Every six months, I go through the medical surveillance that tracks the signs of health and/or disease in my body. Last Wednesday, I underwent the CT scan, and six hours later my oncologist called to tell me, “It looks great! No changes! All is well.” When all my testing is done next week, I fully expect the all-clear and won’t have to think about cancer for six months, heart disease for maybe five years, skin cancer for a year, colon cancer for five years, female cancers for two years, yada, yada . . .

But there is one dumb thing that plagues me and probably will until I die. On Ash Wednesday, February 9, 2016, I began a serious recalibration of my food intake to address my significant weight-gain during cancer treatment, plus the extra twenty pounds of “too much Mary” already present before that. It has been one year, two months, and twenty-three days of logging my meals, mixing protein shakes, chopping vegetables, carefully navigating through parties and holidays, and otherwise changing habits. I have lost about 38 pounds, and have four (or six) to go. I feel terrific and have experienced many health benefits along the way. I can even say I love the way my body has turned out! Please note that last sentence, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I hate my body or have a body/spirit duality thing going on here (that’s a theological position that says anything of the body is “evil” and everything of the spirit is “good”). But after all of this success, I am still frustrated—on a plateau since Christmas—about that last four to six pounds that keeps my body-fat-percentage above 25%.

I just got home from the weight-loss doctor visit, and am working out my frustration here. The other reason I am sharing this with you is that weight loss offers one of the best illustrations of the struggle most Christian face against residual sin. Those who have embraced Christ and received his forgiveness have, Scripture tells us, been made alive in Christ, are new creatures, and possess eternal life. The Holy Spirit has moved into our hearts to work out God’s purposes from within. The Christian life is a journey toward Christ-likeness, and discipleship helps us practice the new habits consistent with belonging to Christ’s household of faith. For some of us, the transformation is dramatic; for others more subtle. But in Christ, we are new creatures.

We have eternal life now, but we are still residing in this body, which—if I may stretch theology a bit—has a mind of its own. There are things that happen in our bodies that we did not cause: I think of my friend with diabetes who can have a perfect diet/insulin day and still crash in the middle of the night. I think of another friend who has ups and downs of blood pressure that are not correlated to stress in her life. How about the person, like me, with no risk factors present (family history, smoking, exposure to pollution) who gets lung cancer? No, really, our bodies represent great mystery sometimes, and no matter what we do, things still happen.

I cannot answer the question on the physical level, but what this struggle illustrates in the spiritual realm is important. Until we prevail over the Last Enemy (physical death), we are going to struggle with sin. The Apostle Paul gives us two insights, first by venting his frustration in Romans 7:

14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul is saying that there are forces at work within our mortal bodies, minds, and souls that oppose the good that God wants to do in us. We need the redemption offered in Jesus Christ! Our daily struggle reminds us of our complete dependence upon the grace of God.

Paul’s second insight helps us rest in God’s help:

7 . . . a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

I would be so happy if God would help me lose these last stubborn pounds, but at least I see the potential for blessing and spiritual fruit-bearing in the heat of the struggle. That stupid scale reminds me that I must remain vigilant against temptation. I must push back the human propensity to deceive myself. Who knows? If I reached my goal weight tomorrow, I might say, “Whee-e-e, now I can eat whatever I want again!” But that most certainly is not true. There will still be great need for discipline, healthful choices, and denial of self. Denial of self and life unto God are simultaneous dynamics that get to the heart of what it means to be a child of God.

So I accept the struggle and resign myself to my weakness, not by “sinning” but by renewed resolve to work with God’s purposes for me that include healthy discipline. God must be strong in me. This will be God’s work in his strength, and may my submission to God’s will be empowered by the Holy Spirit!

