Layers

One of my favorite lines from the Dreamwork’s movie, Shrek, is “Ogres are like onions! We both have layers.” Shrek tells this to Donkey during one of the moments when Donkey is irritating Shrek, which actually often happens in the movie. I like this quote because I think it applies to humans as much as it does to any ogre.

Humans have layers and those layers increase as they go through life. Experiences create these layers. Some layers are good because they provide protection. At other times these layers are created to hide behind. Whatever the cause of the layer, if you really are going to know and understand someone, you have to peel away the layers. The top layer of a person is never truly who that person is at the core.

God is able to get beyond the layers. At various points in Scripture we hear about God seeing the core of who we are with the layers removed. The story of the choosing of David is one example of this. The psalmist says, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” (Psalm 139:1, NIV) Jeremiah speaks of God in this way, “Yet you know me, Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you.” (Jeremiah 12:3a) Clearly the Lord is able to go past all our layers which life helps us to form.

I think it is very important for us to first of all acknowledge that what we see in a person is only the top layer. Some individuals will not let you go past that top layer. But knowing that there is more to a person than what we can see, allows us to realize there is potential in every person which may lay under the surface. God saw this in David when Benjamin and Samuel could not. Taking this viewpoint makes it difficult for us to write someone off.

When we acknowledge the existence of layers, then we can make an effort to peel those layers back. This may be resisted because some of those layers contain the scars of being hurt when the person has been vulnerable. Scars are the attempt to cover over the damaged tissue and provide better protection in whatever area has been hurt. Just as the human body creates this protective layer, our mental defenses do the same when we have been emotionally or mentally abused. Providing a safe environment built on trust allows these layers to be opened.

So the next time you are quick to judge a person or to discredit them in any way, remember that humans are like onions, we both have layers. Use the eyes of God to see beyond the layers to the potential of the person which lies under them.

Critics

One of the realities of life is that there will always be critics. It does not matter what your line of work is, someone will always stand at the ready to evaluate your work and point out where improvement is needed. This can be positive if the evaluation is fair and the manner in which the critic communicates the areas of improvement is intended to build you up and not tear you down. The attitude and goal of the critic is key in measuring the beneficial nature of what is presented to you. Critics of both types surround each of us on a daily basis.

Not only in the work environment do critics exist, but they also exist in our everyday life away from the workplace. Someone is always ready to comment on anything we post on social media. Neighbors, family members, and friends give “helpful” advice to us even when we do not solicit such advice. A person can easily feel they are constantly being evaluated in regard to choices which are made and actions which are taken.

What sadly is the case is that oftentimes our critics point out what they view as our weaknesses but are inconsistent with their thought process in regard to what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Jesus encountered this often during his ministry and life. In fact, he calls such critics out in the Gospel of Luke: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:33-34, NIV) Here the critics are not as concerned about Jesus’ actions but concerned about what Jesus represents. They were opposed to his new way of understanding God, faith leadership, and how to interact with one another.

There are critics all around us. Sometimes these critics provide helpful insight to us so that we can improve and grow. Sometimes the views are consistent with caring and wanting to help one another. Other times these critics have the intention of tearing us down. They may see in us something which they dislike in themselves. They may not even care what we are saying or doing but instead dislike what we represent.

When you encounter someone who is critical of you, examine what attitude and intention they bring to the table. Discuss it with a trusted friend. Discuss it with the Lord. Remember most of all that you are a beloved child of God who was created in the image of your Creator.

No Separation

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

It was many years ago when I was introduced to this passage from the Bible. I was asked by a very close friend to become involved in a week-long camp for youth interested in music, arts and drama. I was recruited to lead the drama portion at the Presbyterian camp near where I grew up. The youth came to camp on Sunday and were given the script to a musical which was chosen in advance. We spent the week auditioning, rehearsing, building sets, worshiping, studying the Bible, and enjoying the lake. The camp culminated in a performance of the musical on Friday night. A few years later, we began to also tour with the musical around the area for three additional performances. One of the musicals which we chose to perform was entitled, Big Picture. Toward the climax of the plot, a grieving parent sits on his son’s bed and reads from his son’s open Bible. This is the passage which he reads and his perspective on life and God is forever changed. (You can send me a message if you want to know more about the plot.)

