and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Jesus did not deny she was a sinner, but he loved her. His compassion shone through, over and above her sin. But with the church, rejection outshines any claims of love.
Tony Campolo talked to me about this at the Massanetta Springs Bible Conference. He said that telling someone you love them at the same time you reject them is “love without grace.”

“It’s like kissing someone with bad breath,” he said. “It stinks.”
The “love the sinner, hate the sin” policy is often a self-deceiving fallacy to explain away our repulsion for someone whose struggles we do not understand. Personally, I do not understand the struggle people have with homosexuality. Neither do I understand the struggles people have with alcohol, pornography or shopping.

But I do have my own struggles, some which have been with me since early childhood. Though I occasionally fantasize about them going away for good, I have come to understand some are just part me — my dark side, if you will. The best I can do — like Nash with his schizophrenia in “A Beautiful Mind” — is, with God’s grace, keep them at bay.

After talking with Campolo, I began to wonder if the church had 30 years ago loved and welcomed homosexuals the way it did us hippies — with our pot-smoking, free sex and foul mouths — perhaps it never would have come to this. It never would have been a divisive issue. Because when Christ takes people just as they are, he transforms them into what they were created to be.

We come to God because we experience his deep love for us, and as his law becomes written on our hearts, we become more like Jesus. We conform, not to each other, but to his likeness.

Though he is a conservative, Campolo’s wife, Peggy, is a spokesperson for gay rights. So he has numerous homosexual friends and acquaintances, none of whom chose to be that way, he said.

I thought about the struggles I did not choose.

Campolo said people on both sides of the homosexual question are sincere and that we must listen to each other.

Yes, we must really listen. And if we listen, we just might hear ourselves.