Comfy Confessions

I’ve been absent from writing lately.  The reasons have recently started to clarify in my head.  I’ve been behaving a bit like Jonah at the end of his story.  Allow me to explain.

Most church people learn the Bible story of Jonah being sent to Ninevah to preach.  (Good Prophet)  He chickened out and went the opposite way.  (Bad Prophet)  God then created a huge storm and Jonah ended up being tossed over the side of the boat. (Powerful God)   Self sacrificed to save the other men on the boat.  (Good Prophet)  He was miraculously saved by being swallowed by a whale.  (Huge God)  There he stayed for three days and nights.  After being spewed out by the whale on a beach, Jonah chose to finish what God had started.  He preached to the people of Ninevah.  Hooray!  (Good prophet!) The people listened and did what they were told.  Double yay!  Happy Jonah because God wouldn’t end up destroying people as He had threatened!

Only not.  Jonah got mad.  He went up on a high hill hoping to watch the display of God’s wrath on those lousy, disobedient people.  Get ’em God!

But God didn’t wipe out the people of Ninevah.  He showed them amazing grace.  He showed His mercy.  Jonah had succeeded in saving the people from the jaws of death.  Way to go Jonah!

And Jonah then asked God to let him die.  He was angry.  He was disappointed.  He pouted.

Why?

This part of the story is often omitted–especially in the pre-k Sunday School version about the nifty whale and the guy who did what he was told (eventually).   This part is confusing.  This ending is messy.  Why would the man who was miraculously saved from certain death be mad that others had been similarly saved?

I’ve been pondering this for a few days.  Given what I know about me and other humans I have a few possible ideas.

Well, maybe Jonah wanted to see a fireworks show of God’s awesome power.  Wow!  What a testament to the neighboring towns!  Obey God or be wiped from the earth!   Sobering.  Scary motivation to remain on the righteous path.  Who wouldn’t take that seriously?  What numerous and obedient puppets God would have created with that one move.  What was God thinking by passing up that wonderful opportunity???

Or, maybe Jonah wanted his own threatening words to be fulfilled.   Wouldn’t that be awesome!  Tell others “Forty more days and Ninevah will be overturned.” (Jonah 3:4b)   Then sit back and say “I told you so.”  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve had moments when I would have loved to watch my words of warning play out.   Of course I would never say “I told you so” out loud.  I’d just smile and repeat it in my head.  And silently gloat.  (That would be the more Christian thing to do).  Imagine the respect, power, and legitimacy Jonah would have had for his remaining days.  He could have been like a god!  “Better listen to what that guy says!  Have you heard about Ninevah?!”

There’s another thing I saw differently than ever before when I read this story today.  A glimpse of self-righteous pride in Jonah’s prayer while in the belly of that whale.  (Of ALL places to be self righteous!)  It all started out well.  Praise to God for hearing and saving him when he was drowning.  But then he said this: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.  Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.  But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.  What I have vowed I will make good.  Salvation comes from the Lord.” (Jonah 2: 7-9)

Could he have thought that those people in Ninevah had forfeited their chance at grace?  They had clung to worthless idols after all.  They had earned God’s wrath.  They did not follow the tenets of Jonah’s faith.  Heathens!

But, after hearing Jonah’s words, the people of Ninevah listened.  They obeyed.  They “sacrificed to God”.  They tore their clothes in grief.   They wore sackcloth as a sign of humility and repentance.  They fasted.  They changed their behavior.  And God turned away His wrath.  He let them go free.

Kind of like Jonah.

But Jonah was a man of God!  He deserved God’s forgiveness!  Everyone makes mistakes!  Give the guy a break.  He was just an imperfect man.  You reap what you sow.

But those Ninevites…no.  They were awful humans.  Screw ups.  Violent.  Nasty.   Perverted.  They deserved exactly what they got!  You reap what you sow!!

Time and time again in scripture we read stories of God choosing grace over punishment.  We love when we are the recipients of this undeserved grace.  Isn’t our God wonderful?  Isn’t our God loving?

But when God chooses to show that same undeserved love and grace to those who believe differently than us, who think differently than us, who behave differently than us….then….What could God possibly be thinking?!?  I go to church.  I give.  I help others.  I am a good Christian!  

I.  Have.  Earned.  More.

And there it is.

The  undeserved grace and love shown us is more earned than those other people.

Only that’s not how undeserved things work.  Only, that’s not the way God works.  Because He is just.  Just–to a level our tiny human brains can’t grasp.  All who choose Him win.  No matter how late in the game.  No matter what a mess they were before.  No matter if it makes others happy to see; or if it makes them want to rant and rave at the injustice of it all.

So here’s where my Jonah moment comes in.  I think Jonah just gave up.  As he sat there under that tree he may have been thinking–What’s the point?  Things didn’t work out the way I had expected.  Why did God do things this way?

I was thinking–This whole speaking out thing isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.  People get angry.  People get defensive.  People don’t listen and think.  People look at me differently.  When I look around I see folks entrenched in their little camps.  Little, if any, grace is extended to those who think differently than them.  Nothing seems to get through.

So I quit.  I gave up.  I even pushed away some of the thoughts that normally are swirling around my brain.  I enjoyed floating along the surface for a while.  I liked pretending that maybe I was mistaken about the nudges from God.  Those who encouraged me to write must have been wrong.  I didn’t have to say anything.  Others will do it.  I’ll just sit here in my garden and give up.

