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Conceptualizing God

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 3-5

For the last few years I lived in Denver, I was involved in what was called the In Care Committee for the Metropolitan Denver Association's Ministry Council (something other association's call the Committee on Ministry). In my capacity as a member of the In Care Committee, my job was to work with individuals on their path toward ordination to ensure they were ready to serve in some form of ministry.

We would meet with the individuals who were in care at least one a year and track their progress. At the end of their time of preparation, the individuals would then present their ordination paper to the committee, and we would question the candidate about their paper.

It seemed that most of us who served on the committee developed some questions that we would pose with some degree of regularity. Phil, for instance would ask a question about the relationship between of autonomy and covenant within the United Church of Christ. Steve would ask a question about pastoral care. Even I had a question I would ask with some regularity.

That question?

It had to do with the issue of theodicy (i.e. a form of the old "Why do bad things happen to good people?" question). You see lots of us progressive folks spend a good deal of our time talking about God in warm, fuzzy terms – in relation to words like "love", "grace", and "mercy". I would ask the candidate, "If you flip on the television and see a nature show where a predator like a cheetah is chasing down and killing an antelope, how do you explain that uncomfortable scene where one creature is feeding upon another creature as a part of this thing we call life? Why does it have to work that way?"

It was an admittedly clumsy question designed to get the candidate to push him/herself and account for aspects of creation (and by implication the Creator) that don't fit into our warm, fuzzy boxes. While there are certainly lots of aspects of what we call God that are warm and fuzzy, life has a way of reminding us that pieces of our experience transcend all boxes we create to capture both the creation and the Creator.

I thought of this as I read today's chapters from Exodus and was reminded of the phrase God used to describe Godself: "I-am-who-I-am". God didn't call Godself things like "I-AM-WHO-YOU-WOULD-LIKE-ME-TO-BE", or "I-AM-WHO-YOU-WOULD-PREFER-ME-TO-BE", or "I-AM-WHO-YOU-THINK-I-AM". Instead, we are told God used the phrase "I-AM-WHO-I-AM".

Today, I would invite you to spend some time sitting in prayer and/or meditation and opening yourself up to the expansive pieces of God that might not fit into your current ways of thinking about/experiencing God. While such time might initially seem scary or threatening since it might challenge long-held assumptions, in the long run it will open you up to a deeper connection with God – a connection that exists not on our terms, but more on God's.

Til next time …

Unexpected Outcomes

What I'm Reading Today: Exodus 1-2

In every relationship or association, there is a turning point – a moment when things could either get significantly better or significantly worse. What ultimately matters in those moments is how the individuals involved handle that turning point.

I often think back to one such moment that occurred early in my ministry. The community I was serving had just finished its annual stewardship campaign and was in the process of drafting the budget for the following year. There were two competing visions that were raised up for how that draft should look. One vision was that we should adopt a balanced budget; the other vision was that we should adopt a deficit budget. The proponents of each vision took rather rigid positions that threatened to divide the community.

The community had a history of not dealing well with conflict. Some folks in the community either left if they didn't get their way while others tried to avoid conflict at all costs. So as the conflict over the budget continued to simmer, lots of folks got anxious – not knowing if the community was ready to take on such a dicey topic. There were some who worried the conflict would split the community and cause the progress it had experienced to disappear.

Ironically, just the opposite happened. By having the conflict take place out in the open and empowering everyone in the community to participate in the conversation (not just the proponents of each position) the dynamic of the community began to shift. Things began to get better – significantly better! – after that conflict: all because they had the courage to deal with controversy in healthy ways. Talk about an unexpected outcome!

In today's passage, we heard the story of another unexpected outcome. After there was a transition in Egypt's power structure, we are told that the new leaders who came in didn't have the same ties to the Israelites as did the former leaders. In addition, they were threatened by the number of Israelites in their presence. The new leaders responded by cranking down on the Israelites and working them harder than ever in an attempt to eradicate them.

So what happened?

We are told: "But the harder the Egyptians worked them the more children the Israelites had – children everywhere!"

That twist in the story is just one more reminder that we human beings shouldn't be too quick to write the ends of our stories – for often the outcome is often much different than we might anticipate.

