Our Greatest Gift

Here are a few quotes from Henri Nouwen’s excellent book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring.

The inner life is always a life for others.

Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge–a knowledge of the heart more than the mind–that we are born into love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us and become painful but hopeful reminders of our true divine childhood.

We all die poor. When we come to our final hours, nothing can help us survive. No amount of money, power, or influence can keep us from dying. This is true poverty.

Through our caring presence, we keep announcing that sacred truth: dying is not a sweet, sentimental event; it is a great struggle to surrender our lives completely.

What a gift it is to know that we are all brothers and sisters in one human family and that, different as our cultures, languages, religions, life-styles, and work may be, we are all mortal beings called to surrender our lives into the hands of a loving God.

Meaning must grow out of the passivities of waiting.

We are constantly tempted to think that we have nothing or little to offer to our fellow human beings. Their despair frightens us. It often seems better not to come close than to come close without being able to change anything. This is especially true in the presence of people who face death. In running away from the dying, however, we bury our precious gift of care.

The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost–not even our mortal bodies. The resurrection doesn’t answer any of our curious questions about life after death, such as, How will it be? How will it look? But it does reveal to us that, indeed, love is stronger than death. After that revelation, we must remain silent, leave the whys, wheres, hows, and whens behind, and simply trust.

Nouwen wrote this profound book a couple of years before his own death. It bears the characteristic marks of all his writing: depth, beauty, and simplicity. I borrowed a copy from our local hospice library. He emphasizes three points again and again: we are all beloved children of God; we are all connected to one another in the human family; and we bear fruit in our living that continues to influence others after we have died. I commend this book highly.

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Sermon on Joy

What brings you joy? What makes you joyful?

Sunlight brings us joy, especially in January. Playing with a child or grandchild can bring joy. When your team wins the big game, it brings you joy. “What brings me joy?” is a good question to ask. Ask it of your soul, and wait quietly for an answer. Hold this thought while we look at the story of Zacchaeus.

Jesus went on into Jericho and was passing through. There was a chief tax collector there named Zacchaeus, who was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was a little man and could not see Jesus because of the crowd. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to Zacchaeus, “Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today.” Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed him with great joy. All the people who saw it started grumbling, “This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!” Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Listen, sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus said to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
(Luke 19.1-10 GNT)

My wife and I were driving this week, and I mentioned preaching on Zacchaeus. On cue, we both began to sing his song. It’s hard to talk about him without singing the song. Join in with me, if you know it:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in the sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see
And as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And he said,
“Zacchaeus, come on down,
for I’m going to your house today,
for I’m going to your house today.”

Zacchaeus was not simply a tax collector. He was the chief tax collector. He was at the top of the pyramid. He had piles and piles of money. He heard that Jesus was coming by. Jesus was a celebrity, a rock star. Zacchaeus knew, as a short man, he’d not be able to see Jesus over the crowd, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree. Already he is doing two things out of character: in his day, powerful men didn’t run in public, and they didn’t climb trees. His planning pays off. He sees Jesus. If he had social media, he’d have snapped a picture and posted it on Instagram. “I saw Jesus! #prophet #excited”

But when you see, you can also be seen. Jesus sees him there in the tree. He stops and laughs. It’s ridiculous, if you think about it, this powerful man in a tree! Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. Zacchaeus is thrilled, and everyone else is stunned.

Zacchaeus lived in the Roman world, and what a powerful man or woman in the Roman world wanted above all else was honestas — or honor, the respect of one’s social group. And for all of Zacchaeus’s money, he had no honestas, no honor at all. People despised him. So when Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’s home, he gave him the honor of showing hospitality to a great prophet. He raised Zacchaeus’s profile. He gave him honestas, perhaps for the first time.

Why did Jesus do this? Well, he certainly saw Zacchaeus as a lost sheep who needed to be brought back to the fold. That’s clear enough. But on a deeper level, he also saw Zacchaeus as a human being with intrinsic worth and value before God. Jesus believed all individuals had undeniable value simply because they were created in the image of God. This was not a widespread belief in the Roman world. Today, it seems commonplace to say that each person has unique value; what we don’t know is that we think this thought because Jesus introduced it into our consciousness.

No wonder Zacchaeus ‘hurried down’ (fell down?) from the tree and ‘welcomed him with great joy.’ Jesus had given him honor and shown him grace in a way that no one else had ever done. Zacchaeus was filled with joy.

His joy, later in the evening, gave rise to a radical generosity in his life. He publicly resolved to give away half of his wealth to the poor, and he pledged to repay generously anyone he had cheated. In Zacchaeus’s life, joy began to remake him from the inside out, and its first effect was to give birth to generosity.

He was followed by others. St Francis of Assisi gave away all of his wealth. John Wesley lived frugally so that he could give away most of his wealth. C.S. Lewis regularly gave away two-thirds of his income. There are many examples in history of such generosity. Even today, I know a man in Adrian whose goal in life is to become a reverse tither — to tithe is to give ten percent to church or charity; to reverse tithe is to live on ten percent and give away ninety percent.

If you look underneath these examples of generosity, you will find joy as the force and motive behind them. Joy sets us free from possessions, detaches us from them, so we can freely give them away. Joy remakes us — as it did Zacchaeus — and makes us generous.

Joy changes us in other ways too.