Since assisting with this musical, this passage has become the most important Bible passage to me. I have often turned to these words when dealing with challenges in my life. This passage has spoken to me when I feel unloved or unworthy of being loved. When doubts about my faith have arisen, this passage echoes in my mind. Asked what is the most important thing to know about God and I will answer by quoting these words attributed to the writer of the letter to the Romans.

From my perspective, these are the only words a person truly needs to know when thinking about their relationship with God. My reasoning is that if there is NOTHING which can separate us from the love of God, why worry.

Our world tries to convince us that we can never measure up to what God wants. Churches have even made the mistake of saying that the only way to be in relationship with God is by following a list of rules. People have told others that their actions, words, thoughts, lives are unfit for the love of God. Criteria has been established in some faith communities to determine who qualifies to be a member based on the color of their skin, their financial status, their sexuality, their type of work, their background. To all of those with this approach to Christianity, I say it is time to read your Bible again and specifically this passage.

The writer makes it very clear here that no power upon the earth, no spiritual being, no aspects of our lives are capable of removing us from the love of God. We are not even capable of doing this for ourselves. God loves us completely as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ.

Believe this good news and live accordingly!

Shining

I am sure that every generation feels like they are living in dark times. We even named a whole era in human history as the Dark Ages. Right now we can feel like there is a lot of dark around us with all the changes in our lives which have accompanied the Corona-19 virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise. In addition, we have been living in a very volatile political environment for years as human decency has left most civic discussions and legislative debate. Truly feels like a dark time in so many ways.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have wondered how to respond to the surrounding events during this dark time. I have followed all the practical advice of the medical community regarding the virus. I have listened to the conversations in the political spectrum and attempted to avoid engaging in hostile debates. But there seems to be something more which I can, must, do. Then I am reminded of a song which I sang in Sunday School in my small church while growing up, This Little Light of Mine. The song is a reminder of Jesus’ words, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NIV) Jesus tells us that we are to be lights in the world. The question this begs is how do we go about being lights?

Clearly for me, being an example is the way I can be a light in the world. I can wear a mask when I am in an indoor public setting or one where social distancing is a challenge. I can listen to others who have a point of view which is different from my own and not judge that viewpoint. Taking the time to educate myself on the experiences of other individuals will be an example.

Another important way for me to be a light in the world is by sharing compassion and hope with others. Jesus showed compassion even to those who were engaged in his crucifixion. Compassion is not attempting to better others. Using words that build up and not tear down another’s self is compassion. Being present with others even when you do not understand what they are experiencing is compassion.

Sharing hope is reminding each other that we do not walk alone but together and with the Lord. Identifying the positive of each day shares hope. Putting the events of our lives in perspective with the history of humanity and God’s children can produce hope. Sharing the promises of God as identified in Scripture leads to hope.

We are called to share our light with a world experiencing darkness. How are you choosing to shine your light? Let your light shine and do not let anything blow it out!

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Telling Your Story

Throughout time, I have had the pleasure of reading some amazing books regarding faith and faith journeys. A few of my favorites are The Chronicles of Narnia, The Shack, and Too Busy Not to Pray. Each of these books have given me wonderful insights and amazing motivation. A key aspect of these books is that they are each told in creative ways from the perspective of a person on their own faith journey. This journey is revealed in the pages of their stories. Through this, they have demonstrated the meaning of evangelism.

Many people are resistant to the term, evangelism. Much of this resistance stems from negative experiences which they have had in life when a person tries to aggressively communicate their beliefs to the one listening. Within that communication there may exist words that are easily perceived as threats or attempts to generate fear in order to get the listener to adopt the beliefs being presented. Many Christians do not wish to be associated with this type of behavior, so they shy away from the term evangelism or evangelizing.

In truth, evangelism is actually sharing the good news found in the message of Jesus Christ. The best way of communicating this good news, the love of God extended to everyone as exemplified in Christ’s death and resurrection, is by sharing a person’s own faith journey with another. This is exactly what the authors of the books I mentioned above did for various reasons. In this manner, there is no pushing beliefs on others since each person decides if they read the book or not. There is no fear or threat found in the pages of these books. Instead, they share a story and in the process invite others to explore and discover the Good News.

Here we have an excellent example of what every believer is called to do in their life. Every believer is asked to share their own story. The manner in which the individual may choose to share the story is based on the gifts and talents of that person. There is no special formula which must be followed. Just share. In each of our faith stories there is inspiration and motivation.