But, I want a different ending than Jonah.  I like to imagine that he eventually stood up, admitted that he was being selfish and silly, and went back to his work.  I like to imagine that he accomplished wonderful things once his pity party was over.  I like to imagine he impacted all who knew him.  But I don’t know.  Did he ever realize that grace was better than destruction?  Did he ever acknowledge his stubbornness?  Did he ever shake his head in disbelief at his obnoxious behavior toward the God who saved his life?We can’t know.  It’s not written.

But I can keep writing my story.  I can leave the garden and get back to work.  I can welcome the uncomfortable reality of a life awake to the pain surrounding me.  I can speak when I am compelled to.  I can speak up when the established church goes astray from their original mission. (Where is that forest anyway?  All I see is these pesky trees.)  I can endure the changes in relationships to do what I am called to do.   I can seek answers rather than following traditions.

Temporary Jonah moments are to be expected.    There will be more.  Life will get in the way at times.  But, I’m in good company.  And there are no whales nearby.

 

 

 

 

Joyous Lament

Lord, I find myself walking, sitting, driving, living with a heavy heart.

Tears never far from my eyes.

A sting in my throat as I shop for groceries  for my overstocked pantry.  Walking past the mom with three young children in tow.  I hear her say “No, we don’t have enough money for that cereal right now.”

My heart aches when I see the child with holes in their sneakers while mine have several pairs. Is that wrong?

Instead of seeing greasy hair I see someone who can’t afford shampoo.  Do they have access to a working shower?

I see people walking along the road carrying their small shopping bags.  Notice their large calves.  They walk a lot.  Do they not have any other way to get around?

I notice the shy smile.  Hiding their rotting teeth.  When is the last time they saw a dentist?  Have they ever seen a dentist?  Do they have their own toothbrush?  Not shared with family?  Their very own toothbrush.

Can that child see the whiteboard in class?  Do their parents notice her squinting?  Are they able to get her to an eye doctor?  Are they lost in their own addiction?

I am awake.

My heart  literally aches.

Is this how God feels when he sees His creations in need?

I don’t wish to make small talk with friends after the smell of poverty just walked by on the sidewalk.  You know the smell.  Clothes heavy with hair grease and cigarette smoke.  Stale alcohol and fried foods.

I’m not always as much fun as I used to be.  I’m lost in thought.

I want everyone to see what I now see.  That’s not always pleasant to be around.  I know.

I want those who claim the name Christian to stop bemoaning some of our taxes going to help the least of these.  Can we help all the poor simply through charity?  Do we now?  Can the average church financially sustain paying rent, food, and medical bills for a family (or a few families) in need?  For how long?

I want those who claim the name Christian to stop complaining about their rights and their minuscule persecutions.  How dare they whine about wedding cake baking or prayer in schools while brushing by their struggling neighbor.   Why do we fuss about the little things?  Did Jesus whine about how he was treated?  Or did He reach out to the poor, the stranger, the hurting?

I wish for those who claim the name Christian to be inviting to strangers (as our namesake was) instead of being fearful of our safety and security.  Don’t we trust God?  What if we aren’t able to “Go and make disciples of all nations…”?  But those nations can come to us through seeking refuge and asylum?

I am saddened daily by those who claim to know the Truth defending obvious lies coming from our president and those surrounding him.   We should pray for our leaders, yes.  But nowhere are we commanded to become their apologists.  Didn’t Jesus shun political power?  Why are Your people so drawn to it?  Why is the evangelical church seemingly more Republican than Christian right now?

I cringe when I hear (or read) Christians react with notions of vengeance and hate.  Is that what Jesus spoke of when he said to turn the other cheek?  To walk further than asked to?  To give away our clothes when asked?

I am puzzled by the anger aimed at those who question long held traditions.  I am confused at being labeled a blasphemer or heretic when espousing the direct teachings of Christ.  Doesn’t the entire Old Testament point toward Him?  Isn’t the New Testament all about Him and His church?

Lord, why are Your people so very defensive?  Why so quick to anger?  Why so eager to be offended?  Why so “me” focused?  And most importantly, why can’t they see themselves?  Why didn’t I see my contradictions in action and belief before?  Why do I now?

Why is it that friends are surprised to discovered that I am a Christian?  Does kindness and empathy not fit the mold of what they are used to seeing?  Is it odd for a Christian to treat homosexuals like equals?  Is it wrong for a Christian to avoid “church people speak” because it often rings hollow?  Is it weird for a Christian to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers?  That life is full of grey?  Is it unusual for a Christian to truly believe that we are to genuinely love others?  All others?  Didn’t Jesus?

Lord, there are days when I am burdened.  There is much I cannot fix.  Many needs I cannot meet.

There are times when words sting.  Strained relationships  hurt.   Whispers and glances are seen.

There are times when I dream of being oblivious to hypocrisy.  Oblivious to the way the church is perceived by my friends.

Oblivious to all the poverty surrounding me.  Oblivious to the pain in others’ eyes.  Numb to the horrible things I’m powerless to change.

And I sometimes wish to lose this sight, this bleeding heart, this raw example to my children.  Oh, the pain it has already caused them to notice, to care, to question.

