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Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Christmas is an Act of Subversion

Last Sunday our church had its Christmas pageant. The children dressed up in homemade robes with rope belts and paraded down the aisle. They were adorable in their innocence and my heart overflowed, as it does every year, when the story came to life in their sweet little faces.

I love this tradition. Quite frankly, it’s adorable. What’s not to love? Bonus–it also has theological meaning and it serves a pedagogical purpose. My dream would be to do more church-wide pageants for children.

But.

I’m also aware that this lovely tradition carries with it a danger: we cute-sy up the Christmas story. By making it a feel-good story for children, we put it on the level of all of our other Christmas stories. Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Polar Express. All are cute stories that leave us filled with Christmas cheer and a sense of sweet happiness.

But the nativity story was never a feel-good story.

When Matthew and Luke recorded their versions of Jesus birth, they did so with a particular purpose: to demonstrate that Jesus, born to Joseph and Mary, was the Christ, the King, the Messiah. This wasn’t a cute story, this was a subversive one.

Right from the angels’ announcements to Mary and Joseph, we see God’s agenda is to overturn the world order as we know it. Listen to how Mary responds, not with meekness, but with the rallying cry that God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

While we’re oohing and aaahing over the cuddly sheep in the field, with shimmering angels illuminated by a twinkling star, we should be asking ourselves a different question: What if the angels brought the good news to the lowly shepherds because these were the only people who would perceive it as good news? The rest of them, safe and warm in their homes and palaces, wouldn’t so much rise to shout with joy as rise up in anger. News that the last will be coming in first isn’t good news for everyone.

See, when we’re on the side of the proud and the powerful, we’re on the losing side of this proclamation. We’re the ones in danger of being scattered, brought down and sent away empty—and that’s when the Good News of Christmas becomes distinctly bad news. The only way to hear this message as the Gospel, which literally means good news, is to take the side of the poor, the lost, the disenfranchised.

Christmas is ultimately about making a choice. It’s our yearly opportunity to decide which gospel we’re ready to believe in. Are we placing our hopes in the cute-sy baby Jesus of the nativity play? The one who makes us feel warm, cozy and safe? Or are we placing our hopes in the revolutionary God who dared to overturn our world order—which is anything but safe?

It’s easy, of course, to say the latter. With the daily deluge of tragic news from around the world, our souls hunger for the world-changing God. But I am reminded that choosing that gospel requires setting aside our own hopes and dreams in favor of the larger promise of justice and mercy for all of humanity. It requires the daily sacrifice of making the choice against our own self-interest in favor of the World’s.

This is where the going gets tough.

But it’s also where the joy of Christmas comes most alive. While the Christmas story might challenge us to get outside ourselves, it also reminds us that the revolution doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone. That, in fact, the most revolutionary act of all has already taken place. Sure, we’re called to live into this Christmas promise of peace on earth. We’re called to work as hard as we can toward that coming reality. But we’re not called to bear the burden on our own.

So as we move toward our Christmas celebrations, may we feel both challenged and renewed. My we all find ourselves searching for the difference we can make in the world, stretching and yearning for a promise that was given long ago. And may we also find ourselves doing this not out of fear but out of joy and hope.

That One Time, When I Was A Mess

That One Time, When I Was A Mess

The fact that I was at a MOPS meeting was a complete surprise to me.  I drove there and signed myself in, of course, but it was so removed from my normal behavior that it felt of an out-of-body experience.  Even now, that memory is tinged with a hazy yellow, like someone has overlaid the “halcyon days” filter. 

I went because my neighbor invited me.  She seemed nice and fairly normal. I was new to the area and desperate for friends.  Peering through my front windows anxiously waiting for a neighbor to emerge so I could “just happen” to wander outside is a slow way to make friends.  Even so, I wasn’t really expecting much.  “I’ll go for a meeting or two,” I told my husband. My experience of people who were in MOPS was that they were out of my league, with their 5 kids and their memorized scriptures and their adorable crafts.  Clearly, it wasn’t a group I’d join, with my progressive Jesus, my 1 kid and my lack of scrapbooking ability. 

