Living with the Truth

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The riveting events of the past week have served to remind most of us that we live our lives in the middle of a ‘beautiful and terrible’* world. 

Yesterday, I sat in one of the loveliest, richest and most remarkable worship services, rippled with the laughter and music of children, filled with prayers of dedication for middlers and high schoolers headed off to summer camp. I heard scripture read well by an 8-year-old and smiled through tears because I could STAND and sing worship songs with the congregation.

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I live daily with the truth that my spot on this earth is beautiful, filled with the grandeur of mountain and ocean, agriculture and wide open spaces. This is a heaven-on-earth kind of place and I am grateful. 

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When I start asking the impossible ‘why?’ questions, I must begin with where I am. Why am I so blessed? Why is my life as lovely and full as it is? 

As with every ‘why?’ question, there is no easily accessible answer. What can I say? The luck of the draw? The will of God? The accident of birth and marriage? There is no answer that suffices, all I can do is breathe out thanksgiving and choose to live with a ready sense of wonder. My life is a gift, one that I did not earn and cannot control.

As I reflect on the atrocities happening in Iraq — and in many other places not nearly so well-publicized — I must also acknowledge that there is no easy answer to the ‘why?’ question there, either. 

It has always been so. Even a cursory reading of history forces us to accept the truth that human beings are capable of unimaginable terror and torture. And human beings are capable of creating art, architecture, literature, music, caring acts of compassion and astounding feats of derring-do and invention.

This is the truth. The reality in which we all must live. 

And though my life has been most assuredly blessed, even our family is not immune to the troubles and pain of this world. 

My maternal grandmother lived long past her expected demise, suffering a major coronary at the age of 54 and living with congestive heart disease until she died at the age of 101.

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She lived long enough to meet my two eldest grandsons. Why? I haven’t a clue.

On the other hand, my son-in-law, father to those two and one more, died at the age of 44. A hard death, long and difficult and marked by struggle, pain and suffering every single day for many years, especially the last three.

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I have no explanation for any of this, or for why my mother and my mother-in-law sank into dementia or why I was born with a crooked heel that would cause me such distress as I close out my seventh decade.

This is truth. This is life. This is what we live in and with, every day we breathe. But I am also coming to believe that this is also what we live for. ALL of this — the beautiful and the terrible — is what makes life life, what makes life true.

I did not say easy. Because it most decidedly is not easy. It’s complicated, troubling, fearful. Also? Amazing, astounding, remarkable and stunning. And over all of it, God is telling the story of redemption. 

And God is using us to help tell that story. God invites us right up on stage and says, “Partner with me. Tell my story in your vernacular, in your specific situation. Live it out, trust me, love me, love one another. I will be with you, no matter what comes.” 

The sermon we heard yesterday was a reminder of the size and scope of this story we are a part of. Pastor Jon worked from 1 John 5:6-12 and he talked about the One who comes. The One who comes from God, as one of us. The One who breathes life into everyone he meets. The One who dies for us, who never dismisses our pain and struggle, but who ultimately assumes full responsibility for all of it.  I loved this line: “God’s death on the cross is not a military victory but a glorious martyrdom. God straps on our humanity to kill death by dying. God takes on our life so that we can take on God’s Spirit.”

As horrific as the news out of Iraq is to our eyes and ears, not one bit of it surprises or shocks our God. It saddens and stirs that great Divine Heart, but in no way does it signal the end of the story.

Redemption is still at work. We cannot yet see it, but I am confident it is there. Not one drop of blood is shed in vain in that place.

As brothers and sisters, we are called to participate. First of all, we are called to pray. This is the primary work of the church and it is important and needful. We are also called to give what we can to help alleviate suffering in this hard place and everywhere on this earth where human beings are struggling.

And. We are called to lament. To grieve, even as God grieves. We are called to wrestle and ponder, to ask the hard questions and search for difficult answers, to hold governments and paramilitary groups responsible for unspeakable acts. 

And then? To come back round to praise. To sing a sad song – yes, yes, yes. But to sing it to the One who comes, to the One who knows our frame, who embraces our frame, who lives out love to the fullest, and who asks us to love for his sake.

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Do you see this magnificent fresco? It is painted in the rear of the Chora Church in Istanbul, Turkey. Take a close look at it. The One who came, the One who died, is risen in glory and in each hand, he grabs hold of Adam and Eve, pulling them into life right next to him. This is why Jesus came, you see. THIS. Jesus came to bring life to our messed up, broken, imperfect, inglorious humanity. 

Why? Because we are valuable to God, loved, seen, understood, accepted and esteemed. Every single life that is lost in Iraq — every single one — is seen, loved, accepted, esteemed. 

And so is every single crazy person moving through town with a weapon and a heart full of hate. That’s the piece that is toughest for us to pray our way through, isn’t it?

But that’s the piece that makes God GOD. That’s the piece that makes redemption the point of the story. That’s the piece that fits the gospel to a tee. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Oh, may the worldwide church prove to be worthy of the blood of these martyred ones. May we be faithful to pray and to give and to act. May we live lives worthy of the One who came.

