Right Thing, Wrong Reason

shack-384021_640

or How I Wound up Building a Shack

 

I’ve been a writer most of my life. When I was in elementary school, I wrote in a little red diary with a gold lock and key, then graduated to spiral bound notebooks full of poetry and teenage angst. I wrote in marble composition books, in leather-bound journals and on manual typewriters whose keys would stick and tire my hands.

Eventually, I became a corporate wordsmith-for-hire and I wrote what others wanted — their message, their schedule, their purposes.  And I wrote what I wanted less and less. The thing was, at the end of a long workday, I just didn’t have any more words left in me.

Last year I decided to do what I had long dreamed of: write in my own voice. And so, three months ago, I began a construction project. I dreamed of building something beautiful, something that would use my life and my gifts to draw people closer to God. I envisioned using my words to invite people into a warm and welcoming cottage where we could sit by the fire and share the joys and challenges of following Jesus.

I tackled it like any of the other product launches I’ve worked on over the years. I took care of the infrastructure (procuring domain names, setting up the website, etc.). I devised a marketing plan. I tried to make the best product I could and deliver it regularly. I set benchmarks to measure success — Likes, followers, retweets, subscribers, comments.

I found joy in writing what is in my heart. With every post, I kept a careful eye on those “success” benchmarks. What a joy to receive praise! Every positive comment makes me giddy. Every new subscriber buoys my spirits. Every new follower makes me feel like I matter. It’s been over a year since I left my last job, a year of discernment in which I often felt uneasy and adrift. The praise and Likes and Favorites quieted that unease and gave me direction. “I have a purpose. I have value. Yes, this is who I am now.”

Wait. What?

I have always looked to external measures and rewards to tell me who I am. I was the kid who looked forward to report card day. A gold star told me I was a good girl, worthy of love and attention. To this day, when I walk into a room, I quickly get the lay of the land: Am I the thinnest woman here? the best dressed? the smartest, wittiest, most organized, the holiest? (By the way, the answer to all of these is usually “no”. Still, that’s OK. I can exhale and get on with it, just knowing where I fit in the pack. I guess in that respect, I’m temperamentally more dog than cat).

Every A, every gold star, every comparison I ever made told me
who I was and what I was worth

And I was doing it again. Without realizing it, I had gone from wanting God to use me to using God to get those gold stars that would make me feel important and worthy. I was amazed at how easily the line is crossed between doing something for God’s glory and doing it for my own. It stopped me dead in my tracks. What do I do now?

I stopped writing and started reading. A book about Ignatian spirituality, Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and one about Islam. Most importantly, I started my “Bible in a Year” reading program, (only a few weeks late!) because I knew that my words needed to be undergirded by and subject to The Word. And that is where I read this:

If God doesn’t build the house,
the builders only build shacks.
(Psalm 127, The Message)

I wanted to build a beautiful cottage and instead was well on my way to building a shack. No cozy chairs by a warm fire, just made for conversation. No, what I and my hunger for the world’s gold stars had built was just a bare bones, barely adequate shelter.

That Psalm reminded me that God must be the architect; I am just the construction worker. I bring him what I have: my words, my heart, my fingers on the keyboard. I ask Him to remind me, as many times as necessary, of who I am in Him and what I am worth to Him. I bring my repentance when I forget. I ask Him to be my divine “blind spot warning system” that lets me know when I need to make a quick course correction. And I work to expand the audience for the message he entrusts me with, remembering that all those Likes, Follows and Favorites belong ultimately to Him.

Mother Theresa said, “I do not pray for success. I ask for faithfulness.” Amen and amen.

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In God We Trust

I spent this morning in a room full of pain. It is not a space designed for comfort, physical or otherwise. The wooden benches are hard and the heat is stifling even on a frigid January day. An aisle separates the “sides” in this judicial proceeding — the victim’s family and friends on the right, defendant’s on the left, like some sick joke of a wedding. It lacks the majesty of movie courtrooms: no dark wood panelling, high ceilings or gold inlay. Just a drab little box of a room with scuffed linoleum floors and a microphone that doesn’t work. It hardly seems a worthy setting for the drama unfolding.

I have come to this most unprepossessing place to hear sentence pronounced on the man who killed my friend. I sit in the same seat as I did during the trial, although at least this time, I have a soft down coat to cushion that unforgiving bench. The same cast reprises its roles: the young prosecutor, the bumbling defense attorney. The victim’s grieving husband, brother and friends. The defendant and his grieving wife and children. The judge, whose words will change so many lives. We meet again, in the same room where a few months ago, I willed myself to stay and see the autopsy photos, where I listened to the defendant deflect all blame for taking my friend from us all.

