Signs

I could feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an older gentleman. He pulled out a pen and a notepad and wrote “Plain M&Ms?” I looked at the candy aisle and could see that the spot where they should be was vacant. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate that to him. I opted to write it down as well, “We’re out, sorry.” It seemed only fair. I think that’s when I decided to start learning American Sign Language. As it turns out, he wouldn’t be the only deaf customers to frequent the store. Now generally, the best time to learn a language is before you actually need to use it, so when you need it you already know it. But better late than never.

My fascination with ASL started with the clubs that my school offered, there was one called Sunsign Club – all the students did was learn and converse in ASL, which would have been great, but we can only be in one club at a time and I had a passion for Spanish (and I still do -hablo español muy bien!) Still, I had always wanted to learn it, it’s just that I didn’t have a framework or any idea where to start. Fortunately, the internet is a game changer and I found out that lifeprint.com offers free ASL lessons.

Learning to sign has begun to make me more aware of people, watching these lessons without audio has given me a glimpse into a world without hearing, and helped me to appreciate the simple joys of communication. Have you noticed how signers are so much more expressive? To convey how something makes them feel or describe how something is, they have to use facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. When we use words alone to describe something, it just feels a little lazy. “His house is big.” and “His house is huge.” Are just two statements with no real punch to them. I’m so used to hearing, listening for cues and definitions and explanations that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on and being said in the videos. Turns out, that’s what Daphne felt as she tried to keep up with the Kennishes on Switched at Birth when they first met. I know it’s a fictional t.v. show, but it’s the first one to feature the Deaf community for mainstream audiences to this degree. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye also gets an honorable mention for it’s use of ASL. It can only be a good thing – and I hope there’s more of it. Consider this, the only reason why so many of us know what “hasta la vista” is is because it’s from Terminator 2 and we got used to it. We picked up “mi casa, su casa” and “que sera sera” along the way. Once you get started learning a little bit, it gets easier to learn more. So, I hope, it will be with ASL, something we will see more and more of and maybe one day be bilingual in so that we can communicate with everyone. Communication is connection, it’s being understood and understanding others, it’s something so many of us take for granted until there’s a hic-cup and we suddenly don’t have it.

I think learning ASL has also helped me to see something I would have missed otherwise. I was watching the Pursuit of Happyness the other day. When I first saw the movie a few years ago, I didn’t notice that in the worship scene there was a man signing the lyrics of the song the choir was singing, I saw him this time. I thought back and no church I had ever attended had sign language interpreters. We also never had deaf people either. Most people, me included, don’t see needs until a need needs to be filled. We don’t see the need to learn ASL until we need to use it. But say a deaf man or woman walks into a church without interpreters – will they see the need to stay if nobody knows how to talk to them? Would you like to know how to strike up a conversation with them? One of my favorite stories is that of Martha’s Vineyard from a hundred or so years ago. Deafness was such a common occurence, that even hearing islanders would learn sign language. Men would sign to one another as they were working the fields, women would learn sign language to buy and sell things at shops, even children would use sign language at church to communicate, nobody was disadvantaged or excluded from having a normal life. I think we can learn from their example.

One other thing, ASL just isn’t limited to the states, it’s widely recognized among Deaf communities throughout Africa, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Sinagpore – it’s considered a bridge language that helps bring people of different cultures together. I know it’s not easy to just learn a language, it takes time and practice – but if you do choose to learn it, at least you’ll know it for when (not if) you will need it.

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Rememberance

I’ve been selling a lot of artificial flowers in Reds, Whites, and Blues lately – they’re for the gravestones of loved ones, they will be cleaned up, left for them, and remembered for their sacrifice. It certainly is a sight to behold.

It reminds me of the Day of the Dead celebration I witnessed when I visited my friend a few years ago. Her culture does much the same thing, clean up the gravestones, leave behind flowers, candles, and they spend the whole day remembering every single relative they lost. Instead of a few gravestones here and there being given special care, each and every one of them would be taken care of. The whole cemetery would fill with colors and flowers and signs and incense and light.