May we live well with the truth.


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* quote from Frederick Buechner in “Wishful Thinking.” This is the whole thing: 

“Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

 

 

On the Edge – A Deeper Story

 I’m writing for A Deeper Story today, talking about sharp edges. . .

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The sharp pieces are poking me rather a lot these days. I’m feeling my own edges in just about every way I can think of during this spring of 2014. It seems to be a season of pricking, marked by painful reminders of age and infirmity, all of it triggering deeply embedded insecurities and anxieties.

Can’t say I like it very much, this edginess. I’ve never been one to be on the cutting edge of anything, always a little bit behind the zeitgeist. And generally speaking, most of the time, I’m not an ‘edgy’ sorta character. Yeah, the sarcasm can flare on occasion. And the temper. But all in all, I try to let the more mellow parts of my personality rise to the top.

But right now? Not so much. I’m too quick to take offense, too unwilling to extend the benefit of the doubt in any direction, most especially toward myself. And I’m feeling weary, right down to my bones.

Do you know these deep feelings? Do you wind around these curves in the road, try to match your steps to this unwelcome rhythm of uncertainty and guess work, of fear and resistance?

I’m guessing that most of us find ourselves wandering down this spiky kind of path at some point. And if we live long enough, we’ll walk it several times, not one of them welcome.

Well, I have certainly lived long enough, so this unstable territory is depressingly familiar. I’ve waited for a loved one to die before, and hated it every time. I’ve had health issues at different points along the way, none of them enjoyable. And I’ve had my feelings hurt and walked through existential doubt and suffered broken appliances and lost keys and I know the truth of, “It never rains but it pours” and “Bad things come in threes,” and any other superstitious truism you care to mention. . . 

Please come on over to the Culture Channel at A Deeper Story today to read the rest of this post . . .

 

The Silence

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There is a silence that stills and calms, that builds and creates. A stillness that makes space for the Spirit, for the self, for the tender work of undoing, for the plowing under of tired ideas. Yes, please. I want to sign on for that kind of silence, the one that opens and releases.

There is also a silence that kills, whether by intention or not, it kills. We went to a matinee yesterday and saw a truly magnificent film called, “Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard. Rarely have I seen such a powerful depiction of the kind of silence that kills than the one we saw in this moving true story about the power of forbidden memories to permanently cripple the human spirit. Only when he looks hard at the past is the railway man free from it.

The past few days, I have been brought low by a different kind of silence, this one the silence of neglect and privilege and a profound unwillingness to look at what is truly ugly in this world. On April 14, nearly 300 young women, living at a boarding school in Nigeria, were kidnapped by a terrorist military group, taken off into the night, most of them never to be seen again. The western news media, at least on our continent, was silent. 

There has been a lot of noise about Donald Sterling, some of it deserved. There has been a lot of coverage about the downed Malaysian airliner that will not be found. There has been a lot of deafening silence about these girls, the hope for the future, the brightest and the best. They were taken because they had the audacity to try and grow, to learn, to become fully human. They were taken because they are girls and therefore ‘deserve’ nothing better than to be sold on the open market. Until the last few days, there has been not one word about any of it.

And yet, we spend so many words on old men with foul mouths, on ‘beautiful’ people with way too much money and way too little intelligence. We — and I mean ME — don’t hear what we don’t like, don’t see what we don’t want to see, and try to protect ourselves from the terrible truth that humankind is capable of immense evil, and that such evil, left unremarked, will destroy everything and everyone in its path.

Yesterday’s matinee was a reminder that the underbelly must be looked at, reckoned with and walked through if there is to be hope for wholeness. So some of us are choosing to highlight this truth by doing a small act of . . . silence.

In honor of these young women, remembering that each and every one has a mother desperate for reunion, several of us who blog regularly will go silent on Mother’s Day. This blog is one of those, and it will not be accessible for those 24 hours. Instead, there will be a link to a magnificent post written by Deidra Riggs (and made available through the technical and empathetic abilities of Lyla Lindquist) which outlines why we’re observing this silence on this day. 

Silence in the blogosphere does not mean silence in our hearts, in our minds, even in our mouths. So, I encourage you to pray, to sign petitions, to speak the truth in love and bring these girls — and all those who are captive — to freedom, to home, to hope.

Q & A: Week Six – Holding the Reins Lightly

This week’s ‘Living the Question:’ How do I make all the pieces fit?

Next week’s Question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Links to each post in this series can be found in the introductory portion of this post.
Waterlogue (3) shoreline viewSo, it’s been a week.
Not one of my favorites,
and I’m looking for the lessons in it.
So far, I don’t like what I see.

Because what I see is the truth:
some days, life stinks.
People you love deal with worrisome things,
you feel like you’re caught
in the middle of a personal
third-time’s-a-charm kinda deal,
only there’s no charm to be found.

And that close encounter with a good God
you had last week?
Well, that’s last week’s news.

