Saturday, October 26, 2013

Neutering the Gospel

A friend of mine is in a Bible Study group that she describes as "extremely stressful."  When she said this I was puzzled.
"Your Bible Study group is stressful?
She nodded. We were sitting in the comfy seats and lowered lights of a small downtown theatre house waiting for a play to start.
"There is one lady there who just doesn't like me and she refuses to speak to me."
"What on earth for?" I asked. My friend is quiet, unassuming - she is about as meek and mild as they come. I could not imagine someone not speaking to her, unless of course they had no idea she was even there.
"She's mad at me because I spoke up last week at Bible Study. The lady leading the group was going on and on about how God GIVES us the faith to believe, you know that old Calvinist thing about predestination? And I just had to say something."
"What did you say?"
"I had to tell her that the noun 'it' in that verse is neutered."
"Neutered?" I knew they neutered dogs but I didn't know they did that to nouns.
She explained. "You know that verse that says: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not works, lest anyone should boast.
"Yes," I replied. This was a very well known verse in Ephesians.
"Well, the lady who leads our group was saying that the 'it' in that verse referred to faith. That God GIVES us the faith to be saved. I told her that the 'it' referred to the word salvation in the verse, not faith. The Greek word 'it' is neutered, meaning it is neither male nor female, so it couldn't be referring to the word faith."
The lights went out in the theatre cuing us all to be quiet. A tall man in a tuxedo walked out on stage to remind us to turn off our cell phones and enjoy the show and we never got to continue the conversation. I I never did get to figure out whether faith was a feminine word? Was grace a masculine word? Or was it neutered too? Maybe faith was spayed?
I just shook my head and patted her shoulder in the dark and whispered, "Bible Study should not be stressful." 
This was the same friend who was worried that her daughter was attending a very "liberal" church. 
The same friend who left not one, but TWO churches over Calvinism in the past few years.
The same person who said, "John MacArthur has changed over the last ten years. He is not the same man he was 10 years ago. He is a full blown Calvinist now."
The same person who objected when a woman read the Bible in front of church. I asked her why she objected and she quoted Corinthians and I Timothy verbatim. She left that church, too.
I don't give her name to protect her identity. I can tell you she has had a profound influence on me, and is a dear Christian woman whom I love, but I am starting to get more and more discouraged by what I consider to be her basic flaw.
She's neutering the Gospel.
Here's how I see it: When Bible studies are stressful because members disagree over the meaning of a particular verse, something has gone terribly wrong. When you have to know whether or not a noun has had it's tubes tied to understand the Bible, you've probably missed the point all together. When Bible study is stressful, you're focused on a word, not The Word.
I can hardly get myself to church for this very reason. I have so many scars from my days of Bible studies (where lots of word neutering took place) that I can't read the Bible without thinking there is something there I am not quite grasping, something I am missing, something above and beyond my understanding and so why even bother?  
Then I miss the whole point all together.
I miss out on God.
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th Century theologian said:

The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

In other words, we make the Bible complicated so we don't have to follow it. Or we make the Bible so complicated that we fail to follow it.
When a group of women who meet on a Wednesday night start arguing over whether a word is neutered or not, to the point that the following week one won't speak to the other, we have missed the point. We miss the verses that are easy to understand. The ones that don't need a veterinarian.
"Do all things in love." I Corinthians 16:14
"Be at peace with all..." Romans 12:18
"Be kind and compassionate towards one another..." Ephesians 4:32
And finally the very words of Christ: 
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another By this all me will know that you are my disciples, if you hvae love for one another." (John 13:34-35) 
These verses are straightforward. I don't need to know Greek. I don't need to delve deeper into the meaning behind the words, to find out if they are masculine or feminine or have been under the knife. I just need to read them and live them, which as you know is easier said that done.  It is much easier to study them. To dissect, deliberate, and debate them. And in doing so, we neuter the Gospel. We slice and dice it to the point that it is no longer fruitful.  It's message of love does not multiply.  Nothing comes out of it except bickering and divisiveness.
Bring me some anesthesia.

