Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cheerful Giving

I've discovered that I like two things to set the mood for blogging time. First, I light a candle. Somehow, a candle seems to acknowledge for the "sanctity" of writing time. Secondly, I slip in a CD of soft instrumental music. I always enjoy Enya, but at the moment I'm enjoying the brand new one from Jim Brickman. I'm not sure how to classify his style, but I love his simple, beautiful piano arrangements.

I'm at a rest stop along this road called "spiritual journey." Where am I? How far have I travelled? How soon before I reach a "destination?" What have I learned? Where's my map?

I'm grateful to have joined a women's Bible Study called "Believing God" by the always lovely, wonderful, talented internationally known and admired Beth Moore. Today we watched her presentation on a DVD. Does she ever rest? How many studies has she written? 100? This is my third Beth Moore study. Maybe I'll finish this one. I am pleased that this group seems focused and intentional. Oftentimes "Bible studies" can degenerate into social hour. I need the collective group energy to keep me focused and intentional.

The study is about actually believing God, not just IN him, or that he exists. It's about believing He is who He says He is. It's about believing I am who He says I am. It's about believing He will do what He says He will do. Yikes! Simple, yet profound. It's easy to claim to believe IN God. Not so easy to believe Him. At least not for me. At least not for today. Moore believes we have a tendancy to wrap God up in a nice little box with beautiful paper and pretty bow to represent how WE want Him to be. We want God to be completely logical and answer all the hard questions at the exact moment we want them. We want to completely define and totally understand everything about Him, because that gives us a sense of control, even though it could be an illusion.

Because we're made in His image, He imprinted into our DNA the desire to either know Him or search for some kind of truth, and yet, the paradox is that we aren't capable of ever fully understanding Him. Is it like trying to explain quantum physics to a three-year-old? But if we can struggle to wrap our minds around the notion that He is who He says He is, it seems to be a huge step toward "sort of" knowing him. And that is a huge mountain for me to climb. Moore points out that we've got to accept not knowing and not understanding as part of the process in getting to know Him better. It becomes an issue of how comfortable we are with varying degrees of uncertainty. Some people can tolerate uncertainty better than others. I can tolerate some uncertainty, but not much. As of this point, reading scripture does not help me move toward certainty, and I think I know why. I still have a couple bones to pick with this mysterious all knowing all powerful diety who fearfully and wonderfully made me. That's between me and Him.

The sermon this morning was about not giving. Giving is not about "giving." Confused yet? What I think the pastor was trying to say is that the act of giving is not about money itself or how much money we give. Our attitude about giving monetarily or in any other way is a direct reflectin of the condition of our hearts. God wants us to give with a cheerful heart. What exactly is a "cheerful heart?" I think it means giving with no thought or expectation of reward or a thank you. In my mind, I'm reversing this and asking myself this question: If we feel manipulated or unwilling to give for whatever reason, does that mean we should NOT give? Then I thought of this particular card from a collection I have from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, author of the "Power of Intention" that reads: Anonymously perform acts of kindness, expecting nothing in return, not even a thank you. The universal all-creating Spirit responds to all acts of kindness with the reponse: How may I be kind to you (or give you?)

Pastor focused more on all the promises God will reward us with if we can rise to the challenge of being cheerful givers, but I think reasons why we aren't always cheerful givers run deeper and need to be acknowledged. I think the reluctance that some of us may feel toward giving are rooted in fear. Aren't resources limited? If we give what we have, will we end up in soup lines and homeless shelters? Suffering? Losing everything we've put our security in, such as jobs? Have we been conditioned to fear not having enough money more than not having God? Then I thought of the miracle Jesus performed with only two fish and five loaves of bread. (Or was it two loaves of bread and five fish?) Obviously that small amount of food was not enough to nourish the huge crowd, but it was all one particular little boy had. We mere mortals are obviously not enough. Our resources are limited. But if we can climb that mountain of courage to believe He is who He says He is, if we can trust that He is a mysterious God of abundance and generosity, and if we believe that He alone has the power to multiply our small gifts, then perhaps we can come close to being cheerful givers.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why "Seek Him First" ?