Perhaps there is a storyline going on in your life that you are rushing to finish. Maybe it involves a difficulty that you are facing that you are convinced will bring you (or your community) down. If that's the case, take a moment and remember the unexpected outcome that happened to the Israelites. Then open yourself to the possibility that there might be a wonderfully unexpected outcome to your story as well.

Til next time …


Thursday, October 7, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 48-50

My maternal grandmother – to whom I was always close – moved into my hometown the summer before I entered the 8th grade. From that time until I graduated from high school and left for college, I was my grandmother's primary caretaker.

My grandmother was in remarkably good physical shape during the final years of her life. Her greatest challenge was that she wrestled with Alzheimer 's disease. This meant that it was a challenge for those of us who loved her to watch her mentally deteriorate before our eyes.

Shortly after I went away to college, my folks moved my grandmother into a group home where she continued to exist for another six years. She finally passed away at the age of 85 in 1991.

In the days between my grandmother's death and her funeral, I didn't expect that the funeral would be all that difficult for me emotionally since in many ways we had been saying goodbye to my grandmother for years. On the day of the funeral, however, I was surprised to realize that my emotions were every bit as strong as if my grandmother had died suddenly from a heart attack.

The experience taught me an important lesson about grief: grief is unpredictable. You have no way of knowing exactly what it will look like or how it will feel until you are in the midst of it.

Unfortunately, our society has yet to learn this lesson. Most folks act as if there is a predictable cycle or pattern to the grief process. In its most cruel form, some get impatient with folks who don't "complete" the grief process (if there is such a thing) in a timeline considered acceptable. People will judge some by saying things like, "You still haven't gotten over your loss? You should have by now."

I appreciated today's passage from Genesis because it gives us an example of how Joseph dealt with his grief around losing his father. He took time off, he participated in the rituals/travel he needed to, and he gave himself the time he needed to process his feelings.

Perhaps you have experienced a loss in your life that you are still living with and (on some level) are judging yourself for not handling the grief in ways others might expect. If that's the case, cut yourself some slack. Don't judge your feelings – honor the. Then realize that grief is a process that (1) looks different for everyone, and (2) has no specific timetable attached.

Til next time …

Pharaoh Like Figures

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 45-47

Each of us has someone in our life that has gone the extra mile to help us make our way in life. That was certainly the case with Joseph. As I've spent the last couple of days immersed once again in Joseph's story, I was particularly drawn to the role that the Pharaoh played in Joseph's story. First, the Pharaoh gave Joseph a position as his personal assistant shortly after he arrived in Egypt. (For the sake of making my point, I'll conveniently skim over the part where Pharaoh took Potiphar's word over Joseph's and imprisoned him for 2 years on false charges). Then Pharaoh rewarded Joseph for interpreting his dreams by making Joseph the second most important person in Egypt. Then Pharaoh not only gave Joseph wealth – he allowed Joseph to pass the goods onto his family when Joseph called them out of Canaan. Time after time, the Pharaoh was the agent in the story that moved things along and allowed God's blessings to reach Joseph and his family.

One of the people in my life who played such a role was my mother. At every critical stage in my development, she was the one who was willing to make personal sacrifices in order to share the wealth of God's blessings with me. Let me give you just one example.

I had three siblings who were significantly older than myself (7-10 years older). My mother had long dreamed of taking painting lessons as she had a deep well of artistic talent within her. She could never afford to take such lessons when the kids were home, however. When my sister graduated from high school, my mom thought, "This is finally my chance to do something for myself and take painting lessons" – so she started taking lessons in the summer of 1978.

That fall I was scheduled to start the fifth grade. That meant I could begin learning my first musical instrument – the saxophone. I wasn't too excited about the saxophone. Instead, I kept talking about how much I wanted to take piano lessons.

Guess what happened?

My mother set aside her dream of learning to paint so my parents could afford to put me in piano lessons.

That personal sacrifice paid huge dividends for me – for it was through my music that I first began exploring my call to ministry. Who knows where I would be had not I had the "Pharaoh-like" figure in my life that was willing to make personal sacrifices in order to support my development.

Today I would ask you to think about the person (or persons) in your life that played a role like Pharaoh for you – the person who helped make things happen for you and put you in a position to become the person you are. As you remember those persons, take a moment and give thanks for the blessing of that individual.