I haven’t lost very many relatives, but the ones I have lost are buried really far away. There are two cemeteries where there are a lot of relatives from generations past – my grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents and their children on one side of the family and my great grandparents, great great grandparents going even further back on the other side of the family. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen pictures of their gravestones on FindAGrave.com I have also seen a few pictures from a civil war group who came to give one of their fallen soldiers a proper burial. After all this time … he was remembered.

I think a ‘Day of the Dead’ is just what we need, a day to remember everyone who ever lived and isn’t with us anymore. I plan to take a look at the cemeteries this weekend and remember our fallen fighters, but also the ones they fought for. I know that it’s our lot to fight wars, but I’ll still long for peace so that no family has to be separated this way again and in the mean-time, I’ll wish that our warriors rest in peace and their families enjoy the hard-won peace that cost them so very much.

Seamless: Trusting in God’s Providence

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We’re talking this week about God’s provision and the ways we can trust him more than the situations we see around us… The theme we can see this week that runs from Moses to the eventual conquering of the Promised Land is God’s desire for us to trust Him as our provider and he wants us to act out of faith more than our perception of circumstance… Like the Midwives who feared God more than the circumstance of Pharaoh’s orders. Or Moses’ mother who showed him her faith by trusting God. Too often we’re in the river, holding onto the basket guiding it down stream, while we might say that we trust God, our actions say otherwise…

What follows is a discussion of Moses and then the distrustful and disrespectful Children of Israel (Exodus 16:2-3 ESV). I’d cut the Israelites some slack, after hundreds years of God providing for them by allowing them to be turned into Egyptian slaves and using the Egyptians to house and feed them in return for all their hard work, wouldn’t it be natural that they’re somewhat uncertain of how God’s going to provide for them as a free nation? She boils down the story about getting manna as one of God giving us exactly what we need. It doesn’t always mean that we’re going to recognize when God gives us exactly what we need, but he always does give us exactly what we need. After mentioning how it’s a dark time because everybody would rather be slaves again than to starve in the desert, she points out how focused they are on the situation than on the big picture. It’s easy to say that when you’re in a relatively secure position. When you have nice clothes, a spacious house, secure income, plentiful food and water, it’s one thing. When you are wandering in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on your back, no idea where to find water, let alone food, wondering if you can survive the elements, all you can do is focus on the day-to-day, the basics.

I remember watching a documentary on the Appalachian Trail. I noticed that absolutely nobody decided to wake up one morning and walk the trail. Everyone carried backpacks full of supplies. Whenever any hiker was ill-prepared and ran out of food – there would always be someone who had brought extra and could help them out. Imagine the Israelites in that situation – hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children of all ages who are ill-prepared for this hike. Between all of them, there’s just not enough of what they have to last them the next week or month let alone the next forty years. We have this twenty/twenty hindsight – but were we in their shoes, we would be doing exactly what they did.

Manna means “what is it?” When the Israelites were asking what it was, God responds by saying: “You don’t need to know exactly what it is, you just need to know that I provided it for you and that it’s enough. Then she mentions Caleb and the other spies that spied on the Promised Land. (Numbers 14:6-10 ESV) We see this pattern over and over again, we can choose to see things the way that our circumstances show us they are or we can trust God… God has been very clear to His people in the Old Testament, if you obey my commands, I will take care of you … IF … you have got to obey me. So the Israelites wander for 40 years, the entire generation of complaining, grumbling, untrustworthy, and disrespectful Israelites die out. The next time around, Rahab enters the picture. When the Israelites begin to move in, they don’t do what they’re supposed to and instead of conquering certain people groups, they ally themselves with them. They don’t see them as all that bad. We cannot trust our perception, we can only trust the Lord… The mantle of leadership shifts to Joshua and before he dies, he teaches: IF IF IF IF you obey – these are the ground rules – and when they intermarry and start to worship other idols and they do all these things they’re not supposed to, well guess what, they get pummeled. They lose battles exactly like God said they would and the cycle of Judges begins. The heart if this is that they’re not taking God seriously and they let these things get so bad they’re screaming for mercy. Do not think that God is naive, He knows that they are going to continue in this and He loves them and Scripture says that he is so moved that he intervenes over and over again only for them to continue falling into the same patterns.