But then. . .
you read words that nourish,
or you spy a photo that 
gives your soul wings.
A bird calls,
the breeze blows,
and the sun shines brightly
on the water.

And you remember.
You remember that this is
what it means to be
a human person,
living on planet earth.

There is so much pain,
struggle, outright evil.

And there is so much beauty,
goodness and wonder.

Together. Always together.

And most of it is way beyond
our power to control.
Yes, we are invited into a
partnership, of sorts.
A dance, with the God of the Cosmos,
who chooses to work stealthily,
covertly, through very leaky vessels.

Like you. And like me.

And there is no explaining it,
not any of it.
Except to say
it is, indeed,
a mystery.

And the bigger mystery,
at least to my eye,
is this one:
the good stuff.
All the good stuff:
the beauty of creation,
the selflessness of some,
the revelations of modern
science and technology,
the miracle of a true friend.

Large or small,
new or old,
I cannot find a way to
tell you why there is anything
redeemable at all
in this crazy, wide world.

If I think about it at all,
which I do, on occasion,
I ‘get’ the bad stuff,
the ‘nature, red in tooth and claw.’

But I can’t for the life of me 
figure out why
a hummingbird hovers
so perfectly,
or when love happens,
or why it lasts.

I can’t reason it out,
make it fit the facts.

So I’m learning to live in the 
valley between,
holding two realities in
creative tension,
very, very loosely.

And in the process,
I’m learning more about God
and more about myself
than I sometimes wish I knew.

But then, that’s the way with questions, right?
That’s the way with questions.

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Not sure I feel exactly upright this week, but looking at this photo, ‘watercolored’ through a phone app, reminds me that it’s good to keep afloat whenever possible! Just these few quiet reflections for you all today as I continue to recuperate from the flu. I did find this wonderful comment today, from one of our regular conversationalists to another in the comments section of one of their blogs. A lovely summary statement of ‘making the pieces fit,’ I think. Please let me see your words on this important question. Maybe by wrap-up day, I’ll have a few more to add, but I’m not countin’ on it!

“I feel like a ‘work in progress’ too! What else can we be unless we determine to stop growing. Sometimes the chisel cuts, sometimes the smoothing away of rough corners hurts. But unlike works of art we take part in our creation and moulding. And we know that the desired outcome is nothing less than to make manifest our unique beloved perfection.” – from Juliet’s comment on Joy’s blog

Click on the froggie to link your specific blog post. It looks different because it is different. Starting last week, they changed the system.

Q & A: Week Five – Living Loved

Welcome to week five in a series of longish reflections on some of life’s harder questions. We’re having a rich conversation in this space and I am grateful. Last week opened the door to a series-within-the-series, a set of questions that touch on the Big Topic of suffering. This week’s question jumps in a little deeper:

What do we do with our suffering?

Next week: How do I make all the pieces fit? DSC00973

Valentine’s Day has never been a favorite day for me. It’s become over-commercialized and too often leads to tiny heartbreaks instead of warm fuzzies. Yet I find it oddly appropriate that this week’s question should fall on this day. Why? Because at the heart of all that I’ve learned by living this particular question is this strong, clear truth:

The greatest task, and the deepest joy, of the human journey is learning to live loved.

Trusting that despite all kinds of evidence that might, at first glance, seem to be to the contrary, we are loved. Loved beyond reason, beyond our ability to comprehend, beyond imagining.

Why are we loved?

Because we are. Because we live. Because we existed in the mind of God before ever we drew breath. Because each and every one of the billions of us who have walked the deserts and jungles of this planet is beautiful, lovable, glorious and a totally unique bearer of the image of God. A Great God, who is both beyond us and with us, who rejoices when we rejoice and weeps when we weep. 

We are loved.

Everything else begins and ends with that statement.


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On days when the sun is shining, the sky is clear, and we and our loved ones are busy enjoying the good things this life has to offer — on those days, the whole idea of living loved seems possible. Good feelings overflow, endorphins rush through our brains and bodies, and Life.Is.Good.

Yes, maybe we are loved! Maybe this is what love looks like — happy feelings all around, blue skies wherever my eye lands.

DSC00952But when the blue begins to fade a bit, and clouds drift by, when harder things hit us, interrupt the good vibes of blue-sky days. . . well, then that whole idea begins to seem a lot more iffy, doesn’t it? Something uncomfortable begins to intrude, a physical ailment or a ruptured relationship, job dissatisfaction or not enough money at the end of the month — living loved? Not likely. Living ignored feels more like it.

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But here’s what I’m coming to believe. I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m getting there, and I’m breathing prayers for grace and patience to live into this truth:

It is when the storm looms large that all the edges of living loved begin to be visible. It is in the storm that we meet God most intimately. And we encounter ourselves there, too. We learn a heckuva lot more about who we are, how we’re built, where our strengths and weaknesses are, and what our own personal shadows have to teach us when we’re navigating through gale-force winds than when we’re enjoying a blue-sky day.

If I’m honest — and I’m trying to be! — I don’t like this very much. I prefer sunny days and happy feelings. I’m grateful for loving family and financial stability and good health and the ability to be generous — and it’s easy to be grateful for all of that. 

