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Baby Steps

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. Hosea 11:3

 Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. 2 Peter 3:15

 I am always in a hurry. If I start something, I want to finish it quickly. I get tired during intermediate phases, and I want to get done. I learned long ago that I would never get to the end of a big project by thinking about something days or weeks away. I need to choose a target I can reach today, even if it makes only the tiniest bit of progress toward the ultimate goal. I am impatient. I even interrupt people who hesitate or deliberate over their words. I often need to bite my tongue in order not to finish their sentences for them.

These verse remind me of the virtue and the value of patience. A baby doesn’t learn to walk in a day. From birth, the baby sees people walking, and the baby wants to walk, but he has neither the strength nor the skill to do so. It takes about a year, more or less, for the baby to be ready to walk. Even then, there are lots of falls, lots of toddling steps, and lots of hugs and smiles from Mama to encourage the baby. The baby first walks, then as soon as possible, the baby runs. Upstairs. Downstairs. Walking, running, even skipping. Baby learns a lot between birth and his/her fifth birthday. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once. Skills, strength, judgment, courage – all must mature, and Mama must be patient.

Our growth in the faith happens the same way. When God said, “I taught Ephraim to walk,” we see the image of God holding the baby’s hands as a baby takes steps while clinging to Mom. Then we see baby standing – all alone, upright, then suddenly fearful and plopping down. Then we see Mama only a step or two away, beckoning baby to step forward into her arms. God takes as much time as it takes for us to mature, just as a mother takes as much time as it takes for baby to learn to walk.

I am as impatient with myself as I am with others. If God wants me to do something, I want to have done it by nightfall. I am certain that God wants me to write and teach, but I don’t have a book published or a schedule of classes to teach. I ask myself, What’s wrong with me?

I think God doesn’t work that way. He sees my life like that of a baby learning to walk. God knows that I need to grow strong faith, develop character, increase my knowledge, be nourished by experience, try and fail, try and fail, and learn to trust that God will be there every time I fall down. Some day I will be ready for big        things, but right now I am getting ready.

It is tempting to interpret my failures as specific signs of a specific teaching God wants me to learn. I need to stop doing that. My failures are my failures. Period. Just like a baby falling down after taking two steps. Instead of crying “I’m a failure!” I need to do what a baby does – laugh and get up and try again.

Like Ephraim, I’m God’s baby. God wants me to learn to walk in faith. He doesn’t mind grabbing me up in his arms to comfort me when I am discouraged, but he does want me to get down pretty soon and keep trying. Mama God has set me down in Clarence Town and is leaning down with outstretched arms, beckoning, calling. “Come to me, Katherine! You can do it!”

What’s love all about?

You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:18

 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8

 Love is a huge word. In English, it takes only four letters, but its meaning encompasses the universe. The 19th chapter of Leviticus covers all sorts of subjects ranging from things that seem quite trivial – the way you cut your hair – to things that seem huge – treating aliens like citizens. Still, if we are guided by Jesus’ teaching, we know that the most important law of all those listed is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” This statement asserts that the obligation to love my neighbor grows out of my commitment to the Lord, a commitment this chapter establishes at a high level: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” I am expected to love my neighbor because God wants me to love people the way he does.

I have a hard time with the legalese of this chapter, or for that matter, with the whole book of Leviticus. I have great difficulty thinking about love in a legal context. Its very nature transcends petty legality. Paul helps me with that by his statement that loving another person fulfills God’s law, but thinking of love as a law still implies that one might express the love and then check off that requirement, breathe a sigh of relief, and move on. Love isn’t like that at all.

