Division

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THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME  … is over.

Unfortunately, nothing has been settled. Oh, we have elected a president, but it feels more like the campaign has just gone to extra innings. People’s antipathies towards the candidates or their supporters didn’t change just because one of them got more than 270 electoral votes. In fact, they have hardened into brickbats that we’re just itching to hurl at each other.

To hear the fake news sites tell it, we have only two narratives to choose from:

  • The benighted, racist, uneducated people in those flyover states have led us down the road to perdition.
  • The arrogant, out-of-touch liberal snowflakes can’t seem to grasp that they’ve gotten their comeuppance and should suck it up and move on.

In the real world — the world where people have to look each other in the eye as opposed to the faceless ether that is social media — things are messier. I have a friend — a dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat — who had as much distaste for Hillary as any Trumpster. I know people who voted for Trump, believing as much as any blue-stater that he is at best a vulgarian and at worst a sexual predator. True believers aside, I think many people made a decision that required them to make peace with things they found objectionable, even abhorrent. And many, like me, are angry and resentful about being forced to make such a choice.

Now that the election gravy train has left the station, the media are only too happy to continue the narrative that we are hopelessly polarized. Reactions to the election have dominated the news, from violent anti-Trump protests to reports of attacks (verbal and physical) on minorities. Once more, we are being asked to wade through the muck and discern what is true (some reports have been proven false), and figure out what we will do about it.

“How could this be?” a friend lamented. “Has this river of hate been here all the time? I thought we had made such progress since the days of segregation. Now I think it never really went away.”

If we are surprised by the vitriol we are hearing it is because we have bought into the idea that if we legislate goodness, people will be good. We think that if we make it socially unacceptable to express the ugliness in our hearts, the ugliness will disappear.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
                    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

We can be frightened, we can be disappointed, we can be angry about the ugliness being manifest in our country. But we should not be surprised. There is a dividing line between good and evil, all right. But it isn’t only between Us and Them. It is also within us — each of us, all of us, no exceptions. This is not something that can be legislated, regulated or reasoned away.

It is not a political problem, it is a spiritual one.

I’m not suggesting that some people are irredeemably evil (as one candidate did) and we should sit idly as we descend into mayhem.  Laws can and should regulate behavior by imposing penalties for actions society deems undesirable. They are necessary, both as a deterrent and as an enforcement of the common will. This is one of the primary functions of government.

But laws cannot change the human heart.

While they can constrain our behavior, no government and no law has ever succeeded in making people good.

With the humility of people who know that the dividing line between good and evil runs through our hearts as well as those we vilify, there are things we can and should do in this most unsettling season:

We can and should look at why, at this moment in our history, the angry beast within us has been awakened, and with such fervor.

We need to ask why we won’t tolerate any views other than our own. Technology has allowed us to construct intellectual bunkers, and in this respect, it has not served us well. Armed with a TV remote and the “hide” button on Facebook, we can filter out what we’d rather not hear. 

Let’s be brave and actually listen to “one of them”. Not agree, not affirm, not encourage. Not try to convince or out-argue (does that ever work?) Just listen, and if asked, state our position with as much grace and love as we can muster.

We need to use every means given to us by our democracy to uphold our ideals of justice, equality, opportunity and freedom:

Vote. Pray. Write letters.  Run for office. Teach.  Be an example of the good you want to see. Pray some more. 

We need to do one more thing. We need to seek God, who alone can change our hearts and the hearts of those who sow dissent and rancor. I think of John Newton, the slave trader whose heart was transformed by the knowledge and love of God. He renounced his wicked profession, went into ministry, and became a mentor to William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in ending the slave trade in England. He also wrote these words:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

This is what God can do that Congress can’t: make the blind see.

This is what no president or senator or court can do: redeem an “irredeemable” and declare victory over a divided heart.

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Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

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This is what this election season has been like for me: I’m trapped in a never ending loop of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, watching my hosts savage each other, amazed at their capacity for violence, wondering when it will stop, desperate to go home.