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After a sugar fast during the month of January and a rather decadent self-indulgence on Super Bowl Sunday, today began my annual discipline of calorie cutting. I have had a life-long preoccupation with food, which I do not consider a virtue but more a matter of childhood conditioning. As Erma Bombeck wrote once, “I am not a glutton; I am an explorer of food.” No, honestly, I really am a glutton and I am not proud of it and pray regularly for deliverance from this one of the seven deadly sins. In the meantime, I am vulnerable to the promises of this diet or that cleanse; and now that I have had cancer, the cancer-prevention diets beckon as well.

I suppose everyone has that point of vulnerability, into which promises of health or even salvation are poured. If we just cultivate this habit or deny ourselves that food group, we will be happier and God will love us more. Or worse, God only saves vegetarians or those who keep kosher. Anyone who is insecure about his or her standing with God can be swayed into believing that salvation is found in Jesus Christ + {you fill in the blank}.

This is not a new problem in the spiritual life. From the first century, in western Turkey, among Gentile believers in Jesus Christ, people have been harassed by others to think their religious practice is incomplete, uncommitted, or incorrect. In light of what Paul has just written in the previous paragraph, his instruction starting at Colossians 2:16 packs a punch for those tempted to cling to something other than Jesus for their salvation.

16Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” 22All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Paul is giving a direct instruction now. To unpack the passage, do a couple of things before reading on:

  1. Go through the complete passage and highlight all the phrases that refer to something Paul is affirming or promoting with his readers.

  2. Go back and underline phrases that indicate what the problems are with the Colossians’ current way of thinking or acting.

  3. What is the underlying problem Paul is pointing out to the Colossians? Considering what the letter has been teaching up to this point, what is Paul suggesting is the solution? [Keep in mind that a direct answer to this question is going to appear in Chapter 3. No cheating! We’re following Paul’s flow here . . .]

  4. Describe any area in your life that is similar to the Colossian issue. What would God be saying to you by way of correction, redirection, or hope?

To sojourners I make the following application. See if it fits. I can only speak from direct experience within the PC(USA), but I have heard it said in presbytery pulpits and General Assembly debates that leaving the PC(USA) endangers a person’s spiritual position. To leave the church is to leave Christ (or something similar). What strikes me, in light of Colossians 2, is that this misplaced warning really presents a temptation to make the PC(USA) either a replacement for or an addition to the salvation we have in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Hear me when I say that participation in a church family is extremely important. There are so many benefits of communion with the saints that far outweigh the liabilities. But these benefits to not rise to the level of “essential for salvation,” even if I think it might be unwise in the long run to maintain a churchless existence.

To be absent from church is “unfinished business,” but I understand the pains that make such a hiatus necessary. For some of my readers who have been decommissioned or de-churched or are simply done with it, taking a respite for a time of healing can be a good thing. I talked with someone today who went through a period like this and diverted her time and attention to Habitat for Humanity for a season. But she is back at church, preparing for full-time Christian work, and ready to labor within the context of a denomination to pursue Kingdom purposes. Neither she nor I have any illusions of the church’s perfection, and keep its very human flaws in perspective.

So whatever it is that contends for “god” status in your life—food, asceticism, denominational loyalty, picayune legalisms, whatever—what does Paul say to do with that? Forsake it, and turn to Christ, who is wholly trustworthy, whose salvation is complete without add-ons, and whose love for you is unconditional. Grab hold, and grow into him!

 

Frustration has risen lately, as I struggle to manage a different life than I had been leading in BC days. There are so many things I must do everyday in the category of “self-maintenance,” it feels like a full-time job. Whereas I used to track progress in maybe seven concurrent work projects, my new routine includes management of:

Medications, which are taken at 7 a.m., 7 p.m., and at bedtime. Some of these meds are my old standbys for “before cancer” (BC) conditions, but the new batch addresses the aftermath of lung cancer and surgery. Two different inhalers (with different delivery techniques) and one really large pill that is difficult to swallow mean I have to think carefully before each dose. And just in the past week, my doctor and I realized that one persistent symptom is probably a side effect of a medication rather than the condition it is treating! So we adjust the dose downward and monitor what happens.