This is not the first time that I have done something out of character in the wake of a move.  Moves throw me off balance.  While some people eagerly welcome the chance to delve deep into a new place, I like my home and my identity to stay intact.  Changing places makes me feel like I don’t belong, which causes me to rush for safety like a moth seeking the light of a flame. 

If you’ve avoided MOPS your whole life, let me tell you that a central part of the meeting experience is “joys and challenges.”  This is the time when everyone writes down a joy and a challenge from their week.  The idea filled me with dread.  Share details from my life with 7 strangers?  Nope.  But of course it’s sort of a “thing” and I couldn’t really get out of doing it.    

“I’m happy that my daughter is settling in well at school.  My challenge is that I’m new to the area and still feeling unsettled.” I said cheerily. Everyone smiled and nodded.

I got by with variations of that theme for the next couple weeks until a crisis hit my extended family. That night at our meeting, without even meaning to, I blurted out the entire story.  Then I cried.  Then I left and felt like an idiot.  The old me would never have shared this kind of info with people I was just meeting.  This new me, the one I was becoming in this place, wasn’t someone I wanted to know.  She was out of control, a complete mess and kind of a downer.

It’s taken me nearly two years to write about this experience because I still don’t like the memory. Good heavens, it was bad enough to live through once; I don’t want to have it widely known that I once broke down in public with strangers. 

Fitness instructors are fond of pointing out that your body only changes when you push past your comfortable limits.  You need to shake things up.  Work harder, work faster or try another sport if you’ve plateaued in your pursuit of the perfect weight.  We need to shatter our myths about ourselves in order to become a deeper version of who we already… Click To Tweet

Maybe the same is true for our souls.  We need to experience change—and the real, messy uncertainty that goes along with it—in order to grow.  We need to shatter our myths about ourselves in order to become a deeper version of who we already are.  We need to discover that the world doesn’t fall apart just because we do. 

I received many gifts from that MOPS group. New friends, professional contacts, interesting workshops and two amazing mentor moms. But what I remember most is that time I fell apart, with near- strangers, and was still invited back. Soul-stretched, imperfect and all wrong–but welcomed anyway.

Celebrating Easter in a Mixed Belief Marriage

Celebrating Easter in a Mixed Belief Marriage

The spring sun is streaming through the sliding glass door as I write on my yellow legal pad. Outside, I can hear the prairie dogs giving their early morning squeals of delight. Spring always washes over my soul with a combination of exuberance and relief. This has more to do with the short days of winter than actual cold—our winters have been so mild lately, we barely get to play in the snow, much less become sick of it. But the short days and deep, dark nights wear me out in a way that defies explanation.

It’s no wonder we celebrate Easter at this time. It would be nearly impossible to rush into spring without some celebration of God’s grace complete with all the symbols of new life. I know, we’re all a little confused about what eggs and rabbits have to do with Jesus but you know what, I just don’t care. I’m in love with the whole shebang. Resurrection tinges our whole life with new meaning and if that lets us see an ordinary breakfast food as a riotous celebration of creation then I’m in favor.

My husband, well, that’s a different story. I suspect Easter marks for him the occasion of being dragged to church and forced to sit through a boring service in uncomfortable clothes. Unlike the children, who probably experience it the same way, he doesn’t even have the lure of a post-service Easter egg hunt to get him through. There is no whispering to a grown man, “Sit still, there’s cake after church!”

But there we’ll be on Easter Sunday, me in front corralling the Sunday School children and him in the pew, corralling our child and smiling through it all. This is the dance of our marriage: I’m religious and he’s not. By “I’m religious,” I mean, “I’m actually ordained” so it’s not just that I’m more spiritual than my husband in some amorphous way, my calling requires some real commitment from all of us.

Usually at this point, I’m asked “how does that work!?” with perhaps an incredulous gasp. The short answer is that it works fine. We’re far more likely to argue about my vegetarian cooking tendencies and his need for meat (and lots of it) than our differing theological views. Our faith differences are simply something we exist in.  

