The Heart of Holiness

As we stood with 100,000 other pilgrims in St. Peter’s square, trying to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, I felt the powerful holiness of the moment because so many of us were there for a single purpose: to seek after God. The determination of the personal holiness of the Pope or the variety of religious traditions around us were irrelevant. What really mattered was the crowds’ singleness of heart in seeking out God.

I felt a similar feeling at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Truly, touching the stone that was designated to mark the place where the Baby Jesus laid to rest, had no particular import. What really mattered were all the people, from every nation milling around me, looking for God in any way they could find him. Touching that stone was holy because of the millions of people who had been there before me, hearts set on uncovering a God who often hides himself, only to be discovered by those who seek him with a heart of love.

“Surely you are a god who hides himself, Israel’s God and Savior.” Isaiah 45:15.

God places the desire for him in each of our hearts. It is the center of being, the core of the spirit, the place where the soul resides. Every day we have a choice: acknowledge our need or not? Cover it up with busyness or lay it bare for the Holy One to fill in his way? But God is not pushy or demanding. He stands quietly, patiently waiting for us to see him, in all the myriad places he lives: in a rock, in a flower, in newly tilled soil, in the smell of rain, in the sound of wind, in the smile of a child, in the neediness of a homeless neighbor, in the fevered brow of one who approaches death. God is there. God is here. God lives everywhere, but he only reveals himself if we stop to seek him.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” Isaiah 55:6

Seeking the Christ in everyone and every thing is the duty of our life. It is our purpose. What strangles us is when we limit God to certain types of people and a few allowable manifestations, all connected with our particular tradition. Our limitation of a mighty God has nothing to do with him and everything to do with our own desire to control him and to pridefully “know” the answers about God. When we open ourselves to the unknown, the mystery of faith, the encounters with holiness that transcend all of our own efforts, only then do we begin to see the ubiquitous presence of the Spirit of God, transcendent and holy.

“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.” Psalm 73:23.

As we read his Book, the guide to life he has given us, and helped to interpret through his people over the ages, we tend to see it as we would an instruction manual, full of neatly defined steps that guarantee good results. What we fail to read in it are the plentiful references to a God beyond our understanding, one who continually reveals himself over the ages, one who has not stopped sending his prophets just because the revelation is considered complete. God loves his Word and wants us to love it too and to learn it and to live by it, but he is not contained in it. He is not limited by it. He is not controlled through the devoted learning of its passages.

“Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Col 1:27

As God lives in us, planting the seed of his spirit in the human heart— the riskiest of all divine adventures—we walk around as a dim personification of the Christ in the world. The more we live into this model he has set before us, the more we transmit the fruit he desires to bless the world with. When we nurture this Christ in us, we emanate the lovely perfume of Christ and we hold forth the light of his love, blessing those around us and offering to them the fruit that comes forth from a Spirit blessed to be full of Jesus.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

In his death, Jesus multiplied his work and his disciples. As he sent the twelve forth to “Feed my lambs,” he sent them as sowers of the seed, cultivators of the soil and also as keen observers of his work in the world. His invitation was to “Go into all the world” and to open the eyes of our hearts, inviting us to see him in unexpected ways. He did not say he would follow a prescribed method, a 12 step approach, a particular dogma. Instead he roundly condemned those who sought to limit him, those who worked out of a desire for worldly recognition and a flaming pride. Jesus’ anger against the part of humanity who claimed control over God was real and remains a warning to us today: don’t get too cocky about all the you “know” but live instead in the childlike faith that is open to the every day uncovering of Christ in all things and in all people everywhere.

“Let the little children come; and do not forbid them for to such belongs the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 19:14)

What does Jesus mean when he makes this radical statement? He certainly leaves the door open for those who are true seekers, not just for those who feel they have arrived. If we love as children love, we will stop seeing others by our own definitions of worthiness and instead with hearts full of grace. My prayer for all of us as we walk this pilgrim’s journey, is that the God of the past, present and future, will continue to reveal himself in unexpectedly joyful ways!

