March 25, 2012

The Journey Toward Home

Often Journeys are hard. Even trips that start out filled with excitement and promise can have some bumps along the way. A recent song by Steven Curtis Chapman illustrates this. You can watch Long Way Home here:
Chapman refers slyly to his song “The Great Adventure” in the first lines of “Long Way Home”I set out on a great adventure The day my Father started leading me home He said there's gonna be some mountains to climb And some valleys we're gonna go through But I had no way of knowing Just how hard this journey could be Cause the valleys are deeper and the mountains and steeper Than I ever would've dreamed.
Dorothy set out on the Yellow Brick Road thinking she just had to get to Oz in the Emerald City and everything would be fine. She had no way of knowing the adventures that waited for her. She met some new friends, and with them she encountered flying monkeys, defeated a witch, and learned that she could live her own life.
Naomi also had to take responsibility for her own life. When she returned to Bethlehem she blamed God for her problems. “The Lord has dealt harshly with me…” In my novel, she beings to understand that God was really in all happened.
“I was wrong. The Living Lord did not desert me.” I spoke low as comprehension burst into my heart. Tears I could not stop rolled down my face. “You once said that the Holy One of Israel provides healing even for death and pain. Ever since my father died from the bite of the serpent I have been angry with God. Everything that went wrong was another reason to blame the Lord of Life. All I saw were the many laws that had to be followed. When I AM brought the people from slavery it was not to blindly follow laws.”
“Really?” Ruth was trying to understand me. “All the gods have rules to follow.”
“That is not the way of the One God. Sarai once tried to explain to me that the Law is a guide built on love not a whip for punishment.” I raised my head and took my friend’s hands in my own. “It is in relationship with one another and with God we can all live in freedom no matter what our circumstances. Your loyalty and steadfast faith in God are all that kept me alive even when I have refused to be free. All my life I preferred rage. The Almighty never stopped providing help and comfort. Even in the depths of my despair, a way was opened to return to Bethlehem. We have come here to the land of promise.”
Only when she understands God’s love is she free to discover new joy. She can cease to be Mara and return to being Naomi. 

The disciples were filled with joy and hope when they first started following Jesus. They were ready for a ‘great adventure’. Confrontations with the authorities of the day and Jesus’ own warning, “the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again,” must have made them wonder exactly what they had gotten into. Then came the entry into Jerusalem-a high point in their experience, but it was followed too quickly by betrayal, arrest and their denials. The mountains and valleys suddenly became pretty precipitous and the result pretty shrouded in fog.  
I recently read a quote by Spurgeon that puts our journeys in perspective if we remember we are on the road for and with God: "He who would glorify his God must set his account upon meeting with many trials. No man can be illustrious before the Lord unless his conflicts be many. If then, yours be a much-tried path, rejoice in it, because you will the better show forth the all-sufficient grace of God. As for His failing you, never dream of it--hate the thought. The God who has been sufficient until now, should be trusted to the end."
We all slip and stumble along the way. Dorothy had her share of problems in poppy fields and with flying monkeys. Naomi’s life was indeed difficult and the disciples struggled with understanding their Master. However, as Chapman says: “Well I know we're gonna make it And I know we're gonna get there soon. So I'll keep on singing and believing what all of my songs say, Cause our God has made a promise And I know that everything He says is true. And I know wherever we go He will never leave us Cause He's going to lead us home Every single step of the long way home.”
Where are you on your road-are you starting out or going through those deep valleys? Rejoice if you are on top of the hills where you can see the vistas. We are walking with God on our journey, no matter where along the path we are. Chapman reminds us “And even on the best days He says to remember we're not home yet So don't get too comfortable Cause really all we are is just pilgrims passing through.” That is a wonderful promise and reminder.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we’ll consider how dead endings may just be new beginnings. 

