Putting That Horse BEFORE the Cart . . .

When I began to seriously explore the internet in the months leading up to and following my retirement from parish ministry at the end of 2010, I was stunned to discover an enormous array of opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and stories — oh, my, the stories! They ran the gamut from ultra-conservative to out-there-liberal (to use outdated terminology . . . maybe fundamentalist to progressive is more current?).

One of the voices that most intrigued me was that of a young, Methodist pastor in the south named Morgan Guyton. Morgan addressed ‘big’ issues, wondering aloud about theological positions that have been espoused by wide swaths of the Christian community for the last few hundred years. He engaged serious conversations about atonement theory, environmental and justice issues, always asking insightful questions and encouraging honest feedback.

Now, he has a book! I am working my way through this little gem, one chapter at a time, digesting, noting questions in the margins, nodding my head, or scratching it, ALL of which I love when I do serious reading and thinking.

Today, I am joining a blog tour for this book, looking especially at chapter four — “Empty, Not Clean: How We Gain Pure Hearts.” This is the fourth of 12 provocative contrasts that form the spine of this volume, which is called: How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. I highly recommend  this book to you and encourage you to engage with it and see where you land on each issue in turn. It’s a very good thing for the church to re-examine what we say we believe and why. Morgan Guyton invites us to do exactly that.

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“The problem is that the modern American church often makes Christianity into a completely rational, purposeful, experience instead of a spiritual, intuitive encounter. We seek to know about God rather than to know God, and we worship our knowledge of God instead of God himself.”

Can I get a LOUD amen? I cannot even begin to verbalize how exhausted I feel by argument, by theological nitpicking, by endless and circular conversations about fine points of dogma. Even Jesus himself told us that words are far less important than deeds (see John 10:25), that ‘right belief’ is revealed only in right relationship, that abiding is what is needed. Being with, listening, stilling the noise, living in love . . . these are the things that make for pure hearts, that help us become who we were meant to be.

The line of distinction that Morgan draws in this chapter is the one between trying to stay clean and trying to get empty. That last phrase is one that would have made me more than a little bit nervous about a dozen years ago. Empty? Whaddya mean, empty? Sounds new-agey to me. 

I have since come to appreciate the fine difference between empty and open . . . so I might have chosen the latter word here. But what he means by ’empty’ is pretty much what I mean by ‘open,’ so I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page!

For far too long, religious folk (I’m talking almost all religions here, not just the Christian one) have chosen a bifurcated view of the world, making it (and the flesh, which Morgan discusses in a later chapter) the enemy of our souls. The result is too often a growing list of do’s and don’t’s and a shrinking view of all that is good and beautiful in what God has designed and given. Others of Morgan’s generation have written moving memoirs noting this phenomenon – Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, among many others – sometimes describing the debilitating after-effects of a steady diet of fear-based restrictiveness. The entire purity sub-culture is an extreme example of this ill-fated attempt to ‘keep our young people pure.’

It does not work. Anything based on fear is doomed to failure. Anything. And fear is what lies behind so much of the ‘staying clean’ mentality. What is desperately needed is an invitational mentality — we need to invite our children (and ourselves) into the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s creative genius, and the beauty of unending, unquenchable, ever-widening Love. 

There is a gem of a paragraph on page 39 that I am finding to be deeply true in my own spiritual journey just now:

“Before the rational modern era in which we live, Christian prayer looked very different. In the rational, modern approach to life, which tends to be all mind and no heart, the purpose of prayer is simply to make requests of God, and say appropriate things about God. But for most of Christian history, prayer has involved repeating the same words over and over again every day, according to a fixed schedule in a sacred language that isn’t your mother tongue, not in order to tell God what he already knows or ask him for what he already knows you need, but to “order {your} steps in {his} word.” (Ps. 119:133)

Courtesy of a blogpost by Sarah Bessey early in Lent this year, I have been using some lovely prayer beads, assembled and sent to me by Episcopalian nuns in the midwest somewhere. With the beads, came four different suggested prayer rotations to use while fingering them. I chose the Celtic version and have been using both beads and words every day since. Now this language is English, but the vocabulary is definitely not my own and I am hear to tell you that using these aids has changed my prayer experience in ways that are only positive. There is a movement from the left side of my brain to the right as I softly whisper the words that are now my own, cemented in my memory by frequency, something which a dear spiritual director earnestly desired for me to experience several years ago! (He sent me to the ocean for long episodes of staring and waiting, which is also a wonderful aid to this process.)

As the beads slip past my fingers, and the words enter the atmosphere around me (through sighs and yawns!), I find the presence of a Loving God to be real and near in ways that using my own chosen words too often do not. Yes, I still offer names and faces to the Throne, I still say thank you with almost every  breath of my day, I still offer, “Help,” and “Glory!” regularly. But the openness that comes with ritual has stunned and moved me.