But life is not simply blue-sky days. And when the storms hit, gratitude is much harder to find. Sometimes we can go years without seeing a hint of blue in the scene unfolding around us. Life is complicated, often difficult, sometimes filled with pain. What then? Living loved? 

Now, it feels more like living abandoned.

Last week, we encouraged one another to give ourselves permission for the tears that come with all those feelings, all those stormy days. I believe scripture invites us to lament, giving us words and emotions and stories that underscore the reality of human suffering. Biblical faith is not stoicism and it is not saccharine or cheesy, either.

Biblical faith is muscular, tough, stubborn. Joseph held onto hope despite calamity after calamity. Jacob learned everything the hard way. David was great at music and kingship, but lousy at parenting and integrity. Elijah was aces when the big show demanded it, but fell apart when fatigue overwhelmed. Hannah cried out to God when her life felt empty and bitter and then gave up God’s gift when he arrived. Ruth begged and borrowed the very food she and Naomi needed while learning to trust Israel’s God. Mary pondered and sang, questioned and grieved. 

Suffering is never minimized in scripture. It is acknowledged on almost every page. We are never told to ‘rise above it.’ Instead, we are invited to live into it and to learn from it. And to recognize that God is right here with us, in the middle of every sob session, in the heart of every loss, right here in the muck with us. 

Here are some powerful, beautiful words from Fred Buechner that begin to summarize what I want to say today:

 “The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar. I know this to be true of no one as well as I know it to be true of myself. I know how just the weather can affect my whole state of mind for good or ill, how just getting stuck in a traffic jam can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful that it dazzles the heart. We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.

It is in Jesus, of course, and in the people whose lives have been deeply touched by Jesus, and in ourselves at those moments when we also are deeply touched by him, that we see another way of being human in this world, which is the way of wholeness. When we glimpse that wholeness in others, we recognize it immediately for what it is, and the reason we recognize it, I believe, is that no matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us. It is part of what the book of Genesis means by saying that we are made in the image of God. It is part of what Saint Paul means by saying that the deepest undercurrent of all creation is the current that seeks to draw us toward what he calls mature humanhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
— Frederick Buechner, from a sermon included in the book, “Longing for Home”

Wholeness. Living loved brings us as close to that as we can get this side of heaven. Choosing, every single day, no matter the weather, to believe that God loves us — and to learn to love ourselves because God loves us — this is the only path I know that leads to wholeness, to healing.

That means jettisoning a lot of bad theology along the way. It means choosing to hold the tension of God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness loosely and humbly. It means choosing to live with unanswered questions. It means letting the tears loose, crying ‘uncle,’ stomping our feet on occasion or shaking our fists in heaven’s direction. And then. . . sitting still long enough to hear the gentle whisper of love echoing in our hearts — right there, in the middle of our frustration, our rage, our impotence.

DSC00968It also means refusing to put suffering on a sliding scale of any kind. If you find yourself in the middle of deep personal pain for any reason — ANY REASON — then you are suffering. Please do not undervalue your own struggle by looking across the aisle, or across the newspaper, or across the world to someone else’s struggle. You will always find someone who is ‘worse off’ than you are. I promise. Instead, fully inhabit your pain, as much as you are able. Release the anguish of it, take it to God and say, “See this? Do you see this? Do you see how hard this is? Are you God or aren’t you? Can you fix this or can’t you?”

Yes, go ahead. Pour it out.

And then — shut up.

Sit by the side of the road and listen. Listen to what God has been teaching you about love and about yourself. Really listen. “I am with you always,” God says. “I collect your tears in a bottle.” 

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And remember that when these times hit — and they do, they will — that you are in such good company, the author of Lamentations to name one. He rages and sobs. . . and then he remembers. He listens to what he knows:

13 He shot his arrows
    deep into my heart.
14 My own people laugh at me.
    All day long they sing their mocking songs.
15 He has filled me with bitterness
    and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink.
16 He has made me chew on gravel.
     He has rolled me in the dust.
17 Peace has been stripped away,
    and I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 I cry out, “My splendor is gone!
    Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”
19 The thought of my suffering and homelessness
    is bitter beyond words.
20 I will never forget this awful time,
    as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!”

The LORD is our inheritance.

Can you still ‘dare to hope?’ No matter what sort of crap life hands you? Do you know how loved you are, even when the s**t hits the fan? Do you know how to love yourself when the pain level rises? Can you release the temptation to write off your own pain because someone else’s may be worse? 

And here’s the question I need to ask myself right now, in the middle of the muck that we’re wading through: can I remember that there is only one Savior and that Savior’s name is Jesus? Can I release my need to be the giver of help and begin to receive what I need to get through this round? Can I believe enough in the immensity of God’s love for me that I can make good choices, ones that lead to health and healing? 

I’m workin’ on it. 

You?

Next week, we’ll continue to delve into this enormous and complex topic by asking:

How do I make all the pieces fit?

