Value of Loneliness

This morning I caught a few minutes of Jesse Duplantis, a television minister whose message is usually good and whose delivery is always lively. Though I did not hear his entire message, I was struck by this comment:

“Lonely times and wilderness times in your life—you’re going to have them—help you get clearer on your calling and your goals.”

Lonely times and wilderness times both refer to those times that come to all of us when we feel isolated, alone, and lost. We sometimes remain in those places so long that we begin to drift. It doesn’t take long before we conclude that there is very little worth working for; we give up on pushing toward our goals because they aren’t materializing anyway; we are left going in circles and getting nowhere, much like the Israelites who took forty years to make an eleven-day journey.

Duplantis is saying that those times are, instead, perfect opportunities for stopping to reflect on where we are going in life. The dissatisfaction inherent in those lonely, lost times provides the optimal environment for us to ask the important questions, such as: Where am I supposed to be headed? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this emptiness what God intended for me, or am I missing something really important here? What could my life be about if I only allow it to go in the direction I believe God has in mind for me, based on the talents I was given?

Asking these questions prayerfully and letting God provide the answers to us will not only reconnect us with our talents, goals, and calling, but also help us find our way out of the wilderness.

           

The Value of a Good Book

The monthly newsletter for Parkplace Books, Kirkland, Washington, featured a quote from Oscar Wilde that I want to share:  “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”

Is that nothing more than a clever twisting of phrases? Or is there something worth thinking about here? I voted for the latter because of the inherent point about building character.

The various kinds of media engagement have impacts on who we are. Certainly films and songs and social media can affect us deeply, or can be simply passing entertainment. But generally a book requires a commitment of time, of living with one story or one point of view for some duration of time, and that is formative by nature. It subtly shapes the attitudes and outlook of the reader as it broadens his or her experience of life. This, in turn, alters who that person becomes.

There are all manner of books that we can choose to read, but what if we spend time every day (or at least very often) reading the Bible, even though we don’t have to? With no effort on the reader’s part, other than the simple act of reading, the messages, the themes, the guidance, the perspective, the promises of the Bible begin to shape who that person is, how that person thinks, and how that person reacts to life. Or as Oscar Wilde put it, it determines who that person will be when he or she can’t help it.

The next time you are choosing a book to read, maybe it would be wise to consider the kind of person you want to be.


           

Nudgings of God

My novel Dancing on the Whisper of God starts with a predawn “whisper” experienced by a choreographer in San Francisco one morning in 1993. Several people have asked me about this whisper: Was it supposed to be a actual, audible voice? Was it meant to be the voice of God? How believable is it that the Divine Spirit might actually “talk” to people?

This reminds me of something Wayne Dyer said once (and I think he may have been quoting Lilly Tomlin): “Why is it that when we talk to God, it’s called prayer, but when God talks to us, it’s called schizophrenia?”

Well, there’s no schizophrenia in my novel, but there is a fair amount of communication from God. Do I think that God talks to us in actual, audible voices? No. Was the whisper in the book meant to be the voice of God? Yes. How believable is it that the Divine Spirit actually talks to people? Very believable, but the vehicle of the communication can be any number of things.

All of us have had the experience, when something goes wrong, of saying, “I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that! Why didn’t I listen to my intuition?” Or maybe we are thinking of buying something, and there’s a peace we feel in our hearts about the decision. Or maybe someone calls you on the phone and as soon as you hear their idea, your belly gets uneasy. Or maybe it’s a flash of insight offering a resolution to a problem you’ve been having. Or maybe it’s a nudging one day when you’re going through your mail, and you’ve ignored a dozen different requests for charitable giving, but then comes one that you just feel compelled to respond to. Or maybe you have a dream that gives you, in symbol form, the exact answer you were seeking.

All of these, I would say, are “whispers” of God. The King James version of the Bible calls it a “still small voice” [I Kings 19:12]. The NIV calls it “a gentle whisper.”

Where in your life have you been receiving the gift of a nudging from God? Have you learned to pay attention?

If you are in or near Seattle, above is your invitation to a reading from Dancing on the Whisper of God set for April 30. I’d love to see you there! If the link at the top of this post isn’t working, visit: www.dancingonthewhisperofgod.com.

           

Second Chances

Many of the New Testament parables are familiar to everyone, but this morning I came across one in Luke that I’ve never noticed before. It goes like this:

“A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir, the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

I can’t tell you what Jesus meant to convey with this parable, but it speaks to me about the promises and the constraints of second chances.

First, there are the “second chances” the tree has already had. The fig tree owner had given the tree three years’ worth of chances to bear fruit. When it failed the first year, he gave it two more years to produce before he was ready to cut it down. But in those two years, nothing was done to aid the tree’s ability to produce. Now, the vineyard tender will take it upon himself to aerate the soil around the tree and add the nutrients the tree is apparently lacking. This is how one avoids wasting a second chance.

Where in your life are you being offered a second chance? Could be that it’s only one more “do over” in a whole string; could be that it’s your last chance. In either case, it’s your opportunity to figure out a better way.

What do you see in this parable?

           

Love

Today is Valentine’s Day – when we pay special attention to the people we love.

Just for a moment, sometime today, give a thought not only to those you love but also to the fact that God loves you. It’s a Biblical promise we can stand upon. Isaiah 54:10 reads: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

I take that to mean that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad or unredeemable it seems, God still (and always) loves you.

