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Christmas is Messy (An Annual Reminder to Breathe)

Christmas is Messy (An Annual Reminder to Breathe)

“Life is messy. Would that every puzzle piece fell into place, every word was kind, every accident happy, but such is not the case. Life is messy”

This bit of wisdom comes from Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel and fittingly enough, it’s a Christmas book. (Sort of.  I mean, it’s wildly inappropriate and not a family read at all but its set at Christmas time and it has a surprising dose of holiday spirit.) It’s fitting that such wisdom comes from a Christmas book because the holiday season is exactly the time when we’re most likely to forget this simple truth.

We might live 11 months out of the year with an impressive grasp on reality but by Thanksgiving, our common sense has been overshadowed by the promise of holiday magic. We suddenly start expecting more from life than life can really give. Here’s a list of things I’ve recently expected:

  • My shopping to be done
  • The Christmas lights to all work
  • The cats to stay out of the Christmas tree
  • The new floor to be installed well before the holiday season, not smack-dab in the middle of it
  • Me to have time to miraculously sew the perfect costume for a Dickens themed party
  • A fun family time drinking eggnog and decorating the tree on Sunday afternoon because that’s our tradition

Instead, we spent Saturday and Sunday doing this:

via GIPHY

And stopping this:

via GIPHY

All while moving furniture into the garage in preparation for the flooring to be installed.

So when we collapsed into bed on Sunday, the tree wasn’t decorated, the Christmas lights mostly worked and the eggnog was unopened. (I did pull together the costume for the party on Friday, though. For what it’s worth, if you don’t have a chance to sew a capelet, a Christmas tree skirt will work.)

There’s a parable in the Bible that’s often read shortly before the Christmas season. It’s the story of some bridesmaids who are waiting for the groom to arrive. Five of them fail to bring enough oil for their lamps. They run out to the store to get more and wouldn’t you know it, that’s when the groom arrives. The party is well-underway before they get back and no one will let them in.

When we read this story, it’s usually as a reminder to keep watch, stay awake and be prepared for the reign of God/the second coming/the day of judgement, depending on your tradition. As such, the story has merits as a reminder to stay focused on what’s important. It’s kind of a dire warning about what happens if you’re caught spiritually unprepared. This parable above all others reminds me that our work as peace-makers is urgent and we can’t fall down on the job.

While this story is about all of that, it’s also about the overwhelming expectation to make everything perfect. Instead of the groom arriving and haranguing the poor bridesmaids for not being ready, I sometimes imagine he arrives with a different message. “Oh, ladies and gentlemen. You should have known, your presence was more important than the best decorations. It would have been so much more important for you to just stay here, unlit lamps and all, and welcome me when I came.”

Sure, we need to stay focused. But part of staying focused is the discipline to stay focused on what matters. I imagine everyone left that wedding feeling pretty bad. Half of the party didn’t make it, the other half were revealed as selfish hoarders and the groom missed out on the company of those he loved.

What might have happened if, at any moment, someone had let go of the expectations they’d built up and remembered that the real focus was being together? What might have happened if, at any moment, someone had remembered that nothing ever comes together as planned—not weddings, not Christmas, not life?

Which is why I try not to ask too much from the holiday season. I’ve found that the less I demand, the more I enjoy. So it looks like we’ll be using white candles in our advent wreath this year and I’m reasonably sure this is the year that the cats tip over the Christmas tree. If they don’t the flooring installers will. But the celebration will be fun, the eggnog will be shared and new memories will be made. Not perfect memories, just happy ones.

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

Saints and Strangers: Standing Together in Love (a sermon for a divided country)

In 1620 a group of about 40 religious refugees boarded a merchant ship leaving England and sailing for the “new land.” Others called them the “Separatists,” or the “Congregationalists” because of their desire to separate from the Church of England and return to the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. They oh-so-humbly called themselves the Saints. With this, they clearly aligned themselves with the religious cause: they were holy people, distinguished from the “Strangers,” the other people on board the ship who were from some other religion, or perhaps no religion at all.

You know this story–it’s top of our minds this time of year. You know how hard that first winter was for this band of Saints and Strangers. You know about the generosity of time and spirit shown to these immigrants by the Wampanoag tribes. It’s a story many Americans have historically celebrated. When told rightly, it reminds us that the USA wasn’t just built on grit and perseverance; it was grounded first on hospitality and generosity.

We’re sorely in need of that reminder.

