Building an Ark

“It took Noah 120 years to build the ark.” Wait. What? My understanding of Noah and his cruise through the floodwaters of the world has been shaped significantly by the cartoonish tellings of children’s Bibles with the sweet pictures of animals snuggly resting and the rhyming words that gloss over the reality of what was under the water. My understanding looks something like this: Noah gets a word from God to build a boat. God gives him very specific instructions about size and shape and cargo. Noah gets busy and finishes just in time to load the animals before the deluge hits, killing all life except what is on that boat. I remember studying the flood in college. There, we read a number of flood stories from a number of different religions. Based on the prolific motif of a flood destroying the earth found throughout early literature, we can safely assume that such a thing happened, so concluded that professor.

Well, it appears to be Noah week in the drama of my life. On Tuesday, we studied the life of Noah in Bible Study. My son Joseph is learning about Noah in preschool. In fact, he wore a green shirt and brought two stuffed animals to school today so that his class could form a rainbow (based on shirt color) and an ark-like zoo (hence, the stuffed animals). And last night, the Bible story I blindly pulled off the shelf to read to my kids was… yep, Noah.

So, Noah. The Bible tells us specifically that he was 500 years old when he had his first son and he was 600 when the flood started. He was 601 when he finally left the ark. He was a righteous man who walked with God and did exactly what God told him to do. And my Bible study commentary says that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark. Curious, I looked at Genesis 5-9, the story of Noah, over and over again in a number of translations. All I could see there was in Genesis 6:3 where God makes a promise that in 120 years He is going to wipe out the earth. Fed up with the evil, sad that He had created His creation, God says “Enough.” 120 years and the game’s up. But because Noah is righteous, God will save him and his family and seven pairs of every animal, bird, insect. (I feel like singing… “The Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody floody.’ Lord said to Noah, ‘There’s gonna be a floody floody. Get those animals out of the muddy muddy. Children of the Lord.’”) So, I turned to the internet. Turns out there is a lot of discussion about how long it took Noah to build the ark. Hypotheses range from 50 to 75 to 120 years based on God’s promise of destruction and salvation, when Noah had his sons, when they were old enough to have wives, etc.

I felt discouraged. Noah taking 120 years to build the ark seemed so dramatic and cool. 50 years? Not so much. But, really, that’s ridiculous on my part. Can you imagine the situation? You’re far away from the sea. You are a farmer. You start building a large boat in your backyard. Why? Because God told you to. It doesn’t really matter how long it took. If it took 120 years, wow, that’s a long time to believe, follow through, and obey. If it took 75 years, wow, that’s a long time to believe, follow through, and obey. If it took 50 years, wow, you get the picture. Perseverance. Noah stuck it out.
One has to believe that he took some grief for his grand boat project. “Crazy old Noah! Always good for a laugh!” must have been the taunting around the neighborhood. After all, the Bible tells us that Noah was the only righteous man to be found. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that no one else knew God and/or if they had heard of Him they certainly didn’t believe, follow, or obey. Yes, Noah must have been the subject of many jokes. But he persevered.

With the jokes, were there other nuisances? Or even threats? If Noah knew that God was about to destroy the world and if he was telling the naysayers why he was doing what he was doing, which the Bible tells us he knew and he did, don’t you think there might have been some who were angered by the message? Who thought Noah was too proud and needed to come down a peg? Who might have tried to sabotage his work? Or who mocked Noah at every turn? “Where’s the rain, Noah? Where’s the flood? You’ve been working on this for 50 (or 75 or 120) years. Do you really believe this God is going to do what He says? Don’t you think maybe you just made this up in your mind?” But Noah persevered.

Do you know any Noahs today? People who buck convention, stick it out, persevere through thick and thin? People who seek to follow God’s ways, obey His commands, walk with Him even when the rest of the world is laughing?

A couple of our Compassion Tea directors are currently preparing for a trip to Africa this summer. While there, they will be distributing supplies, visiting clinics, taking notes about what is needed at the clinics, and well, frankly, risking their safety and certainly their comfort. Facing this huge trip must feel daunting, something like building an ark. How much and what is needed for the trip? How to collect medical supplies? How to carry those supplies to Africa? Once there, they will run across lots of other Noahs who are building arks in the shape of medical clinics and churches, who are tending to the most basic needs of their fellow man in places where voodoo is still the preferred method of medical treatment and where supplies for treating even the most basic illnesses are scarce. One of the clinics they will be visiting has a recently donated x-ray machine. This is new technology for the clinic. The machine is all set up and ready! But there is no one trained in how to use it. So it sits unused. Another clinic has patiently been waiting for its running water to be restored. They’ve been waiting for 2 years. The funding is there, but getting anything done in Africa is kind of like building an ark in the middle of a desert. It takes a whole lot of perseverance. The kind of perseverance that has led one of the missionaries with whom CompassioNow works to return to Africa after medical time off in the States. This missionary has celiac disease and has to eat gluten-free. Rural Africa doesn’t understand gluten-free. But for the sake of fulfilling God’s calling on her life, this missionary is stocking up on gluten-free food and heading back.