Q & A: Week Four – The Gift of Tears

WARNING:

THIS IS A MUCH LONGER INTRO THAN USUAL. FEEL FREE TO GLANCE, SKIP OR IGNORE:

This week marks the halfway point in my original layout for this series. I designed Q & A around a set of topics I’ve been noticing as I read around the Christian blog world; six basic concerns that surface repeatedly and that often feel more than a little bit unsafe and scary to many people. When I wrote the introductory post for Q & A, I solicited additional questions from you. Two of you wrote back with a whole series of questions that crystallized around two main areas, which brought my total topic list to these eight:

1. Why is there so much talk about obedience?                      (January 17)
2. What’s with this ‘more of Jesus, less of me’ stuff?              (January 24)
3. What’s with all this talk about ‘sin?’                                (January 31)
4. Is there room for my tears here?                                       (February 7)
5. What do we do with our suffering?                                  (February 14)
6. How do I make all the pieces fit?                                       (February 21)
7. Why do bad things happen to good people?                       (February 28)
8. What do I do with all the hard/weird stuff in the Bible?   (March 7)

As you can see, these questions are broad, and fully half of them deal in one way or another with the huge topic of suffering. That is intentional. I don’t want to waste time, space or effort by delving into too much detail on any one topic, yet the facets of suffering are many and require careful parsing out. As we work our way through this list, you’ll notice that my reflections will always be general in nature, not specific. I don’t want to open a can of worms with any of these, but I do want to foster a safe space for discussion and conversation, rather than debate. Disagreement is welcome, as long as it’s kind and open. We don’t have to agree about all that much, actually, to be connected through the goodness of God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. I am ordained in a small, evangelical denomination that I love. (You can meet us here.) We hold only six affirmations:

We affirm the centrality of the word of God.
We affirm the necessity of the new birth.
We affirm a commitment to the whole mission of the church.
We affirm the church as a fellowship of believers.
We affirm a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.
We affirm the reality of freedom in Christ.

And it is that last one that I cling to whenever I find myself in disagreement with another Christian on any topic that isn’t directly connected to those first five affirmations. There is room to ‘agree to disagree,’ and for the last 35 years, I have been privileged to be a part of a church family that lives that truth.

This time table for our conversations, our ‘delving into the mystery,’  overlaps by two days with the beginning of Lent this year. I am hoping to do another daily devotional series during Lent; the last time I tackled that was 2012. So, after Easter, if there are further questions that you would like to work through, please let me know and we’ll have at it during the weeks of Eastertide. I am also open to continuing the Q & A format as an occasional series, so let me know if there is ever a topic you’d like for us to address together after we’ve finished this series. Thanks so much to everyone for your wonderful contributions to this endeavor.

As you can see from the schedule, the question for next week is:
What do we do with our suffering?

 

My reflections for this week do not fit the surfing theme! Instead, I am focussing on three treasures of mine, things I have always kept nearby on my pastoral and/or personal desk, things that teach me some important truths every time I look at them.

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Treasure Number One: One weekend in early April, nearly thirty-five years ago, we had a brief respite after a huge rainstorm that lasted almost a week. So we piled our three kids in the car and drove an hour west from our home in Altadena, towards the ocean. All of us walked out onto the beach and immediately noticed that there were thousands of tiny shells scattered all over the hard, damp sand left behind by the ebbing tide. We don’t get a lot of shells in southern California. Sometimes; after a big storm, we might find a few here and there. But this was just stunning to see — and delightful. We all began to gather as many as we could in the hour we’d set aside for beach-walking.

My middle daughter, who has always had great observational skills, was the champ that day, bringing back several handfuls of these beautiful, delicate things, almost all of them scallop shells. We rinsed and dried them and I kept some of them separate from the several baskets full of shells that have always adorned our homes over the years.

These were special to me. They were small, very small. And they were perfect. Something about them spoke to a deep place in me. Ever since then, I have had this clam shell full of them sitting on my desk(s), either at home or in my office. 

DSC00944Treasure Number Two: Within the first two weeks of moving to Santa Barbara to begin my very first (and only) paid position on a pastoral staff, I was browsing among some of the quaint shops on State Street in my new hometown. I quickly located a place that remains on my top 10 list to this day, a tiny, crowded shop that features jewelry, brightly colored linens, wonderful seasonal decor, and collections of tiny things. Do you see that basket? It’s about an inch and half square. And can you see what’s in it? Five tiny loaves of bread and two small fish. Does that sound familiar to you?

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Treasure Number Three: The last piece of my favorite trio is this small carving of the weeping Jesus of Lithuania, a gift from a friend who used to be my boss. This is what Wikipedia (yes, I know!!) has to say about this figure:

Wooden carvings of Rūpintojėlis, “The Jesus who cares for us,” are often seen at crossroads and in cemeteries. He always rests his head on his right arm, his left hand rests on his knee, a crown of thorns on his head shows drops of blood, and his face is full of solicitude and sorrow.

