February 28, 2010

Hunger or Emptiness

For many of us, Lenten discipline is linked to giving up some food in order to cleanse our bodies as well as our souls. Diet is certainly one place we can look to make changes. Too often, and I speak for myself, we are more eager to fill a craving than eat something nutritious. So, it can be good to give up chocolate, or meat, or cola, or some other food that perhaps isn’t healthy for us.

There is another side to that discipline, however, that we often don’t think about or don’t want to consider. Are we filling physical hunger or trying to fill a soul’s emptiness? Is food a substitute for a real relationship with someone or even with God? What am I really craving—chocolate or relationship? As we begin to look at simplifying our lives to become more authentic and complete sons and daughters of God, it's important to look at some of these 'issues', too. Of course, food isn't a problem for everyone, but each of us, if we are honest, has something that we use to fill the emptiness of soul that comes sometimes.

The story of Naomi is that of a woman whose life is consumed with regrets until she finally comes to realize that relationship with others and with God is what she really needs. We don’t know a lot about Naomi, except for snippets in the Book of Ruth. Her plaintive cry is one that many of us could echo when we feel that life and/or God is treating us badly. “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has afflicted me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” (Ruth 2:20-21)

In my book, Naomi’s Joy, she spent her life trying to fill an empty soul by attempting to control her sons and live up to what she believed were God's expectations of her. She only learned real peace when she faced God who, she discoved, loved her more than she could imagine. After she and Ruth return to Bethlehem, she is forced to admit her need, first to God and then to the women of the town.

After the young woman left in the morning, I faced south. Somewhere in the far distance lay the holy mountain. I could picture the cloud covered summit in my mind.

“God of Israel, is this your answer?” I held out my empty hands. “I do not have any offering to bring. Do not allow Ruth to be shamed. I pray you, raise up a protector for her. Do not hold my sins against this innocent girl.”

I felt better after my prayer. For the first time since Adah died, I did not feel entirely weighed down by a sense of condemnation. My heart and step were both lighter when I walked to the well. Several women greeted me with smiles and questions.

“What is it like in Moab?”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“Naomi, how does it feel to be home?”
“I…it…it is good to be back,” with a little surprise I realized that it was true.
“I heard that your daughter-in-law goes to the fields to glean for you.”
“Ruth is a great help,” I nodded.
“You are fortunate to have her.”

“Yes,” readily I agreed. “She has been fortunate in her gleaning. I need to thresh the grain she has gathered.”

I lifted my water jar and hurried away before any further questions were raised. I wished that my old friend Rachel was alive. It would have been comforting to talk to her.

“She died last winter soon after the Feast of Atonement,” Rahab told me when she returned the day after we arrived.

“Oh!” My cry of dismay was sharp.

“Rachel often spoke of you,” the widow told me. “Her sons have cared for the fields of Elimelech along with Boaz and the son of Samson. The heritage of your husband has been preserved.”

“It will do me little good,” the words were out before I thought of my audience.

“The Law of Moses declares that a widow is to be cared for by the nearest kinsman. Someone will step forward as ga-al,” a soft hand covered mine in an attempt at comfort.

“That is why I returned,” I had to swallow my pride to admit the truth.

“The Living Lord will provide for you,” Rahab sounded positive.

“I hope so,” my response was lost in the folds of my veil when I bent my head.

Some of my loneliness and grief eased while I threshed the bounty of grain and ground enough for a loaf of bread as a treat for Ruth.

“Um, that smells wonderful,” the young woman sniffed happily when she entered the house.

“I thought you would like it,” I smiled to see my friend savoring the bread.

It was worth the bangle from my wrist to see her delight as she spread the fresh slices with the goat cheese and olives I purchased with it.

“This is the end of the early barley harvest. Suzanne says that the second harvest will begin after a couple of Sabbaths,” Ruth stated the next afternoon. She arrived earlier than I expected. “Tomorrow I will take what we have to be ground if you want.”*

Even though she has admitted her need and begins to reach out in love, Naomi does not fully comprehend the depth of God’s love for her until her grandson is born. Then she can testify to her family about what she learned.

“God is gracious,” the old woman affirmed exultantly when she finished her recital. “Now I hold the promise for the future in my arms. The Almighty has restored my life and renewed my faith. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has blessed me beyond anything I expected. I was wrong to think that the Holy One turned away when we were in Moab. Even when my husband died and my sons were killed, I was never alone. The Living Lord showed me love in the loyalty of Ruth and in the circumstances that brought me home to Bethlehem.”

