Thoughts on Silence and Intimacy

As I neared the end of this past semester, I knew that I would soon say goodbye to my sweet friend Emily, who just left for Paris for a year (!!) and won’t be back until after I graduate. So reflecting back over the precious year and a half of our friendship, I remembered an experience that Emily and I shared together, which I had intended to blog about for quite some time. So I wrote this late one night when I should have been working on final papers, and am finally getting around to posting it.

Last semester, silence was a significant theme in my spiritual life. I was reading The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen. I found Nouwen’s thoughts on silence to be so profound that I began to practice it as a discipline, first in silent prayer. I wondered what it would be like to spend time with someone else in silence, but I imagined that it would be hideously awkward. Who in the world would I ask to do such a strange thing? Of course Emily was the first person who came to mind – Emily who is amazing at hospitality and quality time, who finds joy in simplicity and excitement in trying new things, whose enthusiasm is contagious, who loves me in spite of my weirdness. So I asked Emily if she would be willing to spend some time with me in silence. Instead of balking at the strangeness of the request, she gladly agreed.

So we walked downtown together to get tea and breakfast, and we spoke only to order our food. Once we had finished eating, after perhaps an hour of quiet togetherness, we broke the silence to talk about our experience of it. Here are a few of the observations I made from our time together.

First, as I had anticipated, it made me pretty uncomfortable at first. Should I look at her, or at my feet? Was I walking too fast? Too slow? Once we got to the restaurant, I wondered if other people noticed us or found our silence strange. Did our waitress think we were mad at each other? Perhaps most uncomfortable of all, I found that eye contact felt painfully vulnerable. As time went on, though, it became easier. And the moments in which we caught the other’s gaze, smiled, and didn’t hurry to glance away – those were truly special moments. It happened almost exactly as Nouwen describes his own experience in his book Reaching Out: “Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us.” The world teaches us from a young age that vulnerability is exploited. Yet when we can open ourselves up to another – and perhaps silence can feel even more vulnerable than oversharing – when we feel as though our souls are laid bare to another and we are fully seen, fully known, and fully accepted – it may well be one of the most satisfying experiences of friendship one can have.

Second, I was able to appreciate Emily’s soul beauty in a way that I hadn’t before. Because I wasn’t focused on what either of us was saying, I was free to focus on her being – her grace, the warmth and hospitality of her smile, her sense of being completely at peace in her surroundings – all the things I love most about her. I was able to absorb all of this, savoring and thanking God for these details. Unashamedly appreciating someone in such depth, I think, is in itself a prayer.

Third, as we sat together in silence, time seemed rich and unhurried. It felt like we had all the time in the world, and it was deeper somehow, as if it changed the focus of our togetherness from “catching up” – which in itself seems to imply a hurriedness, a deficit of time. Instead, we were making space just to be with one another.

Finally, the moment that stayed with me the most was our silent gesture of sharing food with one another. I broke a piece off of my strawberry muffin to share with her, and we made eye contact as she accepted it and we ate together. She began to cut a piece off of her egg and avocado sandwich. Recognizing that it was for me, my typical reaction would have been to say “Oh no, that’s ok” and then to say “thank you” when she gave it to me anyway, thus devaluing the gift. This time, I said neither. As she had just done, I accepted it silently, gratefully, and we smiled at each other in mutual acknowledgement of the exchange. Nouwen explains that words are important only insofar as they convey a concept, but in our society we tend to elevate the importance of the words themselves. There is a depth that is lost when we shorthand relational exchanges with phrases that can so easily become trite – “I love you,” “thank you,” et cetera. Slowing down enough to communicate wordlessly deepens our appreciation of the other, creates intimacy, and conveys with greater sincerity what it is that we feel. Often we try to use words as a shortcut to intimacy, but maybe they actually distract us from what it is we are looking for.

Because the discomfort of silence forces us to confront our own insecurities, anxieties, and doubts, we often miss out on what it offers us in return. Maybe it is the solution to our hurriedness. Maybe it is a hidden door to intimacy with God and with others. Maybe if we spent time in silence, we would better know ourselves and our place in this world in which we live.

And perhaps, we might receive an unexpected gift.

Published in: on August 19, 2016 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lament and Resurrection

To be a minister is to be a witness to suffering, and to walk with those who suffer. Alongside doctors and social workers, I feel as though it has to be one of the more painful vocations.

To be a minister is to hold the pain of the world in your heart as you groan for its redemption, longing for new creation.

To be a minister is to have the responsibility of comforting the weeping while myself silently asking, “Why, God? Have you forgotten us?” To offer up my strength to the weary, while myself feeling utterly broken and burdened, letting the tears come only when no one can see.

To be a minister is to be a witness to the brokenness and sorrow and death all around me, to cry out on behalf of humanity that things should not be this way.

Yet…to be a minister is also to be a witness to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

To cry out with conviction that things will not always be this way.

It is to preach and sing and live and proclaim forgiveness and reconciliation and healing and hope.