The pose may represent Jesus’ anticipation of his crucifixion, after his scourging and crowning with thorns. It is also said to depict Jesus after his resurrection and before his ascension. One legend has it that Jesus traveled throughout the world wearing his crown of thorns; during his journeys, he sometimes sat on stones near the road and wept.
(italics mine)

At first glance, it might seem to you that this last piece of the three is the one that relates most readily to the question of the week. And, in one way, that is indeed true. This is a small copy of a figure that appears all over the country of Lithuania, a figure that encapsulates the suffering endured during communism’s rule, that reminded faithful Catholic believers that Jesus had not forgotten them in the midst of their suffering. His tears made their own more bearable somehow.

In truth, however, it is also the shells, and those tiny reminders of the miracle on the hillside, in combination with the weeping Jesus figure — all of these together — that help me to remember and believe that my own tears are seen by God. Not only are they seen, they are treasured, collected in God’s bottle and remembered. I believe that my tears, and your tears, are gifts from God and to God.

And also? Your tears and my tears are gifts to the larger body of Christ. 

Tears are small things, you see. Tiny, actually. Just droplets of water that flow from our eyes when we’re feeling deep emotions or when we’re enduring physical pain. Did you know that the tears that come when you are peeling onions or blinking at a fierce wind are not a chemical match for the tears you shed in either pain or joy? ‘Real’ tears carry toxins away from the body, they are a cleansing agent, a release. And part of God’s design.

I also believe that they are evidence of the Holy Spirit’s good work within us. I believe that tears can be a charism, not unlike tongues or prophecy, wisdom or miracles. No, they’re not listed anywhere in scripture. But I believe it nonetheless. For me they are the gift that came when I asked for the gift of tongues, the gift of a special prayer language. I have not received the language, but the tears spring forth, unbidden, many times when I pray, when I counsel others, when I read the Word. And over and over again, I have learned that they are gift.

They are also often sign, providing a ‘pay attention to this’ inkling that God is up to something in my heart or the heart of another. Yes, they are tiny. But they are perfect — just like the shells. And they represent what God’s Spirit can do in and through us when we relinquish what we have, when we let go of our tendency toward too-tight control over our emotions and our thought life. A lesson that I remember whenever I look at the loaves and the fishes.

God, you see, can do miracles with very small things. And sometimes, those very small things are our tears.

So, why then, I wonder, do so many Christians shy away from them? Why is the predominant mood on Sunday morning too often one of incessant good cheer, hail-fellow-well-met, I’m-fine-thank-you-I’m-just-fine? In truth, the Sunday morning good cheer wouldn’t bother me so much if I were confident that the tears that I KNOW most people are carrying in their bodies and their spirits were given permission to flow somewhere in the midst of the community, maybe on another day of the week! 

What worries me is that too many Christians simply do not feel safe admitting that they carry those tears, believing instead that they have managed to flunk the primary test of authentic discipleship. Where is the JOY? they wonder. Where is the gratitude? I have Jesus, why am I not ‘fine?’

What I want to say — what my beautiful shells and my small reminder of miracles and the figure of our crying Jesus remind me — is that life is not always grand. And that is to be expected.  Injustice abounds. Wars rage. Children die. Health gives way. Minds deteriorate. Relationships break apart. Jobs are lost. Bad habits persist. Doubt looms large. Everything is not just hunky-dory all the time, you know? We are so.not.fine.

And. . . there is this, oh-so-important piece of our story:

Jesus wept.

Hang onto that truth. With all that is in you, hang onto it. Our holy book is laced with the language of lament, fists raised to the heavens, tears streaming down the cheeks. Because tears are a part of what it means to live as human creatures in a broken but beautiful world. Tears are a primary means of release, of communication, of grief, pain, loss and even of joy and gratitude. It all melds together, you see. Mourning and dancing ‘kiss each other,’ and all of it is part of what it means to live a full, real, human life. 

This is a huge topic, so many layers to be unpacked and wrestled through. But for this week, the most important answer to our weekly question is YES, there is room for your tears here. In fact, they are welcome here. Because if you let me see your tears, then I know you are giving me a gift; you are giving me the truth. You are letting me in, so that I can weep with you, and then together, we can weep with God.

When we offer our tears to one another and to the living, loving God of the universe, we are allowing ourselves to be truth-tellers and image-bearers more powerfully than at almost any other time in our lives for precisely this reason: we know a God who weeps with us. And his name is Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

 Next week’s question: What do we do with our suffering?   

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An Advent Journey, 2013: Looking for the Light – Day Sixteen

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As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.

I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.
“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”

Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

Psalm 42 – NLT

I love this psalm — the back and forth between lament and praise, the sometimes dizzying roller coaster ride through the peaks and valleys of the life of faith. And threading its way through the entire, beautiful ride, is the glimmering thread of desire.  

What do I want? What do I really want?

I want more of God. I do. There are times when I hunger for God above all things, when I desire to experience God’s grace and love, God’s presence and comfort. And there are times when I experience the ‘goodness of God in the land of the living.’ 

