You’re so much

I’ve been thinking a good deal about shame during the last few years. The book that cracked open my heart with regard to the subject was Dr. Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Dr. Thompson is a kind and gentle fellow-traveler who has dealt with the brunt of shame, and who has given his life to uncover shame’s dark and lasting effects. If you’re not a reader, you can listen to this discussion between Dr. Thompson and Ian Cron which center’s around the book. Be prepared to weep at the truth of it.

I work in a customer service role at a local museum, and can’t help but overhear conversations between parents and their children. For some reason, a museum can bring out the reverent side in a lot of people, and I often hear parents hushing their children in an effort to keep the peace. Kids don’t have the same filters we grown-ups often have, and so they just function as they are, asking their questions, making their needs known, and just being who they are. (I’m kinda jealous sometimes!)

A few days ago I overheard a mother shushing her young son who I guessed to be four years old. He was having a hard time deciding whether he wanted a simple wooden toy she had offered to purchase, and so he carried it around the gift shop, processing out loud in an attempt to make a decision. This was a tough one, folks. Ultimately deciding he didn’t want the toy, his mom started to put it back in the bin, but stoped when he protested.

“Do you want this or not?” she asked. I was mesmerized as he stood there for a solid 30 seconds quietly staring at the toy, squarely in the valley of decision. Yes, the toy was a must-have, he concluded, and so she returned it to him to carry, along with this this response:

“I swear, little man, you are so much right now.”

So much.

My heart hurt when I heard those words. And I wondered how his little heart felt? He couldn’t have possibly named the prick he surely felt. Most adults can’t even recognize shame when it happens, given its multivalent kaleidoscopic manifestations. Shame is, I believe, so endemic in our ways of relating that we don’t even recognize how it is interwoven into our interactions. The little boy’s bowed head, and suddenly quiet voice, however, gave evidence of his sense that something not good had just happened. I’m not criticizing this mother – she seemed to love her child, and to care about his happiness. Honestly, I’ve heard much more strident – yea, abusive – language come out of an adult’s mouth directed toward a child. Still. Shame is so sneaky in the ways it infiltrates our lives.

Dr. Thompson emphasizes in his book that, “although the description of our experience of shame is often couched in words, its essence is first felt.” He tells in his book the story of Alison, a young girl who brought her test score to show her mother : a 92%. Although most of us would be pretty impressed by such a score, her mother, instead, replied, “What happened to the other 8 percent?” Thus began the self-talk: “work harder,” “you’re not enough.” These words reinforced the feeling of shame, and created what Thompson calls an “unending loop” of feelings that “strengthen the felt experience.”

Ever since I overheard this exchange, that little boy’s sober countenance has been cemented in my mind. How might his mother have responded in a way which removed shame, and replaced it with a different reaction? I’m guessing here, but perhaps she could have said, “You were having a hard time deciding there, buddy. Did you want a different toy? Or did you just not feel like picking a toy today?” I wondered how it might have been to give place, space, and voice to what he was feeling in a way that resulted in growth? Is there a better way to to describe someone other than “so much?” Instead of shaming someone for trying to figure out how they feel or what they really want, wouldn’t it be better to help them process so that they could know? And in so doing, wouldn’t we build solid, confident foundations on which to build similar decisions in the future?

“It’s only a toy,” some might say, but is it? In his little mind that was a big deal. And a healthy response now could lay the framework for healthy responses later in life. It could also teach him that taking the time to search his heart and reason out his decision – no matter how long it took – is a good thing. It’s not being “too much.”

With proper work, we as adults can look back over the panorama of our lives and see how shame has framed nearly every facet. It is the universal affliction; no one is immune. No wonder the writer of Hebrews was so specific in reminding us that addressing shame was such a key part of Christ’s work on the cross:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The initiating and perfecting of our faith, then, is wrapped up in the way Christ took on himself the debilitating experience of shame known by all humankind. As reconcilers, then, we who carry on Christ’s work can pray for hearts to sense, eyes to see, and ears to hear those experiences of shame in others, and to reframe, redefine, and offer new narratives grounded in the hope of the Gospel.

The very thought of this leaves me in awe and wonder, that our lovely Christ would call the very people who perpetuate and carry shame to be the ones who do the nimble work of healing this debilitating disease of the soul. No, we are not “so much,” to him – none of us are. We are deeply loved and wholly accepted – we are enough.

“God lasts”

The other day I was rereading an excerpt from Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, who tragically passed away last year. Writing on the messy, non-linear process of soul care, Rachel wrote,

If the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. the church offers death and resurrection. . . The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil. It’s not the real thing.

A couple of years ago I became bone-weary of attending services where promises were made about healing, the only requirement being to “step out into the aisle and have faith.” I became even more weary of times when folks were paraded in front of the church and asked to somehow connect the fact that their faithful, yea verily sacrificial, giving of tithes and offerings had somehow merited them a balance of “$0.00” on their budget billing utility bill. The message was clear: give your grocery money in the offering tonight and you will magically receive a check in the mail for twice that much.

It never worked for me.

Never.

I just went hungry, or had to put groceries on my credit card. So much for “red-hot faith.”

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

Every time I reread that section of Rachel’s book, something rises up in me – some strange mix of anger, unhealed pain, and frustration, and probably 50 other emotions.