Yet there is joy.  Joy in having clear purpose.  Joy in finding new meaning in the scriptures.  Joy in prayers muttered as I go about life.

Thankfulness for tearful eyes.

Peace amidst the chaos.  Peace when the news is bad.

Humility in seeing Your heart.

Confidence that You are in this.

Gratitude for the chance to be Your hands and feet.

Love for those who are unseen, unimportant, unloved.

So, Lord, may my eyes always be open, my hands always ready to reach out, and my heart willing to be broken.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Modern Liturgy

Today, we come before our Maker with prayers and petitions.  Lord, in your mercy…..

For those who question:  May we give them room.  May we trust that God already knows their confusion, (so they might as well say it out loud without judgement)…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For the hurting:  May we never, ever tell them that God doesn’t  give us more than we can handle.  Instead, may we acknowledge that sometimes we find God when we have run out of “us”…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For the angry:  May we never scold them for yelling at God.  Sometimes we need to because we hurt that much.  God can take it…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For the unity of Your Church:  May Your people accept differences in others.   Differences in personality, in preferred types of interactions, in beliefs, and in opinions…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For the teaching of Your Word:  May Your people have the humility to accept that there may be different, and yet valid, interpretations of your scriptures…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For the never-ending search for Truth:  May we look to You and Your Word more than any teacher or preacher, no matter the pedigree, for we humans are fallible…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For persecuted believers:  May we realize that we are not persecuted in this country.  May we refrain from pretending to be so because it minimizes those who truly suffer (or are martyred) for their faith…..Lord, hear our prayer.

And speaking of–for the Palestinian people:  May we stop the foolish belief that Israel can do no wrong while ignoring the pain of our flesh and bold Palestinian brothers and sisters…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For our tendency to create rules for godliness:  May we just knock it off and trust You to lead us where we need to go…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those suffering loss and pain:  May you make us temporarily mute if we ever again start to say “there’s a reason for everything.”  Instead, may we seek to comfort and console…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who have lost their faith:  May we listen, may we love, may we pray.  But, Lord, may we never preach at them (or, again with the mute thing)…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who sin against You:  May we stop saying that you command us to “love the sinner and hate the sin”.  You never said that.  Ever…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those in the LGBTQ community:  May we stop using  the word “abomination” toward them.  May we stop blaming hurricanes, terror attacks, and floods on these brothers and sister.  Because–that’s just insane and heartless …..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who do not believe in God:  May we trust that You are big enough, loving enough, powerful enough, and awesome enough to show them Your presence…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For our choice of evil sins of the day to vilify:  May we get our heads out of our collective asses and drop the man-made hierarchy of awfulness…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those living on the margins:  May we trust in Your greatness and power to heal  people regardless of their situation.  May it not matter if it is due to unfortunate circumstances or poor personal choices.  May we help anyway…..Lord, hear our prayer.

For those times when we are unsure of the “Christian” response:  May we always compare our impulse to Your greatest commandment and it’s partner commandment.  Does this action or word demonstrate my love for God?  Does it demonstrate love for others?…..Lord, hear our prayer.

And finally, for each and every one of us:  May we stop trying to play God, because we all suck at it…..Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord, in your mercy.  Amen.

A Special Guest

I’ve invited a guest writer today. I thought he had some powerful words for our country and the church.

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“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and why have you not noticed?”

Yet on the day of fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
-To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
-To set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
-Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
-When you see the naked, to clothe him, and to not turn away from your own flesh and blood?

THEN your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations;
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️

I would like to say a special thank you to my friend and mentor, Isaiah, for his wise words today. It seems that there are many voices saying the same thing: feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the wanderer, stop oppression.

I will continue to bring words from other voices besides my own to reinforce this mission. It seems as if God really, really, really wants us to get it through our thick skulls that helping others is a giant key to everything. To relationships–with God and with people. To peace–with God and with people. To correcting wrongs–with God and with people.

Seems pretty straight forward and obvious. Cutting support for the poor is not what a Godly nation would do. Denying entry to those fleeing oppression is not what a Godly nation would do. Crying about OUR rights while stepping on others is not what Godly people would do. Social justice is not a new and evil cause championed by the progressive church. It had much larger and more important champions long before us.

So again, I’d like to say a special thanks to Isaiah for stopping by with his inspired words of wisdom today. He truly is a gift from God.

Ever-Present Absence

I am the baby of five.  But most who know me (with the exception of some childhood friends) only know of four siblings.  My in laws are my only sisters now.  They have never met Karen.  They have heard few stories.  They have seen few pictures.  It’s not that we wish to erase her from our minds.  It’s that she has erased herself.  Sometimes it seems unreal to recall her.  Was she really ever there?

My sister has been absent from our lives for over thirty years.  We have not heard her voice, seen her face, or touched her, in decades.  But, trust me, she is real.  She shared my childhood room.  She gave me the gift of sharing a bed with a bed-wetter.  (This just might play a large role in why our girls never, EVER had to share a bed.)  She made my passive brother so angry that he punched her in the nose while my grandfather watched (only responding with, “If you made him that mad you must have deserved it.”)  She stole my mother’s engagement ring.  She is the reason there was a patched hole in my drywall (caused by an enraged brother hitting that rather than her as she berated my mother, again.)  She is the reason I studied psychology.  Maybe I could figure out what was wrong with her?  Maybe I could solve the riddle of how one sibling could be so very opposite everyone else?

