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Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Wednesday October 26 2016

Quotations I love: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things

Everyone must render an account before God of all the good things he beheld in life and did not enjoy.
          —The Jerusalem Talmud

I find it quite challenging to accept the notion that we have some sort of responsibility before God to enjoy the good things of life. For most of my adult life, I’ve had an inner dialogue running through my brain along these lines: “How can I truly enjoy this wonderful event when 22,000 children will die today of the effects of hunger?” [1] “How can I relish this beautiful weather when 11.4 million Syrians are displaced from their homes?” [2] Ever since my mid-twenties, I’ve been much, much better at mourning with those who mourn rather than rejoicing with those who rejoice.

However, I’m doing better these days enjoying God’s good gifts. I want to reflect on how that happened. I’ve identified four factors:

1. The Sabbath. Since the quotation above is from a Jewish document, it’s appropriate that a Jewish Sabbath tradition contributed in a lovely way to my spiritual growth. In Jewish tradition, prayers of intercession are not appropriate on the Sabbath because it’s a day of rest. In contrast, prayers of thankfulness are encouraged. On my Sabbath day, when I start thinking about any kind of pain in the world, the kind of situations that might motivate prayers of intercession, I tell myself, “You can think about that and pray about it tomorrow. Today’s focus is rest and being present to all of God’s good gifts.”

Over many years, that Sabbath habit has helped me turn off anxiety and sorrow, albeit briefly, and focus on the gifts of the moment. I see good things more readily now, and I can enjoy them, knowing that the time for sorrow and prayer will come. Indeed, for everything there is a time and a season under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1). (If you want to read more that I've written about the Sabbath, numerous articles about the Sabbath are posted on this blog, and you can check out my Sabbath book and Sabbath Bible study guide.)

2. Thankfulness prayers. More than 20 years ago, my husband and I decided that every time we pray, we would begin with thankfulness. This practice has changed my perspective and enabled me to see and enjoy God’s good gifts more often. When we thank God for things, our eyes are opened to more things to thank God for. (I described our experience with thankfulness prayers in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, and I’ve written quite a few other posts on thankfulness.)

3. The Psalms. In the Psalms, confession, lament, praise and thanks recur over and over, reinforcing in my mind that there is a time for everything and that life should be lived in a rhythm. Yes, it is completely appropriate to grieve over Syria and to pray for refugees. But it is equally appropriate to stop and look and enjoy the beautiful clear eyes of a small child or a flower newly unfurled.

4. Jesus the Redeemer. I’m not God. I’m not responsible for running the world. I’m not the Savior. We already have a Savior, and it’s not me. Yes, God calls me to feel sadness and compassion about the brokenness of our poor hurting world, but God also calls me to embrace joy and praise and thanks because so many good gifts surround me. But ultimately Jesus is our Savoir and Redeemer, and my job is to respond in gratitude, faithfulness and prayer. This reality has become more real to me over time as I have practiced lack of worry and sorrow on the Sabbath and as I have practiced thankfulness. My habits have changed my thoughts.

None of the shifts described here happened very quickly for me. But I can see movement over time, and I have to say that after decades of feeling so much sorrow and sadness, having a good number of moments of joy is pretty wonderful. “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High. . . . For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your works; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 91: 1, 4).

(Next week: A. W. Tozer on God’s call to worship. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] The Hunger Project
[2] Syrian Refugees

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

Friday October 21 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
                      —Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

In this contentious time, characterized by deep divisions and polarities, this quotation is challenging. Do I really believe that the person who has a different opinion than I do on a topic I really care about has “labored in the search for truth”? Do I really believe that such a person has actually helped me find what I consider to be truth?

Aquinas emphasizes the search for truth, a cognitive process. He calls us to honor all who engage in that cognitive process.

His words provide an interesting juxtaposition with a quotation I’ve been using a lot as I teach listening skills:

“There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.”
                               —Mohan et al., Communicating! Theory and Practice [1]

These authors argue that we can disagree with people but still be interested in how they came to embrace the position the position they hold.  Mohan et al. call us to honor the motivation that lies behind another person’s thinking. They ask us to engage in a psychological process of curiosity in way that honors another person’s journey.

When teaching listening skills, I encourage people to ask the kinds of questions that get to the motivations and experiences that have shaped people we disagree with.
     • “Tell me about why that perspective is so important to you.”
     • “What were some of the experiences that shaped your opinion?”
     • “Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to this belief?”

Aquinas might encourage the addition of a couple of additional questions:
     • “I’d love to understand some of the thought process that brought you to this opinion.”
     • “Tell me about the search for truth as you experienced it.”

I find it very difficult, as most of us do, to listen to someone talking on and on about something I disagree with. I’ve found it helpful to ask some of the above questions, because frankly I find it at least somewhat interesting to hear about how a person got to that belief that I find so repugnant. Sometimes the back story really does help me love the person more, because I understand more about the forces at work in their life that led them to the place where they stand.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Message version repeats the first words but adds some additional challenging words: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” One form “the best” can take is asking questions that help us understand what’s going on inside the people we disagree with. How I wish this could be a part of our political dialog in this contentious time, and how I wish people in churches could have this perspective in the midst of profound disagreements.