Mike McHargue (“The Science Guy” for those who listen to The Liturgists podcasts) reminded us recently that we are creatures who possess a human brain that is wrapped around a simian brain that is wrapped around a lizard brain, etc. And it is the noise from those parts of ourselves that we so often need to silence. And what is the single most helpful aid for silencing them? Repetition, liturgy, learned prayer. YES! For Morgan, this is a critical step on the road to ’empty.’ For me, it’s part of becoming increasingly more ‘open’ to the presence of God.

He finishes this chapter with some reflection on a topic I have addressed, both here on the blog and in the ebook that is available to my newsletter subscribers. And we come to different conclusions, he and I. I take issue with the “more of Jesus, less of me” mentality, preferring instead to say, “more of Jesus, MORE of me.” I say this because I deeply believe that God does not desire us to so much become Jesus but to resemble him, in our own unique and irreplaceable selfhood. We are, after all, invited into a partnership with God in the building of the Kingdom in this place. God chooses to use very frail human vessels to do God’s work in the world. Jesus is our guide, our template, our savior and our friend. And we are invited into relationship with the Triune God through the selfless giving of this dear Incarnate Friend.

Hopefully, as we release the lists, as we say good-bye to the do’s and don’ts and the ‘stay clean’ entanglements, we will, indeed, ever more closely resemble our crucified, risen Lord. But . . . we will still be ourselves. Because WE are the reason Jesus came, we are the reason he lived and walked among us, telling those stories, teaching those lessons, dying on that cross and rising from that tomb. God loved who we are enough to join us, to celebrate us, to welcome us, to change us.

And that is the wonder of it all, is it not?

I’ll keep working through this book and hopefully, engage other chapters here on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, why don’t you get yourself a copy and let’s dialog about it, okay??

 

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 16 — Cherishing Friends

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value long-time connection more and more. People who’ve walked the road with me for a long time, those are the ones I yearn to be with. I’m so grateful for newer friends, for later-in-life community — I am and I will continue to be.

But those people who’ve known me for a lifetime (or at least, a good chunk of a lifetime!) are the ones whose presence I seek out. My calendar has reservations for those folks. Maybe not a whole lotta reservations — but regular ones, that’s for sure. Those three women up there are my maternal first cousins. We live within 90 minutes of each other and try to get together for lunch and catch-up about twice a year. They’re remarkable people, each and every one. And we share so much story. It’s not very many people who can see me after six months and say, “You’re looking more like your dad every day, Diana.” Who else would know that about me? (And they’re right. I’ve always looked like my mom — but I see dad in there more and more as I age, especially in the hair color, body size/shape and, regrettably, that nose.)

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And, of course, there is my longest-term-best-friend, my mom. The parts of her that made for true friendship are not as evident as they once were, but that twinkle in her eye is a reminder, that smile is a heartstring to the past. She does not remember me, but oh! I remember her.

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And then there is this glorious posse, this group of long-term friends from our days at Pasadena Covenant church (1975-1996). Many of them are in this photo, but a couple of them weren’t able to make it to this gathering, just as I can’t make it to the one tonight.

These friends knew me before I wore any of the hats I’ve worn in the past two decades. Before seminary study, before pastoral ministry, before spiritual direction. Before. 

And most of them knew my kids. At least they knew me as a mom to those kids, which NO ONE in Santa Barbara does. I was so surprised at what a loss that was to me when we moved here. My role as their mom has been my primary identity since 1968 — and nobody in this congregation had a clue about any of that. It makes a difference, friends. It truly does. People who’ve walked with you through the joys and pitfalls of parenting and marriage (even if they themselves are not married or a parent) — those are the people who know you best. And who love you anyhow.

You gotta keep those friendships going. They’re lifeblood, even though IRL connections may be few and far between, they’re always rich and memorable. I was also part of another friendship group for a few years, one that I miss to this day. Six of us who were ordained as pastors in the same denomination gathered together for retreat every year for about 6-8 years. And then it just sort of died away. I have limited contact with three of that group and seldom hear from the other two. I miss them all and wonder every year about how to try and reestablish our connection.

Do you have friends  you’ve known forever? Special interest friends? Shared life experience friends? What do you do to stay in touch?

The 31-Day Write: 31 Days of Aging Gracefully

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2015 marks year 4 of the 31 Day Writing challenge for me. First was 31 Days in Which I Am Being Saved by Beauty (2012), then there were 31 Days of Giving Permission (2013), and last year, it was 31 Days of Looking for the Little.

This is a year of facing into reality for me. I turned 70 in January, I landed in the hospital in February and again, at the end of April. I traveled to Kauai in July with our entire clan to celebrate FIFTY years of marriage, and in August, my husband and I moved, downsizing after 18 years in a much-loved larger home with a huge yard.