March 18, 2012

Companions on the Way

Our lives are like a road. Lent is an esp. good time to look at our journeys. Back on Ash Wednesday I mentioned the “Road of the Loving Heart’, a story within a story found in The Little Colonel’s House Party by Annie Fellows Johnston. This first in a series of girls’ books was published around the turn of the past century, but was one of my favorite books growing up. You can read “The Road of the Loving Heart” here
The chiefs on Samoa found the friendship of Robert Lewis Stephenson so amazing and inspiring that they built him a road and monument.This photo of his funeral in Samoa in 1894 shows some of the chiefs in attendance. 
Friends on the journey are very important. Remember the “Fellowship of the Ring”-the 9 companions who start out from Rivendale to get rid of the Ring in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gradually it dwindles down to just Frodo and Sam, but you only need one good friend to help you through the really hard times.
In Mark 3:13 Jesus appoints “twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” He chooses Simon Peter, James and John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James bar Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon (the Canaanite) and Judas Iscariot. These men were some of his followers from early in his ministry.
Dorothy finds friends along the road to the Emerald City. There is the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and her first friend the Scarecrow. Dorothy discovers she needs the companionship and gifts of these companions, just like Frodo needs the support and weapons of his companions to get to his destination.
Naomi thinks that she will be returning to Bethlehem completely alone and bereft. However, in the lovely scene nearly everyone knows, Ruth refuses to leave her: “she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab...but Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house...’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.”
In the steadfastness of their companions, Dorothy, Naomi, and Frodo drew strength and courage to go forward. Jesus depends on his disciples to help him preach, teach, and heal, even though, like us, they were not always sure what they were doing and were not always steadfast. Like Frodo’s ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ some of the members want things to go their own way rather than seeking what is best for the group (and looking for God’s plan).
Dorothy’s companions embody some of our most common failings, which paradoxically are really their (and our) strengths. The Lion is a self-proclaimed coward, who ultimately does more to protect Dorothy than he thought possible. The Tin Man thinks he is heartless, but in reality is the most sensitive and caring of the team. And the Scarecrow, who insists he would be so much better ‘if I only had a brain,’ has the ability to think out solutions while the others are dithering. Together they help Dorothy gain her ‘hearts desire’ of going home. Their actions, like those of the Samoan chiefs build a Road of the Loving Heart, so that she really doesn’t want to leave them, even though she must.
The things we think are the worst of weaknesses can in reality be our greatest strengths. Paul explains to the Corinthians that all our parts-the good, the bad, the ugly are important, both individually or corporately. “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member...” (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)
It is in the things we consider weaknesses that we find the greatest strengths when they are transformed by the Love of God. The hurts and scars of our lives become the building blocks of ministry. The doubts and fears are reborn as joy and service when we turn them over to God. The surviving members of the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ come together and divert attention from Frodo’s final quest to take the Ring into Mt. Doom and destroy it. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples become strong leaders of the newly forming movement that becomes the Church. Their failings are transformed into ministry for the good of all.
Naomi was angry and bitter when she returned to Bethlehem. Her life had not gone as she planned it. She tells her neighbors “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.” Naomi means Pleasant and Mara means Bitter. By changing her name, Naomi was naming her pain and grief. When she did that she could start to heal and be open to new beginnings.
When Ruth and Boaz were married, Ruth has a son. “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:16-17)
The Samoan chiefs built a road for their patron, Dorothy’s friends walk with her on the road to the Emerald City, Frodo’s companions help him get started on his way to Mordor, and Jesus needed his disciples to spread the Gospel. None of them were perfect, yet each played their part in the story they were part of. Naomi found new hope in Ruth’s child because she was open to accepting her weakness and failings and being made whole.
Each of us has failings, fears, doubts, and often we would rather have things go ‘our way’. Just like Dorothy accepted the friendship of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, God accepts us right where we are on our journey. God walks beside us and through that companionship we are transformed so that we can be made more whole and build a ‘Road of the Loving Heart’.
Is God showing you some places in your life where you need to change and grow? Are there places of anger and bitterness that get in the way of moving forward? What doubts and fears keep you from building a ‘road of the loving heart’ for your friends, neighbors, and even strangers?
Next time, we'll look more deeply at the Journey itself and what it teaches us. 

