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Friday, July 29, 2011

It just doesn't matter

One of my favorite speeches of all time is given by Bill Murray in the movie Meatballs. He’s a counselor at a camp for losers and they’re getting geared up to get their butts whooped for the umpteenth straight year by the hoity-toity camp on the other side of the lake. His motivational message to the campers is that “it just doesn’t matter.” He works them into a frenzy as they all rise to their feet chanting, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” Oh, I love that! I often silently chant it to myself when I catch myself getting all caught up in some effort to prove my worthiness to the world around me. It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!

When my daughter was in high school she was one of the kids in her class who was competing to be the valedictorian. This wasn’t anything her father or I encouraged. It came from someplace within her. She pushed herself to be the best. Well, I believe it was sometime in the middle of her junior year that she got an A- in some rinky-dink class like health. She felt it was unjustly given and she fought it, but the A- stood. I did a little happy dance. “Thank God!” I said, “Now you can stop worrying about being perfect.” I mean, really. It just doesn’t matter. I recall that at the time she was a bit miffed by my reaction, but she laughs about it now. (She still finished third or fourth in her class and got to make a speech at graduation, so she was pleased with herself in the end.)

I was a band kid all though junior high and high school. And the thing about being a band kid is you really can’t care a whole lot about what the other kids think of you. You’re so far from being cool that you’re just not in the running to be anything but a world-class dork. So, you get to go through high school with this it-just-doesn’t-matter attitude. That’s why the band kids always have more fun than anybody. Being a band kid is great training for the rest of life. It helps you put things into perspective. So much of what people strive for in this life just doesn’t matter.

We spend our lives trying to prove that we’re better than other people. Our house is bigger. Our car is faster. Our yard is greener. Our children are better behaved. Our job title is more prestigious. We have more degrees hanging on the wall, or more published articles, or more awards. We’re thinner. Our teams win more games. We get invited to more parties. Our church has more members or a bigger building or a more exciting youth group. Our country is more powerful or more prosperous. Oh, the list could go on and on. We are so busy proving that our lives are worthwhile that we can’t see how, in the grand scheme of things, this stuff just doesn’t matter.

If we’re lucky, we have an opportunity to see what doesn’t matter and what really does. Most often, it comes when we are confronted with failure or disappointed by reality. We get fired. We end up with a debilitating disease. Our children get into some serious trouble. Our marriage falls apart. We have to file for bankruptcy. Something happens to strip away the façade we’ve created to prop ourselves up in the eyes of the world. It may feel like the end of life as we know it, but if we’re smart we won’t let the opportunity pass us by. It’s our chance to consider what really does matter.

Of course, none of what we strive so hard to achieve matters a hill of beans to God. In fact, this is the very stuff that keeps us from experiencing an authentic relationship with God. We can never really come clean with God until the trappings that we hide behind are stripped away. That’s what Jesus taught us when he said that if you want to gain your life, first you’re going to have to lose it. He wanted us to see how so much of what we think is so gosh darn important just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you follow the law to the letter and pert near never do anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if you hang out with all the best people. It doesn’t matter if you have all the right answers. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich. It doesn't matter if you're admired by all the people in your community. None of the standards and measures we use to judge who is better than whom matter. It just doesn’t matter.

But here are some of the things that do matter, according to Jesus: humility, honesty before God, mercy, kindness, compassion. It’s not what you get that matters, but what you give. In short, what matters most is love. The opportunities we have to give and receive love are what make our lives worthwhile. It’s love that binds us to God. Wherever love is, God is.

Blessed are those who come to realize what matters and what doesn’t.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Holding back the tears

Once when Ben was little and I noticed that he was crying, he quickly denied it and informed me that it wasn’t what it looked like. “I’m not crying,” he explained. “Water just keeps coming out of my eyes and I can’t stop it.” Tears have a way of doing that, don’t they? You can only hold them back so long.

I have expended too much time and effort in my life holding back tears. As a pastor, I know there are situations when I might be prone to cry and it’s just not helpful to the people around me. Take officiating at the funeral for someone I love, for instance. When I’m grieving along with everyone else, I know it’s hard to be their pastor, and what they need is a pastor. So, I’ll work myself into a zone in order to get through it. “I am the pastor,” I keep telling myself. When the funeral is over and I take my robe off, that’s when the water starts coming out of my eyes and I can’t stop it.

I suppose I’ve been conditioned through the years to fill the role of pastor because I seldom have the problem of blubbering when I need to have it together for the people I’m serving. But I will admit that as soon as I’ve done what the pastor needs to do, it’s almost like flipping a switch, and the tears suddenly appear. Many times I’ve stepped onto a hospital elevator after leaving the bedside of a parishioner, completely composed, and then, by the time the doors open again and I walk toward the lobby, I’m a liquid mess.

