Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Year of Suffering

This photo expresses 2020
Does God cause suffering? Or does He just look the other way? Why does He wait so long to stop it? Why do we have to suffer? 

2020 has been a year of suffering. We’re experienced political unrest, disease, racial division, cultural polarization, riots, murder, hurricanes, and wild fires. We’ve lost jobs, businesses, savings, homes, special events, holidays, public figures, close friends and family members. We’ve been isolated, depressed, afraid, angry, and confused. 

As the year drew to a close, there was renewed optimism. We have a vaccine, a new president, a new year. Certainly 2021 will be better. But will it be? Will all the negative aspects of 2020 somehow be trashed along with our old paper calendars? That would be nice! 

Sadly it does not work that way. The troubles of December will creep into January. When will it end? How will it end? 

For the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land, they knew how long their suffering was going to last. God had told them 40 years. That’s a good long time. So it is no wonder they were impatient and frustrated. It was towards the end of their journey that this story is recorded: 

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient, depressed, and much discouraged because of the trials on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” 

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 

For the Israelites things went from bad to worse. In this case we know, because scripture tells us, who caused the suffering. It was God. He sent the snakes. Why was He making a bad thing worse? It is easy to blame God but let’s look again. The reason why the people are wandering 40 years is because in year two, they refused to enter the Promised Land when God led them there the first time (See Numbers 13). Here again they are rebelling against God and against Moses, the leader God has appointed to lead them. This is not the first rebellion. This is repeated theme all through the book of Numbers. So God, reminiscent of our own parents when frustrated with our misbehavior (“You want to cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!”), He intensifies their pain and demonstrated His power. His goal? To have them return to Him. And they do. 

The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” 

So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, attentively, expectantly, with a steady and absorbing gaze, they lived. The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. (Numbers 21:4-10) 

God forgives them immediately when they turn to Him. He also gives them an immediate way out. A snake on a pole. It does not make sense until Jesus Himself references it again in John 4:14-15, and then we see a foreshadowing to eternal healing, eternal salvation, eternal elimination of suffering through Jesus’ death on a cross. Unbelief was their sin. They did not trust that God saw their suffering, that He cared about them, that He was able to sustain them. They did not ask God to help them. They tried to fix it themselves by complaining to Moses. 

Unbelief is the big sin that interrupts God’s power on their behalf. He does not force Himself on anyone; they must turn to Him. Belief was what returned them to health, as they demonstrated their faith by looking at the bronze snake on the pole. Like the Israelites, God desires a relationship with us but He never forces us. We need to participate in the relationship by expectant faith. We must look to Him and trust He can heal us, our bodies, our country. That is our part of the relationship. And God’s part is to show Himself faithful. 

We are not used to suffering because life has been good to us and we are taught by our culture to expect life to be all up and to the right. We believe we alone have the power to make a perfect world. But that is a lie. 2020 has reminded us life is hard, unpredictable, and out of our control. Our efforts to fix our problems often have caused other troubles and made matters worse. Like in this Biblical account, trials come, and they certainly came for us in 2020. 

Like the Israelites, we will get bit. Suffering is part of life we can’t avoid and cannot fix ourselves. But there is hope because Jesus has come. He has been raised up on a pole so that all who look to Him attentively, expectantly, with a steady and absorbing gaze, will be healed. Then we will live and travel on. 

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:14-18) 

So did God cause our suffering in 2020? In this life, we may never know. Will God heal our bodies and our nation in 2021? We may not know that quickly either. Let us not forget that none of us make it out of this world alive. While Jesus did heal many when He was with us and He continues to heal to this day, He has a bigger goal than a physical one or than a political one. Jesus has come so we can be reconciled to God, and with that, we can be reconciled to each other. In this way, He brings His Kingdom, and His peace, to our earth. 

We can be sure that when we turn to Jesus in trust, Him will heal our hearts and make a better 2021.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

A Covid Christmas

While I was looking for Christmas ornaments online today I found this one. My sentiments exactly: “2020 stink stank stunk!” 