Yeah, it was time. It IS time.

I am old and getting older by the minute, and if I’m going to have even a tiny chance of doing this aging thing well, I want to be intentional about it. So that is what I’ve chosen to write about for the next 31 days.

I’m nervous about this, to tell you the truth. I happen to find myself at a somewhat painful juncture, realizing I am beginning to be invisible in some ways. Do you know that about getting old in this culture? Elders are not always seen, even in their own family setting. I’m not sure this is intentional, but it surely is reality. Maybe it’s because we’ve been around so long, we’ve become part of the furniture, always available. Maybe it’s because we serve as somewhat painful pointers to the future for those who are younger. Maybe it’s because as we age, we tend to slow down a bit, to measure our words more, to give up the drivenness and hungry ambition that are so much a part of mid-life in 21st century western culture. Whatever the reasons, I am choosing to step out of the invisibility cloak this month and put some words out into cyberspace about how I’d like to live these last years of my life.

I am hoping that these reflections will be both highly individual — reflections on my own aging process and what I’m learning — and at that same time, universal in their application. After all, none of us gets a ‘pass’ from this stuff, do we? If we’re fortunate to avoid accident or early terminal illness, we all must face into the reality of bodies that grow old and weary, of choices becoming more limited. And hopefully, of enjoying the benefits of wisdom gained, gratitude grown, joy multiplied, insights deepened. 

I’ve got a list, and will do my best to work ahead a little. I’m hoping to have a post up every day, but if I miss a few here and there, extend a little bit of grace, okay? After all, I’m OLD. (said with a smile)

In the meantime, please grab my button and follow along!

Just Wondering

Learning to Bend — A Post for Amber Haines

There are some people you know instantly are kindred spirits. Amber Haines is one of those for me. I have read her blog faithfully for five years, have cried with her over the health crises of her youngest son Titus (virtually only, though I’d have been more than willing to do so in person if she didn’t live all the way across the country!), even won some beautiful Amber-made jewelry several years ago. She has a new book out – a beautiful book which I hope to review in this space very soon. I urge you to order your own copy of “Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire & Finding the Broken Way Home.” This piece is one of a long series of guest posts that she has invited, each of them speaking to that broken way home in one way or another. An image she uses in her book is of the cold linoleum floor on which she was found by God one desperate night. And that’s where this piece begins.

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That bathroom floor can be a cold and lonely place. I’ve been there, at the end of myself, done in by doing good, exhausted by my own refusal to ask for help, by my unhealthy relationship with food, by my misunderstanding of the gospel of grace. There are all kinds of ways to be broken and I am no exception.

All my life, I have been the good girl — obedient, careful, helpful, the one who takes care of things and people. I don’t think I ever went through a rebellious phase as a teenager. Maybe it’s because I’m an eldest child, maybe it’s the way my mother instilled certain fears in me at an early age, maybe it’s the way I’m wired. I never tried anything on the ‘don’t do’ list, I never quit going to church, I read my Bible and prayed every day, I toed every line put in front of me, generally without complaint. To most people looking in, I was a very together person.

Along the way, however, I never learned much about self-care, about healthy boundaries, about knowing when to stop. And I learned to use food as . . . well, just about everything: a pacifier, a reward, a comfort, a go-to, quick-fix for any emotional struggle, a boredom-satisfier, a crutch when facing a difficult situation, even a subversive way to be rebellious. And for many years, it worked pretty well.

Except for the unfortunate fact that I carried far too many pounds on this large frame. Despite the copious tears that I’ve shed over that truth during the last 40+ years, I now see that that my size was an important part of my story. Somewhere, deep inside of me, I needed to be big. Big enough to meet the needs of all the people around me, big enough to take care of three little ones who came faster than imaginable, big enough to deal with the busy schedule I always managed to set for myself, big enough to get through seminary at mid-life, big enough to handle whatever curveball my pastoral jobs might throw at me. Big enough.

Slowly, with time and experience — much of it difficult and painful — I am learning to lean into the biggest truth I’ve learned: it’s okay to be small. In fact, it’s necessary to be small — to recognize our own inability to ever be big enough, strong enough, good enough, devoted enough, loving enough, capable enough, sturdy enough . . . enough . . . unless . . . we learn how to bend.

Come along over to Amber’s place to read the rest of this and to join the conversation.

 

Asking: Am I ‘All In?’

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I was invited to participate in worship leadership yesterday, the first time in a while I’ve been asked, and the first time in a longer while when I felt I could reasonably say ‘yes.’ We enjoyed a relatively quiet weekend for the first time in too long, so there was space, both on the calendar, and in my spirit, to think creatively about a passage of scripture and attempt to lead God’s people in prayer.