Exercise, which can amount to as much as two hours a day, if I am faithful to the entire regimen of walking or hiking (2.5 to 3.5 miles) and stretch and strengthening workouts. I love the fact that I can move and breathe and have such beautiful Open Spaces, but two hours. Wow. That’s recorded in the green spiral notebook.

Food intake, the latest in the daily monitoring category, is now under the watchful eye of a nutritionist who is helping me break through the weight-loss barrier and make the effort to retrain my body that was whacked out during chemo. This month, we’re counting carbohydrates. That’s the blue notebook.

Breathing and air quality, which fluctuates from day to day depending on atmospheric conditions (monitored with an app), fog, my exercise intensity, and other factors God makes up on the spur of the moment just to keep things interesting. I’m supposed to use my pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygenation during exercise, and take peak flow readings three times a day. If I get short of breath and do not respond with certain actions, the situation can escalate uncomfortably. In the seven-week pulmonary rehab class, I learned how to head these episodes off at the pass, and as a result feel 95% fine 99% of the time. But vigilance is required, and data collection to identify triggers pays off. That’s in the pink notebook.

Self-management would not seem so time consuming if these activities were “second nature.” Pill taking is an exception, but exercise, healthful eating, and breathing are things that every human being needs. They are a way of life, right? When they get out of whack, though, either through illness or addiction, corrective action—otherwise known as discipline—must be applied. When one’s body has cancer, one has a new set of regimens to follow. [But every single doctor who has treated me in the last year is absolutely certain that my general fitness, conditioning, and healthful eating habits in BC days were major factors in my body’s fight against cancer. I have no reason to doubt them.]

Most people have the things-to-do-everyday list of projects or healthful habits to be monitoring, too. Putting myself in the pew, reading the thoughts of regular church goers, I can just hear them say, “So now you tell me there’s one more thing I need to take care of every day?” Add to the list:

Spiritual nurture, in the form of time set aside daily for prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. Yes, as I’ve admitted in the last couple of weeks, this discipline was lagging in light of all the others above . . . and yet, the answer is the same. When life gets out of balance and my spiritual life is not nurtured, symptoms start appearing (e.g. increased worry, a bit of aimlessness, or irritability). But if faith is truly a way of life the way I want to lead it, this action is not simply an activity added to an already full calendar, it like breathing and eating and exercising—I gotta do it or I will faint. Oh, by the way, spiritual nurture is tracked in the black moleskin notebook.

[The situation makes me wonder if there is a calendar system that can track all five of these self-management areas, plus my dates and billing and meeting logs, all in one notebook!]

The only way to do what is good for me is to undergo the discipline. I’ll be honest: I am not enjoying it at the moment, any of it (except maybe the walks while the weather has been so spectacular here). What I don’t like is that I have to do these things in order to avoid negative consequences. But how I feel about them is far less important than doing them faithfully now. There’s always the hope that later, they will yield good results that make life much more fun, healthy, and available for service. Didn’t the writer of Hebrews say basically that?

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Tomorrow: How Lack of Discipline in the Church Imperils Its Health

I have often said that God’s biggest competition in my life was food. Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony has been at the top of the list too many times. So you can imagine how I anticipate the possibility of losing taste while undergoing chemotherapy with Cisplatin. Any medicine with the word “platinum” in the name can’t be good for a foodie like me.

I have been wondering when this taste bud transformation would take place, because it hasn’t yet on Day 9 of treatment. Tonight, I celebrated that fact by enjoying the perfect dinner a friend brought to our table: roasted pork loin with baked pear slices, dilled carrots, mashed potatoes, spinach/strawberry salad, and chocolate chip cookies.

First of all—I hope Karen is reading this—it was a Naegeli kind of meal: full of color, nutrition, fresh vegetables and fruit, lovely seasoning, “the perfect dinner.” But it was the cookies that did me in: homemade, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies with walnuts and real butter. I bit into that aromatic dough and tasted every element of it bursting in my mouth. And I just cried; it was so delicious and good. That one cookie may very well be the highlight of my whole Thanksgiving week.

