Saturday, July 21, 2018

Lessons from Ireland: Trust



One of the most fascinating things we got to do in Ireland was to take a boat ride out to an island called Skellig Michael. On this island is the UNESCO world heritage site of a Gaelic Augustinian Monastery circa the 600’s. (Yes, you read that right -- the 600's)

To get to the site you must climb up the side of a cliff using a staircase built with dry set rocks. On occasion I review the trip on this clip because all I remember from my hike up and my hike down was watching my husband’s shoes a few steps ahead of me.












Apparently I have issues with 1,400 year old staircases offering precipitous, possibly fatal falls. Who knew? Here is the only photograph of the climb I had the courage to take.



In my defense, we started this ascent shortly after reading the sign below -- note the phrase "fatalities have occurred."  




Six huts, a chapel, a graveyard, a garden, and an intricate cistern system make up this monastery.  Here the monks were left in peace to worship, pray, study, protect scripture and suffer for their faith. Even in this hard to access fortress at least one Abbot was known to have been captured by the Vikings.

Not even on the top of a barely accessible island mountain can we protect ourselves from the sin of our world.

But I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt you know no God but Me and besides Me there is no savior. Hosea 13:4

I like this verse for describing the monk’s knowledge of God because my study Bible tells me that the meaning for “know” in this instance is an “evidential, experimental knowledge.”  The monks that lived in this monastery up through the 12th century not only saw daily evidence of God’s power, but likely experienced God’s presence in ways we cannot understand.  They understood our Savior as a deliverer in a very real and present way. God provided for their needs and their protection just as He provided for their Salvation. There was no government, no medical organization, no police, fire, rescue crew, no military – not even a storm warning system. They were in God’s care, alone. They had the law of their harsh existence and they had the grace of their fellowship with each other.

Think for a minute, about how different our view is. We are blessed to have all of the protective systems that the monks lacked, yet instead of being grateful we turn from trust in God toward trust in the protection of our own making.

The left-hand kingdom (government) will do what it decides it will do. We are to be an influence on the government but we are not to allow ourselves to be lost in it – or lost because of it. We are wrong to store the treasure of our faith in the government of man. We must not only remember – but live in a way that shows we do not put our trust in guns, walls, repeals of laws, politicians, government programs, political party platforms, or SCOTUS picks.

We are not democrats or republicans, conservatives or liberals, rich or poor, citizens or immigrants. We are children of God. Our trust must be in Him, alone.

So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continuously for your God. Hosea 12:6

Luther tells us that the word “love” in this verse can be seen as goodness in action -- grace. Because the monks knew God’s love, protection, forgiveness, and grace they were able to share these things with each other. When we are able to share the same it is evidence of our trust in God. A trust He gives us, that becomes something so easy for us to ignore when we pretend we can build a fortress of any type to protect ourselves.

Here is one more poignant verse from Hosea. God speaks to us through words intended for the Children of Israel who had ignored the gift of trust to worship other gods, make alliances with other countries, and depend on their own might for protection. We are not so different.

Take with you words and return to the LORD. Hosea 14:2

“Take with you words” In other words – confess.

Take that confession and return to the LORD, our Protector and Savior.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Lessons from Ireland: Justice



So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God. Hosea 12:6

This is a picture from Kilmainham Gaol a former prison located in Dublin, Ireland. The prison was in operation from 1796 until 1924 and housed many people from rebellions including the Easter Rising of 1916. Touring this museum was a fascinating and sobering experience.

Justice can be a difficult thing to determine in the case of rebellions. Some of those housed in this facility had murdered or plotted murder. Some came back later as part of the new government. When you are on the wrong side of the ruling party it can be hard to distinguish right from wrong.

But, there must be some laws that should be broken under no circumstances. Surely stealing is always wrong, isn’t it?

While the Kilmainham Gaol is quite famous for its political prisoners it was also in high use during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-1850. When we toured the museum we saw where children as young as seven were housed after being convicted of stealing something as inconsequential a loaf of bread. The conditions for incarceration were horrible – sleeping on stone floors with little protection from the elements. It is hard to think that children were condemned to prison for simply answering the pangs of hunger. 

When humans, or their children, are hungry or unsafe these conditions become more important than the law. We can see this when we realize that in the case of incarcerating starving  people  for the theft of food, punishment did not deter the crime. In fact, it may have encouraged it as children realized that even with the horrible conditions in the prison they would at least be fed for the duration of their sentence. They could find no other help for their hunger.