But I could not.  She was (and most likely still is) broken.  She repeatedly ran away, literally, from a family that many would have loved to join.  She lied compulsively.  She tried drugs.  She experimented with casual sex.  She drank.  She skipped school.  She failed classes.  She didn’t wish to work or follow rules.  She was the antithesis of all that my parents taught and modeled.

And yet, she is part of us.  She helped shaped our outlook.  She tested our love.      She pushed our limits.  She sabotaged grace.  She spat upon mercy.  She blamed everyone and everything for her troubles.  She broke my parents’ hearts.

And she is forever a part of me.

She taught me that the world is grey.  The black and white boxes we’d like to place everything in are figments of our imagination.

Good families are messy too.

Lost people sometimes know the way and simply choose to ignore it.

Running sometimes feels safer than staying.  Even when it is not.

Love is not a magical, fix-all elixir.

I confess that I had times when I resented the effort given to my sister.  I hated her for stirring tensions and hurt everywhere she went.  I kicked her when I rolled over onto a cold, wet spot in my sleep.  I resented admitting that she was my sister at school.  I enjoyed tattling on her.  I thought my parents weak for giving her so many chances.  Poor suckers.

Their hearts broke with every defiant word.  Their stomachs knotted with every hurt brought upon their other children by this untamed beast.  Their bibles stained with bitter tears.  Their lessons, scoldings, and love, fell with a thud on her deaf ears.  They felt ashamed to be relieved when she left home.  The tension vanished.  Mom’s stomach pains whisked away.  Dad’s sadness lifted.  But still, an ache sometimes stopped by to visit.

It’s all about free will. We are all free to make bad decisions.  We are all free to turn our backs on family.  We are all free to kick those who love us.  We are free to stubbornly walk toward our destruction.  We are free to judge others.  We are free to hate.  We are free to spit in the face of our creator.

I am not advocating that any of these things are good choices.  But, I am saying that we need to stop shaming others with memes about how good parenting is the answer to all societies’ ills.  It is not.  Loving parents still have limited reach.  Each time we blame everything on parents, we slap my parents and others like them across the face.  Parents of wayward children didn’t choose that path for them.  I could not completely control my children’s actions even when they were toddlers.  Could you control yours?

We need to stop kicking the addict that continues to fail.  Stop posting and forwarding memes of how they don’t deserve mercy for something they consciously chose.  Did they?  Have we lived their lives?  Have we seen the pain (or just plain bad choices) that started their addiction?  What good is served by us declaring that they got themselves into that situation and must get themselves out?  Have you ever tried to fight your way out of an addiction?  Have you ever tried to use reason and logic with a foggy brain?  Have you ever tried to rebuild trust while no one trusts you?  Do they deserve death because they have a battle that you don’t understand?

Yesterday I witnessed a baptism of a man who struggles with addiction.  His fight is not over just because he found faith in Christ.  My heart beamed as our pastor announced that this man will be leaving for rehab soon.  He openly acknowledged that this man has a fight ahead.  Love won’t fix it.  Faith won’t fix it.  They are both powerful tools in his healing.  But they are parts in a complicated whole.

Stop trying to make life black and white.  There are Christian addicts.  There are good atheists.  There are empty wealthy people.  There are joyful and content people living in the depths of poverty.  There are gay Christians.  There are faith-filled people who struggle with depression, worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts.  There are kind people who have racist leanings (and don’t recognize the disconnect).  There are people who fought their way out of poverty who despise the poor.  There are proud people who feel inadequate.  There are clueless people who feel proud.  There are Christians who are nasty and hurtful.  We humans are very complex.

Think of how much kinder our world would be if we actively looked at the people we see every day.  Have you looked into the sad  eyes of the man who smiled and said he was doing fine?  Did you see that?  Did you ask again and give him permission to admit he’s struggling?  Have you watched the chronic pain sufferer walk, move, sit, stand? Are they battling to maintain that smile?  Do you look at your coworker when they think no one is watching?  Does their expression sink and shoulders droop?  Have you checked in with the single parent to see if they need a break?  And then offered to take over while she goes for a walk?  Have you wiped away tears of someone broken by their own poor choices and not scolded?  Simply loved?  Simply helped pick up the pieces?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3-10, otherwise known as The Beatitudes)

We are to care for our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers.  That is an all inclusive list.  No exceptions noted.  No excuses given to release us from this duty.

And let us please start by refusing to play the blame game.  Let us help wherever others are at.  Messy.  Ugly.  Broken.  Angry.  Wherever the need is.  Let us walk toward it.  Because God likes to turn our expectations and desires on their heads. Christ loved the unlovable.  Christ touched the unclean.

Acknowledge the grey.  Admit the contradictions.  Hold hands instead of pointing fingers.

 

Echoes of distance

My mind has been troubled often recently with the changes that change brings.  Profound, right?  I am not only referring to the sometimes painful and difficult process of personal change.  I speak of the ripple effect to those we love.

I slowly have been stepping away from some of the conservative dogma that defined my youth for years now.  I blame it on my increased exposure to the people, places, and things that were often demonized and scary.  I blame it on the recognition that it is difficult to think of real, live, skin-covered humans in front of us as evil (or at least it should be).  I blame it on my increased willingness to question incessantly and dig deeply into scripture.

