Saturday, December 24, 2011

Don't try this at home, or at church

As I sit in the quiet on the night before Christmas, I am recalling the most memorable Christmas Eve of my ministry. It happened at Advent Lutheran Church in Uniontown, Ohio. We had an early worship service that was geared for families with young children. It had grown in popularity through the years, along with my creativity as a preacher. One year I had two people dress up in a donkey outfit and I had a little dialogue with them about the first Christmas. Well, it was more a dialogue with the one in the front end, but you get what I mean.

Every year I tried to do something different to bring the Christmas story alive for the kids. And, yes, also to top whatever it was I had done the year before. So, after the Christmas donkey who had carried Mary to Bethlehem, I was wracking my brain to come up with another idea. And then I had a flash of inspiration. Why settle for an animal costume when we could bring a real live animal into the church?

It was a perfect plan. I wrote a simple dialogue between myself and a shepherd, who would retell the Christmas story while holding a little lamb. So, I called a local farm and made all the arrangements. At a designated time, after worship had begun, the farmer would bring the lamb to the church parking lot and my shepherd, Sam, would pick up the lamb and make his entrance. It was going to cost $100 for the use of the lamb, which I paid for out of my own pocket as a gift to the kids. I couldn’t wait to see the excitement in their faces and knew they would remember this for the rest of their lives.

The church was packed. Candles in glass globes lined the pews. Poinsettias and lit trees decorated the chancel. It was a magical Christmas Eve. And then the moment came. I invited the children to come forward for the message and they surrounded me on the steps in front of the altar. I engaged them in some friendly banter so that the shepherd could make an entrance and interrupt us. Well, we bantered and bantered and bantered and I didn’t see the shepherd at the back of the church. Where was he? It became comical as I rambled on and the adults realized I was expecting someone who wasn’t appearing.

Finally, I saw Sam making his way down the hallway at the back of the church. He was walking backwards and struggling. I gave him his cue and he was still struggling to move. What on earth? Then I saw the problem. This wasn’t a lamb. This was a full-grown, big ol’ fluffy sheep. And he wasn’t happy. He had his legs tucked up under him so that he was this giant fuzz ball on the floor. A very heavy one at that. And Sam was dragging him with a leash.

All of a sudden, the sheep was on his feet. He and Sam started down the center aisle and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking everything was going to be okay. I thought wrong. When the sheep saw the candles and the people, he tried to run away. He leapt up into the air, flipped over and landed on his back. Then, scrambling to his feet, he did it again. Again and again as Sam pulled him down the aisle, the sheep did acrobatics and I held my breath. Each time he did this the kids squealed with delight. And, of course, that made the sheep flip out even more. I kept praying, “God, please don’t let that sheep break its neck and die here right in front of all these kids on Christmas Eve and I promise I’ll never do anything this stupid again.”

By the time they had reached the front of the church, I don’t know who was more frazzled, Sam or the sheep. Both of them had the same terrified look in their eyes. When I launched into the dialogue we had worked on, Sam just stared at me. He couldn’t speak. So, I worked both sides of the story as he stood there with his mouth open, nodding every so often. It didn’t matter what I said anyway. No one was listening. They were all watching the sheep to see what crazy thing he’d do next.

You probably know where this is going, because you’re a lot smarter than I was. The sheep left a Christmas present for us on the rug, right there in front of God and everybody. The kids thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. And I knew that it was time to wrap this up before he did it again. We had to get this wooly bag of shit out of church and send him back to the farm where he belonged.

Sam went to make his exit. But the sheep had other ideas. He tucked all four legs up under himself and made like a footstool. (A legless footstool.) Sam slid the stubborn animal down the aisle, to the delight of all who were present. Kids were squealing and adults were howling. Some had tears streaming down their cheeks. The only one who failed to see the humor in this was poor, dazed Sam.

It turned out to be a moment none of those children will ever forget. But not for the reasons I had hoped. I’ll never forget it either. It will probably be one of those scenes that flashes before my eyes on my deathbed. As I think of it tonight, I still chuckle.

And what did I learn from this? Well, never bring farm animals into church, of course. Since that night I haven’t. And I won’t ever again. Trust me. There will be no farm animals at Holy Trinity in Charlotte tonight.

But, I also learned that no special effects are necessary at Christmas. The story itself is enough. That’s why we will gather together tonight. To hear the story again. It’s more than enough.

Merry Christmas y'all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Need a light?

Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25? The Bible doesn’t give us a date for the event, but from what we do know, it was more likely that it occurred in the spring than the winter. For one thing, if shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, it had to be lambing time, which was in the spring. In the wintertime, sheep weren’t watched out in the fields; they were kept in corrals.

For the first 300 years of the Christian church, nobody celebrated Christmas. But sometime in the fourth century, Christian leaders became concerned about a popular Roman festival. It celebrated the winter solstice, during the darkest time of the year, when the hours of sunlight began to increase again and light was victorious over darkness. In an effort to compete with the sun worshippers, Christmas was born.

This worked out perfectly because, really, there is no better time to celebrate the light of Christ shining in our world than in the bleak midwinter. Our days have grown shorter. We know what it’s like to live in darkness, literally. And we’re reminded of what it means to live in darkness figuratively, as well.

At Christmas we see the holy family in the stable, Mary exhausted, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the frosty night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustling of the straw. And we gaze at the long-expected child in the manger knowing that this isn’t just the stuff children’s Christmas pageants are made of.

Bethlehem was full of visitors that night because a power-hungry politician far away had decided to take a census as a way to establish how many people there were who could be taxed. In this case, the people weren’t counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the sweet, tender birth story runs a tale of oppression, of a people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. We can dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels, but it is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

The journey to Bethlehem, the risky birth in a barn, the flight into Egypt – tell us of the kind of world Jesus was born into: a world of violence, fear, and misery. Christ entered into a world of darkness.

Isaiah’s words ring true: “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2a). The contrast of light and darkness existing side-by-side in the days leading up to Christmas is stark. While we are following the light of a star hovering over Bethlehem, we also are walking through the darkest days of the year. While we journey toward beauty and wonder, we carry the deaths of loved ones within us and grief grips our hearts. While we celebrate this special family holiday, we are painfully aware of the brokenness within our own families. While children experience excitement that they can’t contain, we worry about paying the bills so they can have a Christmas that doesn’t disappoint them. While we say the word merry over and over, we are bogged down with depression that can’t be drowned with glass after glass of Christmas cheer. While we toast one another’s good health, we know those who carry the burden of serious illness. Both darkness and light are a part of our world.

