Stranger in a strange land

And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom:
for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:22

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(Mrs. Bluebird peeking outward / Julie Cook / 2015)

Have you ever traveled to another country where you did not speak the language?
Immediately upon arriving, jet lagged, tired, disoriented, all previous thoughts
of being ok and of easily getting by suddenly evaporate. Overwhelmed, you stare bleary eyed and lost.
You immediately sense your differentness. A rising sense of panic works to consume you as you feel conspicuous and vulnerable. Uneasiness, dread, foreboding race to devour your remaining sense of wellbeing—-all this transpires in the span of the first 30 seconds upon arrival, all before you can slowly breathe, getting your bearings and allowing common sense to quell the rising panic.

As a Christian, I am beginning to feel that same sense of rising of panic, disorientation, and sense of alienation. I feel as though I am no longer welcome in my own country. . .for I am a stranger now in a very strange land. I am ridiculed and scorned for my beliefs, my faith. I choose to believe in the Bible and what I consider to be the true Word of God and yet I am told to get with the program, come to the 21st century. . .I am told not to be so archaic, stop believing in mythology and fairy tales. I am told that I do not have a right to believe what I believe because it is preposterous, unbelievable, not all inclusive–as my beliefs seem to have limits, it appears my beliefs are saying “no” to certain lifestyles and choices.

. .I am reminded that this is not a time for an either or sort belief system for we are now a people who are all about “it’s all good” and “it’s all ok” sort of life. Tolerance, where is my tolerance I am asked.
Where is my love and acceptance of all. . .

Yet my faith, my beliefs, state that I am to believe in the Word God, the One true God—there is no waffling, no balancing act, no grey areas. . .either I believe or I don’t. Not in little demigods, not in things, not in man, not in little parts or snippets of His word while disregarding others. . .but rather I believe in an Omnipotent God. There is to be no rewriting of His word in order to set things as the world would like things to be written.
His word was stated and set eons ago. . .
there is to be no changing, no rewriting,
no updating to modern times. . .no redo. . .

Yet I am told that my thoughts, my beliefs, my faith are all no longer acceptable.
It’s all outdated, passé, cliche, no longer relevant. . .
Change or be changed I am told.
I must no longer adhere to the mumbo jumbo.
The courts will have their say.
They’ll show me.
They will tell me that I can’t believe.
Television tells me I can’t believe.
Their shows will prove I’m wrong.
Movies and music will all show me.
Step aside I am told.
We don’t want you here.
You can’t pray here.
You can’t say “Amen” here.
You can’t talk about Jesus here. . .
You’ll be fired, removed, shut down, sued, or even beheaded if ISIS has any say.

Bad things happen.
Earthquakes, calamities, tidal waves, tornadoes, floods, volcanos, blizzards,
natural as well as man made disasters. . .
I am asked where is my God.
How dare he allow such suffering. . .
Why doesn’t He stop the madness, the chaos?

But wait, I thought I was told He doesn’t exist, we don’t have room for Him, I was wrong for my belief in Him. . .
We rewrote Him, I reply, remember. . .
We made Him smaller.
We made Him our own.
We didn’t want to be transformed into His likeness, we wanted, rather, to transform Him to our likeness, our image, our idea, our ideal. . .

Hear the words of the ancient psalmist. . .

“You have rebuked the insolent;
cursed are they who stray from your commandments!”

Psalm 119:21

And hear now the words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while he was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp awaiting execution. . .the writing was to be a manuscript written of his reflection of Psalm 119. . .

