Friday

Christmas memories bring comfort and joy

Last year, right after Christmas, I picked up a book, marked down in price, titled “Simplify Your Christmas: 100 Ways to Reduce the Stress and Recapture the Joy of the Holidays,” by Elaine St. James. As far as I know it is not a religious book, but it is something that everyone should read because, as church people know, the hustle and bustle the holidays bring is no different for us than anyone who does not attend church regularly.

One of the first suggestions St. James asked her readers to do was to reflect on what they used to enjoy about the holiday. I thought this was a good exercise so I took time to think about it.
The interesting thing was that all of my enjoyable reflections centered around family and friends.
There were the nights before Christmas when my cousin and I huddled under the covers listening for Santa and his reindeer to land on the roof. My cousin claimed to have heard this once. I never did. However, I did hear a lot of rustling and stifled laughter coming from the living room as our parents got everything ready for the big morning.

There were the long ago Christmas Eves spent with family, when we ate in a restaurant, went to church for the annual pageant and then, at midnight, after unwrapping some gifts, sang carols while another cousin accompanied us on the piano.

There was that first Christmas away from family when as a newlywed couple, my first husband and I had the best time ever opening gifts that had been a struggle to buy. Of course, my parents vowed never to spend another Christmas apart from us and that was good, but that first year sure was special.

There were three Christmas mornings on which three separate children experienced the joy of unwrapping gifts for the first time. While the little one didn’t know what was going on, we grownups and the older children sure had a good time laughing together.

And then there were the last four Christmases spending time getting to know a new family and learning to come together.

Reflecting on these simple, enjoyable times make the holiday truly wonderful. It’s not the presents; it’s not all the hustle and bustle. It’s about enjoying the season together. And, if you think about it, that’s all Mary and Joseph had on the very first Christmas – each other, and the brand new package literally sent from heaven. It probably was not easy for them, but they were together, warm and cozy in that stable, listening to the shepherds speak about singing angels. I’m sure that is a memory that lived in their minds for years to come.

This Christmas season, before the rush of the big week begins, take some time to think about what you enjoy about the holiday and thank God for it. Gratefulness will bring you great comfort and joy.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday

"If I had a tiara ..."

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a short trip to Trinidad and stayed overnight in a bed and breakfast. While in the otherwise very nicely restored Victorian, I felt strange. It just felt like there was something in that room that didn't want me there. I promise that I am mentally sound; I really felt this.

In the church we are taught that there is a "great cloud of witnesses" watching us. These are the saints who have gone on before us. We are also taught that there is another dimension to this, an evil one that also watches. This seemed to be what I was feeling.

"Go away," I said while sitting in the room alone. "I am a child of God."

And guess what? I didn't feel that strange feeling any more and our time there was very enjoyable.

The next day I was wandering around a gift store and found a notebook that said "I am fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world." I chuckled at this because I remembered all the times in college when I thought that my contributions to society would actually save the world. And then I thought of the wealth given to the kings and queens in this world and how they might be able to solve some problems. The statement seemed to hit me on many levels so I bought the book.

After a while I started thinking about the incident in the hotel room and the saying on the notebook. It's true, you know. Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ is royalty. We are co-heirs with Christ to the riches of God. "Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory," Romans 8: 17 (NIV).

I may not have a tiara or a cape but I am connected to the greatest king that ever was and ever will be. Perhaps in some small way I can "save" the world. Maybe,in some way God will use me to change the corner of the world in which I live. All I need to do is use my talents in the best way possible and trust him for the results. I may not know what effect my actions may have, but that's okay.

What am I thankful for?

This week our newspaper is asking for readers’ stories about what makes them thankful. So, I thought with Thanksgiving coming I’d start the ball rolling, so to speak, and write about what I am thankful for in David Letterman style, no less.

So here it is. The top 10 things for which I am thankful ... drum roll please ...

10. My dog: I know, it’s weird, but that furry little dog brings me a lot of joy, even if he does tear up the furniture when hunting for mice.
9. A warm house: Winter is coming. I thank God for the blessing of living in a sturdy, warm house.

8. My job: Many in this nation do not have jobs right now. I am grateful to have one that I enjoy. Remember those who may need our help this holiday season.

7. Road trips: Mike and I had a great mini-vacation last weekend. We drove around appreciating Colorado’s beautiful scenery. This truly is God’s country!

6. America: This country may have its problems, but it is the best nation on earth in which to live. We have an astounding history and our Constitution is like no other country’s founding document. Thank God for the wisdom our Founding Fathers had when they thought through the concept of our nation.

5. My church, pastor and his family: I cannot think of all the times that my church has been there for me when I am in trouble. On Sunday it felt good to worship freely and without fear.

4. My coworkers: Everyone in this office is friendly and works hard. We do a lot during the week and I think at the end of the day we can rest knowing that the day’s work was a job well done.

3. Family: I love my boys. We’ve been through some rough times, but things are working out well. I am also thankful for Mike’s side of the family and my parents. God has indeed blessed me.

2. Husband: My husband is very good to me. We have a strong friendship and a deep affection for one another. That’s something that doesn’t happen every day.

And the number one thing for which I am thankful (drum roll):

1. Abundant life: Life as a Christian may not always be easy, but it is worth every minute. Thank you, Jesus, for saving me.

Stop sometime this week and think about 10 reasons to be grateful. The reasons are there, sometimes you just have to stop and think. I knew an old preacher once that used to say “Count your blessings. Weigh them ton by ton.”

That’s true, you know.

Thursday

The Hound of Heaven

Our dog Chuck is a daschund-beagle mix, which means that he is a hound and is a good hunter. There are two classifications of hounds: hounds that track by sight and those that track by scent. Chuck is definitely the latter. In fact, he is often our first clue that a mouse is in the house because he'll start sniffing all over the place - obsessively.

Bloodhounds are especially tenacious and were originally bred to hunt large animals. Now they are used by law enforcement to track down people. Bloodhounds, like all scent hounds, have high endurance levels and can track their quarry for miles. They can even track a scent through running water, according to dog-names.org.uk.

Have you ever heard God referred to as the hound of heaven? The term came from a poem written by Francis Thompson, who describes running from God like trying to escape a hound: "From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. But with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, They beat ..."

This term for God applies to my dad's experience. In 1967 as a soldier in Vietnam, my dad was rummaging through his locker one night and picked up a Bible that my grandmother had given him. At that time, my dad, who was not a Christian, prayed, "God, if you get me out of here I promise to serve you."

What my dad did not understand at the time is that he had unleashed a baying hound that chased him for another five years until he was caught. Like so many have said about being caught, all they could do was give up and serve. The ironic thing about the story was that my dad told it during his annual church treasurer's report. Not only had he kept his promise, he had served God by doing a job in the church that not many people want!

All of us have a story to tell about God chasing us. If you haven't been caught, you might as well give up. The Hound of Heaven is tenacious. You'll be happier (and more peaceful) if you just let yourself get caught.

Note: "Hound of Heaven" is also a poem written by Francis Thompson.

Headless chicken syndrome, part 2

Just like so many other attributes of the Christian life, the key to rest is in our attitude. Jesus said it best, of course. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount he told us it was not enough to refrain from murdering; one has to purge hatred from the heart. Also, it is not enough to refrain from committing adultery. One has to abandon lust as well.

So it is with rest. It is not enough to say that we will take a nap on Sunday afternoon as part of our rest (although I do enjoy my naps religiously, so to speak). We must listen to the Holy Spirit concerning what activities we need to involve ourselves with, or abandon. “Rest” encompasses much more than simple physical rest; it is necessary to take the time to recharge our “spiritual batteries.”

We must refrain from what I have formerly called the “headless chicken syndrome.” This is when we run around like a chicken with its head cut off, going from activity to activity desperately trying to fill our time for one reason or another, caught up in the “hamster wheel” of 21st century life.
Of course some days or weeks are headless chicken days or weeks. Oftentimes, we cannot help being busy and sometimes circumstances are beyond our control. However, like I said, it is our attitude that counts.

The next time you find yourself running around the proverbial barnyard in an aimless fashion, ask yourself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” It could be that you are trying to please someone, or perhaps you have trouble just saying “no.” It could be that you feel guilty about something and you are trying to pay penance. The only trouble with paying self-induced penance is that it will never be enough. Maybe you are too busy because you are disorganized.

There are a multitude of reasons as to why we run around in a frenzy. However, once we start figuring out the whys and wherefores of why we are doing what we are doing, we have to be careful not to fill our time with other needless activities. That’s why the attitude is the heart of the matter. We will never be cured of the headless chicken syndrome until we get to the root of our behavior.