I blame the people I love.  The people who have been hurt by doctrine over grace.  Hurt by the theology of tradition.  Confused by those who follow a loving God (don’t we all say that?) yet harshly speak of others.  Hardened by those who callously state that they “love the sinner but hate the sin”.  (Can anyone show me where Christ suggested or modeled that approach?)  Would most humans want to be helped by someone who says that they hate something about them?  I have a hard time picturing me reaching out to someone who espouses that approach.

Allow me to stop here to stress that I have not denounced my faith in Christ as the true bridge between us and God.  That Christ is indeed God.  That we are all sinners.  We all mess up.  We all are weak in our own ways.  We all need the grace of God.  We all need forgiveness.  Forgiveness is freely given to all who ask.  These things remain.  But they are merely the beginning.  They are the tiny entrance to the path.

I have found myself oddly at odds with other Christians when I stress the importance of loving one another.  ALL one another.  When Jesus spoke the greatest commandment (to church leaders trying to trick Him) and it’s vital partner commandment, there were no exceptions.  He said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  And the second commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why do I quote this passage so often?  Because “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  That means all the rest of scripture bows to these words.  All scripture is secondary to this.  The Old Testament prophets are secondary to this.  The rules given to old and new believers are secondary to this.  Loves trumps all.

Before we speak–love.

Before we act– love.

Before we think–love.

Before we judge–love.

Before we quote scripture to condemn–love.

And before we love–God.  Otherwise we are incapable of doing the rest.

So why have I so often put my phone down with a defeated sigh after a conversation with someone who has known me a long time?  Why have I felt a growing chasm with some family and friends?  Why is my deepening commitment to social justice for the poor and marginalized seen as a betrayal of sorts?  Why are my questions of the status quo seen as personal barbs by so many?  I am still me.  I am still the same person they joked with for years.  The same person they greeted with a smile at church.  Only, not.

I am far less judgmental.  I am far less likely to shake my head at someone caught in the results of their poor choices.  I am far less certain that I have all the answers.  I am far more willing to reach out and help regardless of what circumstances placed that person in need.  That’s not my job.  I can ask so that help is more effective.  But I cannot demand anything.  I cannot insist on a willing audience for my views on faith.  I cannot, will not, demand that people behave in a way that I deem appropriate.  That, again, is not my job.  That is between them and God.  I can pray.  I can help.  I can speak when given an opportunity.  But only if first there’s love.

It’s a revolutionary change of perspective.  It’s a revolutionary way to live.  All based on the revolutionary example of Jesus.  And based on the very delayed realization that I am not the Holy Spirit.  Of course I always knew this.  But I didn’t really know it.  I used to decide that some people were more worthy of love than others.  Some were more worthy of help than others.  Some more worthy of grace.  But then I realized that Christ didn’t have a pecking order of sins.  He didn’t have a list of “must dos” for receiving His free grace and love.  He just loved whoever was placed in His path.  He just suggested that everyone put their rocks down and walk away when confronted with a question of law and justice.

We are to be the hands and feet of the revolutionary love of Christ.  God is to use those acts of love as a way of drawing others to Him.  I am not the one to convict of sin.  He is.  I am not the one that knows all that someone has dealt with.  He is.  I am not the answer.   He is.

The homeless drug addict is just as hungry as the homeless war veteran.  They both need food.  The poor child still needs clothing and soap no matter if they are poor due to a family medical crisis or to alcoholism.  She still needs to feel like she belongs in school.  The difficult teen needs understanding no matter if their belligerence is due to a feeling of entitlement or a feeling of worthlessness.  He still needs caring adults.

I may be the only love that someone feels today, this week, this year.  You may be the only grace that someone experiences today, this week, this lifetime.  And we cannot know what may come of it in advance.  Our love may help a young girl  ask for help out of an abusive relationship.  Our love may help an elementary boy feel less invisible and worthless in school.  Our love may stop a suicide attempt.  Our grace may give a new sense of resolve to an addict that stumbled, again, for the umpteenth time.    Our mercy may help the cheating spouse to finally admit their shortcomings and work toward resolution.

And we may never know what good God used our acts of love for.  And that is okay.  He does.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-2 NIV)

Seems as if God is trying to tell us that love is a big deal.  Let’s listen, big.

And for those who seem concerned that I (and others like me) have lost my way.  I have not.

I have found it.

 

A Voice in the Wilderness

I grew up in a conservative Christian home, in a conservative Christian church, in a small, declining town.  I know the preferred language of the church.  I can play the role that people seem to want.  I can put on the face of the righteous.

But why?  Who are we helping when we act like all is grand?  Who is gaining from our pretense in having all the answers?  Who is reached when we rail against those who think or believe differently than we?  Where in Christ’s ministry did he demonstrate that false perfection is our goal?  Where in His life did He model judgement and rules as the righteous path?

The past year has brought unfathomable change to my life.  To my mind.  To my faith.  To my attitudes.  To my actions.  It has been (and continues to be) a difficult journey.  But the difficulty is found not in the renewed and refreshing interpretation of the Bible that I seem to keep finding.  The difficulty is in the reaction from the church.  The unwillingness to look at our beliefs and question if we are right.  The stubborn stance that we must hold fast our traditions even if they might  be wrong.  Are we fighting the good fight or just fighting?

Allow me to stop here and stress that I am part of a good church.  It is full of many believers who are trying to follow what they believe.  It is lead by pastors who demonstrate by their actions what it means to help others.  It is always searching for more possible ways to help our community.  People give.  People travel to help others.  But it is not perfect. It is full of imperfect people, just like every single church out there.

And yet I, and some others like me, have felt alone, isolated, judged.  I’ve seen the sidelong, raised eyebrow looks.  I’ve read the snarky condemnations online.  Most people happily bounce along the surface of their faith, of their thoughts, of their lives.  And that is ok for them.   Many people never really question why they believe what they believe.  Many are content to continue the script from the past generation.

I am not.

We are made with brains full of wonder, of questions.  Brains that wish to connect dots and make sense of life.  Why are we so willing to shut that off when it comes to faith?  Why are we so willing to just accept what men have taught us instead of searching for ourselves?  Why do we bury our heads when it comes to church history and how much theology has swung in wildly varying directions?  How do we expect to tell someone else what our faith is all about if we don’t understand it ourselves?

Here’s an example that I witnessed recently.  Why is it wrong for someone to question whether God could be both man AND woman?  Why not?  He created us in His image.  Why would that possibility make us so uncomfortable?  Isn’t God far larger and more complex than our minds can fathom?  Why do we keep Him in our human box?  Does that box serve a purpose other than our comfort?  I for one find it far more wonderful to have a God that is too big and too grand for me to fully grasp.

Or how about this:  Why is it so important for Christians to insist that being gay is a choice and not an inborn trait for some?  Who cares.  Our world is imperfect.  Scripture tells us that creation has suffered from the fall of man since the Garden of Eden.  We see differences in how people are born every day.  Why is this one so hard to accept?  I don’t know why my student was born imperfectly with cerebral palsy.  But he was.  I don’t know why my friend’s brain is wired for depression.  But it is.  I don’t know why my cousin’s child was born with a heart defect.  But she was.  Aren’t these physical examples of the beauty, fragility,  and imperfection of humans?  Can’t all of these people add greatly to our community with their unique and personal experiences?  Why can’t sexuality be the same?  People all have different gifts, different challenges, different traits.  They can ALL be used for the glory of God if we allow it.  All.  What can the life of that gay person teach us as they work out their faith?  What does that look like?  Are we willing to even ask?

Imagine with me an environment where people of all backgrounds, of all faiths, of all circumstances, could feel welcome and loved.  Note that I didn’t say anything about altering our core beliefs in the gospel.  There is no point to all church debate if we don’t agree that salvation through Christ is the centerpiece.  I simply said that all would be loved and welcomed.  The early church had an incredibly simple message.  The teachings of Christ were/are simple enough for a child to understand and follow.  Why do we muddy the water with man made rules?  Why create a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and people?  Where and when did Christ do that?

Christ spoke incredibly clearly when He told the church leaders of His day what the greatest commandments were.  He said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40 NIV).

If Christ is our example and final authority, then we should listen to His words.

If Christ is God incarnate and the final authority, then we should heed His words.

If Christ said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” I’m thinking He meant it.  So, those who like to club people with scripture from the Old Testament and the Prophets—are those two vital commandments superseding what the Prophets said?  Because Jesus said they do.  When there is any question of what is more important in the Bible, we can confidently come back to this.  Am I loving how and who I am commanded to?  All the rest is secondary.  Love first.  That’s not my opinion.  That’s Christ’s.  His words.  His teaching.

Jesus’s ministry on earth was amazing.  It’s growth and following was explosive and committed.  Why were the crowds attracted to Him?  Did He teach rules and tradition?  Did He tsk tsk those who lived lives against God’s Law?  NO.  He loved.  He forgave.  He gave them new tools for living a new and better life.  We can never live up to His perfect standard.  But we can darn well try.  And we are commanded to do so.  We read the Bible.  We pray.  We love.  The conviction of individual’s sins is up to God.  Not us.

But Jesus was killed for His words and actions.  Yes.  By good, disciplined, traditional, religious people using the local authorities to do their dirty work.  “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”  (Matthew 26:3-4 NIV).  Not the atheists.  Not the liberals.  Not the drunks, or the gays, or the prostitutes.  Not the homeless, the poor, or the refugee.  The church leaders.  THEY sought to kill Jesus.

Make no mistake.  We humans are fairly stupid and stubborn.  The Bible is chock full of story after story after story of people messing up.  Often those people claim they are doing the right thing.  Or chose to ignore the clear teaching that they were doing the wrong thing.  So why do we like to pretend we are any different?  We can just as easily insist that we are doing the righteous thing as Saul did when he took the Ark of the Covenant into battle (basically to ensure victory).  God never told Him to do so.  And the Ark was stolen.  Oops.

So how do we know?  How do we check if we are on the right path?  We study scripture.  Relentlessly and deeply.  We pray.  We listen to God–even if it is different than the voices of tradition.  God is big enough (and small enough) to teach us what He wants us to know no matter our education, our background, or our original faith tradition.  We just need to ask Him to teach us.  We just need to be willing to listen.  We just need to be willing to change paths if we discover we have been wrong.  We never stop questioning if we are loving God and others above all else.