To witness to the story of resurrection in the dawning of each new day, in the first blooms of spring, in the redemption of a troubled past, in reconciliation after separation, in love after loss, in an empty tomb on Easter morning.

It is to know and proclaim with certainty that death cannot take our loved ones from us, because from their conception to eternity, they live and are safe in the arms of the Good Shepherd.

To be a minister is to be given the gift of proclamation – Hope springs eternal. Christ is all, and in all, and through all. The dwelling of God will be with his people, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. All shall be well, and all shall be well…and all manner of things shall be well.

Praise God.

 

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 10:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Wedding Day: Letting Go of the Magical to See the Sacred

I wanted a strapless, A-line, sweetheart neckline wedding dress, so I wasn’t sure why the fitting room attendant brought me an ornate 3/4-sleeve trumpet gown. But when I stepped out of the fitting room and saw myself in all the mirrors, it happened just like they say it’s supposed to: my eyes spontaneously filled up with tears as I started laughing with pure delight. I felt like a bride, in a way I hadn’t in the other dresses. This was the dress…my dress. It fit me perfectly and wouldn’t even need any alterations, so I figured it was okay to spend a little more than I was planning on.

When my dress came in three weeks later, I reverently lifted it from the box and my mama helped me into it. We sighed happily and dreamily as she buttoned up the back, and – OH. Something was terribly wrong – the top of the dress was standing out about 3 inches from my bust. Like it was 2 sizes too big. My heart sank. “My dress is an impostor!” I wailed. I had been so ready to love it, and now I…didn’t. This wasn’t my dress. This wasn’t The One.

We asked if we could exchange it for the floor model, since we knew that it fit perfectly. They assured us they would clean and repair any damage and ship it to my parents’ house. When it came in, Mama and I took a look at it together. What we saw was a gray-ish train, torn beading, and a spot of pink makeup right on the front. We took it back, and the manager told us it was beyond fixing. It must have been a fluke that the first one we ordered didn’t fit, she assured me. So we ordered another one.

When I got that one, I was hardly even excited anymore. My mindset was more like, “Hmm, I wonder if this one fits. Maybe third time’s the charm?” No. It wasn’t. This one was too big as well. I had the alterations specialists assess the fit, and they quoted me a price of $160 to fix it. I asked the store manager if they could do the alterations for free, since it had been such an ordeal. She said no, because there was no guarantee that dresses would be manufactured the same. I whined and said nobody told me that when I ordered it either time, so she said she would see what she could do.

“It all just feels stupid!” I wailed into JP’s lap as he patted my head patiently and, I’m sure, wearily. “Like I don’t even want to wear it if they get away with this, it’s like the Dress of Deceit and Evil Corporate America! I don’t want to be thinking as I walk down the aisle, ‘I can’t believe they soaked me for $160.’ They’ve completely ruined the magic of the whole experience!”

In the in between days, while waiting for the manager to call me back, I had to do a lot of thinking. I really couldn’t – and didn’t want to – pay for their inconsistency, so what could I do if they said ‘no’ once and for all? The whole negative experience had already made the dress less special. I had been so sure it was The One, but I’d gotten three impostors now. Maybe The One didn’t even exist. With the wedding just six weeks away, I didn’t even have time to order a new dress. I toyed with the idea of exchanging the dress – just walking into the store and saying, “Okay, pull all the size 4 dresses off the rack, and I’ll get whatever actually fits.” Hey, if I could save $500, why not? Maybe I would bond with an Honest, Friendly, Down-to-Earth Dress in a way that I never did with the (as I now thought of it) Untrustworthy, Arrogant Impostor Dress.

For me, the whole process of planning the wedding has been letting go of one “important” thing after another. A lot of little girls grow up thinking their wedding day will be perfect and magical, and when we actually start planning, that translates into obsessing over every single detail. I wasn’t super controlling about everything, but there were a few things that I was set on. A white church in Nashville, for one thing. Gray suits. Save-the-dates. Wedding favors.  The Perfect Dress. One by one, I had to compromise, to let these things go. What had once seemed so important, I learned to shrug off. The Dress was the last thing I was holding onto for dear life – and now the magic of The Dress had been disillusioned too. I felt like sad Cinderella, standing in the middle of the road staring at a giant pumpkin.

My friends were kind enough to mourn with me, but the kindest thing they did was to remind me of the sacredness of the wedding event.

“If you go a little over-budget for food, don’t stress over it,” Samantha reminded me. “It’s not like you’re spending thousands on decorations to impress everyone or make your friends jealous – you’re feeding people, inviting them to the table. It’s Eucharistic. Think of your reception as your first act of hospitality as a married couple.”

Mama found a book at the thrift store called A Wedding with Spirit and sent it to me in a care package. It couldn’t have come at a better time; it was all about remembering the sacredness and the symbolism of a wedding rather than following the hype of the wedding industry.