For months, I’ve been saying I just want it to be over, but who am I kidding? I know that on Wednesday, whatever the result, it will not be over. I can’t really believe that we’ll all wake up on Wednesday morning and say, “Well, all right then. It’s settled. Let’s move on.” Our national discussion (if you can call the screeching, fear-mongering and doomsday scenarios emanating from all sides discussion) will simply enter a new phase, with new recriminations, new apocalyptic visions, new war cries.

This morning, as I face Election Day with no small amount of exhaustion and dread, I read Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. In this story, Jesus tells of a farmer who finds that an enemy has come and planted weeds among his crop of wheat. The problem is, this particular weed is indistinguishable from the wheat. The farmer cautions against trying to pull the weeds lest they pull the wheat with it. Wait, he says, until the harvest, then we can safely separate them. While not the primary meaning of the parable, this scripture got me thinking about what has been sorely missing in this election season: humility.

So many of the speeches, debates, media reports, Facebook posts, tweets and water cooler discussions we’ve had over the last 18 months traffic in absolutes. This is the victim, this is the villain.  We are not satisfied to say others are wrong; they must also be evil.  We give no quarter and we receive none. It’s as if we’re not secure enough in what we believe — in who we believe — to admit any nuance, subtlety of thought or admission of flaws.

But Jesus’ words offer no such binary choices.  Wheat and weeds can look an awful lot alike, and we are not the final judge of which is which. We are asked to make a decision using the information we have, true.  But can we admit that our knowledge isn’t perfect?  Can we leave room for the possibility — however remote it seems — that we could be wrong? 

So, we will vote for what we consider the wheat — the good seed, the desirable outcome. Or, maybe we will vote for the “least objectionable weed.” We will make our choice tomorrow, based on what we believe is best for our country. I pray that we can do this with the humility that says we might be wrong. Without it, we’re just trapped in the dinner party from hell.

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When God Says, “No Thank You”

Poor Cain.

We remember him as the world’s worst brother and its first felon. Over the millennia, he has been portrayed as arrogant, deceitful, vengeful, stingy towards God and nothing less than the son of Satan. To me, he is a tragic figure, the star of a cautionary tale of what can happen when we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.”

Cain was a farmer in a land East of Eden, where his parents had been exiled after The Fall. His work was hard and painful, but still produced enough that he could bring some of his crops to God as an offering. God looks favorably on his brother’s offering, but not his. He isn’t told why and neither are we.

We don’t like it, but sometimes God is like that. In His perfect freedom and sovereignty, God can act in ways we don’t understand, and He doesn’t explain.

And so Cain reacts as most of us would. He is angry at God and at his brother, God’s favorite. He is a bubbling stew of envy, resentment, shame at his own rejection and offense at his sense of fairness and justice. Unable or unwilling to turn down the heat — even after God cautions him — Cain lets it all boil over into murder. He is exiled, a marked man. Poor Cain.

Poor us. Cain is the spiritual ancestor no one wants to claim. His protest of “It’s not fair!” springs as easily from our lips as from his. Whenever someone else gets the blessing we think is ours, our envy can burn as hot as his did. (Joseph Epstein put it best: “Of all the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”)

And sometimes, we know the pain and confusion Cain felt when God does not seem to want the gifts we are offering.

Hang around church long enough, and you’ll hear talk of identifying your spiritual gifts. There are spiritual gifts inventories, Myers Briggs tests and Enneagrams that are used to reveal our unique gifts and abilities. God will open doors for us to use those gifts, and He watches with great pleasure as we flourish and His kingdom grows. Frederick Buechner is often quoted to illustrate this:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And yet, there are times when we arrive at those places, gifts in hand, and find the door shut.

Where once we found the Lord had regard for our offerings, where our gladness meshed perfectly with the world’s deep hunger, now the way is barred. Like Cain, we are left wondering why. Cain is the object lesson of what not to do in this situation. So, what do you do when God says, “No thank you”?

