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The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

Christmas Eve in 2006 fell on a Sunday.  The air crackled with the excitement of the children as the congregation gathered for church that morning.  As was our custom, I started the service by asking if there was anything people would like to pray for.  One girl, a quiet, reflective preschooler, raised her hand.

“I’d like to pray for Santa Claus.”  She paused, looking up quickly at my face. “Because it’s very cold out and his job is dangerous.”  Her little voice was quiet but resolute as she made her request.

Now, I was fresh out of seminary and pretty determined to do everything right.  Like many before me, I was going to save humanity with my passion for properness.  I would gather God’s people as I preached the right sermons, led the right Bible studies and wrote the right liturgies. Praying for a fictional character clearly missed the mark.  

My mind whirled. What would people think of me as I prayed for Santa Claus and his non-existent journey around the world?  What would God think of me? Could I cover it with a more general prayer for all of those who faced danger that night?  One glance at the girl’s concerned face told me that I could not.  Her trust was in a God who would protect Santa Claus and a church who would deliver that prayer.

So, in between offering thanks for a family visit and  asking for healing for a sick parent, I prayed for the safe journey of a jolly red man delivering presents by flying sleigh.  

Buried beneath that sentence was a silent, fervent prayer that God would forgive me for wasting God’s time.  And buried deep beneath that was a lurking fear that I had committed sacrilege, taken Christ out of Christmas and given into satanic forces by idolizing Santa. (After all, if you rearrange the letters, they spell Satan.)  The fires of hell were probably being stoked in that very instant.  

I should have, I supposed, figured out a way to be a better gatekeeper, to manage the child’s concerns without interrupting the important work of Ruling the Universe.

But you don’t need me to tell you that there’s a Bible story exactly like that.  It’s about the gatekeepers, worried that children’s petty concerns would get in the way of Jesus’ important work.  To which he says, “they are my important work.”

There are sometimes small moments in which you realize that your theology needs shaking up and for me this was one of them.  Somehow, in my core, my belief in God had gotten tangled up with some pretty shady theology. While I would have said I believed in a loving, inclusive, expansive God, inwardly I was still afraid of a judging, exclusive, proper God. You know, the kind of god cares more about what we say when we pray than where our hearts are. The kind who’s more concerned that our prayers are Good and Right and preferably in King James English than that they’re heartfelt moments of connection and opportunities for a developing relationship.

I suppose it’s not enough to offer a full theology of prayer based on the simple fact that I wasn’t struck by lightning in the process of praying a completely useless prayer. Still, I can say that God was in that moment. And if God was in that silly, awkward church-blooper moment, than I suppose we might find God in all sorts of prayers–the poorly thought out, the desperate tumble of words, the dumbstruck silence and even the proper, stilted, struggling version of those of us who still aim to Do It Right.

When I remember that day, I am reminded that people of faith have a sacred trust. Whether it’s with our family, our friends or our church, when we claim to be praying people we have an obligation to follow through. But that’s the only obligation we have.

We don’t have to figure out how prayer works. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t have to determine who else is worthy. We simply have to uphold our end of the deal: to take it to God.

All these years later, I still take that as a both an awesome challenge and a great comfort.

 

 

Your Story is My Story

Your Story is My Story

Your story is my story

I grew up hearing family stories around the dinner table.  Alright, it wasn’t all smiles and rainbows.  There was also spilled milk, sibling rivalry and gagging over vegetables.  Around all that, though, there were stories about our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our parents.  And we soaked them up.  (My sister went on to teach college history.  If that’s not proof that we soaked it up, I don’t know what is.)  And me…well, I went into the story telling business.  Long, long before I took up writing here, that’s what I was doing.  I was telling stories and the stories I was telling were true ones.  They were stories about life, God and all the things in between.

This is why I was surprised by a two conversations I recently had about writing.  In both, people expressed a certain apprehension.  There were compliments, but of the puzzled kind, about the whole blogging thing.  In the end, I was given credit for being brave enough to share my deepest thoughts and stories with the world.  Then it was my turn to be puzzled.

See, I never thought I was sharing my deepest stories.  I’ve been sharing our deepest stories.  Yours and mine, I mean.

The struggles of parenthood?  Finding our purpose?  Looking for something sacred while staring at a to-do list of dirty laundry, broken dishwashers and jobs that pay the bills but don’t provide much else in the way of life satisfaction?  Those are universal struggles.  They are struggles of every single human who has every lived.

I’m not doing anything new here.  My life isn’t glitzy or star-studded, it’s not unique and it’s really only special (to me, anyway) because I’m living it. My writing isn’t about letting you peak into my life, as though you need an added bit of entertainment, it’s about inviting you to peak into your own lives, as though they are endless windows into the sacred, just waiting to be discovered.  Because they are.  Your life, as it is, is a window into the sacred.

