FIRE — Use It or Abuse It? — for SheLoves, August 2018

Each week during the winter months of the year just past, our Confirmation students would arrive, shivering in the central California coolness, for our very early 8:45 a.m. Sunday classes. My husband would gather wood from a nearby pile and light a fire in the lovely fireplace in our gathering space. One by one, the girls would line up in front of it to warm themselves. (Generally speaking, middle school boys do not admit to discomfort of any kind!) Some chose to sit on the hearth for the entire lesson, not wanting to leave that cozy space.

Now, juxtapose that picture with this one: last December, the largest wildfire in California history raged through the foothills of our community, after destroying hundreds of homes in a large town to our south. We ate blessed to live in a house-with-a-view, one that put us in a direct line with the Thomas fire’s voracious movement across our city landscape. It was horrifying to watch and left scars that remain visible today, eight months later.

Fire.

Cozy or cancerous? Source of warmth and comfort or disaster and dismay? Something we are drawn to or repelled by?

Depending on the circumstances, both sets of answers apply, don’t they? Fire can give life or take it, it can provide order or create chaos, light up a room or demolish it. Like so much of life, fire is a very mixed bag.

Now take that truth about physical fire and apply it to our use of ‘fire’ in more metaphorical contexts:

“The fire within,” for example — is that a good thing or a dangerous one?                             “We need to light a fire under him/her.“ Good advice or bad idea?                                         “I spend all my time putting out fires.” Negative thinking or reality check?                             “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Wise counsel or needless nay-saying?

It depends, right? The difference between a contained fire, used for warming or cooking, and an uncontrolled wildfire is immense. And a person filled with the ‘fire of faith’ can be a rich source of healing for the broader community or a danger to everyone he or she touches. Where is the line between healthy passion and unhealthy obsession? Even more pointedly, how can we learn to be the light of the world without destroying people in the process?

Far too much of today’s conservative church is caught in the grip of unhealthy, obsessive behavior and language. We find it terribly easy to choose sides, state opinions, and make judgments about people, politics and policies. We make so much roaring noise that whatever light we may carry becomes barely visible. . .

To finish this essay and join the conversation, please click here.

A Prayer for Those in Need of Goodness and Mercy

Whenever I am invited to pray in public, I try to post those prayers in this space. Sometimes, people ask me for a copy and this is the easiest way to make that happen. In our church community, we find ourselves in a surprising season of discord and misunderstanding. We’re working on it! And the sermon for the day helped, as did the song that just preceded this prayer, “Psalm 23,” with the chorus that begins with, “Surely goodness, surely mercy” Yes, indeed. Please, Lord. (Our primary teaching text was Zechariah 8)

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Oh, Good Shepherd, we gather together in this place,
at this time in our history and in the history of the world, to acknowledge —
out loud and with all of who we are —
that we stand in need of goodness, we stand in need of mercy.
Every last one of us as individuals, and all of us together as your people at Montecito Covenant Church. All of us.

We need to remember, and to give thanks for, the truth that You are on our side,
even though the valley be dark and the way ahead, uncertain.

Lead us, O Lord, into green pastures. Restore our souls, refresh us with the water of life, remind us that we belong to You, and remind us that You are good.

Even as we acknowledge that goodness in You, O God, we must also own the truth that we are sometimes not so good.

We step on toes, 
we say harsh things,
we talk about others when they are not present,
we make judgments with incomplete facts,
we make assumptions,
and stand on entitlement,
and fail to practice grace and peace.

Forgive us, O God. Forgive us. And help us to forgive one another, too.

The climate in the world around us right now is not particularly conducive to forgiveness, nor to goodness and mercy. So it seems even more important than usual that we — as members of Christ’s body — practice what we preach. Will you help us to do that, please?

The text before us today reminds us of some of those things we preach, and we need to hear them, we really do. Bless Pastor Jon as he brings us your word for today. Give us ears to hear, O God, give us hearts to understand, and give us feet that walk out that truth into our world, beginning with the patio, and then the lunch tables we will share together a little later today. May your grace and joy infuse every conversation, guiding us into wisdom, and good decision-making.

Most of all, Lord God, will you help us to let your goodness and mercy inform what we say and do in our day-to-day living? That is not always easy for us. Some of us are in the throes of deep grief during these days of summer —

loved ones die,
relationships dissolve,
circumstances take a nosedive,
hard decisions must to be made,
ugly voices rise to the top in too many dialogues,
children suffer,
politicians seldom tell the truth,
poverty of all kinds surrounds us,
wars never end.

To us, the world feels a shambles, and we forget about goodness and mercy.

But we are not YOU, O God. Help us to look around us and see what you see — a world in need. . . yes. But a world that is also deeply loved, a world held in place by a Good and Merciful Sovereign, a world in which we are invited to partner with that Good Sovereign in the necessary work of restoration, reconciliation, recovery, and renewal.