I’ll never forget one time in particular when I started my car in a hospital parking lot after spending time with the family of a teenager in the emergency room. He was in a car accident and didn’t make it. I had been there for the family, steady as a rock. When it was all over and it was time to go home, I turned the ignition in my car and noticed that I couldn’t see what was in front of me. So I flipped on the windshield wipers. But the wipers weren’t doing the job. It took me a while to realize that the moisture blocking my view wasn’t on the windshield.

The times when I lose it around other people are usually the ones that sneak up on me. I don’t see them coming, so I can’t possibly prepare myself by erecting a shield. Those are usually moments that are so full I can’t contain them. They’re too much for me. I want the world to stop so I can take it all in, but the power of the moment is all I can absorb. I place a piece of bread in the hand of a wide-eyed child and announce that this is the body of Christ given for her and the words get stuck in my throat. I sit across the table from my daughter as she tells me stories about her adult life, while all I can think about is the first time I held her as a baby, and suddenly my cheeks are wet. I feel the warmth of a My dear friend Bruce's arms around me after a long absence and as I sigh with gratitude and relief the tears flow with my breath. It’s as if the power of the moment fills me so completely that there’s no longer any space in my body for my tears and they’re pushed out.

I learn a lot about myself in those times when I can’t hold back the tears. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a direct correlation between my tears and my capacity to love. I’m thankful for both.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Christians should just shut up

My sister Wendy and her husband Barry had two wonderful Labrador retrievers, Morgan and Bruno. Last year Morgan died, and Bruno doesn’t have the stamina he once did for taking long walks. But back when they were young, whenever I visited Wendy in Massachusetts, twice a day we loaded them up in a truck and drove them to an idyllic little country road that meanders through the woods and cranberry bogs. On one particular afternoon we parked the truck at one end of the road and had walked about a half mile or so when Bruno darted off after a rabbit and hurt himself jumping over a large rock. He started limping and we realized that he couldn’t make it back to the truck without doing more damage to his leg. So, Wendy headed back to get the truck while I waited behind with Bruno. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work as he was very, very protective of my sister.

As soon as Wendy walked away, Bruno went nuts trying to go after her. I held tight as he pulled on his leash and I commanded, “Sit, Buno.” He obeyed, and sat. Then I praised him and patted him, and with a calm voice I tried to assure him that everything was going to be fine. “It’s OK, Bruno. OK.” But I no sooner finished saying this than he was trying to charge off again down the road after my sister. So once again I had to command him to sit. He obeyed and sat. And once again I praised him and patted him, “It’s OK, Bruno. OK.” And then again he suddenly lunged forward to run after my sister. It happened over and over.

When my sister returned and I told her what Bruno had done, she informed me that OK was the command Bruno had learned for go. The poor dog. I was telling him, “Sit and go” over and over again. “Sit, Bruno… It’s OK, Bruno. OK.”

I was clueless. I assumed that telling Bruno it’s okay would be reassuring for him. I thought it would calm him down. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Words can be deceptive in that way. You may assume everyone understands that a word means what you think it means only to become flamboozled when you can’t communicate.

That seems to happen a lot among Christians. We’ll use the same loaded words and not even come close to attaching similar meaning to them. Words like: sin, salvation, evangelical, redemption and resurrection. They don’t mean the same thing to me that they do to a conservative Christian. And so, we can have a conversation and think we’re in agreement because we’re using the same vocabulary, but actually we’re worlds apart.

I don’t know what to do about this. It makes dialogue difficult, particularly when the need to defend one’s perspective is greater than any openness toward understanding a different perspective. I have to tell you that after a lifetime of conversations with conservative Christians, I'm both wary and weary. I am fed up with people telling me I’m going to hell because I don’t believe in a literal place called “hell.” I’m also sick to death of explaining to people that being a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn’t mean that we’re anything at all like the Christians who call themselves evangelicals. And I’m tired of people tuning me out when I talk about salvation as a journey toward wholeness, which includes embracing our imperfection. What kind of a preacher talks like this, they wonder? How can she call herself a Christian?

How is it that language, which is intended to bring people together, can drive such a wedge between us? Sometimes I think the Christian church universal would be a lot better off if we would just shut up. If we’d stop trying to convince each other we’re right and instead, do what’s right together: feed the hungry, build houses for the homeless, speak for those who have no voice. Maybe if we spent more time being Jesus in the world we wouldn’t have to worry so much about defending our version of Jesus with our words.

Okay, enough said. It's time for me to shut up now.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When you've royally messed up

Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?" What’s that about? Wouldn’t once have been enough? Was Jesus just being annoying or was there a point he was making?

If you’ve lived long enough, you have a past. And you probably have had the opportunity to royally mess up at least once in your life. Peter was such a person. He had a past. And he messed up. Royally.