“My mother,” Ruth laid her soft hand over the wrinkled one of her mother-in-law. “I promised that wherever you are, I will be. Your God is my God.”*

Naomi learned that her emptiness was a spiritual hunger of her soul for relationship with the Holy God she believed abandoned her. Like Job, God returns to her more than she lost. “Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin….He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has born him.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

If you gave up some food for Lent, consider looking deeper into the motivation for desiring that food. How does denying yourself, say chocolate, bring you into a closer relationship with God? Sweets are my downfall, I admit, partly because they are comforting when I feel down and far from God or humans. Having a cookie helps me to feel better about myself in some subconscious way. I wonder…would saying a prayer of thanksgiving have the same effect? Worth thinking about isn’t it?

A friend recently gave me a card with an inscription by Ann Ruth Schabader “Each day comes bearing its gifts. Untie the ribbons.” How would our lives change if we welcomed all that God sends with enthusiastic joy like the child (my grandson) in the picture? I wonder if we would need the substitutes delights of our addictions...It certainly would make us more joyful.

See you next week when we meet Abigail, another little known woman in the Bible with a story to tell.

*All quotations are from Naomi’s Joy by Cynthia Davis. Available online from Amazon.com and the author.

February 21, 2010

Quiet Time

In the past few weeks we’ve looked at some steps we can use to determine the path our life journey should take. It’s a process called sometimes called discernment. We walked with Hagar and discovered that despite appearances and her mistakes God did not desert her. During Lent we are going to meet some other women from the Bible and see what they can teach us about simplifying our lives and more importantly becoming true to our own heart’s call.

You may have decided to ‘give up’ something for Lent. That is a perfectly valid thing to do, when what we give up helps us remember God more. Just saying, ‘I won’t eat chocolate for Lent’ without also replacing it with a discipline that enriches us is rather empty. The real purpose of Lent is to focus us on God and God’s call on your life and mine.

Can you say that giving up chocolate will help you be more authentically the person you were created to be? Maybe…or maybe not…

Something that is guaranteed to change you is making the decision to spend some time daily with God. One important component is to that is listening. In order to listen, we have to be quiet. That may take the form of an actual time of retreat away from the normal routine or it may just be a few extra minutes a day that isn’t hemmed in by cell phones, i-pods, computers, and chatting.

Rahab of Jericho found that her life was radically changed when God acted. When she first came to the tents of Israel after the fall of Jericho, Rahab was confused about the God of the Hebrews. She spent time pondering the differences between the gods she knew and served and this Diety.

I waited beside the banked fire until every person in the encampment was in their tent. There was much to think about. The God of the Hebrew was powerful, yet the people were not terrified of the deity. The priests of Astarte invoked the wrath of the goddess and intimidated everyone in Jericho with threats. How could this people continue to test their God? I thought of the tales I heard from travelers. They spoke of special food and water springing from stones in the desert. The story of the vipers in the camp chilled me until I remembered Sarai telling of the bronze serpent that healed those who believed.

“What kind of God are you to provide healing even as you punish?” Into the darkness I breathed the question. “Astarte requires endless propitiation. The goddess does not do the wonders I have heard of nor does she answer prayer. It seems that you are a god who offers succor even in the midst of the pain. Truly you must be great, El Elohim Israel.”

The silence was reassuring even though no answer came. I slipped into the tent and under my blankets still pondering the faith of these former slaves and the God who they worshipped.

“El Elohim Israel,” I murmured the name of the god into the night until sleep claimed me.*

It was still not easy for Rahab to find acceptance or to understand the ways of her slowly growing faith. Occasionally, like for me and you, there were moments of insight during her quiet time.

Suddenly I did understand, if only in that moment, that there was indeed only One God. I recognized that throughout my life, I had indeed been upheld by someone beyond what I was taught to believe in.

“I did not know your name but I have known your power and touch.” I fell to my knees in wonder. “My mother told me of the God of Jacob. She wondered if the God her father served was the True One. When Jamal and Salma came to Jericho I recognized that they served you. Truly all my life you have been beside me. Yet how can you love someone like me?”

An often quoted saying sprang to my mind unbidden, “This day have I begotten you.”

