Best charity practices during the holidays

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During the holiday season many of us will more consciously get involved in practicing charity than in other times. For some, increased acts of charity and goodwill during the season comes is a repeated habit, and for others there is an increased level of consciousness. That is the intention I am commenting on in this blog.

However you look at it the essence of the holiday season is thanksgiving, beginning with Thanksgiving and extending to Hanukkah and Christmas, Year-End and New Year and beyond. It is a season of gratitude awareness. The beauty of it is that this awareness has increased focus on other people beyond the self.

Gratitude in essence is practiced; thus “an attitude of gratitude” without actions is like faith without works – it is dead. Furthermore, it is well-recognized that living a joyful life is a consequence of practicing gratitude and thanksgiving.

For those of us who practice some form of spirituality, especially church, I would like to use Gospel texts for illustration of the points I am making here.  Matthew 25: 31-46, a popular text regarding “gooding” or lack of, draws attention to how we treat  the poor, the hungry, the sick, those lacking clothes, the oppressed – in general, the less fortunate in our midst. And in Luke 4: 16-22, Jesus proclaims his mission in the synagogue in Nazareth to be “to proclaim the good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”, as quoted from Isaiah 61.

It is possible, in heeding this mission, that we forget that we are the poor, the oppressed, the needy, the broken-hearted. We may be tempted and misled to see only economic depravity in others and ignore our own spiritual anxieties. One of the heaviest of societal impositions is the need for conformity. In wanting to be like everyone else we are afraid of vulnerability issuing from transparency and as a consequence joy is even more illusive during the holiday season.

Let us allow this holiday season to shine light into our struggles and insecurities, help us confront any fears of being vulnerable and create the space for true joy and all the blessings that come with it.

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What’s in your wallet? A look at what the bible says about money

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That is the title of the presentation and discussion by Dr. Walter Brueggerman at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Saturday, October 28, sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program.

For two or three years while I resided in Cincinnati I had the privilege of participating in various initiatives of the Economics of Compassion Initiative of Greater Cincinnati in which Dr. Brueggerman and community building consultant Peter Block are the faces of the movement. Through the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program, New York Avenue Presbyterian church endeavors “to bring in scholars, teachers, and authors to help members of NYAPC and other residents of Washington better understand how to respond to the pressing moral issues of our day”.

Today’s economy which creates unparalleled economic disparity is indeed our pressing moral issue and I am yet to meet anyone who can articulate better the biblical imperative and the church’s response.

Dr. Brueggerman aptly characterizes our economic system as an economy of extraction in which everything is monetized. The first biblical paradigm is Pharaoh’s Economy, which produced nightmares of scarcity. Pharaoh’s nightmares drove him into building storehouses and the creation of a forced labor pool. Those on the bottom of the scale become inextricably dependent on the system and complicit in its exploitation. In this regard, Joseph too, was complicit.

We see the same picture today. And, today, as then, eventually the people cry out, and the Exodus is the alternative. Today, the Gospel is the alternative and that is where the church must articulate its relevance and non-complicity. Brueggerman stressed that economies of extraction inevitably cause tension. It is not the church’s responsibility to reduce tension. The church’s task is to process the tension. There is a lot of tension right now in our society and so it is a prophetic time for the church.

A second paradigm can be seen in the Persian Period with examples in Ezra and Nehemiah where w in Neh. 10 the Israelites reckon with their complicity to what eventually has become normative (the economy of extraction) and agree to renew the covenant. In other words the people symbolically reconstituted themselves as a chosen people and re-assumed their identity.

Similar paradigms can be found in King Solomon’s reign in which taxation is burdensome to the people and results in forced labor.

It is the same story in the New Testament and the Roman empire. Citing Galatians 5: 19-21 Dr. Brueggerman pointed out the correlation between destructive predatory economy and restlessness. The alternative economy bears fruit in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5: 22-23)

This presentation came as the church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Ironically the Reformation was the alternative to the church’s practices of monetizing God’s grace and abundance. Now, as then, it is a terrible time for the church institutionally but Gospel-wise it is a terrific time. It is a challenge to the church and a call to action.

What is my faith and what am I believing?

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I strongly believe, in my heart, that God has plans for everyone. I am not one who takes Jeremiah 29:11 out of context or as some blind reassurance. I would have given up hope by now. I am equally not in agreement with those who program God, those who would assign a time frame for God to act. “Give God a year”, they urge. “Surrender to God just for one year and see if God does not change your situation. Pray, ‘Lord you promised in your word…’ God is faithful to do what God promised”.

