Blame

Posted in Pastor's Musings on July 30, 2013 by unioncongregational

I was reading about blame recently. Blame is such an easy first-response when something goes wrong.  And blaming is as old as Adam and Eve in the garden, when Adam blamed God (“You gave her to me”), then he blamed the woman (“she gave it to me”), and the woman blamed the serpent (‘it deceived me’).  Blame, it seems to me, is like a narcotic because it absolves any sense of personal responsibility for the messes we find ourselves in: Blame that car for being where it was when we tried to get by. Blame our children for not turning out as we hoped, intended they would.  Blame stores for selling such an abundance of over-fatty and too-much-carbohydrate foods as the reason for our weight problem.  Blame our spouse for not being or doing as we think s/he ought.  Blame others in the church for changes we didn’t sign on for. Blame the weather for not getting a certain task done.  Blame God for children dying in accidents.  Blame poverty on poor women having babies. Blame Hurricane Katrina on ‘God’s wrath for homosexuals.’  Blame Republicans. Blame Democrats.  ….  If we can just find someone or something to blame, then we can ridicule it, distance it, fire it, divorce it, disinfect it, vote it out of office and finally end our pain and fear.

But I have found, over the years, that blaming causes a kind of spiritual rigor mortis to set in.  I can become numb to my own inner motivations, and numb to the activity of God working in me to transform that which is not holy into what God desires of me.

In contrast, I have noticed that in areas of my life where I have been able, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to reduce or stop blaming, there is much more freedom. It’s like there is more internal ‘air,’ some of the internal ‘stuffiness’ is gone. I breathe lighter. I feel much less encumbered.

And my next actions are usually more useful. Rather than being in a huff about something, I find myself more inclined to simply sigh at what was lost (recognizing that almost every event in life has an emotional component), then to ask questions like, “How did that happen?” “What could I do to help it not happen again?” and then to submit the whole matter to God’s greater wisdom and providence.  I have even on occasion, simply prayed this prayer, “God, save me from blaming!”

-Michelle

 A verse to ponder in several ways: He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.    - Ephesians

Extend your circle

Posted in Pastor's Musings on July 29, 2013 by unioncongregational

An older friend was lamenting to me his loneliness because of the passing of so many of his contemporaries – friends and relatives with whom he’d shared decades of life. Some he’d known ever since he was a small child.  Now in his late 70’s, he finds himself ‘alone,’ in the sense that not many people remain ‘who knew him when.’ He said that he is trying to build new relationships with people who are younger, but there are often awkward moments, because of the particular characteristics of each generation.  Even the way he speaks is somewhat different than they.

It gave me pause.  My own father, about that same age, late 70’s, lost to death all the men close to him: his brother, his two brothers in law, his three closest friends.  For a long time, he was bereft.  He would say “there’s no one to talk to about stuff, no one to play golf with, no one to sing along with the old songs,” etc.

It appears to me that most of us more naturally, or more easily, gravitate to affiliation with people who are ‘like us’ – and one of the primary ways of being ‘like us’ is being in the same generation.  It seems that genuine, deep cross-generational relationships are all too few. And this means that much life-enhancing, perhaps even life-saving, knowledge and experience sometimes do not get relayed one generation to another.  This it seems to me, can result  in a profound loss in the quality of life for all.

It’s hard to develop quickly a deep, genuine relationship with someone when you’re at the point of need.  Which is where my friend is now.  Quality relationships develop over time and circumstance; my friend cannot immediately ‘replace’ the quality of  his relationships with friends and family of decades – it will take some time.

This reminds me again of the importance of having and maintaining quality relationships with persons of generations different than my own.  Good relationship with one’s grandchildren is a good start.  But other cross-generational relationships are also important.  To do that, I need to reach out sometimes beyond my immediate comfort zone, get involved in some activities which appeal to folks of other generations, in other words, deliberately extend ‘my circle.’

A Christian church, when it gathers, is this extended circle.  Whether older, middler and younger taking advantage of this gift that God has provided, is entirely up to each one of us.

-Michelle

… to teach … knowledge and prudence to the young. Let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill.