Til next time …

Accepting Responsibility

What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 42-44

Maybe it's just me, but over the last several years I've noticed a change in the American psyche.

When I was younger, it seemed that when something would go wrong; people were apt to step to the plate and accept responsibility for what had happened. Once someone accepted responsibility, it was easy to move on and try to figure out ways of getting back on track.

Today, it seems as if it's nearly impossible for folks to step to the plate and accept responsibility. We pour all of our energy into explaining why we (or our allies) aren't responsible for whatever problem exists. This means it takes longer and longer to get around to fixing problems because we spend more of our time and energy blaming others rather than examining ourselves and seeing what role we played in the developments.

I was particularly aware of this dynamic with the recent BP oil spill. Much energy early on was invested in trying to figure out who was to blame for the disaster. Was it the Obama Administrations fault for not responding sooner? Was it the BP Executives fault for not ensuring the safety of the rig? Was it the workers on the oil rig who were negligent? The list of parties individuals wanted to hold responsible for the event was nearly endless. About the only party left out of the blaming process was the American consumer – whose endless thirst for the consumption of oil drives the process in dangerous ways.

A good deal of the debate about who was responsible occurred while the oil was still spewing into the waters. That was a frightening reminder to me about our aversion to accepting responsibility and moving forward.

Thankfully, there are folks who break that cycle, step up to the plate and accept responsibility, and begin moving things along toward resolution. That's true now, and that was certainly true in the case of the story of Joseph and his brothers contained in today's reading.

For a good part of the story, Joseph's brothers had allowed themselves to fall into the blame game. They blamed their bad feelings toward Joseph on the fact that their father favored Joseph over them; they blamed Joseph and his arrogance for their decision to sell Joseph into slavery; and they even blamed God at points in the story when things unexpectedly turned up in their bags that weren't supposed to be there.

It took a while, but eventually they got around to accepting responsibility for their actions. When Joseph accused Benjamin of stealing the silver chalice, Judah – speaking on behalf of the brothers –said: "We're all in this together, the rest of us as guilty as the one with the chalice." In that moment of truth, the dynamic in the story FINALLY began to change.

As you move through your day today, pay attention to how you when things go off track. Is your first instinct to invest time and energy trying to figure out who is to blame; or are you able to step to the plate, figure out the ways in which you might have contributed to the situation so you are freed up to begin taking corrective action?

Til next time …


What I'm Reading Today: Genesis 40-41

I half-heartedly joke with loved ones that I am a person who has very few talents. I don't cook, I don't have an eye for fashion or interior design, I'm not good with my hands, and I have little mechanical ability. You name the talent –chances are I am lacking in that area.

There are two things with which I have been blessed that have gotten me by over the years. Each of those talents is very different from one another. The first talent I have is that I am a good accompanist on the piano - one that over the last 30 years has been able to inspire the groups I play for to sing better than they ever thought they could by getting them to lighten up and express themselves. It's an unusual gift for me to have since I was classically trained – and many classically trained musicians have a difficult time accompanying others since they tend to focus more on the printed music before them than they do on the dynamic relationship between the printed page, the pianist, and the singer(s)/instrumentalist(s). The second talent I have is my intuitive ability to work with people. Another way of saying that is that I'm a people person. I'm good at reading folks, saying things in ways that people can hear them, and understanding the dynamics at play in many group situations.

While I have been given lots of kudos over the years because of these talents, I have a hard time receiving compliments in these areas because I don't feel that I can honestly take credit for my work. These things are simply things that come to me.

Because of my experience with these talents, I can relate well to Joseph in today's passage. After word of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams gets out, there is a moment in the story when Joseph is brought before the Pharaoh - who then said to Joseph, "I've heard that just by hearing a dream you can interpret it." Instead of letting word of his reputation go to his head, Joseph responded by saying, "Not I, but God. God will set Pharaoh's mind at ease."

That moment of clarity about his talent was a beautiful thing – one that reminds and inspires me to put my talents into perspective as well.

Today, I would encourage you to use Joseph's story as a tool to motivate you to explore your own talents. What are those things in your life that you do well that come naturally or intuitively? When you find such talents, take a moment and give thanks for them and the way they flow through you to brighten the lives of others.

Til next time …