Of course, there’s still a part of me that envies the adorable church couples I know, the ones who serve on all the committees together and then go out for Sunday brunch afterwards. But then I also envy the adorable non-church couples I know, the ones who spend Sunday mornings sleeping in and reading the paper on their couch with large mugs of coffee. The grass is always greener on the other side and right now, I’m in the middle of two fields.

Our field is a little muddier, I suppose. We straddle the ditch, soaking up the run-off from both sides. It’s messy, yes. But it’s also fertile ground. Living with someone whose faith (or non-faith) differs from your own makes you both humble and brave. I am stopped daily from assuming that my white-suburban-woman-Christian way of viewing the world is the one and only way of seeing the world. Yet, I am also learning to hold my beliefs proudly, even when not safely ensconced among “the church crowd.” Spend 18 years with an atheist and you’ll discover they’re not all out to get you.

I don’t need to point out to any of you that our world is increasingly polarized. By all appearances, we’ve lost the ability to disagree without demonizing each other. We categorize ourselves into neat little boxes, seeing everyone outside those boxes as “the opposition,” and believe that anything short of getting exactly what we want is losing. We’ve lost the entire art of conversation and inquiry.

At the same time, our world is shrinking. Diversity in America is on the rise as we become a more mobile world. We’re connected to people across the globe through technology—being exposed to their views, needs and hopes virtually if not in person. Clearly, shutting down and refusing to acknowledge “the other” is not a viable option. And, I would argue, neither is fighting tooth and nail for “the other” to become more like us.

This is the gift of mixed-belief marriage. It’s also the gift of interfaith marriage, mixed-political marriages and mixed-race marriages. These are the places where people are given the opportunity to learn what it is to love across boundaries. More than that, the waves of people they touch are given the opportunity to love across boundaries. Given the increase of mixed-belief marriages in recent years, I’d say we’re all standing on the edge of a transformation. We’re witnessing to and creating a changing world, one in which the rules of both love and religion are changing.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about mixed-belief marriage. I’ll be delving into a little bit more of the nitty-gritty. What’s hard? What’s works? How do we navigate holidays, spiritual practices at home, raising a daughter, career issues? And what about that Bible passage about being unequally yoked? For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: I believe in an Easter God. I believe in a God who is working through bunnies, colored eggs and empty tombs. I believe that in the hands of this God, all sorts of mundane and messy things become holy. And I believe that’s equally true of our relationships with one another, whether they fit into a neat box or not.  

When Belief Isn’t Enough

When Belief Isn’t Enough

I spent Earth Day 2015 outside. Having decided that I wanted more gardening space for tomatoes, I dug up part of our lawn. This part was easier than I thought it would be. In my exuberance, I overloaded the wheelbarrow with sod and wasn’t able to move it, so I texted my husband with this little honey-do for his evening. Then I surveyed the backyard.

It was April, so the weeds were taking over. They were poking out everywhere, including in between the stones of our flagstone patio. Why they are able to grow in that gravel is beyond me. They were also growing in the grass and despite the layers of plastic weed barrier and mulch, they were growing in the borders along the house. Weeds everywhere. With the still-dormant brown grass everywhere, our house looked trashy and unkempt, not at all lovely and spring-ish.

There was only one solution. I stomped into the garage, my happy go-lucky “I’m going to nurture a garden” attitude gone. High up on the ancient refrigerator that stores extra frozen food and home brewed beer, sits an old bottle of Round-Up. I remembered my husband bought it once in a similar fit of irritation at a patch of steadily advancing thistles.

The irony of spraying a wide swath of “Round-Up Extra Strength Kill Everything in Sight” on Earth Day did not escape me. That I was doing this while pondering what earth-related prayer I might do with my daughter to celebrate the day and also meet my self-imposed blogging deadline did not escape me either.

Apparently, no matter how fervently you believe in taking care of the planet, earth stewardship, creation justice and all those fancy words we religious folks like to throw around, you can be pushed over the edge by too many weeds, too little time and the slightest sense of despair lingering right around the corner.

It’s a parable of sorts, a reminder that “belief” is not enough as long as it stays an intellectual experience.