And I came to understand something. I had wanted my wedding to be magical, forgetting that to be sacred is a higher transcendence. Magic is…well, shallow, really. The magic is gone in an instant when something goes wrong – as it always does. The flower girl will refuse to walk down the aisle, or someone will make an awkward toast, or maybe your Perfect Dress will tear or catch on fire or fall in the toilet (yes, I’ve heard all three from friends!). The reality is, we cannot make anything perfect or magical, because as humans we are limited by our finitude and imperfection.

The sacredness of an event, however, does not depend upon us but upon the work of the Spirit in that moment, sanctifying us and making us new, infusing us with the beautiful mystery of grace. I realized that whatever dress I happened to wear on the day of our wedding – whether second-hand, second-choice, A-line, trumpet, or one that cost me extra for the company’s mistakes – would become a sacred symbol of love and covenant and our new life together. No dress inherently possessed the qualities that made it The One – rather, whatever dress I chose would become The One. There would be nothing magical about it – but in years to come, when I lovingly pack up the memories for our next adventure together, or one day give my dress to a daughter or granddaughter to wear – it will have been steeped in love and excitement and joy and thanksgiving, christened with the blessings of a God-ordained marriage. Because of what it represents, the dress will be sacred just as the sacrament of marriage is sacred.

It is common advice for brides to live in the magic of the moment – this is your big day, your time to shine, your time to feel pampered and beautiful and be the center of attention. But to my fellow brides-to-be, let me urge you to live instead in the sacredness of the moment, orienting yourself not to the material details or the extravagance or the attention, but rather to the presence of the Divine, those thin places where you can see God crafting something beautiful. Your guests are not there to be entertained or impressed – they are there to witness a holy union. Receive the sacredness of their gifts and attention with humility and grace, rather than taking advantage of this magical “once-in-a-lifetime chance to shine.” Don’t look for ways to get the most out of your wedding day; look for opportunities to give, even as you receive the undeserved, unconditional blessings of God. Embrace the moments where you can say “thank you,” not presumptuously or hastily or with obligation, but with complete wonder and disbelief. Those are the sacred moments.

In case you’re wondering, I got a call yesterday saying that because of the inconvenience of multiple transactions, the company had decided to refund 20% of the original purchase price of the dress – which more than covers the cost of alterations. As I mentioned, I had become okay with – even excited about – the thought of starting over with a different dress. But as I sat on my bed, looking with wonder at the humble cardboard box on my closet shelf, I knew that this would be my dress after all. And suddenly, for the first time since trying it on, I loved it again – simply because this dress will be the one to usher me into a new name, a new family, a new life.

Published in: on April 24, 2015 at 1:09 pm  Comments (3)  
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Quinoa and the Problem of Sin

A few weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking blog article by David Calvin on trading the language of ‘sin’ for the language of ‘brokenness.’ To read it in full, click here. The point of the article is that we minimize our own responsibility for sin by passing the buck to a nameless third party. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes; can we really be held responsible for sin when we are born into a broken world and are ourselves victims? David says yes, we must be held responsible; otherwise, excusing ourselves from our culpability, we allow injustice to run rampant.

What he writes is true; however, it is only one facet of the enormous — and in many ways, ambiguous and undefinable — problem of sin and evil.

What is sin? Is it an affront to God’s honor, as Anselm of Canterbury suggested? Or is it disobedience of God’s law, as John Calvin believed? Is it estrangement from God, or is it broken relationship, or is it deliberate rebellion? Is sin simply a way to describe our own actions, or is it a third party agent that acts upon us, such as Satan? Is sin a personal issue or a systemic one? Throughout history, both trained and lay theologians have offered ideas of the ‘fundamental sin of humanity,’ ranging from pride to ignorance, all of which depict an aspect of sin but seem fundamentally inadequate to describe it. Throughout Scripture, sin seems to be such a broad, sweeping category that we hardly know where to begin in defining it. We understand it only in terms of abstractions: it leads to death, it consists in the absence of God, it goes against the created order.  But what exactly is it? And how can we fight an enemy which we cannot see or name? The truth is, sin seems to encompass all of these explanations yet still transcends the limitations of our understanding. Derek Nelson, in his book Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines and addresses many of these different positions on sin, but it seems that we can only nail down a vague idea of what it means: “Sin implies something not being right in the complex relationships of oneself to God, oneself to one’s neighbor, and oneself to oneself” (Nelson, Sin, p. 17).

Something not being right.

Something is about as vague as we can get. Not being right seems fully subjective. This leads to ambiguity and disagreement regarding the nature of sin, something else which Nelson addresses. For instance, some Christians believe homosexuality to be a sin, to be against the created order, and thus something not right towards God. At the same time, however, many same-sex couples consider that Christians try to oppress them and deny them their rights, which would seem to be something not right in relationship to one’s neighbor. Is none of it sin? Is all of it sin? How do we begin to grapple with such an overwhelming topic?