But I also want to be comfortable; people to like me; my children and grandchildren to be whole and healthy; my mom to be more fully the mom I’ve always known; to be a stronger, more disciplined person; my life to be easier. 

And when those things are not happening, I can easily become discouraged. Like the psalmist, I hearken back to days of old, when I felt God’s presence, when everybody was well, when mom was mom, when my body was less creaky, when I had more energy.

So I cry out in those times, cry out to God for relief and for reminders.

And what I’m learning to ask for in the midst of these times of discouragement is the gift of remembrance, the ability to think back on ‘the good times’ without nostalgia. Why? Because I think that nostalgia, at its heart, involves regret. And regret — wishing for things that cannot be — is counter-productive to a life lived in gratitude and praise. Remembrance, which I define as reflection-without-regret, seems to naturally elicit exactly that — gratitude and praise, both of which help to lead me to peaceful memories of what was and joyous acceptance of what is. 

During this season of Advent, and its invitation to the quieter emotions, when I reflect on this favorite psalm, I try to picture the ‘streams of water,’ our source of refreshment and rest. And in my mind’s eye, I try to see the Rock which is underneath it all. The Rock, out of which the only true refreshment I know emerges.  And as that River of Life flows downstream, I pray that it will burble its way right into the likes of me.

Our Rock and our Redeemer, will you help us to desire you above all things? Help us to remember well, to let praise and gratitude flow right out of us as your loving presence flows right into us. Thank you. Thank you.

The Many Shades of Christmas – A Deeper Family

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Have you ever noticed how many of our favorite carols are written in a minor key? Think about it for a minute . . .

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”

“What Child Is This?”

“Greensleeves”

“I Wonder as I Wander”

“Carol of the Bells”

“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”

“Coventry Carol” (“Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child”)

These are melodically darker-hued songs, offered in a season when we are encouraged on every side to be merry, dang it! And I am more grateful than I can say for the rich texture they bring to these days before Christmas.

Why?

Because there are many pieces of this story that can only be told in a minor key.

Sometimes I think we forget that Jesus came into a broken world, that there were no colored lights, and certainly no tinsel around that hayloft. Yes, yes — the gift of the incarnation is unspeakably good, that babe whose head was cradled by his open-hearted, willing young mother, that babe brought light and hope to us all.

But in and around the lowing of cattle, the bleating of lambs, the exhausted moans of a brand-new mom and the healthy lungs of a newborn — who can forget the cries of the mothers in Ramah, the rumbling threat of Herod, the hurried flight to Egypt, or the sorrowful truth about where that sweet baby hung his beautiful head at the end of his good, good life?

The reality of life on planet earth is that even good news, the best possible news, must be told in the midst of the bad; to get to the light, we have to walk through the dark. To truly live our story, we have to tell all the pieces of it.

So I think it’s important that the sounds of sadness, the echoes of loss, the edges of fear and uncertainty, are carefully and intentionally woven into our celebrations. All the voices in this Story, and in our own stories, cry out to be heard as we move toward the manger and the major key of Christmas Day.

I know that I have lived longer than most of you who are reading this piece. And over the course of this long life, I have experienced loss upon loss, asked question upon question, and listened for the answers in the midst of silence. If there is one thing I’ve learned, one truth that stands at the top of all the truths I know, it is this one: everyone carries a story of brokenness. Everyone.

Please join me over at A Deeper Family today to read more about singing in a minor key in this ‘hap-happiest season of all . . . “

Philip or Andrew?

I am indebted to the fine homiletical work of our pastor Don Johnson for the thrust of this reflection. His sermon this morning was dead on, and so very important. Please read the gospel lesson, the Word of the Lord for the saints in Santa Barbara this morning:

John 6:1-15, NLT

After this, Jesus crossed over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. A huge crowd kept following him wherever he went, because they saw his miraculous signs as he healed the sick. Then Jesus climbed a hill and sat down with his disciples around him. (It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration.) Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked,“Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?” He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip replied, “Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!”

Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. “There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?”

“Tell everyone to sit down,” Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.) Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples,“Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves.

When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.

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It was hot, dusty, flies and people milling about,
buzzing, buzzing.

Over 5000 folks climbed that hillside with the water view,
oldsters and children, men and women,
seekers and hangers-on —

wondering and wandering and wanting to see
what the rabbi might do,
to hear what he might say.

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Jesus was the newest ‘show in town,’ and everyone was curious.
They had seen (or heard) about the healings, the ‘signs,’
and they wanted to see a few for themselves.
So they hoofed it, out into the countryside, hiking up the hill by the lake,
hanging around, waiting for the show to begin.
The star of the show, however, gathered his closest friends and went to
the tippy-top of that hill and . . . what?
Gathered the props for a magic show?
Laid out a careful plan for crowd management?
Discussed what the format for the day should look like?

None of the above.
None of it.
Oh, there is a sign coming —
and a doozy of a sign, too.
And the crowd will be pleased,
so overwhelmingly convinced that Jesus
is the latest hot number,
that they will succumb to mob mentality
and try to force the guy to become
their next Grand Poobah.
(Something which Jesus will have NONE of.)