Love One Another–All “One Anothers”

Love One Another—All One Anothers

“The Muslims are trying to take over our country,” my friend said, fear barely disguised in his voice.
“Really? What makes you say that?” I asked.
“I saw them all at a rest stop one time in Ohio. They had on their robes and they were bowing to Mecca.”
“So what percentage of the US population do you think is Muslim?” I asked, trying to get to the bottom of his concern.
“Well, I don’t know that. I just know they are taking over. They are everywhere, in sports, everywhere,” his voice trailed off but the edge of certainty was audible.
“I have looked it up, and it’s about 1%,” I told him.
“1% what?”
“1% of the total of the US population is Muslim,” I clarified.
“Well, that doesn’t matter. They are still taking over. I just don’t like them.”
“Them, who?” I asked. “Muslims in general? That’s 25% of the world’s population.”
“I can’t help it. I just don’t like them.”

This conversation with my committed Christian friend continued to trouble me throughout the day, leading me to the Bible where I looked for words of guidance. What I read called me to greater humility, love, patience and advocacy.

Jesus said to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Here Jesus is inviting us to be loving toward other disciples, even those who are seeing the world through a lens of fear and judgement. Earlier he also spoke of obedience to his words as the sign of his touch on our lives, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has a greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)

When we see our fellow disciples walking in a way that is contrary to what Jesus taught, we have the obligation, the command from our Lord, to continue in a loving relationship with them. In this case, what does a loving relationship entail? How do we lovingly help one another navigate through our prejudices, especially when the world around us does nothing but stoke the fires of fear and insecurity?

When we live in a world-view dominated by fear instead of love, we see “others” as threatening instead of, as Jesus proposed, beloved by him and worthy of our love too. When we live in fear, we build walls, long for bigger prisons and arm ourselves for self-defense—for what choice do we have? Evil is out to get us.

In John 3:16 and Matthew 28:19-20 we read some of the most often quoted verses of scripture, both of which tell us of God’s great love for all of humanity, no exceptions, and our call to go and do likewise. Throughout the ages, we read in scripture and in later “His-story” instances of God’s people hating others, persecuting others in the name of Jesus, and even killing vast numbers supposedly to further the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of us roundly condemn these behaviors and exempt ourselves from the propensity to do such evil. And yet. Here we are in our day, making statements about people of other religions trying to take us over. If we really ponder the view he espoused, wouldn’t the logical outcome of that statement be that we need to control, oppress or even fight against those “others” that are taking over?

In the words of Jesus we find a completely different approach, a way that leads to love and life eternal: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5: 11-12)

Regarding our ostracism of those who threaten our nation, our selves, our way of life, our color, our culture, our language, Jesus advocates for a way of love that is beyond the capability of the human heart and there only through his grace, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matt. 5:43-46)

In our grace-less humanity, we long to draw lines of demarcation around our love. It is so much easier that way. This is white. That is black. This is me. That is you. This is great. That is not. We love the rules, the enforcement, the exclusion of doubt, the judgment. But then we have this Jesus, this lover of our souls that will not let us go, that will not leave us alone in our lack of love. He keeps pulling us out of our circle and making it wider until, before we know it, the whole world, every last one of these creations of his, stands with us in our circle and we have no choice but to give it all up and love.

Through Christ, we are blessed with courage and power that are not naturally in us. 2 Tim.1:7 says, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV) The fear is held in check by the power, the love and the sound mind—all employed together to keep us from giving way to the flow of self-interest that runs through our veins when we live in the flesh. Life in the spirit is an invitation to leave all that selfishness behind and to pursue, unfettered, the joy-filled life of love that Jesus invites us to.

Back to my friend. What do I say? How do I love him with Christ-like love?

Let us pray that our lives will be ruled by love and not by hate.
Let us pray together for those we are inclined to hate for we all have challenges—your struggle may not be mine, but I have struggles, too.
Let us keep reading all of God’s love letter to us, and examining it with new eyes and open hearts, every day.
Let us remember that when God brings people that are “different” into our lives, he does it with an invitation for us to love better, deeper, wider, longer so that we can be transformed in the process.
Let us invite the Holy Spirit of God to live in us and make us over from the inside out into people that look just like Jesus, the lover of all our souls; lover of every last one of us on this earth.