-Hope A. Horner,
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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Shuffle On

My neighbor told me he was ready to die.
I hadn't heard from him in a while and I knew that he was battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma among other things and I wanted to see how he was feeling so I sent him an email. This was his email back:

I was thinking of bringing you up to date on my condition because I might need your help picking up my mail. Tuesday I went in to have a PET Scan done. The results were not good. My oncologist called me yesterday to tell me that there was a problem with one of my lymph glands and that my cancer has returned. I suspect he is going to recommend surgery to me. However, I think I have had it with surgery. I'm in the process now of researching hospice care.  I'm 84 years old and no one needs me for anything. My children are doing very well. I don't consider what I'm doing now as living, I'm just existing and I'm ready to go.
No one needs me for anything..
I am ready to go...
Those last two lines boomed like thunderclaps in my head. This was the first time I had ever heard someone say they were "ready to go." Questions like lightning followed. If we are no longer "needed for anything" does that determine when it's time to go? Is that how you know? Why do we fight to stay alive, subjecting ourselves to surgeries, medications, therapies and treatments just to survive? Is it solely because we know, or believe, others need us, depend on us? When no one does, it is time to let go and head to the next world?
I immediately put away my phone (I was reading my email on it) and drove home with these questions swirling in my mind. I knocked on my neighbor’s door. After what seemed like quite a while he tottered to the door and seemed a bit surprised to open it and see me standing there.
"You know I just can't hit reply to that email." I said with a twinkle in my eye. We had always had a friendly, playful banter between us.
He made a low chuckling sound. He didn't look well. His eyes were sunk deep in his face; there were dark circles underneath them, and he was holding on to the door for support. He began to cough.
"Can I come in?" I asked.
He motioned for me to come inside.
Once inside, I turned toward him. "Can I hug you?"
He said, "Sure." and gave me a hug. He was frail, but solid, and at well over 6' it was a little like hugging a sturdy tree.

I met my neighbor, James, about five years ago when I first moved in to the neighborhood. He was a tall, lanky African American gentleman, long retired from public utility work, divorced, with three kids. He loved toffee peanuts,Obama, jazz, and MSNBC, especially “The Ed Show.”
It all started with apples.
A little while after I moved in, we chatted it up near the community mailboxes. He told me he wasn't feeling well and was battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma. His eyes looked tired and he had lost a lot of weight. His denim overalls were hanging off him making him look a little bit like a scarecrow. I went home and grabbed two granny smith apples from my fridge and wrapped them up with cellophane and a bow and placed them outside his door with a note that said, "An apple a day..."

