Friday, September 28, 2012

Lessons From the Book of Job

In the "Wisdom Literature" course I'm teaching this fall, we have just finished reading and discussing the Book of Job. Job is a righteous person who loses nearly everything: his wealth, children, and health.

At first, Job patiently accepts these losses with equanimity, saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." However, when his three friends tell him that he must have done something wrong to cause his suffering, Job offers a strident defense of his innocence.

Job also wants answers from God as to why this is happening to him, a good and moral person. First, he asks for a meeting with God and then wants a trial in which he and God can plead their cases to be judged by someone neutral. Finally, Job rails at the injustice of God and questions God's goodness.

When God finally does speak, God doesn't answer Job's questions. Instead, God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions that cowers Job into silence.

The story of Job doesn't answer the question of why the innocent suffer. Rather, Job portrays a relationship with God in the midst of innocent suffering. Job rails at the injustice of his suffering. He gets angry with God and tries to provoke a confrontation with God. Yet, he never gives up on God and God never abandons Job.

Like Job, there is unjust suffering in our world and we are sometimes victims. Job teaches us that it is ok to question, challenge and even become angry at God. God is big enough to take our anger.

In any relationship, there are times of difficulty and stress. This is also true of our relationship with God. The key is to remain in relationship until the issues can be resolved.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Taking Great Chances

An essay by Steven Petrow in today's New York Times caught my eye. The essay was titled "New Cancer Threat Lurks Long After Cure" and dealt with "secondary cancers." These cancers are caused by the radiation and chemotherapy treatments for an initial cancer.

Mr. Petrow contends that cancer survivors go in one of two directions. Some are stalked by anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others experience higher self-esteem, a greater appreciation for life or a deepened spirituality.

He cites late Senator Frank Church, a cancer survivor who wrote that survival led him to live life more fully:
Life itself is such a chancy proposition that the only way to live is by taking great chances.

Senator Church followed his own advice and became an avid environmentalist and led a life of doing good whenever and wherever he could.

I agree with Senator Church up to a point. I think taking risks in life can lead to more fulfillment and satisfaction. However, I don't think all chances have to be "great." Even taking small risks like speaking to a stranger or doing an unexpected kindness for someone can lead to a more satisfying life.

Another way of putting this is to get outside of your comfort zone. Trying new things and doing things that are unfamiliar often require us to go beyond what is safe and comfortable. Doing this leads to growth and growth seldom happens without risk or difficulty.

Fortunately, I haven't had to deal with cancer. Yet, I think Senator Church's advice is good for those of us who don't have a life-threatening illness.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nature Deficit Disorder

When I was an adolescent growing up in Albuquerque, NM, I spent most of my waking hours outdoors. I loved to take long walks in what we called "the mesa," which was actually the upper sonoran desert that began at the end of our street. On Saturdays, I would hike in the foothills of the Sandia mountains, which were about two miles from home. As a Boy Scout, I spent one weekend a month on a camping trip that usually involved backpacking.

This way of life is now gone. Children and adolescents spend most of their time indoors looking a computer screens or TV's. Adults, too, spend most of their working hours and leisure time indoors. As a result we suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The symptoms of NDD are obesity, depression and a lack of spiritual connection.

It's the lack of spiritual connection that I'm concerned about. I find it difficult to imagine a rich and full spiritual life without spending time in the beauty and sacredness of nature. My soul is fed by early morning rows on the Norwalk River and weekly hikes in Devil's Den Nature Conservancy, as well as sitting on our front porch reading.

In his book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder,Richard Louv writes:
It's hard to fathom how any kind of spiritual intelligence is possible without an appreciation for nature. Most of us intuitively understand that all spiritual life, however it is defined, begins with and is nourished by a sense of wonder. The natural world is one of our most reliable windows into wonder and, at least to some, into a spiritual intelligence."

Louv has hit the nail on the head. If we want to experience awe and wonder, then we need to discover places that evoke these sacred emotions in us. For me, this sacred place is outdoors in the God-created world. Being there leads me to connect with it's Creator. The photo above, taken in Nepal, symbolizes the sacredness of nature by showing a "stupa" (shrine) against the background of the Himalayas.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Picture Is Worth...

Some of you have been asking me to post some of my Everest trek photos. Below is several thousand words worth...
Here I am standing in front of a "gompa" a Buddhist monastery.
This is a "lenticular" cloud surrounding Mount Nuptse. Lenticular means "shaped like a lens." These clouds are found at high altitudes.
This is a view of Mount Everest from Kala Patthar (18,500 feet), our highest point on the trek. Everest, seen faintly between the two clearer peaks, is often shrouded in clouds.
This photo was taken atop Gokyo Ri (17,500 feet), another high point on the trek. Mounts Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse are in the background.
This is one of the dozen or so steel suspension bridges we crossed. While they look dangerous from a distance, I thought the were very safe.
This is a Hindu temple in Durbar Square in Kathmandu. The "pagoda" style architecture originated in Nepal.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Himalaya High

My three week trek in the Himalayas came to an end two weeks ago and the magnificence and majesty of these mountains is still sinking in. Sometimes, my time there seems like a distant dream and I wonder, "Was I really there?"