Fulfilling God’s calling is rarely easy. Whether it is building an ark in the desert or running a tea company or traveling to Africa to bring supplies and comfort, it takes a special brand of perseverance. I am pretty sure that when Noah heard God shut the door behind him and saw the waters pour forth from heaven and earth, he was infinitely glad he had listened and obeyed. Once the first x-ray is taken, once the first drops of water flow into the clinic, once the missionary sees the smiling face of a goo-goo (grandma in Africa), there will be much joy and relief. When our Compassion Tea directors deliver duffle bags of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to clinics in Africa, there will be much joy and relief. When the directors return from Africa, there will be much joy and relief, too. But it will take continued perseverance for all of these things to happen… and a lot of tea!

That’s where you can step in! By drinking tea, by joining our membership, you can help the directors collect medical supplies to take to Africa. By drinking tea, by joining our membership, you can help CompassioNow send medical supplies to the clinics in other parts of Africa. By drinking tea, by joining our membership, you can provide funding for staff and water projects and other projects. We would love to welcome you aboard our ark!

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Until Next Year

Ah, Christmas is over. We’ve cheered in the New Year. And now we take down the greenery, fold away the stockings, roll up the lights, wrap up the Nativity or the Menorah, and breath a deep sigh of relief. We made it through what may in fact be the most difficult time of the year instead of “the most wonderful time of the year.” I’m not talking about the Christmas rush, the hustle of shopping, the agony of late night wrapping sprees, the stress of following tradition to the letter. I’m talking about making it through Christmas dinner without someone spoiling the figgy pudding. Let’s face it, few of us live the Norman Rockwell version of holiday gatherings. In reality, more of us can relate to the Griswold family (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) or the McCallister family (Home Alone). Black sheep, skeletons, wacky family members, difficult personalities, battles never resolved or released, political or religious differences all threaten to rock the boat, dredge up real and perceived hurts, rip off the metaphorical band-aids so carefully applied, shake loose feuds years if not decades old. If we can get through the togetherness of the holidays without further scarring, we count it a blessing. There has to be a Keep Calm and Carry On mentality for the holidays.

I needed some new Christmas music this year. I was feeling a little bored. So, I downloaded Jason Gray’s new Christmas album, Christmas Stories… Repeat the Sounding Joy. Each song on the album corresponds to a character in the Biblical Christmas story. From the song “I Will Find a Way” which ponders God’s view of how to reach his people to the innkeeper’s song “Rest” which speaks loudly to our own need to put aside the busyness of life in order to see what is happening in front of our nose, the album is a collection of thought-provoking songs that retell the Christmas story in a way that is accessible to us today. The song for Joseph has haunted me, however. Titled “Forgiveness Is a Miracle,” the song contemplates Joseph’s reaction and role in the story. Was he bitter, raging over betrayal, or did he cry in disappointment? Was there pain and vengeance at first?

“When love is like an open wound there’s no way to stop the bleeding. Did you lose sleep over what to do? Between what’s just and what brings healing? Pain can be the road to find compassion when we don’t understand and bring a better end. It takes a miracle to show us… forgiveness is a miracle. And a miracle can change your world… The forgiveness that you gave would be given back to you because you carried in your heart what she was holding in her womb. Love was in a crowded barn. There you were beside her kneeling.… You held it in your arms as the miracle started breathing… and the miracle will save the world.
Blessed Joseph, your heart has proven  and through you the kingdom has come. For God delights in a man of mercy and has found an earthly father for his son.”

As a member and volunteer at Compassion Tea now for a year and a half, I’ve found myself asking what does compassion look like off the page. How does that play out in daily life? Is it random acts of kindness, paying it forward, smiling and exhibiting patience in difficult circumstances, not smelling like the world? Is it sending money, shoeboxes, animals, medical supplies to people in far away places? This song suggests that compassion is found in forgiveness. Sounds easy, delightfully so, right!
I find myself telling the kids all the time, “Say you’re sorry.” Whether it is a slight push, a rolling of the eyes, a perceived-to-be-malicious bump, they come screaming to me about how they’ve been wronged. Often times, when we dig through it together it is a miscommunication or misunderstanding. But bending your will and your pride to admit wrongdoing can be excruciating. When Clara was smaller, and she was asked to apologize to someone, she would dissolve into a puddle of tears. She couldn’t bring herself to apologize. She was so ashamed or frightened to admit wrongdoing that she would prefer to ignore it. Facing our own ugliness is not that appealing. And letting go and forgiving? Equally painful.