There is a plan for everyone but not the same path. So, I am not convinced by unqualified claims made in testimonies, “If God did this to me, God will do it for you” There are, certainly, many blessings for surrender and obedience, but such blessings are not all wrapped in getting what one wants. When I can confidently be patient, I count it as a blessing.

I also believe that setbacks on one’s journey may be inconvenient but are not necessarily negative. We cannot expect not to face challenges and disappointments on the way.

Actually what I am talking about here is FAITH as opposed to belief even though often we use the two terms interchangeably. This is a journey of faith.

I began my story with the prayer written by Eric Milner-White in which we pray: “Lord God; You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending; by paths as yet untrodden; through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; Through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Every day I must keep reminding myself, what this faith means. What is faith? There are many Christians who like to answer the question reciting Hebrews 11:1, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Other translations say, “faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen”, and still others have, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” and so on.

None of this helps me much on my daily journey, especially because of the chosen words: conviction, assurance, proof.

This terminology implies the absence of doubt. Thus, Hilda Marie Barton writes in her book, There is No Room for Doubt: The Just Shall Live by Faith, that “the enemy of faith is doubt. You need to replace doubt for faith. For doubt and faith does not go together. You will have one or the other. There is no room for doubt in faith. To doubt the things of God is sin”.

Thank God there are so many churches with the name St. Thomas.

Frederick Buechner points out, “were there no room for doubt there would be no room for faith either”.

It is tempting to want to sound like those Phillip Yancey refers to (as he quotes Buechner’s observation) as Christians who speak “confidently about matters veiled in mystery whose certitude both frighten and fascinate”.

We have spent quite some time in our bible study group wrestling with the concept, especially bearing in mind the Hebrew term for faith, emu-nah, which is active like a verb. We would say, not having faith, but faithing, doing or practicing faith. It is a journey, certainly like my journey. It is not static, not a state of being but doing.

I would like to use Frederick Buechner’s wisdom in this reflection. “Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time”. As Phillip Yancey remarks in his book, Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church, if someone would ask about my faith, “I’d have to talk about the ups and downs of the years, the dreams”.

This is what I am doing in these pages, and the dream for this book.

 

The Arusha connection

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Within a one month period I have met two strangers with whom a hither-to unknown connection with a far away small town in a far away country became the icebreaker into a wonderful conversation and future connection. The small town is Arusha in Tanzania. I have mentioned how, in the course of eye examination, the ophthalmologist and I, two complete strangers, discovered that indeed we have some connection through the small town of Arusha.
Less than a month later, it happened again. This time I accepted to attend a venue – dinner actually – where all the guests, though they knew one another from church, to me they were complete strangers, except the two hosts. By chance (here we go again) I was paired with Sandy (not her real name). The idea behind the pairing is to find out in conversation relevant information to introduce your partner to the whole group.
“So you are from Tanzania”, Sandy asked. I answered yes.
“From Arusha?” The same question I was asked a month ago.
“No, actually from Moshi, fifty miles east of Arusha, on the foot of Kilimanjaro” Again, almost word for word, my response to the ophthalmologist.
That set us on to the most uplifting conversation I could ever have imagined. Not only was she in Arusha with World Vision (and my daughter works with World Vision in Arusha) the two of us also have an Israel connection. We shared memories of Mount Scopus, the Lutheran church’s Augusta Victoria hospital and World Vision in the same area, Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, the Anglican St. George’s  College and Christ Church.
But what is most fascinating is that this discovery between Sandy and me was a shared experience with all the other pairs. They all have extensive international experience and mindset and they have passion for the church and its mission. Furthermore, even though they know one another from church, the time we spent eating and talking revealed much that turned out to be fresh insight about each one.
The larger picture for me is that we are never strangers from one another. There are no aliens among us. We belong together. It is fear only that separates us to believe that those we don’t know are different from us.

How connections free the mind

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Almost 5 years to the day, I posted a blog here about a memorable experience I had in Israel many years ago. You can read the blog here. In my forthcoming book I emphasize the significance and importance of relationships for change, transformation, wholeness, and what have you. I cite many examples from personal experience – sort of testimony – to illustrate the fact that what one needs is, one, the intention or the will to step out of one’s “comfort zones” and two, an open mind. With that, possibilities for connection and relationship are everywhere.

My journey to Kibbutz Regavim

Having expressed the desire to live in a kibbutz for three months as a volunteer, my friends at the Swedish Theological Institute set about finding a suitable choice. They did not have many choices because I was already in my early thirties. Volunteers were mostly high school and college kids. So they found Kibbutz Regavim.
Located near Caesarea, Regavim could be reached only by train, if using public transport, and there was only one service per day to Binyamina train station. My plan was to travel by bus from Haifa after a weekend tour with my Ugandan priest friend, to Netanya, then Hadera and then catch the train to Binyamina.