It has happened already. Our family Thanksgiving celebration was impacted by covid. Usually my mother comes to stay at our home and we enjoy an extended weekend together celebrating her birthday as well as Thanksgiving. We often have a good crowd of 15 or so at our table. However since my mom is 92 years old and both our daughters teach young children in person daily, that large of a gathering was too much of a risk. Christmas does not promise to be much better. Isolation, fear, uncertainty has taken a toll on the most wonderful time of the year. 

But like the story of the Grinch, I remember that no illness or hardship or isolation can take away this holy day. Matter of fact, isn't the story of Jesus’ birth really about hardship and isolation? Mary and Joseph had great hardship as they traveled to a place far from their home. Plus Mary was in her final stages of pregnancy. I wonder, did she travel alone with Joseph, isolated from her mother, aunts, sisters and cousins who could have encouraged her, comforted her, directed and helped her as she gave birth for the first time? As her time came, she gave birth in a manger, really it was a cave, surrounded by animals and hay and cow dung. Finally, Mary’s story of giving birth as a virgin was something only believed by Joseph due to the divine intervention of a dream. It was considered “fake news” by many even today. 

The story of the first Christmas reminds us that the coming of Christ is not about decorations and presents. It is not about comfort and parties. It is about hope and light in the darkness. When we recall the truth of His story and we treasure it in our hearts, it is a light that no one and nothing can extinguish. 

Not even covid. 

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen Him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this Child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:16-20)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

White Privilege

Lately some friends have been talking about feeling guilty of their #WhitePrivilege but I am looking at in a different way.

I want to talk about being blessed by God and so grateful for the mercies He has given me. Instead of being born in Italy where my grandparents grew up, I grew up in America. I was blessed to have a mother and a father who loved me and taught me about God. My father was hard working and encouraged me to work hard. We had everything we needed but not too much. My father loved my mother and his children. All that was a blessing. God continued to bless me with a loving, kind, hardworking, righteous husband and two healthy sweet daughters and a grandson. It was nothing I did. Yes, I was privileged, but I have no guilt. Instead I am thankful to my God for His unmerited favor towards me.

What do I do then? In the light of God’s mercy and kindness to me, how then should I live?

I extend God’s mercy to others. I listen to the woman whose daughter grew up feeling she was a man. I pray for the woman with the husband who is verbally abusive, whose father drank, whose husband has cancer. I care for my family, natural and spiritual. I open my home, feed them, and tell them about Jesus.

But I have been doing that, not because of protests in the street but because of my gratitude to Jesus. I pray God gives me the strength and wisdom to continue. Caring for others is a privilege as well! Those of us who have anything to be grateful for, let us give thanks to God, let us give thanks to each other. Let us pay forward the kindness to others in love.

This guy will be 14 in June. Our goal was to give him all good things.
And let us remember we can hate others not only because of their race. We can hate others because they believe differently, because they dress differently, because they have more or less than we do. There are so many reasons to hate, to stop listening, to be impatient and unkind. Let’s reject ALL the reasons to hate. Let’s side with Jesus' party.

Jesus answered him, If you would be perfect [that is, have that spiritual maturity which accompanies self-sacrificing character], go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; and come, be My disciple [side with My party and follow Me]. (Matthew 19:21, Amplified Bible)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Race. Prejudice. Everyone has a story.

Race. Prejudice. Hatred. Fear. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?

This is my story. It does not start well, and it is longer than a 3-minute read, but I hope you will hang in with me because I think it ends well.

Actually this is more of a confession because I have been guilty of prejudice. When I meet people, I do judge them. But I now I remind myself that my first thought may be (probably is) wrong.