But “Pain can be the road to find compassion….” croons Gray. Looking deep into the pain can bring us a better understanding of motive, of the woundedness inside the perpetrator. Peeling off layers of onion makes me cry every time. Searching through the pain surrounding a situation can too. It’s the proverbial “walk a mile in a man’s moccasins” kind of thinking. “Put yourself in his shoes.” But how do we get out of our own tightly-tied tennies to try on someone else’s?

I can’t really offer an answer. I struggle with this daily. There are wounds deep and decades long that are dug deeper and longer with each passing day. To forgive for the past is difficult when the present sees the same injuries being perpetrated. Will it ever stop? Will he/she/the situation ever change?

How many times have I told my kids that the only thing they can change about situations is themselves? We can change our outlook, our attitude, our understanding. But we can’t change others, as much as we would like to. So, I suppose compassion looks like changing one’s attitude or understanding to listen and look deep into the pain of another even if that person has hurt us. But don’t stop and grovel. Climbing down into the mire with another gets you both stuck in the mud.

“Forgiveness is a miracle.…” Gray turns the phrase later in the song to “Forgiveness is the miracle.” The simplicity of a changed article! When God sent Jesus in the form of a baby boy on the night we now celebrate as Christmas, He knew in advance what the end outcome would be. He had announced it multiple times to His prophets, He had set the stage with decrees about atonements and sacrifices, He had repeatedly shown mercy and forgiveness to His people even though they consistently turned away from Him to worship the works of their own hands. And as soon as he began preaching, Jesus referenced it as well. His death was the necessary sacrifice to once and for all time wipe away the sins of the world. Through belief in his death and resurrection, the deadness of sin can be thrown off and the life of a forgiven person can be lived.

Yesterday, Joseph asked me what Christmas has to do with Easter. Everything! You can’t have the one without the other. And thank goodness. Because of His example of forgiveness and His promise of forgiveness, we can trust God to work in every situation and every heart. He, the great big creator of the universe and of little bitty me and you, is the only one who can bring about the change that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. No, don’t climb down into the mire with another who has wronged you. Stop, look, listen, and then offer the hand of God’s grace. Be a man of mercy, prayerfully asking for your own forgiveness and for the reconciliation that only God can bring. He sent us His son, every single one of us; He can drag anyone out of the mire.

With an eye to the new year, I find myself wondering in and through what ways God is going to bring His forgiveness to the world this year and how He will use you and me. Compassion, mercy, forgiveness… what will that look like this time next year? How will that change our 2013 holiday dinners?

Redeeming Grace

Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Taking a 5-year-old boy, who is the living definition of perpetual motion, to an orchestra and choral concert while he is in the throes of Christmas excitement was perhaps not entirely bright. But we did. The boy crawled all over my lap, conducting the orchestra in his own way, falling to the floor on occasion, and playing with my hair most of the time. Between my own incessant shushing and his commentary about the songs and sights, it is amazing that a) we were allowed to stay and that b) we got anything out of the concert at all. But we did. After all, this was the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus – perhaps the best orchestra in the US if not in the world.

The concert opened with a rendition of O, Come All Ye Faithful that was both melodiously traditional and hauntingly new. When we got to Joy to the World and the audience was asked to join in, a thought struck me. It was fleeting due to my son and his gymnastics, but it was a coherent thought and it went something like, “Wow! This is a Christmas concert in the truest sense of the word! Celebrating the true meaning of Christmas! Here is an orchestra and chorus and audience singing a Christian hymn of praise in a very secular, public place. Cool!” And then I had to disengage from the thought and the moment to prevent my son from crawling under the seats.

Shortly thereafter, I was relieved to hear the familiar opening bars of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. We can stand! Hallelujah! I leaned over to my daughter to explain to her that when King George II of England heard this music for the first time he was so moved that he had to stand and that because no one may sit when the king is standing everyone has been standing for the piece ever since. (I’ve also heard that he had nodded off, and when the first trumpet sounded out the notes of the Hallelujah Chorus, George awoke with a start and jumped to his feet. Others have suggested that as the head of the Church of England, George would have been very aware of the Jewish tradition of standing for hymns of praise and therefore was a) complying with tradition and b) accepting his own secondary status before the true king of the universe, Jesus Christ.) And then the thought hit me again. “Wow! Look at us all! Standing and praising God and heralding Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings!” My mind swept back to Peggy Noonan’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday.