So what is this attitude of rest that I am trying to describe? It is peace. It is simplicity. It is the ability to maintain the right priorities. It is the desire to live a godly life; to develop a personal relationship with God. It’s the realization that you can pitch your Blackberry into City Park pond and everything will still be okay. That is the attitude of rest. It is worth working toward.


Friday

Don't hide your head in the sand

My family sometimes has a sick sense of humor and it often comes out at weird times. This instance took place Wednesday night at Villiage Inn where we ate supper. There were only three of us. The other two were participating in school activities, so it became a rare moment when we parents could spend time with the youngest.

Eventually, after ordering and some light chit chat, the conversation turned to school. I asked Stephen how school was and Mike asked him more specific questions about his classes. Apparently in science that day, the class had talked about weather. In this discussion, the teacher talked about Hurricane Andrew, the third most powerful storm to hit the United States. Stephen, who is really interested in the weather, was full of little tidbits of information, including that some animals from a zoo had died.

“Do you know how the ostrich died?” Mike asked, with that gleam in his eye that meant some type of fabrication was coming.

“How?” Stephen asked, between bites.

“He buried his head in the sand with his butt in the air and the wind sandpapered the feathers right off his butt.”

I snorted. Stephen resumed inhaling his dinner. Apparently, Stephen didn’t get it so Mike asked him how high the winds were.

“About 175 miles per hour,” Stephen said.

“So, if you were an ostrich with your head buried in the sand and your butt in the air, and the wind at 175 mph ... he’d get sandpapered so bad he’d bleed to death.”

Stephen raised his eyebrow and subtly answered, “Or, he could have died because the wind blew him over and snapped his neck.”

All three of us laughed at that. Mike and Stephen exchanged high fives.

See? We have strange senses of humor, but out of that came a thought. If we’re too busy hiding our heads in the sand from fear when a storm is approaching, we will not survive. The storms of life can be just as brutal as Hurricane Andrew and we need some good solid ground on which to stand so that we won’t cave in to the pressure.

Do you remember the parable Jesus told about the wise man who built his house upon the rock? The rains came down and the floods came up, like the Sunday school song says, and the house on the rock stood firm. What happened to the house built on the sand? It went splat! Jesus is likened to that rock and I know that during times in my life when I’ve been afraid, Christ was always there to help me face that fear rather than bury my head in the sand like an ostrich. Jesus will help you face your fears today. Just let him.


Thursday

Frenzy affects Sabbath rest

If God were rewriting the 10 Commandments for the fast-paced, high tech 21st century, he might add: “Thou shalt not run about as if thou were a headless chicken” as a variation of “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” This is something that I’ve been struggling with lately. Remembering the Sabbath, whether you celebrate on Sunday or Saturday, is definitely worthwhile. It brings a day of rest, something everyone needs whether they admit it or not.

However, I’m convinced that in order to achieve a Sabbath rest, we must be careful about our time during the week.

What I am talking about is something I’m going to call the “headless chicken syndrome.” I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. We enter so many activities onto our calendars that there is no white space; we get out of bed in the morning and hit the ground running, without stopping until we fall back into bed late at night. We could also call this the “hamster syndrome.” In this syndrome, we live our lives running endlessly in the same direction without stopping. It seems that we lack purpose, even in our flurry of activity.

Lately, I’ve been trying to slow down. It isn’t easy. I’ve even had to resign from a couple of activities that were worthwhile in order to work toward a more peaceful week. I’m sure as I continue this journey, the Lord will reveal more things that need to be cut from my activities, and I must be willing to do that.

It’s all about priorities. We should determine what is truly important. What we believe God is calling us to do. Although most of our activities are good, some aren’t really necessary. Perhaps someone else could handle the activity just as well or even better. Maybe our energies need to be directed elsewhere. Perhaps our children need more attention. Maybe the job we have needs our undivided attention. God can use us in any capacity, we just have to be open to his will.

As we work to live a more simple life God will shape our attitudes so that the Sabbath will be more restful, whenever we celebrate.


Tuesday

The political scene

It's election time again and if you're anything like me, you can't wait until it's over. The biggest reason for me is because I tire quickly of watching politicians sling mud at one another through endless e-mails and political ads on television. Rarely does anyone address the real issues, and, if they do, it leaves me wondering if they are simply following notes written by their staffs or if they have actually read about the issues.

Today's political scene is especially lacking, especially in the Coloradan Republican camp. In the governor's race, for whom is a Republican supposed to vote? Maes lied about his police service record and all Tancredo has done is split the party while appealing to conspiracy theorists and the rest of the extreme Right. He has all but cinched a Democrat gubernatorial win. So that leaves me wondering if Hickenlooper will follow his predecessor in taxing and feeing Coloradans without doing anything to curb special interest spending in order to balance a budget that is out of control. Unfortunately, taxing and feeing more and more doesn’t control the budget – it just gives “them” more of our money to waste.

And, speaking of taxes, who was the genius behind Amendments 60, 61 and Proposition 101? If these three pass, our cities and towns will be stripped of their services and schools will suffer even deeper budget cuts. These three are supposed to make the average taxpayer happy by cutting taxes; however, the three also limit government's ability to borrow and limits the amount of money the state can use for operating programs and transportation. The thing to remember with all of this is that it will eventually hurt the entity that it was meant to help - the taxpayer. Yes, if these three are passed, we will pay less in taxes, but how will we benefit from potholes that can't be fixed or services being cut, such as city buses, amenities at the library, senior center, sanitation, etc. The solution is not limiting government revenue in this manner; the solution is in electing officials who understand priorities and restraint.

Not only are there financial issues looming on the ballot, but this year Colorado voters get to decide when an unborn fetus really becomes a person. Supporters of Amendment 62 take the position that if you do not support their view, then you support abortion. They are completely black-and-white on this, attempting to ban the most common forms of birth control in use today, and making no exceptions for rape or incest. This vote, in my opinion, really puts people who believe that life begins at conception – a term poorly defined by supporters of Amendment 62 – in a bad position because we are in effect saying that nothing is more important than that developing life even if the mother's life is in danger. If a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage, tubal pregnancy, cancer or infertility that just may be too bad for her if Amendment 62 passes. Why would we want to limit treatment for these women, who if they die, will also take the developing life along with them? Why should the less developed, who cannot survive outside the womb, have more rights that a person who can? Why not pump the money being used to push this amendment into crisis pregnancy centers, WAIT programs and in taking care of women who suffer a crisis pregnancy? Why don't we use this money into programs to make adoption more accessible? Why are we trying to legalize a moral issue?

I've said enough for this week, but more will follow in the body of our paper as we bring the candidates and the amendments to you. I encourage everyone to think for themselves, rather than vote along party lines. Feel free to write me - e-mail is best. Please keep the word count around 250 words.

Criminal behavior spreads like bacterial infection

During the summer of 1985, southern California was under a dark cloud of terror.

That summer was when Richard Ramirez, known as The Night Stalker, was executing his reign of terror, committing the most heinous murders, mutilating corpses, sodomizing and raping people. In fact, in 1989, after being on trial for four years, Ramirez was “found guilty on 43 counts in Los Angeles County, including 13 murders, and charges including burglary, sodomy and rape,” according to about.com. After being sentenced to death, he shrugged it off saying, “Big deal.”

On the day that police released a composite drawing of Ramirez on the news, Californians memorized the face. Within days the killer was caught after walking into a liquor store. “It’s the Night Stalker,” the clerk yelled. Ramirez took off with a crowd following him. He tried to steal a car and the man who was under it doing repairs started chasing him. The man and the crowd jumped Ramirez right on the street and kept him contained until the police arrived.

The people in that neighborhood were heroes in my eyes. They were an ordinary group of citizens who decided to catch a murderer when the opportunity presented itself. I am sure that if they had been fearful and hung back instead of jumping Ramirez, that The Night Stalker would have disappeared again and more people would have died. No one would have blamed them, though. The man was a walking nightmare.
At the beginning of this week there was a shooting incident. People refused to cooperate with the police in identifying the suspect. I believe that they did so out of fear. Who can blame them? But, there is something larger at stake - the peace and tranquility of our city. I am convinced that if we citizens band together and cooperate with law enforcement when these things happen, then people will think twice before bringing their malice here. That’s a lesson we can learn from those average, everyday people in Los Angeles.

We are lucky to live in the Arkansas Valley where people are generally nice and take care of one another. Unfortunately, however, that can change. All it takes is for people to remain silent when wrong is done. Silence is a petri dish for criminal behavior. Under this “glass” of American neighborhoods, criminals thrive and their activities grow in that “perfect” environment until they dominate their area. Today, we see bacterial infections that do not respond to traditional treatments like antibiotics. It then takes drastic measures to get rid of bacteria.
In the community it’s the same. When criminal activity becomes entrenched, drastic measures must be taken to overcome the “bacteria,” because people who are bent on breaking the law do not respond to traditional disciplines, like discussions about their behavior or community censures. They have to be disciplined by the law. They also need our prayers so that they will change.