I will admit now that I have precious few answers. To claim otherwise, I would have to claim to be a greater theologian than Calvin or Augustine or even the Apostle Paul. Clearly, as a first-year seminarian, I am not. All I can offer are my own fumbling attempts to understand this massive and complex issue, and while offering no definitive answers, I can offer simply the hope which Scripture gives. Understanding that sin can be explained in many different ways, I nonetheless turn to the social manifestation of sin — systemic injustice — to show why brokenness is indeed a legitimate understanding of this not-right-ness that surrounds us.

To do this, I will use a seemingly innocuous example: quinoa. Some of you may not even know what quinoa is; some of you have jumped on the bandwagon of health food and devour as much quinoa as you can get your hands on; still others mock those who succumb to the latest dietary fads. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, whether or not you consume quinoa matters very little in your everyday life and seems to bear even less relevance to this discussion of sin. Yet when we buy a processed and packaged ingredient such as quinoa, we think very little of where it comes from – and although it makes no difference to us, it may have far-reaching consequences for others.

Quinoa is grown in the Andean highlands, in parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru; and before the quinoa fad hit the U.S., it was part of the diet of those who grew and harvested it. The invisible hand of economics – and ecosystems – is often beyond my power to grasp. But whatever the reason, quinoa suddenly became all the rage, increasing the demand for the popular gluten-free grain and driving up the prices. Farmers are trying to grow as much quinoa as fast as possible to meet the rising demand, which is beginning to abuse and overwork the land. Because of the way ecological factors come into play, quinoa is an unsustainable fad. In addition, quinoa is becoming an outsourced commodity rather than a cultural staple; it is worth more sold internationally than consumed domestically. The farmers who grow the quinoa can no longer afford to eat it.

This is an example of systemic injustice; here, the root cause of sin is ignorance. It is not pride or rebellion that makes an unknowing Christian buy quinoa; it is a far bigger problem than that, and one which we are nearly helpless to fix. If we all agree to stop buying quinoa, then what will happen? Farmers will have thousands of tons of unsellable quinoa, which will cause a severe blow to the economy. Yet I found myself cringing the other night to see multiple pounds of uneaten quinoa cakes in the cafeteria waste bin.

Here is a situation in which ‘brokenness’ seems to be the only way to describe sin. I am not intentionally causing harm to my neighbor in Ecuador; the economy is broken, the ecosystem is broken, the whole societal structure is broken by sin. I am broken by sin, and beyond fixing myself.

Brett Dennen, in his powerful song Ain’t No Reason, poetically describes the hopeless state of humanity:

“There ain’t no reason things are this way; it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.”

The first time I heard this song, one line seared itself into my memory: “Slavery is stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” In one phrase, this sums up the brokenness of systemic sin. When you touch your iPhone, think of the hands that put it together, worn down by poverty and the unceasing demands of a greedy world. You didn’t know as you stood in line for it that you were the cause of suffering. Are we held responsible for this ignorance? Are we condemned by every bite of quinoa?

When we examine the social effects of sin and the systemic repercussions of it, we are no longer discussing individual responsibility. We can look at an individual person and call out their infidelity, their lies, their theft. But when we zoom out and look at injustices such as racism and sexism, it becomes a victim/victimizer issue – whites against blacks, or men against women. When we zoom out even farther to look at the even larger picture of ignorance in the face of social injustice, the lines become even more blurred. Thus the greater the scale, the more it becomes about brokenness rather than individual sins. To say that we must take responsibility only for our personal sinful acts is to greatly oversimplify this massive disease in our world.

The whole creation groans. This is Paul’s attempt to grasp the enormity of our world’s not-right-ness and somehow address it in a meaningful way. Yet we hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

While we try to navigate the murky waters of right and wrong, we must take responsibility for our own contribution to systemic brokenness, seeking both to address the not-right-ness within us and to advocate for the not-right-ness of the world. Yet there is only so much we can do. I encourage fair trade, thrift shopping, gardening, and paying a little more to support small businesses rather than large corporations. Yet in the end, we all contribute to brokenness in ways that we simply cannot help. We will all, at some point, buy the metaphorical bag of quinoa out of ignorance. And so we repent of our individual sins, but we also cry out to God for the redemption of brokenness too big for us to fix.

Scripture does not and cannot tell us what sin is, for it is too great for us even to comprehend. Yet it does tell us of redemption and hope that is also greater than we can comprehend. We do our best to live in the Kingdom, yet in the end all we can do is hope for an infinite, unfathomable grace that can cover the sins of the world, known and unknown, confessed and unconfessed, repented and unrepented. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

And in times when the hopelessness of sin and brokenness overwhelm us, I find myself comforted by this beautiful quote from Chris Wright:

“We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”

I don’t have answers.

But I have hope.

17 Creative Ways to Give on a Budget

As I mentioned in my last couple of posts, this summer the Sunset youth group worked through the book I Like Giving by Brad Formsma.  Each week I had the teens write down creative ways to give, and I was constantly amazed by the ideas they came up with.

There were several ideas that overlapped, and I found that the majority of them had to do with listening, encouraging, and spending time with lonely people. Maybe that reflects what our teenagers — and the rest of us, for that matter — need the most.