– Proverbs 1:4-5

How it all fits together

Posted in Pastor's Musings on April 8, 2013 by unioncongregational

I am marveling at how God works.  There are the big things that happen that are wonderful, at which we stand in awe, but I am thinking about little things.  Some might call them coincidences. Things as little as the daily crossword puzzle. How often it seems that I come across a crossword clue that relates to something I’ve just experienced, or read about or heard about. Here’s an example: I’ll be talking with someone about a musical/opera I love, “Les Miserables” and then the next crossword puzzle I do requires a word related to that piece of art.
Or a friend is telling me about a new and exciting book they are reading (or movie they’ve recently seen) and it turns out that’s the same book or movie I’m excited about, but haven’t told anyone yet.  Or, I am thinking and praying about someone and their situation and that person, apparently out of the blue, contacts me.  Or, I am considering about taking a class in something, let’s say, piano lessons, and I come across someone who is a piano teacher and is looking for new students.   Or, I’m out and about doing errands and I make a wrong turn, and where I end up is at a place where I need to do some business, but it was not on my list to take care of that item on that day.  Until now, I am right in front of it so may as well do it.
And the best one: I am troubled about something, it’s on my mind a lot, and I turn to my morning devotional, and lo and behold, the subject of that devotional is the same thing I’m struggling with.
Now, are such events simply the incidents and accidents of daily human life, or are they in some way, somehow, orchestrated by God?  The answer to that is probably unknowable.  But I get more pleasure out of thinking that God in all God’s greatness is not concerned only about the great happenings in the world and the course of human history, but is concerned also about the little events in each person’s life, every day.  Maybe an angel or something goes ahead of me to ‘pave the way’ so little good things happen to buoy my day? Or maybe, it’s just that I am becoming more aware of how all things ‘fit together’  ?
I do know this.  As I grow spiritually, I seem to be aware of more and more of these ‘coincidences;’ that somehow, if only we knew how to look, we would see how everything fits together, that daily life is not just a random jostling of people and events like molecules bouncing in the universe, but rather, more like a stream that takes everything in its stride and its future course is changed just a bit by each addition.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future
with hope. – Jeremiah 29:11

God is not finished with us.

Posted in Pastor's Musings on April 8, 2013 by unioncongregational

Conversations with various persons in recent weeks on various subjects have prompted me to consider the difference between what is xenophobia and what is prejudice. Xenophobia is simply the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar – it is almost instinctual, and most if not all of us are born with some of it.  Prejudice is a mental attitude against a person or group.  None of us is born with this.
A young friend of mine was telling me that her father disapproved of her dating an African-American man.  The father said, “How can you stand to touch his skin?!” (I kid you not.). The daughter, as you might imagine, was horrified and disgusted by this question.  Evidently, the father had attached something distasteful to darker shades of human skin.  How he got there, is for another time.  But if it was simply a matter of xenophobia, it could be simply rectified if he could touch the skin of this young African-American man and know it feels the same as any other human skin.  Where it becomes prejudice is when he turned his fear of something unknown into something negative.  He then used this prejudice, this pre-judging, which was not based in fact, but, rather, in some fig newton of his imagination, in much of his decision making, and as it turns out, in how he related to his own daughter.
One might say, Well, he was just concerned about the well-being of his daughter. If that was the case, there are hundred questions he might ask her about the young man, like What do you know about him? What do you know about his family?  What are his aspirations?  What do you like about him?  What does he like about you?  Does he seem like responsible person? etc. etc.  Unfortunately, he asked none of those fatherly-concern kinds of questions, rather, he asked a question about the texture of the young man’s skin, augmented in distaste by the intonation in his voice as he asked it.
I am reminded also of the recent declaration by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who switched his view of gay marriage (now followed by Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois).  Now that Portman realizes he has a son who is gay, the issue no longer seems abstract (read that, unknown, unfamiliar), so his reduced xenophobia has helped him to change his mind.  If he had a prejudice about homosexuals, he would have retained that even in the face of his son or anyone else he knows who is gay (sadly, some parents of gays have.)
So I had to ask myself, What views do I hold that are the result of xenophobia, which can be corrected by more knowledge, and what views do I hold which are prejudice, which can be corrected only by a change in the heart. I realize the items on the list for the former is long, and sadly, the items on the list for the latter category is even  longer.  Thank God, God is not finished with me yet!

Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments. – Psalm 119:66

And to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, so that you may be filled with  all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:19

No regrets

Posted in Pastor's Musings on March 22, 2013 by unioncongregational

Some of you may recall that my beloved father in law passed away a few months ago.  I have been reminded this week of a conversation I had with his hospice caregiver, Mary Beth.  Mary Beth said it was refreshing to care for Poppo because, unlike most of her clients, Poppo voiced that he had few regrets – you know, the big decisions in your life that you wished you’d done different.  Poppo had no big regrets: he shared with Mary Beth that one of his regrets was that he quit learning to play the piano at age 10, and never resumed.

Mary Beth went on to say that with most of her terminally ill patients, she hears about regrets deep and many.  Most folks, she said, wish they hadn’t worked so hard, wished they had not missed out on important relationships, wished they had not ignored or skipped  relational experiences because they spent their time at their job or in other attention-and- time-consuming ways.

Jesus said so many times: “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last, but for the food which endures forever.”  Jesus came to show us the importance of relationships: relationship with God, relationships with those who are close to us, relationship to the wider world.  Here we are some 2100 years later and still we seem to spend our time mostly on things other than relationships: working too hard and/or too long, shopping or otherwise looking to acquire material things, over-involved in some hobby or sport, too many hours in front of a screen – TV, I-Pad, cell phone, etc.  It seems to me that spending time in every way but on important relationships may be easier, but if we did spend more time and attention on relationships, we’d get better at dealing with them.

And we struggle to “find time” to nurture that most important relationship, the one with God through Jesus.  I am wondering if we need to learn the lesson from those who are elderly – both what they celebrated about their life and what they regretted.  So that we ourselves might have less regret when our turn comes.

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
And whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty. – John 6:35

Reflections on being an American citizen

Posted in Pastor's Musings on March 2, 2013 by unioncongregational

From Our Pastor: Several of my friends are now serving as missionaries in various parts of our world, and I am on their list to receive regular reports of their work.  Recently, one of them wrote of their reflections on being American citizens, even as they are living in an impoverished corner of the world, where virtually everything is unfamiliar, political situation borders on unstable, and much about daily life is uncertain.  Normally I would not include something like this in a church newsletter, but I am prompted to share this, in light of our recent presidential inauguration, where, despite great differences across our country, there was again the peaceful transition of national power.                     

From missionaries in Africa:

In discussing the problem of suffering with my African friends, we agreed that suffering is suffering, and we don’t need to decide who suffers the most. We also noted that those who suffer seem able to only concentrate on their own suffering  (vs. the contemporaneous suffering of others) and that compounds the pain. Yesterday a nursing student demanded money to help his sick daughter. I explained that we couldn’t help everyone, and that, at this time, we felt compelled to help two babies with club feet and leprosy patients. Instead of considering that perhaps these people were worse off often than he, he redoubled his argument. I listened until I was exhausted and then I said, “I’m sorry.”  Living abroad has given us a new perspective about America. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, I would like to tell you why we are proud to be Americans.

 

Democracy. Every four years we get to elect new leaders. Here, with few exceptions, leaders only leave office when they are dead.

Legal system.  The US has had its share of corruption, but eventually many government and corporate officials are prosecuted and go to jail. Corruption here is rampant and rewarded.

Freedom of expression. We can still print and say anything we want, even criticize the government. In many countries here, critics are imprisoned.

Food. Yes, food is expensive in the USA, but we still have amazing variety. Here, in addition to being expensive, there is little variety, and the quality can’t compare to that in the US. We are surviving on bread, tiny potatoes, white rice, beans, bananas, pineapples, and a skinny chicken now and then.

Electricity & Flush Toilets. Most Americans have electricity and running water. In Kananga, a city of a half a million people, there is no steady electricity (three hours at night) and no running water. The one permanent American resident in Kananga uses a hole outside his rooming house. We are close to a dam, which furnishes electricity to the hospital, but the hot water heater in the house has been broken for ten years (very expensive to replace), and we take baths by warming up two large pans of water on a stove.

Medical services. Despite the cost, the reality is that many Americans have access to medical care not available here. Bob has seen conditions that never would have gone as long untreated in the US. Even our county hospital in Chicago has far more equipment and personnel than the hospital here, which many consider to be the best in the entire country.

Books. While books may be beyond many people’s budgets now, still we have libraries with a marvelous selection of books. Here they are studying English without even dictionaries. Most have no access to newspapers, television, radio, or internet

Education. As desperately as we need to improve our schools, the fact is that even the poorest school in Chicago would be considered fantastically rich here. I teach in schools where there are no books nor computers, only blackboards for the teacher to write on. Students spend much classroom time simply copying from the blackboard into their notebooks.