We give you thanks this day for the evidence of that good work in the lives of those graduating from Bethel House and the Rescue Mission last night, celebrated right here, in our sanctuary. And we give you thanks for the changed hearts in thousands of teenagers, including some of our own, who were at the CHIC conference in Tennessee this past week. Thank you!

Bless and encourage every hurting heart in this room, O God. And use each of us to make that blessing real. Help us to be good neighbors — to each other, and to all those we meet day by day. Because everybody, from the grocery clerk to the rude driver behind us, needs a little goodness and mercy in their life, too.

They need the truth that we already know: that all of us belong to you — every last, mixed-up, weird and wonderful one of us.

Glory be.

In the name of Jesus — who loves us, who died for us, and who, by the power of the Spirit, was raised to new life, the One who dwells today in the church, including this one, in that name, we, together say,

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

A Wide Believing — For SheLoves, April 2018

I took a month off from SheLoves in March, but I’m back in the April edition, pondering some words that I found in the memoir I reviewed here last week — “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey. Come on over to their site to finish this reflection. Click here.

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“If I could ask anything of us, this ragged band of us looking for a way home, crossing the Jordan River, it would be to believe wider for each other.” — Hilary Yancey,
in “Forgiving God: A Story of Faith,” pg.57.

 

I have heard the truth that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. This is a phrase shouted by voices around the world in recent days, words that flow from the painful experiences of those who are oppressed, victimized, traumatized, ostracized, threatened, abused and neglected. And these words are true. Thoughts and prayers are too often not enough, at least in the way ‘thoughts and prayers’ are so often understood and defined.

I find myself wondering if we have allowed our language about prayer to descend into the realm of cliché because we have not fully grasped what prayer is and what prayer can do. I am in the late autumn of my life and I still do not fully comprehend either the definition or the experience of prayer. It is an idea we use (and abuse) far too easily, I think, a word better saved for deep times of soul connection and firm commitment. It is no small thing to promise someone that you will pray for them; no, it is not.

Hilary Yancey’s words, quoted at the top of this post, are from her new memoir . . .

Please do click this link and come join us at SheLoves. After a month off, I’m back in that good space today with some thoughts about prayer, about widening our understanding, definition and practice of it. Just click here!

4:38 p.m.

27

They tell me there was snow on our mountains for about five minutes this morning. I never saw it, but I believe it was there.

I know in my head that my mother has been gone for exactly one year today, but my heart does not yet fully comprehend this truth.. It seems I am able to believe in the snow without ever seeing it, but unable to wrap my head around tangible things right in front of my face, like a clock or a calendar. 

Even though it is the way of things, even though death comes to every one of us at some point along the journey, even though my mother’s death was, in many ways, the very best way for death to happen, this losing a much-loved mother is hard and it is painful. At times, it still feels strange, unnatural and weirdly disorienting. Tears spring at the oddest times. Some small piece of decor or clothing will catch  my eye and I realize I am smiling sadly, even nodding slightly, as if offering a brief moment of homage to the force of nature who was my mom.

One year today.

We walked her last journey together, she and I, and it was not an easy one. I remember lovely sunlit moments along the way — sitting by the pool at her residential facility, each of us in a large sunhat, drinking in the ocean air, bird sound, and bright blooming vines that surrounded us. I remember laughter, her wonderful, rich laughter. I remember a smile as big as whatever room she was in, welcoming one and all. I remember how beautiful she was, even as age and disease slowly ravaged her.

I also remember deep confusion, the devastation when she no longer knew I was her daughter, her tears of frustration and of fear when she tried to make sense of something that was no longer within the sphere of her cognitive ability. I remember trips to the emergency room, her terror and embarrassment when strapped to a gurney she did not want or need. I remember deep bruises from falls, and the firm conviction that, ‘this is not my room, I’ve never been here before in my life.’ I remember a growing disconnection from things like seasons, days, time itself. 

I also remember her leading my Brownie meetings, teaching my 11th grade Sunday School class, bending over her beautiful stitcheries, and I remember with glee her bawdy sense of humor. I was deeply aware of how thirsty she was to learn, to read, to discuss, to ponder and wonder and observe. I remember how feisty she could be — and how volatile!

I remember how much she worried over me. Oh, my, how she could worry!

Now, at this late stage of my own life, I know all of that was because of her deep love and concern for me, but then? Then, it felt suffocating, limiting, inhibiting. She worried over my height, my weight, the way I walked, the fact that I might be “too smart to ever catch a good man.” She dragged me to multiple dermatology clinics because of my dry and sensitive skin,  she always wanted me to be ‘more social,’ and regularly encouraged me to invite classmates over to hang out. She also wanted me to enjoy athletics, something she was good at and I most definitely was not.