God hates the insolent, those who despise the Word of God and the faithful. Pride before God is the root of all disobedience, all violence, all irresponsibility. Pride is the root of all rebellion and destruction. Confronting all pride and insolence, however, is a fearful warning, of which the proud themselves comprehend nothing but the faithful do: it is the gospel. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). The cross of Jesus Christ, which shows that God is with the weak and the humble, is God’s rebuke to the insolent. They may achieve victory over all human beings, but against God they will come to nought.
Whoever believes in the gospel sees the Word of God hanging over the insolent of this earth. The preaching of the Word of God is the only serious rebuke to a humanity grown proud. But along with his Word, God has also given sign of his might. In the midst of history, here and there, God’s rebuke can be seen, and the community of the faithful look with shuddering and amazement at the proud, who even now in their time fall and are destroyed. They are kept from any hypocritical certainty, however, because they see that innocent people are always destroyed along with the proud; and so the visible judgements of God remain hidden and obscure even for the faithful. Only the Word remains incontrovertibly clear when it pronounces its curse on the godless: “Cursed are they who stray from your commandments!” In the laws it says ” Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut.27:26). Can we speak this word without being convicted by it ourselves? Is it a word only for others and for ourselves? The curse upon the transgressors of the law of God is God’s right and. . .

Bonhoeffer’s words of his manuscript break off at this point. . . he never finished the manuscript. . . on April 9, 1944 he was executed on the direct orders of Adolph Hitler, exactly two weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

The psalm ends. . .Turn from me shame and rebuke,
for I have kept your decrees.
Even though rulers sit and plot against me,
I will meditate on your statutes.
Fro your decrees are my delight,
and they are my counselors.

A stranger in a strange land indeed. . .

What’s in a commandment?

“God gave us free agency, and then gave us the commandments to keep us free.”
― Cecil B. DeMille

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(lone sparrow / Julie Cook / 2015)

Just hearing the word “commandment” can make me feel somewhat oppressed, burdened, guilty, poorly behaved and much like a naughty little child. As in there is this heavy, as in literally heavy two tablets, full of laws hovering over my head which I’m suppose to be living my life by. Wanting but not always feeling as if I’m following them to the letter of the Law. Oh I don’t mean those biggie rules. . .the whole murder and stealing business. . .I try to stay away from those, but its to some of the lesser ones I think most of us falter over—as in who isn’t a bit envious of a neighbor’s windfalls and who among us hasn’t fallen at the foot of a golden calf such as our fixation with our gadgets, cars, clothes, food, yada, yada, yada. . .

As I continue reading Meditating On The Word by Dietrich Bonhoeffer with translation by David McI. Gracie, I have reached the final section of the small devotional. The book closes out with Bonhoeffer’s commentary of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 or as it is known in Hebrew “Ashrei temimei derech” (happy are those whose way is perfect) is the longest Psalm, as well as chapter, in the Bible. The psalm is divided into 22 stanzas with each stanza containing 8 verses. Psalm 119 was supposedly Bonhoeffer’s favorite psalm and he began his reflection, intending it as a devotional for the young seminarians he was instructing, but this was all just shortly before his involvement in the German resistance and Bonhoeffer never finished his commentary. Bonhoeffer has chosen to reflect on a section at a time making this particular commentary the longest in this little devotional.

With life proving to be a great challenge this week as each daily crisis builds upon the next crisis, my own sense of well-being, nerves, fortitude, heart and spirit have come under siege.
With aching spirit, dejected soul, tear streaked face I have crawled into bed each night fretful and filled with dread, despair and grave concern.

It is indeed during such hard times of life–those times that are most painful, challenging, and traumatic. . .those times when we are filled to the top and overflowing with weariness, fatigue, sorrow and sadness, that just as a lost child may cry out to a parent, I, you, me cry out.
“Hear me Oh Lord. . .”

It is at such ebbing times that we find our thoughts, soul, mind and heart in unison crying out to the One and only One who we know and think and hope can offer us help.

The Great I AM
Jehovah
Yahweh
G-D (as those most devout of the Hebrew faith do not find it possible to even write His name as it is the most holy of names)
God Almighty
Heavenly Father
Abba
Adonai
Elohim

His presence often comes in the form of an unexplained peace, a needed inner strength, the aid of a stranger or friend who comes calling out of the blue, a profound wisdom, or the opening of a window when every door is slammed and locked shut.
His Being comes to us in song, words of wisdom, a warm embrace, a gentle breeze, or a fierce wind.
And even frustratingly, He may simply come to us as Silence. . .
But rest assured, whenever we call, come He does.