Today, our world is more connected than ever before. The journey that took those early Europeans several months is a mere day’s flight by plane. We can talk instantly to anyone in the world and social media lets us keep up to date on any number of details about a person’s life.

But new circles of Strangers and Saints have also being drawn. They’ve been drawn around city dwellers versus country folks, Democrats versus Republicans, Christians versus Muslims and Evangelicals versus Progressives. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone mourning the division and vitriol that exists in our country right now. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not imagining it. Polls measuring political division, racial division and economic division are all showing a record high.

The root of all of this is, of course, fear. We all know that. But I don’t think it’s just fear of the world changing, or fear of “the other.” Those are secondary fears to a deeper fear: the fear of being known. We lash out at other people when our own fears of not being good enough take over. We shut down because we are afraid that if someone sees our vulnerability, or our flaws, or the thousand ways we’re not perfect, they will find us unlovable.

What better camouflage is there than to block ourselves off into ever smaller and smaller groups, narrowing the category of who belongs and keeping everyone else out with bluster and bravado?

***

In 2010, witnessing the growing divisions in the country, a couple of people set out to make a change. On the surface, it seems like their plan was pretty simple—they were just going to get people to talk. In their living rooms. So they called the project Living Room Conversations and started creating ways for people to get involved.

I was trained in the Living Room Conversations model last month and although it’s simple on its surface, it’s revolutionary in practice. It’s built around the simple practice of telling stories and sharing dreams. To date, they’ve created 65 conversations around topics like immigration, zero tolerance policies in education, religious freedom, race and incarceration or student debt. In short, all of the hot button topics today—you know, the ones all of the pundits and politicians are yelling at each other about on television and Twitter.

Here’s the genius of these conversations: they’re not meant to persuade or cajole. There’s no talking points. And each conversation, no matter whether you’re talking about gun control or legalizing marijuana, starts with the same three questions:

  • What sense of purpose / mission / duty guides you in your life?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are and what makes you “tick”?
  • What are your hopes and concerns for your community and/or the country?

People who have used this model say that it works wonders and I believe it because it starts with relationships. People are given the opportunity to know and love each other before they’re asked to start solving problems. They’re given a way to love each other before they can start looking for ways to hate each other.

What’s even more amazing is that people are doing it. They’re inviting others into their homes, or setting up groups in divided churches, or maybe participating in a conversation online. People are hungry for connection. They’re hungry to be known as more than someone “on the other side” of a problem.

Author Dan Allender says, “stories obligate.” Stories connect us to something greater than ourselves. Truthful storytelling enables us to learn each other’s joys and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, dreams and fears. “Stories obligate” because they remind us that we’re all in this journey together and that we all share a duty to know and to be known.

***

Just as these Living Room Conversations don’t start with our differences, they don’t end in our commonalities. There’s no pretending that everyone sees eye to eye–which, quite frankly is just another way that we hide ourselves off and refuse to be known–instead people recognize their differences and choose relationship anyway.

The call to love is a call to love intimately. Click To Tweet

In some ways, it’s much easier to love our enemies than to love, I don’t know, our families at Thanksgiving, because we keep our enemies far away from us. (Plus, we already know that we don’t like them, so we’re not upset when they disappoint us.) With the people close to us—our families, our friends, our fellow church members—love sometimes takes a lot more work. These are the people we see up close and personal. We see them before they’ve had their morning coffee, or when they’re rushing around on a Sunday morning. We know their flaws and we have every opportunity to be irritated by them.

We take a risk when we commit to loving each other; to truly love someone we must truly know them.… Click To Tweet

The bridges that we need to build to heal our world can only come through relationship. The more that we silo off into our self-categorized groups of saints and strangers, the less likely we are to do any real loving. All of our love will be conditional. It’ll be love that’s only given as long as we see eye-to-eye.

I believe that people of faith have a unique ability to play a role in the healing of the divisions that exist and it’s because we’re practiced at the work of building relationship. It’s more than just a theological commitment to love, we actually get to practice working at it. We know what it’s like to stay in relationship with others–even when we don’t agree with them–because we do it over and over and over again.  

Jesus gave his followers quite the task list: feed the hungry, care for the prisoner, protect the child. But above and beyond all of that, he instructed them to love one another.

All of these other things, these other cares and concerns of the world will tear us apart if we’re not grounded in love. But the reverse is also true. When we are grounded in love, all manner of things are possible. Differences might be overcome, flaws might be overlooked, vulnerability might be welcomed so that in the end, strangers and saints find themselves all part of the same great big circle of love. May it be so with us.

Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

Stewardship: what money has to do with spirituality

When I was a kid, my sisters and brother and I would often play a game of “if we were rich.” You know the game, right? “If we were rich, we’d have a house with 100 rooms.” “If we were rich, we’d have a pool on the roof.” “If we were rich, we’d hire a maid.” And, of course, if we were rich, we’d help all of the homeless people and the hungry people and the sick people.

I had no idea at the time what “being rich” meant, I just knew that if I were rich, I’d have enough money to do all of those things.

A recent poll showed that the definition of “rich” changes depending on how much money you have. That is, the more money you have, the more money you think you need to be rich. What this says to be is that we never feel like we have enough—let alone, more than enough. Our expectations for what we “need” is a moving target.

I think it’s important to recognize this relationship we have with money. Chances are, we will never feel completely “secure” about how much money we have. Unless we confront ourselves this, we’ll find it very hard to make a spiritually sound decision about giving. I know, because I’ve made fear-based budgeting decisions myself. Sometimes in situations when I really had good reason to be careful with my finances and other times when I was simply letting my sense of scarcity outweigh my sense of gratitude.

In Christian tradition, we call monetary decisions “stewardship.” That’s an important distinction from the regular old “budgeting”. Stewardship means that we look at our finances with a spiritual eye. Our budgets are the place where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out our values. We may believe that God is at work here in our families, we may believe that God is calling us into new and courageous acts of ministry, but unless we are willing to live into that idea in practical, real ways, those things will simply remain beliefs.

What separates “belief” from “faith” is whether we are willing to act on it.

I’ll never forget an article that a pastor and friend, Lary Diehl wrote. Lary was the pastor at the church I interned at and during stewardship season one year, he asked this: “Is your stewardship pledge a white elephant swap or a secret Santa gift?” I ponder that every month now when I pay bills and examine our family monthly budget. Is my giving coming out of what’s left over once all the good stuff is gone—like a white elephant gift exchange? Or is it coming out of the generosity of wanting to make someone else happy, like a Secret Santa swap? Am I calculating what I’m going to get back, or comparing what others are giving, or am I just giving as much as I can and trusting that others will do the same?

Although Lary was talking specifically about church giving (and indeed, this post is heavily based on a stewardship sermon I gave last week), the principles remain the same whether you’re part of a church or not.  For spiritually minded people, money is another way to practice spirituality.

What does this look like practically? Part of it is about intention. Like a good yoga practice, every bill paying session can be transformed into a spiritual exercise if we set our intention for it to be that way. During the recession, which was also when we had a baby, changed jobs and moved across the country, fear was getting the best of me. After months of carrying dread along with my wallet, I learned to center myself on a favorite hymn before I paid bills or checked our investment accounts. Others have suggested these spiritual money practices:

  • Stretch yourself to give a certain amount. A wise steward and mentor shared with me her method for increasing her giving by upping the percentage she donated by 1% every year.  Her original goal was to be able to make a 10% tithe but she found that the challenge was engaging enough to continue long after she hit that amount.
  • Donate 50% of every non-necessary purchase you make. Buy a new party dress? Plan on spending half of that amount in a donation to a worthy cause.
  • Take advantage of those “round up” plans offered by some debit cards but donate that savings account at the end of the year. It’s a modern version of the Christmas Jar for those of us who rarely carry cash anymore.
  • Inspect your financial plan with a spiritual eye. Look at your budget and see what it says about you. If a stranger looked at it, could they tell what your values are?
  • Give spontaneously. All of this talk of planned generosity is important but don’t forget that sometimes generosity sneaks up on us. When that happens, sometimes the craziest thing we can do is throw away the plan. What if you met the next worthy cause with wild abandon? What would it shift in you if you gave recklessly, just once?

I’m collecting ideas about stewardship and would love to hear your stories. How have you transformed your boring old money into a spiritual practice? What keeps you centered when money is tight and fear closes in? If you have more room in your budget, how have you embraced your abundance and used it to deepen your generosity?  Or, if this whole money-as-spiritual-practice thing is a new idea, let me know in a month or two what you try and how it works. You can comment here or email me privately–I read them all!

Rites and rituals, the holy in the every day

Rites and rituals, the holy in the every day

One Sunday while I was in high school I invited a friend to attend church with me. I felt the need to warn her about two things:

  1. There weren’t a lot of kids our age.
  2. We did this weird thing every Sunday called “Passing the Peace.”

This second one was a great source of embarrassment to me. I couldn’t fathom why we would stand up, walk around and say hello to people. Having no idea that this was an ancient Christian practice, I genuinely believed it was a new-fangled invention dreamt up by a miguided committee late one night.