I was born in Newark in 1955 and grew up in Belleville in 1960-70s. Three of my grandparents were born in Italy. My father spoke only Italian until he started elementary school. He was a World War II vet and prejudice then was about Americans who came from other countries. My mothers told stories of the prejudice she received growing up in Belleville because she was of Italian decent. I was raised just as much an Italian as an American. Italian was spoken in my house as well. When I grew up, Belleville had become full of people just like me, Italian or Irish Catholics There was one black family in my neighborhood and he was different from us in the same way the Polish family was. The first Jewish person I met was in high school. As a teen, my father encouraged me to marry a nice Italian boy. Turns out that I did. My husband tells stories of the men he started working with, all from that greatest generation, joking together about the nationality of each other but it all was in good-natured fun.

Growing up we often went shopping in Newark, only minutes away from were we lived. My father grew up in Newark and worked there for years. My mother took me there for my first dancing lessons and for Easter dresses. It was a beautiful city at the time with large buildings, high-end stores and restaurants. But then things began to change.

Our Gio and his Grandpa fight racial prejudice with Ice cream
In July 1967, when I was 12 years old, there were riots in Newark. Many people died. I remember sitting in our living room watching it on TV but we also heard the explosions through the open windows on those hot summer nights. I shuttered in fear. As the poor black population in Newark grew and spilled into the near by towns of East Orange and Irvington, the wealthy whites moved away to the suburbs. The once beautiful city of Newark was scarred with burnt and broken buildings. We no longer went to Newark as we feared it was no longer safe. My father, who owned a hairdressing salon in East Orange was repeatedly robbed and eventually had to move the salon to Bloomfield. My husband who grew up in Irvington watched as the families of all his friends left town. His younger brothers dropped out of high school as it became a dangerous place for white boys. Truth be told, as a young woman I was afraid of groups of black young men. The thoughts would come into my mind: would they rob me? Hurt me? Rape me? I knew it was wrong to assume this but with what I had experienced, it became my reality.

College and my first job at IBM in the 1970s introduced me to many different kinds of people and when I talked to them, I saw they were just like me. When our daughters were growing up, it was a totally different world. In Fairview Elementary School in Bloomfield in the 1990s, it was like the United Nations. Immigrants from Germany, India, China and other Hispanic countries ended up in our school and our neighborhood giving our daughters the beautiful experience of all cultures. Our church in Montclair looked the same way with several interracial couples. We were grateful for that experience.

Even now, my first thoughts are still these others are not like me and I continue to fight it off. From experience I know if I engage with them, ask them questions, hear their stories, I find we are more alike than different. It is also true with people who are not in my economic level. Rich people may take better vacations and have nicer cars, but they still love their kids and worry about their elderly mothers just like me.

And yes, I have felt prejudice myself. As a woman, there were things assumed of me, things I could not do and yes that hurt. It deprived me of opportunities because of how God made me. I can’t change the fact I am a woman. I can’t study more, work harder, or gain more experience to make that go away. But then I can’t change that I am white either and the experiences that gave me more privileged than others.  

My concern for society today is we forget fear and hatred of other people groups have always been with us. Read Genesis and see the stories of Isaac and Ishmael and Esau and Jacob.  Brothers turn into nations who hate and war with each other. The first story of murder is between brothers. It has been with us from the beginning and is not going away because it is part of our sin nature. The government can pass better laws but ultimately can’t fix this because it is in our hearts. We can only do it ourselves, one by one by one.

How easy for us to see a news story about a black man being shot by two white men and think we have the answer. How can we? Did we engage with any of them? Did we ask these men questions, hear their stories? How can we be their jury? Why must we assume the black man was there to steal? Or the white men are bigots? Why, because that fits our internal narrative? Because there was a killing, there needs to be a trial, but let us leave the judgment to the jury who will hear the facts.

Yes prejudice is sin, but must we make the sin of prejudice and of being “white privileged” our “tax collector” sin? Must we make being a white man the same as being a Samaritan? When we do we have forgotten something very important. Who did Jesus come to save? Sinners. Who did Jesus tell us to witness to and serve? Sinners. Who are we? Sinners. 

As Christians, we don't judge the sinners. We love on them. 

Black or white, Italian or Irish, man or woman, rich or poor, let us not be quick to judge. Let us not assume the worst for either. Let us engage instead. Ask the questions. Hear the stories. Show kindness and patience and love. To all.