He had been one of Jesus’ closest friends. And when it was all about to come down, Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him three times. Of course, Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing. He would never betray Jesus like that. He couldn’t! But then, it happened just as Jesus said it would. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran. And when he was asked if he wasn’t one of Jesus followers, he denied even so much as knowing the man. Three times.

How could he ever forget what he had done? How could he ever face Jesus again or even so much as look at himself in the mirror? Would he ever be able to recover from this or would he forever be known as Jesus’ friend who stabbed him in the back him three times?

When Jesus meets Peter after the resurrection and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” it changes everything for Peter. Come to think of it, it changes everything for all of us who carry around a past that we wish we could do over.

I moved to North Carolina thirteen years ago because I had a past I wanted to leave in Ohio. My life there was so different than it is now that you probably wouldn’t have recognized me. I had a husband and children and I suspect that many people who knew me envied my life. I was married to a man I met in seminary and we spent 20 years together, doing ministry and raising our kids. I actually thought it was a pretty good life myself, until I learned that there was something very sick going on. Unbeknownst to me, through the years, my husband had been unfaithful to me with women in the church. Of course, there is a long, drawn out story, but to cut to the chase, he got caught and it led to his resignation from the clergy roster of the ELCA. Despite my resolve to stand by him, trust had been destroyed beyond repair and we divorced. The story goes downhill from there.

I didn’t do the work I needed to do to heal after my marriage ended. Instead, I continued to serve at the church my husband and I both had served together and I took care of everybody else in the aftermath of this crisis. On the outside, I was this amazing pastor who was handling a horrible situation like the Woman of Steel. But I was in complete denial and I was a disaster waiting to happen. Shortly before my divorce was final, a former high school boyfriend came back into my life and swept me off my feet. It was all terribly romantic and then I did something terribly terrible. And stupid. More red flags were waving than you'd see at a Soviet parade, but I ignored them all and I married him.

There was a huge problem with this "marriage." I came to learn that he was already married to someone else and he had a family in California. Yes, I married a bigamist. My so-called marriage lasted about a year and a half with a man who never really lived with me. And all this, with my congregation and the entire synod tuned in to my life like they were watching reality TV.

I decided I needed to start over and go someplace where no one knew me. So I moved to North Carolina. I also went back to my maiden name of Kraft and I started coloring my hair red. It was a whole new me. So I thought.

One of the first things I did after I moved to North Carolina was attend a spirituality retreat that the synod was sponsoring. When I arrived to register, I ran into a woman who had chaired the call committee at a church where I had interviewed in the synod. I knew she would be there because they sent out a list of participants in advance. Her name was Jane. When she saw me, she said, “Why, Nancy Z**, I didn’t know you were going to be here!” Z** was the name I took from my bigamist husband and I explained to her that this wasn’t my name anymore. I was divorced and my name was now Nancy Kraft. Well, she’s still standing there chatting with me when a pastor I knew in Ohio, who had moved south several years before I did, walked in the door. He took one look at me and said, “Nancy F**! I didn’t know you were going to be here!” This had been my last name when I was married to husband number 1. “Well,” I told him, “My name isn’t F** anymore, it’s Kraft.” At that, Jane turned to me and said, “Boy Nancy, you change names like other women change shoes.”

Oh my! Never had I ever imagined such a moment in my life. And I realized that a change of geography wasn’t going to change my past. I would be carrying it around with me for the rest of my days. It was a part of my story and that made it a part of me. But did it define me as a person?

The thing about life in God’s reality is that we’re never defined by what we have or haven’t done. Yes, that’s a part of who we are, but it doesn’t define us. We’re defined by what God has done. Our lives aren’t framed by judgment and shame for all the bad things we’ve done in our past. Our lives are framed by God’s grace.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Now, considering their history, Jesus could easily have come back with, “You love me? Well, you sure coulda fooled me.” But instead, Jesus left the past in the past and chose to give Peter a future.

Jesus’ repetition of “Do you love me?” wasn’t spoken in judgment of Peter, but as absolution, three times, in order to wipe away Peter’s three denials. So Peter could be restored: to himself, to his Lord, to his community. And then, Peter isn’t simply forgiven and restored; he’s also commissioned. There is a new purpose for his life.

Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. Now, John’s gospel is also the one where we hear Jesus, in chapter 10, describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. After the resurrection, Jesus commissions Peter to take on the shepherd role in his absence. He doesn’t tell Peter he must be a shepherd to his sheep to make amends for his past. He forgives him first, unconditionally, and then he helps Peter to re-frame his life by grace. Peter will not be defined by his past. No one can change the past. Not even Jesus’ forgiveness can change what Peter has done. What changes, though, by Jesus’ forgiveness, is Peter’s future.

Through the years, I’ve met a lot of folks who believe that all they ever will be has already been determined, because of something that happened in their past. The memory of their past failure seems to have a grip on their lives. They resign themselves to the identity their failure has imposed on them. Because of their past, they live as if their future has already been determined.