When I finally realized the disconnect between what Scripture promises us and what is often taught by Christian leaders, I felt a little like the guy in the ditch who was rescued by the Good Samaritan: bloodied, bruised, and left for dead. I’m a rule follower, and tend to have an obedient heart that longs to please. So, I went along with the “name-it-and-claim-it” message I had heard for nearly 40 years. Time after time, I concluded it was my fault that I wasn’t healed, or that there was never enough money to make ends meet, or that I just couldn’t put the grocery money in the offering plate (except for that one time, of course . . . ).

Here are my questions: Why do Christians insist on presenting such a perfect, tearless face to world? Do we think God needs a PR firm to make him appealing to the world?

In his book The Message of the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann rips the mask off with this statement:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented. . . Such a mismatch between our life experience of disorientation and our faith speech of orientation could be a great evangelical “nevertheless” (as in Hab. 3:18). Such a counterstatement insists that God does in any case govern, rule, and order, regardless of how the data seem to appear. . . But at best, this is only partly true. It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. . . Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination of passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.

What is the phrase? “Drop the mic?”

The past 6 months has brought more suffering to this country than we have seen in years. And it has revealed an ongoing suffering that we are being forced to face and engage. You know what I want? I want a service of lament. I want to go to church – or Zoom church – and weep. I want to sing ALLLLLLL the sad songs. And if we can’t find any sad songs, then we need to write them. And sing them. Brueggemann is RIGHT: we are “doing something very different from what the Bible itself does” when we bounce up and down and proclaim that “God reigns” and he is a “miracle worker,” and 100 other claims. YES – he does reign and work miracles, but we have to lament first if we are ever to arrive at authentic praise. Don’t believe it? Read the Psalms. Read them. Read them long and loud, and let their message seep into your soul and transform your heart. Rejoicing before acknowledging pain is like breaking your arm and then going right on with life instead of wearing a cast and giving the bone time to reknit and heal, and hurt. It just won’t work.

Come on, church. We have more than snake oil to offer the world. As Rachel wrote,

But the modern day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished – proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! At its best, such a culture generates pews of Stepford Wife-style robots with painted smiles and programmed moves. . . “The world is watching,” Christians like to say, “so let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Lets throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.”

I apologize if it seems I’m making blanket statements here; I’m not. I know there are those church – enclaves – who have chosen to “live close,” as Sara Groves sings, to be honest about what it really means to live as human beings – faulty clay – all the while pursing and longing to know Christ. There are those who have chosen to care for “the least of these,” to rightfully embrace the social side of the Gospel, which was near and dear to the heart of Jesus. I admit I’m baffled by Christian leaders who tweet and post about how Christianity shouldn’t have anything to do with such things. I just sit back, palm on my forehead, and wonder when was the last time they read the Gospels?

I apologize, I guess, for this weary and exasperated post. In keeping with the spirit of it, I have let my frustration and imperfection show. I’m just as guilty of this spirit of perfection – maybe even more so – as the next person. But I long to join my heart that seems to be teetering on the edge of giving up with like-minded hearts, to lift the shards of life up to God in worship, as did the Psalmists. We don’t need to “check your shame at the door” like popular Christian-radio songs often state. No! Bring your shame, and all your questions, and let’s start worship there.

Eugene Peterson wrote in The Message: “. . . God doesn’t come and go. God lasts.” (Isa. 40:27-31). This is all we need to really offer: a God who lasts. Don’t offer quick-fix promises that will always fail. Offer who God is, who he will always be. Life will come, we will crawl on hands and knees at times, or maybe just lay in the ditch. But we are held, completely loved, completely accepted. THIS we know for sure. Let’s start there.

An agnostic Christian

For the last few weeks I’ve been joining a group of women from church each Wednesday morning and evening to discuss chapters from Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Both the book and the group discussions have been nothing short of transformative. We all agreed this morning to the idea of slowness, and how we so desperately need it in our daily lives. How often we blow through the day, running on auto-pilot, going through motions, checking off everyday tasks like eating, making the bed, brushing teeth, even sleeping, without seeing the sacred there.

Last week I remembered a quote by the inimitable C. S. Lewis that captured this idea:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.

I admit there are times when I’ve thought I make a very good agnostic Christian. Not sure that even makes any sense, an oxymoron of near-epic proportions. And yet, it was the only way I could describe the tension between my beliefs and experiences.

Somehow the spiritual or religious life has been boiled down to the spectacular – as we define the term. Any perception of God’s absence is something to be avoided at all cost. And we make sure this doesn’t happen, by golly, by manufacturing – yes, manufacturing (note the first three letters – “man”) – the spectacular, or at least some sort of response we can gauge in order to measure our success – yes, our success.

I can hear God sigh.

Lately, though, in part because of Warren’s book, I have realized my near-agnosticism was not because of anything God had done or not done, but because of the human need for glitz and show, and how we look for God there instead of all the places he already is. It was in the mis-definition of the word that I had chosen the wrong path. Instead of man’s definition, I have been drawn into God’s definition of his presence and of the sacredness of the everyday.

Sitting on my deck has become a new habit – one I’ve had to develop. My cat, Charlotte, seems to live for the moments when we step outside for a respite in nature. In her simple, straightforward way, she has taught me slowness, and the cherishing of moments of silence and rest. Most of the time she lays in the chair, paws tucked, simply observing. I’ve a lot to learn from her.

Sometimes while on one of our deck outings, I read the Psalms in Eugene Peterson’s lively and colorful translation, The Message. It has been a treat, and one that I find I hunger for. I ran across Psalm 96 the other day, and verses 10-13 especially seemed to call me:

Get out the message—God Rules!
He put the world on a firm foundation;
He treats everyone fair and square.

Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.

Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—

An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.

Isn’t that delightful? “Put every tree of the forest in the choir.” I’ll never see a grove of trees in the same, mundane way again. Many years ago, a rather poetic friend wrote a few verses about the trees, and how the oaks “clap their lacy fingers” to God in praise. We often don’t think of that, but doesn’t Psalm 19 remind us that “the heaven’s declare the glory of God”? The little birds that flitted onto my deck railing, chirping their little duet, also called to me to pause, to notice, and to stand in wonder.

And sunsets. Can we talk about sunsets? A few years ago, after my first doctoral intensive, I started the 5-hour drive home, exhausted after a grueling week. There had been a lot of unknowns, and my timid, hesitant – yea, fearful – heart had been squeezed of every drop of courage. Unwittingly, I had started a PhD program in a seminary which didn’t put much stock in women leading, or being part of a theological discussion. Comments were made about this subject, and the other students – all male – had chuckled in response, not even seeming to notice the presence of me, the lone female in the class. I remember thinking, “I guess I finally found my superpower: I’m invisible.” I’m no feminist – I have no regard for that line of thinking – but that such remarks could be made, even with the best of intentions, was deeply hurtful. As soon as the professor dismissed, I bolted to the door, straight to the parking lot, threw my bags in the car, and left town.

While on the drive, I remembered a few years earlier a time when I had been praying on the back porch just before sunrise – just God, me, and my coffee. I saw a wisp of pink in the sky, a harbinger of a delightful sunrise, and closed my eyes long enough to thank God for this gift. Literally a few seconds later, I opened my eyes to the sky ablaze in bright fuchsia. Without thinking, I blurted, “You did that for me; You heard me!” Remembering this moment, I began to drive west, and pray that God would once again grace me with his artistry. I prayed, “God, I could really use a good one tonight; I’m weary to the bone.”

You know what? He did. The sky was suddenly ablaze in the most brilliant colors I had ever – or have ever – seen. Purples morphed into pinks, oranges and reds danced across the perimeter. The last rays of the sun cut diagonally across all this brilliance, the origins of them untraceable to my human eye. For three hours this display continued, and I wept almost uncontrollably, the tender presence of God filling my car and my heart. He had heard, yes he had, comforting my heart, loving me in the way I could most readily receive. If ever the heavens had “declared,” they were doing so that night.

These sunset reminders have happened over and over in my life ever since that moment on the back porch in 2012. God knows my love language, to be sure. I believe God is always declaring, if only we would slow down long enough to see and hear. Sometimes I think he splashes color across the sky, onto the petals of a flower, in the plumage of bird wing, hoping we will notice. What artist wouldn’t want his or her work to be noticed and delighted in? As Lewis said, enjoyment is consummated in the act of praise. We can’t really enjoy something until we praise it. And in the enjoyment, we are renewed, refilled, reborn. I wonder if God is ever disappointed when we pass by all these beautiful things, minds preoccupied with our burdens, too distracted to compliment him on his handiwork? Not that he needs our compliments, but rather that we could find comfort, solace, succor for our disconnected hearts.

As Mary Oliver said,

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

And so these things call my heart away, and help me to know that I am not, in fact, an agnostic Christian. To see God in the ordinary, the slow, is to really see him, to know him in the way in which he longs to be known. The every day, the sacred, the common – these are deep places of holy grace.

Jesus, open my eyes, my ears, my heart that I might know and be known by you, and therein to know hope and newness of life.

Love will win

In 2011 I moved back to my hometown to spend the summer with my mother. I had gone through some health challenges, and I was exhausted and my nerves were frayed. One day while perusing new books at the local public library, I happened across Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It sounded interesting: Boyle, a Jesuit priest, started the largest gang intervention program in the United States back in the mid-1980’s.

Eventually the work grew to be known as Homeboy Industries, where hundreds of homies and homegirls have been employed, giving them a sense of place, belonging, and safety, and restoration of themselves to themselves – an alternative to their former gang lives. We tend to throw the phrase “changed my life” around pretty loosely, but there is no frivolity involved when I say: this book changed my life. I’ve read from it regularly since.

The back cover of the books states,

For twenty years, Gregory Boyle has run Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, he distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith. Arranged by theme and filled with sparkling humor and glowing generosity, these essays offer a stirring look at how full our lives could be if we could find the joy in loving others and in being loved unconditionally. . . These essays about universal kinship and redemption are moving examples of the power of unconditional love and the importance of fighting despair. Gorgeous and uplifting, Tattoos on the Heart reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.

Unconditional love.

No life less valuable than another.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in light of the “Black Lives Matter” protests going on across the world. Today, while walking in the park, I came across a series of chalk messages drawn on the walking path. Each message was directed at the division, the anger, the sin perpetrated against minorities in this country. One message seemed to capture them all, though:

In his newest book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (which I also highly recommend), Boyle wrote:

“I’ve learned from giving thousands of talks that you never appeal to the conscience of your audience but, rather, introduce them to their own goodness. I remember, in my earliest days, that I used to be so angry. In talks, in op-ed pieces, in radio interviews, I shook my fist a lot. My speeches would rail against indifference and how the young men and women I buried seemed to matter less in the world than other lives. I eventually learned that shaking one’s fist at something doesn’t change it. Only love gets fists to open. Only love leads to a conjuring of kinship within reach of the actual lives we live.

