Sunday, May 23, 2010

Our House, Books, Big Brother and A Woman

Hello everyone. It's been a while. Not at all the schedule I outlined a couple of entries ago. My silence here does not mean I have not been busy.
Our House. In 1986, I was living in Dallas, going to college preparing for the ministry, and working with kids in the inner city. During that time, God first put it in my heart that one day I would start a ministry to provide a temporary shelter and a permanent home for kids who needed those things, and other things.
For many years afterward, that was my dream, my purpose, my calling -- all else was leading to that.
Then, after getting married, not being in ministry any longer, and then getting sick, the dream was lost somewhere along the way. I thought it was irretreivable, impossible, a monument to a failed vision.
But, God is a redeemer, and restoration is his specialty. So it is in this case.
The dream has been given back to me, and I'm so grateful and thankful for the Lord's work in my heart in this regard. I believe that one day, this dream, which I'm calling "Our House", will be a reality.
It will be a long process getting there, but I'm doing all the preparation for that time that I can while I'm here in Topeka. Part of what I've been doing the past month and a little more is asking some longtime friends to form an informal advisory group to explore what might be possible in the future. I'm encouraged by that process so far.
One thing I felt strongly inclined to do as part of introducing this idea to the people I asked to help in this early stage was to write about how the dream came, how it was lost, and how it was found again. I initially thought about doing it in the context of this blog as a series of 3 entries I had been thinking and praying about anyway. Then I decided it needed its own forum, and then, when I started writing, it became obvious it was going to be a book-length project, and not something to post directly here.
I called the story of the dream The Vision Cycle, and there are 3 parts, each of which is quite long. I've never been accused of being a bottom-line person, and I live my life in details -- that's the way God made me and I function that way. That aspect of my personality and gifting has been a source of much frustration for the bottom-line people in my life over the years, particularly my Mama and Charlotte.
However, if you are so inclined to read it, or peruse it at your leisure, I offer the link here: Our House: The Vision Cycle. I will say this: if you do read the whole thing, you will know my heart as well as you know anyone's as it relates to God's calling, plan, and purpose for my life.
One thing that I would ask in any case from you who read these words: pray for me, pray about this dream, and agree with me that the Lord will direct and guide in every step of this process. Most of what this will involve eventually is brand new to me and will be a learning experience at every point.
I'll write about Our House along the way here as it seems appropriate. Your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.
Books. One constant in my life since I first learned to read has been books. I'm always reading several things, and I like to write about some of what I'm reading occasionally, so here we go. Most of these books I've read in the past month or so -- I won't go back any further than that or we'll both be here all day.
Books and Literary Life by Larry McMurtry. Two of a three-part memoir series by one of my favorite authors, one of whose books, Lonesome Dove, formed part of the inspiration for my old blog. The first part deals with McMurtry's life as a book dealer and contains some fascinating anecdotes about people he's met. That's my favorite aspect of this book. The second book in the series was my favorite by far of the two written so far. It talks about his life as a writer. The third book, which I intend to read also, will talk about his life as it relates to Hollywood, particularly, I would anticipate, as a screenwriter. If you like McMurtry, I recommend these books.
Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe. I first came across this book when Terry and I spent a weekend in Denver in February or March and went to the wonderful Tattered Cover bookstore in downtown Denver, near the 16th Street Mall. I glanced at it there, but then when I got back to Topeka, I requested it through the magnificent library here. It is set in Denver, and being there 5 times a week made it even more poignant as I read it literally within miles of where the events written about took place. It's the story of four girls who live in Denver, two of them in the US legally, two not. It talks about their experiences, difficulties, dreams, and provides a very personal account of the difficulties faced by everyone in the ongoing struggle over what to do about immigration, particularly immigration from Mexico. I would recommend this book to anyone concerned about this issue from any perspective, especially to those who support some kind of unilateral "kick them all out" approach. (I do not favor that approach, as anyone who knows me likely already knows.)
Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance by Donald Miller. This book was later (and thankfully, to me) republished as Through Painted Deserts. It details the road trip the author took from Houston to the west coast and the insights and changes that occured to him along the road. It's the story of a young man who knew God superficially through his religion, but longed for relationship. Very entertaining, especially if you like road-trip books.
Street Kids and Streetscapes by Marjorie Mayers. This book, which I found while browsing in the library a few weeks ago, is written about the experience of street kids in Canada. What was more fascinating to me about the book than what was written was the perspective from which it was written, using principles found in hermeneutics from a postmodern perspective. It's pretty clinical in its style in some places, but is still an interesting look into the experiences of kids, mostly teens, who live on the streets in urban areas in Canada. Reading it will feel more like homework than anything else unless this is something you are deeply interested in. Most of you probably wouldn't like it, I suspect. But I did, so I included it here.
Do You Believe? by Antonio Monda. This book is a series of interviews about God and religion with some major cultural figures in the US. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Jane Fonda, Saul Bellow, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Elie Wiesel. Excellent book to provoke thought on different perspectives. The writer is an active Roman Catholic, and he writes from that perspective, but it's thoughtful and engaging if you like this sort of book.
My favorite book blog: A Work in Progress. If you like books -- well, I guess I should say if you love books -- and like to read about what others are reading, there is no shortage of book websites and blogs. I read several blogs related to books -- well, actually, mostly what I do is watch blog entries populate my inbox and then try to scramble to catch up on them every few weeks -- but this is my favorite. I highly recommend it if you like books, especially if you are looking for things to read outside your normal reading boundaries.
That's just a very small sampling of what I've been reading the past month or so, and doesn't (on purpose) include anything I'm reading devotionally or as part of whatever I'm studying in the word in my personal God-time.
Big Brother. As I write this, I am in the process of becoming involved with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Topeka as a big brother. For the first time in over five years, I'm in a situation with my driving and my life where it's possible for me to become involved in the passion of my life: helping others. For several weeks, I prayed about this, and looked into several organizations or avenues to do this, and have decided to go through this open door. Pray for me in this, particularly about the family and little brother that I will be assigned to. I'm excited about the opportunity for ministry that this represents, and will keep you posted.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. For months now, I've been focusing my primary energies in my Bible study and meditation on Psalm 73. Even though I might read other things and think about other passages during any given week, this is what I always come back to when I want to dig deeper. When I'm done there, I think that I will probably go through the book of Ecclesiastes. It's been many years since I spent a lot of time studying that book, though I've read it several times.
However, the past couple of weeks, seemingly out of nowhere (because I was not reading through the gospel of John at the time), driving down the road or at odd moments falling asleep in the bunk, the story from John 4 about the encounter Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well has been in my thoughts. I thought I'd share some of those thoughts with you.
Some context. A little background information might be helpful. This encounter occurs early in Jesus' ministry, shortly after John the Baptizer is put in prison. Jesus decides to go from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. Between those two places lies Samaria. Like many other events recorded in John, this encounter is found nowhere else in the gospels. And it follows in John's narrative just after Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3.
At the time this encounter occurs, Samaritans (who saw themselves as descendants of Abraham and embraced the Law of Moses as expressed in the first five books of the Old Testament) were considered by Jews to be unclean, ethnically impure, and a group of people to be shunned and avoided. There are accounts (I think in Josephus) of Jews traveling back and forth from Judea to Galilee actually crossing east of the Jordan River to avoid going through Samaria, though that would have been the shorter route.
It is also relevant to keep in mind that, regardless of any ethnic or religious differences between Jews and Samaritans, it was not customary in either culture for men to talk to women who were not related to them in some way, beyond what some necessity might dictate (for instance, a business transaction in a marketplace).
So, in initiating conversation with this woman, Jesus is breeching religious, cultural, and ethnic protocols. He is breaking the rules, in other words.