In the darkness of my tent the words took on a new meaning. I understood that the God of the Hebrews accepted me as if I was a child. For a long time I knelt in the darkness. The anger and fear drained away. Peace settled over me. I slept deeply, no longer afraid to face the future.*

Eventually, she comes to real faith and is accepted as bride of Salma, one of the spies. Their son was Boaz, grandfather of Jesse and great-grandfather of David, who became King. The ways of God are often amazing. That a follower of Baal and Astarte would become the ancestress of Jesus Christ is not something even a great novelist would dream up. Yet that is what happened.

Rahab learned about the Holy One of Israel from her new friends and by taking time to be with God. She discovered that her true calling was as a faithful woman, wife, and mother. She used her gifts of compassion and healing to encourage the refugees and was honored.

Can you find 15 minutes, half an hour, or even just 5 or 10 minutes to put away the busy-ness of day-to-day life and sit quietly? A friend who is the directress of a girls’ group (Jr. Daughters of the King) introduced them to a concept that we all might benefit from. It’s the P-Q-R-S-T discipline and is perfect for an outline of ways to spend time with God.

P is for Prayer
Q is the all important Quiet time
R is a reminder to Read scriptures and devotional books
S is Service to others that comes out of our time with God
T is taking Time to Think about our Walk with God

I encourage you to try a few minutes of quiet each day. Maybe turn off the TV a bit earlier or skip a program or just shut yourself in your room for a little while to be alone with God. What changes might happen?

Come back next week to meet Naomi on our Lenten pilgrimage.

*All quotations are from Rahab’s Redemption by Cynthia Davis. Available online from Amazon.com and the author.

February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar this is the day Lent starts. The season of Lent is the 40 days before Easter. It is a time of self-examination and repentence for things 'done and left undone'. Repentence is too often used to beat yourself up about things you did wrong. The word repent however means to turn again. Repentence is really a Turning Again from self to God!

If you go to church today, you will be signed with ashes on your forehead and be reminded "remember you are but dust and to dust you shall return." In Genesis mankind is created from the dust of the new creation and so we are reminded that we are the created ones not the CREATOR.

Lent is a good time to look at the baggage we take on our journey and work on simplifying our lives. Simplifying doesn’t necessarily mean ‘giving up’ something. Sometimes it means becoming more true to your own calling and gifts. In this blog, we will take brief looks at several of the women in the Bible and see how their lives benefited from simplifying and evaluating their lives.

I invite you to stop by each week during Lent and see what women like Rahab, Leah, Mary and Martha have to say to us in our 21st century world.

February 14, 2010

Re-evaluation, Hagar Returns

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hagar encounters God. She is changed and no longer the victim. Because of what the angelic messenger tells her, the slave woman decides to return to her mistress. She re-evaluates her choices and decisions in light of her experience with God.

Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael. Gen. 16:15-16

We do not know how Sarai reacted when Hagar returned. Perhaps Hagar changed her attitude and the women got along better. As I mentioned in the first of this series, it was apparently a fairly common practice for concubines to be used as surrogate mothers. During the actual birth, the wife held the surrogate in her arms. In this way the infant was counted as coming from the wife.

Two generations later, Rachel offers her maid Bilhah to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.” (Gen. 30:3) After the baby is born, Rachel claims, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son’; therefore she named him Dan.” (Gen. 30:6)

It seems that, unlike Bilhah, Hagar had some input in the naming of the child. The infant is given the name Ishmael as the angel said.
Hagar, Abram, and Sarai all had a series of decisions to make on their journey through life. They each react differently to the same stimuli—the need for an heir for Abram. Like them, some of our decisions will result in growth and others leave dead wood like this tree split by a storm.

In her attempt to provide an heir of his seed to Abram, Sarai set in motion a series of events that echo through the centuries. She despairs of ever giving birth herself because she is too old and offers her maid to her husband, rather than waiting for God to act.

Hagar starts as a victim of the needs and desires of her master and mistress. Then she makes the decision to run away and her life is changed forever. She discovers that the God of Abram also cares for her. The Living Lord has a plan for her life and for her yet unborn son, but she has to return and be obedient to God’s whole plan.

Abram has received assurance from God “your very own issue shall be your heir.”… “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:4-6). Perhaps he thought Sarai’s offer of Hagar was the way to accomplish this promise.