And the church as a whole needs to be willing to let people question, to let people ask, to let people wonder.  Otherwise, how do we know if we are fighting the good fight or just fighting?

 

Thorns Suck!

I live with chronic pain.  Literally.   I don’t mean that I personally suffer from it.  I mean I live with it.  It shares my bed.  It eats at my table.  It holds my hand on walks to the lake.  It haunts my thoughts.  It is always hovering dangerously close to my best laid plans.  It has an annoying knack of showing up when I can least afford the disruption.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that my husband is truly the one suffering.  He is the one with a drawer full of medications.  He is the one who enjoys a ridiculously small percentage of good days amongst the bad.   He is the one missing time with his children when he just isn’t capable of being near the sounds and light.   He is the one who pays with days of pain for that short game of basketball with his son.  He is the one who restlessly searches for the best position to sit or lie in to stave off debilitating pain in order to make it to his daughter’s concert.

Now, before you start searching the internet for holistic cures and special diets, kindly let me say–don’t.   I don’t want more well-meaning people telling me how omega 3 saved them or how kale changed their life.  I don’t want people looking at me with pity in their eyes.  And believe me when I say that my husband NEVER wants anyone to make a fuss over  him.  He barely wants people to notice that he is in the room (unless he is trying to get a laugh–then please pay attention).  And please don’t tell us that God won’t give us more than we can handle.  That’s crap.  He does it all the time.  He allows life to overwhelm us and stands with his hand outstretched for us to grab on.

I write this for those reading who are living with pain.  Or serious  illness.  Or depression.  Or any other challenge that just won’t let up.  God never said we would be free from struggles.  God never said we would be free from pain.  God never said He would answer our prayers in the way we deem acceptable or appropriate.  The Apostle Paul wrote of his “thorn in his side,” — “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”  (2 Corinthians 12: 8-9 NIV)  Paul was never healed from whatever it was that troubled him.  I have no doubt he would have preferred to be.   My husband may never be healed from his pain.  I have no doubt he would prefer to be.  I would prefer it.  That is not up to me.  That is not up to the doctors.  It is only God who knows why.  And it is up to us to trust that God knows best.

Some days I get angry as I drive kids in circles because he cannot help.   Some days I feel lonely as I parent while he hides in a dark, quiet cave.   Sometimes I wish to stomp around and slam pans around the cupboards.  Some days I can only sit and stare at the birds on the feeders.  And pet the dogs.  And pretend that I have nothing demanding my time.   Some days I eat just a few too many chocolate eggs because the creaminess on my tongue is the purest  joy I will have that day.

I apologize regularly to people for forgetting to answer an email, or text, or call.   Sometimes I lose track of what day it is.  I forget appointments.  I arrive at the last minute when I used to always be early.  I leave as soon as events end.  I used to stay and talk after concerts.  I miss that.  I like to talk. A LOT.   But now I’ve discovered a strange connection–the fuller my mind is, the less I say.  I frequently eat dinner in silence.  My desk grows stacks of papers that used to be neatly filed away.   I try not to notice the dirt  in the corners of the steps.  I’ve turned a blind eye to my childrens’ unmade beds.

You see, when you live with chronic pain, your life changes.  Your time with family becomes more vital than anything or anyone else.  Your to do list gets dusty sitting on the counter.  Your days are not your own.  Pain keeps the calendar.  Pain determines the family vacations.  Pain decides when you can just relax and enjoy your meal.  Pain decides which plans get canceled.  Pain can’t notice the worry in your daughter’s eyes because her father is lying down  in the dark again.  Pain doesn’t care if you have bread in the house (which may partially explain my compulsion to have a room full of food at all times.  Yes.  A literal room of food.)  Pain doesn’t care that you have a job to do.

My husband fights with every fiber of his being to ignore his pain and just live.  He tries.  He does things that he shouldn’t because he gets sick of pain controlling his activities.  He feels guilty when responsibilities fall on me.  He apologizes for falling asleep in the evening after fighting his way through work.  He silently suffers through games and concerts and movies just to be with his kids.  He gets depressed at the sheer exhaustion of life.  He gets angry at his lack of control over this.  But he keeps going.

And I guess that’s my main point.  We all keep going.  No matter the struggle.  No matter the confusion and frustration.  We keep going.  We are not special. We are not superhuman.  We are not alone in our suffering.  And we have God there with us every step of the way.  Sometimes He may get quite an earful  from me as I yell at the injustice.  Sometimes He may just listen to me cry.  Sometimes He has heard my husband moan.  And He knows what all that means.  He feels our pain.  He understands our anger at Him.  He sees it even if we won’t acknowledge its existence.  He smiles as I loosen my grip of control over my life.  He beams with pride at those moments of acceptance.  He nods when I am thankful for a day without troubles.  He knows what He is doing.  Thorns suck.  We’d like them all plucked out of our lives.  But at what expense? What would we miss if life were smooth and painless?

I know and love many who are living with pain; watching loved ones suffer with pain and debilitating diseases.  Know that you are not alone.  You are never alone.  And even though it doesn’t feel like it, God loves you and is holding out his hand to you.  Just grab on.

Is That Showing Kindness?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23 NIV)

I have read these verses many times in my life.  I have heard multiple sermons on these attributes.  And lately I have been challenged more deeply to question the evidence of such fruit in my life.  I have been wondering how much of this fruit is evident in the spiritual leaders of our day.  In the political leaders.  In our personal church bubble.