Spiritual vs natural. One theme John seems to be trying to elaborate on in these early chapters of his gospel is the fact that whenever Jesus introduces spiritual ideas or principles, the people he's speaking with (Nicodemus, this Samaritan woman, his disciples, and certainly the religious leaders) always initially try to relate what he's talking about to something natural, and Jesus has to explain himself several times that he's not talking about something natural. In this passage, when Jesus tells the woman she could have asked him for "living water" that would have quenched her thirst once and for all, she challenges him because he doesn't have anything to draw water with. And later she asks him to show her this living water so she doesn't have to come every day to draw from this well. Later, when the disciples come back from buying food in town, and they try to get Jesus to eat, he tells them he has food to eat they know nothing about, and they just figure someone else gave him some food while they were gone.
I mention that because one of the things I've struggled with my entire Christian experience is trying to figure things out, trying to analyze and understand spiritual things on a merely intellectual, natural level. One of the funniest things I can remember from my early days of working in ministry in Dallas with Stretch and Orie, my ministry partners and still best friends, was when Stretch told me one night during a meeting that when he looked at me, he saw a huge brain -- too big, so that it sat on my head like some huge deformity. He told me that one of the main challenges I would face in serving God would be to try to figure things out, try to find some way I could help God out. Trying to serve God, obey him, out of my own understanding, my own intellect and reason.
That tendency many times leads to being very religious -- oh, give me some rules to follow, some tasks I've got to do to please God -- and legalistic. It certainly has been the case for me much of my own life. That's one reason the message of grace, when I first heard it, was so liberating to me.
And trying to figure things out also when I was sick and my life had ended up in a very different place than I had intended or envisioned led to lots of problems also, especially because my heart was so goofed up at that time in so many ways.
Another thought about spiritual things versus natural things: sometimes, the word "spiritual", for some people, connotes some idea of being spooky or impractical. Nothing could be further from the truth, unless you are trapped in a performance-based religion as opposed to a relationship. If you are negotiating a performance-based religion, then spiritual things could be spooky or impractical. Out of that context is where "don't be so spiritually minded you're no earthly good" kind of thinking comes from; well-intended, but off-target as far as its truth, in my opinion.
A heart revealed. In order to jolt this woman from thinking about natural things instead of spiritual truths, Jesus suggests that she go get her husband, bring him back, and they can talk more. "I don't have a husband." Jesus then agrees with her, telling her that she is correct: not only does she not have a husband at the moment, but she's been married five times, and the guy she's living with at the moment is not her husband.
At that revelation, taken aback I'm sure, the woman confesses her conviction that Jesus must be a prophet of some kind. And she tries to steer the conversation toward theology, perhaps because she's uncomfortable now that her heart has been exposed.
What's striking to me in this exchange between Jesus and the woman is that in revealing that he knows her deepest secrets, Jesus doesn't confront her directly about her morality or lifestyle, and doesn't challenge her about the need to change her behavior. He's already offered her the "living water" of salvation, relationship to himself, already knowing what he's just let the woman know he's known all along. In other words, with full knowledge of who and what she is, he still decided to initiate contact with her -- not just on natural terms to get a drink of water because he was thirsty -- and offer her what he brings. He has chosen to open the door to relationship with this woman, even though every protocol in effect at the time would have precluded it. With no catches, no strings attached, no conditions.
Now, the truth is that when this woman encounters Jesus, if she accepts what he offers, it will have a profound impact on her life, including her lifestyle and her choices. But those changes are never introduced by Jesus as prior conditions: if you do this, change this, become this way, then you may have what I offer you. He is not focused on her behavior, but on her heart, and he brings up her lifestyle only to let her know that he knows, and knowing, still made the offer to her in the first part of the conversation.
I wrote about this pretty extensively in my last blog entry, but this is such a good illustration of much of what I was trying to convey there. External behaviors, choices of morality, outward actions are always, always, always a product of the condition of the heart. And the law -- religion -- could never deal with the reality of the heart in a substantial manner, except to reveal our own inability to change it from the outside by our own efforts. Only God can change our hearts, bring us into wholeness (save us). And from that relationship with him, it will change our beliefs, thoughts, words and actions. It will revolutionize them.