I have never been a great fan of Martin Luther King, largely because I simply abhor violence. I abhor socialism. I also abhor segregation, so his cause is not what I dislike about him. I am glad that segregation is dead. So, Martin Luther King was on the right side as far as I am concerned. I just didn’t like all his methods or all his goals. However, like all of us sinful saints, he was at times a saintly sinner. On one of those occasions, he said something I recall often. I can’t quote him exactly, but the substance was that he and his followers would defeat their enemies by loving them to death. He said that no matter how he was treated or how his followers were treated, they would always love their opponents, and he said that their love would be the weapon that turned the tide for them. As far as I can tell, few of his followers absorbed his commitment to love his enemies, but what he said has value nonetheless. Would that all our political and social arguments were bathed in love. A lot of people who invoke his name today would be well-advised to learn that much from him.

The law of love, whether spoken by Moses or Paul or Jesus, sets a high bar for me in political and social discourse, because I see trends and behaviors that make me feel threatened. Like anyone else, when I feel threatened I react automatically in self-defense. In other words, I become defensive. Someone who feels defensive has a hard time loving the person who aroused that instinct. When we are on the defense, the opposition is something to be defeated at all costs. The more defensive we feel, the more violently we resist those who have cornered us. When I feel that the way of life I know and love is threatened, I want to protect it and preserve it. I don’t want to love the people who are trying to destroy it.

I fight a difficult battle. I battle against the ideas that threaten the freedom and prosperity of the country I love, but I must likewise battle the feeling that the people who propose such ideas are unworthy of my love. I rush into the fray to fend off the tentacles of socialism that will undermine human rights, and I feel that I must shut down the enemy. I don’t love someone who wants to forbid children to eat lunch brought from home or to require citizens to buy health insurance or to refuse to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman. I know that God loves those people, but I really struggle even to be civil about such atrocities. How can I love someone who wants to oppress our citizens and steal their right to be individuals?

How can I love someone who chooses to ignore our Constitution? I know this is what Jesus wants me to do, but I do not think Jesus wants me to refuse to defend the Constitution. I don’t confuse the Constitution with the Word of God, but I do think it has meaning and provides the foundation for our whole legal system. So honesty compels me to resist any attempt to sidestep it. I have a hard time loving people who tell me that they know better than the Constitution and better than any of those of us who don’t want it changed. It is hard for me to love someone so arrogant as to believe that his or her ideas ought to automatically trump everyone else’s ideas.

But God does not make room for me not to love my opponents. In Leviticus, God said I should love my neighbor as myself, no exceptions. Jesus pushed the bar even higher when he said I should love my enemies and pray for people who hurt me. I don’t get to pick and choose who I love, because on the cross, Jesus pushed that bar as high as it can go. He didn’t die just for me, or just for people I agree with. Jesus died for everyone.

I am working on my attitude. My principles remain the same. I am convinced that the Constitution has a meaning, which can be derived from the words used by the founders to write it and from understanding the way they would have understood the words they used. I believe that the freedom and prosperity of our country for the past 230 years is due to the wisdom encapsulated in the Constitution. I completely reject socialism and Marxism and all the varieties of euphemistic terms used by politicians to pretend that their proposals are neither socialist nor Marxist. That is fine. But God won’t let me engage in that battle without loving my enemies. Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and all the people who agree with them politically are my political enemies, but they are beloved children of God, and I must love them. I must fight against everything they stand for, but I must love them.

I’m trying.

Doubts, Doubters and All the Rest of Us

After reading the book Under the Banner of Heaven[1], I feel warned that I should be wary of anyone who believes he or she has heard the voice of God giving instructions or visions of the future. The central characters in that book believed God had spoken and ordered the murder of two innocent people, and they even discussed this order with other people who alleged to love and know the Lord. Everyone involved treated the supposed revelation with respect, even after some eventually rejected it after prayer and thought. (Those who rejected it continued to keep the revelation in confidence, feeling it not necessary to warn anyone about it.) Nevertheless, the one who performed those murders believes to this day that he did God’s work, and he waits patiently for the day when he will be recognized as the one chosen to announce the return of Christ to the earth. There are a lot of people who make a lot of claims about what God is doing and saying, and they usually feel that God wants them to tell others what they have heard. Most of those messages sound extremely bizarre to most people.