Let’s not let behavior like this continue here. Let’s keep the peace and tranquility of our city by being tough on crime. It’s the only way.

The stench of coverup

Secrecy appears to be a scourge nowadays. Seems like if you have money or position, you can get away with anything. This has become clear in two stories that have crossed my desk in the last two weeks.

This past week the Pueblo Chieftain carried an article about La Junta’s former police chief Charles “Chuck” Widup. Widup was reportedly at fault in a traffic accident in which six individuals suffered injury. Widup was charged with DUI, according to the Pueblo Chieftain, with a blood alcohol level of .233. That level was recorded two hours after the accident, and is almost three times the legal limit in this state. Widup was issued a summons and given a ride home, with no requirement to post bond or cool his heels in jail.

Because of this, people in town are angry. People believe that Widup received special treatment because he works for the Department of Corrections, and has “connections” with the leadership of the Pueblo police department.

I did a little research about this and discovered that there is no law that says a drunk driver has to go to jail. Drunk driving is a traffic misdemeanor under Colorado law and is a releasable offense. It really is up to the officer; however, each community may decide what they will do. In La Junta, according to Police Chief Todd Quick, all DUIs go to jail and have to bond out, unless there is an extenuating medical condition. In that case, the person is turned over to a responsible party who agrees to keep them until they are sober.

So, if Widup had been soused in La Junta, he would have gone to jail. But he wasn’t. He was in Pueblo, where apparently the police department is “confused” about policy.

Sure they were.

As editor, I have been asked several times this week whether or not I am going to publish something about Widup’s accident and I fully intended to do so. It has taken so long because none of the involved authorities have been forthcoming with information. On Monday I called the Pueblo Police Department to get the report and I was told that it had already been turned over to the district attorney and they couldn’t discuss the matter. The clerk gave me the D.A.’s phone number so I called them. At the D.A.’s office the nice lady told me that she didn’t have the case and that she would call me back.

As of today, that call has not been returned. I still have questions about the incident. For example, there is a two hour time limit between the time the arrestee last drove and the administration of the breath test. From the Pueblo Chieftain account, Widup’s test may have been outside that two hour window, and therefore inadmissible in the Department of Revenue license revocation hearing. And, without that test, no judge will take action against his license. I can’t confirm that because of the two-stepping ’round the scales of justice by our law enforcement community in Pueblo County. But if that is in fact the case, what do we have? Yet another bit of “confusion” on the part of Pueblo Police Department? Way to go, there, public “safety” officials.

In another matter, Rep. Wes McKinley (D - Walsh) was accused of sexually harassing a young lobbyist. He is also protected by secrecy. A ruling called Joint Rule 38, a rule developed by legislators for legislators, keeps the public from learning what becomes of our mustached, guitar-pickin’ cow-pie kickin’ good ol’ boy politician and any other lawmaker that gets caught. According to Face the State, the news agency that broke the story, all Wes gets is a slap on the wrist. He gets to go to a class.

I’m sure that will keep him from harassing anyone else. It works so well in other cases. Way to go there, elected representatives, who seem to have forgotten who hired them. We are, indeed, the very people who need protection from these types of people.

These coverups are enough to make me sick. Do I like knowing other people’s dirt? I must because I’m a journalist, right? Wrong. I don’t. But when public officials and law enforcement personnel are caught doing wrong, then the public has a right to know. These people are paid by our tax dollars. We should know whether or not the right people have been hired. We should be able to vote with the right information, or in Widup’s case, be able to complain about his behavior to the proper people. We should let law enforcement officials know that we are not pleased when they break the very laws that common people are booked for every day. We should let the legislature know that they should set an example for the rest of us.

What happens if this kind of thing occurs here in La Junta? More of the same? The incompetence and untrustworthiness of the Pueblo Police Department and our elected officials smears all with the same stench.

Rules, common sense, and following the law

On Monday, my boys came home from the first day of the new school year. They reported that their teachers had all spent a great deal of time going over “The Rules.” They seemed a little put off by all the emphasis on those rules, especially since this wasn’t their first year at the school.

This caused me to reconsider the events over the last couple of years. At the height of the presidential campaign, the business world seemed to come apart at the seams. Major corporations, especially those associated with home loans, were self-destructing. The people who ran those corporations had not followed the rules established for them, or else those who made those rules ignored the basic rule of common sense. Because of that, unimaginable debt was forced upon ordinary Americans - who were not to blame for the crisis - by our government in order to bail out those corporations. It was all driven by greed for the almighty dollar.

More recent cases of this have occurred earlier this year. We have seen a British Petroleum oil rig blow up, killing 11 workers. We found that the company ignored basic safety rules, and we found that government inspectors were complicit in this. That too was driven by greed, and now the Louisiana coast is seriously damaged, marine life is suffering, small businesses along the Gulf Coast are in peril, and thousands of families who depend on that interconnecting system face a very uncertain future.

It happened again with salmonella bacteria introduced into the market place that made at least 2,409 people sick and resulted in a national recall of more than 550 million eggs. Conditions at the farms from where the eggs originated were deplorable, investigators found. All of that was from not following the rules, and greed.

What are we to do about this? Should we quit drilling offshore? Should we quit selling eggs? Should we make more regulations? I don’t believe that is the answer. The first two choices are ludicrous. The third would just give us more rules to ignore. Why don’t we begin by enforcing the laws we already have with substantive penalties that will make businesses think twice about succumbing to greed. Why don’t we decide as a people to think about our neighbors rather than falling to the temptation to make more money than we could possibly use in wise way? And why don’t we hold our government accountable? Once our government interjects itself as a regulatory authority, it assumes a moral obligation. Government these days doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “moral obligation” any more than does private business. Where are the penalties for either private business or government, when both are responsible?

On the local level, we could take this advice to heart as well. Here at the paper we’ve received a couple of letters about animal problems. We need a balance here. I agree with the reader who asked for more regulations regarding animal abuse. I also believe that people need to follow basic common sense and think about what’s good for their animal and for their neighbors. Is it really advantageous for the community to let dog dung pile up in the yard? To let dogs bark insanely? To allow pets to run loose destroying private property? Perhaps some should reconsider owning pets if they don’t have time to care for them. Like all of the cases above, it depends on perspective. Are we completely self-focused or do we also think of others?

As my children will see, and do already see, rules are important. Going over them from time to time does not hurt anyone, especially if the rules are followed and enforced, along with good common sense.

Thursday

A lesson from Herbie, the goldfish


When I was in first grade, my elementary school conducted a carnival. I remember this day pretty well even though it was a long time ago, because that is when Herbie came into my life. Herbie was a small goldfish that I won at the carnival. It was one of those happy childhood days. My mom came to the classroom and walked through the carnival with me, steering me clear of the fish until the very last. She didn't want to carry it around and risk the bag breaking. It must have been clear that everyone could win a goldfish.

When I won my fish, I was elated. The little guy swam around in the plastic bag filled with water and I held it carefully all the way home. When we got home my mom filled up a large glass bowl that had a stem -- at that age I thought it would be a neat drinking glass probably because I had seen people drinking from smaller, similar glasses on television -- and we dumped Herbie into the water. I watched my little goldfish swim around making "o" shapes with his mouth as he breathed.

My favorite thing was to feed Herbie. I liked to watch him swim to the surface and suck in the little pellets that I sprinkled on top. He was always so eager. I think this was the only excitement Herbie had -- that is until we cleaned his bowl.

Cleaning the bowl was a job for my dad. I watched and helped the best I could. It always amazed me to see Herbie swim really fast as my dad chased him around the bowl with a net and then flop around once he was inside and had hit air. Herbie always seemed grateful when we dumped him into a glass of water while we cleaned his bowl.

The one thing about Herbie is that his life was immersed in blessing. He was surrounded by his life source, water. He was well fed and had no real worries. Even the net was his friend because if we had let his bowl grow increasingly dirty, Herbie would have died.

Herbie is a lot like us. We are immersed in blessing. It may not feel like it sometimes. God may drag his net around in our bowl so that he can clean out our lives, but like Herbie, we are surrounded by our life source. God surrounds us and immerses us in his love. There is nowhere we can go to get away from it. If we did get away we would die spiritually.

