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Archive for January, 2015

For sure, by Mother's measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten--poverty comes in a number of different forms.

For sure, by Mother’s measure of poverty, many are living in the poverty of loneliness or being forgotten–poverty comes in a number of different forms.


The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the prolific author and senior pastor of America’s largest United Methodist Church (The UM Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas), recently posted on his Facebook page a most incisive theological reflection on suffering–one that begs for sharing.

So here’s what Pastor Adam wrote:

    “Many of you have asked for a copy of the quote on suffering Ray Firestone shared with me years ago. I have never been able to find the original source. I’ve quoted it in [my book] Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and I think in my little book, Why?

    Here’s the quote:

    “Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

That’s profound stuff. Especially to someone like me, whose call to ministry was largely to be a pastoral caregiver to those laid low by illness, impending death, and grief and suffering in all their manifestations.

That said, I was also called as one who, for whatever mysterious reason, always had a heart for the poor, and an abiding, theological interest in poverty and all its dynamics.

The bible makes it clear on almost every page that material poverty is not God’s desire for anybody–and in fact is an evil. But poverty “occurs in the process of life” as surely as suffering.

Suffering is in fact pretty much synonymous with being poor. Consider what happens with Adam Hamilton’s take on suffering if we substitute the word “suffering” with the word “poverty,” as in material poverty:

    Poverty is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Poverty is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Poverty is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Poverty does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human poverty to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through poverty his purposes are achieved. Poverty can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

Just the other day I posted a blurb here at the blog about the death of my denomination’s much-respected and influential retired Bishop Rueben P. Job. In that posting I quoted him as saying this in his memoir (Life Stories) about his upbringing in North Dakota:

    “My life on our family farm was good. We were incredibly poor (my italics for emphasis), but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.”

The bishop went on describe quite an idyllic life in spite of poverty. It hardly sounds from his book as if he and “everyone else” suffered in poverty.

But I’ve also written here at the blog before about my mother’s upbringing in poverty after her father abandoned her, my grandmother and my aunt and uncle back in the Depression times. My grandmother married as a teen to escape farm life–a life that was anything but idyllic in a time when so many farmers wanted to have as many children as they could for child labor on the farms.

She in her girlhood farm life learned just enough in her schooling to read and write at a barely literate level, so that when my grandfather abandoned her, she was left to suffer with three children, no literacy or skills, no “job opportunities” (which were scarce enough)–not even anything to do on a farm since she had escaped one. She’d married to get off the farm and the back-breaking labor her own father imposed on her.

So it was quite a different experience from that of Bishop Job.

And I don’t say that by any means as a rap on Bishop Job, who–to frame it in Buddhist terms–rose up like a beautiful lotus flower out of the mud of poverty that he grew up in, as so many people do. (And, in fact, as my mother and her family did.)

I suppose that everyone’s experience of poverty is as different as everybody’s experience of being wealthy or whatever lies in-between. For sure, some people can grow up in poverty and find success and achievement in life with the character that poverty built up in them. Some can look back fondly on it–“everybody else was poor back on the farm” is a truism in so many lives.

But for the most part, I think, poverty creates a hell of suffering throughout the big world that no one wants–suffering that is an evil in that it cuts down health and well-being and causes premature death.

There is just too much suffering in poverty in this world that is unnecessary–and often imposed by the wealthy and powerful–not to fight and speak out at every turn for greater justice, equality and fairness for the poor among us.

And as my mother used to say–she who never forgot the hells of hunger pangs and indignities she felt in her time as a poor girl–“That’s all there is to it.”

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“For the power Thou has given me to lay hold of things unseen:

“For the strong sense I have that this is not my home:

“For my restless heart which nothing finite can satisfy:

“I give thee thanks, O God.”

— From A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie

Rubens' Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany--the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

Rubens’ Adoration: Today is the day of Epiphany–the revelation of Emmanuel (God With Us) in the church tradition.

The year is 1960 and it’s a cold and very cold December night in my little Texas hometown.

I’m ten-years-old, turning eleven soon. Like a lot of kids in town I’m popping firecrackers and launching bottle rockets in the street in front of my yard. Christmas is fast approaching.

There’s no such thing as “light pollution” in my town. It’s 1960, remember, and you don’t have to escape to some remote place far from the maddening crowds and urban sprawl to marvel at the cosmos. The night is dark but the Milky Way and the scatterings of stars above are a marvel.

As I’ve done on many cloudless nights in these growing-up years, I look up and scan the skies and quietly stand in awe of it all. Suddenly, I’m gripped by a feeling of utter love, peace and splendor–a sensation so surreal and precious that I’ve never felt anything like it before. Nor have I ever felt and experienced anything remotely like that sensation in the many years since that night in my boyhood.

Call it a miracle, an epiphany, a revelation, a religious experience–whatever it may have been, it put the holy whammy on me.

To my way of thinking, it can only be described as a mystical experience–a sensation of total or near-total union with God. Though it’s something I’ve rarely told anyone about, if only because it defies descriptive words, I’ve hoped all of my life since to recapture that sensation just once more, knowing that you can’t recapture an act of God.