Many, many centuries earlier, the Apostle Paul seemed to be equally as fixated on love. In his now-famous commentary on the subject found in 1 Corinthians 13, we can find what is perhaps the most beautiful – and accurate – description of love ever written. Verses 4-8 capture the heart of it:

Love is patient and kind
Love does not envy or boast
It is not arrogant or rude,
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful
It does not rejoice at wrongdoing,
but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
Hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.

After passing that simple, yet profound chalk message, I continued on my walk, meditating on this passage. My heart cried out, “Jesus, let this be born in me! Let this kind of love live in me!” What if we really lived this way, approached others this way, responded to others this way?

“How did we get here?” is a question I often find myself asking as I watch the evening news. The recent PBS documentary, Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations absolutely broke my heart. That such hate and vitriol could be directed at a group of people simply because of their race – something they were born into with no choice – leaves me speechless. The same can and must be said for black communities all across this world. What level of hatred does one have to reach in order to hate, abuse, even lynch someone because of color? I cannot get my head around it, folks.

Now the world is ablaze, business are being burned – many of them black-owned – and people are losing their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives.

Only love gets fists to open.” This is not to say that anger over racial injustice is wrong. My goodness – if such anger is not justified, then nothing is justifiable. I cannot help but think, however, that if we were to trace the cause of all this back to its origin, we would find one thing: the loss of love.

In her song, “Without Love,” Sara Groves states, “Without love I have not.” I think the apostle Paul and Gregory Boyle would agree: take away love and you have nothing. As Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words, I am harsh, annoying, and ultimately will not be heard.

This is hard, I admit. Sometimes I think that the hatred and racism in our world is so embedded that there is little, or even no hope that it will ever be healed and removed. I’m reminded, however, of C.S Lewis’ thoughts on love:

“When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”

Maybe the love we must demonstrate will never come to us naturally or out of human nature – I think history has shown us that it can’t. But what if we, through the courage and strength of God, could begin to behave as though we loved all equally? What then? I think Lewis has a good point here, something worth pondering.

“Just love each other” sounds awfully hackneyed when the world is going up in smoke. But Jesus showed us that it is anything but. Can we do this on our own? No – we’re human, remember. I need the love of Christ to flow through my sinful heart or I will never be able to love as Paul described. Then, and only then, can love win.

Who touched me?

I’m tired.

Now and then I stop long enough to really look at and consider the state of the world. It’s a lot.

Last week I posted a link to a sermon by Pastor Brent Roam of One Family Church in St. Louis. This week Pastor Brent preached a follow-up sermon entitled “The Road to Reconciliation” which contained some pretty strong words from the writings of Paul and John regarding the work that Christians are called to do, work that often gets lost in the shuffle of rhetoric that does a whole lot worse than hide “this little Light” under a bushel. We are to continue what Christ started, according to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17, which is the work of reconciliation. This reminded me of the way Jesus summed up his mission in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set a liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus’ use of the prophetic words of Isaiah 61:1 is stunning to me – every time. Sometimes I think we narrow down the word “reconciliation” to mean “soul saving” in an attempt to define our task or calling as Christians. Yes, I know of all the arguments between those who embrace a social gospel and those who lean towards fundamentalism. Personally, I don’t think Jesus was trying to convey any spooky, hidden meanings in this quote. I believe he said what he meant.

Notice his use of words like “poor,” “captives,” “blind,” “oppressed.” Is it really all that complicated? I don’t think so. YES, we are to lead folks to Christ so that they may receive the gift of salvation! The awful, tragic work of the Cross would be meaningless without it.

BUT. . . it would also be meaningless without really paying attention to the way Jesus worked and walked, the places he went, the people he hung out with, the way he engaged with people, the way he saw through ALL the layers of who they were and what they were about, the way he engaged their felt needs.

There are so many examples:

  • The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4)
  • The woman with the bleeding sickness (Luke 8)
  • Man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5)
  • The demon-possessed man in the tombs (Mark 5)

Jesus was so complex, so multi-layered. A more shallow reading of any of these stories would lead one to conclude that Jesus only healed them or brought salvation. But, no, no, no: he did so much more.

He healed them relationally, from shame, from marginalization, from despair, and in the process, he restored the undeniable image of God that resides in us all. Jesus demonstrated that healing is never one or two layers deep, it’s never only physical or spiritual. Instead, it is multi-layered, because we are spiritual and social beings by his design.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Take the woman in Luke 8:

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Stunning. I would have probably been with Peter on this one. “Really, Jesus? Who touched me?” I’m pretty sure there were many folks there that day who would have liked to have been healed. But this dear woman, who had been cast out, marginalized, and abandoned by her community was the one who got his attention. She must have been very brave, you know, to have ventured out in a culture that absolutely forbade her to cross her threshold. Her sickness made her unclean, and therefore untouchable.

Untouchable.

Lots of research has been done to document the importance of touch to mental and physical health. Of course, Jesus knew this, and so it’s not surprising that he asked such a deceptively complex question.

Not only did he heal her physically of her bleeding sickness, but he healed her from the marginalization, the isolation, the abandonment. And then he did the most wondrous thing of all:

He called her daughter.

I love that about Jesus. Social and spiritual – he covered them all, modeling for us how to care for each other.