(Next week: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoyment. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under subscribe in the right hand column.)

[1] Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

Wednesday October 12 2016

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we can accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do. . . . Our vocation, I believe, is to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of material.
          —Paul Tournier

My father was an air force pilot, an officer. His precision as a pilot kept him safe while flying fighter planes in World War 2 and while flying cargo planes in the decades after the war. My mother excelled socially. She was and is a hostess extraordinaire, serving guests beautiful food in a well kept home. She thrived at bridge games and charity events. Apart from about 15 extra pounds my father gained in his 30s and could never lose, my parents never gave me the slightest indication that they had any flaws or weaknesses.

I grew up expecting to excel at everything I undertook. I was an outstanding student, Girl Scout and piano player. Imagine my frustration when I couldn’t get rid of my extra pounds and failed to measure up to my slim and well dressed mother. And then when I fell into depression in my first pregnancy – a depression caused by a vitamin deficiency that lasted off and on for 16 years – I was utterly confounded by my weakness, failure and inability to excel.

As you can see, the quotation above from Paul Tournier evokes a lot of reflection for me. For a person raised in a seemingly perfect family, with high expectations to replicate it, Tournier’s words are unsettling, yet also somehow reassuring.

I remember a startling moment when I was a young mother in the midst of my recurring bouts of depression. One of my friends said to me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

I said, “What in the world do you mean?”

She replied, “I’ve been thinking about thank-you notes. I’m not good at keeping beautiful cards handy. I’m not good at writing eloquent notes. I’ve learned it’s better to take some white paper and write, ‘Thanks for the gift,’ and throw it in a plain envelope and mail it, rather than wait around until I can do it perfectly. Because I’ll wait around forever and the note will never get in the mail. So, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

In my family, if you thought you might do something poorly, you didn’t even attempt it. The ability to do many things well creates a myth that our efforts – human efforts in general – can be good and lovely and close to perfect.

In a departmental seminar last week, one of my colleagues said, “There is no part of our efforts that doesn’t stand in need of redemption.” He was responding to the seminar speaker, who had said that God’s truth, beauty and goodness are evident in creation but are also marred by sin in every setting and every action.

The poorly written thank-you note shows a lack of care – a form of brokenness and sin – even as it affirms the value of the gift and the preciousness of the connection between gift and giver. In a very small way, that’s good coming from evil. But does the eloquent thank-you note, written on a lovely card, also need redemption? Perhaps there’s some pride or paternalism or self-aggrandizement in it. Perhaps I can’t identify the part of my beautifully written thank-you note that is in need of redemption, but just because I can’t see any aspect of brokenness there doesn’t mean my action isn’t in need of God’s grace and redemption.

I’ve focused here on thank-you notes, a small and increasingly disregarded part of daily life. I could have talked about other “small” things like meals, clothing or sports. I could have talked about “big” things like jobs, ministries, parenting or marriage. But no matter what aspect of life we talk about, increasingly I see that there is no part of my life that does not need redemption. Yes, we are in danger of running out of good material to work with, whatever we do. Paul Tournier’s words help me remember my need of God every moment.

(Next week: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with. Photo of my father with his P-51 during World War 2. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

Thursday October 6 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

"Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true."
           —Thomas Merton

I love the idea of a transparent world. I love thinking about ways I can see God’s character, beauty and creativity “shining through” the things, people and events of our world. But I’m not wild about the word “divine.” I looked up the word, and found two definitions: (1) like God and (2) very pleasing, delightful. This makes me wonder if “divine” is the right word for what Thomas Merton is trying to say here. I think he’s saying that God shines through this transparent world. What we see shining through is not something like God. It is God.

The definition of divine, “very pleasing, delightful,” is worth pondering. Christians have majored on intercessory prayer, not prayers of praise and thanks. Maybe if we looked more carefully at the world around us to see the pleasing and delightful aspects, we would see God's presence more clearly and engage in more prayers of praise and thanks. (I wrote two weeks ago about a Eugene Peterson quotation about paying attention.)

While I was thinking about what I wanted to say about Merton's words, I happened to look through my vast collection of quotations to find some more to use in the weeks to come. I found two that echo Merton’s thoughts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
                        —Elizabeth Barrett Browning [1]

“God’s love is the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the light we see. All natural phenomena are different material forms of the love of God. . . . God’s love surrounds us, but we do not feel it, anymore than we feel the pressure of the atmosphere.
                         —Ernesto Cardenal, Abide in Love

These last two quotations imply that it’s not easy to see God’s love surrounding us or to recognize common things “afire with God.” Part of what I love about all the talk about mindfulness these days is the encouragement to stop right now, in this moment, and pay attention. For the rest of this post, I’ll write about the ways I have recently seen God’s love surrounding me and common things afire with God. Maybe my words will encourage you to write down (or draw! sing!) some of the places where you have seen God shining through the transparent world.