As I was reading over the devotional’s commentary regarding God’s commandments two nights ago, I was suddenly struck by God’s power as mirrored by Bonhoeffer’s own reflections on the subject. . .

4 You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them.

That in this entire psalm God is addressed, and not human beings, is shown by the “you” with which the one who is praying now turns to God. Nor do the commandments stand in the center of this psalm, it is rather the One who commands. Not an “it”, an idea, but a “you” meets us in the commandments. A further sign of this is found in the Hebrew word for “commandments” in this verse. It is a word that cannot be translated by a single word of ours. It derives from the verb for seeking, visiting, paying attention to. Hence, the commandments are what God looks at, pays attention to, and the means by which he seeks and visits the human being. The commandments then reflect God’s way toward the human being. They have a definite purpose and goal for me. They are not given for their own sake, but for our sake, that we “should fully keep them.” We ought to keep them in the sense of holding fast to them; indeed, we should do so fully, with all our might, so that we do not lose them or let them be torn away from us. God’s commandment is not only here for the moment, but for the duration. It is intended to penetrate deep within us and to be held fast in all situations of life.

Did it ever occur to any of us that God’s decreed commandments were not merely sets of laws, the proverbial dos and don’ts for human beings, but rather that these commandments were actually extensions of God’s “visiting” and “seeking us,” His actually paying attention to us??!!

That God, the most Holy and Omnipotent God would, though His words, wish to visit us, seek us, pay us attention. . .

So as I closed the book for the night, turning off the light and laying back onto my pillow while staring blankly out into the dark, contemplating my own perception of the idea of a commandment, I felt a tremendous sense of Power that was far greater than the trials of my latest tribulations. The knowledge that there is One who is greater than any suffering or pain who simply wishes to seek me out with His Laws which sweetly translates into Love, left me rather amazed. I also found a Peace along with a new and deeper appreciation for what most of my life had seemed to be a mere list of rules and heavenly dos and don’ts.

And as I closed my eyes, I whispered into the darkness. . .may Your will be my own. . . .

Innocence and sorrow

I leave to children exclusively, but only for the life of their childhood, all and every the dandelions of the fields and the daisies thereof, with the right to play among them freely, according to the custom of children, warning them at the same time against the thistles. And I devise to children the yellow shores of creeks and the golden sands beneath the water thereof, with the dragon flies that skim the surface of said waters, and and the odors of the willows that dip into said waters, and the white clouds that float on high above the giant trees.
Williston Fish, “A Last Will,” 1898

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

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(the forgotten antique toy soldiers of a long ago childhood / Julie Cook / 2015)

Who among us has not known his or her fair share, or perhaps overtly unfair share, of sorrow and grief? Who has not railed angrily, with fiery fist raised while wearing tear streaked cheeks, cursing the unseen God to whom is lain all blame and guilt?
Who has not known the pain of suffering—either physical, emotional, mental or spiritual?
Who has not experienced the anguish of loss, the torment and frustration, as well as the helplessness, of having life totally out of ones control—unable to prevent or stop the suffering and anguish of sorrow?
Who has not demanded answers, the revealing reasons as to why the misfortune, coupled by the agonizing torment of the hows and the whys. . .

How many of us have looked recently at the news, only to see the face of the teddy bear browned-eyed young girl of idyllic youth and hope sweetly looking back at us and finding ourselves wondering how could such a joyful youthful soul fall victim to the madness half a world away— and suddenly finding that what was “over there” seems eerily now over here, effecting us all. . .all the while pondering how the God of all things past, present and future could allow such a seemingly gentle child, a girl who could have been the daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, friend of any one of us, to be snatched away in the height of her youthful quest for goodness at the hands of those who are cold, calculating and void of any sort of empathy?

The night after the story of Kayla Mueller’s death at the hands of IS, with stories swirling that she had been married off to one of the ISIS leaders as a prize of war, there seemed to be more questions then answers that were met with the overflowing grief of a family which was shared publicly Tuesday during a press conference. Yet many of the more cynical and jaded among us have been heard to wonder out loud “what foolish individual in their right mind would go over there right now. . .?”