Here are some of my favorite ideas from the past few weeks — and most of them you can try for less than $5!

1. Take the time every once in a while to write a note to someone, just to show that you appreciate them or are thinking of them.

2. Pack ziplock bags full of snacks and goodies for the homeless and pass them out at stop lights.

3. Give your time to someone.  Just spend some time talking one-on-one with someone about anything and everything.  Listening to what someone has to say is a gift in itself.

4. Make someone a goodie bag filled with all their favorite candy and give it to them when you think they most need it.

5. Burn a CD of some of your favorite songs that you think a friend would enjoy, and give it to them.  Let them know they were on your mind.

6. Buy used copies of your favorite books to give to a friend who is going on vacation, or even to a random stranger.

7. Bake something for someone you know, but who wouldn’t expect you to think of them.

8. Pay attention to your facebook/instagram/twitter to see if your friends post about wanting or needing something, and then surprise them with it. Basically, really listen to people and their needs and you will find ways to help them out.

9. Buy coffee/lunch/pay the toll for the person behind you.

10. If you see someone who seems lonely or sad, invite them over and cook a meal with them. Then try encouraging them as you eat together.

11. Give flowers to an old lady and thanks [sic] them for everything.

12. Sit and listen to what your friend or another person has to say. Sometimes there are no perfect words, just perfect silences.

13. Donate a variety of school supplies for underprivileged kids.

14. Prepare an unexpected meal for someone who is very caring. For example: a parent.

15. Hold the door open for someone.

16. If a friend needs more than you can give, use social media to ask others to help. Sometimes people want to help but don’t know how.

17. Pay favors forward, and ask the next person to do the same.

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 11:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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10 Quotes that Changed My Life in 2013

Words are powerful. Sometimes, people say things that sear themselves into your memory, for good or ill. You’ll never forget where you were when they were spoken, or how they made you feel, and you’re a changed person because the depth that they conveyed introduced you to a reality you hadn’t seen before. 2013 was a year of significant growth for me, and I am indebted to those who have shaped me along the way. So without further ado, here are the 10 quotes (and one picture) that changed my life.

“Things will never go back to normal. You’re changed because of the people you’ve met and the things you’ve experienced. There’s a new normal that incorporates all of that and how it’s shaped the way you look at life.”

Specifically, this quote was about the difficulty of moving on with life after a life-changing mission trip. As obvious as it may sound, this was so freeing as I realized I didn’t have to ‘move on’ – that is, I didn’t have to choose between two realities. I could embrace the new and let it make the rest of my life even more amazing. And so far, it has.

“You may not have heard this a lot growing up, but you’re gifted to preach. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”

If I could point to one life-changing moment in 2013, this is probably it. I can still point to the specific table in Starbucks where I was sitting when these words made my heart skip a beat. Until March of this year, I had never really given much thought to public speaking.  Ironic, then, that it has somehow become one of my most apparent ministry gifts. My knees were shaking as I walked to the podium that Sunday in March – bad combination with six-inch heels – and saw 600 faces looking back at me. And then I found my voice. Sometimes it takes other people to discern a calling for you, and without one man’s faith in my ability, I never would have thought of myself as (what?!) a preacher. To those who have supported, encouraged, and affirmed me along the way – you’ve changed my life.

“We need more people like you in the churches of Christ.”

Me? Church of Christ? I spent the first 3 years of college becoming convinced that those two didn’t fit together. But a fellow misfit — an abstract, artsy youth minister in a tradition of intellectuals who nevertheless believed in belonging — thought differently, offered me a job, and supported me through the growing pains of discovering a unity that transcends uniformity.

“It’s so obvious that God had a purpose in bringing you here.”

We all have those times when we wonder if we’ve actually made a difference – especially when we feel more like we’ve made a mess of things. But God brings beauty from the broken. I was sitting on a wooden bench with my aunt watching an incredible sunset over the water when she spoke these words. Yet, even more affirming than the words themselves may have been the tears that gave voice to my own depth of emotion.

“Find a husband to share life with, because even an independent girl like you will get lonely trying to go it alone. Don’t be in a rush — slow down and enjoy life. When you have a decision to make, ask yourself 2 things: Is it best for you, and will it hurt other people? God’s picked me up and dusted off my britches after too many selfish mistakes. And go out and look at the stars on clear nights, and see which ones are looking back at you.”

This is advice from an 88-year-old WWII veteran who joined the Navy at 15, fought as second loader at Iwo Jima, and came back and started a successful business without a high school education. I figured it would be wise to pay attention.

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A picture is worth a thousand words, right? This picture will always stay with me. Pope Francis looks at a crowd and sees individuals whose pain is very real. Learn to truly see people, and truly love them.

“Take pain and doubt with you as your companions. Say to them, ‘You can come with me if you want, but we’re moving forward.'”

Reid Hillin, Woodmont Hills college minister. He claims to have paraphrased this from another source, but either way, it’s a powerful concept. Let pain shape you and change you, but never control you. Life doesn’t have to be put on hold while you try to figure things out – live wholeheartedly, if imperfectly.