Most people swim around in the fishbowls of their lives without realizing that they are surrounded by blessing. It is easy to take things for granted. However, God will remind us from time to time that he is there and that we are indeed blessed. It may come in the form of more blessings being sprinkled onto the surface of our lives, or, it may come in the form of trouble, when our world is turned upside down so that God can discipline us. These are the extra blessings in life. We are already surrounded in God's blessing. We are literally swimming in it.

What does creation have to do with politics?

A recent article I read on the CBS news website has my hackles up again about the separation of church and state. And, as I’ve said before, I will say again, religion and politics do not mix.

Here’s what’s bugging me. Gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne of Alabama is being attacked by a “shadowy” group called “True Republican Political Action Committee” for suggesting that “evolution best explains the origin of life.”

Why in the world does it matter what a gubernatorial candidate thinks about evolution or creationism? Why do we care what any candidate for any office thinks about Genesis or Darwin? How does what one believes about the origins of the universe figure into whether or not he or she will govern fairly and do what’s best for everyone?

Now it could be said that a candidate who believes in creationism (i.e. the six - 24 - hour - day theory) also believes that humankind is made in the image of God and that makes them precious and worth treating fairly. That could be true. However, Mr. Byrne is an outspoken Christian who says that “everything in it (the world) is a masterpiece created by the hands of God,” and that he believes “every single word of the Bible is true.”

What is really happening is this political action committee is trying to discredit Byrne and they are using his faith and the minds of blindly conservative fundamentalists to try to create an uproar so that their candidate will win.

Not only is this tactic filthy and underhanded, it goes against the very things for which our founding fathers stood. Many of our fathers were Christians, some were deists, but they did not believe that politics and religion should mix. The reason? Absolute power absolutely corrupts. A cursory glance at history will demonstrate my point. Whenever the church and the government are ruling together, the people suffer. Anyone who dares to disagree with the state established religion either ends up in prison, sanctioned in some way, or dead, usually in very messy and pain-filled fashion.

That is not to say that Christians should not be involved in politics. They should. What better way to show the power of God than to live a life that is moral in the midst of an almost amoral environment? Our Christian beliefs should deeply affect our actions, our sense of morality, and the decisions we make, but faith should never be forced upon someone else. That’s not what Christianity is all about. On the flip side, no American should use someone else’s faith as a weapon against him by twisting his words in order to incite small-minded voters. That’s really low rent; but while unfortunately it is politics, it is decidedly un-Christian, no matter what anyone says.

Whether God created the earth in six 24 hour days or in 6 billion years is immaterial. Whether the Bible is literal or metaphorical or combination of both is immaterial. The fact that God did it is what matters. Anyone who asks a candidate what his or her opinion is on this matter is fishing for something else and he or she should proceed with extreme caution.

Friday

Imago Dei - Have we lost it?


I’ve recently come across the Latin phrase “imago dei,” which means “image of God.” At first, I thought it was a nice phrase, something to remind us that we are made in God’s image.; it made me feel warm inside. However, over the last couple of weeks, the phrase has taken on deeper meaning as I studied it for our Sunday discussion group at church.

The book of Genesis says that when humankind was first created, God said “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1: 26, 27, NRSV).

If you’ve spent any time in church at all, you know that after God uttered these words, humanity fell miserably. We fell under a curse which meant that we had to work hard for our food, suffer pain in childbirth and were under a physical death sentence. Before the fall, we lived in complete joy and harmony with our Creator. After the fall, there was a wall of sin between us.

Since the first century, most Christians have agreed that the image of God referred to an original spiritual possession that was lost in the fall. To what degree you believe that spiritual possession was lost depends on what theological bent to which your denomination subscribes. Some Christians believe that humanity only lost the supernatural aspects of that image, such as “sanctifying grace,” justice, immortality and integrity. What was left was a wounded human nature that still had the powers of reason and free will. Others believe that humans lost everything related to that image after the fall, including freedom of will. Still others believe that the image was so corrupted that whatever remains is horribly deformed.

I like what Matthew Henry said, “The soul of man, considered in its three noble faculties, understanding, will and active power, is perhaps the brightest clearest looking-glass in nature wherein to see God.” Henry believed that Christ was the exact image and that humanity was the most like God in relation to any other being.

By watching the news alone, anyone can see that at the very least the image of God within humanity is wounded, but there is hope. Colossians says, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” (3:9,10, NIV). The image of God can be renewed through Christ. We may not completely live up to that image, but it is something for which to aim. God will help us. All we need to do is ask.

Thursday

Why practice creation care?


With the passing of Earth Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice and creation care. As Christians, what is our part in taking care of the earth and in ensuring social justice for those who cannot fight for themselves?

The issue is more complicated that it appears, unless you look at it from a biblical standpoint. There are many verses that talk about taking care of those less fortunate — the poor, the widow, the orphan — and in Genesis we find a mandate to “have dominion over the earth.” This means to rule over the earth and to take care of the earth as God would, according to some commentators.

When looking at scriptural references to creation care, which really includes social justice if you think about it, the desire of God seems straightforward. According to Jesus, we are to treat others as we want to be treated. We could use that same thought process when trying to decide how to treat our only home, the earth.

The matter gets complicated, however, when real life enters the picture. Nothing, except the love of God, is black and white in this world. Ethical issues complicate matters. We just need to follow God’s word and prayerfully try to do what is best.

Recently, a well-known radio and television talk show host, Glenn Beck, made matters worse by placing the desire to win social justice on the same level as communism and naziism. He said, “I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. … Am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!” According to several news sources, later on in the show, Beck held up a picture of a swastika and one of a hammer and sickle, declaring again that “social justice” has the same philosophy as the Nazis and communists and that the phrase is a code word for both.

If Beck is drawing his conclusions from the Jesuit practice of ‘liberation theology,’ which incorporates a strong social justice component, he may have a point, but he also misses a very significant point. The Jesuits became politically active in support of the poor and oppressed of Latin America, especially Central America. In so doing, they tended to lean toward revolutionary movements with Marxist ideologies. The point that Beck misses - or chooses to deliberately ignore - is that the oppressive regimes of the nations in question were so far to the right they were arguably fascist. But most importantly, those fascist governments were backed by the United States — something that Beck fails to mention. In their exercise of liberation theology, seeking relief and justice for the poor and the oppressed, the Jesuits chose the lesser of evils.

Average Christians in America simply want to help the suffering. If that means changing laws, so be it, but we will follow the process of democracy, Mr. Beck. We have no inclinations toward death camps and genocide, thank you very much, and to insinuate that any mainstream Christian church would support such things is an unconscionable pandering to those who see conspiracies under every rock. But then, that is how Mr. Beck makes his living.

In Genesis 18, we find Abraham pleading with the Lord about Sodom and Gomorrah. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” Abraham asked the Lord, taking the number down to 10. The Jewish Study Bible commentary says that Abraham was practicing social justice and we must do the same. It’s not communism, Nazism or socialism, it’s biblical. Creation care and social justice means simply to care for others — treating them as we would ourselves.

"Jar-based" Living

As I sit on my couch writing this commentary, I am enjoying a beautiful spring evening. The doors are open, letting the fresh air in, and I can hear birds chirping. I can also hear my son and his friend, who are outside playing catch. They are yelling and having a good ol’ time. In the kitchen, my other two sons are making dinner and joking around. It’s all very pleasant indeed.

These evenings won’t last long. They’ll be gone in a flash. Next year my eldest son will be a senior and that year will go quickly. It seems like yesterday I was starring at his wriggling form just after he was born wondering what to do.

The apostle Paul said that “we have this treasure in jars of clay …” The term “jars of clay” describes human beings perfectly. We are here today and gone tomorrow. One day we are a child, the next we day we are graduating from high school. Two days later, we’re retiring and our bodies just are not what they used to be. Well, I’m not anywhere close to retiring and my body is not what it used to be!

A church in our town is conducting a class called “A Bucket List for Dying.” The Rev. Terilynn Russ derived the name from the movie “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. In this movie, the two men, who are dying, make a list of everything they want to do before they die. Their adventures get a little crazy, but it’s a great idea. While Russ’ class is not so much about doing everything you want before “kicking the bucket,” so to speak, it is about making preparations before death, such as what kind of care is desired and living wills.

As someone who became a widow before the age of 40, I cannot stress the importance of thinking about death before it is necessary, before emotions are raw, or before an accident happens. I will never forget what it was like to sign a “do not resuscitate” order right in front of my husband minutes after the hospice worker told us that he only had a few days to live. I will also never forget that one of our last conversations, just a couple of days before cancer stole his voice, was how he wanted his funeral to be conducted. No one thinks that they will go through this kind of thing before they are old, but remember “we have this treasure in jars of clay.” Jars of clay are easily broken. We have to be prepared as much as is humanly possible.
God has given us good things in life. As Christians, we can also look forward to eternity with him, but taking care of those we leave behind is essential. It is the best kind of care and will relieve some of the burden for ourselves and our families.