Uncertain Times

I clearly recall every detail of September 11, 2001. I can tell you everything I saw, heard, said, and experienced throughout that day. Where I was, what I was doing, who I was with is all etched deeply into my mind. On that day, and many times since that day, I have commented that 9/11/2001 is for me like Pearl Harbor was for the generation before me.

In my lifetime, there have been a handful of significant events that have created a lasting impact upon me. In addition to the attacks on New York City, Washington D.C., and the downing of the plane in Pennsylvania, there is the day when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after take off on January 28, 1986. Added to my list of significant dates would be November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The beginning of the Gulf War on January 16, 1991 is a final date that I will add to my list. There have been other significant dates of events in my lifetime which I recall but each of these on my list had some type of impact directly upon my life. Each created some sense of uncertainty for me.

We have now entered another period of uncertainty in my life. Our nation and our world are dealing with a health emergency at a level that I have never experienced before. Everyone of us is being impacted in some way by the international virus which we have come to know as COVID-19. Today, the mayor of my community issued an order for all people to stay at their homes except for essential trips to the grocery stores, places of work, pharmacies, gas stations, or medical facilities. When I go to the grocery store, meat and milk are in very short supply and what is available is highly limited. Other items are gone from almost all store shelves throughout the metropolitan area. These changes make life a whole new experience for me and millions of others.

So what do we do with all this uncertainty?

First, I suggest we keep everything in perspective. This is not the first time our nation, or our world, has faced a life-altering crisis. Throughout the history of humanity, events such as this one have occurred many times, and yet we have seen the crisis end with our species surviving. This does not mean that significant losses have not happened. Nor does it mean that at the end of crisis, the way in which we live does not look the same as before the crisis began. So rather than panic, we need to take each day at a time, navigate through the crisis to the best of our ability, and heed the advice of those who have the greatest knowledge available.

Second, I suggest we strive to deal with one another in compassionate and loving ways. Where possible, assist those who are combating the crisis, aid those who are most vulnerable, and give rather than hoard. When people work together, the outcome is more positive than when we isolate and only look out for ourselves. Providing comfort to those who experience a negative impact due to this situation expresses love that comes from above.

Third, rely upon your faith to be the strength you need. As a Christian, I turn to my Lord to give me reassurance and hope. I have seen some of my Muslim friends expressing their trust in Allah which is their understanding of our God. No matter what your faith tradition is, I encourage you to connect with that faith as you deal with the uncertainty of this crisis. It is through faith that we have hope necessary to realize we will emerge on the other side of this particular crisis.

We once again live in uncertain times. Like those before us, and those who will come after us, these times are just a period in our lives. Our nation and our world will survive and be changed by this even but it will not be destroyed.

The Struggle

I saw a person wearing a t-shirt which read, “The struggle is real.” After reading the words on the shirt, I began to ponder some questions. What is the struggle? Is it life? Is it a specific situation? Is it a project or task upon which effort is being made? Is it something spiritual? Is this in reference to an addiction? What exactly are we talking about here? Then I came to realize that the specifics are not what matters, what matters is the acknowledgment that for this person the struggle is real.

The truth is that all of us have struggles whether we declare it by wearing a t-shirt or if we keep them to ourselves. For some of us the struggles change over time. Others have a constant struggle like those dealing with addictions. There are times the struggle seems overwhelming. At different times we may even be able to manage the struggle and even overcome it. While facing whatever struggle is in our life, that struggle is completely real to us.

During his ministry, Jesus encountered many individuals who faced struggles. In the Bible, these struggles at times are verbalized in a spiritual sense using words which conjure up images of demons. An example of this is the man who is found naked in the graveyards outside of Gerasenes. Different stories of struggle are shared using words which create the idea of physical abnormalities. The man who was blind is an example of this imagery. In every one of the stories about Jesus encountering people with struggles, Jesus demonstrates a loving response. Jesus does not minimize their struggles but instead shows compassion, a willingness to listen, and provides for their needs. This example is one which can be very important as we strive to understand how to respond to the struggles of those around us.

Jesus also encountered struggles of his own. Stories of Jesus struggling to continuously minister to those around him are numerous throughout the Gospels. Jesus also struggles with the frustration of his message not being heard and understood by those with whom he speaks. The most poignant display of Jesus’ struggle is when he is in the olive trees on the Mount of Olives, the night of his arrest. The struggle is so intense that the author of Luke shares, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) Again, Jesus gives us an example of what to do when our struggle seems so real, every time he would go to the Father in prayer.