In his sermon, Pastor Brent talks about the “ember” that sparks in us when tragedies such as we are living in first happen. He encouraged us to add some kindling, blow on the ember, and keep it going because we so easily let these kinds of sparks die out. He then reminded people of the many ways one could do what Christ would do:

  • Find a way to get in community with other people
  • Find a way to serve, to sacrifice your time, energy, talent, abilities to serve someone else.
  • Give of your resources to organizations that are making a difference on the planet. This might be places like: school boards, local government, marching, serving at your job, being an ambassador for justice in your community or church.

The bottom line for me is this: we must listen, we must be patient, be willing to sit with people, to really hear them and not rush in because we think we understand. Jesus never did that; never. For it is only in the patient listening that we really see and understand all the layers, just as Jesus did.

The world is in need of compassionate, slow listening. Our weary hearts and minds cannot sustain the tension, the loss, and the fear that we are currently living with every day. It’s overwhelming, to be sure. Sometimes I think, “I can’t do it! I can’t bring about enough change!” But I can’t, I can’t change a problems like racism, fear, hatred, violence.

But I can be kind.

I can listen.

I can ask someone “Are you doing okay?” and really mean it, wait for an honest answer, and do my best to respond from a heart that sees through the layers.

This is work we must do, work we must practice that we might be sensitive to the suffering surrounding us. Put the relational brakes on, for goodness sake, and take a minute to at least try to hold someone else’s pain. It’s time to reach the point of being tired of the rushing from place to place in our usual self-centeredness.

Maybe our new motto should be “Who touched me?” I think that might just be a good place to start.

Tipping Over

Today it feels as though the world is on fire. Or perhaps the analogy of a tipping point is more accurate, for it seems that we as a society idle right there at the rim with no capacity left, one drop away from spilling over.

What can one offer in times like this? Thinking of my own writing, and the endless posts on social media, all I can do is echo Eliza Doolittle’s response to Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through, first from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?” Speak like this, behave like that, pronounce and inflect this way, and you’ll be heard and accepted. No wonder poor Eliza finally broke – tipped over – and demanded to be seen for the person she was. It’s a remarkable tale about the human condition.

But back to today. The protests over the wrongful death of George Floyd have gripped the world. Not only in the United States, but in places across the world like Berlin, people have tipped over, with no more capacity to hold the tension we’ve all been feeling. Seems like we’ve stuck our heads in the proverbial sand for too long – maybe even forever.

What to do? What to say, to write? Where to start?

Today, I listened to Pastor Brent Roam of One Family Church in St. Louis, MO, intrigued by his sermon title, “The Wound of Racism and the Power of the Gospel.” Pastor Brent sought to answer this question:

Why hasn’t the Gospel more powerfully changed the hearts and minds of people on the issue of race?

There were many quotable lines and thoughts worth pondering in this sermon, but what hit me like a tactical strike was this:

We cannot serve the “meat” of the Gospel as though it were a side dish.

What is the meat of the Gospel? According to Pastor Brent we should start with what it’s not:

Personal piety
Holiness
Faith
Hope
Baptism
Spiritual gifts
Generosity

These are not the meat of the Gospel. So what is?

To answer this, Pastor Brent quoted Jesus’ response to the Pharisees who challenged him on this in Matthew 22:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment.
And the second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

Pastor Brent summed it up like this – and I think this is brilliant:

Complete love for God, and unconditional love for neighbor:
this is the main dish of the Gospel.

Pastor Brent’s sermon got me to thinking about a passage I read in Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Dr. Murthy shares the story of Tom Tait, mayor of Anaheim, CA, who ran for office on a platform of kindness.

Kindness.

Mayor Tait had been inspired by Dr. Jaievsky, a holistic doctor whose family had fled the Nazis. Dr. Jaievsky focused his treatment on what kindness could do for the healing of the human body. Tait, who was a city councilman when he met the doctor, wondered what these same techniques could do to heal a city? Using kindness as the foundation for addressing social disconnection in neighborhoods and communities at large, Tait started to notice change, deepening of bonds, and mutual care amongst those who had before been strangers.

Eventually, Tait’s message spread literally around the world as city leaders from Louisville, KY to Washington D.C. to New Dehli, India sought his council on how to implement his program. Asking the question, “What would kindness do?” Tait lead his city in a fight against opioid addiction, which saw 270+ people enter treatment in the first 15 months. Schools were affected, as children learned the power of kindness to not only change their relationships, but to restore music and arts programs in 28 schools.

All because of kindness.

These truths strike at the heart of things for me. After listening to Pastor Brent’s sermon I went to a nearby park for a long, meditative walk. My heart felt so heavy as I considered all the ways in which we obscure the Gospel through man-made rules or bending of Scripture to satisfy our own lifestyles or long-held beliefs. For Jesus, though, it was pretty straight forward:

Love God. Love people. “Tip the world towards love,” As Dr. Murthy stated.

Photo by Matheus Viana on Pexels.com

Sounds simple, but as history has demonstrated, it’s much harder to do. Surrounded by so many platforms which encourage – even demand – the focus on self, prosperity, and happiness, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ message gets lost.

Nevertheless, that message still stands, as does the force of the rest of Scripture. It makes me wonder if the command to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” was a reinforcement of this principle of love?

Jesus seemed to think so; his actions proved it:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Great drops of blood
Unjust accusations
Abandonment by his own people
A bloody beating
Death on a cross – the ultimate torture machine

Jesus, my heart is so filled with pride and selfishness. Forgive me, dear Savior, wash me of my contempt, my judgmental nature. Let the truth of your command to love make it downtown to the center of my heart. May it live there, flourish. And from it may your work of love, kindness, and reconciliation in the world be done. May it tip my heart and my world towards love.