The Church is in a good position to stop abuse


In a recent online poll, our newspaper asked readers if the Catholic sex abuse scandal affected their opinion of the church. Out of 82 total respondents, 12 percent said “Yes, I’m Catholic and I stopped going to church when the problems surfaced before.” Thirty-nine percent of respondents said that they were Catholic, but they didn’t believe that all priests were bad and that the scandal has had limited impact on them. Forty-three percent answered, “I’m not Catholic, but clearly church officials shouldn’t have covered up the abuses.”

My answer to the question would be the last two choices. I’m not Catholic, but I believe that there are good priests as well as bad. As a Protestant who’s been around for a while, I can say the same thing about our leadership too. There are good leaders and bad. As much as laymen like to deny it, pastors are human beings too. They may have a so-called “special” call from God, but they are also susceptible to temptation.

Hurting people hurt people, a pastor said on Sunday, and it is true. Many pastors and priests go into the ministry with skeletons in their closets. Or, if the skeletons have come out of the closet, so to speak, they are shared in dramatic testimonies while parishioners stand in awe. Those skeletons can either be redeemed through prayer, professional counseling, if necessary, and a lot of love from the body of Christ. If the skeletons have remained hidden, they will haunt that leader and eventually a congregation in terrible ways.

“I’m not Catholic, but clearly church officials shouldn’t have covered up the abuses,” is easy to say from a Protestant standpoint, but none of us can point fingers. Remember Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker? These men fell, but they are the ones who are out in the open. What happens to the ones who are not? Most of the time, they move from church to church imposing their brokenness on everyone they meet.

Shifting a priest from parish to parish, just like allowing a Protestant minister to go from church to church, just reinforces the behavior. The intricate web of deceit and sexual abuse keeps reoccurring, thus increasing the number of victims and the amount and intensity of the hurt. It also continues to hurt the abuser. They are incapable of helping themselves. The source of temptation must be removed. They must have counseling and spiritual renewal. Certainly, sweeping these kind of situations under the rug never helps, it only makes things worse.

Pope Benedict is in a good position right now to stop the pain. Despite his past mistakes of sweeping incidents under the rug, the pope can decide to take a very tough stand on this issue so that dysfunctional priests are removed from their positions and placed into counseling. Priests, like pastors, are in a position of trust. I believe when this trust is broken by something as heinous as sexual abuse, it both saddens and angers the heart of Jesus. Why would we hurt Christ and insult him by allowing these sins to continue?

The reason this happens is because we view the church as an organization that must be preserved. We may say that this preservation is in the name of Christ, but is it? Would Jesus allow sin to continue?

These are hard questions, but they require answers. The world is watching.

"Christian" militia? That's not Jesus


A few years ago, Christian singer Wayne Watson came out with a song called “That’s Not Jesus.” In the song he describes how Jesus is embarrassed publicly whenever Christians behave badly and how the body of Christ is to demonstrate what he is really like by their obedience to his new commandment.

Well, once again “Christians” have espoused unlawful violence in Jesus’ name and engaged in other spiritually embarrassing behaviors.

In light of the celebration of Maundy Thursday, I just wanted to expound a little on the so-called “Christian” militia group that was recently arrested for plotting to kill a police officer and others who attended his funeral.

This group claims to be preparing for the last days when they will have to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ while they are at war with the Antichrist, once a one-world government is created.

Now, without getting deeply into the complicated genre of Biblical prophecy, we can say that they are partially right; however, I have read the Bible several times and I have never found a passage that says, either literally or metaphorically, that Christians are supposed to kill anyone in order to defend the gospel. Period. Self-defense is a separate issue that we won’t touch at the moment.

As we celebrate Maundy Thursday, we are reminded that Christ gave his people a new commandment: “... just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” John 13:34, NRSV. Jesus gave his disciples this command after he completed the degrading task of washing their feet before eating the Passover together — a task that was usually reserved for the lowliest servant in the house! Within 24 hours, Jesus had sacrificed his life on a cross after suffering a horrendous scourging — more degrading experiences that he did not deserve.

The truth is that Jesus loved people unconditionally. He also commanded his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus did not overthrow any governments, nor did he take out his aggressions on innocent people (the defilers of the temple were hardly ‘innocent’). This militia group does not represent the Jesus I know and love. I really wish the media would call them what they are: an “extremist group” rather than a “Christian” group.

Are Christians supposed to stand up for what is right? Yes, but when we do conflict should not be our goal. Unfortunately, conflict is often an inevitable result when we stand up for what is right because there are many who will not agree with us. However, I do not believe that we are supposed initiate a conflict, nor are we supposed to aggravate one maliciously. We are not supposed to be at war with people within our spirits, nor are we supposed to be “puffed up” with pride because we believe that we are right.

In fact, our life should flavor the situation in which we find ourselves. Remember the salt concept of which Jesus spoke? “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other,” Mark 9:50, NIV.

This is not an easy way to live when we depend on ourselves. We need the Holy Spirit to help us, and this is what Maundy Thursday is about.

Tuesday

Let no one grieve at his poverty ...




Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.


John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople; sermon, ca. 400

Theologian: Most Christians Infected with Prosperity Gospel‏

A reprinted article:

The Prosperity Gospel

Most professing Christians in America are infected with at least some measure of the health and wealth gospel, said one theologian.

That is, believers have no concept of a love and a joy that does not eliminate hardship and heartache, Sam Storms of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City said at a pastors conference this week.

"For most professing believers if God is love He must promise to minimize my struggles and maximize my pleasure," he lamented. Many believe it's their spiritual birthright to experience comfort and prosperity and that it's God divine obligation to provide it.

It's a disease that's rampant in the culture and in the church. People are inundated with messages from powerbrokers, media, entertainment, TV evangelists and bestselling authors that say joy is inextricably bound up in material prosperity, physical health, relational success and all the comforts and conveniences Western society provides.

For most people, joy and suffering are incompatible, Storms noted.

Thus preachers have a difficult task at hand in communicating to such a culture a genuine joy found in Christ.

The so-called prosperity gospel that teaches wealth and good health is a sign of God's favor and blessing is prevalent in the church, Storm lamented. Underlining the seriousness of the problematic theology many preachers have picked up, the Oklahoma City pastor called it a "corrosive and disintegrative pox" on the church and "a disease far more infectious and ultimately fatal to the soul than the worst bubonic plague and the affects it might have on the human body."

"We have to fight this infection in the body of Christ," he emphatically told pastors at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis.

But the blame for the rampant "disease" shouldn't fall on the TV evangelists, Storms noted.

"I want to lay it (the blame) at our feet," he said.

"It's the pastors and leaders of the church today who fail to explain from the biblical text how hardship and tribulation are actually used by God to expose the superficiality of all the human material props on which we rely," he explained. "We failed ... to show ... how hardship and persecution and slander compel us to rely on the all-sufficiency of everything God is for us in Jesus."

That failure has left most professing Christians unable to grasp "the simple truth" that "infinitely more important and of immeasurably greater value than our physical comfort in this world is our spiritual conformity to Christ," Storms noted.

And conformity to the image of Christ is orchestrated through trials and hardship.

"If I suffer it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that He in His infinite wisdom and kindness knows can only be attained by means of physical affliction and the lessons of submission and dependency and trust in Him that I learn from it," he said.

"That's how suffering serves joy."

Everyday people are hearing about a joy less durable and far inferior than the one offered by God. Yet, Storms asked pastors, when was the last time you expounded on the nature of the fullness of joy, ... the superior beauty of God?

Citing the work of 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards, Storms advised pastors on how a "Christian hedonist" should preach on the pursuit of joy.

"The pursuit of God brings 'delights of a more sublime nature', 'pleasures that are more solid and substantial . . . vastly sweeter, and more exquisitely delighting, and are of a more satisfying nature . . . that exceed the pleasures of the vain, sensual youth, as much as gold and pearls do dirt and dung,'" he said, reading from Edwards' sermon "Youth and the Pleasures of Piety."

He continued, "Loving God 'is an affection that is of a more sublime and excellent nature’ than the love of any earthly object. Such love is always mutual, and thus the love one receives from Christ 'vastly exceeds the love of any earthly lover.'"

"Edwards argued that the problem isn't the pursuit of pleasure but the willingness of uninformed minds to settle for comparatively inferior joys when God offers us unsurpassed and far more durable delights," Storms explained.