Do the opposite of what you feel

Feeling hopeless? Pray hope. Feeling angry and slighted? Pray thanks. Feeling envy? Pray blessing on the one you envy.  You probably won’t mean it (at least not at first), but that’s ok. Do it anyway. It is a powerful defense against the sin that “crouches at the door.”  I find the Psalms are perfect for this.  No matter how despondent, frustrated, angry, or baffled the Psalmist was, these prayers always contain praise and thanksgiving to God. They are reminders that for every time you feel abandoned, forgotten or rejected, there are 10 times that God has rescued, remembered and welcomed you. 

Consider that God may be using “closed doors” to draw you to Him.

Cain is angry at God for overlooking his offering, but he sulks in silence. It is God who pursues him and wants to talk about it.

“God spoke to Cain: “Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4:6-7 The Message)

Knowing all the ugliness that lurks in Cain’s heart, it is possible God wants to bring it to the surface and show him how to deal with it. It is possible that God hopes in his pain, Cain will turn to Him. It could be that God wants Cain to recognize sin when he sees it, and having recognized it, resist it.

If you’re knocking and the doors aren’t opening, you could be in the wrong hallway.

Spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests are all well and good, but make no mistake: they don’t bind or constrain God. God could have something else in mind for you. Sometimes God invites us to places we feel we don’t belong, to a far country where the gifts and talents we use to define ourselves are a worthless currency, an offering that is unwelcome.

You may be happily using your gifts teaching Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that God might not call you to pick up a hammer with Habitat for Humanity — even if you’re all thumbs. It may not make sense to now (or ever) but we have to be ready say, “I’m willing.”

Look beyond yourself
Maybe it’s not about you at all. As hard as it can be to imagine, God’s “rejection” of your offering it might not be about you at all. God’s ”no” to you could make “yes” to someone else possible.
In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the meaning of Cain’s story hangs on the translation of one word in verse 7 of Genesis: timshel. In most English translations, it is rendered must as in “Its (sin’s) desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” This is a command, and it can seem as if it is up to us to white-knuckle it and rely on our own strength and will. But timshel can also mean may, as in “you may rule over it,” which gives us a choice and a responsibility. To me, it also leaves room for the grace of God to help me to do what I can’t do on my own.

Sometimes we offer what we have to God and He says, “No thank you.” What we do next will lead us in the way of Cain — wandering in exile, far from God — or in the way of God’s sometimes surprising will for us. 

timshel-thou-mayest

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Imagine That

Photo credit: Laura LaSpalluto

With the late afternoon sun at just the right angle, the Creation of the World, rendered in stained glass, had never looked more beautiful. I have worshipped in this space many times, with many of the same people that are here today for an interfaith worship concert. I know that this institution and the people in it believe the church is a force for good in the world, a light in the darkness. That’s why I was so unprepared for what happened.

In this sacred space, a lampstand of the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., people got to their feet and cheered the notion that what was wrong with the world was religion.

The song that elicited this Standing O was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The soloist invited us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” How we ache for that, when the city of Aleppo is reduced to rubble and its citizens dead, starving or in exile. Dare we hope for a world that “will be as one” when terror and mayhem are striking ever closer to home? We wake every day to a cacophony of political distrust and acrimony. It’s no wonder we hear hope in Lennon’s words and we stand and we cheer. Yes. This is what we want. This is what we hope for. We want it so badly that it’s easy to only hear the words of love and peace.

But there are other words that get lost in the sentimental haze of this beloved anthem. They are the words that show us Lennon’s way to this utopia:

Imagine there’s no heaven …
Imagine there’s no countries …

And no religion, too …

We can have the peace we long for if we could just be free from the corrupting forces of political and religious institutions. No countries, no religion, no possessions: this is how we can be selfless, loving and living in pure harmony. This is the thoroughly modern worldview that says people are basically good, and if they’re not, we can blame the government, or the church, or economic systems.

The Christian worldview is very different. Humans are a paradox. We are created in the image of God and declared good by Him, as depicted in the stained glass windows that were the backdrop for this afternoon’s exercise in irony. Yet at the same time, we carry within us the potential for rebellion, selfishness, violence and greed. In other words, we have the capacity for sin.