(I’ve also been hesitant to share it out of concern that people will think I must be much disturbed in the noggin–a concern common to people who experience what used to be most commonly called “a religious experience.” When I was a hospice chaplain a patient confided in me that she had awakened in the middle of the night to see Jesus standing and smiling warmly at the foot of her bed, glowing like a blue light in the darkness. She asked me if I thought she was crazy. By no means, I assured her, sharing my own mystical experience with her.)*

* * * *

I prefer to describe my childhood experience as a sensation because I didn’t “feel” it in the usual sense of a mere feeling of awe. Like everybody else, I’ve had my share of feelings of breathtaking wonder and awe one feels in, say, standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon, or snorkeling in the beautiful Blue Barrier Reef (the “Blue Hole,” as it’s commonly known) off the shores of Belize, where I’m blessed now to live.

But even in the biggest, most bustling city, anyone can become so enraptured by the sight of, say, a big, blue moon rising as to feel like the tiniest and most insignificant atom in God’s magnificent Creation. A city dweller can be as filled with an intense sense of wonder and awe as a any sight-seer at the Grand Canyon or a kid under the stars in a little Texas town.

Many are the wonders that can grab us and touch our spirits at levels as deep within us as the Grand Canyon or the ocean blue.

* * * *

So am I some kind of special VIP for having experienced a close encounter of such a grace-filled kind? Is it arrogant of me even to believe that God took hold of me, at the tender age of eleven, and shed God’s grace on me in such a powerful way?

Or might I have been born somehow predisposed to high spirituality–born with a spiritual sixth sense of some kind? After all, some people seem to be born with a strong sense of spirituality and others seem not to have so much as a smudge.

The answer to the first question above is a resounding no, I’m no more special than anyone else in God’s eyes. As for the other questions, I’ve mulled on them over the years. But I always come back to the certainty that my mystical experience under the stars so many moons ago was so very real to me as to defy reason–and reason is something I value very much. I’ve never been one to believe that you have to check your brain in at the church door, as they say, to be a Christian. And yet my very real mystical experience–for lack of a better description–defied reason and marked my life and my life’s entire journey in a profound way. While I value reason and believe strongly in it, I also believe in a God who has the power and grace to shatter any and all idols, reason included.

On this day of Epiphany, just know that God is out there and in you too–and may God shed His grace on thee in ways powerful and gripping and in those powerfully quiet little “aha!” moments too.
. ————-

    * In his great series of lectures and book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, William James found that one mark of a mystical experience is its ineffability.

    “The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. . . . No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.”

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1-bishop-obit-job-px-690x353

Rueben P. Job, a longtime United Methodist bishop who I’d dare say was one of the most grace-filled and spiritually productive bishops in the history of Methodist bishops, died the other day at age 86.

He faced even the dying process with that amazing grace for which he was so admired. As a prolific and gifted spiritual writer, he noted in his 2006 book Living Fully, Dying Well that he had no fear of death.

“I have no anxiety about my own death,” he wrote. “I just had a stent put in, and for a person of my age — with a third of my heart function remaining — it’s a risky venture. But I went into that operating room with the same confidence that I lie down in my bed every night. Had I awakened in another world, I don’t believe I would have been surprised or afraid.”

Did I mention that he was a man of amazing grace?

I had the great pleasure in my time as a church journalist to meet Bishop Job a few times, but I’ve been mourning his loss as if he was a close friend. That’s a testament to the power of his writings and his influence in my beloved United Methodist Church.

For sure, a lot of people who were touched by the bish are feeling the same way.

Here’s an excerpt from another of his books, Life Stories:

    My life on our [North Dakota] family farm was good. We were incredibly poor, but so was everyone else. I wore my brother’s hand-me-down shoes, shirts, and pants as did everyone else who had an older brother. We had no nearby neighbors and seldom saw other children, so school was a wonderful experience. The school was two and a half miles away if we followed the best road, though a much shorter walk if we cut across the fields.

    We usually rode a horse to school, as did the other children who attended. The barn on the school ground was filled with hay every fall and our horses were inside eating while we were in school. Of course, we had no ponies, only plow horses, so in the springtime when my father and, later, my older brother needed the horses in the field, my brother next to me in age and I walked to and from school.

    School was dismissed at four in the afternoon and I would walk the short way home, unless there was too much water from melting snow, in which case I would follow the road. But either way, I would approach our farmstead from a small hill. When I got to the top of the hill, I could see our house about three blocks away.

    I would begin running down that hill, unbuttoning my jacket, and, if it was warm, my shirt. Bursting into the kitchen, I would always find it filled with the aroma of fresh bread or cookies prepared by my mother, just waiting for my arrival.

    I loved school, the excitement of learning, and the fun of being with other children, but there was no place like home and the loving welcome for me there. So I ran the last few blocks, slipping off my ‘school clothes’ in preparation for putting on my ‘home clothes.’

    One day you will hear Reuben has died. Let there be no sorrow, but instead celebration as you remind each other, “He just slipped out of his school clothes and put on his home clothes. He is at home now” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

R.I.P., Bishop.

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