1. Flowers. It’s spring in New Zealand, and we’ve got trees and bushes covered with flowers. We’re at the end of the daffodils and the beginning of the tulips. We’ve had a bunch of sunny days in a row, and when I see sunlight shining through blossoms, I see God’s creativity and beauty.

2. Birds. I recently visited an aviary, and the colors of the parrots and parakeets made me smile. We have three blackbirds nesting in trees near our house, and it’s been a delight to see the mama birds flying back and forth with bits of grass in their beaks, while the papa birds stand sentinel. God created beautiful birds.

3. Activists. I feel shame and guilt at how little activism I have done over my lifespan to fight for things I care about. I love to read about activists, and I often see God’s passion and energy in them.

4. Children. Their pure skin, clear eyes and energetic movements give me deep joy, and I rejoice that God made such diversity in his children.

5. Poetry. Such creativity with words must reflect the creativity of God.

6. Art. Colors, shapes, lines curved and straight. I thank God that he gave us eyes.

7. Human kindness. I love seeing people extend love and care to others, reflecting God’s character in their actions.

I could list so many more: skies, clouds, the moon and stars; baby lambs and ducklings; chocolate, fruit, a good salad, roast beef; cool water to drink, warm water for bathing, a fluffy towel and clean clothes; dogs, cats and other pets; my home, my desk, my bed, the sofa, the kitchen, the table where we eat.

I’m sure you’ll think of other things. To paraphrase Thomas Merton: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God’s character, beauty and creativity are shining through it all the time. Our job is to pay attention.

(Next week: Paul Tournier on bringing good out of evil. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] The quotation comes from a poem entitled “Aurora Leigh,” which you can read here.

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

Friday September 30 2016

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

“There is a moment between intending to pray and actually praying that is as stark and silent as any moment in our lives. It is the split second between thinking about prayer and really praying. . . . How easy it is, and yet – between us and the possibility of prayer there seems to be a great gulf fixed: an abyss of our own making that separates us from God.” – Emilie Griffin [1]

It is no accident that throughout history, Jews and Christians have prayed at meals and at bedtime. Humans are creatures of habit, and we do anything more easily when it’s connected to a life rhythm so it can become habitual. When I was a child, my parents, my brother or I said a memorized grace every night at dinner, and my mom sat with me at bedtime and encouraged me to say a memorized prayer. With these memorized prayers at meals and at bedtime, did we make the leap from perfunctory words – intending to pray – to actually praying? I think sometimes we did.

I collect stories about people’s actual spiritual practices, and I’ve heard about praying while:
     watering flower pots
     taking a shower
     taking a deep breath after children go off to school
     driving past a school or hospital
     hearing an ambulance or rescue helicopter
     swimming laps
     washing dishes
     waiting in line

One of the more intriguing stories I heard recently is a fellow who has set his cell phone to make a beautiful bell sound at 9 am, noon and 3 pm. When he hears the sound, he stops what he’s doing and prays – briefly or not so briefly.

My husband Dave and I say grace together every night at dinner, but I wish I were better at thanking God for food when I eat alone. At various times in my life, I’ve had habits of praying while walking outside to get the mail, doing laundry and flossing my teeth. I recently read an article in the New York Times about linking mindfulness meditation to brushing teeth. The same could be done with prayer. (The article made me feel better about my somewhat weird praying-while-flossing habit!)

I always pray after I turn out the light at night. I wonder if that practice is rooted in those bland prayers I prayed every night as a child with my mother. Surely every Christian parent who prays at bedtime with children hopes that the habit will stick.

If you have trouble getting from thinking about praying to actually praying, I encourage you to ponder your daily habits and patterns. Which habits could you link to prayer? People of faith throughout the centuries have found it helpful to make a connection between daily patterns of life and prayer. New habits take a while to develop, but eventually the new action (prayer) becomes linked to the already existing pattern of life.

A second suggestion for making the leap from thinking about praying to actually praying relates to our need for God. Someone once told me there are basically only two prayers: "thank you" and "help me." I’ve written many times about prayers of thanks which can easily be connected to daily habits (see the list below), so I’ll say something here about the significance of considering our need for God.

What exactly do I need from God? Lots of things! Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to express my need for God in the simplest manner possible, and I’ve come up with four basic needs:
     a sense of God’s presence

I find that when I can name what I need from God, it’s easier to make the leap from intending to pray to actually praying.

Ultimately, the character of God is our biggest invitation to prayer: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 3:15, 16). Here’s the Message version of the same verses: “He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”

(Next week: a quotation by Thomas Merton on the divine shining through everyday life. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on thankfulness:
     A thankfulness challenge    
     Another thankfulness challenge    
     Thankfulness and sentness    
     Regret and fear are thieves    

[1] Foster, Richard J. & Yanni, Kathryn A., Celebrating the Disciplines: A Journal Workbook to Accompany Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper Collins Publishers: 1992), 14.

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