No matter how passionately we believe something, if that belief is mostly in our heads, it doesn’t really matter. We can talk all day about what we believe: God, Jesus, love the whole bit. We can craft creeds and mission statements and we can make people say them or else. But beliefs need to be held loosely so as not to choke the power out them. They need to be given room to grow wings and fly into the wind. Once they are held so tightly that they become the very focus of our faith, then they lose the power to change us.  Look, I have this belief in a lovely cage. See how pretty it is?

Faith needs room

I have long been a critic of traditions that place too much emphasis on belief and not enough on trust. Beliefs were never meant to be a litmus test for godliness, they were an invitation to know deeper. They were a starting point that lead to a relationship, a pointer if you will, not The Thing Itself.

We can blame language and translation issues for part of the problem. There’s a bit of evidence that the original Greek for belief held more of this idea. Faith, trust, abide, even. Belief is a starting point and a resting place, not the destination. You don’t get there and stop, you get there and start.

(Well now, this sounds all harsh and judge-y. Sorry. You can remind yourself that I was the one spraying Round-Up on Earth Day.)

Really, though, it’s not really meant to be judge-y. It’s meant to be an invitation. Let’s start here, together. Let’s start with what we believe about weeds and fruits, earth and God and then move forward. Let’s start with what we believe today and then see where that takes us tomorrow. Let’s let our beliefs fly, like butterflies discovering new wings. Who knows, we might just believe ourselves into a better world.

Path

Linking up today with #wholemama. Check out some other takes on “belief.” (You have to click the frog to see the other bloggers.

When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

When Life Has Become Boring (a #wholemama post)

The boy was eight years old. He was one of those precocious types. “Smart as a whip,” as the older members of the congregation used to say. “Full of energy,” they would also say. These things were both true.

In addition to being smart and full of energy, he had a certain capacity for getting his way. “Tell it again,” he would demand every Sunday morning and because I believed in following the children’s interests and cultivating their passions, I would oblige.

“One day, Moses was on the mountain when he saw a burning bush. He went closer and heard a voice telling him to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground.”

“We should be taking off our shoes in church.” The boy announced one day. He announced it as certainly as he announced anything else. “This is a holy place.”

Well, of course church seems like a holy place to a child, especially perhaps a child in this church, where the congregants were fiercely proud of their historic church building and talked often about what a special place it was. It is not really unusual for a child to take the holiness of church as a given fact. Children typically know these things about church:

  •                 God loves them and is with them always.
  •                 The stories in the Bible are important
  •                 The answer to any question during the children’s sermon is “Jesus.”

And, of course, the church is a holy place.

So what was surprising about this little person’s observation wasn’t that he believed the church was holy, it was that he demanded that we act in a way that was in line with our beliefs. His logic could be mapped out with the precision of an algebraic equation. If church is holy and the Bible is true then we ought to be taking off our shoes. It checks out.

Bush

As adults, we also have a series of beliefs. For many of us, they are things like this:

  •                 Make the most of each moment.
  •                 The simple life is best.
  •                 Love each other.
  •                 God is with us always.
  •                 There is holiness in the ordinary.

These are good beliefs. We don’t have any trouble believing them, really.  Our challenge is acting in line with them. We have the tendency to forget these things in our normal, everyday life. We forget them because, after living the same story over and over again, we stop finding it interesting. No one ever wakes up and says, “Oh yes! Tell me the story again of how I get to get up and go to work!” Instead, we are more prone to finding that in their familiarity our stories have become boring.

This is normal and human and probably rooted in some practicality.  We can’t wake up every single morning and naively ponder the magic of the washing machine, nothing would ever get done. But sometimes we go the other way. We become bored with our sameness, our ordinary routines. We become listless and even depressed. We feel irrelevant to this great big world, as though our ordinariness is synonymous with meaninglessness.

Last week I stumbled on a little memory garden tucked in the corner of a local park. There was a small spiral walkway made up of bricks. Each brick held the name of a person, assumedly someone being honored with a donation to the project. In the center was a large brick bearing this quote by Anna Quindlan:

Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittery mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to live, really live…to love the journey, not the destination.