But here's the thing. While it’s true that we all carry our past around with us, we get to decide how we will frame that past. Will we use it to block us from living into the future? Or can our past be redeemed and used as a source of healing and wholeness for the world around us?

The early church used the memory of Peter’s greatest failure as an example of the power of God to forgive our failures, redeem the past and renew our calling as followers of Christ. We are more than victims of the past. Even though we can’t change it, by God’s grace, our past doesn’t determine our future.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Let the whining begin!

Dear God,

Things aren’t going my way lately. And I’m afraid I'm on the verge of becoming something I detest: a whiner. Please don’t let that happen to me. You know how I can't stand whiners.

As the keeper of a cat, this is tested from time to time, but, it holds true. I’m thankful Romeo is an inside/outside beast, because when he whines, his furry little carcass is routinely tossed into the outer darkness where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

Whiny kids are a problem for me, too. Thankfully, neither of my kids are whiners. Never were. Not even when they were wee little. They knew better. It never got them very far with me. (They would have ended up with the cat.) And you know that I love other people’s kids. Really I do. But other’s people’s kids have a tendency to whine. And I hate it when they whine. Really I do.

I remember the Whiner family from Saturday Night Live. I would sit and listen to them whining while people around me thought it was the funniest thing. Did you find it amusing? I never laughted. All I wanted to do was turn the TV off.

We both know that when parishioners come to me and whine, you give me the strength I need to do my job and listen to them sympathetically. So far, you’ve restrained me from saying “Oh, suck it up!”, which is what I’d most like to tell them when they start whining. Thank you for that.

Of course, I know you’re a lot more patient than I am with whiners. It seems to be your nature to put up with them. There was Adam who whined that he wasn’t responsible for his actions; it was all Eve’s fault. And who can forget the children of Israel, who were saved from slavery and certain death through a miracle of God’s deliverance, and then proceeded to whine for forty years because things weren’t quite perfect on the way to the Promised Land? Jesus’ disciples were classic whiners, all worried about petty concerns, like who got to talk to Jesus, or who got to sit where in the Kingdom, as if any of that mattered a hill of beans. And then there’s Saint Paul, who was so pathetic, whining round and round in circles about how he wanted to do the right thing, but as hard as he tried, he always ended up doing what he knew her shouldn’t be doing. Oh, Whaa! Whaa! Whaa!

The Bible might be subtitled, The Book of Whining. It’s filled with self-centered people who don’t get what you’re up to, and can only fret about what’s in it for them, or usually, what’s not in it for them. And, of course, the Bible is a fine representation of humanity, isn’t it? That’s why we love it so much.

If I were you, God, I would have ended it a long time ago. I really don’t know how you tolerate it. But from what I know of you, you more than tolerate it. You seem to have an affinity toward whiners. Why? I don’t understand it one bit. But you do.

So, here’s the deal. I’m afraid I can’t hold it in any longer. I think I need to give myself permission to whine. I don’t want to and I hate it hate it hate it. But if I don’t, I may implode. And I think I would hate that worse. So, all that being said, I really do appreciate the fact that you’re a lot more gracious with whiners than I am. I’m going to count on that.

Love, Nancy

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What I’ve learned about myself from my VW Beetle

Back in the old days, I drove Beetles and always loved them. They were so simple and uncomplicated. In my first call, while I was living in North Dakota, I had one with a propane heater. Despite the harsh winters, it was always toasty inside the car. Sort of like fishing in an icehouse, though. The bottom had rusted out in the backseat and there was always a puddle of water on the floor, so all winter you sat there with your feet on a cake of ice. Then, once the spring thaw set in, it was like a day at the beach. Every time the car stopped, a little wave would come sloshing up to the front seat. To keep your feet from getting soaked you would have to lift them for a moment and wait for the water to roll once again to the backseat. Now, I ask you, when have you simulated the experience of fishing in an ice house and wading in the waves along the beach all in the same vehicle?

While I was going through my child-raising years, I drove more practical cars: safe, boxy things with four wheels and no personality. But then, as timing would have it, shortly after my nest became empty and I became single again, the New Beetle came out. A coincidence? I think not.

As soon as I saw them I was hankering to have one of my own. They were just so darn cute I that I couldn’t stand it. I know nothing about things like engines. But cute is very important to me. (If you’ve seen my house or my dog, you know cute has become something of a lifestyle choice for me. I cannot resist cute. Yeah, this would be true for men as well, but that’s another blog.) So, yes, I bought the Beetle because it was cute. But I soon learned it wasn’t like the old Beetle. Specifically, it wasn’t simple and uncomplicated. And a particular disappointment to me was the horn. No sweet baby beep-beep! It just sounds like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill horn. Boring! (I didn’t even think to try it out on my test drive.) Still, the New Beetle had the cute factor going for it, and cute covers a multitude of sins.