Something is different, though. I notice for the first time the words in large, gold block letters that hang over the judge’s head:

IN GOD WE TRUST

Funny, they must have always been there, but I just now see them. In God We Trust. I look at the red eyes of my friend’s husband, at the sagging shoulders of her brother, then at my husband’s hand holding mine. I look across the aisle at the defendant asking for mercy and the women who love him weeping, and I wonder what those words mean, here in this room full of pain.

In God We Trust.  Is the State of New York and its legal system declaring their trust in God? To hear courts tell it, no. In response to legal challenges over the years, courts have declared these words have no more than “patriotic or ceremonial character”  and “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  Ok.  As far as the government is concerned, these words are just a quaint, patriotic, meaningless decoration.  

But for me and for many of us here today, “In God We Trust” isn’t just some patriotic trope. These words are the only oxygen in the room.

We came praying, trusting God for justice, although what that would look like depended on which side of the aisle you were sitting on. Was it God’s justice or man’s that we witnessed here today?  I don’t presume to know.  But I do know that, regardless of whether God “answered” our prayers for justice, we trusted Him enough to pray in the first place, knowing that answered or not, God would still be with us.  

We trusted God for comfort in our grief, although for some that grief was over a brutal, untimely death, and for others it was over a life irrevocably changed by having caused that death.  We put our trust in God to help us absorb whatever blow the sentence would inflict.

After the sentencing, one of the defendant’s relatives approached my friend’s husband.

“Can you forgive him?” she asked.
“Yes, I forgive him. This is what our faith teaches us.”
“May I hug you?” she said, tentatively, tearfully.

They hugged and I was in awe of this God in whom we put our trust. This is a God who fills a room full of pain with strength and solace.  We trust this God who sits next to us on those hard benches, whether we are grieving violence done to us, or the violence we have done to others. We cling to the God, who, in the words of one of my favorite hymns is “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”

 

 

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What Now?

Today we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. After worshipping Him and offering gifts, Matthew tells us, “Having been warned in a dream, they left for their own country by another road.”  This is the last we hear of the Magi in Scripture, but do you ever wonder what happened when they returned home? They travelled a long way to Bethlehem and found the King they were looking for.  Then what?

The poet T.S. Eliot pondered this same question. In a poem written not long after his own conversion experience, Eliot gives voice to one of the Magi, looking back on that dividing day between then and now, between belief and unbelief, between old life and new:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
grumbling
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high
prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.
…..

 

All this was a long time ago, I
remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.

(For a real treat, listen to Eliot reading the poem himself)

Its easy to forget amid the sweet nativity scenes and sentimental carols that the Incarnation was a turn-the-world- upside-down event. It had King Herod quaking in his boots, and all Jerusalem with him. Jesus’ birth challenged not only the political and religious powers of the day, but also irrevocably changed the lives of every person who encountered Him.  The shepherds, Simeon, Anna, the Magi — none would ever be  the same.   Eliot’s poem is a fiction full of truth about life after the drama of encountering God.  It is a contemplation of the Day After the Altar Call.  What now?  What next?

After finding and worshipping Jesus, the Magi went back to their own country, to their old lives, surrounded by the very people who mocked their journey.  If these folks thought it was crazy to follow a star in search of a king, can you imagine what they said when they heard He was found in a manger in backwater village? No, this was no triumphal return. In addition to the ridicule, these pilgrims were “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”  They were strangers in their own homeland.  

Encountering God can have an unsettling effect on our lives.  It is a thing of mystery and incomparable beauty.  But it isn’t only that.  It is a seismic event, leaving chasms where before there were only cracks that could be ignored. It is a destabilizing thing, casting “certain” things into doubt; making “essential” things dispensable; making us feel not quite at home anymore, among alien people clutching their gods.  Freeing us, certainly, from things we’re desperate to leave behind.  But also asking us to leave behind “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbet,” pleasures and comforts and seemingly good things to make room for …  well, for what?  We don’t always know what God will fill those spaces with, and that makes it especially hard to leave them behind.    

What now?  How do we live with one foot in 2016 and one in eternity? How do we honor the God we have come to know in a world that is often indifferent at best and at worst, openly hostile to Him?  What does it look like to consecrate ourselves to God while living a (worldly) life that has its own rhythms and demands?  What death will my new life require?

So many questions. When I get overwhelmed with questions, I remember the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, often used as part of New Year’s worship services.  

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.

These words quiet my soul and bring me back to the simple and explosive truth of my faith.  Whatever is past, whatever is next, whatever is born, whatever dies, You are mine and I am Yours.  So be it.  

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