Wednesday, December 28, 2011

to launch my imagination into space

For the last few weeks, I've been fascinated by the discovery and images of the planet Kepler. It's interesting to know there's another sparkling gem of a planet with blue seas and green land masses, although they appear oddly shaped compared to the earthly ones we're used to. With its pleasant average temperature of 22 degrees C, it doesn't seem too presumptuous to imagine people living there. If they are at least as technologically advanced as humans on Earth, they may have spotted us too. Images of our planet may have been televised across Kepler as they wonder whether there could possibly be life here.

I imagine them as similar two-eyed, two-legged quadrupeds to us, although they would surely have their own random appearance. They may quite likely have their unique flora and fauna. If not, imagine them with powerful enough telescopes to get a glimpse of, say an elephant, and concluding, 'The people on that small planet are big and grey with weird obtrusions coming from their faces.' Of course they'd say it in their own language, which would be nothing like English or any other language on Earth. As their planet is twice Earth's size, airfares may be twice as expensive there, making the notion of international travel even more of a dream. Science fiction writers could have a field day with Kepler.

We had a good conversation in the car the other day, beginning with Emma, my 13-year-old daughter, fascinated with the thought of one day getting to visit there.

Logan, her 16-year-old brother, is a pragmatist. "Forget it, Emma, because nobody will ever make it. It's 600 light years from Earth. It'd take over a thousand years to get there and probably far longer."

Andrew, their dad, likes to be controversial and get them to keep their minds open. "We could find a way to get humans to Kepler if we wanted to. How about a voyage that takes several generations?"

I was beginning to like the sound of this. "You mean it's a family quest? The older generations die off and their babies, who are born on board the space craft, take over the mission they've inherited?" If I was a science fiction writer, I'd be getting excited. Think of all the stops and adventures this dynasty could have along the way.

Logan, who's rolling his eyes and smirking, says, "They'd need a pretty huge fuel tank to last over a thousand years." We need people like him to help us fine tune our plots.

If any aspiring George Lucas type of person reads this post, feel welcome to use my Kepler idea, as long as I get some of the royalties (just kidding). I challenged either Andrew or Logan to write the story but they are more interested in doing other things. Emma's creativity takes a far more 'hands-on' practical bent too. Then I looked at 7-year-old Blake just sitting between the others, quietly taking it all in. Perhaps he may be the science fiction writer. As a homeschooling mother and fiction writer, I've learned to recognise the rich potential of an impromptu, casual car conversation.

As we stand on the threshold of a brand new year, my challenge to everyone is to let your imaginations soar beyond your own sphere of influence and daily mundane duties. And remember that in a cosmos the size of ours, the weird and wonderful things we may scoff at are always possible.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

That annoying circumstances don't mean we aren't blessed. (My Christmas thoughts for you)

The Virgin Mary is one of my favourite people from history. Images of her serene and gentle face always draw me in and give me a sense of being more grounded and trusting. One of the best lessons she brings is that aggravating daily circumstances are not a sign that we're not blessed. When Mary told Gabriel, God's Messenger angel, "Let it be as you have said," I wonder if she knew all that would involve.

Imagine facing the sadness of having former admiring friends looking at you and whispering about the scandal you've been involved in, not to mention facing the real threat of being stoned for adultery by the leaders of her day. Months later, your circumstances involve a grueling trip for miles on the back of a donkey, which can't be much fun for a girl nine months pregnant. Then you're relegated to the straw of a stable to give birth and all you find is a manger in which to place your new-born son, who God has promised will be the Savior of all mankind. I can imagine myself grumbling, "You'd think after all I've been through, at least He could have arranged a comfy inn and trained midwife. Blessed above all women? I don't feel like it right now." Yet we know she was.

The principle operates in the lives of others. Although we know Ruth and Naomi were blessed when they decided to leave Moab to live in Israel, it didn't look like it for some time. Ruth still had to spend days gleaning grain behind the plows of workmen just so they wouldn't starve. And Joseph, one of the most hard-done-by people of all time, spent many of his prime years mouldering away in jail for a crime he didn't do. But was he blessed? Of course.

I think it's easy for us to operate with a twenty-first century sense of entitlement. It's fashionable in this day and age to want to claim our rights. This is the attitude that may make us grouchily assumed we aren't being blessed when we are, abundantly.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend I'd lost touch with back in 1989. Her name is Judith and she'd been teaching me to play piano for awhile when I was a Uni student. I was sitting in my car reading, filling in time until picking up my daughter from an art lesson. Judith accidentally let her door hit my car and when she glanced over to say sorry, she stared at me and motioned for me to open up.

"Are you Paula? You haven't changed a bit since I knew you before (which was nice of her to say, seeing I was 19 back then)." She went on to tell me that she'd seen the story in the local paper about how I'd won the CALEB prize for faith-inspired fiction. She went on to say how it had brought back memories of old times and how fantastic she thought it was to see somebody with a dream manage to achieve it. When I told her that I'm married to a saxophone player in his second year at Uni and we're homeschoolers, she went on to say what a creative and admirable couple we are, that many people cop-out and miss the best in life, and our children have such a great example to follow.

Now, the thing is, I'd been sitting there feeling a bit glum because Christmas was coming, we were always broke, a few days earlier Emma had said, "I wish my parents had proper jobs" and I felt like a middle-aged, tired old failure and frump. By the time I'd said goodbye to Judith and given her a copy of "Best Forgotten" for old time's sake, my attitude had spun around and I started smiling and realising that perhaps we are blessed abundantly after all. I can't help wondering if such a chance encounter is far more than mere coincidence.