The times I have enjoyed most with my New Beetle have been the gotcha moments related to space. It's like a little truck inside. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to pick something up at Home Depot, or a furniture store and had some guy bring the item to my car and look at me in disbelief, like I’m the craziest woman in the world, telling me, “That’s not gonna fit in your car.” And I’ll just smile and say, “You’re probably right, but just humor me.” And sure enough, it fits. Stuff you wouldn’t believe. Only one time did this fail me. It was a nine foot ladder. We put the front seat down and placed it in the car diagonally with the top of the ladder wedged up on the dashboard. I had used my “humor me” speech on this guy. So, he slammed the back hatch down, and the ladder went through the front windshield. No, it wasn’t fail-safe. But it worked often enough that I’ve had the pleasure on numerous occasions of proving a man wrong. And that’s always good for me.

Lately, I’m having some wear and tear issues with my Beetle. The latch on the flap for my gas tank is busted, so I don't want to close it. Every once in a while someone passes by my car and thinks they’re doing me a favor by pushing it in and then I have to use a crow bar to open it the next time I need gas. This often happens when it’s parked at the church. I’ve thought about putting a post-it on it that says, “Please don’t help me!” Why do people in church parking lots feel so compelled to be helpful?

Now that we’re in the hot season, another problem comes up. I have this beeping brake thingy that always goes haywire when it’s unbearably hot, which is the entire freaking summer in North Carolina. So, it’s over a hundred degrees out and I’m driving around town with this obnoxious little alarm constantly going off. After trying to have it fixed a couple of times, I’ve given up hope, and try to live with it. But if you ever pass me by during the summer and hear random screaming (or worse) coming from my car, that’s why. It’s not road rage. It’s *bleeping* beeping insanity!

This morning the car got the best of me again, when I flipped up the cover to the mirror on my sun visor, and it fell off. Apparently, I spend so much time primping in the car that I wore the hinges off it. Unfortunately, when the mirror isn’t closed, the interior light comes on, so I had to wedge it back and quickly fold the visor up to hold it in place. But then I found that I was constantly pulling the visor down and flipping the mirror up, reflexively, without even thinking about it. I couldn’t stop myself. I guess I really have a primping problem. Of course, every time I do this, the cover to the mirror ends up in my hand and I can’t turn the light off. I don’t need to tell you that messing with this the whole time you’re driving can impede one's effectiveness on the road. So, I sealed the mirror cover to my visor with a huge piece of duct tape. Now I primp in the rear view mirror like I used to in the old Beetle.

It probably goes without saying that there are other things wrong with this car. It leaks oil. I can’t lock it anymore. It’s going to need something majorly done with the heating system before winter because it has that funny sickening sweet smell that a guy who knows about these things tells me isn’t a good thing. Oh, the list could go on and on. But the thing is, it’s paid for, and I can’t think of any car I’d rather have than a car that’s paid for. So, I’m going to try to get about 100,000 more miles out of it.

But beyond all that, how could I part with a car that has taught me so much about myself through the years?: my irrational weakness for cuteness, the sense of superiority I feel when I prove a man wrong, my disdain for people who insist on helping me, the limits to my tolerance, my perpetual primping.

Oh, my! This car hasn’t exactly brought out the best in me, has it? Is it possible to have a dysfunctional relationship with your car? I wonder if there's counseling for this sort of thing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Having a history without your history having you

Why do people have such a propensity to hold onto the past? My friend Pauline says that she does it because the past is what she knows. There’s security in the past. Anything else is scary because it’s unknown. So, we cling to the past because, whether it was good or bad, it’s what we know. I suspect she’s right.

Holding onto the past is antithetical to living by faith, isn’t it? And yet, so many people of faith I know seem to be enslaved by their past. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

There are those who hold onto the past because they believe that their best days are behind them. They may have a moment of glory from high school that they relive over and over again. Or a cherished memory of happier times when they were surrounded by loved ones who are now gone. They may look at the good-old-days as a time that was simpler, when you spoke to your neighbors by name, when people appreciated the value of a hard day’s work. Nostalgically, we remember the past like Lake Wobegon, the little town that time forgot, “where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average.”

Others hold onto the past because they can’t let go of pain they are carrying. They don’t want to relive the past, so much as they want to be relieved of it. But they can’t forget past resentments or regrets. They resent the wrongs they have endured at the hands of another. Anger eats a hole inside them that can only be relieved through genuine forgiveness, which seems to elude them no matter how hard they try. Or they may regret the wrongs they have done themselves. If only I could have been a better parent to my son. I should have known better than to marry a man with a drinking problem. If I had been smarter I would have finished college. All the coulda-shoulda-wouldas can suck the life out of you if you let them.

Certainly, there is value in remembering our past. It can be the source of beautiful memories for us. And we can always learn from our past experiences, whether crowning achievements or royal screw-ups. Our history has made us who we are. And yet, it doesn’t have to determine who we will be. Not unless we allow it to. The most tragic thing about holding onto the past is that it prevents us from embracing today.