In his gospel, John writes: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Notice what these words don’t say. They don’t say that the light comes into the world and destroys the darkness. That might be what we’d like to hear, but that’s not the way it works. Instead, the light comes into the world, and the darkness doesn’t snuff it out.

The darkness continues to be with us. In the 2,000 years since the birth of Christ, there is no less pain, no less meanness in the human spirit, no less heartache. The light hasn’t changed that. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness can’t overcome it.

Have you ever shone a light in the darkness and tried to put it out by adding more darkness? It doesn’t work. In fact, the darker it gets, the more brightly the light shines.

The point of Christmas is that God climbs into the darkest places to be with us. And because God is with us, because God’s light shines in the darkness of this world, including our own personal darkness, we have reason to celebrate.

People who walk in darkness: May you know hope, peace and joy this Christmas as you behold the light no darkness can overcome. It’s the light of God’s love shining through his son Jesus.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mary's "yes"

The incarnation was a collaborative effort. It was, appropriately, something that God and a human being decided to do together. That human being was a young woman named Mary. Now, God was the one with the plan. But he had to depend upon Mary’s agreement or it would have remained nothing more than an idea.

There are some who have suggested that maybe Mary wasn’t the first woman the angel visited on God’s behalf. Maybe Gabriel had presented this preposterous plan to other young women, searching for the right one. And maybe, Mary was just the first one to say “yes.” Of course, that would also make her the right one.

Mary had a choice. God didn’t just force his will on her. She had something to say about it. Because that’s the way God does things with us human beings. God doesn’t force us to say “yes” to him. If he just wanted us to do what he wants us to do, he might coerce us, or manipulate us, or trick us into doing it. But God wants more from us than just to get us to do what he wants us to do. Mainly, what God wants is for us to love him. And the only way to be loved by another is by giving that person the freedom of choice. So, Mary had a choice. She could have said “no” just as easily as she said “yes.”

Mary said “yes.” Actually, her words were, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” She heard God’s plan, and she said, “Count me in.” The incarnation became possible because Mary decided that God’s will would become her will, too.

Now, I would guess that not many of us have been visited by an angel and told what God wants for our lives. And we might like to believe that if Gabriel did show up on our doorstep, we’d be all about saying “yes” to God. I’d sure like to believe that about myself. But it doesn’t take an angel delivering a message from God for us to know what God’s will is for our lives. That’s actually pretty clear. No, God may not tell us if we should buy the new car we’ve been eyeing, or what our major should be in college, or whether we should go to see a movie on Christmas Day. But in the scriptures God is pretty clear about telling us how it’s his will that we love him above everything else in our lives. And God tells us that the way we love God above everything else in our lives is by loving other people. That’s no great mystery. As God’s children, we pretty much know what his will is for our lives. We may not know the particulars about today, but we have a good idea about the direction God wants our lives to go. Is that something we can say “yes” to?

Many people will point to Mary as the poster child for what it means to surrender yourself to God. But I wonder if that’s really the way it happened for Mary. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of surrender. I’m not sure that’s what God wants of us -- that we surrender ourselves to him. Surrender seems to be the language of war to me. You don’t surrender to a loved one; you surrender to an enemy. And when you surrender, you give up a big piece of yourself. In fact, I think that a lot of people who try to surrender themselves to God have built up resentment toward God because of all they feel they’ve been required to give up to follow him. How can you love someone whom you grow to resent like that?

That’s why I can’t see surrender as Mary’s solution to God’s proposal. Her response wasn’t an act of surrender, but it was an act of love. And that’s the response God wants of us as well. God doesn’t hold us captive to his wishes. He doesn’t demand that we submit to his will for our lives. He gives us the freedom to make our own choices. That means we can say “yes” or we can say “no.” The only way to truly say “yes” to God is the way that Mary said it. It’s a “yes” born out of a relationship with God that’s grounded in love.

God wants us to love him so much that we want for ourselves what he wants for us; he wants us to love him in such a way that his will and our will become the same. He doesn’t want to force us to do what he wants us to do. He just wants us to love him so much that we freely say “yes” to him. And he loves us so much that whether we say “yes” or “no”, he’s gonna keep on loving us anyway.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Popped in the nose by "God with us"

I met three friends for lunch today smack dab in the middle of uptown Charlotte. It was a restaurant I hadn’t been to before, so I wasn’t sure where it was. Of course, parking is always a challenge uptown, so when I got close to my destination and saw a parking garage, I went for it. It was the Bank of America garage, something I should have no trouble finding later, since the Bank of America building is the tallest in town.

To say that I tend to have difficulty finding my car in parking lots and garages is an understatement. I could write a lengthy book entitled, Cars I Have Lost and How They Eventually Found Me. Lately, I’ve been trying to overcome this challenge by taking careful mental notes of my whereabouts whenever I park in a parking lot or garage. Today I was on the sixth level and my parking spot was #681. (You should be impressed by the fact that I can still tell you that, seven hours later.) As I walked away from my car, I was confident that I would have no problem finding it when I returned from lunch.

Taking the elevator to what I thought was the ground level, I found myself in a long white hallway with no doors. Had I landed in the Twilight Zone? There was no one around and it took several attempts for me to figure out how to exit the building. When I emerged, I was all turned around and had no idea where I was. (In addition to losing cars in parking lots, I also have a long, sad history of being directionally challenged. Not a good combination.) After I approached a police officer and asked him which way to Tryon Street, he pointed his finger and I followed it up the sidewalk.

I wandered around for a while and stopped several people to ask directions before I finally found the Aria Tuscan Grille and joined my friends for a delightful lunch. Then it was time to leave. As it turned out, they also had parked in the Bank of America garage, so we walked over together. Imagine my dismay when I realized that there was more than one Bank of America garage and this wasn’t mine!

I didn’t know what to do. I walked over to the Starbucks and asked one of the employees, “Do you know anything about the parking garages here? Do you know where the Bank of America garages are?” Suffice it to say, she was no help. Someone else overheard my question and asked, “Do you know the number of your parking space?” Well, yes I did, but I explained to him that this wasn’t my problem. I could find my car if I knew which garage it was parked in. He stood there with a puzzled look on his face as I walked away.