So many times, though, particularly in evangelical Christianity, even if we begin by telling someone to come "Just As I Am" (the all-time favorite invitation hymn in the Baptist churches I was raised in), we immediately go from that to saddling people with all the things that they now must do or stop doing to be pleasing to God. And many Christians get on that treadmill, trapped in an insidious legalistic ritual that quickly becomes more performance-based religion than relationship to a loving Father who desires to bring them into wholeness.
And, many times, we Christians peddling religion more than relationship don't even get to the "Just As I Am" part. Let me ask you this: what would happen in your church, or in your own attitude, if this Samaritan woman walked into your church to attend a service? What would happen if someone of a different ethnic background came to visit? What would happen if the biggest sinner in town came? What about someone who was a practicing homosexual? (That should stir you up.) Would they be welcome or feel excluded from the club? Would they be offered relationship with no prior conditions or would they be offered a religion that would not only keep them from God but perhaps one day send them straight to hell?
I will say this about religion: in my view, religion will keep more people away from God, will condemn more Christians to lives of defeat, will send more people to hell than sin ever could. I'm much more concerned about people being religious than people being in sin -- God can help people in sin, but once religion gets its enslaving tentacles in someone, it's much harder because they have the "form of godliness" but they are cut off from ("deny" as the King James words it) "the power of it."
Truth and spirit. The part of the conversation Jesus has with this woman that deals with the theological issues posed by the woman about the proper place to worship is a passage that would require several weeks even to properly teach on in all its implications, but one thought I will just offer about this. In responding to the woman, Jesus affirms that Jews possess the truth, and that salvation (through himself) will proceed from them.
When he alludes to the coming reality that one day people will worship neither in Jerusalem nor on the mountain the Samaritans considered sacred, he is pointing to a time when relationship with God will be beyond the limitations and confines of any religious system, including the Jewish system based in the law of God as revealed in the Old Covenant. God is spirit, he says, and those who worship God, are in relationship with him, must do so in spirit and truth.
As God is spirit, so man is spirit, and the place God connects with man is through the heart, not in Jerusalem, on a mountain in Samaria, or in some church somewhere. That, I believe, is part of the truth that Jesus references here, and is revealed more fully in the later writings of Paul (later meaning after the events described; all of Paul's letters were probably written before the gospel John wrote).
There is so much that could be said about all that, but I just mention it because it's been in my thoughts the past couple of weeks, and I'm hoping it will provoke some thought and consideration on your part as well.
"Come and see!" When Jesus reveals himself fully to the woman as the Messiah she has just said would one day come, all thought of her errand to get water, giving water to Jesus, and theological questions, is abandoned. I love how John says she left her water jar right there, and ran back into town to tell everyone about this man she'd just met who, knowing her fully, has offered her "living water".
In my mind, I just imagine that she mostly told the men -- she was probably related or had been related to many of them by one of her marriages, and could have had some kind of relationship with many of them. I just don't imagine she was friends with too many of the women.
At any rate, the people came from the town, Jesus ends up spending two days there, and in the end, the people tell the woman that, having heard Jesus for themselves, they believe for themselves that he is (as John records it) the "Savior of the world". Including Samaritans. Including everyone. Including you. Including me.
I can only thank God for his grace and mercy, who, having known me from all eternity as thoroughly as I can be known, yet loves me and chose me for relationship with himself.
Ending thoughts. As you read this, do you feel separated from God? Do you imagine yourself a failure in God's eyes, beyond his mercy or his love? As a Christian, have you found yourself caught in the snare of trying to do enough and not do even more to somehow please God?
I offer this encounter in John 4 as an example of the way the Father feels toward you: knowing all about you, he comes in love, breaking whatever protocol is necessary, having chosen you for himself, desiring relationship with you, and says to you: "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."