“I see people. They look like trees walking around.”

Mark 8:24. This is a text that I preached on for my Communicating the Gospel class, and this unlikely quote from my good friend Second Touch Blind Guy has changed the way I look at those around me. Do I see others imperfectly, distorted through the lens of my prejudices and cultural biases? Or do I love and appreciate their uniqueness and individuality?

“You know what disgusts me the most about Christianity? Grace.”

This was a little unexpected – and a lot thought-provoking. People have all sorts of pet evangelism methods – as if one size fits all! “Just tell people they’re going to hell without the grace of God!” Well, it changes things up a little when grace itself is the barrier to belief. Maybe evangelism – which simply means sharing good news, and is not at all synonymous with ‘conversion’ – is more about listening and understanding than it is about shoving a pre-packaged philosophy down someone’s throat and expecting them to think the same way you do.

“It would be difficult being with you, but it would be worth it.”

You asked me when I started to change my mind about you. And although I told you I couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment, this might be the closest one. As I recall, you also said that you read my blog posts hoping for a shout-out. Here it is, and I hope you’re reading, because this is about as close as I get to PDA. Thank you for loving me for who I am.

I’ve heard the first part of this quote more times than I can count, but never amended by the second half. It can be difficult for feminists such as myself to find a man who accepts the fact that we will never be domesticated creatures, yet still has his own clearly defined sense of self. These words prove that you are both. They reflect honesty and careful evaluation of the cost as well as a deep appreciation for the return. Although they might not be considered super romantic by some standards, they were to me.

“I love you.”

To anyone who has said this to me over the past year, it never gets old. These words are always life-giving and sustaining, and I could never have made it this far without the genuine love and support of so many people. May this new year be filled with abundant blessings, and may you find beauty in pain as well as joy, in failures as well as successes. Continue to love well, and change the world around you. I love you all.

Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part of the Journey

Desert-Tracks

I’ll be the first to admit that I am often unsure of where I am going in my spiritual journey. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m wandering around in darkness, hands outstretched, feeling for something tangible. Sometimes standing in a lonely room, blindfolded, just waiting for a nudge. Sometimes hearing a voice from somewhere beyond and running toward it, stumbling, bruising myself on random shadow-covered objects but embracing the obstacles that guide me to Him.

I know everyone has those times. But geez, I feel like it’s happening to me all the time! Am I normal? As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium, God reveals something else that sends me off into a crazy tailspin. Part of this is that I question. A lot.

And doubt. A lot.

But I’ve also learned to trust. A lot.

And, paradoxically, to trust in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.

I used to hate this about myself. I wondered why I was always going through these crazy cycles. I get tired sometimes. I just want to rest. I feel like my lungs never completely fill up before the next wave of uncomfortable revelation breaks over my head. And I used to panic and hold my breath, hoping I could pretend I wasn’t being swept out to sea. But when I was submerged in the unknown long enough that I gave up and took a breath, expecting to drown, I found that the enormity of God fills my lungs and sustains me. It’s okay to breathe in the realm of spiritual uncertainty.

Journal excerpt from June 2013:

I want so badly to surrender everything to Christ and to stay in that place of passionate abandonment. My heart cannot cry loud enough for a life that pours out everything. But I’ve been so confused that I’ve become apathetic, unable to find the joy of complete certainty in my Savior. My Bible has been closed and put away, my prayers infrequent and empty. I think I’ve been afraid of what He’ll show me. But today I cracked open the door for Him to speak to me, and in rushed His demanding love like a tidal wave, like a battering ram. He’s calling me again — up and out. It’s time to go; I can’t stay here anymore. I don’t know where I’m going, but it’s time to start following again in faith. Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders. I want to come to You on the water, the things of the world blocked out by the blinders of my love for You.

My professor Dr. Lavender is an incredible man. In addition to the fact that he was born and raised in Italy, built a model space shuttle in his basement, once ran 100 miles in a day, and has the beautiful gift of sarcasm, he is the biggest spiritual role model in my life. For one thing, I feel like he can handle my crazy thoughts — and for another, God uses his calm and gentle reminders of the Story to bring me back down to earth, to ground me, more than anything else. Last week I was in his office talking about some of my latest inconvenient questions. In the course of the conversation, he made this statement: “Most Christians tend to be satisfied with what they’ve always known.”

And in five words I blurted out my entire life story: “I have never been satisfied.”

He smiled a little. “I don’t think you ever will be.”

I pondered this somewhat horrifying, somewhat exciting, thought for a moment, and he continued: “This prophetic calling you have from God — this restlessness, this searching — will be something that He uses to draw people into the bigger story, into His Kingdom on earth.”