I think it is interesting that Ishmael is born 13 years before Abram is visited by a trio of angels and learns that Sarai will personally bear him a son. God does accomplish what was promised, but in God's time, not through the mechanisms of Sarai, Hagar, and Abram. During that time Ishmael is the heir apparent. It is no wonder that when Sarah (her name and Abram’s are changed when the angels visit) bears a son, Hagar is cast out of the camp. That is the story for another meditation, perhaps. (See Gen. 21:8-21)
When Ishmael is born, each member of this triangle has to re-evaluate their positions. Sarai and Hagar can learn to share the mothering of Ishmael, while Abram finally has a son to be his heir. Like this family, we each have daily opportunities to make decisions based on our best interpretation of events. The good news is, God is in the outcome!

Today is our last look at Hagar. Her decisions led her closer to the One God of her master, even though at first it looked like she was acting foolishly. Her journey of self discovery led her to God. It is part of God’s amazing love for us that God will meet us even (perhaps especially) when we are lost.

If you are feeling lost, and even if you think you are on the right path, take time to be still and evaluate where you are. When we have journeyed along a certain path for a while, it is important to stop and look at our progress. Some questions to ask include:

Are you still heading in the direction you planned?
Did you take advantage of the advice you received?
Have you started to see results?
What else are you called to do?
Is there a new path to take?
Lent starts on Wednesday. Next Sunday, this blog will begin to look at ways to “Simplify with Women of the Bible” during Lent. Often people give up something for Lent, like candy or cigarettes, or lattes. This is not a bad thing, but the purpose of Lent is a time for self-reflection. We will take brief looks at several of the women in the Bible and see how their lives benefited from simplifying and evaluating their journeys. See you then.

February 7, 2010

Hagar's Response

So far we have traveled with Hagar through most of the steps of decision making. Hagar, the pregnant maid and surrogate mother for Sarai, made the decision to run away when she was treated harshly. Because Hagar didn’t really plan her journey, she became lost. Destitute and discouraged she arrives at the oasis near Kadesh-Barnea. We learned that really Hagar was not abandoned. God was with her and sent an angelic messenger to speak to her and give her advice at the oasis. Last week, we left her in the midst of making the decision whether to obey God’s messenger or not. This week and next we’ll find out if Hagar listens to God and what impact meeting God has on her decisions.

Many of the images we think of for angels involve figures with wings. This photo is not of an angel--it's really a snow storm across town. It captures what I think of when I think of angelic messengers—light and power without a real form.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. (Gen. 16:13)

Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Hagar’s preconceived ideas about her life and about God have been transformed. The God she thought distant and uncaring has intercepted her at the crossroads of her life. She names God El-roi (the God who sees). She realizes that only the Holy One could have seen into her motivation and despair.
“How can I have spoken with God, or God’s angel, and survived?” Hagar wonders. “The One who spoke to me has promised great and amazing things. This could only be a True God who can see me as I am. I will call this place Beer-lahai-roi, for I have glimpsed God and live.”
In a religious context the process of decision making is called discernment. Prayer is an important component of any discernment. In order to pray, we have to identify who we are praying to. Hagar acknowledged that God had seen her anguish and responded to her when she calls the Lord “the God who sees.”
Because of her experience, the name of place where Hagar encounters God comes to be known by a special name. “Beer-lahai-roi” means the well (beer) of the one who sees/is seen (roi) and lives (la-hai). The root of lahai is chay, which is the same as the well known toast l’chaim (to life).

Hagar has met God and her life has taken on new meaning. The Bible does not give us details of Hagar’s thoughts after her encounter with God, but we know that she knew that she was changed. No longer was Hagar the victim, she was now empowered by having been visited by God. When we encounter the Living God, we too are strengthened. No longer are we held captive by our wounds, we are free to live the abundant life promised by God.
The abundant life is not a bed of roses. I am reminded of the old Lynn Anderson hit Rose Garden. The chorus says:

“I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There's gotta be a little rain sometimes.”

The rain or troubles in life nourish our faith by rinsing away the things that distract us from hearing God’s messengers. Like these roses in the rain, we may feel a bit beaten down until, like Hagar, we learn that God is present.

You may think, ‘I’ve never been confronted by a messenger from God.’ I’ve noticed God rarely issues neon signs saying ‘this way’, but…How often do you hear a little voice inside you urging you to make this decision rather than that? When has a friend said just the right thing to help you make a choice? Aren’t these all messengers from God?

At the beginning of the year, I suggested you review your life as a series of stepping stones.  If you did the exercise, you may want to look at it again and see if there are times when you were at a crossroad and had to make a choice. Was your life transformed by the decision you made?

Come back next week for the final entry in this series to explore what happened when Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai.