Muffin’s Love

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.

In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.

When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.

Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.

We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.

She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.

At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.

Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.

As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Which is More Important: Social Justice or Faith?

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes. It doesn’t.

Historically, many African Americans disdained Paul’s Epistles in the Christian Bible because slave owners often selectively presented his writings to their illiterate slaves, quoting him out of context: crassly using religion to control their slaves.  Yet, most Theologians, including African American Theologians, would agree that Paul was committed-to a gospel of radical equality. Even so, some fault Paul for diluting his message in favor of expediency: for his retreating from his ideal of radical equality in the face of the dominant culture’s values. It is true that Paul allowed short term concerns to take precedence over the primary goals of his ministry and preaching. What some have overlooked is why he did so.

Some say that Paul lacked courage in his convictions; that the liberating ethics inherent in his theology are often set aside in favor of practical considerations. Yet, Paul clearly did not back down in the face of threats, even physical attack. If anything, he was more likely to confront such challenges head on. We have numerous examples of this, such as in Lyca where Paul went back into the city after being stoned (Acts 14:19-20); in Phillipi, where Paul and Silas revealed their Roman Citizenship only after being beaten and jailed (Acts 16:11-40); in Ephesus, where Paul had to be restrained by his followers from going into a murderously hostile crowd (Acts 19:30); in Jerusalem, where he addresses and re-incites a mob that had tried to kill him only a few moments before (Acts 21:31-22:29) and finally his imprisonment and eventual execution.

Paul was 100% devoted to his mission, which was to spread the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection by every conceivable means, driven to redeem as many people as possible before the Day of Judgment came. He had a sense of urgency: derived from his Apocalyptic Theology, which stated that the day of Christ’s return was imminent.

Paul was very clear that Christians must “hold firmly to the message I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (I Corinthians 15:2-4). Earlier in the same epistle he says “I … become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9:20-22). Finally, he said in Galatians that the Gospel proclaimed to him was a direct revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:11), and that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

Clearly we see that, to Paul, the Gospel was more important than any earthly consideration. He was certain that securing a place in the Kingdom to come was far more important than any worldly goal. He was as flexible and approachable as he needed to be, even to the point of death, if it meant enabling a few more to be saved for Christ.

Therefore, it is no surprise that Paul, despite preaching a Gospel of radical equality of all humanity before Christ, had no problem with making accommodations so that a community of believers could survive within the oppressive and highly stratified culture surrounding them. What mattered to him was whether their faith was strong and pure.

Slavery was an inescapable fact of life in Paul’s time: it was a violation of his message that all are equal before the Lord. Yet, it was an issue of this world, not the next. Paul was not focused on trying to make the world better for its own sake, since he felt Christ’s return would soon reshape the world anyway; and since Christ’s return was soon, Paul was intent on reaching as many people for the Gospel as possible beforehand.

Being a slave is evil and wrong, and Paul certainly encouraged slaves to gain their freedom if they could (I Corinthians 7:21); but whether one is a slave (or not) is irrelevant to a person’s worth in the eyes of God. Paul would not have made any aspect of the issue of social justice central to his ministry since he would have seen any achievement in that area as, at best, a victory with only limited value in the face of Christ’s imminent return. Making it central to his ministry would have been a distraction from what he saw as his primary mission, which was to recruit as many into the Kingdom of God as possible in the short time left.

Where does this leave us in today’s world? Certainly, now that experience has taught us that Christ is unlikely to return any time soon, social justice issues should no longer be set aside in favor of winning over souls to Christ.

Yet, in pursuing Social Justice, it is easy to fall into a trap, the same trap that Karl Barth resoundingly destroyed in his famous book “The Epistle to the Romans”: the trap of thinking that the pursuit of Social Justice has anything to do with achieving salvation, that our status as believers in God and our work to spread Christ’s message while performing good works makes us any more worthy than anyone else in God’s eyes.   It doesn’t.

We no longer feel the urgency to “spread the Gospel” that Paul felt. It is also certainly true in this day and age that “spreading the Gospel” does not mean what it meant to Paul. Yet, Paul and I share a conviction, one he shares with us in his Epistle to the Romans, which is that none of us can achieve salvation through our own efforts, but only through Faith in God.