In this view, we can acknowledge that political and religious institutions have brought pain into the world. Yes, greed keeps some fat and happy while other starve. But these are the result, not the cause of human depravity and violence.

There is disorder in this world that political and religious institutions neither foster by their presence, nor prevent by their absence.

There is disorder in this world because there is disorder in us, and when that disorder is allowed to flourish, we have Aleppo and Orlando. We have modern day slavery and gun violence and every form of suffering a depraved mind can invent.

Ironically, “Imagine” — Lennon’s paean to basic human goodness — reached #1 in the U.S. after his death in 1980. The sources of violence and discord Lennon cites in his song — country, religion, greed — are not what motivated his murder and their absence wouldn’t have prevented it.

No, for that we have to look beyond the easy answers of oppressive systems into the human heart — even into our hearts.

The Christian worldview says that there is a persistent force of evil at work in the world, a force we can either resist or surrender to. To contend that the only obstacles to the peace we long for are political, economic and religious systems leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the most formidable obstacle of all: Sin.

Like John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a world without conflict and pain. Unlike Lennon, in Isaiah’s vision, the root cause of all the world’s pain will be dealt with by a savior with the power to do what we cannot. Our savior, in his life, death, and resurrection began the work of making us selfless, loving and able to live in peace with one another. And in his return, he will complete that good work he has begun.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
 
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.
 
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
                                               (Isaiah 11:1-7)

Imagine that.

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“Speak to Us Smooth Things”

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For 5 days, we kept our eyes to the sky and our ears tuned to the Weather Channel. We dusted off our hurricane vocabulary and liberally sprinkled our conversations with isobars and wind speeds, storm surges and a new addition — post-tropical cyclone. The forecast was dire: high winds, lashing rain, flooding and rip currents. We fretted, changed vacation plans, took in all possible projectiles and waited for Hermine to join Belle, Gloria, Irene and Sandy, the Storm Sisters that have made history on the East Coast.

We got a few drops of rain and a strong breeze.

You’d think people would be relieved and thankful. Instead, they were disappointed and just a little mad. Newspaper headlines sneered: “No-Show Hermine.” The Twitterverse accused forecasters of hype, fear-mongering and causing undue economic hardship for beach towns depending on Labor Day weekend tourism.

It didn’t take long for the memes to pop up. It’s not that we’re rooting for disaster; most of  us are not that perverse. But if you’re prepared for one and it doesn’t haphermine-150x100pen, you feel pretty foolish standing under a clear blue sky wearing rain boots and wondering what you’ll do with all those extra batteries and bottled water. And when we feel foolish, somehow, “thank you” isn’t what springs to mind. We should be grateful for being spared, but somehow all we can think about is our ruined weekend at the beach and those “weather types who are always wrong.”

All this crankiness about our near-miss with a hurricane got me thinking:

We have an uneasy relationship with prophets of any kind — whether they’re meteorologists or messengers from God.

We don’t like it when they’re wrong. We like it even less when they’re right.

When they are wrong — and in the case of God’s prophets, this means their prophecy has not yet come true — we treat them with contempt and scorn.

God’s prophet Jeremiah knew this well. For 40 years, through the reign of five different kings, Jeremiah warned that if Judah didn’t turn back to God and His commandments, there would be destruction and exile. Many didn’t listen because they just couldn’t believe it could be true — that the God of Abraham would abandon them, that He would allow His temple and His city to be destroyed by pagan nations. So they just stuck their fingers in their ears and went on with their idolatry, injustice and unholy alliances they thought would secure their future.

It must have been hard for the faithful — there must have been some — to see the wicked go unpunished for their obstinate rebellion. They weren’t grateful that God was showing mercy and patience, that more might repent. They mistook mercy for weakness, or for evidence that the prophecy and the prophet couldn’t be trusted. When our forecasters are wrong, we just shrug and vow never to listen to them again (or at least until the next hurricane). Jeremiah wasn’t so lucky. The price he paid for being “wrong” was ridicule, being called a traitor, death threats and imprisonment.