The sermon was from a short text in Ephesians 6 — the two verses immediately following that long list of ‘armor’ that every follow of Jesus needs to live fully, carefully and creatively in this world of ours. The verses that talk about Paul being an ‘ambassador in chains,’ the ones that talk about being  full-out followers of Jesus, the ones that encourage us all to be people of prayer. . . all-the-time prayer, not just special-event-as-the-needs-build-up prayer.

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As always, the altarpiece helped us to ‘see’ the passage, and Pastor Don’s sermon unpacked those words very well indeed. After the sermon, the worship team led us through 3 rounds of that wonderful, small Taize chorus, the one that goes:

O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
When I call, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.

And then we prayed a community prayer in three parts, the first and last from me, the middle one from Don, with the chorus sung liturgically between each part. It was good to lead in prayer again; I’m grateful.

We’ve heard a word from you today, Lord.
A good word, but also, I must admit,
a hard word.
It’s hard because today you’re asking us to be ‘all in.’

All of us, all the time, everywhere.

Gulp.

Somehow, it’s easier for us to be partly in, you know?
Especially on days like today, when we can come here,
to this beautiful space, and specifically focus on you —
on who you are, on who you call us to be.

It seems simpler for us to do that when we gather with your people,
when we sing the songs and pray the prayers and hear the words.

But today, your word is asking something else entirely.
And that something is important, and inclusive,
and — let’s be honest here — more than a little bit demanding.
It feels uncomfortable, maybe even disorienting,
because you’re asking us to be ambassadors, out there, in the world.

The world we live in, and study in.
The world we shop in, and work in,
the world where we converse with other people, all kinds of other people,
some of them really difficult.
The world where too many problems seem to have no answers,
where ugly things happen — things that scare us and overwhelm us.

But that is the world you made, the world you have set us in, the world you love.
And if we’re going to call ourselves your friends, then that’s the world where we must be.

Will you help us, please?
Lean in close and whisper words of truth and courage,

remind us of the depths of your love,
tell us the truth of who we are as your called,

and gifted
and empowered
representatives.

We have good news to share, to live, to offer.

Make us bold in our living, wherever we are,
from the kitchen to the boardroom,
from the study hall to the golf course,
from the baby nursery to the retirement home.

Wherever we are, whomever we’re with,
help us to radiate your love and grace,

in every conversation,
transaction,
encounter,
and circumstance.

Help us to be all in.
Lord, hear our prayer.

Part Two.

Lord, we confess that we are not always prepared for the battle.
We expect things to be nice and polite and to go our way.
We confess that we get wounded too easily and fight with others too harshly.

And the weapons we use to do battle just don’t get the job done.

So today, O God, would you re-arm our lives with your full armor?

  • Would you belt our lives with your eternal truth?
  • Would you cover our hearts with your breastplate of righteousness?
  • Would you put on our feet those fast shoes that spread the gospel of peace and reconciliation anywhere and everywhere we go?
  • Would you put in our hands that strong shield of faith that can absorb and quench the fiery attacks that often undo us?
  • Would you cover our heads and minds with that strong helmet of our salvation that cannot be taken away?
  • And give us your sword, your Word, anchored in our hearts, that Word which can fell and undo Satan and all his lies.                                                                     Lord, make us strong.                                                                                                     Hear our prayer.

Part Three

Some of us, Lord, have been doing this discipleship thing for a long time now.
Others of us are newer to the journey.
But all of us still have so much to learn about prayer.

About settling into that place where we do what the epistles call us to do with that impossible sounding phrase: “pray without ceasing.”

Maybe we find prayer difficult because we’ve misunderstood the richness of this gift, this means of communion with you.

Maybe we’ve been stuck in a rut of list-making,
and detailed itemizing.

Or maybe we think prayer is some strange specialty that’s better left
to the pastors and the wordsmiths.

Whatever the reasons, Lord, will you help us, right here and right now,
to just relax?

To sit here, in your presence, and say as little as possible.

Maybe a, ‘thank you!’
Or a, ‘bless them.’
Or a, ‘you’re amazing, Lord!’

Because that’s at the heart of it all, isn’t it?
Moving through our days with an awareness of you,
with a spirit of gratitude,
with an eagerness to find you, already at work in the midst of the details
that fill our time and our minds.

So as we sit here in this quiet space, and as we sing this lovely small song,
will you help us to unkink,
to let go of our need to be ‘good’ at things,
and just discover the simple joy of
being quiet, with you?

Thank you, Lord.
Bless us, Lord.
Praise you, Lord.

Amen.

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We visited with some old friends and met a few new ones, too; we picked up some mail at our former home, and then we turned the car around, drove further than we’re used to on a Sunday morning, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the quiet beauty of our new space. I sat on a chaise lounge, in the sunshine for two hours, just being grateful for the ways in which we have been blessed in this life of ours. Not many words were said. And I was happy to be ‘all in,’ if only for an afternoon.