March 11, 2012


We’ve been looking at the Roads to Home this Lent as we follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. When Jesus called his disciples to ‘follow me’ it was a dramatic catalyst in their lives. In fact, it was rather like the tornado that swept Dorothy off to Oz. At first everything seems wonderful. The disciples bask in the reflected glory of their Rabbi and Dorothy steps out into the delightful bright Land of Oz.
However, what happens just when things seem to be going well? Often something happens that brings you up short and causes you to question whether or not you are really going in the right direction. Roadblocks can be resistance from others, or outright rage directed at you or things just don’t fall into place like you expected and planned.
For Dorothy this happens when she realizes that her house fell on one witch and another witch is angry with her. The disciples learn that not everyone is as fond of Jesus as they are, too, when he is confronted by some scribes in Capernaum. It is a rather dramatic scene.
“When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:1-12)
The man’s friends are persistent and desperate to get him help from this Healer. They hoist him up to the roof and dig through the rushes, clay and mud to open a hole in the roof. Then they lower him into the crowd. Have you ever wondered what the thoughts of the man were as he dangles downward into the midst of the gathering? Hope, embarrassment, fear, anticipation…? Jesus knows his real need and tells him “your sins are forgiven.” Notice, this is before he is told to walk. Sins can paralyze us just as much as physical ailments.
Lent is a good time to look at those things that keep us from fully living into our life in Christ. We may not have big, dramatic Sins, but we each nurture the little sins of selfishness, fear, despair, jealousy, etc. that can layer themselves so gradually on our hearts and souls that we don’t even notice them. These roadblocks harden our hearts so that we are not open to the call of God. The man let down through the roof was physically trapped in his body and unable to move because of his sins. Our sins can keep us from stepping out in faith to be all that God wants us to be.
Sin can keep us trapped and unable to move. Resistance to our work and ministry can make us doubt ourselves. We may want to run away and hide. Dorothy decides that Oz is not as wonderful as she thought and she tells Glinda that she wants to go home.
Naomi decides that, bad as things were in Bethlehem, they were better than living in a foreign land as a widow with no sons. In my book Naomi’s Joy, Naomi is a sad woman, burdened by the deaths of her husband and sons. Then she makes a decision, that frees her from the inertia of dwelling on the bad things in her life and provides the impetus for her to find her faith again. She thinks she is going home to Bethlehem to die and believes she is giving up. God however, sees the opportunity in her turning toward home and is ready to met her. God meets us when we turn to him, too.
That night I walked out of our house. My footsteps took me in the direction of the graves of Elimelech and my sons.
“What am I to do?” I asked the barren ground. With my teeth gritted I looked up at the starry sky. “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have I not been chastised enough? I obey all your commands, even in this foreign land. You take from me all that I love and now you make me abandon those I love as daughters. In order to spare them death from poverty, I must leave so they will look for new husbands to care for them. Do you offer no hope?”
There was only silence in the night. Far away a dog barked. My heart was empty. I did not have the courage to walk away from my home into the barren desert even to spare Ruth and Orpah. With plodding steps I turned from the graves. At the edge of town I paused. A trader’s camp was set up ready for the morning business.
A tiny hope flickered in me. “I will do it.”
For the rest of the night I sat outside our small house. My jaw was set. There were no tears, only a cold resolve fueled by anger at the God who abandoned me. My course was set.
For Naomi and Dorothy, and for the disciples, the real road is just beginning. They have a long journey ahead of them filled with dangers and opportunities. Tempting though it is to run away when the ‘going gets tough’, a better solution is to look to “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” for strength and guidance. The rest of that Hebrews 12:2 citation reminds us that Jesus’ way wasn’t easy, but “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Can you look at the looming ‘roadblocks’ in your life as opportunities from God for new growth, new ministry, and new strength? Can you see God is all the ‘problems’ you encounter, be they witches or confrontational scribes or loneliness or sins?
God does not leave us to face trials and tribulations alone. It is in community, with friends, that we find encouragement to step out on the more difficult journeys of our lives. Next time we'll look at the community each of our travelers found.

March 4, 2012

Road Trip

Do families still do road trips? Two years ago my husband & I took 3 of our grandchildren on a road trip of sorts. We traveled with them through southeast NM while their parents enjoyed a second honeymoon for their 10th anniversary. It was a fun time, although we had forgotten how stressful and yet invigorating it can be to travel with children aged 4-8.
When we first set out, they were excited to be on the way. In the same way, the disciples felt honored and thrilled to be asked by the up and coming young rabbi, Jesus, to follow him. Can you hear them whispering to each other?
“This will be great. Think how much we’ll learn.”
“I wonder what amazing things we’ll see.”
“When we get home, everyone will want to hear all about where we’ve been and what we did.”
“It doesn’t matter where we go, it’s just exciting to be on the road with Jesus.”
The same thing happened to Ken and me on our trip with the grandkids. You see things you’ve seen before with new eyes when children are along. You look for things to delight them, like  the bats at Carlsbad Caverns and stopping for ice cream treats.
The disciples probably saw things with fresh eyes, too as they traveled with Jesus. Certainly this young rabbi was like no one they knew. He was not afraid to talk to any and every one. He was always willing to stop and listen and to reach out a hand to touch those in need. To the disciples, this was all new and exciting. People were flocking to see and hear their master. Even lepers didn’t make him fearful.
“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:40-45)
We probably all remember the scene in the movie Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to her house after it lands. Rather than the drab grayscale landscape of Kansas, is the colorful and strange land of the Munchkins of Oz. “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore,” she tells faithful Toto. Instead of diving back under the bed, though, she steps bravely out into the bright light and is greeted by the enthusiastic song of the residents.
Everything was new and bright and exciting and interesting to Dorothy and to the disciples as they set out on their journeys. Maybe you have felt that way when starting a new ministry or felt God’s call on your life. Everything is bright and possible.
Even Naomi probably felt that Moab was a haven compared to the famine back in Bethlehem. We don’t get her thoughts in the Bible, but if you read between the lines, it would seem that life was better in Moab because they decided to ‘remain there’. “The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. (Ruth 1) Life is looking up. What could possibly go wrong?
How often do you feel that excited about being a Christian and following Jesus? It can be easy to take faith for granted and slip into the same old routine of prayer and worship and life. Then we see faith through the eyes of a new Christian or someone who has just returned from a marvelous retreat time and we are reminded of how wonderful our God is. Are there new opportunities for you in your Lenten journey this year? What new plans does God have for you? You probably won’t travel to Oz or Moab.
This week, I challenge you to look at your life-ministry, work, family, free time, etc. with the fresh eyes of a child or the excited eyes of the disciples as they first set out with Jesus. What are some possibilities you are missing?  

Next time we’ll look at a few things that might bring us up short in our Road to Home.