The next evening I had a note on my door that said, "Thanks for the apples. I do feel better after eating them."
After that, we made a habit of leaving little "porch surprises" for each other. I'd slip a card under his door. He'd put a note on mine. I left him a stack of jazz CDs. Toffee peanuts, DVDs, books, magazines, oranges, chocolates and other treats went back and forth. Eventually, we exchanged emails and he'd update me on how he was feeling and I would tell him about the latest with our local Homeowner's Association. One day, he asked me about the tree I had recently planted in my backyard. He could see it over his backyard fence and was curious.
"Pineapple guava," I told him. "It grows tiny little pineapple like fruit that is just delicious. Plus, it doesn't get too big, more like a shrub with fruit."
He liked it and went out and bought one for himself. He planted it on the property line closest to mine and it grew like a weed up and over the brick fence between our two yards. Both of our pineapple guava trees bore fruit by the second year and we exchanged stories about how the birds were always the first ones to sample a taste of the sweet nectar.
A few summers ago, I bought him a bird feeder and he bought me a bird identification book. I started marking off all the birds I had seen in my backyard and the surrounding area and sending him emails to let him know. He'd tell me what the sparrows were up to in his backyard and how the jays were trying to bully the little birds away from his bird feeder. We went back and forth like this for years - little gifts, little emails. He helped me fix my fountain and hang bird feeders. I picked up his mail and swept his porch. I brought him more apples. He brought me Chinese food--the best Won Ton soup I have ever had-- if he found the strength to make it to his favorite restaurant “Paul’s Kitchen” in downtown L.A. He had a gate installed in the wrought iron fence in his backyard and allowed me to use it so I could take my dogs out on to the walking trail that ran behind our homes. He said he loved to watch the dogs hop through the gate, their tails wagging with excitement about walking somewhere other than the hot pavement of our busy townhome complex. Sometimes we would just sit in his backyard and talk about the hummingbirds, our family trips, the fires raging through Southern California. I recommended he watch the movie "Lincoln" which he did and he let me borrow "The Help" which moved me to tears. At first, I think we may have been a little bit suspicious of each other. Who is this middle-aged white girl from next door and why is she being so nice? Who is this old black man from next door and why is he being so nice? I think one of the saddest things about the world today is that when someone we don't know very well does something nice for us, it seems strange, suspicious, possibly even manipulative? Luckily, both of us ignored this modern axiom and continued to be kind. As a result, our porch exchanges eventually turned into friendship. I met his kids. His daughter invited me to Santa Fe to see the hot air balloon races. I didn't want anything from him and he didn't want anything from me. We were just being kind. Friendly. Neighborly. He was an old black man. I was white, middle aged woman. Deal with it, America.
So when I got his email that he was ready to go, I had to go to his door. No gifts in hand, just me. I couldn't just hit reply. How do you respond to that in an email?  I don't think you do.
After hugging him, he walked slowly and carefully to his favorite black leather recliner and I sat down on his couch. His place was immaculate as usual. My couches were covered in dog fur and cereal drool and his looked fit for a queen. MSNBC was on and the talking heads were bantering about the government shut-down finally being over. Once he got settled and took a few deep breaths, he began to tell me more about his health condition. It was not good. He was very weak, tired, having a hard time breathing, not in any pain, but miserable none the less. His cancer was back big time. He said he had already talked to his kids about not undergoing surgery and how he wanted to "shuffle on" as he described it. I just sat on the couch, my hands folded, nodding my head. What do you say?

So glad to hear you are ready to die.

That makes sense. Time to move on.

No! Don't die!

I didn't say any of the above. I just listened. It was one of the most awkward moments I have ever had. Finally, I swallowed even though my mouth was like a desert and said, "Well, I am glad you were able to talk to your kids. And I understand your wishes, but I would be really sad to see you go, James."
"Well, thank you, but I am ready for whatever comes next."

As if my head wasn't already spinning enough, that line really threw me. I paused to consider it, then repeated it out loud..."Whatever comes next."
He looked at me when I said this and I continued, "You seem like someone of faith to me. You are so kind. So you probably know what comes next."

He just kind of chuckled and looked away, outside, toward the bird feeder and pineapple guava tree. He took a deep breath, coughed and then turned toward me. He smiled. We had never really talked about faith or religion, but he seemed so full of faith, so Christ-like that I just assumed he was a man of faith and knew what the next life held for him. I had never encountered such peace in the faith of death and it was startling. He was ready to "shuffle on." Was he just putting on a brave face?
I sat quietly, overwhelmed with emotion, fearful and yet, calm. A coughing spell overtook him and it took him a while to settle it down. Once he caught his breath, he continued on about the great life he had had and how he just didn't want to end up in one of those "old folks homes" hunched over in a wheelchair or confined to a bed. He hoped to stay home or go somewhere comfortable and have someone take care of him before he passed. I said I understood and hoped that could happen. I said I was happy to help in any way I could. My head was spinning with the magnitude of this conversation. I thought to myself: I must be getting old if I am starting to have these types of talks. Time for a gold chain and a red Corvette to remind me I am alive!  I could have said that out loud and James would have laughed. He has a great sense of humor.

We talked for a while longer and then I said, "Well, James, I am going to get out of your hair and let you get some rest. I am happy to get your mail or anything else you need, no problem. By the way, have you tried for your groceries? They'll deliver them right to your door." He seemed very interested in this and as I let myself out, he followed me and told me how he was going to check on that first thing. I knew he would. James was an Internet savvy senior and he was the only person I know who got up earlier than I did.