So, I approached someone else, a young man who was getting a cup of coffee. He listened to me explain my predicament and said, “I understand. With these tall buildings, it’s very easy to get lost in this part of town.” I was relieved that someone else could appreciate my problem without a tone of judgment in his voice. I handed the young man my parking ticket and he examined it for a moment. “I know where this is,” he told me. And while I was waiting for directions that I probably wouldn’t be able to follow, he said the most amazing thing. “Come on,” I’ll take you there. “You mean you’ll walk with me?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. And that’s exactly what he did.

Along the way we chatted a bit about his job, what brought me uptown today, the restaurant where I had eaten. It was all quite lovely. Whoever his mother is, she should be very proud of her son. Actually, he did a lot for me today, too. It was a grace-filled moment for me. We never exchanged names. He was just some unknown person who helped me find my way.

There are a lot of people God has sent into my life like that, some known and some unknown. People who seem to show up at just the right time, when I feel lost and something of a hopeless mess. Those are the times when the message of Christmas sneaks up on me and pops me in the nose. It’s a face-to-face encounter with the reality of “God with us.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Doing Nothing for Christmas

This year I’m preparing myself for Christmas by doing something I’ve never done before. It’s so radical for me that it’s taking everything within me to accomplish it. I’m pushing myself every step of the way. What am I doing? Nothing.

Through the years, I’ve been known to go a bit overboard at Christmastime, particularly with my decorating. When my kids were still living with me, every year I challenged myself to have a tree in our home more magnificent than the one the year before. When the Christmas tree farm opened at the crack of dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, I always had to be the first person through the gate. My snow-boots stomped through the rows of trees until I found the perfect blue spruce and tagged it. It had to be just big enough so that the tip would touch the peak of our 14 foot cathedral ceiling. When the time came to pick the tree up, I’d have to send someone with a truck. As we forced it through the front door, it always reminded me of the classic scene where Piglet is trying to shove a much-too-large Winnie the Pooh through a much-too-small window. One of my kids would invariably say, “It’s not gonna fit”, and I would insist that it had to. After it was up and decorated, and the other members of my family were barely speaking to me, it was always worth the effort when the kids’ friends would come into the house and gasp as they looked upon the perfect Christmas tree and asked, “Is that thing real?”

My Christmas decorations feature a Santa Claus collection that has grown over the years. It includes well over 50 versions of the jolly old elf. From an inch to three feet tall, he is black/white/brown. He’s playing golf, riding a motorcycle, swinging a lasso, blowing into the flute, making bubbles, painting toys… you name it.

Then there are the sentimental items that I can’t bear to part with: the ornaments made by my kids when they were in school, the stockings crocheted by my mom with Gretchen and Ben sewn into them, the handmade nativity scene given to me by a dear saint in my first parish.

It all means so much to me, from the greenery and candles on the mantel to the festive welcome mat at the wreath-decked door. And yet, this year I’ve decided that I’m not going to do any of it. And I’m discovering that it’s one of the hardest things I’ve never done.

I wish I could say that my motivation has been deeply spiritual, but that’s really not the case. It’s a practical matter. Over the past month I have been totally consumed with moving my nest from one location in Charlotte to another. I sorted and threw things away, and hauled carloads to Goodwill. I scrounged in dumpsters and collected cardboard boxes, and I packed. I cleaned furiously at my old home, and then I cleaned even more furiously at my new home. I sliced open boxes and unpacked and arranged stuff and then rearranged it and worked myself ragged finding a place for everything. Now, the last thing I want to do is haul out all the Christmas decorations and disrupt my home. The dust hasn’t settled from the move yet. I just don’t have the energy for it. So I made the decision that the practical thing is to forego Christmas decorations this year.

Every day I’m wondering if I’m going to break down and decorate. Maybe just a little. But I know what will happen if I start; I won’t be able to stop. As Christmas gets closer, I don’t know if I’ll be able to not do it. But what started out as a practical decision has become something more than that for me. As I find myself resisting the whole idea of not decorating, I’ve questioned why this is so darn important to me. Why is my celebration of Christmas so tied up in the activity of decorating and getting everything just right -- creating a setting for the perfect Christmas? My preoccupation with the window dressing of the season has shown me that this actually is a spiritual issue for me after all. And so now I’m more determined than ever to do nothing in preparation for Christmas. Nothing on the outside, that is. Instead, I’m focusing my energy on the inside. As long as I’m not decorating, I’ve decided to refrain from other activities as well, such as baking, and shopping.

What would it be like if you took all the time that you spend scurrying about doing all the stuff you just have to do before Christmas gets here and did none of it, but instead spent that time praying, reading scripture, serving those in need? I’ve always wondered that for myself, and this year I intend to find out.

Will Christmas still happen for me? I know that I definitely won’t be finding it under a tree or in dozens of Santa faces smiling at me on Christmas morning. But I have no doubt it will happen. I’ll find it the same place I always do. In my heart.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Measuring Out Your Life with Coffee Spoons

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. Words from one of T.S. Elliot’s poems that have always stuck with me. I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. Would that describe you? Do you measure out your life with coffee spoons?

This could certainly be said of one of the characters in a parable that Jesus told about a man who was going on a journey and entrusted some of his wealth to his slaves while he was away. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to the another one.

Now a talent is a unit of money equal to fifteen years of an average laborer’s pay, or about half a million dollars. So don’t feel too sorry for the slave who only got one talent. It was still a lot of money!

We learn that there was a good reason why the master didn’t give the third slave as much as the other two. Jesus says they each received according to their ability. No doubt, the master knew his slaves pretty well, because they didn’t let him down. The first two were able to present the money to their master when he returned with interest. In fact, they doubled the money that had been entrusted to them. But the third slave went and dug a hole in the ground and hid his one talent. So when the master returned, the third slave handed him back the one talent, just as he had received it.

Why? What excuse did he offer his master? Well, it seems that he thought he was doing the right thing in burying his one talent. Because, from his perspective, that was the safest thing to do. He had a different way of seeing the master than the other two slaves. He saw him as a harsh master and he was afraid. Therefore, he wasn’t about to take any chances. He was very careful. He played it safe.

