Love My Neighbor?

By now, you may have heard of the woman whose neighbor plowed her driveway — unasked — which occasioned an op-ed about the perfidy of “Trumpites” as she calls them. 

While she grudgingly acknowledged that it seemed like a nice thing to do, she was having none of it.   She went on to say that being nice is exactly the tactics that evil monsters often used — she cites Hezbollah, Louis Farrakhan and of course, Nazi collaborators.

All because neighbors were kind to her.  

It is fair to assume from her essay that she doesn’t know these people. And yet, she knows all she needs to:  they supported a politician she detests. Do you suppose her neighbors know her political leanings as well?   And that they — gasp — were kind to her nonetheless?  I suppose it is possible in this age of conspiracy thinking, that they did it just as a cover for their dastardly deeds, but what if they thought of her as more than her politics?  

This is inconceivable to the adherents to identity politics.  Identity politics reduces all of us to one dimension — our politics, our gender, our sexuality, our race, our finances.  It is a closed and airless universe in which we are only and ever one thing — no subtleties, no contradictions or human unpredictability. It is a world totally devoid of nuance, completely lacking in grace.  

Which brings to mind a story from long ago, before Trumpites or the Resistance, before Proud Boys or Antifa.  It appears there was a man who was robbed and beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. People of his religion and ethnic makeup saw him and left him there.  But someone — someone who he was supposed to despise and who was supposed to despise him,– stopped, gave him first aid, took him to a safe place and paid for his health care.  

By the code of the perpetually outraged, this man should have awakened and spit in his rescuer’s face.  He should have said, “Boy, isn’t that just like a Samaritan — making nice all the while supporting murderous regimes and heretical religious beliefs.”  He could have said I know all I need to about this, this deplorable, and he can’t fool me with his good deeds.  For that matter, his rescuer might have said the same.  He could have said “Isn’t it just like those Jews to get themselves beaten up and expect someone to come to their aid.”  

But that’s not the story Jesus told.  He told the story of the Good Samaritan because someone asked, “Who is my neighbor?”  You see, these divisions and animosities are old news, as old as humanity.  As long as we’re satisfied that labels tell us all we need to know about each other, we will live in a brutal world of mutually-assured destruction.  

Stop right now and read Luke 10:25-37.   The parable was occasioned by a simple question:  “Who is my neighbor?”  In other words, who do I have to love?  And equally important, who do I allow to love me? 

Those who have ears, let them hear.  

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I got my first COVID vaccine shot the other day, ending weeks of wrestling with temptation.  

You see, until last week, the only way to even register for the vaccine  — much less snag a coveted appointment — was to check the box that said I was 75 or older.  Which I am not. 

I was, however, extraordinarily anxious to get the vaccine because I believed it would give me some peace of mind. Being diabetic, I believed it would protect me from serious complications of COVID. I believed I would feel less restricted, less frustrated, perhaps more comfortable getting a massage or going on vacation, both of which I am desperate to do. 

My mouse hovered over that box and I thought of all the reasons it would be OK to just click and be on my way to vaccineland:

  • I may not be 75, but I am in the next group up, so it’s really just a matter of timing.
  • There are plenty of people who don’t even want to be vaccinated and I do!
  • Relying on local government to manage this process fairly and efficiently is absurd. After all, these are the people who brought us the DMV.   
  • It seems to be the only thing that will calm my anxiety and ease the frustration that boils over at the slightest provocation.

I didn’t click the box.  It wasn’t just the threat of prosecution for making a false statement, though I’m enough of a Girl Scout that it did spook me. It was a nagging feeling that the story I was telling myself about why it was OK was pretty weak tea.

Recently, a spin class instructor made national news by bragging that she had gotten a vaccine by claiming she was an “educator” and urging others to do the same. What story did she tell herself, I wonder?  

Or how about the large donors and board members of hospitals that have been allowed to jump the vaccine line?  What did they tell themselves as they rolled up their sleeves? 

Do I even need to mention the politicians who have flagrantly broken their own COVID quarantines? I imagine it took some impressive mental gymnastics — and chutzpah — to send a tweet from a resort in Cabo urging people to stay quarantined in their own homes, unable to even go to loved ones’ funerals.    

All of this got me thinking:

I believe that, as a rule, people don’t do things they think are wrong.  Oh, they may acknowledge that there is some rule or law or commandment against what they want to do.  But they think there are several good reasons why none of them apply to them.  I believe this is true for the whitest of white lies, and for the most heinous of crimes.  We always have a good reason for what we want to do, rules be damned.  