What is your relationship with your past? Would you say it’s healthy? Do you spend way too much time reliving the past as the best part of your life? Or is the past a life-denying source of resentment and regret for you that you just can’t shake? What would your today be like if you could let go of your past and truly live by faith?

I struggle with this all the time. So much so, that I have a special Celtic blessing taped to the wall in my office, just above my computer screen. It’s my prayer for a life of wholeness. That life includes a healthy respect for the past, while keeping it where it belongs, in the past. It’s about living fully in each moment that God gives me, trusting that the best is yet to come. That’s what it means for me to live by faith.

May your past be a pleasant memory,
Your future filled with delight and mystery,
Your now a glorious moment,
That fills you life with deep contentment.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Jesus Way of Seeing

When Beth opens the door to pick up the Charlotte Observer, on the welcome mat she finds a package wrapped in shiny silver paper with a glittery gold bow. She carefully picks the package up, brings it into the house and places it on the kitchen table. There is no card and no one who lives in her house is having a birthday or an anniversary or any special reason to be receiving gifts.

Now Beth, who grew up in a home where her father was constantly putting her down, always feels like she’s never quite good enough, and she just knows this gift couldn’t be for her. “Hmmm,” she says, “I bet this got left at our house by mistake, and it was really intended for one of our neighbors.”

Her husband Frank, a veteran of the Iraq war, sees the gift and warns Beth not to touch it. “I think we’d better take it to the police station and see if there’s a bomb inside,” he says.

Frank’s 95 year old grandma, who lives with them, takes one look at the gift and says, “Oh, I like that wrapping paper. And the ribbon is lovely.” A child of the depression, she’s already thinking about saving the paper and the ribbon and re-using it another time.

As the three of them sit around debating what to do about the gift, all their speculation ends abruptly when 4-year-old Andy bounds into the kitchen. Without thinking twice, he immediately rips the shiny paper off the present and opens the box.

One simple gift. And four people each see it in a different way.

A wise woman (Anais Ninn) once said: “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” The ability of our eyes to receive a visual image is only a small part of what we see. The way we process what we see in our brains tells the real story. We have a point of view that is unique to each of us. It’s affected by our life experience, our knowledge, and our feelings.

Is there such a thing as a Christian point of view? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, “We walk by faith and not by sight. From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” When we become a new creation in Christ, we don’t see things in the same way. We’re transformed. We develop a Jesus way of seeing.

Now, that’s not the same thing as assuming that you and Jesus see eye-to-eye on things. Many Christians use Jesus to reinforce their way of thinking, rather than allowing Jesus to change their way of thinking. They’re not a new creation in Christ, but Christ becomes a new creation in them. It’s disturbing how certain they can be that Christ agrees with them. Ann Lamott was acknowledging this very human tendency when she said that "you’ll know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do."

So, how do you keep from creating God in your own image and instead become a new creation in Christ with a Jesus way of seeing things? Well, first of all, you have to you acknowledge that God is God and you’re not. You dare to admit that your way of thinking, and your way of doing things may not be God’s way. You let down the self-protective wall you place between God and yourself and enter into a relationship with God.

Being in Christ is not about theology, or what you can say you believe about God. It’s about a relationship. And what is true for our human relationships, in many ways, can also apply our relationship with God.

Have you ever been so close to another person that you understood what they were thinking without saying a word? My daughter and I are like that. We’ll be out in a crowd and we’ll hear someone say something and the two of us will make eye contact. Nothing has to be said between us. We already know what the other person is thinking because we know each other so well. I can see the world as she sees it and she can see the world as I see it. What would it take to have a relationship like that with Jesus? To understand him so well that you come to see the world the way he sees it?

We have some tools to help us develop a Jesus way of seeing. Like, spending time in prayer, not so much the talking part, but actually listening. And becoming part of a faith community where we are regularly supported, encouraged and challenged. But first and foremost, the best way to get to know Jesus is through the scriptures.

The world is full of people who have all kinds of distorted ideas regarding what the Bible says about Jesus without ever diving into the scriptures and finding out what they really say. William Sloan Coffin has said, “Most Christians use the Bible much like a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support than for illumination.” Serious Bible study isn’t just using the Bible to support what you already hold to be true, but allowing the Bible to lead you into the truth. Unless you have moments when you’re studying the scriptures and you can say, “Wow! I never saw it that way before!” you aren’t really allowing the Bible to do what it’s intended to do in your life. You’re not allowing it to transform you. And you can’t begin to see the world from a Jesus perspective.

Without reading the scriptures with an expectation that you will be transformed by what God has to say to you, you’ll end up assuming that Jesus agrees with conventional wisdom that you’ve been taught by the world around you (not to mention dogmatic Christian teachers you may have encountered in the past). But, if you really study the scriptures seriously, with an open mind and an open heart, expecting to be transformed, you will be transformed.