Millions of people died or emigrated during this famine. Beyond their suffering the most horrible realization was that Ireland was producing enough food for its people, but the price of the food was kept prohibitively high due to laws that favored absent landlords. These same landlords, when faced with the requirement to help pay for relief simply evicted tenants to avoid the tax. They burned houses and watched children cry as their families were left with nothing. There were no laws to stop these actions. Even the government relief agency felt that the famine was judgement from God to teach the Irish a lesson. They crafted relief regulations that left the poor with nothing and at the same time condemned them for being idle. 

It would be nice to be able to say we humans learned our lesson from the atrocities of this famine.  But, we are steeped in sin and insist on repeating those same sins – with impunity – as we protect ourselves and attempt to justify our actions.

When we turn to scripture to find the right recourse for fellow humans who suffer poverty and violence we find no specific solutions, but instead a strong directive: God wants justice for the poor.

I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy. Psalm 140:12

The tough part is we don’t always know what justice looks like. Which political party is truly concerned with justice? Who knows how to provide justice effectively? Is it about health insurance? Job opportunities? A fair wage? A stronger police force? A visa, green card, or a path to citizenship? I suspect the answer is different for each kind of poverty or hurt.

Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Isaiah 1: 17

The Irish did not have justice because the laws, tariffs, and policies of the day prevented them from escaping poverty. They were highly vulnerable even before the potato blight. When the law was used to persecute them it was not used as a curb, a guide, or a mirror – it was used as a club. This use of the law is ineffective.

No, scripture does not give us the answer to poverty or violence. God does not tell us what to do, but He does tell us what not to do. We cannot hide behind man-made law when people are suffering for lack of justice.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing  oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! Isaiah 10:1-2

We should not turn our eyes away from suffering. We should not allow laws, policies, rhetoric, or politics to favor the “haves” at the disastrous expense of the "have nots." We should not use those who suffer as pawns in a political game. We should not be a part of further trauma for people who are helpless and hopeless for reasons beyond their doing. We should not let people suffer and then blame the law or hide behind it.

We should not turn away from the need for justice – or the need for grace. 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Matthew 23:23

We do not currently have a potato famine, but we do see people, all over our world – including our country – who are forced to desperate measures in order to find food or safety for their children. God does not tell us to give welfare to the poor or to grant asylum to everyone who asks. He tells us to be concerned with justice. We are compelled to ask: What keeps these families from providing for their children? What can we do to help and how can we avoid making the situation worse? When the law brings justice it implies there was a legitimate choice for behavior.  For the Irish during the famine, keeping their children from starvation was obeying a greater law than man’s law.

Correct me, O Lord, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing. Jeremiah 10:24

God grants us justice and grace because He knows us, He loves us, He sent His Son to die and rise again for us. The justice we deserve is not what we receive because there is no stronger empathy than agape love. 

If we are to know what constitutes justice in the case of the poor, for those who live with violence, who just want safety for their children, we need to stop thinking we know the motivation for their actions. We need to think about their needs and pray for the wisdom to find justice and the courage to ask for it. We need to stop making fear, politics, or the law into a false god. 

We need to stop using the law as a club and move the world toward grace because only grace changes things and only grace heals.

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24

Instead of hiding behind the rationalizations of politics, instead of posting, retweeting, or fuming in anger, I will stop, pray, love, empathize, and look for a way to bring justice.  

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Lessons from Ireland: Truth

Dublin, Ireland May 2018


My husband and I recently returned from a glorious week spent with good friends in Ireland. The week we were there was the last week before a national vote to repeal an amendment to their constitution designed to give equal status to both unborn children and the mothers who carry them. The amendment resulted in restrictions that sent those seeking an abortion to neighboring countries.

All over Dublin we saw signs that said NO (to keep the amendment and prevent abortion) and YES (to repeal the amendment in order to make abortion on demand legal.) Given we were not plugged into the media the debate was quiet and persistent. The signs gave various reasons to vote in one direction or the other, but were for the most part polite.

One day as we walked from a National Museum to the National Art Gallery we came upon the demonstration pictured in the above photo. The NO side was standing on a public sidewalk with large pictures of infants at the typical gestational age of abortion. They were not shouting or condemning, just standing with the pictures.

People from the YES side were also in attendance. As you can see from this photo they wore large wings and attempted to stand in front of the photos to keep people from seeing the pictures. These were not pictures of an aborted fetus, not pictures of tools used for abortion, or of a baby born alive after an abortion – they were simply pictures of a developing infant at the typical age of abortion. They were not designed to manipulate – just to inform.