We found our way together, yes, we did. I was her first child — longed for and loved and cherished. As does every first-born, I bore the brunt of her inexperience and the leftover wounds of her own, sometimes chaotic, upbringing. But she was smart, my mom. And she was good. She learned from her mistakes, she apologized easily, she loved deeply and well. We found our way to one another during my adolescence by reading books together and writing each other notes about them. And we laughed. A lot. 

We also shared a deep love of beauty, in all its permutations. Today, on this anniversary, and as my computer clock tells me it is now exactly 4:38 — the moment of her death, one year ago — I want to remember and reflect on that most of all. She was the embodiment of beauty in so many ways — in her face, surely. But even more so, in her spirit. Yes, she could be ugly, too. Aren’t we all? But the beauty of her is what I cling to now.

Gasping at a glorious sunset, tenderly arranging flowers for the dinner table, creating a cake or a sketch, looking for and finding the beauty of others, even eventually encouraging me to reach out past the boundaries she herself had always drawn around me, as a female child. She didn’t fully understand my call to ministry at midlife, but she supported it. She wept when I told her — through my own tears — that I never could have considered going to seminary if my husband didn’t make enough money for its cost to have no impact on any other person in our family. She wept because she knew that wacky belief came directly from her own fears and prejudices, her own false picture of what it means to be female in this world. 

My mother learned. And she kept on learning, right up until dementia moved in to stay. And while she learned, she continued to love us all so very well. I thank God for her every day of my life. And I thank you, my dearest Mom. I miss you more than words can say.

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A Beautiful Book — Book Review: “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey

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Those of you who subscribe to my monthly newsletter already know that this one was on the top of my to-be-read pile as April began. It took me exactly ONE DAY to read it, and I am re-reading parts of it regularly.

This book is the real deal. Combine a tender heart with a first-class brain, a fierce streak of independence with a humble desire to yield, add to that a stubborn commitment to do it right and do it well, what do you get? Hilary Yancey.

She is young — younger than my eldest grandson. She is SMART — working toward a PhD in philosophy at Baylor. She is a wife and mom — married to author and soon-to-be Anglican priest, Preston Yancey, and mom to Jack and June (short for Junia). Over and around all of that is this truth: she is a force to be reckoned with. Also? She is an earnest, open, willing-to-admit-questions-and doubts follower after Jesus. 

She writes beautifully, with a lyrical style and startling honesty. They tell me poetry and philosophy often go together and this book makes me believe that, big-time. “Forgiving God” is the story of Hilary’s first pregnancy, just six months into marriage. This particular journey into motherhood was difficult, mystifying, troubling, terrifying and ultimately, salvific. It is both humbling and inspiring to see how she and Jack not only survived a troubling pregnancy and a 43-day stay in the NICU, but somehow managed to triumph over every setback, every complication. 

At what was thought to be a routine 18-week ultrasound, her son Jackson was diagnosed with a rare and severe facial deformity. With each week that passed, her now high-risk pre-natal care visits brought more and more difficult news. Teetering between praying for a miracle and trying to learn all she could about how to deal with what could come for her newborn boy, Hilary takes us into her own dis-ease, disappointment, and wonder. She also shares with us some of the pieces of her journey as a graduate student, eloquently positing big ideas about God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge. She does both — the personal story-telling and the philosophical musing — exquisitely well.

I am grateful for this book because of its beauty and power as a ‘good read.’ More than that, I am grateful for it in my practice as a spiritual director. I meet regularly with friends who are dealing with all kinds of issues, some of them extraordinarily difficult. Hilary’s thoughtful, intelligent, and ultimately hopeful words have already helped some of us find solid ground in the midst of what often feels like very fluid terrain.

This is a memoir that is a gift to read — and to re-read. I highly recommend it. Buy it, give it away — and then write a short review at as many places as you can think of. Hilary is not doing the usual big promotion push, so any help we can offer would be grand. 

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Six

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Ephesians 2:1-10, The Message

It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

 

Oh, how I love this!
We don’t do it,
we don’t have to do it,
even though we try hard to do it,
and mess it up thoroughly
when we do.

It’s not about us,
all on our own,
lonesome selves.
It’s about partnership,
it’s about grace,
it’s about living
in the middle of both
those truths.

WE

are

partners in grace.

Astounding!

 

Please consider subscribing to this series by subscribing to the blog — the box is in the right sidebar. That way, these daily devotionals will show up in  your inbox each day of Lent, right up until Easter.

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Five, First Sunday in Lent

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1 Peter 3:18-22, The Message

That’s what Christ did definitively: suffered because of others’ sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive—to bring us to God.

He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier generations who ended up in the prison of judgment because they wouldn’t listen. You know, even though God waited patiently all the days that Noah built his ship, only a few were saved then, eight to be exact—saved from the water by the water. The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesus’ resurrection before God with a clear conscience.