Have you ever thought about why the Psalmist would exclaim, “O taste and see that the LORD is good! (Ps. 34:8), and “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psa. 119:103). Taste is perhaps the overlooked sense, the fifth, after sight, hearing, touch, and smell. These senses are the means God gave us to take reality in to ourselves, to gather what is actual out there and bring it into our own reality in here. One or more of our senses may be compromised (or enhanced) by illness, disability, or gifting; but there are a total of five to help us keep in touch with that which is outside ourselves. I think of autistic Temple Grandin, who organizes her world visually; blind Ken Medema who captures and communicates his world through sound; Helen Keller, who was finally reached through touch; and four little children enticed by the smell of grandma’s fresh pears on an Illinois summer’s afternoon. I think of Jesus, who gathered the miraculous power of God at a wedding in Cana, during which he changed water into wine that became the best vintage of the day (John 2).

So when Jesus commanded his disciples to “Take, eat, this is my Body given for you,” and “Drink this cup in remembrance of me,” he was inviting us to ingest his very presence. Jesus so wants us to understand that God’s sovereignty out there is a reality in our souls, that bursts out upon our tongue of proclamation and zooms down the spiritual pipeline of digestion and energy conversion. The Holy Spirit urges us to open our mouths, take some of God’s Word, chew it, and meditate and taste the sweetness of life centered on Christ and lived in the Spirit’s power.

In light of the colorless, dim, and disorganized world of this age, governed (only for a time) by the evil one who would diminish our senses so as not to discover God, we must cling to the vibrant beauty around us. This is why, in Christian community, the visual arts are so important. Together we can gaze at a painting by Makoto Fujimura and bleed with God’s compassion. This is why, in Christian community, music is so vital. Together we can sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord and get in touch with the grandeur of heaven like the choirs of Revelation. In Christian community, we practice hospitality as one way to share the aroma and taste of God’s good provision, and why we hug one another at “the kiss of peace” during worship. These are all ways the spiritual reality of God gets from God’s realm into our hearts, part of the blessing God has poured into us by his Holy Spirit.

As we go into the Lord’s Day this weekend— Reformed and Presbyterian as some of my readers are, others as Lutherans, Catholics, and people under the burden of cancer—let us consider what there is to taste and see of God. How is it, on Christ the King Sunday, that we might experience God as Victor over the Beasts that seek to work us woe? In what way can we take in the life of Christ and allow him to overshadow our fears, our discomforts, our deficits, even our disbelief? I am reminded by that chocolate chip cookie that God can break through at the most unexpected moments and shout, “I’m here! See me! Touch me! Hear me! Smell me! Taste me!” And then food, as an example, becomes not an end in itself but more profoundly an invitation to worship the Creator and Sustainer of Life.

 

 

Our second full day in Uganda was dedicated to exploring ministries to children at risk in both Makindye (a district of Kampala) and a rural village. Surprises awaited us, all of them delightful and encouraging!

First stop was to visit St. Mbuga Primary School adjacent to Gospel Messengers Church in Kampala at 8 a.m. Six hundred twenty-five students and about twenty faculty were gathered in the central patio of the school, arranged by class and therefore by age and size, from the teeny-tinys to the right all the way to the upper grades to the left. St. Mbuga School Greeting They greeted Andy and me by raising both hands and shaking them silently—quite a sight and a delightful gift. Those fresh faces all beamed at us, and of course the principal asked me to “give a word.” So I started with the story of Abraham’s call (Genesis 12) and talked about how they (the students) were receiving a blessing every day by having the opportunity to learn in a Christian environment, and that someday God was going to ask them to turn this blessing around to become a blessing to others. So if they remembered what they were taught now, put it into practice faithfully, and followed where God led them, their small steps would become great strides for the benefit of their community when they grew up.