Of course, we’re not really happy when they’re right, either. I doubt that the people of Judah were pleased when, finally, Jeremiah’s vision of destruction and exile came true. Oh, you might have heard the occasional “Why didn’t I listen?” But human nature being what it is, I imagine the exiles were more likely to blame Babylon’s agression, their own king’s failed policies, or even God for abandoning them before they would admit that the judgement was on them. Anyone but them.

When prophets are “wrong” and the consequences of our sin have not yet materialized, we mistake mercy for weakness or ineffectiveness. When they are right and we see the consequences of our sin, we are quick to look everywhere but ourselves for responsibility.

Unless they’re telling us we’re perfect just as we are, prophets can’t win for losing with us.

Another of God’s prophets, Isaiah, put it this way:

“For they are a rebellious people,
lying children,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things …”
                                                                    (Isaiah 30:9-11)

And so, I pray.

I pray that we will have ears to hear, even — especially — the stuff we don’t want to.

I pray that we will be faithful and patient, even when God’s prophecy has not yet been fulfilled.

Most of all, I pray that God will deliver us from the prophets whose words never offend— prophets who speak to us smooth things.

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Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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A Threefold Cord

rope-1468951_1280“Never visit anyone empty-handed.” This was one of my mother’s inviolable rules of etiquette. When you rang the doorbell, you’d better be packing — a nice babka from the corner bakery, a book or magazine, or flowers from your garden.

I broke this rule recently.  I didn’t have any choice. The friend I visited is in prison.

I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything — no babkas, no books, no bouquets. The solid metal door slid open and I walked in empty-handed with nothing to offer but myself.  I felt like Wonder Woman without her bracelets — stripped of power and protection.  

In difficult situations, The Present is a welcome social lubricant. The book can be a conversation starter. The cake is an excuse for some distracting busy work as plates are fetched and tea is brewed. Your friend can marvel over the intricate stitchwork of the prayer shawl. But there would be none of that here; I had no props that could give me the illusion of being useful or any tangible sign of my care to leave behind. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, all that would be left at the end of this visit would be my evanescent smile.

If I couldn’t bring a present, I still hoped I could offer some magic words — words of explanation, exhortation, words of wisdom. I came up empty there, too. So I sat. I listened. I talked a little. We laughed. It hardly seemed enough.

And yet. Without the protective cover of a present, I was forced to consider the gift of presence. It is easy to minimize the power our “mere” presence can hold, and yet when I think of the hardest times of my life, what I remember are the people who sat with me, who let me grieve the way I needed to, and who were simply there. I think of the time my friend Peggy cajoled me into leaving my dying mother’s hospital bed to go for a walk. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was an hour of respite, a reminder that outside that hospital room, there was life. Baton-twirling, bagpiping, beer-guzzling life. It didn’t change anything. We returned to the hospital to the same diagnosis.

But I returned knowing that whatever was coming, Peggy would hold my hand, make me laugh, let me cry. It was a small thing. It was everything.

This is all we really want and it is all we need. In times of crisis, we stand in a long line of sufferers stretching all the way back to Job who cry, “Why?”  There are theological arguments that address this question, but often we have to be satisfied with mystery. Ultimately, we make peace with “Why?” and instead ask, “Who?” Who will stand with me? Who will be brave enough to share my pain? Who will let me cry and listen to my darkest thoughts without shifting uncomfortably in their seat? Who will be Jesus to me?

This is one of God’s enduring promises: I will be with you. And while this is true in a cosmic sense, it is also true in the most literal, boots-on-the-ground sense. God was with me because Peggy was with me. God was with my friend because I was willing to walk into that prison, sit down and offer my presence, as inadequate as it seemed.  God is with us through us.

“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

                                                               Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Our presence can seem like an insignificant offering, all that is left after admitting that we can’t fix the problem, take away the pain or heal the illness.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  It is nothing less than the gift of God to the people He loves.