I arrived in Netanya a little before six. The sun was orange over the Mediterranean Sea to the west where it appeared to be sinking into the water. It was calm and comfortable in late Spring and the sea breeze a soothing feel to the skin.

It was the first time I was in Netanya – I might have passed through between Jerusalem and Haifa but this was the first time I was there for an extended time. I roamed along the beach for a while, then up and down Sderot Weizmann, Yehuda Hanasi and Perach Tikva hoping to find a cheap motel for the night then take the bus to Hadera and the train to Binyamina. Then I realized I was in a wrong neighborhood.

I decided to seek help. It was Sunday, the first day of the week, businesses were still open and I spotted a real estate office. I walked into this rather small office with a couple of desks. There was only one person behind one of the desks, so I asked him if he knew of any cheap motels in the area.

He looked up at me and said, “There are many hotels on the beach”. I almost chuckled at the suggestion but I thought he misunderstood my query. “I know, but I cannot afford a hotel room on the beach”. I explained to him that I needed to catch a train on Monday from Hadera to Binyamina and to Kibbutz Regavim. He looked at me quizzically then repeated what he told me. “There are many hotels along the beach”.

I started to turn around to leave his office when he asked, “Do you really need help?” I told him I did. He told me to come back after an hour and he would see how he could help. I went back an hour later and found him closing his office.

He told me, his name is Avner, that he and his mother and a younger brother lived in a Moshav nearby and if I really needed help I was invited to stay the night with them. A stranger, from nowhere! Was this chance, or coincidence? You decide.
So he took me to their home. His mother was recently widowed, they had just finished the shiva, the seven day mourning period after burial. His younger brother, Moshe, was seriously wounded in combat, he still had a bullet lodged in his head. He was active, even drove a special car, but he was disabled.

This family took me to their home, a complete stranger, from a strange land, of a different nationality, religion, culture and while they were still mourning. They welcomed me like one of them. And that is the point of this story: differences are in the mind.

The following morning when I left to catch the bus to Hadera, Imma, (mother to Avner and Moshe, and now mine too), said to me, “remember you have a home in Israel; this is your home, come back any time”.

Why relationships are essential for the journey

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I witnessed City Gospel Mission transition into a relationship-based ministry with the goal of transformation. As expected it was not easy, but it had to be intentional as all transformative relationships need to be. I got similar experience from Crossroad Health Center where I was a volunteer chaplain. This is a Christian ministry that emphasizes relationship between the medical personnel and the community they served – low income individuals and families with limited resources.

These relationships, along with church and regular bible study groups, for example at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Mark on Capitol Hill, and Ascension and St. Agnes, have been fundamental for my own transformation.

But why is relationship important in transformation?

In the course of studying Paul’s epistle to Romans for the men in the recovery program we  sought application of chapter 12 and verse 2, where Paul writes: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Transformation calls for a change of mindset, renewing of mind; changing the way we look at things; changing the way we see the world. That, in turn, will lead to change of behavior. (What Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3: 3 is essentially the same thing, though Nicodemus tried to understand it literally, just as some Christians do, today).

Thus, recovery from addiction is a process of transformation from a flawed conformity, a process that requires a change of mindset and a change of heart.

Secondly, since environment has a lot to do with behavior, transitioning from one environment to a healthier one entails more than physical locale. Those seeking to transition need mentors and examples they can emulate. Change will not happen from sermons and admonitions, but through coaching and setting examples. I gave the example of my friend trying to help a young man through the Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington in my previous blog which you can access here: https://joelmlayblog.wordpress.com/book-project/connection-is-why-we-are-here/

Unfortunately, building relationships for transformation is not always easy; but, as I said, it must be intentional.

I’ll continue with that next time.

 

 

 

8 Pillars of joy

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The tagline of this blog is “how to find peace and joy everyday: with gratitude and humility”. Gratitude and humility are two of 8 pillars of joy pointed out by Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Southern Africa, in a 2016 book, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World”, authored by Douglas Abrams. They group the 8 pillars in 4 attributes of the mind – perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance ; and 4 of the heart – gratitude, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

In previous blogs we have touched on some of these pillars even before this book came out, even though we have not systematically enumerated or grouped them as these two titans of spirituality have done. What is most illuminating is how they have reaffirmed the principle that joy is consequential.  Joy comes from a combination of mind and heart attitudes. For example, the mind that has learned to view the world and its daily happenings with a wide viewpoint,  (perspective), contributes to a life of joy. Similarly, the heart that is tuned to respond (to everything) with gratitude adds a significant measure of joy to life.