If this is a prophetic calling — being yanked out of your comfy chair and then being called to yank others up as well — no wonder the prophets were pretty miserable. Yet there is a sort of untamed beauty in it too. And maybe that’s why, over the past couple of years, I’ve developed such a love for Old Testament prophets such as Hosea and Habakkuk. Prophets can be perceived as obnoxious and rude, but they only speak from their own brokenness. Hosea was doomed to constantly pursue the love of an unfaithful whore — probably not his idea of a super cool calling. Habakkuk asked for deliverance and God was like, “Tell everybody that a foreign nation is going to come destroy you.” He had his own struggle to cope with this unwanted reality, but in the end, he was still able to say, “Though there are no sheep in the pens and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). He and Hosea learned to breathe underwater, learned to rest in the tension of doubt and spiritual longing.

And while I can only hope to attain a sliver of the incredible faith that they had, I too am a spiritual nomad, a theological wanderer. I am always on the move, unable to stay in one place too long. But I’ve learned that the in-between times are not true crises. They’re only part of the journey.

The first few times I was uprooted, it was disconcerting and painful. There was a lot of kicking and screaming involved. “I don’t like this! I don’t have time for this! I don’t want to want what You want! I want You to be who I always thought You were!” But I feel as though I am beginning to find my rhythm in the lack thereof, and learning to embrace the wilderness with a sigh of, “Hello wilderness, old friend, what devastating and beautiful truth will you teach me this season?” Faith wouldn’t be faith if it wasn’t a stretch, if it didn’t routinely push us out of our comfort zone, if it didn’t call us to that which we cannot see or understand.

So, resigned, my prayer has lately become something along these lines:

God, reveal to me as much of Yourself as I can handle in my present weakness…and increase my capacity for more.

Plot Twist

I love plot twists.  I love when you find out the good character is bad, or the bad character is good, or the main character is dead after all, or the whole thing was a dream.  I love finding a movie with a good plot twist and showing it to all my unsuspecting friends, one by one, relishing the moment of revelation and the “Wait, what just happened?!”  If I were to watch them by myself, they would lose their luster after a while, but I never cease to be amused by watching other people’s jaw drop and vicariously feeling the disorientation of surprise.

Game 6 of the NBA finals had plenty of its own little plot twists as well.  For a while I thought all was lost, until Allen made that incredible 3-point shot with 5 seconds left on the clock, tying the Heat and the Spurs.  Fortunately, nobody else was home to see my manic state as I screamed and punched the air and bit the couch pillows.   When the game went into overtime, I thought I was going to die of a stroke not knowing how it was going to end.  It was pure torture, but the delicious kind, where you’re on the edge of your seat in anticipation.

That was all anybody talked about here in Miami for the next week. “Can you believe Game 6? Snatched the championship right out of the Spurs’ hands! Did you see that shot by Allen?! Man, don’t you feel bad for the people who left early because they thought it was over?”

People definitely thought the game was over that day at the Praetorium so long ago when the crowds shouted “Crucify!”…when Jesus was led away to be stripped and beaten and crucified.  That was it.  There was to be no political revolution, no reclamation of Israel.  He must not have been the promised Messiah after all.  And these disciples, who had left behind their jobs and families and followed this guy on faith for the last three years — well, what were they supposed to do now?  The cause that they had given their lives to ended up being a lost cause.  It was over.  There was shock and confusion and grief.  And Judas Iscariot was one of those people who, sadly, left too early to see the end and celebrate the unbelievable victory that God was waiting to spring on the unsuspecting:

Having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col 2:15).

For Jesus, death wasn’t the end of the story.  It was only the lead-in to the most glorious plot twist in history.

His whole life, Jesus told weird stories about upside-down values in this alternate reality He called “the Kingdom.”  And not only did He tell these stories; He lived them out.  The Kingdom was where the first were last, and the last were first.  Where the people who worked all day got paid the same as the people who worked for an hour. Where the whores got more grace than the religious leaders.  Where the filthy half-breed Samaritan was the hero.

It’s where the cross turned from a symbol of shame to a symbol of victory.  Where a stolen body was a resurrected body, where the grave yielded life, where the carpenter’s son from Nazareth proved Himself to be the living, breathing, conquering SON OF GOD, who defeated death, scorned its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God Almighty.

I think any sense of apathy, any lack of wonder, on our part is simply the result of forgetfulness.  Those of us who have heard our whole lives that “Jesus died and rose again” can forget all too easily how ridiculous, how unbelievable, how incredible this whole thing was.  God forgive our complacency!!

The gospel is a roller coaster of emotion that we have unfortunately numbed ourselves to.  We know how to receive the message in an appropriately churchy way, never experiencing the waves of shock, the convulsions of grief, the hardly daring to hope, and the struggling to make sense of it all.  We can’t understand the doubting of Thomas, the glorious dawning of reality, and the immeasurable joy they must have felt.  We can talk about hearing it “as if for the first time,” but if we truly heard it that way, we would all either be on our knees in awe or dancing in exuberant celebration.