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God Is in the Business of REDEMPTION! Can I Get an Amen?

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I WANT YOU TO HEAR ME WHEN I SAY THIS, OKAY?

I want you to hear me in my preacher-voice, my emotional voice, my truest voice. I want you to hear me cry out with conviction, to see me raise my hands in benediction and thanksgiving, to believe me when I tell you this powerful, life-changing, life-saving truth:

OUR GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION!

Can I hear an ‘amen?’ Maybe a ‘hallelujah,’ even if it is the middle of Lent? Oh, yes. I’m standin’ in the need of a great big hallelujah over here tonight.

I have felt God moving me toward this declaration for a few days now. I think maybe it started with these flowers, these dying flowers. They were headed for the trash can, after many days of gracing our table with their beauty and color, twisting their pretty heads toward the light, bending and dipping in the breezes created by people walking by. The sunlight on their last day happened to catch them in all their radiant, lingering, grace-filled glory. And I was reminded that even death is a beautiful thing in God’s world. A hard thing, yes, yes. But beautiful in its own way, bringing with it a reminder of our mortality, our inevitable end, the cessation of life as we know it now, in this place.

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Oh, yes. Even dying things carry the beauty of creation and the mark of redemption-in-process. Even dying things.

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And I am a dying thing, too. I don’t mean to depress you (or me) with that pronouncement), only to underline the truth of the matter. We are all dying. We forget it too easily, I think. From the moment of our very first breath, we are headed in only one direction. For some of us it will come painfully early. For others of us, it will feel too late. But it will come — it is part of us, every day. 

We have lost this truth to our peril, I believe. We need it near us, we need to hold it inside, like a precious gift, a coming reality. These bodies that carry us around are dying, they are fragile, they are not meant for eternity as they are now.

BUT — these bodies also carry within them the seeds, the heart, the soul of that forever place, our home-to-come. Case in point: healing and recuperation. It’s a miracle, I tell you. An incredible, day-by-day, minute-by-minute miracle, no matter how limited, no matter how slow, no matter how frustrating. When healing happens, it is a dang miracle, every single time. 

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I posted this picture on Facebook in the afternoon of February 21st of this year. I was in the emergency room after a terrible fall, face-first, onto asphalt while walking strongly across our local cemetery. I spent a night in the hospital and I was frightened. Hence, the picture-posting and the heartfelt request for prayers — which were quickly forthcoming, bringing hope and peace and rest — thank you all so very much.

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This picture was taken two days after I got home, with the bruising in full bloom. It hurt, it looked frightful and I felt every bit of this. At the time, I was very nearly convinced I would carry these colors around with me for the rest of my life. But day-by-day, minute-by-minute, things began to improve. Color is fading, swelling is gone, stitches are out, scars are smaller.
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The remnant remains, and will be around for a few more days, I’m sure. I’m thinking that perhaps the color will last as long as the post-trauma watchfulness period of one month required for every person on blood-thinning medication who experiences trauma to the head. Only one week left for that.

But here’s the point I want to make: I carry within me the seeds of eternal life, you see? And so do you. The body’s ability to heal itself is amazing. There is no other word that will cover it.

Both the flowers and the face are leading to the real story I want to tell you tonight. The most powerful picture of redemption, of healing, of God’s Spirit made real — the most powerful picture that I have seen in a long, long time was on display in our sanctuary tonight. It’s a grand tale, filled with woe and brokenness. But at the end? Victory! Challenges met, lives turned around, healing from the inside out. These bruises may not have been as visible as the ones on my face, but they were every bit as real, every bit as painful, every bit in need of deep, deep healing.

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This night, our church was fortunate enough to host the graduation service for four women and eleven men who have successfully completed the one-year residential program at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. My dear friends, if you want a visceral, heartfelt reminder of the ongoing work of God in this world of ours, I strongly encourage you to find such a service wherever it is you live. The work of rescue missions in this world is one of the surest ways to experience the power of grace and the goodness of God that I know anything about. 
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These photos were taken during the closing moments of a 90-minute celebration of worship that gave testimony to God’s redemptive power at work. Our small sanctuary was filled to the rafters with excited, supportive, grateful people. People who don’t look a bit like the usual crew that fills these pews. Muscular men, covered in tattoos, gloriously redeemed women with high, high heels and even higher hair. Skin tones across the rainbow, very mixed educational levels, not one thing homogenous about this congregation. 

AND IT WAS CHURCH. Church like we rarely experience it. Loud hollering, clapping, stomping, singing. I mean LOUD. I got up to offer a word of welcome and an opening prayer after the graduates had walked in to the tape-recorded music of “Pomp and Circumstance,” each one greeted like a rock star by friends, family, alums of the program, staff and co-residents. I asked the entire center section to please consider coming to our worship service in the morning because — I’ve gotta tell you! — we’ve never heard anything like that before. 