That next morning, I got up early and read my email. There was one from him:
I placed an order on It wasn't easy, but I got it done. It's going to be delivered tomorrow between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m.. I really, really thank you for telling me about Von's delivery service.

My pleasure, neighbor.
James shuffled on the morning of Sunday, April 6th, 2014. When I saw his son on my porch I knew what the news was before he announced it. I had seen James only a few weeks before in his home care house in the San Fernando Valley and he didn't look well. The friendly nurses had made him very comfortable, but he was fading fast. He made it to his 85th birthday and then let go. He went the way he wanted to, peacefully.

God, thank you for James. Thank you for his kindness. His friendship. For the way he reminded me that there comes a day when we all must "shuffle on" to the bigger, better place God has prepared for us. I hope our porches will be close in the next life so we can continue to share apples, birdseed, and pineapple guava. I know James has shuffled on, but not out of your hand.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Shockingly Pink

I hate pink. 
OK, maybe hate is too strong of a word, but I am not a big fan of the color. I prefer blues and greens and even purple, but not pink. But this week, I got something pink that I really like. It was delivered to me at work in an interoffice envelope and it was quite shocking actually. I was surprised to receive it. I sat at my desk for a few seconds after I opened the interoffice envelope and just stared at it and laughed.
It was a pink notepad.
Big deal, right?
Well, it was to me.
The day before, I had been in a meeting with a group of people from another division where I work. I got to the meeting room early (surprise, surprise) and got my notes ready. I had a pen, my cell phone and a bunch of handouts. A few minutes later, two people from the division walked in and sat down across from me in the meeting room. One was carrying a pink notepad. She set it down on the desk in front of her along with a pen and her cell phone and looked up at me and smiled.  I smiled back and said, "I like your notepad. Breast cancer awareness month, right?" 
She said, "Yeah, thanks."  She fidgeted with it a little.
The notepad was bright pink, not the standard white or yellow, so there was no missing it. It definitely made a statement and reminded me that we need to rid the planet of breast cancer. She wrote all over it during the meeting, as I scrawled a few notes on handouts and on my standard yellow pad. The meeting was short, thankfully, and I wandered back to my office afterwards and got busy with other projects.
The next day I arrived at my office early, grabbed the mail out of my inbox and opened the one large interoffice envelope in the stack.
Bam! There it was. Pink notepad.
As I mentioned, I was surprised. I sat at my desk for a few moments and smiled at this unexpected gift. I hadn't asked her for one. I hadn't even hinted that I wanted one. Not to mention I barely knew her. I actually had to ask a co-worker what her name was after the meeting because for the life of me, I couldn't remember. So it wasn't like we were office buddies. We weren't even acquaintances. Yet, she took the time to send me this shockingly pink notepad just because I mentioned I like hers?
How nice.
How thoughtful.
How kind.
I sent her an email to thank her and she sent me a happy face :) reply.
Her simple gesture reminded me how much the little things matter. How the simplest little act of kindness can literally make a HUGE difference. I felt a lift in my spirit from that moment on. The world seemed a little nicer, calmer, more fun to be in. The whole "Random Act of Kindness" thing or "Pay it Forward" theme has become trite, but let's face it, it really is true that the littlest kindness goes a long way.
I wonder what kindness could do to cancer?
If we were all a little kinder to each other would it make a difference in our health? Could it take our stress down a notch? Relieve the pressure of a bad day? Set us off on the right foot at the beginning of the day so that we feel more motivated to take better care of ourselves and each other? Would it give us hope - help us believe in better days ahead? Strengthen our resolve to sleep, slow down, take a break, laugh, give a hug?
Maybe. And that could have far-reaching implications.
Blood pressure drops.
Sleep is more restful.
Less road rage, flip-offs and fender benders.
Less need to drink, smoke, overeat.
More smiling. Breathing. Loving. Helping.
All of which would lead to healthier lives. OK, so maybe it wouldn't rid us of cancer, but it wouldn't hurt. I know I felt special staring down at my new notepad. Even if it was pink.

Let's all do something shockingly pink today and see what happens.

-Hope A. Horner, 2013
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