That’s something to celebrate. Be grateful! Happy Valentine’s Day.

           

Hold Fast to Hope

Some people don’t particularly like the book of Romans, but this morning I came across something there that has stayed in my head ever since. It was Romans 15:4 in the Amplified Bible and it goes like this:

“For whatever was thus written in former days was written for our instruction, that by [our steadfast and patient] endurance and the encouragement [drawn] from the Scriptures we might hold fast to and cherish hope.”

Unless I am misreading that, Paul is saying that the entire early Bible was written to instruct us, yes, but more to encourage us to hold onto hope. The bottom line is to ensure that we stay in hope.

Why would hope be so important?

We often come across people who have been so beaten up by life that they have become bitter, negative, cynical, angry. Maybe the best word to describe them is “unhopeful.” They are people who have lost hope for a better outcome, for life to be at least somewhat as they envisioned it.

How can you ensure that you don’t become one of those who have lost their hope?

           

Moses – When Courage Fails the Strong

I noticed something in Acts the other day that fascinated me. It was a description: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).

I had to stop and look at that again, because what I remembered about Moses was that when God told him he was to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses repeatedly objected, stating, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

Now, admittedly a lot happened to Moses between the time when he was educated in Egypt as a young man and decades later at the scene of the burning bush, but it’s likely that a lot happens to all of us between the time we are young and being educated, and the time we may be called to put that education to use.

What I find here is a message to the “educated,” to people who have gifts they have never used because they are fearful that when it comes right down to it, they will fail.

The Exodus story in chapters 3 and 4 recounts a little divine impatience with Moses, who has been chosen for a particular role, but it is God who delivers the solution: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12). Even then Moses continues to protest and to ask that God send someone else, so God creates a further solution: Moses’s older brother, Aaron. You can hear the exasperation in God’s comment: “I know he can speak well.” So that is how the story goes. The two brothers go before Pharaoh; God tells Moses what to say; and Aaron delivers the message.

We’ve all heard stories about how God helps the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, but this is a story about God helping the strong and the educated who are suffering a failure of courage. This is a promise to store in your heart for those times when your confidence and courage fail: Go to your spiritual center and hear the divine message, “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

           

Retroactive Grace

One of the evidences that spirituality is an “everyday” thing is how frequently spiritual or religious references show up in our culture.

I happened to see the 2006 movie Freedomland recently. The link will take you to a Wikipedia page that explains the plot. In brief, a young boy is missing, then found dead. Accusations are made against innocent people until the tragic truth is discovered. The lead characters are Julianne Moore as the boy’s mother and Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective. When the detective visits the boy’s mother in prison, he reflects upon his own personal history and tells her: “God’s grace is sorta like retroactive.”

What he means by this is that God’s grace has touched his life, giving him a chance to make up for past failures. That he can recognize this in his own life suggests that the same grace is available to her.

Even for people (like all of us) who have made mistakes, done things for which they have difficulty forgiving themselves, entrapped themselves in spirals of guilt and regret, God’s grace is available. It’s present; it’s future; it’s even retroactive. And if we think that our mistakes reveal our weaknesses, all the better.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of asking God to rid him of a particular torment, a thorn in his flesh, but in response to his pleading, God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). The Amplified text spells it out more clearly: “My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9]

Our only role when it comes to God’s grace is to accept it.

           

Off the Cuff

In a short article in the September 18 issue of The Christian Century, I learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was not from a written, rehearsed text but was instead extemporaneous. The singer Mahalia Jackson stood near as Dr. King rose to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and she said to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Hearing her, King folded up his prepared speech, put it away, and instead spoke from his heart.

The result was one of the most famous, most quoted, most remembered, most cherished speeches of all time. Chances are, if he had ignored the prompting of his heart and read the text printed on the paper, the speech might have been a good one, but with nowhere near the impact and reach of the one he gave.

So, can we say that “I Have a Dream” was impromptu? Not if we consider King’s background in faith and religious studies. The same Divinity Who said to Moses: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” [Exodus 4:12] and to the 12 disciples : “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” [Matthew 10:19-20] could certainly have whispered the same message to Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, on the heels of the exhortation from Mahalia Jackson.

           

Bible-reading as Mystery

I might as well go ahead and admit that Bible-reading is a mystery to me. Last week I commented that I never try to defend the Bible, nor press it upon people, but I still return to it every morning and usually find reason for peace. The peace is part of the mystery, as is my urge to spend a little time daily with Scripture. Some days I hurry through, some days it doesn’t seem to amount to much, some days my perspective feels forever changed.

Several years ago I attended a presentation by Bishop John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church well known in Christian circles for writing books that seem to be deeply critical of the Church and the Bible – books like Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The main thing I recall from his talk is his deep reverence for the Bible, despite his controversial public position on it. He, too, continued to find solace in returning to the pages of Scripture.

More currently, there is The Christian Century, which features in each issue a column entitled “Living by the Word.” In the 16 October 2013 edition, Scottish writer Sara Maitland, after discussing lessons to be learned from the scoundrel Jacob, gives this frame of reference for Bible-reading:  “So when we go to the Bible we have to go alert and cunning about the fact that it is not a single text. It may very well all be inspired, but it is inspired to a variety of purposes and therefore comes in a variety of genres and calls for a variety of reading skills.”

I like her suggestion that readers be “alert and cunning” in approaching the Bible. I don’t expect that such an attitude will expunge the mystery; I wouldn’t be surprised if it deepens it.