Learn to love it anyway

I’ve always been curious about psychology and the way we do or do not develop based on a thousand different things such as childhood, trauma, parenting, personal choices, culture, etc. Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development are intriguing, but also a little discouraging since Erikson believed one must successfully complete each stage in order to move on and be healthy enough to complete the succeeding stage.

#Fail

That all said (and who am I , a person trained in the arts, to disagree with Mr. Erikson?), I have wondered if such a complicated, long – and I might add, holy – journey such as human development could ever be so cut and dried: Get it right in stage one, and you’re set for stage two! Watch out for the relationship dance in stage 6 – it’s a doozy!

Still, I am fascinated by biographies, and the ways in which the layers of a life develop and stack themselves up. Nothing jazzes me like hearing someone tell their story.

Aren’t they somewhat like the rings of a tree? Scientists can predict the age of the tree, weather conditions such as drought or flooding and temperature fluctuations, damage by forest fires, insects or humans.

Being somewhat of a nerd, I enjoy watching shows like “Planet Earth” that speak from the tree’s perspective, detailing good years, bad years, and everything-in-between years. If only trees could talk. . . . And yet year after year, they wave their lovely branches in a kind of praise to their Creator. They grow, shelter wildlife, provide shade, hold the soil in place, and generously give back so many things that sustain human life. Sadly, only when they are cut down is the story told of their noble lives. Ring after ring speaks the truth of development, of plenty and want. Scars tell veiled tales of hardship and injury. Miraculous.

Kinda sounds like human life, right?

Photo by veeterzy on Pexels.com

Maybe it is because I am a musician, but I think songs can capture big bold truths that arrest us and correct our course if we pull over and roll down the window long enough to listen to their authority. A few days ago I heard “Letter to the Editor,” by J Lind. It was like a tactical strike.

Did you catch the news today? Two women died in that hurricane.
And they were drowning while I complained that my flight had been delayed.
Now there’s another storm coming through. It’s supposed to be a big one, too.
Too big not to write to you.

To trade in this half-empty glass, to change the way I see.
To give up on the greener grass that has never changed a thing.
Sure it’s not that hard to find a flaw when the earth is red in tooth and claw,
but I’d like to learn to love it anyway.

That accident on the interstate was so bad that they closed both lanes.
And a man was dying while I complained that the traffic wouldn’t move.
Soon all the cars will drive themselves. Some people think it will really help –
help me complain about something else.

So grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change.
And give me the audacity to look the other way.
for the oracle is telling me the story is a tragedy
But I’d like to learn to love it anyway.

No, I don’t want to love in spite of it, like it’s just some sad mistake.
No, I would rather love because of it, oh, the contrast that creates.
All of the colors found with every twist of this kaleidoscopic fate.
No, I’d like to learn to love it – Yes, I’d like to learn to love it anyway.

I think it would be easy to listen to this song and think, “Man, I have it so easy. Here I am complaining about being stuck in traffic, or a delayed flight, while people are dying in hurricanes and car accidents.” Well, yes and no. I think wisdom tells us that yes, you are stuck in traffic and you’re tired, or running late, or whatever. And yes, the loss of life in a wreck is tragic. But I don’t think that is Lind’s point here at all. Perhaps instead of dismissing our own discomfort, struggles, and pain because they are seemingly so much more “insignificant” than those experienced by the person down the street or across the world, we could reframe them, allow them to call us to something different.

I’ve hit this stage in my life where I’m looking back with both nostalgia and regret, and also working to look forward towards the remaining years, treasuring them all the more. There is no cosmic scale on which we can weigh a life in order to record its suffering levels on a scale of 1-10. Perhaps the real work to be done is in sorting through the story, holding each sorrow, each joy, each tear, each celebration, each loss, each accomplishment in hand and asking of it: What does this make possible?

You see, there is no game, no competition in which we gain points for how much we suffer. In recent weeks, the truth of Lind’s song has been calling me to look at the “rings” of my life, to run my fingers across the bumps and scars, to remember the tale and truth of each one, to look with compassion and grace at my own life.

No, I don’t want to love in spite of it, like it’s just some sad mistake.
No, I would rather love because of it, oh, the contrast that creates.

Oh, the contrast, indeed.

Considering these lyrics gently nudges my heart to answer some questions:

What would it be like to look on your heart with gratitude and compassion instead of criticism?

How can the pain of your own story ring true and inform your responses to other people, even when they only offer you hurt because of their story?

What would it be like if, like Jesus, you prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”?

More and more questions like these float to the surface as I look back over my life. It calls to mind and excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,“:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Yes, at many turns, “the story is a tragedy.” Sometimes the only picture I can conjure is of myself crawling around on hands and knees in the dirt, tears so filling my eyes that I can’t seem to see and find all the pieces of my shattered heart scattered there, the shards cutting my hands as to make them bleed.

But there are moments of serenity beside the pond in the park near my house, moments when I sit and hear the water lapping the rocks, and I feel a wholeness deep in my heart. As Wendell Berry wrote, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

Yes, “the earth is red in tooth and claw,” and so is life at times.

God, help me to love because of it.

To choose to love it anyway.