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No. There is no talk of technique or teaching,
there is a simple lesson in faith, told to two particular disciples.
Rather than a story about the crowd.
or even a story about a ‘trick’ or a sign,
this is something else entirely.

This is a story about 
contrasting worldviews,
personal invitations,
scarcity and plentitude,
faith and doubt.

This is a story about possibilities
and whether or not those who follow Jesus
are open to them.

This is a story about Philip and Andrew.

IMG_3602 And this is a story about giving what we have,
no matter how small it might look to us,
to the gentle, prayerful care of Jesus the Christ,
and then waiting to see
how too little
becomes more than enough.

That is a barley loaf in the pictures above.
Poor people’s bread in 1st century Palestine,
the bare minimum for a day’s calories.
Crumbly and salty, even tasty, when you get used to it,
what a mother might pack for her son
for a picnic by the lake.

A far cry from Philip’s anxious bean-counting,
(“Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough to feed all these people!”)
and the only small thing that Andrew could dredge up 
in his cursory survey of the crowd.
A boy’s lunch basket.
That’s all he had.

And it was more than enough.

Neither Philip nor Andrew could see that more-than-enough
when they looked at that little lunch.
But Andrew had a hunch, just an inkling,
and he wasn’t all that sure about it, either.
But he brought that small bag of food,
and he gave it to Jesus.

What small thing can I bring to the top of that hill today?
What paltry gift can I bring?
Can I take my eyes off of the need that seems to 
surround and overwhelm,
and look only at Jesus?
Only at Jesus.

Can I resist the attitude of scarcity that oozes out of Philip,
can I turn away from my proclivity for anxiety rather than trust,
my inclination to look at the crowd rather than at Jesus,
my unholy need to control outcomes
rather than let the Holy-Spirit-power-of-my-Redeemer
have its way with the little, the last, the least and the lost?

Ah, Jesus. Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Help me to be an Andrew.
Not quite sure, but willing.
Wondering about outcomes,
but handing it over,
no matter how small it looks.

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After church,
after lunch,
after a deep breath and a deep sigh,
we piled my 92-year-old mom into our car
and headed 80 miles east toward her 90-year-old sister,
who is dying this week.

When pastor Don asked us to write down the small things we have,
the things that we find when we search our hearts
and our calendars and our commitments,
the things we need to bring to Jesus —
these two were on the top of my list:
my writing
my mother.
And today was a day for my mother.

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It was a hard day, a tiring one, filled with confusion
and fear and grief.
It was a day when I had to pray for grace and for patience
every second of every minute of every hour.

I had a hard time looking at Jesus
in the midst of this particular crowd.
I had a hard time sitting down on the grass
and partaking of the bounty that comes
from not enough when it is given over to the Savior.
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But there were glimpses.
There was beauty.
There was grace.
My beautiful cousin, looking at her mama with so much love.
My beautiful aunt, rousing just enough
to grab her sister’s hand and cry, “Ruthie! Ruthie! It’s you, it’s you!”
My beautiful mother, having to meet her grief
over and over and over,
as she forgot who the woman in the bed was,
and then remembered when I gently repeated,
“This is Eileen, your sister, your best friend.”
And the beauty of old songs, sweetly sung.
“On a hill far away. . .”
“For God so loved the world. . . “
“Away in a manger. . .”
“I come to the garden alone. . . “
Every word sung by the sisters and the cousins,
every word an offering of love to each other,
and to the God who gives us songs to sing.

Every word, a reminder that when we give it to Jesus,
the little things are more than enough.

An update, late on Tuesday night: my much-loved, delightful, charming, fun-loving Aunt Eileen
moved into the arms of Jesus at 9:46 p.m.
Thanks be to God and peace to her memory.

Offering this small thing to Laura, Michelle, Jen, Jennifer, Ann and Emily this week, grateful for the ways in which they each point me to Jesus and away from the crowd.




31 Days of Giving Permission . . .TO WRITE YOUR OWN PSALM

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I’m writing today at A Deeper Family, continuing a series on my journey
with my mom through dementia.

Our weekly lunch last week was a tough one for me,
and I tried to write it out as the psalmists did.
It’s an interesting exercise — I encourage you to try it.

A reflection on Psalm 56

“Be merciful to me, my God,
    for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
    all day long they press their attack.
My adversaries pursue me all day long. . .”

I watch, helpless and adrift.
The enemies are winning, O God,
the wormholes are growing.

The past is but a whisper,
the present, lost in the whirlwind,
those swirling terrors of fear and confusion.

Where are you, O Lord?
Where are you?

Come and rescue us, return to us the days
the locusts have eaten,
the swarming hordes
or forgetfulness,
devouring her memories,
erasing her story.

I watch and I weep, tears my companion day and night.
They sit, just behind my eyes, waiting to ambush me,
to gut me, knock me to my knees.

And she slips away, Lord.
Every single day,
she slips away.
Piece by piece, slice by slice, word by word.

Please join me at A Deeper Family to read the rest of this post. . .


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