We then sought out Pastor Moses and one of the church elders named Dorothy who would be joining us for the drive down to a village about 2.5 hours away.  We wanted to see firsthand how it was going with the ministry of my friend David Ssebulime, called Raise the Roof. [David, Pastor Moses’ little brother, now resides in the U.S. after first coming to visit with the Africa Children’s Chorus in the late 1980s. He attended the church I pastored in Concord, CA, and courted our children’s director Marlene. They were married and are now working on degrees (MBA for Marlene, MDiv for David) that will enable them to expand and develop their mission.]

The original need was to put a roof on the Gospel Messengers Church in Kampala, so David and Marlene did some modest vision-casting and fundraising in the Bay Area to cover the cost. We saw the fruit of that labor on Sunday, and a good roof it is! Part 2 of the vision was to build a school in a village of Masaka District, 2.5 hours southwest of Kampala. In answer to my question, “How did you pick Bwassandeku village?” David and his brother Pastor Moses explained: As Pastor Moses (the oldest of fourteen children) came to adulthood and sensed a call to ministry, he was commissioned to pastor a church in Bwassandeku. However, shortly after he started there, his father died suddenly in 1981, and Moses was called back to take over leadership at Gospel Messengers Church in Kampala. The unfinished business in the village has been at the back of his and David’s mind all these years. As a tribute to their father’s memory, they decided that the work there must be reinvigorated. In the last few years, David and Marlene have been focusing their attention on building a school in Bwassandeku and have raised the funds to construct two buildings and are completing a third as we speak. Currently there are 325 kids enrolled in Raise the Roof Academy!

David had been in the village just a month prior to our visit and made plans for our day to include consultation with a few pastors in the area. As we drove onto the grounds about 11:15 a.m., the drumbeat and singing pulsated from the church building. We walked inside to find about 200 pastors and elders gathered in worship Worship at Raise the Roofand awaiting “a word” from me! Yikes! What I thought was going to be a conversation with twelve now was more like a pastors’ retreat. Some had traveled thirty miles to be there, and let’s just say there were no cars anywhere close by. They had walked or taken a motor scooter taxi to get there. We had a Q & A session of about an hour, during which they asked questions of biblical interpretation, theology, and pastoral practice. None of them have enough money (they have no money) to even begin to address the needs of their parishioners and therefore all are “tentmakers.” We talked about what it looks and feels like to do what you can and leave the rest to God’s care. There were signs of pastoral burnout among them, so join me in praying that the Lord would send more laborers into the harvest and provide them with the resources and wisdom they need to accomplish God’s purposes among the people.

And then it was time to see the children. We gathered in the biggest room of the unfinished wing of the school, and they dragged in desks from other rooms Students of Raise the Roof Academybecause the new building is not furnished yet. [A desk seating three students costs $32, made by a local carpenter.] We had a rather chaotic conversation, then the children sang for us. We took a tour of the campus, which of course is very rudimentary. A church mission team had come several weeks earlier and drilled a borehole, which now provides clean water not only for the school but for all the neighbors as well.

At lunchtime (which I think was about 2 p.m.) the children were served mounds of brown rice, and we were treated to hot chicken that had been steam cooked in banana leaves. The food was delicious, but I felt bad that we were offered this feast Chicken cooked in banana leaveswhile the students and faculty ate their rice outside under the eaves. So many little things like this were cause to ponder and to pray. When we were done eating, we were taken back into the sanctuary to speak with the pastors one more time. Literally, as I was invited forward to “give another word,” having no idea what I should say, the Lord provided me with a passage and a message that was timely, encouraging, and catalytic for a bit of organizing on their part. Lesson learned: one must never fret about what to say, for God will give you the words when you need them.