Paul tell us in Romans 12:20-21: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Race. Prejudice. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?

Sunday, May 10, 2020

When I am filled with shame

As we continue to talk about anxiety in this pandemic, one source of fear is the feeling of shame.

Yes, I know about shame.

It it in the memory of an action or a thought that is so dreadfully wicked I can hardly believe I did it, or even thought it. The worst ones are the ones I carried on for days, for months, for years even without turning back. I just went to the same dry well over and over again.

In his book, When I am Afraid, Ed Welch reminds us that "shame-filled people, when they really know Jesus, want to move towards Him... Jesus seemed to prefer them. He searched out the demon-possessed, lepers, and prostitutes." We can see this so clearly in one of my favorite Bible passages, Luke 7 of the sinful woman who came and anointed Jesus' feet during a dinner at Simon the Pharisee's house. This story so intrigued me that I wrote a back-story about it. But I digress.

And so I asked Him: Jesus, where were You when I was sinning? Were You standing in the corning facing the other way because You could not bare to watch? Were You repulsed? Disgusted? Angry? Disappointed?

And He said to me...

I was there, I did not run in the corner to hide. I was weeping for you and the pain your sin was going to cause you and these others that I dearly love.

I did not take away the desire for the sin but I did make you aware of the shame and the pain. And that kept you safe. I opened your eyes, closed that door, set you free, and put you on the path to healing. I saved you.

Welch continues, "whenever Jesus touched, or was touched by someone unclean, power flowed out of Him...taking the shame of the person onto Himself, and passing on His holiness onto the unclean person."

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown Me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven....Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:47-49, 50)

Father, thank You that You love me, saved me, healed me. You really did save me from my sin because You had a plan for my life, a beautiful plan, a deeply valuable plan, not as I wanted or saw it, but in Your better way. Thank you.Take now the last drop of my shame so I can serve You better, I can rest more freely, I can comfort others with the comfort I have been given from You, my Beloved, God-Hero, My Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

When I am afraid

Covid-19. It is rapidly infecting thousands, overtaking hospitals, closing businesses, creating fear and death across the globe. Suddenly I find myself ending emails with “stay safe, stay well.” I check in on family more often and calling friends I have not seen in a while. I ask them how they are feeling, not only physically, but also emotionally. As for me, most days I am afraid. Very afraid.

But how is Jesus feeling during this crisis?

I awoke in the night, restless and started praying. And felt Jesus whispering to me His answer to my question. And He said to me…

To them it is numbers: how many masks, gowns and respirators. They count how many people are tested, how many are sick, how many die. Finally they count the black bags of the bodies piled into refrigerated trucks. They may be extremely concerned, motivated to stop the spread, find the cure. But still to protect their own hearts, they retreat to speak of the numbers, their projections, and their strategy.

But to Me, I see each heart, each soul. I formed all of them in their mother’s wombs. I know their families, their heartaches, their hopes and dreams dashed as weeks pass. I see their fear as they move from symptoms to sickness to death. I comfort their families. I protect some and let others slip away from life. I weep over each decision. I rejoice with each healing. I cannot turn off the news. I see all of the pain. I feel all of the pain.

These numbers are My beloved children and I take no joy in their fear and suffering. This is unspeakably hard for Me too. Even for the joy I know is on the other side, I also am with you and all of them during this trial. I am experiencing it with you.

2000 years ago we hung on those crosses going to die, all three of us, one on each side of Me. One chose to mock and criticize Me, telling Me how I should handle that crisis we all faced together. The other one chose to trust Me. All three of us experienced the same reality. We were all nailed on trees. We saw it, we smelt it, we tasted it. We felt each wound. We were all bleeding, barely breathing, in terror and agony. Then we all died. I died for you, and all my children, so you all could be with Me and My Father eternally. The two on each side of me died because of their own crimes. They chose their earthly fate but they also chose their own eternal judgment. It was from their own hearts: one trusted Me, one rejected and criticized Me.