I took a picture of it because I love Anna Quindlan and also I desperately need this reminder. The truth is, I am reeling from the realization that I am fairly ordinary. In our young adult years when everything is ahead of us and dreams are cheap, we rest our identity in the fact that we will change the world. Then we grow and realize that following our dreams means making trade-offs.   It is suddenly much, much harder than we once thought it would be.

This is why we must constantly be reminding ourselves of the holy bits of treasure buried in familiar pathways. Otherwise, this would be the end. We would look at the long, gray walk ahead of us and become discouraged from believing that we matter at all. We would sit down and cry, convinced we’ll never reach the end (however we’re measuring that) and simply stop trying.

Path

Friends, I’m not really telling you anything you don’t know. I’m simply saying that if, like me, you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer ordinariness of your life that you take a few minutes to recalculate. I’m saying that sometimes, we don’t need anything outside of the life we already have; we just need to balance the equation. If God is with us and there is holiness in the ordinary, then you matter just as you are—boring, mundane, you, right now, walking whatever boring, mundane path is ahead of you. And if this is all true, then the solution to ordinariness isn’t to walk faster, it’s to walk slower. As slowly, perhaps, as if you’d taken off your shoes and were wandering around barefoot.


I’m writing again this week with the #wholemama group.  There is so much good stuff here.  And while I’m truly terrible at managing my social media profiles, I’ll keep posting a few of my favorites to my Facebook page so if you don’t make it to Esther’s site, you can check out a curated version there.

wholemama

Someone is holding my faith

Someone is holding my faith

Someone I love is really, really struggling right now. My heart hurts so bad that my head hurts. It’s throbbing as I type.

I was telling myself all the right things. I was praying. I was reminding myself to trust. I was helping where I could and not getting sucked into more than I can do. I was doing all the right things for myself. Really and truly, textbook self-care for difficult times. Unfortunately that didn’t stop the grief from hitting. Oh my dear God, the fear and terror and sadness and lack of control and even more worrisome: emptiness. Like I just couldn’t quite get a feel for where God was in all of this.

faith-rock-150x150

My mom has a rock like this. Actually, hers is greenish but I didn’t think to take a picture of it when all this was going down. It wasn’t a picture moment. My mom’s rock sits on her windowsill as a reminder. She picked it up the other day and said, “Would someone else take this and pray? I’m really struggling to have faith.” I took it and said, “Sure, I’ll hold your faith for you.” It was actually meant to be kind of funny but it ended up being profound.

“Thank you.” She said. “I need someone to do that right now.”

Well, then I felt like a fraud. Do prayers prayed by someone who isn’t sure she’s even connecting with God go anywhere? I did pray but I wasn’t sure God was still on the line. Like the call had dropped and I was just chattering away to empty air.

Then I sat with a group of women and said, “I’m so worried.” When they asked what they could do, I surprised myself by saying, “Pray.” When they agreed it was like a cool breeze floated over me, refreshing and welcome. When one woman shared her own struggle and offered words of hope and faith from a place deep inside her, my tears of fear became tears of gratitude and I felt genuinely refreshed.

As I left that room and marveled at what had happened, I realized what it was. They had held my faith for me.

There’s more to come in this story. I’m sure of it, in ways good and bad. But for now I’m just so amazingly grateful to have the burden taken off for just a little bit. I’m so amazingly grateful for all the people that God sends to hold our faith when we’re just too worried or consumed or empty to hold it ourselves.

An idea for the day: List the people who have been faith holders for you. Send one of them a note letting them know how much you appreciate their help. Or, reach out to someone who you know needs a faith-holder right now. Call, email or text them a word of encouragement.

Loving, giving, faithful God, thank you for the people you’ve sent into my life to be faith-holders. Thank you, too, for the times you’ve allowed me to be a faith-holder for someone else. For all those in need of faith-holders today, I ask your blessing. For those capable of being a faith-holder right now, I ask your blessing. May these people find each other. Amen