 It was the fate of the disciple Thomas to hear a story that sounded extremely bizarre, even impossible, about the resurrection of Christ on the Monday following the crucifixion. Thomas gets a lot of bad press because he doubted what he heard from the disciples, but then, they really didn’t believe Mary Magdalene, either, when she told her experiences. However, after ten of the disciples got together for supper behind locked doors on Sunday night, and Jesus simply appeared in their midst, they couldn’t wait to tell Thomas, the one who failed to show up. Do we dare criticize his skepticism when they told him what had happened? Can we not see how the whole story might seem like something the others contrived simply to shame him for not joining them?

 In fact, which of us can honestly point a finger of scorn at Thomas? He knew that Jesus had been crucified and buried. After the events of the previous Friday, it seemed pretty clear that Jesus had died, and the dream was over. We don’t know why Thomas didn’t join the others Sunday evening, but they were frightened enough that they locked the doors. Thomas may simply have felt it didn’t make sense to go about in public and make himself a target. So Thomas missed seeing Jesus, the resurrected Christ, that Sunday evening when he appeared among the disciples, behind doors that were still locked.

 I wonder what was going through Thomas’ mind that night. He was present for the last supper with Jesus. He was there when Jesus predicted that they would all scatter and abandon him. He had to be regretting his part in that abandonment. He was there, too, when Jesus prayed for the disciples he was sending into the world. Thomas heard Jesus pray, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” He had to be wondering why they needed to go into the world. There was nothing more to tell. Jesus was gone.

 But Monday morning, the other disciples chased him down and told him what had happened. It is the same message we all want to share with everyone in the world who doesn’t know. We have hope after all. Life isn’t a story written by a madman or a demented merry-go-round we can’t get off. Christ has risen, and his resurrection makes him the hope of the whole world. The disciples told Thomas the good news, and he acted the way lots of people act when you tell them about Christ: he wanted proof.

 Thomas got his proof. A week later, Jesus appeared again, and this time Thomas was there. Jesus offered Thomas the proof he asked for, but Thomas was overcome with awe in Christ’s presence. He did not need to thrust his hands in the nailprints or into Jesus’ side. He knew Christ when he saw him. Like many people in the two thousand years since, he came face to face with Jesus, and then he didn’t need any more proof.

 When we tell people the story of Jesus who died for them and rose again to give them eternal hope, they often say that it sounds very far-fetched. It is easier for them to believe things like, “You are really your own god,” or “The universe wants to give you everything you want.” We need to remember that if one of the twelve who walked with Jesus for three years could hardly believe he had risen, then it may be hard for people in the 21st century to believe, too. What was Jesus’ response to that doubt?

 Jesus responded with love. Jesus loved Thomas, and he wanted Thomas to know the blessing of the resurrection along with all the other disciples. He didn’t make an example of The Doubter and strike him with lightning; he lovingly invited him to come closer and check things out for himself. This is what Jesus does for everyone. And it is what we, too, must do when people back away from the good news. Jesus loved Thomas back into the family, and we are called to do the same as his messengers of good news.

 Dr. Rick Carleson, Professor at the Lutheran Seminary atGettysburg, says that the word translated as telling the good news is a single verb in Greek – to gospelize. He says that this is about getting people’s attention and wrapping them up in the good news. That is what Jesus did for Thomas, and that is what we are part of when we share the good news. Jesus doesn’t want to punish people for doubting; he wants to draw them near and dispel all doubt. We must pray that nothing in our behavior pushes people away when we want to point them to Jesus, because he wants them to come near and receive his grace and salvation in their lives, just like Thomas.

[1] Krakauer, Jon, Under the Banner of Heaven, Copyright 2003, 2004 by Jon Krakauer (Anchor Books, a division of Random House, New York)

Oceans of Love

If you haven’t seen a copy of my book “Oceans of Love” then you might want to check here A month of meditations on God’s love as revealed in texts that reference oceans and water. As we sail the oceans, I see more and more how God reveals himself in the things he has created. I hope you will take a few minutes to preview this book. Let me know what you think.