Like so many of us, Noonan tried to explain or analyze what just happened in our country, what the events of Sandy Hook Elementary really mean. She commented on how people across the US are not following the story and its every detail like they have in the past. “Too depressing,” she quotes their explanation for tuning out. “Because it’s too painful now, because they’re not sure anything can be done to turn it around and make better the era we’re in. This new fatalism is… well, new. And I understand it, but there’s something so defeated in turning away, in not listening to or hearing the stories of the parents and the responders and the teachers.” There have been a lot of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets talking about the impact of our nation turning its face away from God, suggesting somehow that because we’ve asked people to refrain from public prayer, public displays of religion, and the public teaching of biblical morality, we’ve turned God out and invited in the devil at the worst or at least a grey no-man’s-land of political correctness and individual morality that has actually created a moral abyss. This national sense of despair Noonan is sensing may in fact be because we, in turning away from God, have become hopeless. As she suggests, our nightmares are coming true and the optimism, hopefulness, and perpetual innocence of our grandparents is being shaken by current events. Where do we turn to for hope if we’ve asked God to leave?

Yet, here I was with over 2000 people, packed into Severance Hall, standing for the Hallelujah Chorus. Was this a moment like the one in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Grandma Bethany who, when asked to offer a blessing over the Christmas Eve feast, recited the Pledge of Allegiance? Did they stand because it is a tradition that has little meaning but that is followed to the letter simply for traditions’ sake? Or were the people standing in awe of the one King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Was this a midwestern phenomenon? Would such concerts be played this season at Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, or in any other of the big concert halls of our country? Or was this a prime example of President Obama’s statement about the Midwesterners who tend to cling to their guns and their religion (well, maybe not guns, although since Ohio is a conceal-carry state, perhaps there were a few guns in the audience)?

Fleetingly, I marveled at the freedom of the moment. After reading Noonan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, I had glanced at a headline of another opinion piece. “The Most Persecuted Religion” written by Abraham Cooper, John Huffman, and Yitzchok Adlerstein, claims that of the 193 nations on our planet, 131 nations harbor either individual groups or governments that are openly hostile to Christianity and its believers. The article discusses how there are groups in places like Nigeria who are practicing Nazi pogrom style selection, singling out Christian people for slaughter. It reminded me of a speaker I once heard who told of a meeting with a Chinese lady. This American had worked closely with the woman for years on psychological studies. Neither had ever publicly acknowledged the other as a fellow believer for fear of repercussions. But during their first meeting in the United States, the two were able to embrace moving the woman to tears. Why? Because she was so happy to be with a fellow believer, safely. And here I was, at a public concert, quite openly celebrating Christ. Hallelujah!

The concert closed with Silent Night. The stage was bathed in candlelight and the twinkle of strands of Christmas tree lights hanging from the ceiling. Robert Porko, who directed the orchestra and chorus for this concert, asked the audience to ponder the recent current events as they listened to the words and sang along to this beloved hymn. He had previously joked with Santa about the Fiscal Cliff and the Debt Ceiling, about repealing Santa Care (which stood for unlimited cookies for life), and about the ever-bumbling Browns football team. Porko added Newtown to that list of things to ponder. Like Noonan, it seemed he sensed a national need in the midst of crisis after crisis to return to the one who offers unlimited hope. And then, in the third stanza, it hit me. Silent Night, holy night; Son of God, Love’s Pure Light; Radiant Beams from Thy Holy Face; With the dawn of Redeeming Grace; Jesus, Lord, at Thy Birth; Jesus, Lord at Thy Birth.

Redeeming Grace, the grace that is redemptive, the way we should treat each other. This is a great big God saying, “Hey, you bunch of screw-ups, I love you and I’m going to save you.” This is joy beyond measure translated into handling each other with grace, with mercy, with peace. This is holding Christmas in our hearts. This is forgiveness for the little screw-ups and for differences of opinion and for each other’s foibles and tendencies and idiosyncracies. This is hope. Once upon a time, America was viewed as a city upon a hill, set apart, shining holy hopeful light on the valleys below. President Obama recently commented that we are no longer a Christian nation. But what I see happening is that perhaps we don’t quite agree. Perhaps Christmas needs to mean a little bit more to us all, that we are beginning to wake-up from our nebulous gray cloud of moral turpitude, from our politically correct stupor to say, as Noonan put it, quoting Eugene Kennedy, “We are like King Arthur’s knights, entering the forest each day without a cut path, and ‘finding our way through is what we are called to do.’ Here… faith offers not an explanation but the only reliable guide. Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’ That is not a metaphor.”

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Through our holiday sales this year, and thanks to you for your amazing support, we at Compassion Tea will be able to offer redeeming grace in the form of life-saving medical care to countless people in Africa. Extending the hand of love, God gave us Jesus. Extending the hand of love, we in turn give care and love to our neighbors in Africa. Hallelujah!