The Bridgeway pastor reminded fellow ministers that delighting themselves in the Lord isn't a choice, but a command and duty. Sin, he said, is denying a fillet mignon so you can fill your bellies with rancid ground beef.

We are not pursuing pleasure without God, but in Him, Storms stressed.

Speakers at the Feb. 1-3 Desiring God conference devoted their talks on the foundation of Christian Hedonism, a term coined by Desiring God's John Piper, and the pursuit of joy.

Bob Blincoe, U.S. director of Frontiers in Phoenix, Ariz., defined Christian Hedonism as "the desire for God," "desiring Him more than all other things" and "the confidence that there is nothing else worthy of our desire, nor rival treasure to treasuring Him."

"Christian Hedonists ... neglect every distraction, every attraction, every seduction, every sinful thought, and every temptation because we have set our hearts on the far exceeding treasure: God Himself," Blincoe said.

Thursday

Getting back up is up to us


Have you ever seen the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness,” starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? It’s really a good flick and illustrates a concept that I have had to take to heart many times.

In the movie, which is based on a true story, a construction camp in Africa is harassed by man-eating lions. These lions are unusual because they kill for sport, which made the movie downright creepy in a few parts. As the plot thickens, Kilmer, who plays engineer Col. John Henry Patterson, has a chance to kill one of the lions and fails. Afterward, he feels terrible, especially after professional hunter Charles Remington (Douglas) chastises him for making an error that hunters usually don’t make.

Remington is a good guy though. After he chastises Patterson he said, “We have an expression in prize fighting: ‘Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.’ Well my friend, you’ve just been hit. The getting up is up to you.”

Proverbs 24:16 says, “for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again ...” According to the Puritan minister Matthew Henry, this means that a “sincere soul falls as a traveler may do, by stumbling at some stone in his path; but gets up and goes on his way with more care and speed ...”

Henry said that the fall should be understood as adversity rather than actual sin and in the context of the other verses surrounding it, he is correct. I also think, however, that this is also a good principle to remember when we commit sin or, perhaps, when we have unintentionally hurt someone. First John 1:9 says that whenever we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In addition to this, we also have to forgive ourselves.

Many of us, including myself, have a hard time forgiving ourselves when we’ve done something wrong. We ask for God’s forgiveness, but that doesn’t stop us from wallowing in self-pity or self-blame. I’m sure that God understands this because he knows that we don‘t want to do wrong; however, when this happens, I picture him saying something similar to what Remington told Patterson in that African jungle.

Yes, there are times when we may fall. Life is not easy, but that doesn’t mean we should lose faith and quit. We should put the incident in the past, get back up, dust ourselves off, make amends, if necessary, and keep on going. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but it is an essential part of life.

Saturday

What the cross means to me



Presented as a devotional, La Junta First Church of the Nazarene's Lenten service and dinner, March 19, 2010:

Like any woman, I like to look at jewelry, and the more sparkly it is the better. Sometimes when we’re at the mall or at Sam’s, the light hits those jewelry counters just right and something catches my eye so that I change my course of direction and go right toward the sparkling gems. “Oooooo,” is my first reaction as my husband groans. I laugh and say, “It’s sparkly,” and then continue walking. He responds, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I see this as a little joke. I am not really into buying a lot of jewelry, but it is still fun to look and it is fun to hear him groan. I do not know why, it just is.

Have you ever noticed that every jewelry store has crosses for sale? They come in gold, white gold, silver. Some are plain; some adorned with jewels. Even though the jeweled ones are pretty, I prefer wearing my plain cross. There is just something funny to me about adorning something typically used as an instrument of torture.

Beyond the jewelry store, the emblem of the cross comes in various forms. People buy crosses as religious objects, decorative pieces for the home, and as artwork. Artists depict crosses in stained glass, like the one you see above my head in this sanctuary. There are jeweled crosses, crucifixes, crosses with scrolled edges. We see them carved into tombstones and erected upon hills. We even see flowered crosses beside the road from time to time marking the place where a loved one left this world and entered the next.

In my home, I have a photograph hanging on my wall of the plain wooden cross that stands across from the entrance at Point Loma Nazarene University. I walked by that cross several times a day for the four years that I was working on my bachelor’s degree. It is in a beautiful spot. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean and there are flowers and bushes all around it. That cross seems to tell people who enter the campus that the school stands for more than just academia. We also assume that people who wear the cross or who have depictions of it in their home do so because the cross means something to them. However, what does it mean?

Well, I do not think that I have to tell you, a group of people who attend church regularly what the cross means. We all know it is where Jesus suffered a horrible death to become the sacrifice for everyone’s sin, so I thought that I would focus this devotional on what the cross means to me.

Simply put, it means the same thing. It means salvation from sin and ultimately escape from eternal punishment, but there is more to it. Arthur W. Pink, an evangelical writer from the 20th century said, “The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a savior from hell rather than a savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of Fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.”

A little boy once prayed, “God if you can’t make me a better boy, that’s OK. I’m having a good time the way I am.”

Isn’t this how we are? Changing is hard work, yet, that is to what Christ calls us. I believe changing, is one of the elements of faith that Christ was talking about when he said. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34.

A literal example of this truth was Simon of Cyrene when the Romans forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. One of my commentaries says that whenever the Romans forced someone to carry another’s cross he had to walk behind the condemned. I’m sure that Christ used the example of carrying the cross to describe what it was like to follow him as a word picture because it was familiar to his audience. The Romans crucified thousands of people. This was a common punishment for those who rebelled, so I am sure that the Jewish people knew exactly what Christ meant. Jesus added a new dimension to the word picture, however, because people who carried crosses were usually forced. God expects us to pick up our cross voluntarily. However, carrying our own cross is our only option if we are to follow Christ.

What does carrying the cross mean? What is our cross?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a German theologian, went to prison for participating in a scheme to dispose of Adolf Hitler during World War II. From prison, Bonhoeffer wrote “The Cost of Discipleship.” In this book, he said that the Christian enters daily an arena of temptation and that he or she must bear the sins of others and forgive them. A Christian must “abandon the attachments of the world,” he wrote.

“When Christ calls a man,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids him come and die.”

St. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).

Therefore, this verse suggests that the cross we must carry is faith in Christ. According to Bonhoeffer, we must shun the temptation to sin; we must bear the burdens of others. In addition to this, as Galatians says that we must also bear our own weight. In essence, we have to give up our very selves to God and put Christ in charge of our lives. This is the cross we must bear – to die to ourselves and allow Christ to live his life through us. In this way, he uses our gifts, our lives, our personalities to do his will in a way that is unique to us. That is how Christ lives in us. We allow Christ to do this because we are grateful that God loved us and gave himself for us.

My generation is visually stimulated and that’s why movies speak to us so effectively. It started when I was seven. The late Johnny Cash narrated and sang songs for a movie called “The Gospel Road.” As a young person, I watched the movie about Jesus’ life with great interest, and then, when the Roman soldiers pounded the nails into his hands, the sounds of the blows seemed to fill the sanctuary and I began to weep. “I did that to him,” I thought over and over, so when my pastor gave the invitation to go to the altar, I went forward and gave my life to Christ. That movie, with its blonde Jesus no less, seems a little tame now when I watch Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” The pain and rejection and the sickness of man just blows my mind when I watch that movie. I can’t get over the fact that Jesus, a gentle, faultless lamb, would go through all of that pain and rejection for us, but he did. I am grateful for the cross. I am grateful that Jesus suffered so much so that I could have abundant life.

That abundant life comes through denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus. It comes from recognizing and accepting the salvation that only Christ provides. True joy comes when we follow this pathway in life because we unite with God, our creator, and we allow him to mold us into what he wants us to be. This process is very difficult at first because we want to be what we want to be. However, as we give up our lives bit by bit, the Holy Spirit replaces the turmoil with joy as we realize that we are becoming who we truly are. True union comes when we feel joy with God over this fact.

So this is what the cross ultimately means to me—union with God and everlasting joy in him as I give my life away. The cross is not a trinket; it is a lifestyle. It is through the cross that we become reconciled to God and how we live for him.

Thursday

Replenishment: a natural process of spring


The first time I ever saw a crocus was when we lived in eastern Michigan. My kids and I were outside sometime during late March or early April and there was snow on the ground. While the boys explored, I stood in a corner of the yard watching them.

"Mommy, look," said Andrew, who was three at the time. "A flower!"

"A flower?" I walked over to where Andrew stood pointing and saw a tiny purple flower adding regal beauty to the white snow. Later on that day I asked one of our friends about it. She told me that it was a crocus, the first flower of spring. I had never heard of a crocus. I knew about tulips and daffodils, but not about these tiny flowers.