So this is a story about people who are entrusted with great wealth. And there is a direct correlation between the way they handle that wealth and the way they perceive the one who has entrusted it to them. For the one who felt the master was someone to be feared, any kind of risk was out of the question.

And so it is for God’s people as well. You can tell a lot about the perception people have of God from the way they live their lives. Particularly the way they spend the gifts God has entrusted to them.

Christians are notorious for saying they believe in a God of love, but living as if they were scared to death of him. Afraid to take any risks for fear that they may mess up and God won’t be happy with them. They’re wasting the gifts they have been entrusted with. Even the very gift of life itself.

Psychologists will tell you that the healthiest people are willing to take risks in their lives. People suffering from anxiety aren’t able to take any risks. Their fear paralyzes them. But this isn’t just a psychological truth. It’s a spiritual truth as well.

It’s the difference between living large and surviving small. Surviving small is not a faithful response to our God of extravagant love. That’s responding to God out of fear. You’re convinced that God is just waiting to zap you when you mess up, and you’re afraid to take any chances. The main problem with responding to a God of fear is that this isn’t who God is. And you’re missing out on a relationship with the true God, a God of love. Playing it safe is never a faithful response to a God of love.

God’s love frees us from fear. It empowers us to act boldly for the sake of love. And it catches us when we fall. That’s what it means to live by faith. It’s to trust in God’s love enough to step out into the unknown without allowing fear to hold us back.

There’s more to life than avoiding mistakes. That’s not the life God calls his people to. God calls us to put it all out there, to risk our lives in order to find our lives, our true selves, the people God created us to be. That’s why Luther said, “If you must sin, sin boldly.” What pleases God is not that we live perfect little lives and never do anything wrong. What pleases God is that we risk it all for the sake of loving God and others.

We’re living in a fearful world right now, aren’t we? It’s scary. People we assumed were perfectly secure in their jobs have become unemployed. All around us houses are being foreclosed on, businesses are closing, building projects have been abandoned. We know that no one is immune. And we don’t know where it’s heading. Will it get better? Will it get worse? Will it get worse before it gets better? We can’t count on the things we once did. And so, we live by fear. Fear drives our decisions. And we survive small.

As people of faith, that’s not the way God calls us to live. We’re called to live large. That doesn’t mean that we’re reckless with the gifts God has given us. As God’s stewards, we responsibly care for the gifts that have been entrusted to us by God: our money, our abilities, our time. But good stewardship isn’t based on fear. God hasn’t entrusted us with gifts so that we can bury them in the ground.

Look at your own life. Are you out there living large or just surviving small? Is life flowing through you and spilling out onto the world around you? Or are you carefully measuring out your life with coffee spoons?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Can you make me love you if I don’t?

'Cause i can't make you love me if you don't
You can't make your heart feel something that it won't
Here in the dark in these final hours
I will lay down my heart
And i feel the power
But you won't, no you won't
'Cause i can't make you love me if you don't

Those are the angst-ridden words to a pop song that you may have heard. It’s about someone who wants to be loved by another and is trying to deal with the fact that it just ain’t gonna happen. You can’t make someone else love you, no matter how hard you try.

So, how can God command us to love him? What’s that about?

In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus is in Jerusalem during his final days, the religious authorities are coming at him with both barrels. Their goal is to trip him up so he says or does something that will justify having him arrested and killed. And he comes right back at them, exposing their hypocrisy and proclaiming the truth regardless of the consequences to himself.

A lawyer approaches Jesus with a let's-cut-to-the-chase kind of question: “Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And, for once, Jesus doesn’t answer a question with another question. He offers a straight-forward answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s the most important commandment of all, Jesus says. Love God with everything you've got; don't hold back. But he can’t stop there, because there is another commandment that is so closely related to this first commandment that you can’t have one without the other. “A second commandment is just like this,” Jesus says. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you get this, you get it all, Jesus tells his inquisitors.

There are hundreds of laws in the scriptures. And unlike us, good religious types back then didn't make a practice of picking and choosing which ones they would follow and which ones they could ignore. They tried to follow every single one of them. It was enough to drive a person nuts. How could you remember them all, much less observe them? But all the laws in the scriptures boil down to this, Jesus explains: More than anything else, God wants us to love him. And we show our love for God in the way we love other people.

God commands us to love. It's as simple as that. Or is it anything but simple? Can God make us love him if we don’t?

Well, if love is a mushy feeling we have somewhere in our chest cavity, probably not. If that’s what you think love is, no, it’s not something that can be commanded. But love is more than that. It’s not a mushy feeling. It’s a commitment to act on behalf of another in a way that goes beyond our own self-interests. Often, in fact, what we may call love is simply a symptom of our brokenness, a neediness we carry around inside us. We love another hoping they will love us back so then we can feel as if we’re somehow worthy of love. When they don’t reciprocate, we’re hurt and angry, because we needed it so much. But that’s not love. Not really. Love isn't a feeling that comes and goes. Love is a commitment to act on behalf of another in a way that goes beyond our own self-interests.

Knowing and experiencing the love of God in our lives seems to be the key to loving like that. When we know we’re truly loved by God, we can love ourselves and we aren’t so desperate to fill our need to be loved by another person. Real love is never born out of desperation. It’s not like a person lost in the desert who is dying of thirst and clawing at the sand for water anyplace they can find it. As Annie Dillard says, it’s like a person filling a cup under a waterfall. The water keeps coming and coming and it fills them to overflowing.

When we’re hurting and needing to have something or someone fill a deep hole we carry around inside us, it’s pretty hard to love. Really love. And yet, when we open ourselves to receive the love God offers us, that love fills us to overflowing.

This may be easier said than done for most of us. I know it is for me. I struggle to love. Really love. But I know it’s worth the struggle. God commands it for a reason. More than a heavy demand placed upon us to weigh us down, it is the way to true freedom. For it’s only in losing our lives that we gain them. It’s only in giving ourselves in love that we ever discover who we truly are. God’s beloved, created in God’s loving image -- worthy of God’s love, and capable of sharing that love with others.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Dinosaurs R Us

There is a bond I feel with those who grew up at the same time I did. We could have been living a thousand miles apart, but if they can sing all the words to the Davy Crockett theme song, if they know the name of Sky King’s airplane, if they ever shopped at a 10 cent store, if they can remember being glued their T.V. set when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, if they ever did the watusi… I feel a connection with them.