Your life2

Another way to look at it is through the lens of what church-nerds call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. (Makes you want to run right out and get one of those, right? Clearly no one with a sense of humor is labeling these ideas.) The idea is simple though: we can know God by looking at four things:

quadrilateral

See how it makes a square quadrilateral?  But more importantly, see how our actual lives become places where we can know God?  Experience=Our Lives, in real time.  Reading, thinking and hearing about God are great but so is living.

Any discussion of Big Ideas has to make sense in our life, otherwise it’s just ivory tower, blabbering nonsense. Which I’m not interested in. I have no use for a God that makes sense on paper or in church but doesn’t make sense on the streets, or the conference room or at home. I believe in a three-dimensional God, a God comes to us in words and stories and ancient traditions but also moves off the page and into our lives. And when we tell our stories—all of us, not just me—we add to the collection of wisdom that is out there, learning to live lives worth living.

At the end of the day, I tell my stories so that you will tell yours. And sometimes I tell my story so that you’ll recognize yours. I tell it the same way a singer puts your love story to music and it becomes your song. Or the way a painter captures your childhood and every time you see that picture you are touched by Something Bigger.

We’re all in this together, trying to make sense of life and love and faith, trying to find a bit of holy ground on what looks like a very ordinary mountain. I tell these stories because they are also your stories. But mostly I tell them because I want you to tell them too. So if you need space to share or someone to share with, consider this an open invitation. I’m here, let’s share the journey.

In which I use scary words like “testimony,” “evangelism” and “conversion”

In which I use scary words like “testimony,” “evangelism” and “conversion”

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I’m not accustomed to talking about private matters like faith and politics in public arenas. Because of this, I have often hated it when strangers ask me what I do for a living. When I was a seminary student or pastor, I would sometimes go to great lengths to avoid mentioning those things. If you spend one long plane ride with a loud man beside you lecturing you about biblical interpretation and the proper role of (non-speaking) women in the church, you learn to be wary of mentioning your faith and profession. You learn that especially quickly if you’re already an introvert people-pleaser who hates conflict.  Now that I’m not a pastor, I find I can avoid the topic for much longer, at least until stories of the past come up.

A few days ago, I read Ana Marie Cox’s column “Why I’m Coming Out As a Christian” and it resonated deeply. All of it. I identified with the belief, the passion, the frustration and the wariness. Trying to find ways to be true to our faith while still navigating polite society is hard. I am hesitant to share my faith because I worry about being pushy, or being pushed. I worry about stopping the conversation at a party—which actually has happened.  Even though everyone will try to be nice, they will suddenly fumble with their drinks and apologize for all of their inappropriate language if they discover there’s a real live pastor in the room. And yes, as awkward as all this is, it is sometimes even harder with other Christians.

All of this reluctance to share my faith is greatly at odds with the fact that I love to be in the hard and rewarding moments of life with people. I love to have people I can call when I’m wrestling with a hard issue, or wondering where God is. I love to be the person that people call. I love sharing a life of faith.

It is also at odds with the fact that I’ve learned the most from people who see things differently than I do. Ok, I don’t learn anything from crazy talking-head TV-people who scream at me but I have learned amazing things from normal people who don’t agree with me on anything. It seems that even as I hesitate to share the things I hold dear, I am reminded that there’s no way to grow without encountering difference.

There is an old idea in Christian practice called “testimony.” It’s a word laden with stereotypes and misuse. For many years, my understanding of testimony was limited to altar calls and door-to-door evangelists. Being a mainline Protestant, this was all quite scary to me. Bible thumping preachers and demands to tell your deepest stories while others shouted encouraging things like, “Uh huh!” and “Amen!” and “Thank God!” seemed backwards and somewhat uncouth. Then, several years ago, I reclaimed the word. I realized that testimony was simply telling the story of our encounters with God. That’s it. It might happen the way I imagined it, at least for some people at some times, but more often it happens countless soft and gentle ways.

More recently, I’m playing with another idea about testimony.  Maybe testimony isn’t just about conversion, or even encouragement. Maybe testimony is about seeking understanding. In this framework, sharing what we believe about God, even when we’re afraid that our ideas don’t mesh with the ideas of other Christians, might be a holy act.

One thing I believe passionately is that God is too big to fit in any one story, no matter how amazing that story is. So maybe we need all of our stories, all of our visions, all of our conflicting ideas. Maybe we need this crazy quilt of God-stories to even begin to piece together the possibilities of God’s presence in the world. The very idea makes me cringe, especially if it means I have to stand up to Loud Airplane Man the next time I encounter him. Still, it’s a possibility to ponder.  I’ll start there.