God’s infinite nature cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Therefore, and as I’ve said before, I find that I cannot condemn or dismiss the value of other faiths: they each have value in helping us to better understand God. Yet, even so, what matters first and foremost is that we have faith in God. I am convinced, based on what Paul and both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and traditions teach us, is that how we chose to express and act on our Faith is between us and God. These great Faiths, and others, teach us how to live as creatures of God, but the starting point always is, and always will be, our Faith in God.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Reflections on “The Prioress’s Tale”

Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

1280px-Cliffords_Tower_York_UK
Clifford’s Tower in York, England

I recently saw “The Prioress’s Tale,” an Operetta written by Delvyn Case as a retelling of Chaucer’s famous story.  The story as presented by Case describes a cultural clash between the Jewish and Christian residents of a medieval community.  While watching this tale unfold, I was struck by several thoughts…

First, I remembered an episode from my journeys as a student in England in 1983: One day, on a whim, I visited a tower built on a high mound just outside the walls of the city of York.  Now known as Clifford’s Tower, it stands on the site of a massacre that occurred in March 1190, when most of the Jews in York took refuge there, seeking to escape the riots that had erupted against many “outsider” groups as “Crusade Fever” swept through Western Europe.

I read a description at the site of what was found after the riots had ended: the tower’s courtyard was littered with corpses.  Surrounded and without hope of escape, the families had lain down together in the courtyard.  The fathers then killed their own children and wives before setting fire to the fortress and committing suicide beside the bodies of their loved ones; a very Masada-like scene.  Those who survived were later massacred by the mob that surrounded the burning tower.

I reflected that many of my ancestors came from Northern England.  Therefore, it is possible, if not likely, that some of my own forebears were in that mob.  Yet, my family does not preserve any stories of that time or those events.  (Similarly, whites in the south are often unaware of the brutality their ancestors inflicted upon African American slaves.)  History likes to remember and celebrate the times when we were brave or victorious; but tends to forget the times when we were cruel, avaricious, or oppressive.

Second, I was struck by how everyone in the Operetta was seeking to do the best they could, despite the fear, loss and pain they were experiencing.  They realized their actions were wrong only after the fact, when it was too late to repair the damage.

We have all been in situations where our own actions, undertaken with what we thought were the best of motives, have resulted in harm to others.  So, we must avoid being cocky about being more “enlightened” than those who came before us.  I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:30-32: “And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your ancestors!”

Finally, in the mid 1990’s, I was a member of a church whose membership was mostly African American.  One Sunday, I was the target of a shocking act of racial prejudice.  After listening to me recount this a few days later, a friend of mine from the church said “…what that teenage girl did was wrong, but you need to understand, you’re white: if you experience discrimination, you can always walk out the door and never have to deal with it again.”  She paused and then added: “I can never leave my skin.”

The two lead characters in this production were in exactly the same positions as “that teenage girl” and me: she lashed out in fear and anger because of what I represented to her, not because of what I’d done.  I learned from this that I may never fully understand what it means to be the target of discrimination.  I can empathize, I can work to promote understanding, but I am limited in what I can achieve because I am not a member (at least, not yet) of a group that experiences such things every day.

Does this mean I should ignore that discrimination and prejudice exist?  No. Should I wallow in guilt and remorse because of my own past actions, or those of my ancestors?  No.  Should I try and remold myself so that I will never offend or oppress another person in such ways?  No!

I’ve come to believe, as a speaker said after the performance, that we need to respect and celebrate our differences.  Our differences make the world a place of vibrant colors.  Let’s not make the mistake of turning those beautiful, rich colors and patterns we are a part-of into a jumble of pastels or shades of grey.

Text is copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

Thoughts on Job

God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan…

One message of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job is that God’s view of what our best interests are is based on His perspective, which is universal and all-encompassing; unlike our perspective, which is inherently limited and focused on our personal needs.

We all go through “dark tunnels” from time to time. It’s an unavoidable part of life. In my case, the estrangement from my daughter has been the most heart wrenching.  A separation that I still do not fully understand why or how it happened, and one so complete that I have had no significant knowledge of anything that has been happening in her life for almost four years.  In any such experience, we have an immediate desire to have the situation resolved.  Unfortunately, Job teaches us that God does not think that way.

One thing I’ve learned from this experience is that when these things happen, God always seems to open up new doors for us as a result of it. If the relationship between my daughter and I had not been destroyed, I would still be sacrificing my own needs and life goals in the face of my desire to be the perfect Dad – as I’d been doing since she was born. In fact, I would have been working at it harder than ever.   It was only through losing her that I slowed down enough to realize there were big holes in my own life, and eventually learn what I needed to do to fill them. Because of this I found my wife, who I firmly believe is truly the perfect life companion for me, and also because of this I am now going back to school. None of this would have happened if my daughter was still in the picture, and I would never have worked on what I needed to fulfill my own potential as a person or to pursue my goals and dreams.