When my grandmother would take a handful of grapes while grocery shopping, she told herself that the store could afford it with the prices they charged.  Our politicians rationalize their bad behavior with an excuse used by children since time began: “They started it.”  Cutting in line, breaking a promise, cursing someone out, fudging on taxes, getting someone fired for expressing the “wrong” opinion, physical or emotional violence — we are experts in justifying ourselves. 

Why do we do it?  We do it because we have to in order to believe we’re basically good people.  If we don’t we’re faced with two very distasteful scenarios. 

  • We would have to acknowledge that we are being lawless with no good reason, which just makes us sociopaths.
  • We would have to live with not satisfying whatever desire we have. 

Not surprisingly, the first story told to justify breaking a rule was told by the first people.  In Genesis Chapter 3, that wily serpent begins by placing doubt in Eve’s mind …”Did God really say….”  The rationalization train leaves the station, and chugs along until she arrives at her destination:  

 “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

She and Adam knew the rule — the only rule — but they wanted that apple,.  So they told themselves a story.  “God didn’t really say…God didn’t really mean…Why wouldn’t He want me to have this beautiful thing?”  We’ve been doing it ever since.  

Now there are times when it is right to resist an unjust law.  But let’s not kid ourselves.  Very little of what we rationalize rises to the level of Gandhi or Harriet Tubman.  Perhaps if we asked ourselves who our “story” benefits it would become clear where it falls on the rationalization scale. If it’s only for your benefit or convenience or pleasure, I think it should give you pause.  

And so, with every news story warning of shortages of vaccines, or of impossible-to-get appointments, I heard the serpent’s voice whispering, “Go ahead, click that button.  What’s the harm?”

I didn’t listen, but there’s always next time.  He’s a wily one.  

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Forever 53

Today is my Mom’s birthday.  She would have been 95 today.

Of course, I have no way of knowing she would have been 95.  I can’t say with any certainty that she would have lived to 55, much less 95.  Still, I am assuming that, but for the lung cancer that took her at 53, she would have survived to old(er) age. 

As it is, she is forever 53.

She is forever a mother to two young adult daughters, forever a wife of 28 years.  She is like a bug frozen in amber, when time stopped for her, and in some ways, for me too. 

Her death cleaved my life in two: from a mother’s child to a motherless one.   At 23, I was fresh out of college, in my first job, first apartment, first taste of what we now call “adulting.”  And suddenly, a great constant in my life was gone and I had to figure out life without her.

And I did, slowly, and often painfully. I found a career (then another, then another).  I found a husband.  I built my nest in my own home, something she never had.  Some things about my Life-After-Her she’d recognize.  I still do crosswords faithfully, just as we used to do together at the kitchen table.  I still watch old movies, and hold a special place in my heart for all those that were her favorites.

There are things that might surprise her, like my faith or the fact that I am one of those middle-aged suburban women that politicians have suddenly discovered, like a tribe deep in the Amazon, ripe for evangelizing. 

So on this day marking her birth, let me just say that Death stinks. It is the Great Thief, robbing us of so many good things, dividing our lives into Before and After, forever depriving us of possibilities of any forward motion — of healing, of continued love, of forgiveness in the relationship now severed.   Not only is she forever 53, but our relationship will always be only and exactly what it was on the day she died. 

Every Sunday during worship, I say these words:

“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

And I do believe that death will not have the last word.  But in the here and now there is pain and anger and frustration in death. Jesus knew this.  When his friend Lazarus died, He wept.  He knew that He was about to bring him back to life, but still, He wept.  He wept at the pain death causes. He wept at the waste.  He wept because our rebellion opened the door to this Great Thief. He wept because Death stinks. 

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, I will share in His eternal life. But in His tears of grief over Lazarus’ death, I know that He knows my sorrow. There is great comfort in that.

Happy birthday, Mom.

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Naming Names

My father’s name was Howie.

When my Mom called him for dinner, when my cousins greeted him, when my grandmother disparaged him behind his back, it was always “Howie.”  Howie was the silent, sitting- on-a-powder-keg-of rage, odd man out in our house full of women. His name was Howie and because I knew his name, I thought I knew him. 

My father’s name was Nicholas.

One day my father handed me my freshly signed report card with a name I didn’t recognize:  Nicholas. Who on earth was that?  And that was how I heard the story of the group of friends he hung out with when he was growing up— a group I always envisioned as Depression-era ragamuffins that were naughty but not really Bad.  There was another Nick in that group, and apparently, it wouldn’t do to have two, so they chose another name for my Dad. There was still plenty of discrimination against Italians in those days— my uncle changed his last name so he could get a good job on Wall Street — so maybe it isn’t so strange that given the choice, they chose something as all American as Howie.