I have so many amazing memories of this trek, it's somewhat overwhelming. Yesterday, I finally got around to downloading the photos from my camera and took some time reliving the people, places and scenery. The photo above is atop Goyko Ri, a 17,500 peak where you can see Mount Everest, Lotse and Nupse in the background.

Over a week of this trek was spent above 15,000 feet in altitude. I've only been above that altitude once (in Peru) and spending so much time that high was challenging in terms of eating, sleeping and breathing.

Even with these challenges, spending this time in the "rooftop of the world" was exhilarating. I don't believe I could ever get tired of seeing these giants of mountains towering over us. When we were at our highest point, Kala Patthar (18,200 feet), Everest still loomed above, more than 10,000 feet higher!

This was definitely a high point in my life and, literally, an authentic "mountaintop experience." These kind of experiences can feed one's soul for months and even years. Time will tell how long this high will last-- right now, I'm just enjoying it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Language of Poetry

I'm in the midst of writing a Bible study book on three New Testament letters: Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. I just finished writing chapter 11 that is based on Colossians 2:6-15. The focus of this passage is what it means to "live in Christ."

The author uses several images to convey the reality of living in Christ. He uses an agricultural image (rooted), an architectural image (built up), a gastronomical image (filled) and a religious image (buried/raised). Each of these images captures a different aspect of one's relationship with Christ.

Each of these images is a metaphor. When our prose language comes up against its limitations, we are forced to use the language of poetry: metaphor,symbol, and image. Poetry is concentrated language that can convey many levels of meaning in a single word or phrase. For example, the Yin-Yang symbol above expresses far more than words can capture.

I believe that most religious language is metaphorical. When we attempt to describe that which is beyond description, we must use metaphors. This is true of our language about God and about our relationship with Christ. Whenever we talk about the spiritual dimension of life we use metaphorical language.

Once we acknowledge the metaphorical nature of religious language, we are freed from a misplaced literalism about things spiritual. Also, metaphors and images can convey the richness, depth and power of the sacred realm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I wrote my weekly Pastor's Word on the above topic. Here's what I wrote:

"For the past several months the cries of, “We are the 99%!” have echoed from Zuccotti Park to Berkeley. The Occupy Wall Street movement has made us more aware of the inequalities that exist in our society and has expressed justifiable anger over them.

"While this division between the 99% and the 1% is a dramatic illustration of income inequality, there is danger in demonizing everyone in the 1% as arrogant and uncaring. There are several members of the 1% who support one or more of the goals of OWS including President Obama, former President Bill Clinton and billionaire Warren Buffett.

"It occurs to me that the 99% and 1% need each other. The 1% need to hear the challenge to work for a more equal society, including accepting higher taxes. The 99%need the financial and political power of the 1% to change society. When the 99% and the 1% work together for a more just society synergy is the result. That’s why 99%+1%=110%."

A further comment... There is also danger in demonizing the OWS movement as a bunch of disorganized flower children who are stirring up class warfare. As I said above, the 99% and the 1% are interdependent. Each needs the other to accomplish any real or lasting change. I believe that most of us want a society where the values of compassion, justice and equality are embodied. We want equal opportunity for our children, especially our daughters and wives, and equal justice as well.

We need to get past labels and divisions to work together on common goals and changes. I may be an idealist, but I believe such cooperation is possible.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No Guarantees

The beginning of a new year often puts me in a reflective frame of mind. I look back over the year just past and think about opportunities seized (and missed), new relationships started (and ended), and successes (and failures).

I also think about the upcoming year and its prospects. What do I hope to do (and refrain from doing)? What goals will I reach (or fall short of)? What changes will happen to me and what changes will I make (or fail to make)?

One certain truth when it comes to the future is this: there are no guarantees. Health, success, prosperity aren't guaranteed. Neither is life.

We live and act as if we know for certain that we will be alive to enjoy tomorrow, next month or next year. Yet, we don't know, and can't know, what the future holds.

Accepting that we are always moving into an uncertain future isn't easy. It means giving up the illusion that we can control what happens to us and to those we love.

Yet, once we accept this truth, we are free to live and love more fully. As long as we labor under the delusion that we can control the future, we will be continually frustrated and even unhappy. Accepting the uncertainty inherent in life is to recognize that life is a gift with no guarantees.