Does this mean that I’m glad my daughter is estranged from me? No. But, I’ve come to see that God is using the situation to help me grow and become a better, happier person than I would otherwise have been. If He is doing this for me, then I can be certain he is doing the same for her: He is not worrying about how our relationship was twisted and destroyed.  To God, what matters most is that we each acheive His plan for each of our lives within the context of His Great Plan for all.  This enables me to forgive and forget the fear, misconceptions and perhaps even lies that led to our separation, and enables me to hope that someday she will be able to share in the joy, peace and happiness that is in my life now.  But, even if she never does, he will take care of her, too – just as He has done for me.

Job’s message for me is that God is looking out for our interests, but is doing so in the context of the best interests for all of His Creation, and in the long term.  That is not a terribly comforting thought when you’re in the middle of gutwrenching crisis.  On the other hand, I’d rather have a God that does that, than one that caters to my own personal, immediate needs – or to the personal, immediate needs of others.  God has a plan for all of creation: it is a comfort to know that I have a part in that plan, as does my daughter.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).

The Languages of the Eternal

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.

What’s both wonderful and  annoying about being a Divinity Student is that you are always thinking: thinking about the next paper, this morning’s lecture, conversations in the cafeteria, email exchanges with friends, etc.  It is a constant learning experience, both inside the classroom, and outside.

You are (or at least I am) always ruminating upon the implications of the things we are learning.  I am always seeking to tie my latest revelations into that tapestry that is the sum of what I’ve learned to date in the long and rather meandering path I’ve taken through life.  I also love to write and to discuss these thoughts with others. So, voila, time for a blog.

My viewpoint from a pastoral / theological point of view is this: that our faith is for each of us like a language.  It is a language that helps us explore and express our relationship with the eternal.  Everyone has such a language, whether we are a Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist, Shamanist or we (as our Australian Aboriginal cousins do) walk in the Dreaming.

Our Faith is a language: the language we use to explain and explore our relationship with the Eternal.  A major interest of mine has always been to learn more about our own “eternal language” and those of others.

The “eternal language” I use to explore my own relationship with the eternal, with God if you will, is Christianity.  That I am a Christian is in large part due to the confluence of my origins as a child born and raised in the Reformed Protestant tradition, my deep familial roots in New England, my education, and the choices I’ve made in life up to this point.  Christianity works for me.  I am familiar with it.  It is part of the “cultural wallpaper” of my life, and I find that the concepts it embraces and expresses are excellent and familiar tools as I explore and learn more about my relationship with God.  This does not mean that I feel Christianity is the right “eternal language” for everyone, or even anyone, else.

When meeting speakers of languages like German, Spanish, Tagalog or Warlpiri, we do not condemn such people for not speaking English.  (At least, I do not!)  We (hopefully) recognize that their language is an integral part of who they are, how they view the world, and how they relate to the culture in which they were born and (probably) still live.  Their language helps define who they are and their place in this everyday world we both share.

Similarly, one’s faith defines one’s understanding of who we are and where we stand in relationship to the issues of eternity.  Faith answers questions like “Why are we here?” and “Where do we go when we die?”  Faith is the language we use to explore the eternal world, it also shapes our view of that eternal world, shapes our relationship with it, and is how we communicate our views on such issues when talking with others about them.

Therefore, every Faith has value.  Every one provides a viewpoint on issues of eternity – a viewpoint that can be a new perspective that helps us more fully understand both our own faith and how we relate to eternity.  So, I am always looking to learn about the faiths of others, so that I can more fully appreciate where they stand, and because I find that learning more about their faiths enriches my understanding and appreciation of my own.

Our faiths are the sum of the millenias-old legacy of thought and belief that has been passed down to us.  What I find both interesting and distressing about this is how so many of us (including myself) are often ignorant of that legacy.  In that ignorance, we often do not think-through the implications of what we believe, whether the reasons for a particular belief we have has relevance any more, or how our beliefs impact, or are viewed-by, others.

My goal in this blog is to explore Faith both in the general and in the particular: exploring my own views on Christianity and how it relates to my day to day experiences in this world, and reaching across the boundaries to explore the faiths of others.  I also hope to help both myself (and you) better understand other faiths and how their understanding of the eternal can shed light on our own understanding.

This blog is therefore an exploration and a learning experience.  I am glad that you have taken the time to journey on at least part of this path with me, hope you’ll share your own thoughts as we go along.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).