We’re not done yet! The equivalent of a PTA meeting was in progress in another building, so we were ushered in to “give a word.” Andy shared about being an inventor and engineer and how studying science is an important step in learning how to steward God’s creation. I urged their cooperation in allowing their children time to do their homework, so they can come to school prepared for their lessons. Sometimes kids are expected to do family chores at the expense of their schoolwork, simply because the parents are not quite convinced of the value of education. So we “gave a word” once more, and do hope that this village is transformed by the energetic and enthusiastic education of these children.

Mary with the kidsWhat a day! What a ministry! So much work to be done! Such joyful faces! May the Lord bless this work and transform lives and communities with the gospel of Jesus, as these children become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

“Have you been on a farm/ranch/pasture? Have you been in close proximity of livestock?”

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Form is reinforced by a Customs Agent’s direct question. When I answer “Yes,” he writes a big red “A” on my form and points me to the agricultural inspection line at San Francisco International Airport. The agents want to see the shoes we wore in Kenya and Uganda. Inspecting the dirt in the tread, they took two pairs and gave them an antiseptic bath. Yes, we got our feet dirty in equatorial East Africa. My thoughts drift to our first encounter in the rural areas of southwestern Kenya. . .

Steve and Alene had let us know before our arrival that we would take time out on IMG_0451Wednesday and visit Pastor W and his family in a little village about 1.25 hours walk from their apartment. Alene drove us two-thirds of the way, and then let us off with Steve to walk the last mile. It had rained the night before, and the iron-red earth was severely rutted and puddle-pocked. But the weather was cool and pleasant, giving us a chance to see small household farm plots of tea and table vegetables and to greet the sheep, goats, and cows grazing along the way. We loved the obnoxious baaa of this guy:

Pastor W, his wife C, and two of their three children greeted us warmly. Their home sits in the middle of about half an acre of richly soiled farmland. Growing here is tea (for cash) and a special grass for cow feed, and then corn, tomatoes, kale, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, and squash for family eating. The land also accommodates grazing for three cows and lots of chickens.  By local standards, this family is well off, having carefully plotted and implemented their financial plan over the last several years. In that time, they have moved living quarters from a traditional hut to framed adobe house with several rooms, including a “remodeled” kitchen but not including a bathroom. That’s an outbuilding in the corner of the property. The kitchen is a very simple space without appliances, most notably no refrigeration. The most important feature is a fire pit and chimney against one wall. Two pots can be accommodated directly over the fire, one for ugali (a fine white-corn polenta) and one for meat and/or vegetables. Sukuma wiki is a very common and tasty dish: sautéed onions and tomatoes mixed with finely shredded kale are cooked for ten minutes or more. Though perhaps a little light on protein, in the main, these folks have nutritious food.

Water pumped closer to where it's needed
Water pumped closer to where it’s needed

Pastor W led us on a tour of his property and included a demonstration of the well water pump and a simple distribution system. We observed here and elsewhere that acquiring local well water and pumping it up hills immediately freed women to use their time and talents more fully in other pursuits. Water made accessible to the house for washing and cooking is both hygienic and compassionate. Considering the many, many people we had observed toting 5-gallon jugs of water from a town’s only tap to their homes, having this on-site water source was indeed a blessing.

We were invited to sit down on couches that lined the small living room and surrounded one big low table. This is where we would eat the feast that C had spent at least a day preparing for us. Heavy on the carbs (boiled potatoes, rice, ugali, fried bread, butternut soup), balanced with sukuma wiki and fresh avocadoes, generous in meat IMG_0464(goat and chicken), sweetened by fresh fruit (pineapple and banana) . . . yes, an amazing meal and gracious hospitality behind it. We were entertained by the children packing away mounds of food, alerted that this was probably their one meal today.

After lunch (yes, this was a midday meal!), we sat around the table and drank chai tea and talked about the ministry, how W and C met, the role of women in society and in the church, and “why men don’t go to church.” All fascinating topics—where do I start? And then “the speeches”: launched by Pastor W and his wife C, everybody was given the opportunity to make a personal statement without interruption. The children chose Scriptures to read, and the adults each spoke for five minutes of their gratitude to God and what they were learning from their guests/hosts. It reminded me of my family of origin and the dinner-table conversations we had, giving everybody including us four kids a chance to log in with a report about our day. Only this was far more affirmation- and faith-centered. We would call this Body Life, in which the saints give one another encouragement and exhortation for their spiritual edification. We were blessed beyond measure.