This week I’m writing about the book Liturgy of the Ordinary over on the What We’re Reading Now blog. While you’re there, see what else Susan has been reading. She and I met last summer at the Beyond Walls conference at Kenyon College and have been friends ever since. (Thank you, modern technology!) She’s got great insights, is a gifted spiritual director and happens to be the only opera singer I know.

When Your Partner’s Faith Doesn’t Match Yours

When Your Partner’s Faith Doesn’t Match Yours

Several years ago I was at a women’s Bible study when the topic turned to family life. One by one, many of the women shared a sadness about their partner’s faith life. One women was in a mixed-belief marriage with formerly religious man. Although her husband still went to church with her, he did it reluctantly. The grief over the death of this part of their relationship was deep.

One woman was less religious than her husband and found his church commitments stifling. Five others were part of a “perfect church couple,” and yet still found it hard to find common ground on church commitments and spiritual practices at home.

Now, I’m no stranger to the mixed-belief marriage. I’d categorize myself as being “extremely religious” while my husband is a classic “none” in terms of religious affiliation. What surprised me about the conversation was that even among couples who shared the same religion, differences in expression and intensity varied greatly. And each woman experienced this differences with a twinge of grief, frustration, anger or all three.

It appears that a couple are likely to find themselves on different pages about religion, even if they are both of the same tradition.

This actually makes sense. After all, spirituality isn’t a static experience. (At least it shouldn’t be.) The life of faith is dynamic. That means we all change along the way. Add a marriage and you have two people who are changing. The likelihood of your spiritual needs being exactly the same all the time is extremely low.

This is probably the first step in coping with faith differences–to recognize that it’s unrealistic to expect that your partners will always align. Once you stop expecting the impossible, you can work with and maybe even appreciate what you do have. Here are a few other thoughts, in the form of a handy list:

  1. Allow yourself to feel the grief. You know, like all good advice, there’s a balance. And like all good advice lists, I can’t tell you where it is. But I can say that while it’s not healthy to wallow in jealousy or regret over what “other couples have,” it’s also not good to pretend that your partner’s faith life doesn’t affect you. It’s only when you know what aspects of your faith and theirs are important that you can come up with ways for both of you to get your spiritual and marital needs met.
  1. Make some  church friends. If your partner isn’t religious or is going through a religious change, you’re going to need some church friends. You need people who can support you in your faith journey even when your spouse can’t. So if you’re not active in your church community, join an adult Sunday school class, a small group or just ask someone out for coffee. This is important self-care. I’ve seen more than one spouse feel guilty over the time they spend at church while their non-religious spouse is home. But healthy marriages thrive when people have time to do what’s important to them.
  1. Don’t pry, harangue or cajole. My favorite advice on interfaith marriages comes from the PC(USA) tradition:

A non-coercive, non-manipulative family environment is important to spiritual well-being. Striving for conversion of one spouse to the other’s faith does not encourage harmony.”

People need time and space to grow and this includes spiritual growth–constant pressure to change isn’t conducive to marital happiness or spiritual development for either of you. Your spiritual life can’t deepen if you’re obsessed with someone else’s spiritual life. And chances are, your spouse won’t be won over by yours (or anyone’s) begging. Does this mean you can’t share your faith? Or that you can’t hope that your partner will return to Christianity? (Or join it, as the case may be.) No, not at all. But the attitude should be one of sharing, not one of fixing.

4. Pray. Keep praying for yourself, your marriage and your spouse. None of us know the mysteries of grace and how Spirit will move. But we do trust that God changes hearts and minds. So by all means, pray for for you spouse to have an experience of God–not for your benefit but theirs. Pray that you’ll learn from your differences. Pray that your marriage could inspire others to love those who are different from them.

  1. Celebrate your marriage. This builds on my very first point. Once you’ve been realistic about the challenges, go ahead and celebrate the good parts. Just as there are unique challenges in a mixed-belief marriage, there are unique blessings. For me, it’s a tremendous gift to have someone with a drastically different worldview to talk about all the deep things with. It means I don’t become siloed in my Christian faith, something that would be all too easy to do. It also means that our daughter has a living, breathing example of how people with deeply held disagreements can work, love and live together.

