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…