Now if you’ve read this blog before, you know that I love our church. I love our worship times, I enjoy the preaching, I’m grateful for the community. None of that is changed by my experience tonight. I love who we are and who it is we are in the process of becoming. 

But tonight, I got a glimpse of something we don’t see very often. I got a peek behind the curtain, a look a the work of the Wizard, the kind of work that isn’t nearly so dramatic in our usual community. That usual work is real and deep and I’m grateful for us. And yes, I see God’s redemptive power in all kinds of ways and places in the midst of our life together.

Also? I’m grateful, right down to my toes, that I don’t have a story like the ones I heard tonight. Yes, I’ve lost loved ones and friends to addiction. But the stories I heard tonight are not part of my day-to-day life. And yet. . . 

I need the stories that I heard tonight. I need to be reminded that God is about so much more than what happens in my world, my very small and intimate world. I will write again about God in the details, God in the everyday, God in the goodness and beauty of creation, God in the midst of my own personal story. This is the truth of my story — I love it, I live it, I share it, I’m grateful for it.

But these stories? Oh, my. Out-of-the-pit kind of rescue stories, finding salvation in the midst of death, jail, addiction, estrangement, abuse stories. Oh, my friends. GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION. May we shout it from the rooftops once-in-a-while!

Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus. PRAISE YOUR NAME.

And may we all stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who carry these stories around inside them, offering our hands/arms/hearts in blessing, solidarity, encouragement, thanksgiving. Because these are our stories, too, aren’t they? All of us who claim the name of Jesus are related to the people in these photos, all of us are sinners, standing in the need of grace. All of us are broken up, broken down, torn-up, messed-up, needy people WHO ARE REDEEMED. Every single one of us. Praises be!

 

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Added one day late — photos of the altar piece, which was planned to go along with the scripture passage for Sunday. And which — and this is SO like God! — fit perfectly with the celebration we enjoyed on Saturday night:

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Because each member of our current pastoral staff was committed to other activities on this Saturday evening, I was invited to stand in for them in welcoming the Rescue Mission crew to our facilities and to open the service with prayer. Don kindly sent me an description of the altar piece in advance and I was able to help the 400+ people in attendance understand why they were looking at a collection of ‘dead’ branches and broken pottery. Our Sunday morning text was superbly preached on by Associate Jon Lemmond today — the story of the birth of the first board of deacons in the early church. Out of brokenness (the immigrant widows were being ignored), came beautiful service (members of that immigrant community were ordained and commissioned to be the careful servants of those in need). Out of brokenness, comes new life!

And these are the words God gave me yesterday afternoon as I prepared for the opening prayer. As always, God provides what needs to be said, graciously picking up threads that even I don’t know are there:

Our great and good God, maker of heaven and earth,
the one who calls us from darkness to light and brings us from death to new life, we greet you tonight with full hearts and open arms.

Thank you for showing up in the lives of these graduates, for walking with them, and with all of us, through the tough stuff of this life and for redeeming every single struggle that we’ve somehow, by your grace, managed to survive. We know that the grace that brought us to this evening’s festivities continues to prepare us for the promise of new life to come.

Thank you, Lord God, for each graduate,
for each family member,
friend, loved one,
staff member, cheerleader,
trusted sidekick;
for those who’ve shown tough love when it was needed and have shown your love, no matter what.

Thank you for the gift of hopes realized,
of dreams come true, 
of a future where once there was none.

Thank you for calling us to celebrate,
for always inviting us to the table of your grace,
for clothing us in the righteousness of your Son, Jesus,
and for filling us with the fresh Wind of the Holy Spirit.

We give tonight’s service to you as a gift of love and worship, and as we do, we want to remember
who we are:

We are, every single one of us, your children,
          deeply loved,
          highly valued,
          and richly gifted.

We are the beloved.

Help us never to forget that, to cling to that strong statement
like the lifesaving, world-changing truth that it is.

And help us, through the words, music, prayers, tears, laughter and love shared tonight to see you in the faces of one another. Because you promise us that is exactly where you can be found.

All praise to the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whom we know and love because of Jesus, Amen.

Everyone Has A Story

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Oh, man! I can so easily forget this truth. Yes, it’s very true — people do cruel things, betray others, or otherwise make me wish I weren’t human. And too often, my first response can be negative, judgmental, and critical; I can find myself making snap decisions about people based on a moment or two of difficult behavior.

But you know what? Everyone has a story that they carry around inside themselves. And some of those stories might help me to understand why a person is acting the way they are — if only I knew what they were.

Slowly, slowly I am learning that when I feel frustrated, impatient, even angry at someone’s behavior or their choice of words, saying this simple mantra inside my spirit somewhere can make a difference: everyone has a story. I’m finding that simple discipline to be both important and helpful — psychologically and philosophically profound on the one hand, and plain-ole practical, on the other. In my ongoing (and never-ending) journey away from reactivity and toward responsiveness, this simple 4-word phrase is slowly changing me from the inside out.