One question has been reverberating in my mind this week “Is it showing kindness when I ______?”  That was asked by my pastor this past Sunday.  He used a personal example of a specific situation that challenged him.  I immediately started a list in my head.  Is it kindness when I chuckle at someone’s outfit?  Is it kindness when I avoid looking at the homeless man at the stoplight?  Is it kindness when I stay silent if compelled to speak up in defense of someone?  Is it kindness when I ignore the sniffling woman at the lunch table because I’m busy?

And then my mind turned to leaders who have troubled me.  In I John 4:1 we are commanded to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  Hmmm.  So, if a prominent Christian leader states that welcoming refugees in our country is “not a Bible issue” is he showing kindness?  Is he showing love?  Is he showing the fruit of the Spirit?  

If a politician championed by Christian organizations states that poor children should sweep the floors in their schools in order to get their free lunch, we should ask–Is that showing kindness?  Would we want our children to have to sweep the floor in order to eat? Is that what Jesus would have done?

When our president vilifies an entire group by creating a registry for their crimes, is that showing kindness?  When an entire religion and those that practice that religion are treated as evil, dangerous, and not welcome in our country, is that showing kindness?  Is that what Jesus would have done?  Is that what He illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan?

If we find ourselves nodding in agreement when people say that the poor just need to get a job–is that showing kindness?  When we don’t wish to give to others’ children because “their parents shouldn’t be enabled”–is that showing kindness?  When we demand that people volunteer for 20+ hours a week in order to receive benefits–is that showing kindness?  What if that person has no transportation?  What if that person is caring for children or an elderly parent, or a sick spouse?  “We working people have to come up with childcare and transportation, so why shouldn’t they?”  Is that showing kindness?  Is that showing love?  (I will let the very genuine logistical issues with these ideas alone for now).

If we are less upset by someone’s murder because they are muslim, or foreign, or gay,  is that showing kindness?  Is that showing love?

If we say that we think it is wrong to help someone because they need to learn from their mistakes, is that showing kindness?  Is that what Christ did for us?  Does He make us work for His love, His forgiveness, His grace?

I think that what this all boils down to is that we have a severe lack of empathy in our country, in our culture, in our churches.  How often do we place ourselves in the shoes of another before casting judgment on them or their circumstances?  How often do we question if we would think or behave differently if it was a loved one and not a stranger?  How often do we ask ourselves what we would like others to do for us if we were found in the same circumstances?

If it was my family running from war and destruction, how would I feel when I learned that Christians didn’t want me living near them?  If caring for my elderly parents, or my sick husband meant that I couldn’t work, how would I feel when Christians said that God doesn’t like laziness (so I should work)?  If my child became a drug addict and we struggled together with all the mess and upheaval that created, how would I feel if I was silently judged as a bad parent by church people?  If my child was gay, how would it feel to hear preachers blame earthquakes and hurricanes on their behavior?  Yes, I have heard these arguments from Christians.   Yes, they saw no irony in those opinions.  Yes, they still held themselves up as loving and kind examples of Christ.   Is that showing kindness?  Is that showing love?

We are incapable of truly showing kindness and love (let alone all the other fruit of the Spirit) without some serious help from the Holy Spirit.  We humans are weak.  We will fail.  We will get our feelings hurt and then strike out.  We will cast judgment without a second thought.  But we cannot use these human shortcomings as an excuse for our bad behavior and attitudes.  We are to strive to be more Christ-like every day.  We are to give more of our time, our energy, our hearts to the things that Christ sees as worthy every day.  We are to genuinely ask for God’s help in following His example.  And when we finally see where we have been wrong, we are to be willing to change.  We are to want to grow.  We are to be vulnerable enough to acknowledge our screw-ups.  We are to see ourselves as no different in our humanity than the homeless man or the trans teen.

So, I ask, if someone was to ask you to explain your views on controversial topics of today–would you be showing kindness?  

 

What is Love? Really?

This afternoon our girls were chatty. They started out discussing silly teen antics of school kids. I listened and asked questions because these moments don’t show up that often. And then the discussion took an unexpected and unsolicited turn.

Our 16 year old  talked of a boy who talks with her in school. She is warm and friendly to everyone. She talks with kids that many ignore. He asked her one day, “I know you are Christian. I’m sure you won’t want to have anything to do with me anymore now that you know I’m gay.” She was surprised and reassured him that he was mistaken. “Why would he think that?” she asked me.

Our 13 year old told of a girl who asked her during the course of working on an assignment –“Are you Christian?” When our daughter said yes the girl said that she didn’t think that she was because Christians are usually mean.

These two tiny interactions speak volumes. They scream loudly of the anger, prejudice, judgment, and cloaked hate that people see in church people every day. THIS is how the church is viewed. THIS is what we have become with our boisterous leaders shouting against homosexuals, refugees, women who consider abortion, addicts, and all who are not perfect.

Allow me to stress that we live in a rural and predominantly conservative area. There are churches on many streets. Just two blocks from the school there are two churches across the street from one other. And still this is what people see. This is how people feel.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

If Jesus chose to call this the greatest commandment, I think we Christians should be known for something quite different than what my girls told me today.

Unless there is a new definition of love, many are doing it wrong.