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The Potter, the Clay and the Stone

 

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The potter sits at his wheel with his ashen hands cupping a squat chunk of clay. It looks unremarkable, giving clues neither to its potential for beauty nor the obstruction hidden within.

He plunges his fingers into the center of the spinning clod and the walls of a vessel begin to rise. As it grows taller and its walls thinner, a small stone emerges, like a mole on an otherwise smooth and flawless complexion. The jar spins and spins and the stone surfaces, distorting the shape the potter is now laboring to maintain. With each revolution, it becomes ever-more lopsided until finally, it collapses onto itself. If this vessel is ever going to be beautiful and useful, that stone will have to go.

This is a story about hidden stones.

*****************************************************

The first time it happened I was kneeling at the altar with my hands outstretched to receive the Body broken for me. By the time the cup was passed, the bread I dipped in it was already wet with my tears. I was surprised, but I figured if you weren’t moved to tears every once in a while by Holy Communion, you probably weren’t paying attention.

Then it happened again and again — during holy moments when I keenly felt God’s presence, and during less transcendent ones, like the church announcements. It would rise up suddenly, like a summer squall. One minute I’d be sitting there listening to the sermon or happily passing the peace and the next, I’d be struggling to tamp down racking sobs. These were not ladylike tears that could be daintily dabbed away by a lace hankie. They were gasping, snot-nosed keening.

I had cried like this before, when grieving or in deep distress. Now, I was neither; I was just crying like I was.

The embarrassment was bad enough; to not even know what all the tears were about was excruciating. My husband pronounced it all a beautiful mystery. I was not convinced. I prayed day after day for God to make it stop. He did not.

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I turned to the mystics, who knew a thing or two about holy tears. In fact, the desert fathers and mothers talked of the gift of tears as something to be greatly desired. They saw it as purification, a recognition of your brokenness and need of grace. Evagirus said this gift would “soften the savage hardness of your soul.” Others compared these holy tears with baptism.

My prayer changed from “Thanks, but can I return this gift?” to “Please show me what this means. Show me what you want me to see, help me to do what you want me to do.”

Months went by and nothing changed. I settled into a weary resignation about the whole affair. I continued to worship. I continued to cry. I continued to pray for revelation.

Revelation came one day through a song. While absentmindedly singing along to a favorite tune, the tears came. And for the first time, I knew why.

“I’m so sorry for things I have done,
I’m so sorry for what I’ve become
I’m so sorry for how I behaved
I’m so sorry for acting this way

If you take me back, I promise to seek your face“

These words that I had sung so many times had finally revealed a hidden stone. More than a stone: a stumbling block in my relationship with God.

Since becoming a Christian, I had asked for God’s forgiveness for many things. But never for the years I spent mocking Him, rejecting Him, secretly accusing Him of abandoning me. True, I had left all that behind me and turned towards God. I acknowledged Him as my Creator, my Father, my Savior. But I had never asked for forgiveness for my rebellion. This small stone stood between me and God. 

All at once — and finally — I saw my hidden and unconfessed sin. I asked for God’s forgiveness and in that moment, felt the mysterious burden I had been carrying for months lift. The tears left just as suddenly as they came.

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Hidden stones. We all have them. They can be hidden sin or old wounds, disordered thoughts or unrecognized idolatry. They are invisible to us, either through familiarity or willful blindness, and it is God’s longing that we see them for what they are and how they have hindered us.  And if we are to be beautiful and useful, they’ve got to go. Uncovering them and removing them is hard and often painful. And if you’re hardheaded like me, it can take a while. (I often think that for me, God’s “still small voice” just isn’t enough. With me, He has to SHOUT. )

But I also know that we can become more sensitive, softer-hearted, more attuned to what God is trying to do with us, in us and for us. I like to pray these verses from Psalm 139:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer of preparation, allowing me to be formed true and straight and strong by purging my impurities.

It is a prayer for revelation, asking to see in myself what God sees in me.

It is a prayer of absolute trust in a God who wants to remove my “stones” and get on with the work of making me beautiful and useful to his purposes.