Whether your spouse is of a different religious tradition, no religious tradition or the attends church with you every Sunday, chances are that at some point you’ll find yourself on different paths in your spiritual journeys. With a little intentionality and a lot of love, you can both love and support each other despite the differences.

When Words Fail

When Words Fail

It’s been one of those weeks when words just can’t keep up with my prayers. I, like you, find myself tripping over my concerns, my heart barely getting traction to lift up one thing when the next thing comes barreling down. Now, we know God hears all prayers–from the carefully worded prayers we pray in public to the unintelligible gasps of joy or sorrow in life’s deepest moments. So I’m not particularly worried about making sure God’s listening. But prayer also serves the purpose of letting God work in our spirits and in times like this, I need God’s deep peace–a peace I can’t rationalize or worry my way to. It’s not just that I need to voice my concerns to God, like a restaurant patron giving on order, I need to practice settling into God’s spirit.

With this in mind, I created a visualization prayer practice based on the idea of confidence. While Christian tradition does have some imaginative prayer traditions (by imaginative, I mean prayer practices that rely on picturing our prayers in some way or another), other traditions are richer in this way. Generally speaking, Christian tradition has been very heavy on words. So I based this practice on the format of loving-kindness meditation, which has it’s roots in Buddhism but actually came my way through the secular world as a practice to develop compassion and forgiveness. (Learn more at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center.) If you’re familiar with that practice, you’ll recognize the general flow of this prayer as you practice trusting God with gradually harder things.

Begin in a comfortable position. Many people find it helpful to sit with your feet on the ground, hands loosely in your lap, back straight. I’m not legalistic about this, if you do your best work sitting cross legged on the couch or laying on a yoga mat, do whatever signals to your mind that you’re settling in for a bit.

Picture first a person or situation that is bringing you joy. This might be a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend from church. It might also be an event: the family reunion, the church meeting you attended, the person who helped you when your car broke down. Picture the person or event in your mind. Know that God worked in that situation and as you feel this sense of trust in God’s work, imagine a circle of light surrounding the image in your mind. Say, “I trust God is working here.”

Holding onto that image, picture another person or situation that is bringing you joy. Add it to the circle of trust you’ve created in your mind. Holding onto your feelings of confidence in God’s work, say again, “I trust God is working here.”

Now bring to mind something that is neither challenging nor particularly awe inspiring–something that simply is in your life. Perhaps it’s work, or the laundry or a neighbor you don’t know well. Hold this thing or person in your mind’s eye and pull them into your circle of light and trust. Let that feeling of confidence spill over onto this thing as well until you can say, “I trust God is working here.”

Holding onto those images and that feeling of trust, turn your attention to a situation that is challenging you or causing you to feel a lack of peace. Picture that person or event in your mind. Without losing your sense of trust, add this new thing/person to this imaginative circle of light. Let your sense of confidence grow so that you can say, “I trust God is working here.”

You can repeat each of these steps as often as it’s helpful. Play around with different phrases that are helpful to you. You might try, “I send God’s peace to you.” Or, “I see God’s light in you.” The overall goal is to lift up these things to God but also to practice letting go and experiencing peace.

Let me know how it goes for you–or if you have other imaging prayer practices that you use!

Making Peace with Prayer

Making Peace with Prayer

Martha McMarthason (not her real name) was the queen of prayer in my small hometown. “I’ll pray for you,” was her answer for everything. I don’t know whether she did–although I always suspected she didn’t. Instead, she wielded these words like a weapon, shutting down everyone who said or did something she didn’t approve of.

“I haven’t seen you in church in a while. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw you eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw your child eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”

I tried it out myself for a while (mostly on my siblings) and am both exhilarated and ashamed to report that “I’ll pray for you” is the most effective way to end an argument.

“You borrowed my red sweater without asking!”
“You should learn to be more generous. I’ll pray for you.”

There is a tremendous amount of power that goes along with this phrase. However, even my adolescent self recognized that it was a low-down move, the ultimate in unfair fighting, a way of co-opting God to prove your holier-than-thou status.

Uneasy with this power–and the implied judgement–I stopped sharing my prayers with people. The phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” simply had too much baggage. Even as a chaplain and then in my first church, I choked over the words. “I’m thinking of you,” was so much easier to say.

I could, after all, pray for someone without necessarily telling them about it–thereby sparing myself and them the embarrassment of wrestling with this loaded phrase. Better still, I could quote the Bible while I did it.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, shut your door and pray to the Father who is unseen.