But what we must know about human beings is that there are those among us who run to the sound of fire rather than from it. . .those who selflessly and unequivocally rush in to offer help, support, ease and comfort to those individual who are stuck in the midst of misery. They go with little to no regard of self—and if the truth be told, we are all glad they do.

Whether we agree that that region of the world is simply too dangerous for the Kayla Muellers among us to venture. . .be it the middle east, many parts of Africa, Ukraine, parts of the far east, and even the Philippines—that such places are only for the military and well trained to traverse, the truth of the matter is that where there are people and children who are caught innocently in the middle of conflict–those who suffer grievously because of the madness of others, there will always be those among us who hear, as well as heed, the call to render service and help—be we Jew, Gentile, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc—the drive to offer empathy, compassion, aid and care for our hurting fellow human beings is a hardwired trait that hides deep within our psyche–it’s just that some of us are better at hearing and heeding it than others.

Tuesday night, after having spent much of the day glued to the news and having grieved along with Kayla’s family, having noted that she was the same age as my son, having wrestled with the position of the United States in such matters as hostages and war, I found myself settling in for the evening reading over the Bonhoeffer book I have previously mentioned Meditating On The Word by Dietrich Bonhoeffer translated by David McI. Gracie.

The evenings reading was based on Psalm 34:19 A Sermon on the Suffering of the Righteous
It was a meditation that Bonhoeffer had actually written down and mailed to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge while Bonhoeffer was a prisoner in Tegel Prison near Berlin—the first of three different prisons before his subsequent execution. Bonhoeffer had already been held by the Nazi’s for over a year, his future uncertain. He had just become engaged prior to his arrest, and with it now being over a year away from those he loved, the confinement was wearing on his soul.

Once again, as the created and not being the Creator, there are those events in life that we simply will never truly understand no matter how hard we try. We can write them off as this or that, we can grow bitter and cold or simply empty and numb but there are those moments when we will find ourselves at a loss for words, a loss of understanding. It will be there, in the midst of the suffering and sorrow, that we will meet God. . .

I want to offer the following excerpt of the meditation as I find its subject most timely and most enlightening. . .(the translator has chosen to mix up the use of the feminine and masculine pronoun)

Psalm 34:19
The righteous person must suffer many things;
but the lord delivers him out of them all.

1 Peter 3:9
Repay not evil with evil or railing with railing,
but rather bless, and know that you are called to this,
so that you should inherit the blessing.

The righteous person suffers in this world in a way that the unrighteous person does not.
The righteous person suffers because of many things that for others seem only natural and unavoidable. The righteous person suffers because of unrighteousness, because of the senselessness and absurdity of events in the world. She suffers because of the destruction of the divine order of marriage and the family. She suffers not only because it means privation for her, but because she recognizes something ungodly in it. The world says: that is how it is, always will be, and must be. The righteous person says: It ought not to be so; it is against God. This is how one recognizes the righteous person, by her suffering in just this way. She brings, as it were, the sensorium of God into the world; hence, she suffers as God suffers in this world.
“But the Lord delivers him.”
God’s deliverance is not to be found in every experience of human suffering. But in the suffering of the righteous God’s hope is always there, because he (the righteous person) is suffering with God. God is always present with him. The righteous person knows that God allows him to suffer so, in order that he may learn to love God for God’s own sake. In suffering, the righteous person finds God. That is his deliverance.
Find God in your separation and you will find deliverance!
The answer of the righteous person to the sufferings that the world causes her is to bless.
That was the answer of God to the world that nailed Christ to the cross: blessing.
God does to repay like with like, and neither should the righteous person.
No condemning, no railing, but blessing.
The world would have no hope if this were not so.
The world lives and has its future by means of the blessing of God and of the righteous person. Blessing means laying one’s hands upon something and saying: You belong to God in spite of all. It is in this way that we respond to the world that causes us such suffering. We do not forsake it, cast it out, despise or condemn it. Instead, we recall it to God, we give it hope, we lay our hands upon it and say: God’s blessing come to you; may God renew you; be blessed, you dear God-created world, for you belong to your creator and redeemer. We have received God’s blessing in our happiness and in our suffering. And whoever has been blessed herself cannot help but pass this blessing on to the next one; yes, wherever she is, she must be herself a blessing. The renewal of the world, which seems so impossible, becomes possible in the blessing of God.
As Jesus ascended to heaven, “he lifted up his hands and blessed” his followers. We hear him speak to us in this hour: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Amen

“Awaken in my soul a great longing for you. . .”