Odd. I always thought the point of Judges was that no matter how many times you make the same mistakes, God never says: “I’m sick and tired of saving you guys. Can’t you just obey me for five minutes? Here on out, you’re on your own.” God doesn’t give up on rescuing them, he does it as many times as they need to be rescued. I’m also not terribly impressed with the IF … obey aspect of this conversation. We should know by know that some things are beyond our human capacity and that’s one of them. Sure, we can obey for only so long, but then the ifs start to pile up. God’s time is infinite, ours isn’t. If God doesn’t pull through in a reasonable amount of time, then it should be surprising that we lose our way when we think that despite our obedience, God’s not keeping up his end of the bargain. Sarah had Isaac when she was 90 years old. Sarah lived to be 127 years old. Assuming that the average woman lives to be 85, then she was the equivalent of having been 60 when she had her son (in our time-frame). Could you blame a 60 year old woman who had struggled with infertility and childlessness for arranging a surrogacy in order to see God’s promise fulfilled after being told year after year, decade after decade that God would keep his promise … eventually? It’s not that we don’t take God seriously, it’s that we don’t always see evidence that God’s keeping his end of the bargain. It’s just that we’ve waited and waited and begin to lose hope when the years turn into decades. At least when we get ourselves rescued, we get proof that He hasn’t forgotten us, but why couldn’t have done that every now and then when we weren’t in trouble? A simple update, a status reminder – “Hey, I heard your prayer. I’m working on it. Can you wait three more months? I think you’ll be surprised when I come through for you.”

So one of the sweetest stories is that of Boaz and Ruth… The reward of her obedience was provision by her redeemer.

And for the Israelites disobedience, God always provided them a redeemer to rescue them as many times as it took. Obedience is not the key here – if we could have been obedient, there would have been no need for our own redeemer to be obedient in our place.

It’s pretty easy to credit God with providence for the good things, food falling from the sky, houses built in the land, farmland already tilled. But it’s not so easy to accept his providence when it takes a bad form like having been made into slaves or having raised up enemies to test them. We can’t just focus on the good providence without weighing it against the bad providence and wondering what kind of God is the Old Testament God. One who will save people only if they obey him? Or one who saves even this disobedient?

It feels like this study glosses over a lot of the unimportant text just so we can arrive at a point that is part of the seamless story that it wishes to present by not glossing over the important points. Sure, you can connect Boaz as a descendant of Rahab, you can connect Rahab to the spies she helped, you can connect the spies to Joshua as the one who took over after Moses, you can connect Moses to Pharaoh, you can connect another Pharaoh to Joseph, you can connect Joseph to Israel – but you miss out on the finer details of what’s going on and why those stories matter because they form loose threads and side-plots compared to the overall narrative. The point is, they aren’t in the Bible because they’re pointless even if they aren’t the nicest of stories. Just how much have we missed in order to talk about God asking “Where are you?”, “What’s your name?”, and “Do you trust God as your provider?” Read through Genesis all the way through Ruth and you’ll see that there is quite a bit that we could have talked about, but didn’t just so we could talk about what we did talk about.

The A

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I don’t read as much as I should. I don’t know why that is. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I happened to have started on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter not long ago. It baffles me how a story about an adulterous woman managed to become a best seller back in the day when the heroes of books were usually gallant knights or stalwart soldiers or rich men that ought to be viewed as heroic examples overcoming difficult circumstances to prove themselves worthy. One might expect the story of that day and age to be written the other way around, how a righteous community dealt with sin in it’s midst, turned over the sinners so that they could be punish for a time in the hopes it would lead them to repentance and restoration.