Nurse on a Mission Trip

I left for Belize on a Saturday after running around getting ready to be gone for a week, I almost plopped into my airplane seat, grateful for a few minutes of respite when I began to wonder, “What have I gotten myself in to?” Going was my daughter-in-law’s idea. As a PA, she had been wanting to go serve as part of a medical mission. My husband, a family doctor, and I readily agreed to join a team that gradually grew to 28 to serve for a week in the inland part of the Central American country of Belize.

Long a part of the British Commonwealth, the country has English as its official language but with a total population of under 350,000 it remains needy with many parts of it underserved medically. Our team went to work in a compound that housed a medical and dental clinic where foreign doctors came 4-5 times a year. We were there to volunteer doing everything from family medicine and dentistry to screenings, hearing assessments with fitting for solar powered hearing aids and giving out of basic “reader” eyeglasses.

The first day we went to church in the morning and then saw 50 people that afternoon. Overwhelmed by the numbers of people and the long lines, we immediately began to work to prioritize, triage and figure out how many people we could realistically serve a day so that we would not end up having people wait all day only to be turned away. We did our very best to work with compassion and efficiency but there were still people we could not get to.

As a nurse and a sort of coordinator for the team, it was my job to help match volunteers with jobs they were suited for and to watch over the general work of the clinic, intervening where there might be problems. Together with other nurse volunteers, including a local nurse who helped with translations when people were not fluent in English (Belizians speak a mix of English, Spanish, Creole, and some Mayan languages), we checked vitals, weights, blood sugars, occasional hematocrits and lots of urine samples for infection and pregnancy. Our team had access to on-site X-rays, some ultrasound and EKG. The dental clinic also had X-ray and was fully functional to do most extractions and some restorative work. Some of the patients moved between dental and medical and even on to eye checks and hearing tests to get the full benefit of all the services provided.

Modern medicine and cell phones made it possible for our doctors to work with physicians back in the US to assess and offer expertise on cases. One young man, age 15, came in with a bullet lodged in his lower brain. The images were sent to a neurosurgeon stateside and also to a radiologist and a pediatrician. Together they concurred that surgery might do more harm than good and that he should not have it removed because of the risks involved with surgery. When seen, he was 2 weeks out from his injury and walking with minor assistance. The educated opinion of the experts, rendered from far away, were a great help to a family that did not know which way to turn.

The most difficult cases we saw were the ones where we felt our hands were tied by circumstances beyond our control. The breast mass, the severe heart murmur in a younger man, the colon cancer, the “spells” that remained undiagnosed—all caused the team anguish as we conferred, prayed, and tried to find a way forward. In a place where few have insurance and the medical system is cash based, not having money for a procedure simply means that it will not happen. In the end, we tried to give some assistance to the hardest cases we faced, but all were daunting as radiation and chemo and surgery are scarce and mostly unavailable. Extended treatments often require travel abroad, something that involves another set of hurdles, including the necessary paperwork and large amounts of cash.

After a busy week of seeing hundreds of patients, I was left with one predominant emotion: gratitude. Gratitude for what we were able to do, gratitude for the appreciative response of those we reached out to and those we worked with, and gratitude for all that we have here at home. In spite of the difficulties involved, overseas medical missions is productive in that it refocuses us on things that really matter: relationships, compassion, and the unity of all humanity as we occupy one fragile planet together. Yes, we are different but my goodness, we have so much in common. Whatever nation we are from, our bodies work in much the same way and malfunction in similar ways; our passion for helping our loved ones is undiminished by deprivation and scarcity of resources and our desire to be treated with dignity is uniform.

My hope is that we did a world of good in our week in Belize. Realistically, I know that the impact was relatively small. Some would argue that the resources spent in taking so many people was not worth the benefit. However, I would argue the opposite. The seeds of love and care sown will continue to bear fruit for years to come and more than that, our team was changed. We all came back with a bigger vision of our place in the world and our greater responsibility for our neighbors, both here and beyond.