This is true for every generation, I suspect. Through the years I’ve had the privilege of knowing several people who have lived past the age of 100 and I’m always struck by the loneliness they experience because there are so few people remaining who have shared their life experience. No one remembers what it was like to shovel coal into the furnace, or use a wringer washing machine. No one can sing the words to “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” with them. I can only imagine how that must feel.

Of course, young people have their own experiences that connect them to one another. When they start talking about the music they listen to, or the apps on their phones, I realize that we live in different worlds.

One of the things I really enjoy about contra-dancing is the way age differences disappear. We’re all together for the same reason. We love to dance. Kids dance with old people and together we create a community of joy. I have dear friends who are younger than my children and I don’t think a whole lot about it. But once we stop dancing… that’s when I’m often reminded that I’m becoming a dinosaur.

The other night while I was leaving a contra-dance, I noticed that one of the other dancers, a twenty-something guy named Peter, was wearing someone else’s nametag. “Moriah” it said. When I saw it, I told him, “You know, they call the wind Moriah.” He looked at me like I was speaking complete gibberish. Then, while exiting the building, I saw that a group of young adults had gathered on the front steps. So, I ran the scenario with Peter past them, and, once again, I got blank stares. I informed them that they were no help at all. Then one of them piped up, “Is it a song or something? It sounds like it could be a song.”

Those moments when I think to myself, “Oh, my God, I’ve become a freakin’ dinosaur!” have been finding me with greater frequency these days. They come whenever the reality of my impending obsolescence smacks me in the face.

I have to face the fact that generations pass. One day, we Baby Boomers will become a footnote in a book some know-it-all-kid studies in a Western Civilization Class. That is, if people are still reading books and going to classes. As for civilization... I can only hope that future generations will do a better job with that after all the dinosaurs like me have become fossils in the earth.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Outrageous paychecks

Whenever dollars and cents are involved, people become exceedingly concerned about what’s fair. Because money is our cultural measure of value, we want to see people receive as much of it as they’re worth. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we’re miffed when a professional football player, who can barely put two sentences together and is known for his immoral lifestyle, is paid millions of dollars, and an elementary school teacher with years of education, who is responsible for the future of our nation, makes $35,000 a year. It doesn’t seem quite fair.

We have such a sense of what’s fair and what isn’t that when people are compensated in a way that seems out of line, we can become quite indignant about it. When the CEO of a large company does a lousy job and gets fired and then walks away with a severance package that turns out to be more than most of us will make in a lifetime, it pisses us off!

What’s fair is that the most money goes to those who work hardest and longest and are most productive. Imagine what it would be like to work for a company where everyone receives the same pay, no matter what they do. The one who works a full day every day, plus overtime, receives the same salary as the one who only works part-time. How would you feel in such a situation? No doubt, if you were the part-time worker, you’d be thrilled. But if you were the one working your butt off, you’d be hoppin’ mad.

Well, that’s exactly what’s going on in a parable Jesus tells in the 20th chapter of Matthew. There’s this landowner who needs to have some work done in his vineyard. So he goes out into the marketplace where there are day laborers standing around waiting to be hired and he takes them on for a standard daily wage. Then he goes out a few hours later and hires some more workers. About noon, he hires others, and at three, does the same thing. Finally, at about 5:00 he goes back to the marketplace and sees some guys standing around with nothing to do. So he hires them, too. When the evening comes and it’s time for them all to be paid, the landowner tells his manager to have them line up for their money, with those hired last first in line. And then comes the kicker. They all receive the same pay. Whether they were hired in the early hours of the morning or only a couple hours before quittin’ time, they all receive exactly one day’s wage.

Now, remember these are day laborers, so a daily wage is as much as they need to make it until the next day. Without a full day’s wage, they won’t have enough to feed their families. Knowing this, the owner gives them each what they need. He isn’t intentionally being unfair. He is intentionally being compassionate. When those who think they deserve more because they've worked longer complain, he says to them: “Didn’t you agree on the daily wage? Take your money and be on your way. What’s it to you that I choose to give the same to everyone? Isn’t it my money? Can’t I give it however I want to? Are you envious because I’m generous?” Well, of course they are. Because they’re thinking like humans think.

In this parable, Jesus is challenging us to think in a new way. He wants us to think as people who are part of the Kingdom of God, as people who pray that God’s "will be done on earth as in heaven." In the Kingdom of God the last shall be first. It’s all about grace -- giving people not what they deserve, but what they need. Fairness isn’t the goal. Compassion is the goal. It’s hard for us to grasp this because it’s a complete reversal of what we’ve grown to expect in the world around us. It’s a whole new way of dealing with other people. And it’s outrageous. By that I mean that when God pours out his lavish grace upon us, we’re all for it. But when God pours out his lavish grace on those who don’t deserve it, we’re outraged.

We hear a lot of talk these days about entitlement programs. Often, the word entitlement is uttered with a sneer, which implies the irony of the very word, as the people who are so entitled are clearly anything but entitled. Popular opinion would say that the elderly and the poor aren’t in any way worthy of the money our government hands them. Why should hard-working Americans give their money to people who haven’t done anything to deserve it? It’s not fair. Whenever we talk about cutting the federal budget, the entitlement programs go right to the chopping block. And isn’t it interesting that many of those who are most vocal about the unfairness of entitlement programs claim to be followers of Jesus? I wonder if they’ve ever read the 20th chapter of Matthew. I suspect that if they have they might be less inclined to call them entitlement programs and more inclined to call them grace programs. (And they wouldn't push to cut them; they would do all they can to increase them.)

We know that Jesus had a passion for the "undeserving", the untouchables of his day: people with dreaded diseases, the poor, the immoral, the outsiders. Of course, the good people, the “deserving ones”, had (and still have) a major problem with that. But those who choose to follow Jesus share his same passion. They are people of grace, extending the love of God to all people and making an extra effort to include those who might feel the most excluded from God’s kingdom of grace, so that the last and the first are all loved the same.

No, by our human standards, it’s not fair. And that’s exactly the point.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking through walls

The day begins with Jesus sealed inside a tomb behind a stone no person can move. Then, by day's end, it was the disciples who were sealed inside a tomb behind a stone that no person could move.