I’ve seen similar attitudes in authoritarian churches that believe in having a plurality of elders in charge and discipline ought to be carried out for the same reason. Perhaps the similarity is more than coincidence, some call themselves Neo-Calvinist and others Neo-Puritan. I just wish all who would identify by that name would read the Scarlet Letter and put themselves in the story.

Would they be one of the righteous townspeople who segregate themselves from the sinners as much as possible to avoid being corrupted by the contagion? Would they be one of the gossips whose imagination would implicate the sinner in new and more creative sins? Would they be like one of the children calling the sinners terrible names, teasing and taunting them? Would they be the righteous pastors, condemning sinners and carrying out judgement and discipline as needed in order to save them? How would their perspective change if they were Hester or Arthur or Roger or Pearl?

The Puritans were people just like we are. They have the same faults we do. They had the advantage of making their mistakes in a time when they could get away with it. Nobody dared question them because that was like questioning God. Today, those who follow in their footsteps aren’t so lucky. They can and will be and are being questioned because we know that they don’t speak for God.

We might not force sinners to wear A’s or H’s or T’s or L’s or letters for anyone else to see as a mark of our shame, but even without them, Christians can be just as cruel and unforgiving as others and sometimes we’re more-so because we act on behalf of God and we know what stance He takes about sin. Which we mean other’s sin, not ours. He always forgives us. Which is why we have to learn to forgive others. We have to learn not be gossips who teach the next generation to hate or be unkind to anyone who has had a moral failure. We need to learn not to put pastors on a pedestal that’s so high above us or believe that they can do no wrong. We’re all human; we’re all capable of anything – good or bad.

Fortunately for us, we can look at an account of a community that dealt with sin the wrong way and ask ourselves how best to minister to everyone the right way were we a part of the story. Can you imagine how much differently the story would have turned out if instead of shaming Hester and treating her as a marriage-breaking family-destroying enemy of God one of the wise women of the church had reached out to her and helped her to raise Pearl? What if someone came to her defense in a scene like this one –

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them.  As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said,“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman,“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” ?

Whether we know it, we are a part of someone else’s story. We aren’t like the characters in a book who can’t change and are condemned to let things play out according to the author’s vision. We can choose to reach out to someone who’s hurting. We can choose to listen. We can choose to speak up for someone the church refuses to listen to. We can choose to drop our righteous stones and stop branding sinners as souls forever lost. So what part will you play?

Resistance is not Futile

With punishing economic woes, frustration and anger had begun to build up in the populace. Fear, worry, and hatred weren’t that difficult to muster for “them” the cause of all of their problems. An inspiring leader known for his rhetoric was able to whip the crowd into a frenzy. He marshalled everyone to action promising them peace, hope, security, prosperity, and in surpassing measure to the good old days that everyone remembered with nostalgia. That was the situation that catapulted Adolph Hitler to power.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that hate groups and anti-government militias have increased in number and are continuing to rise, coinciding with the increasing presence of fear and hate speech in mainstream politics. Our economy is not the powerhouse that it once was – so for many of us the woes are not over. It’s easy to become frustrated and angry when dealing with government bureoucracy these days. Conveniently, we even have a few choice people groups that can we can label as “them” – illegal immigrants, Muslim reffugees, LGBTQIA populations. All we’re missing is a firebrand of a leader or a charismatic take-charge president promising us solutions for all of our problems.

Having spent the last while watching about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, I learned that the vast majority of people do not have the tools to resist authority. When the teachers began balking at administiring electric shocks to the obviously unwilling learner, the experimenter would urge them to continue like this: “please continue” “the experiment requires that you continue” “it is absolutely essenial that you continue” “you have no other choice, you must go on”. It was discovered that 65% of people complied with the experimenter to continue administering electric shocks.