Being in Christ means taking up a whole new way of seeing the world. If you aren’t aware of the difference, take some time to get to know Jesus. Not the Jesus you think you know, but the Jesus who will surprise you, and challenge you, and turn your world upside down.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

I. HATE. TO. WAIT.

(Understatement alert!) I don’t do very well with the whole waiting thing. For example, I always have to read how a mystery turns out before I work my way to the end of the book. If I received the chapters of a book in installments, so that I couldn’t read ahead, I would deal with it. But if the ending of a book is right there in my hands, I couldn’t imagine holding off to see how it ends. They say that the best things in life are worth waiting for, but I say, if they’re so darn good, why wait? So, for me, the only waiting I do is waiting that is imposed upon me. I can’t remember the last time I waited for something by choice. Delayed gratification isn’t all that gratifying to me. I eat dessert first a lot!

I suspect that technology hasn’t served me well as a wait-er. When I first started using the internet and dial-up was my only option, I could sit and listen with amusement to the cartoon noises my computer emitted while I waited for the little hamsters inside to grab onto a connection. Now I would gladly choose water-boarding over going back to a dial-up connection. My tolerance for waiting seems to diminish every time I flick my finger and receive an instant result.

People aren’t machines. You can’t push a button and get them to do what you want them to do when you want them to do it. And so, I sit and wait for the doctor’s office to give me test results. I wait for the cable guy to come to the house so I can watch T.V. again. I wait for my daughter to call me back on the phone. Being human myself, I understand the limitations we all have. When you deal with other people, you have no choice but to wait. And the more people you have to deal with, the more you have to wait. Have you ever traveled with a group of people? The more the merrier? Not for me! The more, the crabbier. We’re always waiting on someone. Gladys is in the gift shop. Herb is in the bathroom. Stan locked himself out of his room and needs to get a key. Shirley can’t find her sun glasses. When I picture hell, I imagine it as an endless group vacation.

Lately, it seems like I’ve been spending way too much of my precious time waiting. And it’s occurred to me that all waiting is not created equal. At this moment there are members of my congregation who are waiting for their first child to be born. And we’re all waiting for the oldest member of our congregation, who is almost 102 years old, to die as she lives through her final days. Those events are just a matter of time. You know they’ll get here sooner or later. When they come, it’s a relief.

Open-ended waiting is another animal entirely. That’s waiting for something that may or may not ever happen. I have a number of dear friends who are waiting for their next job right now. Despite their best efforts, doing everything in their power to make it happen, they’re left with endless waiting. And they wonder, “Am I waiting for nothing?” Waiting with uncertainty is so much more difficult than waiting when you know that it’s just a matter of time.

And that brings us to the worst kind of waiting. That’s waiting till the cows come home. That’s when you’re waiting for something or someone to come along and magically change your life. There’s a fine line between having faith that your future will be better than your past and passively sitting back and waiting for your future to find you. I’m not one to wait till the cows come home and I don’t have a whole lot of patience for people who do.

But then, as I’ve said, I’m not one to wait, in general. I’m not particularly proud of this. In fact, I’m starting to see it as a real problem. I always thought that patience is something I would learn along the way as I aged. That hasn’t happened for me so far and I wonder if it ever will.

I realize that my life would be better if I could learn to wait with a certain amount of grace, if I could stop fighting it. I think of the passage from Ecclesiastes that the Byrds first introduced to me back in the days before I ever cracked open a Bible. "For everything there’s a season and a time for every purpose under heaven." There’s a time for everything, and that includes waiting. Some things truly are worth waiting for. And sometimes waiting is necessary because we’re not yet ready for what comes next. Often, there’s a purpose to our waiting, particularly when we look at it as more than just marking time until the next big thing comes along.

Here’s what Henri Nouwen says about waiting: “A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” I really love that. And I can’t help but think that I’m missing out on something significant in my life because I’m not taking the time to wait on God.

I know I’m not dead yet. Maybe I can still learn to be at peace with patience. But am I willing to wait so that I can learn to wait?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Why being cool isn't really all that cool

There’s an old Indian teaching that says every person is like a house with four rooms: a physical room, a mental room, an emotional room, and a spiritual room. To be a whole person, you need to spend at least a little bit of time in each of those four rooms every day. What I like about this image is that it’s a good way to think about bringing some balance to our lives so that we’re not just spending all our time in our brain, or we’re not just doing, doing, doing without taking time to reflect on our actions.