I will never forget that day. Michigan is cold during the winter and it stays cold longer than other places I have lived. That crocus was a simple reminder that spring and warmth were on the way.

I now have crocuses at my house in Colorado and, today, Andrew, now 17, called me to say that the crocuses were coming up in the garden. They seemed later than usual this year so I thought that I would have to buy more. It delighted me to hear that they were returning to brighten the world for a short time.

Good moments from creation don't last very long, but they bring a deep satisfaction to my soul. These moments are a constant reminder of my creator. He is the same creator who fashioned the earth with such intricate detail that a little flower, with a bulb the size of a hazelnut, will appear for a short time in spring, fall dormant and then return year after year. Returning bulbs and birds that habitually migrate year after year always seem to impress on me how orderly creation is.

Although we may have chaotic times, fire may destroy foliage, tornadoes may come, lightning may strike, or floods may ravage the landscape, we can still count on God's creation to replenish itself, often in a way that is more beautiful that it was previously. God has instilled the same drive in humanity. Trouble may come, but our desire to live carries us forward, hopefully more resilient than we were previously.

Spring is also a reminder that God is in the business of constant renewal and remaking the old. He is constantly working to renew us and make us better people.

God is good, isn't he? Spring is a great time to make that known.


Friday

The cure for "showy" spirituality


When our family lived in the small town of Bad Axe, Mich., the circus came to town. It was a big deal. It seemed like everyone in Huron County showed up to go to the circus and we were no different. Although we liked living in Bad Axe, after growing up in Southern California, we found the small farming community a veritable entertainment vacuum, so the circus was our chance to “get out on the town,” so to speak.

This circus was no different than any other small circus. There were clowns, elephants, trapeze artists and huge snakes. The boys seemed to enjoy the atmosphere and so did we. The circus seemed to have a good display of showmanship that was fun for everyone.

Unlike the circus, spirituality is best enjoyed when it is not showy. Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who were both in the temple one day. The Pharisee stood up to pray and thanked God out loud that he was not like the scumbag tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector prayed silently asking God to forgive him for all the things he had done.

At the end of their prayers, Jesus said, the tax collector went home justified. The tax collector’s heart was in the right place. He didn’t care about the opinions of others. He just wanted God’s approval.

M. Robert Mulholland wrote in his book “Invitation to a Journey: Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” that the cure for showy spirituality is to fix the heart. This is done by practicing three spiritual disciplines: silence, solitude and prayer.

Silence, Mulholland said, “is fasting from speaking to listen to God.” By giving up our voice, silence helps release control of our relationship with God. Through our silence, God takes the reins and begins to tell us what we need to know.

Practicing silence leads to solitude, which is fasting from fellowship with others to be alone with God. Part of solitude is drawing away from others, Mulholland said, but the main crux of the discipline is to be ourselves with God and to “acknowledge who we are to ourselves and to God.”
Out of this recognition and the peace that it brings flows prayer, In prayer we offer everything we are to God. It is through prayer that God works to change us into what he wants us to be.

Through this process of letting go, we become more and more comfortable with who we are and with who God is. When we reach this point it does not mean that we have “arrived” at a place where we no longer need God to work in our lives, it means that we look at ourselves realistically and, therefore, we do not need to compare ourselves with others to make ourselves feel better. It is through these disciplines that we become able to have compassion on others and ourselves as well.


Movies provide good viewing for Lent


During the time I was growing up in the Nazarene church, the church had a prohibition against watching movies.

I guess with the advent of the VCR and later advances in home movie viewing, it became increasingly difficult for the denomination to enforce such a rule. Instead the church encouraged a guideline: to watch whatever was true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. The guideline works much better than the prohibition, especially when Hollywood is producing movies that have great moral themes. I have watched two recently that would be excellent to watch during Lent because of their strong scriptural undertones of Biblical reconciliation and forgiveness.

The first film I would recommend is the 1998 version of “Les Miserables” (or, if you are really ambitious, read the book by Victor Hugo). In this classic tale, Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing bread and is freed after 19 years of hard labor. After his release, as he makes his way to his parole officer, Valjean has a life-changing encounter with a priest and learns about reconciliation and forgiveness. Valjean then spends his life giving this gift to others, sometimes at great cost to himself, while being pursued by a former prison guard who recognizes him.

The second movie is the 2001 flick “To End All Wars,” which is based on a book written by Ernest Gordon. Gordon was a British POW in Thailand during the Japanese occupation of that country. He was one of thousands of POW’s who was used as slave labor to build the “Railway of Death.” After World War II, Nelson was ordained in the Church of Scotland and later served as Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. The movie adaptation of his novel shows what happened to four allied POWs who were in a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

“We were treated worse than animals,” he said years later, as quoted by The Internet Movie Database. “The conditions were worse than you could imagine.”

The prisoners learned to live in their circumstances and also won limited sympathy from their captors by conducting secret classes in which they studied the classics, including the Bible. Because of lessons learned through their study, some took beatings for others, and one died in place of another who did not deserve it. This caused considerable consternation among their captors, who followed the Japanese warrior code of Bushido. The movie demonstrates the evolution of the concepts of forgiveness and eventually reconciliation between prisoner and captor.

Through such dramatic and interesting examples, the movies give us a glimpse of what it is like to live triumphantly in adverse circumstances and to truly forgive. While watching these movies, I asked myself several times whether or not I could forgive like Jean Valjean or Ernest Gordon, or ultimately as did Jesus.

“Faith thrives when there is no hope but God. It is luxury and success that makes men greedy,” Gordon also said.

In our day of relative ease and comfort, perhaps it is through the sacrifice practiced during Lent, the praying, fasting and giving of alms, that helps makes this kind of forgiveness possible.


Wednesday

Church not the friendliest place in town?


We've all been there. We're in the church foyer before Sunday morning services talking to friends, when a new person walks in. Whispers of "who is that?" ensue as we all watch the official greeter lead the person to the guest book. When greeting time comes during the church service, we might shake a visitor's hand, but that is not the time to establish conversation; it's too noisy.

A few Sundays ago, I was in the ladies bathroom at church washing my hands when a new person walked up to the sinks. She smiled at me and I smiled back. I finished washing my hands and left. Why didn't I speak to her? I guess I was too busy thinking about my own issues.

According to a recent "State of the Church" survey conducted by Group Publishing, conversation ranks fourth in the top five most important factors that make a place friendly. Number 1 was "making me feel like I belong," second was "making me feel comfortable," third was "making me feel at ease," and fifth was "smiles."

The survey found that out of a sample of 500 Christians and 259 non-Christians, only 16 percent of respondents reported that church was the "friendliest place in town." This figure was sandwiched in between home as the friendliest place at 35 percent and a restaurant or sports bar at nine percent.

In the 'friendliest people in town' category, close friends came in first at 70 percent, family members were in second place at 65 percent and in third, neighbors at 15 percent. Co-workers came in fourth at 12 percent. Pastors and priests ranked fifth with 10 percent of the vote.

After reading the results from the poll, I wasn't surprised. I've been to many churches in many cities throughout the United States and I have not found any church overwhelmingly friendly. Unfortunately, most people have to have a reason to speak with someone and Christians are no different. Our quandary is that not only that our social culture expects more from us, but Christ's teachings demand more from us.

Jesus said that people would know that we are his disciples by our love for each other. In the church I've noticed that a lot of Christians just plain don't love fellow believers, much less non-believers. If we truly love our fellow believers, the love we have will spill out onto the rest of the world. We won't be able to contain it. We won't want to. Jesus didn't contain his love for all of us, and he did not differentiate between believers and non-believers. So why do we?

As a Christian myself, I'll be the first to tell you that I don't have this love thing down, but I'm trying. So maybe next time, I won't be so concerned about me. God help us all.

Thursday

Unity comes through a commitment to change


The call to pray for unity is often heard in the church. Paul’s words about being “one body” are often echoed, and even though his thoughts are sound, achieving unity is a far cry from being accomplished.

Of course, the best way to attack this problem is to start at the local level, or right where you live. I can do nothing about the churches in Kansas, but I can try my best to promote unity within my own church here in Southeastern Colorado.

Unity in the church, as with any other organization, is important. In 1858, the future president Abraham Lincoln spoke before the Illinois Republican State Convention. In reference to division of the country on the issue of slavery Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This echoed Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:25 when he said, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.

This is true for a country, a household and yes, even the church. The Holy Spirit will not miraculously hold a church together if the people do not choose to be unified.

So how can the church get there?

In his book “Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation,” M. Robert Mulholland writes about four stages of the Christian journey that fit well in this instance.