It was only later that I realized that boldly proclaiming our prayers can be an act of comfort and love, not just an act of superiority. Naturally, I learned this the same way I learned the first lesson–through personal experience.

If you’ve ever had someone pray for you–really, truly pray for you–you know what I mean. There are some people who say “I’ll pray for you” and this simple utterance feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket. The words themselves become a prayer, a promise that they value you enough to use precious time with God talking about you.

Rather than the sense of certainty that Martha McMarthason imposed with her judgemental prayers, real prayer is laden with risk. When I dare to say to someone now, “I’ll pray for you,” the power comes not from my superiority as a praying person but from my vulnerability as a person of faith. Every time I dare to offer prayer, I am reminded that ultimately I don’t know if the prayers will be answered, if the person I’m speaking to will want my prayers or even if God exists. These are all questions that touch on the great mysteries of life and faith–which is why offering to pray for another is such a powerful act of love. When we do it sincerely, we put our whole selves on the line.

And when someone takes you seriously enough to risk an act of faith on your behalf, that’s great love indeed.

I spend a lot of time talking with folks who have been wounded by church and the topic of prayer is a hot one. It seems I’m not the only person who had a Martha McMarthason in their life–someone who wielded prayer like a sword instead of a balm. Those wounds cut deep. And often, it seems, our response is to distance ourselves from the entire act. We stop sharing our prayers with each other because we associate it with judgement, not love.

But I believe this is precisely why we need to reclaim all this prayer business. We need to reclaim it as an act of faith: risky, vulnerable and built on love. I know, the idea makes some of you shudder. Acts of faith are that way. And I don’t really have anything riding on whether you pray or not, I’m just offering this invitation: once I experienced real prayer, in real praying communities, I discovered a new depth of faith and relationship.

I still feel that old hesitancy every time I offer prayers for someone but now I take it as a good sign. After all, prayer shouldn’t be flippant, or easy or–least of all–judgmental. Those of us who know this may be the best people to take on the task after all.

What We Mean When We Talk About Sin and Salvation

What We Mean When We Talk About Sin and Salvation

Holy Week has arrived with all of its theological baggage.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love Holy Week. It’s one of those times in the year when we immerse ourselves in the stories, discovering that no matter how many times we tell and retell them, there’s always more to discover. But for many people, Holy Week also brings with it memories of guilt-laden, gore-filled teachings meant to impose the sense of seriousness and moral responsibility necessary to fully appreciate the grace of Easter. Sadly, for many, this leads to the arrival of Easter with a sense of dread and confusion rather than a sense of joy and celebration.

I’m going to be completely blunt: a theology that emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus as the central event in God’s salvific work is weak theology. It’s theology meant to justify a horrible act and to relieve us from any responsibility besides simply “believing in it.” Jesus did suffer, excruciatingly. And yes, I believe that hearing and understanding this story is crucial to fully appreciating Easter—but not for the reason of proving our faith is “the right one” or boosting numbers of converts saved from certain hellfire.

That being said, the Easter story is undoubtedly one of sin and salvation, for those who followed Jesus then and for those who follow Jesus now. So as we move towards Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I’m unpacking some of the things we say this time of year. My hope is that by placing these ideas in the broader, richer context of Christian tradition we might experience Easter in a way that is fresh, unencumbered and transformative.  Here goes:

Jesus died for our sins.

The story of Jesus betrayal, arrest and crucifixion is absolutely a story of human sinfulness. It’s the story of people seeking power over justice and security over mercy. From Jesus’ friends who failed to stand with him, to the people who shouted “crucify him,” to the authorities that conspired in the night to execute an innocent man, all participated in the crucifixion. And when we look in the mirror and confront our deepest truths, we know we’re still part of the same systems. We might not have participated directly in that event 2000 years ago but we participate every single day by the choices we make and the harder choices we refuse to make. To the extent that Jesus is with the oppressed, as he himself says he is and will be, he continues to die because of our sins.

We are saved by Jesus’ death.

Often when we talk about salvation we’re talking about salvation from hell after death. There is certainly some biblical instruction that supports this but it’s an incomplete view. When we look to the broader context of the biblical teaching, we see that salvation begins now. It begins with learning to be people of hope rather than people of fear. The fact that this path can lead to death is a sign of the seriousness of choice we must make when we decide to follow Jesus.

I don’t know what happens after we die but I can say this: I’ve experienced the deep love of God in Jesus. Because of that, I trust that whatever happens, it will be consistent with a God who is good and loving and merciful.