Social services. As inept as may of our social services are, we still do have many safety nets in place. Here in cities, if a child’s parents both die of AIDS, some children are abandoned, although in the villages, extended families often take over care of the orphaned children. Unemployment is often 50-80% percent, with no unemployment benefits.

Roads and infrastructure. There are only 400 miles of paved roads in a country that is the size of Western Europe with 55 million people. Many roads are dirt, and when it rains, water washes out deep ruts and potholes. Also, it is difficult to get anything fixed easily

Parks. We take it for granted that cities have green spaces for relaxation and refreshment. The cities around here are oppressive, asphalt jungles with no greenery..

I do believe in the resourcefulness and ingenuity of Americans to solve their problems. as long as we don’t despair.

Indeed, some things to think about when we are tempted to grouse about not having enough, or about what other folks are doing these days. Older folks sometimes fear they won’t be able to live in the future as they have in the past, and younger folks fear they won’t have the same kinds of opportunities their parents’ generation had.  These fears are relative. They are connected to an economic standard of living in our collective mind.

What our Christian faith can help us do is move away from envisioning the future in economic terms, and envisioning the future more in relational terms.  When such occurs, surprising turns of events occur that we could not anticipate.  Sort of like what Jesus envisioned, where relationships are the point and economics is just part (albeit, a significant part) of what facilitates them.

This being the season of Lent, perhaps we could spend some time thinking and praying about what this ‘wilderness’ might yield in terms of spiritual growth.  There is nothing we can experience that Jesus has not already experienced, and there is nothing we can experience that Jesus can’t help us find a way through.  What an incredible Savior we have -  for all time – even this time – and for eternity.

 

                        Remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age.

                                    –Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 28:20b

Pastor Michelle

Waiting…

Posted in Pastor's Musings on March 2, 2013 by unioncongregational

I’ve been thinking about waiting – you know, that time you live between the anticipation of something happening and the event actually happening.  All of us wait in line for things on a regular basis – at a store or restaurant, on the telephone, at a medical office, for a child to return from school or a spouse from work, you name it.
In addition to these daily waitings, it seems like lots of folks are waiting for at least one big thing, most of the time.  Some of us are waiting for retirement, some for test results, some to find out what is happening with an elderly parent, some for an adult child to get their act together, some for the boss to grant you a raise or some appreciation for your work, some for the big day to use the tickets you bought for a music concert, some for the time to begin the planting season, some for a special celebration time, like a birthday, anniversary or graduation.
In my household, two big things loom on the horizon, one which gives a lilt to my anticipation and the other which gives a thud to my anticipation: a memorial service for my late beloved father in law, to be held in late April.  (Yes, one was held in Florida, but this one, is for “the rest of the family”).  Family is coming here from all over the country.  As many of you know, the event of a funeral or memorial service often becomes opportunity also for a family reunion.
The other event is the resolution of the murder case, that is, the brutal killing of my step-children’s mother, (alleged) by her current husband. This is unlikely to happen for more than a year, and many steps, some known and some unknown to us, will happen during that waiting time.
What I find is that as I go through my days, my thoughts will often float to either the memorial service, at which point my heart smiles, or to the murder case, in which case my heart dampens a bit. On my more disciplined days, I say a brief prayer about that event, before I move on to other thoughts.  How do you think about that thing you’re anticipating or waiting for?  What happens inside you?
Waiting has been called “the time between the times.”  This suggests that we live our lives sort of hopping from one event to another, and that the life that happens between the events – long anticipated or long dreaded, either way -  is just not so important.  But the Bible tells us, “Redeem the time (Col. 4:5).”  It doesn’t specify which time, or that some time was more worth redeeming than other times.  I am reminded that while I am anticipating – whatever it is I am anticipating – I am going through my days.  Life is happening, there are unlimited opportunities to grow and to develop skills, to praise God, to serve others, to deepen in loving.
So I ask myself: How are you redeeming the time, that is, truly living your days, until the time everyone arrives for the memorial service?  How are you redeeming the time, that is, truly living your days, until the time when the case is resolved?
I trust in You, O Lord; I say, “You are my God. My times are in Your hand…”             – Psalm 31:14-15a

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