All are going to die. Dear daughter, you too are going to die some day. There is no other way out of this life. The question is will you criticize My plan for your life, or will you trust Me?

Jesus, when I am afraid, I will trust in You.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Trust Me

I started the year off with a silent retreat. Feeling like I had not truly heard from God in a while, I wanted time alone with Him. After I planned the day, other matters loomed and seemed urgent. But I felt Him calling me, “You made this date with Me, don’t stand Me up. Nothing is more important.”

I was searching for a word for 2020. In 2018 it was Listen, which led me to the word Patience in 2019. Looking deep into the roots of my needs and God’s desire for my good came Trust.

If I want to love God and others, I must trust Him.

“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

It is our attitude, how we see the world that affects everything in our life, filling it with light or darkness. We must be aware of our beliefs and where we put our trust. We get to choose. What will we trust? Who will we trust? Whose party will we side with? Jesus never forces, only invites. Will we choose Him?

We always choose something.

 As I sat at the beach house in silence, I thought about trust. What or whom was I trusting? I trusted myself to drive to the beach house on a dark Friday night alone. I trusted my car to make it, my house to be ready, electric and heat working, my bed to be dry, the stove to heat the water for tea. I trust my husband to be faithful to me and to be there when I return. I trust my office and my job will be there on Monday and my boss to pay me at the end of the month. I do trust. But I can see these things. Like the ocean was blocked from view by the fog, I cannot see God. My attitude can be like the fog, hiding God from my view, and then from my life.

What is trust? The dictionary describes it as the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. Trust is a verb, something we do. When we trust, we allow someone to have or look after something of value or importance to us with complete confidence.

As I searched the scriptures, I found the great men of God spoke of trusting God. They assured me God is worthy of my trust.

The Lord is my strength and my shield, my heart trusts in Him and He helps me. (Psalm 28:7)

I waited patiently for the Lord and He inclined to me.
Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust. (Psalm 40:1, 4)

He who trusts in his own heart is a fool
but whoever walks wisely will be delivered. (Proverbs 28:26)

Fear of man lays a snare
but whoever trusts in the Lord will be safe. (Proverbs 29:25)

The Lord gives perfect peace to those whose faith is firm
so always trust the Lord
because He is forever our mighty rock. (Isaiah 3-4)

Not only has God demonstrated He is worthy of my trust, but scripture tell us to not trust Him leads to sin and death. It means I have forgotten all He has done in history, on the cross, through the empty tomb and in my own life. Reading Psalm 78, I saw the perfect picture of the failure to trust God, as the excerpt below highlights…

The men of [Israel], though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle;
They did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by His law.
They forgot what He had done, the wonders He had shown them…
But they continued to sin against Him, rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High.
They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God; they said,
“Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”
My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth…
Teach [your] children, so the next generation would know [God’s law]
Even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget His deeds
But would keep His commands.
(Psalm 78)

I am guilty Father! Instead of trusting You, I have trusted in other things:
  • In my own wisdom and strengths – which You along have given me!
  • In other people – who may love me but are too frail to carry the full weight of my needs.
  • In my money, my job, my savings, my possessions – which I have seen can be swept away overnight.
  • In my country, its military might, our long stable government – which recently looks much less stable!
  • In medicine, doctors, diet fads, health information, vitamins, etc. – which cannot help me without You!

But what if instead, I ask questions of myself day by day, as I make choices, as I think my thoughts, as I worry on my bed, as I pray to You, Beloved…
  • Why do I feel impatient, worried or afraid?
  • What am I trusting in this matter? Am I trusting in God? Am I trusting in something or someone else?
  • Why do I feel God is not worthy of my trust in this specific matter?
  • What mighty deeds of God have I forgotten?
  • What habits must I cultivate to trust God more?
  • What habits must I STOP to trust God more?

What would my life be like at the end of this year if I learned to trust You more? Jesus, Beloved, I am looking forward to how You will be working in my life, as I cling to You.

“Truly I tell you,
unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 182)