The first is awakening, which occurs when we become aware of some part in our lifestyle that is not Christlike. Our positive response results in the second stage, purgation. This is when God begins to deal with our unlikeness. The next stage is illumination, through which the new person that we are becoming begins to emerge and becomes a benefit to others. The fourth stage, union, is when we experience wholeness and a oneness with God because of the healing that has taken place.

The first two stages are crucial when it comes to church unity. I believe that the church has awakened to the problem, but we have not responded well. As a result, we have not moved to purgation and without this stage there is no hope of illumination and union.

The steps in purgation are unpleasant at best. Mulholland says this involves renouncing blatant sins and willful disobedience. It means that we become aware of previously unconscious sins and omissions and that we begin to allow the Holy Spirit to change “deep-seated structures of being and behavior.” This will then result in a deeper trust in God.

In other words, the church will not become unified until we repent of that which causes us to not live in unity. The moment members of a church body become defensive about their part in the lack of unity, the progress of purgation is in serious danger of ending. If it ends, then the problem only gets worse.

If we are to become unified, the entire church body must commit themselves to change no matter how unpleasant. I think that when we see churches show real growth (i.e. winning souls to Christ), this process is taking place and God is honoring it.


Sunday

Worry not ...

Most of us are comfortable with spiritual formulas, especially those that reduce complex questions and concepts of morality, personality, and spirituality to simple black and white explanations. But for me, there are not many areas of life that are that simple, that are black and white. There are many shades of gray, and I believe God manifests himself in those uncertain areas. Nonetheless, I also believe there are certain foundations, or guidelines, which are necessary. For example:

"If you want a good litmus test of your spiritual growth, simply examine the nature and the quality of your relationship with others." M. Robert Mulholland, a New Testament scholar from Asbury Seminary, said. Mulholland wrote a book called "Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation." In this book he wrote about how essential relationships are in spiritual formation. Of course this is not a blanket statement. We cannot judge our spiritual life by whether or not everyone likes us; however, we can judge our growth by our general attitude toward everyone. Does love rule our hearts and actions? Do we honestly try to think the best about people? Are we critical? Judgmental? Do we forgive when wronged? Can we separate wrongful acts on the part of others from the person? In other words, do we take issue with the wrongful act, or with the person?

The other day, I awakened with many worries. I carried these worries until I remembered another guiding phrase from Mulholland: "Biblically, anxiety and care are symptoms of a failure of trust." I felt gently rebuked and also encouraged. As I apologized and asked the Lord to take care of my problem, I felt a sense of release and calm. I learned once again that it's much better to trust God with my worries than to carry them myself. He is a lot stronger than I.

If I am feeling anxious or worried, am I wholeheartedly trusting God? Definitely not. In Matthew 6:25-28, Jesus talks about worry, citing how the the birds of the air depend on God to feed them. "Are you not much more valuable than they?" Jesus asked in verse 26. We must be, if Jesus suffered so greatly for us.

"A good barometer of what's important to you is listed in your checkbook ledger, or your credit card statement." I picked up this phrase from a sermon on finances and added the part about the credit card. Jesus said in Matthew 6:21 that "where your treasure is there your heart will be also." Good questions to ask might be: How much am I giving to God's work? Am I at least tithing? Do I give to people in need if I have what it takes to give? Have the needs of my family been met? Do I pay my bills and/or meet my obligations before buying things for pleasure?

Remember, these statements are guidelines, not rules. By considering them from time to time, I allow the Spirit to work more closely in my life as I uncover potentially destructive behavior.

Thursday

Christians should not avoid the culture

My church was pretty conservative while I was growing up. We preached no movies, no dancing, no smoking, no drinking; the list went on and on, it seemed. I thought our church was really conservative until I attended a private school of an even more conservative denomination. At this school, students were required to sign a contract that said we would not listen to secular music, wear pants (girls), watch movies, etc. The list was longer than my own church's list.

The thinking behind all of these rules, was that Christians were supposed to be different from the people in the culture at large. We were supposed to be "in the world, but not of the world," a "peculiar people." What we ended up being, however, was isolationists. We removed ourselves from the culture (or world) and created our own subculture. Symbolically speaking, the Christian world packed up all its worldly or secular goods, and went to live on a hill called "WWJDland." In this world, we developed our own books, movies, music. There are even mints and chocolates with a Christian theme. We created our own stationery, cards, gift items, art, key chains, T-shirts, and now jeans, toys, video games and anything else you could want, including John 3:16 golfballs. It's like we've left one culture that we despised for its materialism and created our own with the materialism included.

We would not call ourselves materialistic, however. We would say that by using these things we were witnessing or edifying ourselves for God's glory.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, I suppose, but what happens when I develop a friendship with a person who does not go to church? Actually, would that happen? After all, a lot of us surround ourselves with church activities and people; we can even work at Christian ministries and become more and more isolated, if we want. I know this. I've been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, and all the while wondered why the church wasn't growing. Anyway, when we actually strike up a conversation with "outsiders", they realize our disconnect with the culture rather quickly. The typical Christian response to this is "Good, they'll ask me why I'm different and I'll talk to them about Jesus!" That falls rather flat, and while we might be doing okay with "... the far corners of the earth ..." we are not doing so well with " ... Jerusalem ..." (Acts 1:8).

Hmmm ... seems like if I don't know what's going on in my own culture, the outsider might consider me sheltered or even a prude, and could not care less about my Jesus, especially if I have a supercilious attitude. I have encountered this attitude from the body of Christ more than once.

The best interpretation of the verse I mentioned should be "in the world, but not completely sold on the world system." The difference in interpretation means that I will work on my attitude instead of concentrating on rules. It means that instead of avoiding the culture, I'll check out popular movies and music, to perhaps find talking points and even carry on a conversation that might lead to more than a superficial relationship. I may not embrace the central themes of a movie, but through this approach I'll be able to explain why without sounding self-righteous. This interpretation will cause me to regard church as a place to refuel rather than hide. I'll still have Christian friends, but I'll also be able to introduce those friends to my non-believing friends. The difference will be that Christ's spirit will be in the center of my being where ever I am and people will know that I am a Christian by the love I have in my heart for others, rather than a Pharisaic infatuation with rules.

Does this ring true with anyone? Or, are we comfortable living by the rules? It's a lot easier, but in the gospels, we find that Jesus would not have favored the "rules" approach at all. He was involved with people, whether they believed in him or not.

Why do people suffer?

The recent remarks made by Pat Robertson of the 700 Club about the Haitian earthquake that has taken over 100,000 lives so far, caused me to consider once again why people suffer.

Robertson said on his famous television show, that the country of Haiti was once under the "heel of the French" and made a pact with the devil to get out from under French rule. Since that time, Robertson said, the country has been "cursed by one thing after another." They live in poverty, while people in the Dominican Republic, a nearby island, live in comfort because of their wealth.

People in Haiti "need a great turning to God," Robertson said, apparently oblivious to the fact that 80% of Haitians are Catholic and 16% Protestant. He then tagged on that he was hoping that something good would come out of this tragedy.

As a journalist and a lover of history, I would like to know where Robertson got his information. He quoted no sources for this "fact" he presented, he just said it on a show broadcast internationally. Way to go, Robertson. Kick the Haitians while they're down. Whether the "story" is true or not, now is not the time to say things like this, especially on television or in print.

Can you tell that I'm a little miffed over the whole thing? When I saw one of the comments on YouTube that said, "See how they are?" "They," meaning Christians. I just hurt all over.

So why do people suffer? I've thought a lot about this, especially since my first husband, a God-fearing and compassionate pastor, died of cancer. If anyone did not deserve to suffer it was him, but he did, terribly. Why didn't God spare him? Why didn't God spare Haiti, a country that hadn't had an earthquake in 200 years?

The truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that God is not the one who causes suffering. Because of sin, which was initiated by our human ancestors in the garden, our human existence and the very earth itself suffers because we are under a curse. We don't have to make a pact with the devil; bad stuff is going to happen. Besides, in any depiction of making deals with the devil, the contractee always enjoys great material wealth and secular power and influence ... until the time comes to pay up with the soul in the hereafter. So Robertson makes no sense at all. In Ecclesiastes it says that the "rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous." Proverbs says that "a righteous man falls seven times and seven times he gets back up." In these two sentences, scripture assumes that bad things will happen.

I cannot believe that a good God would cause such devastation. What I do believe, however, is that God is there to help people through this awful time. By studying Genesis, we find that God did not intend the world to be this way.

Anyway, there are 115,000 Nazarenes down in Haiti who are in my prayers. All of the people are in my prayers. May God's help, deliverance and blessing be upon the Haitian people and everyone else who is suffering from that quake.

For another perspective on this, please see:

Pat Robertson blames Haiti quake on 'pact with the devil'