The pictures were truth, and the opposing side was working hard to hide the truth. Think about that – they weren’t defending anyone’s rights; they weren’t asserting opinion or defending a stance. They were quietly and persistently hiding the truth.

I don't care which side of any issue you are on - hiding truth throws up a red flag of major proportions.  It just simply cannot be good.

Our brains really want to write our own truth. Once we develop a misconception we hold on to it with all of our strength. We pick through information to find what supports our bias and we conveniently ignore what we find difficult to believe. 

I know I do these things and if I want to understand a difficult issue like abortion I must work hard to avoid any actions of truth hiding. I must work hard to have empathy for the people on the other side of the issue so that I can see all of the truth involved. It does no good to honor the life of the unborn if I cannot honor the life of the mother who carries that child.

But no matter how complicated the issue, we must face the truth that all life is to be valued.

The truth can be hard to accept.

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered Him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” John 8: 31-38

It is not in our nature to seek truth. It is in our nature to sin and then seek a “truth” that brings us a false sense of comfort. We want to believe we are right and others are wrong; that we are on the side of goodness and morality and those who oppose us have only evil intent.

Truth tells us we are all sinners. We must abide in His word and ask Him to show us the truth of salvation earned on the cross. Then, and only then, will we be free, indeed.

Pray for the truth.

Pray for Ireland as they now battle with their laws to decide when life is to be valued.

Pray for our country as we seek the truth on this and many other issues. 

And in the face of truth let us pray for forgiveness and abide in His word.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIyr1PIMWgw
"Wood and Nails"  by Keith Watts, Isaac Wardell, and Madison Cunningham

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pruning



Our brains do a curious thing. They make themselves stronger by destroying their own tissue. It is called synaptic pruning and it can happen in fits and starts but there are also major events that occur during childhood. In simplest terms the brain grows then cuts back that growth to manage it. During these times of pruning the brain and behavior are challenged as the brain adds on new thinking capacity and shuts down others while the brain is under construction.  Think about how much a major building remodel at work or the addition of a room on your house has an impact on your life. For a temporary time, things don’t work in a normal way and when construction is done, you must adjust to something new.  

Brain pruning gives us a whole new perspective on toddlers and teens. Their brains are undergoing a major remodel and new things are just around the corner. Living with the remodel, however, can be a challenge. We must remember that brain pruning is necessary for growth and health. If our brains did not prune we would be a mess of too many synaptic connections and no good pathway for learning to proceed. The brain seeks to be orderly and works more efficiently if there are familiar pathways to connect to what we use.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. John 15: 1-2

The Bible does not talk about pruning synapses but it does use a different kind of pruning analogy. In vine pruning we are the branches that need to be cut back to allow for better growth.  Plants such as vines and bushes that go unpruned do not yield well because there are too many competing branches and stems leaving little room for grapes or roses. The growth of these plants needs to be directed and managed.

One thing we know about brain pruning is that our brain becomes what we do. The things we spend the most time doing are the pathways that get strengthened. The things we spend little time doing are the synapses that get pruned. If children read, play music, garden, or compete in sports, for example, their brains will get better at these activities. If they spend huge amounts of time doing less than healthy things, their brains will get good at those activities, instead.  Children need a good gardener during the pruning process.

This same advice holds true for adults. We need a benevolent gardener to guide the pruning process of our faith. It is not fun when we are being pruned. It can hurt when God is cutting out a bad habit, directing our growth in a new way, or snipping off the dead twig of the self-pity we want to cling to. It is not easy. It is frustrating. It is all about getting used to loss and adjusting to what is new. We can often react like toddlers in a fit of frustration, or like teenagers we can become defiant.

In spite of what we may say, we don’t want to grow out of our sin and misery.

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. John 15: 4-6

God’s word is our best faith pruning tool. Without God’s word we might grow in the wrong direction much like a child who does little else but play video games. Without abiding in God, by studying His word we will not bear fruit, plain and simple. Not only do we need God’s word in our lives, but we need a steady diet of it. We need it at church, at home, with friends, and in the early morning hours of quiet contemplation. We need to abide in God.

The blessing of God’s word is not only stronger pathways in our faith, but a renewed understanding of God’s grace in our life. We begin to see the world, see others around us, and see our life circumstances in a different way. We see God glorified in our life.

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As The Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my live, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. John: 8-11