We wanted to get to Steve and Alene’s place before dark, so we said our goodbyes and rolled out the door to the car, tummies full and spirits lifted. Tomorrow, a glimpse into the life of a less well-off neighbor.

Good Days and Bad Days

October 2, 2012

This morning a Facebook friend posted his status: “Today is a good day.” Having just come off a bad day myself, the simplicity of his statement caught my attention and begged for reflection. Sunday for me was the sort of day Judith Viorst described in her class children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Well, I had one.

Two events cast their deep shadows on this week’s Sabbath. The first occurred during worship and the second at home late in the day. On this particular week, my participation in worship was musical. The choir director needed a pianist to substitute for our regular keyboardist. So I took on the two pieces, which were spectacular, fun to play, and challenging enough to require hours of practice and 30 minutes with the choir. We have three services, so it would be a long morning. No problem; I’m used to that. Everything went fine (so until 11:37 a.m. it was actually a good day), until the third performance of the second piece. And somehow, inexplicably, I completely lost my concentration at a page turn and muffed the notes so badly the choir could not make its entrance. We had to stop. As we haltingly started again, I still was internally paralyzed for another eight or twelve bars, just thinking about what I had done. I was mortified and felt terrible afterwards, and then the pastor—full of grace and good humor—used the debacle as an illustration of the point he had been making in his sermon.  It took me most of the afternoon to get over it.

And then at 5 p.m., while preparing our favorite dinner, I burned the rotisserie chicken. I mean, it went up in flames, along with the potatoes. Fortunately, this all happened outside on the gas grill, but it is indeed a bad day when your long-awaited culinary treat becomes a burnt offering unto the Lord. The morning’s praise offering was marred by an appalling inattention of one sort, and the afternoon’s burnt offering was caused by inattention of another kind. At my places of personal pride—musicianship and gourmet skills—I had failed, and pretty spectacularly.

I could not wait for the day to be over.

Just so you know, two days later, I’ve moved on. And then I read my friends status update: “Today is a good day.”

How do we evaluate the goodness or badness of a day? Typically, I realize after Sunday’s mortification, we judge a day by successes, achievements, whether we got our own way, and circumstances falling in pleasant places. Bad days are days in which we were embarrassed, hassled, frustrated, or incompetent.  I know this is how we feel about it. I remember another Alexander-type day several years ago in which several things went wrong, a couple complex problems defied solution, the air conditioning went out on a very hot day. And as I turned out the light and tried to go to sleep, the final insult was hearing a mosquito buzzing around my head, invisible and determined to get its feast for the day. I cried out to the Lord, “Okay, that is it, Lord. It’s my turn for a blessing!” Like Jacob I wrestled with God in utter discomfort and defeat.

But here is the Word from the Lord: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). The day itself, the span of time, is a gift of God. What happens in it might not be so great, but the day is good. It contains opportunities to experience redemption. It gives us practice at being grateful to God despite circumstances. And it provides space for enjoying the presence and power of God in those circumstances. The day itself is good because its Creator is good, and what he has made is good (Genesis 1). He numbers our days lovingly, is present in every one of them, and by his Spirit even provides a way for us to enjoy the day while we tackle the challenges that flow through it. It is not even necessary to resort to Scarlet O’Hara’s philosophy, “Well, fiddle-dee-dee. Tomorrow is another day.” It is true of course, that we have tomorrow; but we still have today to decide how we’re going to feel, how we are going to respond to God, and how we are going to grasp the joy that is both a gift and a choice for the Christian. Yes, it is faith that helps me see it this way, and thank God for that. So I join my friend with the affirmation, “Today is a good day!”