Jeus is a sacrifice/God sent Jesus to die and/or God came to earth in the person of Jesus in order to die

Jesus did not come to die. His life wasn’t lived out simply so that he could be a “pure sacrifice.” Jesus came to show us the Way and to invite us into deeper living. His life stands on its own. Now it certainly seems that Jesus knew that his way of life would lead to his death. (He’d have to be crazy not to know this—people who challenge power don’t live long.) The sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life isn’t that he was led to slaughter like a lamb but that he chose to follow God’s way even when it became dangerous. 

The Resurrection proves that Christianity is the Right Religion and/or proves that Jesus was God and/or proves that Jesus was God’s sacrifice and/or proves anything else we try to prove

Look, the Resurrection doesn’t prove anything because we can’t prove the Resurrection. There was time in my life when I would fight tooth and nail to argue that a bodily resurrection happened. And then there was a time when I would fight tooth and nail to prove that a bodily resurrection didn’t happen. Now, I tend to stay out of the debate all together, not because I don’t care about the Resurrection but because these debates are too often a distraction from the actual Good News.

Somehow, in some way, Jesus’ followers experienced him alive again. And with that experience came a renewed commitment to following him. But the wonder of it all doesn’t stop there because ever since then, Jesus followers have continued to experience him alive again.  We don’t have to understand this but we do have the joy of learning to trust it.

My frustration with all the ways we tie ourselves in knots about the Resurrection is that it robs us of the joy of simply experiencing it and being transformed by it. That’s the mark of this Easter faith—that we trust something as completely ridiculous and completely unprovable as the idea that God is moving in ways we cannot fathom. And that part of God’s promise to us when we choose to follow the revolutionary way of love and peace is that while it may very well be dangerous, death is not and will not be the end.

Sabbath in the Modern World

Sabbath in the Modern World

A lover of all things “old-fashioned” as a child, I read and re-read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Most of it struck me as idyllic and charming. Getting water from the well? How lovely. Playing ball with an inflated pig’s bladder? How sweet. Watching as Ma and Pa stood watch at night while the wolves howled outside? How brave.

My infatuation with their pioneer life was tempered by only one thing: their draconian observance of the Sabbath. I read Little House in the Big Woods with horror as Laura described a whole day filled with sitting quietly:

Every Sunday Mary and Laura were dressed from the skin out in their best clothes, with fresh ribbons in their hair. They were clean, because they had their baths on Saturday night. On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.

Thank heavens I was born into a modern family with a spotty record of church attendance. I was free to spend Sundays just like every other day. When my family later joined the local Congregational United Church of Christ church, I was relieved to discover they’d changed quite a bit since Laura’s Congregational days–my high school self might have appreciated a day of sleeping in but not the legalism of requiring it.

This view persisted well into adulthood. Really, it persisted up until a few months ago, when I began to feel an internal craving to “get away.” It didn’t feel like stress or overwork. I didn’t want a vacation or even a lazy day of lounging. I thought about those things, I did. But they went down the way it does when you’re desperately thirsty and someone offers you soda. They didn’t quench the thirst. What I needed was something real. I needed rest.

This wasn’t a craving for physical rest. I’ve been physically exhausted before, this wasn’t that. I needed a rest for the soul. Mainly, I needed a rest from a cultural and internal pressure to “produce.” I needed it particularly around my writing.

Like so many creative endeavors, writing started for me as a hobby. It was, in itself, rejuvenating. I etched out my first article in 20 minute bursts while my toddler napped, or in the margins of pages when work meetings became unproductive. For my birthday in 2009, I lugged my laptop to a coffee shop and spent the day pounding out my thoughts. I composed an email to an editor, hit send and came home exhilarated.

But there’s a thing that happens when you try to turn a hobby into a business. Suddenly, the hobby is a job, which takes an entirely different mindset. Surprisingly, the place where I was starting to feel pressure was around this blog—which is tiny, in the grand scheme of the internet, and isn’t monetized in anyway. There was no earthly reason to feel any pressure around it. And yet I did. The very thing that had once been a form of rejuvenation for me had become a chore. What was once a hobby I yearned for had become a goal I had to achieve; instead of increasing my happiness, it was decreasing it.

It had become about production.