 

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Lost and Found

 

When we last left our unlikely pilgrim, she was contemplating the nature of sacrifice in a cow pasture in Spain. Inspired by Romans 12:1, she set out to “present (her) body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” by walking the last 80 miles of El Camino de Compostela, an ancient pilgrimage route. Her romantic notions of noble self-sacrifice were punctured by pain and exhaustion, and she began to wonder: Just what was God up to here?

This is how my last day on the Camino began: My Pilgrim’s Passport went missing.

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The pilgrim’s passport is a booklet in which you collect stamps at stops along the way, everywhere from charming chapels in the woods to bars and hotels. At the end of your Camino, you present the passport at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and you receive your compostela, a spiritual diploma that attests to your accomplishment.

On that last day as we prepared to walk the final miles of our Camino, my passport was nowhere to be found. After a week of carefully guarding it and diligently getting it stamped, it was suddenly missing. I tore apart our backpacks, our suitcases and every last pocket on my many-pocketed hiking pants. It was just gone.

I was flustered. Mystified. Angry. After all this, after pushing myself beyond exhaustion day after day, now, I wouldn’t even get my certificate? Are you @$%&* kidding me?

Like a demented drill sergeant, words of anger and frustration barked out the cadence for my final march to Santiago:

I. Can’t. Believe. This.
I. Can’t. Believe. This.
On and on I stomped, furious that after my fantasies of a Camino filled with spiritual revelation had already been dashed, even this small pleasure of getting that certificate would be denied me.

And then I swear I heard God laugh.

I heard Him say, “Really? Is that what this has been about — a certificate, a report card, a Gold Star?”

And then I laughed. A rueful, I-can’t-believe-what-a-dope-I-am, laugh.

You see, the only really unbearable pain of the week wasn’t physical. No, the worst pain I had on my Camino, the pain that made me cry hot, bitter tears, was my own embarrassment and shame.

Now, I had no illusions about being the first to reach our meeting place each day; neither did I believe I would come limping in last. I figured I would be a respectable middle-of-the-pack; a good solid B-.

That’s why it was so hard to watch pilgrim after pilgrim stride past me in what (seemed to me) to be pain- and fatigue-free spiritual ecstasy, while I struggled. And why, when I did come limping in last one day, I didn’t hear the love and encouragement in my friends’ cheers; what my distorted ears heard was pity and judgment.

You know how it is. When you’re tired, or sick or discouraged, you are exquisitely vulnerable to thoughts that flow from old, ulcerated wounds. The worst pain on my Camino was knowing that my weakness and failure were on display for all to see, a dread that has thrummed throughout my life. And then, to not even get my compostela — my gold star — well, that was just more failure than I could bear.

Although not in the way I imagined, God showed up on my Camino.

I so wanted to offer Him a perfect gift in this pilgrimage; instead He honored my gift in its imperfection.

I wanted to achieve and get my gold star; He wanted to release me from the tyranny of achievement.

I wanted to be alone in my shame; He provided loving friends to surround me.

God chose this moment, when I was at my weakest and most worn out, to ask, “Are you tired of this yet? Are you ready to let it go?”

Yes. Yes I am.

God chose this moment to ask, “Are you ready to believe that you are of infinite worth for no other reason than you are my beloved daughter?”

Yes, I am.

This was seismic stuff. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t lost that blasted passport. I believe that in His infinite mercy — and sense of humor? — God hid my pilgrim’s passport from me so I could come to this moment. (I say this because after God and I had a good laugh at my ridiculous fit over losing the passport, I suddenly knew where it was — in a hidden pocket of a jacket that was packed in my suitcase. And sure enough, when we got to the hotel in Santiago, there it was.)
“Present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” (Romans 12:1). This was my plan for the Camino.

The verse that follows it (Romans 12:2) was God’s plan:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Yes.  It would take a renewed mind to reject the world’s definition — my definition — of success and failure, worthy and unworthy.  It takes a transformed mind to begin to see what God deems good and acceptable and perfect.  Those last steps of my Camino were just the beginning of my pilgrimage.

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