“Important nothings”

This morning I was watching a video by my favorite singer-songwriter, Sara Groves. Sara has been posting videos in the last few weeks in which she talks about her songs, her life, her struggles with anxiety and depression, and thoughts about God. I cried this morning as I watched, that “good hurt” feeling in my heart. Many times in my life I’ve gone through long stretches during which the only music I could listen to was hers. No other music seemed quite as safe – not that other singers or songwriters couldn’t have walked with me during those difficult seasons. The thing about Sara Groves, though, is that she is always safe. I never have to worry that her lyrics will be fluffy, or smooth over the rough places without allowing them to be felt, processed, and treasured.

I feel this way about a dear friend I met in seminary. How I ever had the good fortune to make her acquaintance I’ll never know. She walked with me during a difficult period of life when anxiety blackened my world. During our talks, she shared her own tragic story of loss, betrayal, divorce, and an agonizing period of months during which she literally laid before God day after day after day, trying to find comfort for her soul. When I say “loss,” I mean loss. Everything. I remember when she told me of the time when she threw her Bible down the stairs after reading the book of Job in the Old Testament, and then ran down the stairs in tears to collect her Bible which had torn in two. That Bible, which is now duck-taped together, means more to her than anything. Now that she has moved several states away, I find that I treasure our phone conversations, knowing I can tell her “all my important nothings” as Jane Austen wrote, and that she will do that magical thing she does, and see it all so much more clearly than I ever could.

Recently, I have gotten to know a couple at my church who also exude that kind of authenticity that made us instant friends. They, too, shared a tragic story of brokenness from childhood into adulthood, and the road they have walked in losing and finding faith again. I cherish every moment I spend with them because I know I can say anything that is in my heart, and they won’t even flinch, but will probably just acknowledge that pain as one they recognize.

C.S. Lewis, the famed apologist, author, and theologian wrote,

Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another,
What? You, too? I thought I was the only one!

I’ve been reading a fascinating new book by Dr. Vivek Murthy, who was the nineteenth surgeon general of the United States, serving from 2014-2017. Dr. Murthy is a gentle person who exudes compassion and empathy – a perfect doctor. Of all the health causes Dr. Murthy took up during his time as surgeon general, loneliness was the most common condition he encountered. Think about that: not diabetes, not heart disease, not drug addition. Instead, loneliness. In his book he makes the case that, “We’re biologically primed not just to feel better together but to feel normal together.”

To feel normal. To surround ourselves with those who share our experiences, our joys and sorrows. No wonder the apostle Paul used metaphors such as “the body” and “a building” when describing how people of Christian faith should function. In fact, I would dare to say that Paul rarely wrote about life outside the context of community. He really “got” what it meant to be a person, and how hard that could be when one was alone.

I’ve been wondering what the role of the church is in healing the epidemic of loneliness in our world. Yes, we can foster friendships there, such as those I’ve mentioned. But what is the larger role? How would that work? What would it look like? Dr. Murthy writes in his book of society’s role in this process, and so that makes me think the church has a larger role than merely facilitating a place to gather, and then leaving it up to the individual. I don’t know the answers to any of my questions yet, and admit that I may ultimately be chasing something that will prove to be a red herring.

I’ll keep reading and pondering because I just have feeling there is something here to learn and implement. I believe this because I know from my own experience that there is no better, truer way to heal and grow. As Sara Groves sings:

At the risk of wearing out my welcome,
At the risk of self-discovery.
I’ll take every moment and every minute that you’ll give me.

Vivek Murthy, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), 33.

“You can’t save yourself.”

Some of the most transcendent moments in my life have occurred when another human being has stood in front of me after years of wrestling with unbelief and confessed anew their belief in God, his presence, and his love. Those kinds of words are solid. They have depth. And they arrest me, like slamming on the brake and being given no other choice but to pay attention.

The ongoing pandemic that has gripped the whole world has brought with it an anxiety that ebbs and flows, that is sometimes tolerable, and at other times seems to nearly drown me in its wake. Recently, worrying about income and how everything will look later this summer and fall, I realized something about the act of trust that I’ve never considered before. I was trying to calm my mind before bedtime, given that sleep these days seems to be a most precious commodity, and without it I know the next day will be wracked by even greater anxiety. Lots of deep breaths, lots of Psalm 42, especially vv. 5 & 11:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

Lying in bed, my heart pounding, I prayed, “Lord, just help me to trust you.” Over and over I prayed that, until a thought just stopped me cold:

God knows you are trying to trust him. He knows.

You see, most of my life I have believed that trust was all on me, that it was something I had to do, on my own, and that God wasn’t going to move a divine finger until I got my proverbial ducks in a row. I am not sure if that’s what I was taught, or if that’s just how I “caught” it. Either way, I believed trust was my work to do, and if doubt stuck even a toe into the picture, well, there went my miracle. Plain and simple.

When I realized that God already knows I’m doing my best to trust him, a sense of relief washed over me that almost singlehandedly dissolved my anxiety. Lying in my bed I realized that in holding myself to the impossible standard of total trust, I had essentially been trying to save myself. To think that I could trust enough, do enough, believe enough – to even quote enough Bible verses – to somehow magically change my situation was actually kind of arrogant on my part. But to cede control, to confess to God, “I can’t,” well now we have something to work with!

Audrey Assad wrote a song entitled “Slow,” in which she gives the most accurate definition of faith that I’ve ever come across,

Faith is not a fire, as much as it’s a glow, a steady humble lamplight in the window. And it’s not too much, it’s just enough to get me home. Love moves slow, love moves slow.