This week I came across a story about Margaret Feinberg. She is a popular Christian author and speaker. She speaks to 80,000 people a year, and her books have sold one million copies worldwide. Recently, though, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she had a double mastectomy — before the age of 40. She also began chemo and radiation, with all the ills that attend those treatments. At first she didn’t talk about her cancer struggle; she’d go off to a speaking engagement and then go home for chemo, keeping the two separate. But now she has begun to speak publicly about it. She has found joy to be an unexpected ally in her struggle with cancer:

“Joy is more than I ever thought or was taught… It’s a more dynamic, forceful weapon than we know. When we fight back with joy, we lean into the very presence of God — the one who fills us with joy, even on our most deflated days…I live in fear [of cancer returning], but I’m not controlled by fear. I’ve found a capacity for joy expanding against all odds.

As joy made Zacchaeus generous, so it has made Margaret Feinberg courageous. Joy changes us in these ways.

St Thomas Aquinas said, “We must dare to affirm that God is ecstatic with joy.” How can God not be joyful? We are filled with joy at the sight of a beautiful sunset — God beholds every beautiful sunset everywhere in the universe, all at the same time, plus all the other beautiful facets of creation. No wonder scripture says God rejoices in his works! God finds joy in us, too, as a part of that creation.

When we open our lives to God’s presence and influence, then God’s joy flows into us and begins to change us from the inside out. This is the ultimate answer to the question I asked at the beginning: what brings us joy? God brings us joy! And when God’s joy contaminates us, so to speak, it changes us in powerful ways. Joy makes us generous like Zacchaeus. Joy makes us courageous, like Margaret Feinberg. Joy makes us all these things and more. Joy works in us to reshape us into the new creation we were meant to be.

Come down from your tree. Open your heart and life to the joyful God. Then watch that joy change you from the inside out.

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Swimming Mnemonic


I’ve been swimming a lot lately. With winter weather and icy sidewalks, exercise outdoors is harder. Today I swam 1500 yards. I keep track of laps in sets of ten, using a mnemonic. It’s easier to remember a picture rather than a number as you swim.

One: sun
Two: shoe
Three: tree
Four: door
Five: beehive
Six: sticks
Seven: starry heaven
Eight: gate
Nine: wine bottle
Ten: hen

For the most part, my memory system works for counting laps. Sometimes, though, I simply swim and let my mind wander.

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Exile and Homecoming

Here is a lovely essay on exile and homecoming.

First, exile:

When we make our home in exile, we don’t pretend it isn’t exile. We love our enemies, but we recognize that they are enemies. They might become our friends, but they might forever be our enemies, but we love them nonetheless, which means we pray and work for God’s best for them. We still yearn for and seek our better and true home. When we live by mercy in conditions of brokenness, we don’t minimize the brokenness, but we do make the most of the possibilities for restoration. We seek peace, but we seek it because we know we don’t have it.

For another thing, God urged the exiles not to keep postponing their lives—the time for them to live their lives was while they were alive–which was the present moment.

It’s easy to defer and delay our lives, because the conditions aren’t right. After all, we’re not yet home. The irony is, however, that change doesn’t happen if we wait on the conditions to be right. The only way to effect change in the present and the future is to immerse ourselves fully in the present moment.

Then, homecoming:

As we live creatively and faithfully in the here and now, we take heart from the knowledge that we will not always live in exile. God has promised to take us home. Jeremiah’s letter to the refugees included this encouragement that “thus says the Lord: ‘Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”

There would be a home-going and a homecoming for the exiles. And there will be for us, too. We won’t so much go “back home,” but forward, at last, to our real home—the place we belong, which is the place that satisfies the longings of our being.

In that true home, love puts our fears outside the door. Hope sings to us amid all the suffering and dying. Mercy gathers up the shards and fragments of our shattered hearts and puts us back together. Grace holds us while weep over our painful regrets and shed our shameful tears, and, having cried ourselves into weary silence, continues to cradle us while we rest. And, joy surges in us, an inexplicable but undeniable joy.


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John Azumah on Islam

Here is an article on the relation between Islam and extremist violence by Muslims. The author is John Azumah, a Presbyterian from Ghana and professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He identifies two common misconceptions: the view that says extremist violence by Muslims has nothing at all to do with Islam and, on the other side, the view that says Islam itself is inherently violent.

While it is neither true nor fair to argue that Islam is the problem, there is no doubt that Islam has a problem. When Jesus said that we will be able to discern the faithfulness of his followers by their fruits, he was speaking a common truth. And so, is it not time for Islamic scholars and leaders to reexamine the doctrines that are so easily abused by extremists?

The whole article is worth the time to read and digest. As an African Christian, Azumah has a unique perspective on these things. He respects Islam, but he is also willing to think critically about Islam and it’s place in a postmodern world.

I also commend this biography of Muhammad by Martin Lings, an English convert to Islam. He paints a portrait of the mystic-warrior-poet who became the Prophet to over a billion people.

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I’ve been thinking about this article from The New York Times on the origins of cancer:

It may sound flippant to say that many cases of cancer are caused by bad luck, but that is what two scientists suggested in an article published last week in the journal Science. The bad luck comes in the form of random genetic mistakes, or mutations, that happen when healthy cells divide.

Random mutations may account for two-thirds of the risk of getting many types of cancer, leaving the usual suspects — heredity and environmental factors — to account for only one-third, say the authors, Cristian Tomasetti and Dr. Bert Vogelstein, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

When people suffer from cancer, or any disease, they look for a reason hidden in it. They want to find a glimmer of rationality. But science says it isn’t rational — it’s random. It’s a mistake, mutation, accident, or chance occurrence. So people turn to religion or philosophy to help them find reason and meaning in their suffering. But it’s hard to reconcile reason and randomness.

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Last year at this time snow measured in feet. This year it’s only in inches. I am fine with this.

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