But here’s what I don’t like about that image. It compartmentalizes spirituality, as if it’s just one more aspect of our lives where we can choose to spend time as part of a well-rounded life. You can wake up in the morning and read a Bible passage and say a prayer and move on to the next room. This doesn’t ring true for me. Spirituality isn’t something we can control and compartmentalize. It permeates every part of our lives. It’s a part of our physical health, and our mental health, and our emotional health. Spirituality is being conscious of the relationship we have with God and how it impacts every facet of our lives. You can’t relegate God’s Spirit to one room of your house and expect it to stay there while you move on to other things.

Walls are irrelevant to the work of the Spirit. There is an idea in Celtic spirituality of thin places. Those are the places where the distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world are so thin, or so close, that they become blurred. To be open to the Spirit moving in our lives is to embrace the thin places where we might have erected walls between us and God.

If you’ve ever seen the way charismatic Christians worship, you may have noticed that they use a different posture for prayer than the rest of us Christians do. When we pray, we fold our hands and we bow our heads. But charismatic Christians lift their heads and they hold their hands in the air. I prefer this posture; when I’m in the privacy of my home and no one is watching, that’s the way I pray. Certainly, it doesn’t change the way God receives my prayers, but for me it says something about my openness to God’s Spirit working in my life. It feels like I’m a satellite dish, open to receive whatever God is sending my way. On the other hand, when I bow my head and fold my hands, it often feels to me like I’m turning in on myself and closing myself off from God. My body language seems to say something about the way I approach God in my life.

Of course, there are times when the last thing I want is to be open to God’s Spirit taking over every aspect of my life like a wildfire. It scares me to think of giving up control. God only knows where the Spirit may take me, what may happen in my life as a result. I prefer to play it cool, and it’s hard to play it cool when you’re on fire.

We admire people who keep their cool, don't we? When you’re a kid you learn that it’s not cool to let the teacher know you like her, or that you’re in any way interested in what she has to say. So you just sit there and act cool. That doesn’t change a whole lot as we get older. When we show an inordinate amount of enthusiasm for something, afterwards we feel compelled to apologize for our emotional outburst. “I’m sorry I got carried away,” we’ll say. We notice how those who make a habit of showing their emotions in our culture are dismissed as a having little credibility and we don’t want to be one of them. So, we work hard to present a cool façade to the world. We keep ourselves in check. We are determined not to lose control.

Do you know where the word enthusiasm comes from? It comes from en theos, which means in God. To be in God is the opposite of playing it cool. It means daring to show enthusiasm… living in the thin place… being out of control. What if you lived with enthusiasm for God? What would that look like? I don’t know. But I do know that we’ll know the Spirit is moving in our lives just about the time we feel like we’ve lost control of ourselves.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What I love about this country

I decided to sit on the front porch for a bit this evening. Despite the heat, it was pleasant. That is, until a man and woman walked by and I overheard the conversation they were having. Here’s how it went...

HER: …You know, just because someone is speaking Spanish, that doesn’t mean they’re from Mexico. There are other countries they could be from.
HIM: Like what?
HER: Um… well… I can’t think of any others right now. But there are others.
HIM: You mean, like Spain? They speak Spanish in Spain, don't they?...

And on they continued down the street, beyond ear range.

I can only guess about what preceded and followed this snippet I heard. They had just passed a Latino family who were out in their yard lighting sparklers on the other end of the block. I assume the man and woman had been talking about them when the man referred to them as Mexicans. So, the woman had to set him straight. He had stereotyped them. "Well, good for her!" I thought. But no sooner had I mentally sent up a cheer for the woman than she let me down. She couldn’t think of a single country, besides Mexico, where people spoke Spanish. Seriously? After they moved along down the street, I wondered if they were ever able to come up with any countries, other than Spain. Like, how about the entire continent of South America? (With the exception of Brazil, of course.)

And this… on a Fourth of July weekend. It reminds me of what I love about this country. It’s the sweet land of liberty where a family of immigrants can gather in their front yard to celebrate an opportunity for a new life. It’s also a place where men and women are absolutely free to walk down the street and forget about entire continents of people in other parts of the world.

Happy Independence Day!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

God’s Cleverly Disguised Transportation System

Faced with a decision along the path,
I chose the wrong way.
Stumbling and tumbling downward,
engulfed in darkness,
my hands disappear before my face.
Into what hole have I fallen?

Musty wet walls on either side of me,
a tunnel twisting before me,
I crawl through inky soup,
feeling my way forward
...or perhaps backwards
...or perhaps sideways.
My direction disturbed
Moving into the void
Nowhere
How will I find my way out of of this cave?

Suddenly I am violently vomited
from my place of despair.
Tangled in seaweed
Strewn among the scattered shells
Sand scraping my back
Cheeks seared by the sun
What hole heaves with such force?
What cave careens upward?

This is not the path I traveled
before descending into darkness.
It is a place I have never seen before.
Had I been stuck in hole or cave,
emerging, I would find myself
exiting the same space
where once I had entered.
Instead, I am transported
by my tomb.

How could I know that I had been traveling
inside the belly of a whale?