Yes, the struggle is real, but Jesus provides examples of how to handle the struggle. Whether the struggle is someone else’s or our own, Jesus shows us the way.

Remove the Clog

Sometimes in life we encounter clogs. Drains and toilets clog for a variety of reasons. If you have dogs who shed, like we do, you often find that you have to deal with a vacuum which clogs because of all the dog hair it is picking up. Whatever the cause, clogs can be very frustrating and may require a large amount of effort to remove. As long as the clog is there, the flow of water, air, or other materials will be impeded.

Times in life occur when we are clogged. I had a pretty wicked cold at the end of the year and for a couple of weeks my breathing was hampered because of a clogged nose. The experience is actually what started my thought process around clogs. Realizing that I was continuously blowing my nose in an attempt to remove the clog, I began to think about how at times I can become spiritually clogged, congested so that nothing is flowing through me.

I have heard others express what I have felt at times. A person might talk about not being able to feel connected to the Lord. The individual may mention that there does not seem to be a sense of spiritual energy flowing through them at a given time. When I preached regularly and led worship, I would have times when I felt disconnected from the Lord and disengaged in some ways. There existed a hindrance of some sort.

During these periods of time, I had to pause myself to do some examination. Much like with a clogged drain, I had to determine what was the source of the clog. Only by understanding the source could I go about the task of unclogging it. After discovering the source and taking the proper action(s) to remove the clog, then I felt the Spirit flowing through me once again. I think this is vital for everyone. Self-examination done on a regular basis is necessary to discover and remove whatever may clog our lives and prevent the Spirit from freely flowing through us.

Have you ever felt that you might be spiritually clogged? Do you regularly check to determine if a clog, or even the start of a clog, exists in your life? Is the Spirit flowing through you unimpeded?

Blessings

“You will be blessed the moment you realize that you already are.”

Bryant McGill

When I think of blessings, often what comes to my mind are big things like the home in which I live, the work which provides for us, my husband, my family, and my friends. However, recently I have discovered that there are many small blessings which fill my day and I do not pause to acknowledge. The quote from Bryant McGill reminds me that realization of being blessed allows those smaller blessings, along with the larger ones, to create an attitude of thankfulness within me.

A few days back, I was taking a break and sitting on the couch. One of our dogs, Leroy, who is a one hundred pound black lab mix suddenly decided to join me on the couch. This rarely happens, often because our smaller beagle/basset mix dog has already claimed space on the couch. This day not only did Leroy join me on the couch, but he decided to lay his head on my lap. I cannot recall a time when he chose to do this. Add to this amazing action the fact that at the time he was wearing a cone due to a medical procedure to his ear a few weeks prior. I was totally caught off guard and savored the moment. This was an unexpected blessing which filled me with great joy.

This event opened my eyes to see other small blessings in my life. Blessings like sitting outside in our backyard on a warm, sunny day while watching birds at the three feeders I have placed by one of our fences. I enjoy watching the birds and seeing what different types come to eat. One of my favorites is a cardinal which lives in the trees and bush found in our neighbor’s yard in the corner where our fences meet. Recently, as I sat outside, I noticed the brilliant red color of the cardinal’s feathers as he moved between the feeder and the fence. I decided that if he was going to be a frequent visitor, he should have a name, so I named him Roger. A small blessing which brightened my day.

Having moved into our new home last November, life had been pretty hectic at the end of the year. The holidays added to the busyness of our lives. At Christmas time, my husband gave me the awesome gift of Adirondack chairs which he painted white. I had been saying how much I wanted a pair some day. After we took down the Christmas decorations from our front porch, he moved the chairs there along with a fun half-barrel stand which he also painted white. Now when the sun is shining I can sit on our front porch, greet our neighbors, read, and enjoy the beauty of our neighborhood. This has become another small blessing in my life.

These are a few examples of the small blessings which can easily be overlooked or taken for granted. The Lord continues to give me both large and small blessings. When I take the time to realize how blessed I am, I am moved to express gratitude. The key is taking the time for such a realization to manifest. I encourage each of you to look for not only the large blessings of your life but also the small ones. I leave you with this quote…

“Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”

W T Purkiser