Jesus has the last word on everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s standing right alongside God, and what he says goes.

Here’s a powerful word:
baptism.
No, I’m not a Baptist,

but I am a big believer in
baptism.
For any age, stage, situation.

It is a picture for me,
a powerful,
tactile,
incarnational
picture.

When the babe is doused,
or the youth immersed,
or the old man sprinkled,
we are offering our
own bodies
to the story-telling
we do.

We tell our story with our bodies,
you see.
We eat and drink,
and we get wet.
We celebrate Truth
with all of who we are.
There is a dying,
and there is a rising.
There is darkness,
and there is light.
Thus, we keep
the story going;
we tell it in our way,
in our time,
in ourselves.

 

Please consider subscribing to this series by subscribing to the blog — the box is in the right sidebar. That way, these daily devotionals will show up in your inbox each day of Lent, right up until Easter.

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Two

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Psalm 25:1-10, The Living Bible

To you, O Lord, I pray.
Don’t fail me, Lord, for I am trusting you.
Don’t let my enemies succeed.
Don’t give them victory over me.

None of those who have faith in God will ever be disgraced for trusting him. But all who harm the innocent shall be defeated.

Show me the path where I should go, O Lord;
point out the right road for me to walk.

Lead me; teach me; for you are the God who gives me salvation.
I have no hope except in you.

Overlook my youthful sins, O Lord!
Look at me instead through eyes of mercy and forgiveness,
through eyes of everlasting love and kindness.

The Lord is good and glad to teach the proper path to all who go astray;
he will teach the ways that are right and best to those who humbly turn to him.
And when we obey him, every path he guides us on is fragrant with his loving-kindness and his truth.

 

It really is all about the path,
isn’t it?

Finding it,
choosing it,
following it
staying on it,
trusting it.
Thank you for showing
the way,
and inviting me
into it.
Thank you for being
the way,

and for leading
the way,
for providing
the way,
and paving
the way,
and loving me
in the way that you do.

 

Please consider subscribing to this series by subscribing to the blog — the box is in the right sidebar. That way, these daily devotionals will show up in  your inbox each day of Lent, right up until Easter.

Book of the Year — A Review and a Hearty Recommendation

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Admittedly, I am way behind on my book-reading and reviewing. Some of that is due to illness, a whole lot to long-term grieving, a smidge or two to laziness. 

But this book, I read.

In one sitting.

And so did my husband.

This is, hands down, my favorite book about church, people, love, living life well and true, community, belonging . . . you name it. I read a lot of non-fiction, good books, finely written books, some of them written by friends of mine. Not one of them comes as whisker close to truth as does this fictional compilation of letters. Maybe it’s because our church was going through its own search for a new pastor at the time I received this slender tome. Whatever the reason(s), this one struck a nerve. Better, it struck THE nerve, that one that goes to the core of who we are and begins to resonate when we find true north.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply cannot. It is tender, true, sensitive, heart-warming, and yet challenging, in the very best of ways. Is this the kind of pastor I have been? And want to continue to be, in the limited ways that remain available to me? Is this the kind of congregation my community is, or wants to be? Are we wrestling through the hard questions well? Are we welcoming others — all kinds of others?  Are we listening to the Spirit, together?

Built around the seasons of the church year, these 165 pages consist entirely of letters, most of them written by pastor-to-be, then new-pastor, then seasoned-pastor-approaching-his-first-sabbatical-leave Jonas McAnn. It is what is known in the trade as an epistolary novel and it is a hum-dinger. Herewith a sample — then get yourself to your favorite bookstore (clicking on the picture should take you straight to Amazon) and order up a copy . . . or two or three. This would make a perfect gift for every single member of a search committee or a church leadership board.

Maybe these words from the opening letter, written by a crusty woman member of the search committee to all potential candidates will give you a glimpse of the power and beauty I’m talking about. This one was signed by the entire committee (all 4 of them) after several frustrating months. The one candidate who answered honestly is the one they called:

“We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but I’m going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed. We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Wendell Berry now and then. Oh, and we like a good guffaw. I’ll be up front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs — we’ll put up with a lot, but that one’s a deal-killer.

“Here are our questions: We’d like to know if you’re going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience. . . Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church thing straight? Or might we hope that our church might be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?

“In other words, the question we want answered is very simple: do you actually want to be our pastor?

“I’m trying to be as straight as I know how: Will you love us? And will you teach us how to love one another? Will you give us God — and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart?

“Will  you tell us again and again about the ‘love that wilt not let us go,” not ever? Will you believe with us and for us that the Kingdom is truer than we know — and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth — that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100 percent BS?” — pp. 5-6

See what I mean? Thank you, thank  you, thank you, Winn Collier for telling it true. And beautifully.