So on a whim, I started out 2017 by deciding to take a break from writing and all writing-related activities, including research and maintaining social media accounts (which I don’t do particularly well but always worry about how I should do more). I would go on sabbatical, which is rooted in the idea of Sabbath—a faithful discipline of rest.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggeman highlights the countercultural mandate of resting every seven days. It’s not, as I always thought, so much about “God rested so we have to as well.” Instead, it’s more like, “God got to rest so we get to as well.” God stopped producing. And we, too, small humans, can stop producing.

Brueggeman says it this way:

That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, b) that YWHW is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.

We all have different things we love, different work we do and different productivity traps we fall into. Whatever it is for each of us, a regular observation of Sabbath times reminds us that the world doesn’t depend on our production levels. The sun doesn’t rise or fall on whether I blog, whether I submit my allotted articles a month, whether I reach my designated word count. It doesn’t even revolve on whether I weigh in on the political hurricane we’re watching. (And believe me, I have mental pages and pages of things I’d like to say about that. In fact, the closest I came to breaking my sabbatical was out of a desire to save the world with my words—an idea that is embarrassingly arrogant to write down.)

Sabbath puts us in our place.

Sabbath reminds us of the simple truth that we’re not God. As people of faith, this seems obvious. All religious traditions, simply by proclaiming that there is a God also assert that we are not it. We say it all the time. But until we really challenge ourselves to put it in practice, we’ll keep putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

This is why a regular time of ritualized rest is so important. Disciplining ourselves to rest regularly gives us the opportunity to literally embody our faith. For a brief period of time, we get respite from the pressures to “do” something. We get to simply experience what it’s like to “be.”

This is perhaps more in line with what the prophet Isaiah says:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;  then you shall take delight in the Lord

It is not that God will punish us if we don’t observe the Sabbath but that the observation of prayerful rest will lead us into deeper faith. If we learn to practice simply “being,” rather than in producing, our delight in God’s grace will grow and grow.

So I’m not sure how my practice of Sabbath will move forward. What I am clear about is that it does need to move forward. I’d love to hear how practices of prayerful rest take shape in your life—all words of wisdom are welcome here!

Hoping for Hope: A Meditation on Advent

Hoping for Hope: A Meditation on Advent

In 20 days, the days will start getting longer.

It feels pretty dark right now, with a bleak November casting its darkness into the holiday season. Some years it’s harder than others to believe that the light is coming again and this has been one of those years. We’d be forgiven if we temporarily forgot that the light always wins. That, in fact, the light is already winning.

sunrise

The trajectory of the earth in its orbit assures us that the days will get longer again. The sun will shine brighter, longer and warmer. The lingering cold will eventually be pushed away by light so abundant that we will forget we ever feared for its loss. We will delight, once again, in the early seedlings of spring as they push their way through still-frozen earth.

In some Christian traditions, Advent is observed in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s described as a season of waiting. But that’s not quite right. December is not just for waiting, it’s for longing.

It’s for reaching towards a hope we’d almost stopped believing in. It’s for reminding ourselves that the light comes back, that love can’t be stopped, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and that even when things seems bleak, hope is hovering just over the horizon.

Sometimes, when the darkness comes too early and stays too late, we cannot find it in ourselves to hope for the light itself. We have to instead hope for the hope. That’s the best way I can describe longing–hoping for the hope. Holding on to the shred of a ray of light, of a baby born in a manger, of experiences of Love that are so intense that we have dared to claim that God walked among us.

So if this year the tinsel looks like empty promises, or the Christmas lights gleam like shallow smiles, then I will not tell you to have hope. I will tell you instead to have longing. Long for the song of the angels to return. Long for all the childish dreams you gave up long ago, of the fairy magic of Christmas to illuminate dark corners. Long for the crazy words of biblical prophets, for nonsense about Messiahs and Kingdoms of God and wolves lying with lambs on this very earth. Long for the things we sing in hymns on Sunday but can’t quite believe on Monday morning.

Long for these things because longing is the work of preparing the soul for hope.

hope-is-the-thing-with-wings

If “hope is the thing with feathers,” then longing is the work of building a nest. It is the work of pulling the thin threads of promise together with the brittle sticks of despair so that, in time, hope can take residence again.

And this is where we have to be clear that Advent is not for waiting. It’s not for wait-and-see, or hope-for-the-best. It is for crying out with the Psalmist, “I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.”

March will come, metaphorically and in real time. It will come with a promise of spring but also with its fierce storms and unpredictable winds. And we will be there, ready to do the work of hope then because we have done the work of Advent now. 

So if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heavyness. In that depth, you will find longing and that will be your way forward.