Faith and trust are so tightly bound up within one another, that you can hardly talk about one without venturing into the territory of the other. I’ve heard faith described as “red hot,” or “strong,” or “unwavering.” I’ve stood in too many services to remember, during which someone swept to the pulpit and announced that in such an atmosphere of strong faith, anything was possible! I have never understood how those adjectives were applied to the concept of faith, nor how faith could be a tangible thing we could measure so as to judge it strong or weak. The only thing such adjectives did for me was to give me a one-way ticket to The Land of Guilt, where all those who don’t get their miracle take the walk of shame! (insert weird announcer-guy’s voice here)

Photo by Ali Arapoğlu on Pexels.com

Poet Christian Wiman states, “Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent up on it . . . . If follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.”

The older I get, the more I realize that following Christ is not prescriptive, in the sense of rigid rules and expectations one must live up to in order to have any audience with God. This heart of mine that somehow caught the message that I had to work to be “good enough” for God is finally starting to comprehend Paul’s words in Romans 5:6-11:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while were were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

No one-way ticket to The Land of Guilt in these verses. Just love. Mercy.

“While we were still weak.”

“While we were enemies.”

No favoring of the perfect, the already-righteous, the one with “red-hot faith.” Just a Savior who died for me, who by his life saved me.

Yes, God knows I am doing my best to trust. My humanity wavers, and rightfully so, because, in and of myself, it’s all I have to go on, to live from. But the thing that comforted my heart that anxiety-ridden night was the remembrance that One who is perfect, and loving, and kind, and who suffered all that I will ever go through, knows my heart. He doesn’t want me to meet some magical quota of memorized Bible verses or sing a prescribed number of praise choruses before he will help me. No, he promised to be with me in the sorrow, to sit with me in it, to walk with me through it. And that, my friends, is free. And it is enough.

Audrey Assad, “Slow,” River Oakes Music Company, Capital CMG Publishing, 2012.

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 7.

Mystery

On April 5, 2019, I went to an event called “The Carver Conversations,” which is part of The Carver Project, a group of professors and pastors who work to connect university, church, and society. This particular event featured a panel-style interview of two of my favorite people: songwriter/singer Sara Groves, and artist Makoto Fujimura. Also joining was hip-hop artist Sho Baraka, whose clear-cut, straight-forward insight refreshed me. Their thoughts about art and faith had me in happy tears for most of the evening.

During the discussion, Sara Groves quoted one of her music producers, sharing a thought that has been lodged in my heart ever since:

“God is the ocean, and we keep writing about a cup of water.”

If you are a fan of C. S. Lewis, then you might remember a similar thought in his book, The Weight of Glory, in which he wrote:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mystery of God. Throughout Paul’s writings in the New Testament, he often referred to the plans of God as a mystery: either something from the past that had been uncovered (like the Gospel), or something that was yet to come, and in which he was participating. One of my favorite passages from Paul is in Ephesians 3:8-13. For simplicity, I’ll use THE MESSAGE translation here:

And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels! All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him, we’re free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go. So don’t let my present trouble on your behalf get you down. Be proud!

Paul writes about “mystery” all though his letters and epistles, seeming to be in awe of it. I love those moments when Paul gets beside himself when writing about these things, such as in Romans 11:33-36 (ESV):

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

Mystery.

Unsearchable.

Inscrutable.

Years ago I was expressing my frustration with God, about needing answers or direction, and the overwhelming “silence” of God. A teaching colleague at the time said to me, “Why would you want to serve a God you could understand?” If we could understand God, he wouldn’t be, well, God. He would be like me, or at least human.

That thought has confounded me, but has also comforted and given me new energy and hope to press forward, to lean into and onto God. Of course, my ability to lean ebbs and flows as I wrestle with anxiety and uncertainty. In times like these, I often wonder if trust is simply a choice, instead of something mystical and fantastical that we somehow graduate into, knowing that we will never again doubt or waver? I think Paul’s answer to this question would be a hearty “NO,” given his admonition in Ephesians 3:10-20 (MESSAGE), in which he reminded these Christians that,

This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish agains the Devil and all his angels. Be Prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. . . . . Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. . . . And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time . . .

Photo by Sindre Stru00f8m on Pexels.com

I needed the reminder of God’s mysterious vastness today. This is not some hint at the Prosperity Gospel, as if to say that I merely want a job that will adequately meet my needs, while God wants me to make six figures. No, I don’t even think that’s scriptural. I needed to remember again that I am like Einstein’s beagle trying to understand the theory of relativity (as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). I need to remember, that in the middle of all my systematic study of theology (which I’ve done a good bit of), there are times when I must lean into the rest that comes with simply stepping back and acknowledging God as God: inscrutable, mysterious. With this acknowledgment can come rest, and release from the struggle to explain or micromanage God, as though one could check boxes and predict outcomes. Just as the revelation of the Gospel was nothing any of the New Testament writers could have anticipated as God’s plan to redeem humankind and the world, so, too, are God’s loving hands writing a story in my life that, should I have known it ahead of time, would have been nearly unbelievable.

You have kept track of my every toss and turn through the sleepless nights, each tear entered in your ledger, each ache written in your book. (Psalm 56:8 MESSAGE)

Some seasons, like the present one, find me square in the mud puddle, mud pies in my hands. But even as I am there, I will reach to God like a child, to wash my hands, to choose to trust in the mystery I cannot understand, and to look forward to the sea.