There in the upper room, they’re shut tightly inside. The threatening world is shut tightly outside. It’s like they have been hermetically sealed off from everything. Everything, including Jesus.

To a greater or lesser extent we all have times when we do that, don’t we? We try to seal ourselves off from everyone and everything, even God. It may happen when we’re hurt. Or when we’re afraid. Or when we dare not allow ourselves to hope. We seal ourselves off from the rest of the world: physically, mentally or spiritually.

The message of resurrection is a message of hope for all of us living in our own individual tombs. Or maybe I should say, it’s a message for all of us dying in our own individual tombs. God’s message to us is this –
You can try to seal yourself off from me if you want, but you can’t keep me out. I will come after you. I will hunt you down. If need be, I’ll walk right through the wall you’re hiding behind.

There have been times when I’ve hidden in the upper room with the disciples, behind a locked door, sealing myself off from the very one who would save me. I have struggled with clinical depression in my life. When I’ve been lost in my own despair, what I want to do is seal myself away where no one can get to me. I want to stay in my own little world and I don’t want to be around people who might challenge my distorted view of reality. I certainly don’t want to be bothered by a God who’s going to come to me with a message of hope in the midst of my hopelessness, who’s going to tell me that I’m worth as much to him as his own Son. I don’t want to hear that.

I have two favorite Bible passages and only recently realized why they mean so much to me. They’re both about the same thing. They’re a lot like the story where Jesus walks through a wall to get to the ones he loves.

The first one is Psalm 139.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

And then the other one is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Who will separate us from the God’s love? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?
Paul’s answer?
I am certain that there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Yep. I can relate to those crazy disciples who thought that they could actually keep him out by locking the door.

A passage from the Bible that I don’t connect with very well is the one where Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks. I know there have been times in my life when he could knock until his knuckles bleed; I’m not about to open that door.

But the thing is, at those times, Jesus doesn’t bother knocking. He just appears. Sometimes in startling ways. Nearly always, it happens through community. Over the course of my life, many people have walked through walls for me and they probably don’t even know it. They seem to be oblivious to the walls I hide behind.

Jesus appears to us just as he did to the disciples. Whether we believe in the resurrection or not, the resurrected Christ appears to us. Whether we embrace the abundant new life or not, God gives it to us. Whether we welcome God into our lives or not, he’s with us, loving us every step of the way. The disciples couldn’t lock him out even if they wanted to. Jesus appears. Defying closed doors, and locked hearts. He simply appears.

There’s more to the resurrection than the story of Jesus breaking out of a sealed tomb. The resurrection is also about Jesus breaking into our sealed tombs. When we least expect him and when we most need him, Jesus appears.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A different drummer

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” – Henry David Thoreau

In theory, we admire non-conformists, the ones who move to the beat of their own drummer. But in reality, we usually think they’re strange. They may be the kids with blue hair and tattooes all over their bodies. Or they’re the people who move to a cabin in the woods and turn their backs on televisions, and computers. Perhaps they’re the ones who protest against whatever the government happens to be doing at any given moment. I suspect those are the kinds of images that come to mind when we think of non-conformists.

In our culture, where Christianity is the dominant religion, not many people would consider Christians to be non-conformists. Just the opposite. Being a Christian means being a part of the status quo. This is disturbing because if Christians truly did follow in the way of Jesus, they would be so far outside the norm of behavior in our culture that they would be considered radicals.

When Christians take the teachings of Jesus seriously, they turn their backs on competition and the need to prove that there are winners and losers in this world. They practice non-violence, returning acts of love for acts of hate. They offer mercy and forgiveness instead of punishment and vengeance. They freely give other people, not what they deserve, but what they need. They lobby for the poor and those who have no one to speak on their behalf when important decisions are made in our government. They value relationships above material wealth. They engage in genuine dialogue and work toward understanding with those who don’t see things their way. They speak out against statements of bigotry, even the jokes they hear their friends tell that demean other people. They are concerned about what will benefit the community rather than “what’s in it for me.”

Many people like to refer to our country as a “Christian nation” when nothing could be further from the truth. Not if being a Christian means following Christ.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

What keeps us from being transformed into the people God would have us be? For me, it’s fear, plain and simple. Fear of being ostracized by my friends. Fear of not having enough. Fear of missing out on what I think I deserve. Fear of being taken advantange of if I’m too darn nice. The list could go on and on. Perhaps the first step toward allowing God to transform us by the renewing of our minds so we can discern what is his will is honestly facing our fear-driven need to conform to the ways of the world around us.

The opposite of fear, is trust. We overcome our fear by entrusting ourselves to God. Offering all that we are to him, we become new people. No longer conformed to the ways of the world, we are transformed.

A few verses later in Romans, Paul talks about the marks of a true Christian. It’s a good list. Read it over and think about what a radical way of being it describes. If ever there were a description of a non-conforming way of life, this is it.

"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God….No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink….Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:9-21)

Now that's what it means to move to the beat of a different drummer.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Kissing and making up: is it always necessary?

There’s a new show on T.V. called “Revenge.” I guess we don’t have to wonder what that one’s about. It’s a theme people seem to resonate with. Particularly within the action genre, it comes up again and again. You know the story. Our hero spends his whole life avenging the people who killed his wife, or father, or his best friend in the army. Whatever. It’s all very dramatic and it hooks us because deep down inside we long to see the bad people get what’s coming to them. Of course, the bad people are the ones who do things that hurt us or the people we care about. If someone has hurt us, we hurt them back. From kids on the playground, to those who lead the nations of our world, it seems to be our natural inclination to get even.

As people created in the image of God, we were created for more than that, weren’t we? Certainly if you know anything about Jesus, the one who showed us the very essence of God by the things he taught and the way he lived his life, you know that seeking revenge is not God’s intention for us. He taught about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. He didn’t fight back even when it cost him his own life. And this way of non-violence was more than a political strategy for Jesus. It was motivated by love expressed through forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the opposite of revenge. It's letting go of the grudge we carry or the need to get even. Despite the fact that we may have every reason to hate the person who wronged us, we choose to love instead. It’s really a way of life more than isolated acts that we perform. We don’t have to decide in any given case whether we will forgive another person or not. Of course, we forgive. It may not always come quickly or easily, but it’s the direction we’re always headed. Because it’s who we are as people of God; it’s what we do.