This is what discipline means. Writing when I don't feel like it writing. But it's Sunday night and a day I have decided will be devoted to creating new posts, whether I'm inspired or feel like it or not. I know exactly what I want to write, but am now fighting fatigue at 10:25 p.m. The goal will be to make this short and to the point. I give myself half an hour.

I experimented with a new church this morning. I attended University Christian Fellowship at 9:45. Yikes! I was so unimpressed with that atmosphere that when the service was over, I realized I had just enough time to make it to Westview for the 11:00 service. Yeah, two services in one morning. I had not planned on that, but am glad I did. I'm not going into detail about why I didn't like UFC because I don't want to be negative.

The primary theme of pastor's sermon at Westview was money, but what I walked away with is a different way of thinking about the verse "seek first the kingdom of God . . . ." I understand that it has to do with re-arranging priorities to make sure that God's interests are met first. It sounds reasonable enough in theory, but in practice? Pastor pointed out that one could take two months just to meditate on the first two words of that passage: "seek first." So here I am, taking "Post one" to meditate on two words. It could take me two months just to figure how to re-arrange my priorities or lifestyle to make sure that God's interests are met first.

I think it warns against the dangers of trying to find contentment and satisfaction without God. Whatever you think you want in life, such as financial security, good health, good relationships, better relationship with you spouse, or having a spouse, consult with God first before pursuing those things. Like asking permission? Doesn't God already know what we want?

Maybe it means believing he knows the best plan or path or strategy for obaining these things. Again, the troublesome image always comes to my mind of God as deliberately withholding from me the very thing he knows I desperately want. That's my greatest fear.

Maybe the verse is implying that there is a process involved in when we seek or consult with God first about our plans. Through the process of consulting him first, maybe we learn something or grow in a way we otherwise wouldn't have. Maybe this process prepares us to receive that other stuff (or blessings) we think we want. "seek first" also suggests there's a proper order. I don't know.

I was going to give other examples of how difficult it can be to "seek first" but I'm stopping now because it's 10:52 and I promised myself I would be done by 11:00 and I'm almost brain dead and I need to be bright eyed and bushy tailed by 8:15 tomorrow. Ouch. Maybe I'll continue this theme in another posting.

Good night.

Monday, January 5, 2009

It's never too late

"It's never too late" was the occuring phrase of the day today after a near miss here, a panic there and then Oprah.

My mind was buzzing with all sorts of doable, concrete ways to put the jumper cables on my spirituality or as the more familiar cliche goes: "finding God." Over a cup of coffee, I quickly filled three journal pages front and back with my thoughts and feelings about the Almighty now and ways to dig deeper.

Here are some of the things I scribbled down in the morning:

Following in the evangelical Lutheran tradition is definitely not working. Buying into the notion of being "born again" and the idea of a full submersion baptism hasn't payed off either. What I find myself resisting at nearly every turn in the "conservative evangelical free" tradition (the quotes signify the label) is the idea that I am an innately bad, bad, evil person person - a miserable sinner damned to hell without a "merciful" God. Only the Judeo-Christian "God" can save me from hell. Worship thus consists of gleefully praising this wonderful God and constant reminders about what horrible people we are so that we are compelled to beg for forgiveness of all "sins." God is good. I am bad. God knows everything. I know nothing.

I find this version of "God" anything but helpful.

Have you ever wondered why modern western culture attributes the Judeo-Christian God whom we are taught as all knowing, powerful, wise, and a loving diety as masculine? Sometimes I like to think of God as feminine. Why do we associate the word "God" with masculinity? Perhaps a Bible scholar would know.