As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you O God
Psalm 42:1

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(a group of deer nibbling out back / Julie Cook / 2015)

I picked up a nice little new book during the holidays, Meditating On The Word by Dietrich Bonhoeffer–translated by David McI. Gracie

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as we remember, was the young German Lutheran pastor who was arrested in 1943 and was subsequently sent to a Nazi death camp for his part in the resistance movement and attempted assassination of Hitler— eventually being executed by hanging on the personal order of Adolph Hitler just two weeks before Hitler’s own suicide.

David Gracie is an Episcopal priest who currently works for the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

The gist of this little book is to offer instruction to the faithful on how to utilize the Psalms when practicing and honing the act and art of meditation as a prayer tool.
The book reflects on the importance Bonhoeffer placed on meditation, as he often instructed his young seminarians at Finkenwalde to make a daily habit of at least an hour’s time spent in meditation and prayer, remarking that “every day in which I do not penetrate more deeply into the knowledge of God’s Word in Holy Scripture is a lost day for me”

Last evening I was reading the chapter on Psalm 42 which begins with a sermon Bonhoeffer preached on the 6th Sunday after Easter, June 2, 1935.
It opens with the first line of the Psalm. . .“As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you O God. . .” The following excerpt is “translated” by Father Gracie who chose to inject the use of the feminine pronoun—which normally I would prefer the more traditional masculine but in this instance, I found it most personal and reflective as it seemed to echo my own thoughts. . .

“Have you heard the bellowing of a hart penetrating a cold autumn night in the forest? The whole forest trembles under its longing cry. Here a human soul cries out, not for some earthly good, but for God. A devout person, from whom God is far removed, longs for the God of grace and salvation. She knows the God to whom she cries. She is not the seeker after the unknown God who will never find anything. She once experienced God’s help and nearness. Therefore, she does not call into the void. She calls for her God. We can only rightly seek God when God has already revealed himself to us, when we have found him before.
Lord God, awaken in my soul a great longing for you.
You know me and I know you.
Help me to seek you and find you. Amen

I was struck by the correlation between the cries of a hart, and the cries of a human soul. The use of the word hart is a Medieval word used simply as another term for what we would refer to as a stag or deer. I can’t say that our local white tail deer “cry out” as the description notes but I do think that the bugling of an elk would be more along the lines of such a reverberating sound, such as a hart may have made, which would certainly penetrate the stillness of any autumn night.

I can only image the anguishing sound of a human soul crying out loud to an unseen God, as I have been known to offer my own fair share of crying out, or perhaps more like screaming out, into a void.
Yet the key here is that my cries did not fly out into a void, as it often seems during such a raw moment of emotion, but rather out towards an omnipotent God.

To be in anguish and / or agony and to cry out as a wounded animal is most often done out of frustration, a sense of utter loneliness or from a sheer sense of total isolation and abandonment. To cry out into the night, to the wind, to the emptiness, to the abyss, to the void, to the nothingness is the ultimate primal act of anguish—but here’s the thing or actually the pure wonder of a seemingly empty hopelessness of which Bonhoeffer points out. . .he notes that she, me, you cries out not into a void, but rather the cry being uttered is to God. “We can only rightly seek God when God has already revealed himself to us. . .when we have found him before”

Having, at some point in the time of life prior to the seemingly single moment of separation, isolation, and devastation– there was once a prior encounter between the created and the Creator. He had revealed Himself. We cry out not to the nothingness but rather we cry out to the God of all of time.
We may cry out in frustration, in sorrow or in anger, but cry we do–and it is at this single moment, this nanosecond of time, when life, our life, is never to be the same.

Awaken in my soul O Lord, the longing which leads me to seek, to seek you and you alone. . .