But perhaps the closest we can get is simply to share the story with others who have not yet heard it.  To smile to ourselves as they listen with bated breath, leaning in expectantly so they don’t miss a word of the riveting drama.  To share in their joy as they see the majesty of God’s plan of salvation unfold.  Perhaps the closest we can get to experiencing the story is to do just what Jesus instructed: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, sharing the story, telling the miraculous news, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us.

Because He is with us always.

Through the ups and downs of life.

Through the confusion, the hesitation, and the joy.

Through every plot twist.

Always.

To the very end.

forgiveness.

“It’s been how long — 3 1/2 years? And I was still bitter. Still sore. Still holding onto my ‘right’ to be angry — a right I’d never had in the first place. So tonight I decided to make things right. . . I didn’t ask what had happened, because I don’t feel like I need to know. If I can forgive her and have peace about the situation, I don’t see a need to bring it up again. Demanding ‘why’ is another right that I don’t have. I am only called to forgive, and forgiveness is not conditional on explanations.” — a privileged peek into my journal from february 10th

“I can’t hold a pet grudge and stay angry. I have no right to stay angry. And I find that the more I practice forgiveness, the easier it becomes.” — a privileged peek into my journal from march 13th

I feel like God’s been teaching me a lot about forgiveness lately — three basic concepts in particular.

1) Forgiveness is about humility.

I think we tend to look at forgiveness as some abstract concept that’s difficult to grasp. How do we “let go” when we “can’t help how we feel”? And the truth is that we can’t help feeling hurt, but we can help being angry.

Anger is all about us, and our pride, and our rights. When someone hurts you, you feel like they’ve trampled your rights. Your pride rebels at the thought of letting them get away with it (“If I forgive him, it’ll make me look like a doormat!”).

It’s also an issue of control. Anger stems from a lack of control; we get angry with someone because we feel like they took some control away from us. To make up for the insecurity that we feel, we demand back what little control we can get: the right to be angry.

But was it ever really our right in the first place? Are we as Christians not called to surrender all of our rights — including our “right” to control and our “right” to anger and our “right” to hold a grudge?

To forgive is to lay down our pride and admit that we don’t have the right to be angry, but rather a commandment to love.

2) Forgiveness does not ignore the problem.

We’re called to forgive even if no apology or explanation is forthcoming. But even when the person who hurt you tries to make things right, it’s still hard to forgive. Our natural tendency is to avoid conflict and brush the offense under the rug with, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” But that doesn’t solve the problem in the long run, because you might say “it’s okay” just to get the awkward conversation over with, but you’re still steaming inside from what they did to you. And they go away thinking everything’s okay between you while you’re still harboring bitterness in your heart.

When you clear things up with someone, I think it’s really important both to acknowledge and address the problem. None of it should carry a tone of anger (“if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”, a.k.a. wait till you’ve forgiven them to talk about it), but I think sometimes both people’s feelings need to be gotten out in the open. If you let them know that you feel hurt and explain what they did to make you feel that way, you’re being open and honest. You’re both on the same page instead of trying to cover up your feelings and play guessing games.

3) The more you practice forgiveness, the easier it becomes.

Making a deliberate choice to lay down your “rights” at the feet of Jesus and forgive somebody is a hard thing. You feel exposed without your protective covering of pride. The more times you do it, though, the easier it gets. You learn that it feels better not to carry around the heavy resentment anymore.

Cleaning all the built-up anger out of your life for the first time can be a long and painful process. But once it becomes a routine of flushing out resentment before it takes root, it’s healing. Grudges can be very heavy things. If you make it a habit to forgive as soon as you’re hurt instead of waiting around for an apology that may or may not ever come, you learn to free yourself. It makes you invincible in a way, which is kind of cool. And Christ-like.

So, uh… what age-old grudge do you need to go take care of? Who do you need to call or facebook? I know you just said to yourself “It doesn’t even matter anymore.” But it totally does. Remember the first journal entry at the beginning of this post? I’d fought with myself over that for so long and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t important and nobody cared and I had a happy life even without resolution. But I was never truly content with the situation. So I decided that, whatever the result, I needed to man up and take care of it. And after nearly 4 years of stony silence… I can legitimately say that I have peace. So forgive. Just do it. It’s so worth it.

Oh, and when you do… shoot me an email and let me know how it turns out. Praying for my courageous readers.

Published in: on March 13, 2012 at 11:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ahead and Beside

Psalm 16:8“I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”

I love how this image simultaneously portrays God as both guide and friend. If we keep our eyes on Him as he leads the way, He will also be right there by our side, holding our hand and walking with us every step of the journey.

Too often we view God as one or the other. If He leads us and can’t see us, what happens if we fall behind? Or, if He walks beside us, how will we have a clear-cut path?

The truth is that neither scenario is accurate. God blazes the trail for us to follow, but when the going gets tough, He’s not going to leave us to figure it out alone. He promised never to leave or forsake us, and He never will. He will always be right there, taking every step with us, always pointing us ahead and reminding us in a gentle whisper, “This way. Keep going. I’m right here with you.” And with Him ahead and beside, as our guide and our friend, our footing will be sure, and we will never be shaken.

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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