The book is the culmination of a week that the two luminaries spent together in Dharamsala, India, for the Dalai Lama’s 80th. birthday. Both men know, from personal experience, a life of affliction and sorrow. But they have taught millions too, how to rise above that with joy. At a time when the ailing Desmond Tutu was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and the Dalai Lama spending half a century in exile, the two were able to demonstrate how humor and compassion lift life from anger and vengeance to peace and joy.

Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu

As the author points out, it was a week where a Buddhist monk, a Christian cleric and a Jewish secularist experienced true joy in mutual companionship. The idea in the book is to demonstrate that everyone of us can contribute to our own joy, everyday, when we choose a life governed by the 8 pillars of joy.

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Stay tuned for more insights on these pillars.

 

If you,re not outraged you’re not listening

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“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”.  Those are words of Martin Luther King Jr. We are afraid unless we can determine, with certainty, the ending of the ventures we are being called to. So, in the story of Peter stepping into the raging water, in the chaos and uncertainty of the sea, our thinking – at least mine – is that Peter should have stayed in the boat. It makes sense because it is safer in the boat.

But the real lesson in this story is taking that first step to meet Jesus who is in the storm.

Faith is active. In the action we cannot be certain of the outcome, we may not know the perils that lie ahead. Heather Heyer posted on her facebook page, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. And because she was outraged she took a step to participate in expressing that outrage and the growing hatred and intolerance in the country today. It cost her life.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Peter desired to erect dwellings in the glory of the mountain-top;  but the call is to go down into the chaos and uncertainty of Via Dolorosa. That is where Jesus is. He is in the storm, that’s where we meet him, and there is the possibility of sinking.

Audacious or reckless?

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In the last post I commended Peter for attempting to walk on water – meaning making a risky choice to go where Jesus was – rather than stay in the boat, in safety, with the assurance that Jesus is in control of the chaos and the perils. There is another view we hear so often from some circles, especially where spirituality is overemphasized at the expense of social justice.

I am talking about certain approaches when interacting with those in society who are marginalized or are casualties of systems and the status quo. You may have heard, for example, phrases like “all you need is Jesus”, “if you have Jesus, everything is fine”, “try Jesus, after all everything you have tried has failed”, “the problem is, you don’t have Jesus in your life…” and so on.

With this mindset, Peter is faulted for diverting his focus from Jesus to the storm, and that is why he was sinking. This is escapism. We have responsibility, as individuals, communities and as a society to take action; to do everything necessary to alleviate the burden on the vulnerable.

That is why I am sticking with my views in the previous post. It is necessary to take a risk and get into the chaos, in the storm, not knowing what that initial step may lead to. Take risk to meet new people, go to places never been to before, try what you have never tried before. Remember that Prayer for Courage?

  •     Lord God,
  • You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending;
  • by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown;
  • Give us faith to go out  with good courage, not knowing where we go,
  • but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
  • Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

Why would Jesus walk on water?

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While on tour of the Holy Land in 1867, Mark Twain enquired from a boat operator in Tiberias how much it would cost to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When he was told it would cost him $25 (because the boat operator mistook him for a wealthy tourist) Mark Twain is reported to have remarked to his wife, “No wonder Jesus decided to walk”.,

The story of Jesus walking on water is probably one of the most remarkable stories in the New Testament. Kids learn it in Sunday School. It is depicted in different forms of art and it affords illustration for different spiritual lessons.

Still, the story raises a number of questions. First, did Jesus need to walk on water and why? How about Peter; and that is the question of interest to me here. What was Peter’s motive in attempting to walk on the water like Jesus? Was it to test Jesus, or simply to show off?

Most people point to Peter’s faith – or lack ofhttps://joelmlayblog.wordpress.com/book-project/called-to-ventures-of-which-we-cannot-see-the-ending-by-paths-yet-untrodden/ – in this story. And many may wonder, why didn’t he simply stay in the boat, in faith that the situation was under control with Jesus? I think though, that the point is about stepping out into the unknown, into the chaos and the raging waters, and knowing that that is where  Jesus is .

The sea’s turbulence represents the chaos in society. Think of the “acceptable” economic system that produces casualties in poverty, homelessness, despair, violence, exploitation, and so on. Our society may accept and defend the status quo as divinely ordained. But true faith as exemplified in Peter’s risk in taking that first step into the chaos leads true followers of Jesus to meet him in the chaos of poverty, injustice and uncertainties of final outcomes.

This is how I find meaning in my favorite prayer:

  • Lord God,
  • You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
  • by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
  • Give us faith to go out with great courage, not knowing where we go,
  • but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
  • Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.