Now, it seems, it’s more timely to ask ourselves: “what are the tools one needs in order to resist authority?” The thing is – I don’t know. With the experiment so famous, it’s not as if it can be repeated until we discern a pattern of teachings or beliefs that increase our resistance to amoral authority while continuing to comply with moral authority. So it’s up to each of us to figure out what we can do to increase our resistance to hatred and fear – the two common elements in most past, present, and future atrocities.

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

I know that when people get right down to it, fear is a powerful motivator. We’re afraid what would happen if we didn’t have that gun. We’re afraid what would happen if that border didn’t have a fall. We’re afraid of what would happen if we opened the doors to let those refugees settle among us, if we let them build mosques, if those mosques were fronts for regular people to be radicalized, if those radicalized people orchastrated lone-wolf attacks all the time and killed people we love. We just can’t take that chance that the pregnant refugee is no danger to us because the child might grow up to be something dangerous. Best not to let her in – better safe than sorry. Besides, we don’t want all that violence we hear about in Northern Mexico to be commonplace in the southern states. Maybe a few illegal immigrants are hard-working family-men, but too many are mules for the drug trade trying to secure smuggling routes for the dangerous stuff. They’ve taken enough jobs away from the natural-born citizens or legitamate immigrants as it is. See how easy it is to rationalize our fears?

The wrong leader in office can not only rationalize our fears, but legitimize them to secure the power to do anything he feels is necessary to secure his power. Is this not the lesson of history? I wish I could give better advice than: “figure out how not to give into fear and hatred” but for each of us it’ll be different. None of us can really know what we’re capable of …

That experiment had teachers administering electric shocks to the learner, they could hear him scream, shout, bang against the walls … and eventually silence. They didn’t like what they were doing. They wanted to stop. They wanted to check on the man to see if he was still alive all the while the experimenter would say the same sentences in the same order: “please continue …”.

It might not be that far from now when we have that charismatic fire-brand of a leader who promises us everything we ever wanted if we just keep pressing switches and triggers when he says “Fire!”. One thing is certain, without the tools to resist authority, we will be doomed to repeat history. Hitler wasn’t the first. Atrocities can and still do happen. We have many of the ingredients in place but we don’t have to make the same mistake. Our resistance to amoral authority might not save lives, it’s certain to us killed; but it’s never wrong to do the right thing.

Sight

We always see things from the same angle … It’s much less trouble that way. Besides, it makes more sense to grow down and not up.

Something that recently happened reminded me of one of my favorite books: The Phantom Tollbooth. Apparently it’s a great read for people who are having spiritual issues and need to develop a framework of re-thinking by challenging what they believe in a non-threatening way. Anyway, the character that I was reminded of was Alec Bings. You see, Alec was born in the air. His head is at his adult height. All his life he will grow down until he is capable of walking on the ground. Milo wasn’t so certain it was a good thing to always see things from the same angle. As he grows, the angle from which he sees things will change.

I remember this massive red slide in the park that I used to play in as a kid – it was the biggest slide I had seen anywhere. I used to climb up forever just to reach the top so that I could slide down – this slide was spiral shaped, so it sent me around, and around, and around. A few years later, we decided to see what the old park was like. Nothing had changed but the slide seemed smaller. It wasn’t so much of a climb and it didn’t seem to go around as much. It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

But of course, as we grow more than our height changes – our perspective alters with each and every experience that we have. We don’t see things the exact same way. Vegetables that we thought we hated turn out to be delicious. Songs we thought we liked turn out to be horrible. And yet, some things we love don’t change. But we do change.

Alec’s family had another quirk … Alec could see through things, but never what was directly ahead of him. Everyone else saw everything differently – one relative saw to things, another under things, and still another saw the other side of every question. All of them had a different point of view.

So I suppose you could say that I’m well versed in this idea that all of us have a different perspective when we try to answer the same question. I know that my background shapes and informs my understanding. For me, my thoughts are something like stars in the sky – they line up to form a constellation and it results in rather stellar post; at least, from my point of view. Someone who thinks more like branches on a tree might misunderstand me as I might misunderstand them. But all that matters is that we both learn something, right?