I think I've hit upon some of the cause of modern misery. God doesn't change! We know that much. What has changed, over centuries, might be our expectations and sense of entitlement. The natural fluctuations of life, which swell and subside like a wave, are the same as they have been since the world was put in place.

I wish all who read this blog a blessed Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

That it all depends on motivation

During my Bible study, I'd found an episode in the history of King David somewhat confusing. He'd given instructions for a census to be taken (I Chronicles 21, 2 Samuel 24). This didn't go over very well at all with God. Even Joab, the army commander, who was certainly never known for his gentle, reflective spirit, tried to warn David not to do it. "Why should the king bring guilt on Israel?" David insisted that his instructions be carried out and he got himself and his people in deep trouble.

My initial response was ????? What on earth is wrong with taking a census? After all, we had one to fill out ourselves in Australia earlier this year. We do them all the time.

I thought of this incident again when I was reading an event from Nehemiah's life. Nehemiah was the Hebrew governor who'd been given permission to lead contingents back to their land from exile and rebuild the wall. "God put it into my heart to gather the nobles, the officials and the people in general to be registered." (Nehemiah 7:5)

OK, so why was King David rebuked and chastised for doing the same thing Governor Nehemiah was later instructed to do? I had to conclude that record taking and censuses themselves are not wrong. It must come down to the heart's motivation.

Although the Bible does not state this in words, we get the impression that David must have wanted to do this for his own security and ability to gloat. Knowing the details he sought would allow him to lord it over others, at least in his thoughts, to derive security and satisfaction from his underlings and the strength of earthly things. This seems a step out of character for this illustrious king with a heart for God, but God must have decided that David was veering out into a dangerous "King Saul" way of thinking, or even the way of his own older brothers. Perhaps He had to nip this attitude in the bud before it had a chance to take root and spring up. Nehemiah, on the other hand, must have had a thoroughly different motivation in his desire to take the census, purely for information and wise decision making.

The more I think over this and glean through other Biblical incidents, the more the heart attitude is shown to explain a lot. It shows why Abel's offering was found acceptable by God and Cain's was rejected. It had nothing to do with what each brother physically laid down, but with their hearts. Later, Eli the chief priest's sons made a mockery of the whole system of temple sacrifices, instantly forking out the best meat for themselves. Even though this meat was intended to become food for the priestly family all along, these greedy guys were approaching it all wrong.

As it was important then, how vital it still must be to keep our hearts right. Do I do innocuous looking things for the wrong reasons? For example, with David's and Nehemiah's censuses in mind, why do I sometimes take it into my head to look up Koorong book store's website to see where my own titles fit into their weekly sales ranks? Why do I need to know this information at all? Is it so that I can pat myself on the back and gloat? (If this is the reason, it has often backfired on me when I see that sales have crawled at particular times. Serves me right.)

I believe that our feelings are good gauges that our hearts might have veered off the right track. The presence of annoyance, resentment, self-pity and irritation, all those nasty 'counter-fruits' that make us feel bad and miserable are there to indicate that we've blundered into the wrong land. "Hey, these aren't native plants and fruits in the kingdom I want to get to. There's only love, joy, peace, patience etc. where I need to be.

So with all this in mind, let's keep guarding our motives and be prepared to do some serious weeding when the wrong seeds come up.

Monday, December 5, 2011

That I don't want to be a 'shudder-spoon'

This post was inspired by my dishwasher. I like that moment when the cycle has finished and I open the door to release a hot gush of steam and see all the shiny, sparkling dishes. But sometimes I have a shock when I'm unloading them.

Imagine that you're pulling all the cutlery out of its holder to put away in the drawer, and suddenly your thumb goes squelch into the middle of some sticky substance that could be old porridge, rice, stew, mashed potato or some other mystery. Whatever it is has turned a sort of greenish-grey in the bowl of the spoon and you can't help a ripple of horror up and down your spine because you're so grossed out. This is what I call a 'shudder-spoon.' I also get the occasional 'shudder-bowls' and 'shudder-cups'. On the outside, they look as sparkly as all the others and I fully expect them to be clean because they've just been through an intense washing cycle.

Jesus told some religion scholars and Pharisees, "You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisees! Scour the insides and then the gleaming surface will mean something." (Matthew 23: 25-26) Oh yeah, he's talking about 'shudder-cups' and 'shudder-bowls' here.

I imagined a story about angels looking at a group of human beings and saying, "These people have it all together. They're clean, attractive and the things they say to others are really nice. Wow, we're impressed." But when they get close enough to examine them in more detail, they recoil with shock because they didn't notice all the muck these human containers were concealing; the pride, jealousy, nastiness, bitterness, resentment and greed. I don't want to be a human shudder-spoon with the potential to make angels shudder.

Jesus told those Pharisees to scour the insides of their vessels, and he never tells us do anything we're incapable of. So how do we prevent ourselves from being 'shudder-spoons'? I believe we stay focused on him, and trust that he has put us through the most stringent washing-cycle through his death on the Cross. I used to be puzzled whenever I heard or read that 'the blood of Jesus washes us whiter than snow' before I understood that it's simply what he did for us and we just need to believe it.

Also, we can pounce on the thoughts that we know have the potential to make us dirty on the inside and scrub them straight away, before they have a chance to become baked-on attitudes. Just because something comes into our heads doesn't mean we have to own it. Although it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand this, I'm amazed how often I still have to remind myself.

So stay clean, watch out for nasties and don't take it for granted that anything that looks spotless on the outside is necessarily clean all through.
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