Two small examples:

Example Number One: 

I meet with several people monthly for spiritual direction, some in person and some by Skype. All of them come with such rich stories, and many different life experiences. The discipline and training for becoming a director has helped enormously in my own journey as I learn how to listen prayerfully to each person I see.

Sometimes, it takes many months before the most important pieces click into place and light shines with fuller depth and beauty on who they are and how they’ve gotten to this point in life. Details rise with time, with prayer, with intentional listening and learning. Suddenly, perhaps many months into our relationship, there it is: the missing piece, the small story that helps me to see more fully who they are and where God is moving in them. I cannot tell you what a privilege it is to sit opposite these remarkable people, learning from each of them how to more fully inhabit my own story, my own life. “You never know,” I tell myself quietly. “You just never know.”

Example Number Two:

I’ve been going to the same nail salon each month for several years now, a place that is fully staffed by immigrants from Vietnam, many of them related to one another. Each and every person I’ve had the delight of working with fairly brims with story. This morning, I heard two — from people I’ve worked with before, and with whom I’m slowly building trust and confidence. Their life stories are so completely different from my own — except — they aren’t.

ALL of us come from families, some of them healthy and connected, some of them, not so much.

ALL of us deal with professional woes of one kind or another — even those who have never been paid for a job must learn to get along with those who are not related to us in some kind of ‘work’ setting.

ALL of us carry both pain and sorrow around in our bodies, our spirits. And it is when we find the courage to share some of those pieces with an empathetic other that we can begin to know who they are, and who we are. We can rehearse our own story as we listen to someone else telling theirs.

Today I spoke with a gentle young woman who is pursuing a PhD in depth psychology — yes, you read that right. She and I talked carefully as she did her best to help my feet look and feel better. I don’t have too many pieces of her story yet, but today she told me something, very quietly, that helped me begin to better understand her reserve, her cautiousness. She carries a wound, one that is not yet healed.

Don’t we all? And yet . . . we forget what we know so quickly!

The middle aged man who worked on these gnarled hands told me more of his own immigration journey today. He talked matter-of-factly about fleeing his home, landing in a refugee camp in Indonesia, going to Singapore when U.S. Immigration gave the green light, then flying across the Pacific with his younger sister at the age of 22.

He began college here, then returned to his homeland to find a wife. “How many kids do you have?” I asked. “Two,” he replied, “my son is 19 now and attends our local community college.” Something about him has always radiated competence and efficiency, the ability to quietly take charge and get things done. Now I have a little clearer understanding of how those qualities came to be.

Some of us can point to one or two defining moments in our lives that have permanently shaped and changed us; others of us have lived a life with a little less drama, but can talk about a steady accumulation of small things telling a story of movement and growth.

Some of us have gotten stuck along the way — maybe because of illness, or hardship or the untimely death of a loved one. And getting stuck is a story in and of itself! But how will we ever learn these things about one another if we don’t take the time to listen, to ask careful questions, to learn from each other?

This is one of the things I love about the internet, this blogging community we’re all a part of: we tell stories. And, believe it or not, the simple act of commenting, of offering encouragement to the storytellers we read, is a step in the direction of becoming a better listener. Taking the time to read carefully and then respond with a word of thanks and/or hope — this is good stuff. Important stuff. 

Which is exactly why I do not have plans to close down my own blog (even if it might feel that way on occasion, when I take a L O N G break!) and why I hope the rumors of blog-death are exaggerated and misplaced. Yes, of course, it is important to be listening to one another IRL — in person, by telephone, in email conversations. But writing in these funny spaces called weblogs is a great start, filled with potential — if we take care with our words, tell the truth, and release expectations.

So, I hope you’ll continue to join me here. And though I won’t be reading as many blogs as I have in the past (got a bigger project or two that need more time), I fully intend to continue to read several and to engage in conversations when I do.

Because everyone has a story,  right?

Top Ten Posts for 2014 — and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

IMG_4635 This is a very small blog, as blogs go; I don’t get a ton of traffic. But I do have readers who are kind, intelligent, compassionate and faithful, so I thought maybe you might like to know which posts over the last year spurred the most interest. I was actually a bit surprised. The series that I did at the beginning of 2014 drew in more readers than I thought and most of those posts landed on this list. There is a homily, a book review and a very personal, family post on this list, too. See what you think:

1. Delving into the Mystery — Introducing Q & A

This was the introductory post for the series I did one year ago, and it’s on the top of this list. Hmmmm. . . maybe the content since then has gone straight downhill?

2. The Turning Point

One of two posts about journeying with my mother through dementia. I have stopped writing publicly about her as I am contemplating a longer format story, possibly for publication at some future point. This was a very tender turning point for us.