What scares me though is that the way that Christianity is taught, it can create a narrow understanding from which to draw one’s perspective. In theory, if you train ten people with the one right and true understanding of Scripture, then they’ll all see the same things in the same way and believe the same things, right?

But that’s not a picture that the Bible gives us. One metaphor that is heavily used is that of a human body. Different parts, different functions, different gifts – and yet united. By training people to be the exact same way, it doesn’t take into account how the Holy Spirit might move one to be a foot, another a hand, another a knee, another an elbow, and the rest to all be something different. Feet and hands and knees and elbows should not be identical or indistinguishable. They should all allow their own perspective to manifest so that they can provide the church with a more complete sense of vision.

It does not bode well for the body to war against itself, branding other parts to be heretics or demanding them to reform – to change to their point of view and forsake their own. No two people can see things the same way. I just wish that other people saw it that way.

New Versions of the Same Old Story

After watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was disappointed to see the reviews that called it a remake of A New Hope. Sure, there were a lot of similarities. The movies are set in the same universe. It would be unbelievable if it were to be completely different – as unbelievable as the sequel to ‘Water World’ being set thirty years after the original on the same world, only this time in a world-wide desert. As unacceptable as the sequel to Star Trek being set in the Star Gate Universe.

To be honest, human history is the same old story, the same song and dance. We see it in Judges, First Kings and Second Kings; either the people of Israel would go their own way and end up in trouble that only the judge whom God raised up for them could get them out of, or each generation of ruler was progressively worse than the one before in imaginative ways of doing evil. The point isn’t so much that it is the same story told over again, it’s whether or not the next generation is doomed to follow in the footprints of the one before it.

In the Star Wars universe, it’s been established that Luke is the last Jedi, members of his family are strong in the force – and since Jedi excel at turning from the light side to dark and back again, it shouldn’t be surprise that Luke’s relatives are force sensitive and on both sides. So it should not be a surprise that the new story proceeds from the old story. It should be understood that the same basic rules still apply because the concept of the Force is very well explained in previous stories and it would stretch belief if it were to break it’s own rules. For every vacuum of power, somebody rises to fill it – and a few decades is barely enough time to restore peaceful order to a galaxy ruled by the dark-side, so it should be no surprise that the First Order took advantage of the situation to gain what foothold they did.

So when I noticed some familiar elements, I wondered: “Will this character be able to resist the temptation of the dark side? Will that character be redeemed and restored to the light side? If so, will people find it easy to trust him? What does it look like when a former dark-side devotee becomes a reformed light-side Jedi? Will this other character fall under the power of the dark side? If so, what motivates them to do so?

With Luke, there was never really a doubt that he would remain on the light-side. With Anakin, we saw him fall to the dark-side, but we never saw the struggle of a him returning to the light-side, wrestling with the destruction he caused and deaths he was responsible for while avoiding the lure of being called back into the dark-side. With Leia, she barely began to understand that she had some force sensitivity, but she never seemed to want to explore it. With Han, the question was whether or not he would revert to being a shady smuggler or would continue to change for the better.

To some degree, these have to be the same story just to explore every variation there is in the theme – there has to be something good that fights against the something evil, the judge that is raised up to rescue everybody for the umpteenth time, the king that is more evil than the king before him – just to see if there will be a time when peace reigns for decades or a good ruler will come to the throne – having learned from the mistakes of the past and set all the wrongs right.

This is, after all, the human story – about betrayal and redemption, right and wrong, good and evil, cruelty and compassion – whether it’s in one of our oldest books or newest films, we are not to hate the repetitive patterns that exist but look out for the hope that as bad as things gets, there’s always a choice and there’s always hope even for the worst of us and forgiveness for the best of us, and when we lose our way, there will always be someone to help us find it again.