There are two reasons why I've almost completely rejected the "conservative evangelical free" version of God. One originates from an overzealous elder pastor from an evangelical free church I attended for a while in Iowa. I sought counsel from him while I was struggling in a sinking marriage. He basically insisted that my then-husband's wayward ways were entirely my fault and my responsibility was to pray for him -- but no matter what -- stay married or the fires of hell would certainly consume me. About a year ago, when I was talking about this with my friend Julie, she had this to say, "Yes, divorce is a sin, but it still happens. Just like murder, just like dishonesty. It happens. Do you really think God intended for you to live in that misery, waiting for a husband who simply chooses an addiction over you? That's your husband's choice. Not yours. What he did is not your fault." She knew the pastor I had talked to. What Julie said next and how she said it really grabbed my attention. "F_ _ K what Pastor _____ said. He says the same thing to everybody and it's obviously not always that helpful." Julie helped me realize that forgiving myself was the crucial next step in my healing process. Ouch. Not easy, particularly for the type of addiction I was born with.

Self-loathing. Reason number two why focusing on all my "sins" doesn't compel me "take up my cross and follow thee." Rather than focusing on myself as "bad" and going through an act of contrition every Sunday, I believe it will be healthier for me to be told and to tell myself that I am worthy and deserving of my Creator's love and blessings. Rather than deny negative emotions and speaking words and acting in ways that are not in anyone's best interest, I choose to accept my human frailties and give them over to my Creator. I have a hunch that She has the power to transform unwise choices into miracles to bless everyone.

Temptation to wallow in self-loathing hits me at every turn. An hour or two after journaling, I checked my email and my suspicions that Chatham, one of the MFA programs I'm applying to, had not yet received my undergraduate transcripts were confirmed. And the deadline is today. (Perhaps Chatham isn't the institution I was meant to go, I tried to calm myself.) I faxed a request for the transcripts on December 18. It must have been too late. I called the associate director at Chatham and stated my case. She was actually very understanding, making it clear that I wasn't the only one and a grace period of a couple more days would be granted. It wasn't too late! I called UNI. No record of receiving a fax on December 18 could be found. (idiots!) I raced to my workplace to fax the request AGAIN. This time, I politely asked someone to stand over me and make sure I faxed it correctly. Sure enough. It was MY failure. (Self-loathing begins). I waited 10 minutes after the fax supposedly went through, then called UNI to confirm that it was received. Success! Oops. Wait. Not so fast. I had forgotten to check the overnight box on the form. I made this very clear to the woman on the other end.

A couple of hours later, I turn on Oprah while sifting through a mountain of mail, and this just happens to be the episode where she got brutally honest about her weight gain. It was her talking to the camera. That was the show. But she was talking about some of the very same things I struggle with related to loving yourself and taking care of yourself. It's not about the weight gain. It was only a symptom that she was out of balance in other aspects of her life. Her counselors asked her, "What are you hungry for?" and it's not the potato chips. Oprah's "ah-hah" moment was recognizing her previous cockiness when she was all of 140 pounds and thought she had her addictions to food conquered. That was when her personal trainer informed her in no uncertain terms that ANY addiction is NEVER conquered, but ALWAYS MANAGED. Take that to the bank! Yikes. And we ALL have our addictions.

As human beings, we all seek pleasure, according to Oprah, but it's the way in which one seeks pleasure that matters. I'll agree with that. For her, giving gives her pleasure. Perhaps what gives us pleasure is when we use the talents and gifts we were born with to bless others. For me, writing gives me pleasure. Writing to help others is what I was born to do. The fact that I don't know what "writing to help others" is supposed to look like on a grand scale is my primary frustration. But I have a hunch that if I embark on a "spiritual journey" to "find God" (that sounds like a lofty, cliche and head-in-the-clouds approach) and report back on what I find, it might hold some answers that I'm looking for.

Maybe it's not too late. Maybe it's never too late to search for deeper meaning in one's life. In fact, maybe now is the perfect time. Stay tuned. My creator is out there somewhere, waiting to be found!