Throwing Stones Naturally

Throwing Stones Naturally

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” John 8:10

I reached over to pick up my squealing 1 year old granddaughter, Malia, and tried to calm her piercing, high-pitched squeals, “No, no! That hurts Nana’s ears! No squealing.” I put on my sternest face and tried to communicate with her. She waved her chubby arms and squealed again, setting my ears on edge. I put her down and mumbled, “I’m going to have to put you in time out.” My two year old granddaughter, Olivia, immediately perked up, “Time out? She’s too little!”

“No, she is not going into time out,” I explained. “She is too little. You are right. Nana is just trying to figure out what to do to help her understand.”

As the evening continued, Malia screamed over and over, communicating her frustration and fatigue in the only way she knew how. Each time, Olivia would ask (rather gleefully, I might add…) “Is she going in time out now?” I had to chuckle and told her over and over, “No, she’s too little,” kicking myself for mumbling something I didn’t mean in front of an attentive 2 year old.

Judgement, righteousness, rules, boundaries, the difference between right and wrong—it’s where it all starts. We begin to learn this from Day 1 with our parents and grandparents and others cooing over our successes and—hopefully—setting appropriate boundaries to guide us.

The flip side of the coin of life is mercy, compassion and unconditional love. These attributes do not come to reside in us unbidden. We must invite them into our hearts each day. Our natural tendency is toward gleeful enforcement of the law: I’m right, you are wrong; I’m good, you are bad; I’m going to heaven, you will cook in hell.

Jesus came to teach us a new way, not to abolish right and wrong and not to deny that God is a Just God, but to complete the picture, to fill in some of the details that were not fully presented in the picture of the Old Testament God. As a whole Book, the Bible starts with “In the beginning” and ends with “I am the Alpha and Omega,” and in between paints a multi-faceted picture of a God who loves humanity, who created us for relationship with him, who longs to restore us to a life of wholeness; he is a God who suffers when we stray and who stands waiting, with open arms for us to come home, come home, “ye who are weary, come home.”

It’s easy to point our fingers, to shout with glee when others get what they deserve. I’m so glad God doesn’t treat me as my sins deserve. I’m so glad I have found in Jesus the God who forgives my sins even as he hangs on a cross, suffering, this God of mercy looks over at the murderer and speaks words of tenderness, “Even today.” Because of his love I can only hope to try to treat others with the same compassion and tenderness.

But it is not something that grows naturally in the Garden of my Heart. There the twin trees of Judgement and Righteousness grow and thrive. The plantings of Love and Mercy struggle along, frequently overshadowed and shaded by the other two. Love and Mercy require daily tending, gentle pruning, weeding out the strident tentacles the other two boisterously put forth. In great humility, I see that only with Jesus’ tender hands guiding mine can I hope to cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness and Self-control—these beautiful fruit will grow in abundance with daily attention—but if I skip a day or two, suddenly Judgement and Righteousness reach over and cast a shadow. When that happens, I am still planted in God’s garden, but my beauty is small, my ability to spread the fragrant odor from the beautiful Fruit of the Spirit is stifled and choked.

Richard Rohr talks about living well in the second half of life. “As we move into the second half of life, …we are very often at odds with our natural family and the ‘dominant consciousness’ of our cultures…Many people are kept from mature religion because of the pious, immature, or rigid expectations of their first-half-of-life family.” (Falling Upward, pp 82-83). Whether our family is biological, church-related, adopted, social—we can either be encouraged to tend the tender parts of our garden of the Spirit or to simply default to the stuff that grows easily there.

Yes, Olivia, your little sister deserves time-out. She is not perfect. But I will not treat her as her screeches deserve; because my heart is full of compassion and mercy for her, so I will keep training and directing and guiding her with love and kindness, following the direction of the Spirit who lives in my heart. I will not throw stones. The stones that so readily fill my hands, I will give to the Master.

Joy Eastridge