Now, sometimes I’m afraid we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. The two are not synonymous. Often forgiveness leads to reconciliation, but not always. Reconciliation is kissing and making up. It’s allowing that person to become a part of your life again. And it’s a mistake to insist that forgiveness isn’t complete without reconciliation. Sometimes it’s impossible to reconcile with another person. For example, if the one who has wronged you is no longer living, reconciliation is impossible. Or if the other person refuses to have anything to do with you, what can you do? Still, you can forgive, for your own sake, to free yourself from the burden of bitterness.

Reconciliation also doesn’t work when you know the person who has hurt you will continue to hurt you if you let them. When a relationship isn’t healthy for you and you have every reason to believe that it never will be, a boundary separating you from that person is necessary. This doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven them. It just means that you will no longer allow them to be a part of your life. You can still love them as a human being and wish them well. Just not in close proximity to you.

Forgiveness is for the forgiver as much as it is for the forgiven. That’s why it’s important to forgive even those who don’t come groveling at our feet. Often, reconciliation follows forgiveness. We make up and we’re friends again and all’s right with the world. But sometimes that’s not healthy for us and we can choose not to reconcile. It doesn’t mean that we’re carrying a grudge or seeking revenge. It doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven. What it does mean is that we’re consistently making life-giving decisions for ourselves. In the end, I have to believe that’s what the God who loves us wants for us: life.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Can you change?

Often when my cat Romeo kills a bird or a bunny, he will leave some brain pate or a gnawed paw under a bush to share with his sister Pooky. The problem is that Pooky has a very sensitive tummy and is on a restricted diet. (I think you can see where this is going.) She finds these gourmet treats and gobbles them up. Then she’s sick for days and I get to clean up the mess. This happened again early last week and I caught myself wondering why she keeps eating stuff that’s so bad for her. It doesn’t make sense. But then I remembered that she’s a dog, after all, and dogs don’t know any better. She has no awareness of the connection between what she eats and how it affects her.

Well, all this ruminating led me to the painful question: So, what’s my excuse? I put stuff into my mouth on a daily basis that I know I shouldn’t. And the big difference between Pooky and me is that I do know better. Why is it so hard for me to change my behavior and do what I obviously know is best for me?

Last night I was with some friends and we watched a wonderful video of Karen Armstrong speaking about compassion. After the viewing, we had a deep discussion reflecting on what it really means to practice compassion in the world around us. Then when we moved our conversation to the kitchen table over a cheesecake, somehow the topic of politics came up. Mind you, this was my kind of crowd, a gathering of politically like-minded people, so we weren’t really in a position to practice compassion with one another. However, we were in a position to practice compassion with those who weren’t there. But instead, we ended up ranting about them. We just couldn’t stop ourselves. Again and again one of us would say something like, "How can we talk about those we disagree with from a standpoint of compassion? How can we put into practice what we just heard Karen Armstrong talk about in her speech?" We’d think on that for a moment, and go right back to bashing those who don’t see things our way. Much as we knew it wasn’t what we wanted to do, we couldn’t help ourselves. It became almost comical. Almost.

Do you ever wish that you could be different? Maybe you’re not satisfied with your unhealthy lifestyle. You might long to be more compassionate in your behavior toward others. You could be frustrated with a job that doesn’t stretch you to use your God-given gifts. Perhaps you have experienced one failed relationship after another. Or your connection with God falls short of what you’ve always longed for. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just wave a magic wand and be transformed into the person you want to be?

Understanding yourself goes a long way toward finding a new life. So does a sincere desire to alter the course of your life. But neither self-awareness nor strong motivation will necessarily change you. You can know all about yourself and have a clear vision of how you want to act differently in the future, but then putting that into practice is another matter entirely.

St. Paul seemed to understand this struggle when he wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:14) He knew what he should do, but he had trouble actually pulling it off. His answer was to put himself in God’s hands and to allow God to change him. It’s an answer that still holds true for us today.

God changes people who are willing to open themselves up to the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that we just sit around with our palms turned upward, waiting for the Spirit to enter our bodies. It means that we trust the Spirit to lead us to opportunities for growth and then we have the good sense to follow where the Spirit leads us.

It’s been almost 2,000 years since St. Paul wrote to the Romans, and in that time, humans have learned a lot about how the mind works. One of the things we have learned is that the brain has pathways in it that are formed when we behave a certain way. The more a behavior is repeated, the more defined the pathway becomes.

If you’ve ever been walking in the woods, you’ve probably noticed that there are pathways between the trees. These are routes that have been traveled in the past. The more traveled the pathways are, the more beaten down, wider, and easier to use they are. That’s how it is for the pathways we have in our brains, too. The more we travel a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to use it. When we’re hiking around in the woods, we tend to stay on the pathways that are well worn. It’s easier for us to get from one place to another and we don’t have to worry about becoming lost. Our pathways in the brain are the same for us. We tend to stay on the well-worn pathways, the ones that have worked for us in the past.

The most entrenched pathways are the ones we began traveling as children. Take our relationship pathways, for instance. As children, we first learned how to cope with the significant relationships in our lives. And that's why the relationships that we had with our parents have such an influence on all our future relationships. From our parents we learned how to be in relationship. We learned how to love. We learned how to trust. We learned how to protect ourselves. A pathway was formed. It’s a well-worn pathway that's worked for us, so it continues to be the pathway we find ourselves traveling in the significant relationships of our lives.

Some of the pathways in our brains are helpful for us, and some aren’t. If you’ve seen a pattern in your behavior that isn’t healthy, even if you’ve done the intensive work of understanding why you’ve engaged in this unhealthy behavior, it’s still really difficult to act differently, because you naturally use the pathway in your brain that’s so well traveled. Changing your behavior requires you to step off of a well-established pathway and form a new pathway. Can you see why it’s so difficult to change? It means setting out on a different course than the one you’ve always used in the past.

A new path isn’t a path at all until it’s been traveled a few times. It takes more than one journey to forge a new pathway. And it’s hard work. There are boulders to be removed along the way, weeds to be chopped down and trees you may need to go around. It can be so difficult that you may return to the old path by default. But the same old path will never get you anywhere but the same old place. There is only one way to find yourself in a new place.