3. The Beauty that Remains

An earlier post about mom that landed right behind the one above.

4. Q & A — Week Two: Fear of Abandonment

The second big “Q” in the Q & A series landed ahead of the first one – just barely! This essay works through some of my own personal struggles with learning to trust God.

5. Q & A — Week One: Letting Go of the List

The first long format post in that series is here. And this sort of sets the stage for where we’re headed in the entire discussion — learning to step into grace and release worries about performance.

6. Q & A — Week Four: The Gift of Tears

And the fourth one is right behind it! I talk about the cleansing, rejuvenating power of tears in this essay.

7.  FOUND: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer — A Book Review

A review of a beautiful book by my friend Micha Boyett. If you have not read this book, YOU REALLY SHOULD.

8. Q & A — Week Three: Remembering What Comes First  Coming in at number eight is the third essay in that long-ago series — about keeping love in the top spot. Always.

9. Remembering Her: Kathryn Ruth Byer Trautwein, January 3, 1914 – May 25, 2014 

Remembering and honoring my amazing mother-in-law during the week that she died.

10. Living with the Truth

This reflection was written after the terrible news that began coming out of Iraq began to surface. It included a sermon summary and a word of hope in the midst of so much confusion.

I think one thing I’ve learned from doing this compilation is that L O N G posts are often the most read. And that is a huge surprise to me. I’ll keep plugging away at this over in my corner of the world. And I’ll be grateful to all who stop by, especially those who let me know that they’re here.

MAY THE NEW YEAR BRING HEALTH, FULFILLMENT AND JOY FOR ALL OF YOU. Thanks so much for your faithful partnership in this internet experience.

31 Days of Looking for the Little: Remembering

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As this 31-Day Challenge draws to its close, it seems fitting to go back to where we began: with a picture of my littlest grandgirl’s shoes.
They’re not resting on our warm wooden floors in this shot. Instead, they’re sitting on the concrete deck of the swimming pool at the condo we rented on Maui. You can see some mud stains from all the rain puddles left over from tropical storm/hurricane Ana, which almost truncated our trip before it began. 
I remember when that original photo triggered the idea for this entire series, and when I do, I am grateful for the inspiration, and even more, for the process of writing each of these small pieces. I cannot remember a time when I’ve had more fun blogging than I have this past month.
It’s a really good thing to remember, isn’t it? Scripture admonishes us to do that very thing — over and over again. To recount our story, to tell it to our children and our grandchildren.
And it’s that idea which is behind the Ignatian practice of examen, a daily discipline that has been adapted in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people in the last few centuries.
Because of the particular journey I’ve been on the last few months, my nightly version is short and sweet. As I drift off to sleep, I call to mind every blessing of the day just past, beginning with small things and moving through to the bigger ones — like my husband and my family and my faith. 
It’s just a small thing, this nightly remembering, but it has been the single biggest part of my own recovery, both physically and emotionally. Spending those few minutes being grateful has done more to restore health and sanity than any other single thing I’ve done. 
And it starts with remembering . . .
Just Wondering

It’s Not That Easy Being Weird — A Guest Post

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Michelle DeRusha’s beautiful, funny, and profound memoir called “Spiritual Misfit.” I’m honored to be guest-posting for her today, in her ongoing series about being a misfit. Here are the opening paragraphs of that essay . . .

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All my life, I’ve been the one who didn’t quite fit. No matter where I’ve landed in my own spiritual journey, I’ve managed to be the one who is different — quirky, opinionated, on the edge.

I was the kid who had the most memory work badges and sang alto in the kids’ choir at our first church. But I was also the kid who hid out in the caretaker’s apartment, playing with his baby and talking to his wife instead of socializing around the punch bowl with the rest of the 5th graders.

We moved to a new town and a new church when I was 12. The youth group was huge and I went to every thing that was offered.  I landed in the hard-working-leadership-tier, but never in the popular-kids-who-also-have-skills elite. And that was okay by me. I was tall and rangy and not terribly graceful. I was also physically fearful and lurking underneath my loud voice, an insecure, uncertain teenager.

I married young. It was a great decision for us, one that took us halfway around the world to live and work for two years. And I was really a misfit there. A southern California conservative looks nothing like a Pennsylvania holiness conservative and I found that out the hard way. Yet, somehow, we survived and even thrived in that beautiful place.

We had our kids early, and our grandkids even earlier. So for the last 40 years, we’ve been ahead of the curve by a long shot. And guess where that puts us now? Smack dab in the middle of just about everything. We find ourselves sandwiched between ailing parents, home-buying adult children, college-aged and pre-school grandkids.

We’ve found ourselves sandwiched between generations theologically, too — 

Please come on over to Michelle’s beautiful space to read the rest of this weirdness. . .