God gives us all opportunities to forge new pathways in our lives. Don’t let those opportunities pass you by and your life will be changed. I don’t know that Robert Frost was talking about the spiritual path when he wrote about two roads that diverged in the wood, but his words ring true. When you take the road less traveled, it makes all the difference. It’s the way to transformation.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What's up with all the !!!!! ?

What’s up with all the exclamation marks? Back when most communication between friends was received audibly, via face-to-face conversations or telephone, I wasn’t aware of the punctuation a communicator intended. Now, thanks to social media, I am privy to their punctuation. And I can tell you that there’s a whole lot of !!!!! going on.

Here’s a news flash for all written communicators. The standard ending punctuation for a sentence is the period. Other ending punctuation should be reserved for times when you just have to deviate from the period or the intent of the statement would be lost. Take the question mark, for example. You reserve it for questions. You don’t just decide, I think I’ll end this statement with a question mark, if it’s not a question. In the same way, the exclamation mark should be reserved for times when you can’t possibly not use it in order to communicate your intent. Think of it like the story of "The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf!'". If everything ends in an exclamation mark, then when an exclamation mark is really needed, it loses its impact.

I read a lot of emails, tweets, texting and Facebook postings that end every statement with an exclamation mark. This makes me ca-razy. But what makes me even crazier is multiple exclamation marks. As if one isn’t enough, they have to use five or six. I suppose that’s what happens when you end every sentence with !. Then, if you really want to show excitement you have to end the next one !!. And if it’s over the top excitement, !!!!!. Where will it end? One is enough. And it should be used sparingly.

My hometown of Hamilton, Ohio decided that they wanted to create some enthusiasm for their little corner of the world, so they changed their name to Hamilton! Although they tried to make this official, whoever it is who decides such things didn’t buy it, so to the rest of the world, it remains just plain Hamilton. But to insiders, it’s Hamilton! This is so silly on so many levels. First of all, the names of cities have never been followed by punctuation. And if they were, would Hamilton necessarily be followed by an exclamation mark? Why not a question mark or a period? Or how about an ellipsis, as if the story of "Hamilton" were still unfolding: Hamilton... I really like that. But, here's the thing. Even if we did have the option of following the names of cities with punctuation, should the good people of Hamilton be the ones to decide that for their own city? They’re not exactly objective about it. Wouldn’t everyone like to see their city name followed by an exclamation mark? I live in Charlotte! My daughter lives in Brooklyn! My son lives in Pittsburgh! And therein lies the real problem with exclamation marks.

The overuse of exclamation marks is a sign of ego-centricity. When you have to end everything you say with !!! it tells other people, “Listen to me because what I have to say is always important.” Yeah, I know, we’re all ego-centric. But do we have to flaunt it with our punctuation? I am hereby taking an official stand for more humility in punctuation!*

* Yes, in that sentence an exclamation mark is totally necessary! Okay, but in that last case it wasn’t. Redo. Yes, in that sentence an exclamation mark is totally necessary. Period. Got it?

Monday, August 1, 2011

A time to dress like a nun/a time to dress like a slut (a neckline for every purpose under heaven)

Whatever happened to scoop necklines? When I go to buy clothes now it seems that I have two choices. I can either choose to look like a nun or a slut. Either the necklines literally line my neck (and I get enough of that wearing a clerical collar, thank you very much) or they plunge to my sternum. Of course, all the dresses I like fall into the latter category. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it.

I suspect that if you’re one of those women with little to non-existing boobs, and you don’t have to wear a bra, you can just let the neckline fall to the depths and it’s no big deal. I used to be one of those women. About 50 years ago. In fact, I was the last girl in my class to wear a bra, or need one for that matter. But I made up for lost time and am into some serious heavy lifting now.

So, when I try on a dress that I find attractive, I have to focus on the amount of cleavage it reveals. I figure two inches is acceptable; anything beyond that makes me uncomfortable. If I’m showing too much cleavage I feel like everybody around me is staring at my chest. But, of course, that’s not true. I’m just being overly self-conscious. Everyone around me isn’t staring at my chest. Only 50% of the population.

Now, once I decide on a dress that I like, with a neckline I can live with, after I bring it home, I’ll try it on again. That’s when I discover that, in reality, it shows a little more than my two inch limit. Especially if I’m not standing up straight. And, face it, I slouch something awful, so there it is. (Or rather, I should say, there they are.) Then I'll try desperately to turn a capital V into a lower case v by pulling and patting, but to no avail.

I’ve gone the route of sewing in a snap, but the dress never quite lays right and this ends up calling even more attention to my chest, particularly when every time I breathe I pop the snap. Boing! Yep, there they are again!

At church, in the summertime it’s too darn hot to wear a collar, so I wear dresses. And I’ve tried strategically clipping my name badge to the exact spot where my breasts smoosh into each other. Yes, it looks silly. But who wants to look at their pastor’s cleavage on a Sunday morning? That’s just icky. Yet, I find that people are still staring at my chest. Either to see what my name is, or wondering what it is I’m hiding behind that badge.

There’s really only one time in my life when I don’t mind showing a little cleavage: when I’m contra dancing. That’s when I give myself permission to go past the two inch limit. Sometimes, way past it. I figure that as long as my puppies are on a tight leash and they can’t go wandering off on their own, sometimes it’s a good idea to take them for a spin around the dance floor. After all, the dances go fast and people have better things to do than focus on my chest. We’re there to dance. Right?

Well, in the two years that I’ve been dancing I have to admit that I’ve made an observation. My less endowed girlfriends have joked that if you have cleavage more men will ask you to dance and I’ve repeatedly denied it. But it’s time to admit the truth. Because I haven’t actually done a scientific study of this, I can’t say for sure that there’s a direct correlation between the amount of cleavage I’m showing and the number of times I get asked to dance. But I can tell you that despite the fact that I’m not the best dancer, when I’m not bashful about sharing two of my greatest assets, I’m always popular. Hell, if it works for my dance partners, it works for me.

I’m still waiting for scoop necklines to come back in style. But in the meanwhile, current fashion trends have taught me a hard lesson in womanhood. Although I spent most of my adult life refusing to accept it, I have to admit that in every woman’s life there is a time to dress like a nun and a time to dress like a slut. When it comes to cleavage, if I want to be taken seriously, get me to a nunnery! But if I want to dance, and believe me I do want to dance, well…

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.

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.

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 fa├žade 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.