Nicholas was the child of immigrants who were looked down on, eager to fit in, willing to give up his claim to his name in the cause of friendship and assimilation.

My father’s name was Angelo. 

One day when I was a teenager, I discovered that my father wasn’t Nicholas, either.  His name was Angelo. 

My uncle let it slip and explained that Angelo was a name my Dad hated, so as soon as he had any agency at all, he asked to be called by his middle name, Nicholas. It wasn’t until after he was gone that I understood why. 

A brittle yellow birth certificate, carelessly stored in a shopping bag in a dank basement, recorded my grandmother’s first-born sons — twins named Philip and Angelo. Now, I knew that  one of the twins had died in infancy, but I never knew his name.  My grandmother named her next son — my Dad — Angelo.  My father was named after a dead baby, long missed and mourned. 

Angelo was the child that never never felt good enough, was loathe to displease, and couldn’t wait to cast off the shroud he was made to wear. 

There are the names we are given. 

There are the names we give ourselves. 

And there is the name God gives us. 

And all of them define us, shape us, can be sources of pride or pain, conveying love or rebuke, revealing or concealing our true nature.  

Our birth names are given before anything is really known about us — whether we’re serious or goofy, exotic or run-of- the-mill.  Sometimes these names are nothing but a burden that is too heavy to bear, like being named after a dead baby.  

The names we acquire later in life define us as well. They can be nicknames — playful or cruel, loving or mocking. (Italians are famous for bestowing less than delightful nicknames. I actually had a relative that people called Cockeyed Mary — to her face.) After longing for a nickname as a child, I did acquire one as an adult, and I came to love it. 

Then there are the names that God gives us. Of course, He calls us His children, His beloved.  Sometimes God’s unique name for His child is revealed in this lifetime, like when Jacob is renamed Israel or Simon is renamed Peter — names that embody who they are to become. 

I believe that God has such a name for each of us, a name we might never know until we see Him face to face.  I imagine when my Dad died and was reunited with the One who created him, God didn’t call him Angelo, or Nicholas or even Howie.  These were names he was given, or gave himself.  But God, who knew my Dad before he was formed in the womb, had already given him his identity. 

I like to think that along with my new, resurrection body, God will greet me with the name I have had from the beginning, the name He has given me, the name I will recognize instantly when I hear it. I will know at once that with this name, God is recognizing and celebrating my essential nature and character.  The names I have been given, or have chosen for myself have served me well in this life.  But God’s name for me, well, that will be the keeper.  

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Every Day is Saturday

The first Good Friday brought death and despair and shock to the band of followers of the prophet from Nazareth. On the day after — what we now call Holy Saturday — there was grief. And fear. And regret over what could have been done, what should have been done.  And there was blame, plenty of blame, for whose fault it all was. 

I used to muse about what it was like that first Holy Saturday, what it was like to be stunned by what had just happened.  I imagined what it felt like to be overcome by the shadow of unexpected, brutal, solitary death.  I thought about how, with all hope gone, time must have seemed to pass slowly.  I pondered the fear in that Upper Room — fear that those huddled there might be next to die.  

I don’t wonder any more. 

Now, in the year of our Lord 2020, in the year of the Great Pandemic, it seems every day is that Saturday. I see death all around me and feel helpless to stop it. I am hunkered down in my Upper Rooms, admitting no one, venturing out only under exigent circumstances, hurrying back to the safety of my closed universe.  I watch the news trying to figure out who is to blame and who I can trust.  And I am afraid.  I am afraid that despite all my precautions, that illness — and even death — will come for me next.

It is not all the time, of course. Most of the day I soldier on, working, cleaning, doing crosswords, cleaning, Zooming with friends and family, and then cleaning some more. But there are moments when I feel the weight of Saturday, when I see pictures of the unthinkable. Mass graves being dug for the dead, just miles from where I grew up. People, exhausted beyond measure, who are keeping the world running while we hide and wait. Funerals being held via cellphone. There are times when the water seeps through the cracks in the dam and I am overcome.

Of course, I know what the apostles did not know on that first Saturday.. I know that although the hours of grief and fear and confusion passed slowly that Saturday, they did pass. I know that on Sunday morning, when they unlocked the door and let Mary in, everything changed. The joy of seeing a risen Jesus overshadowed all the pain. How can you fear death when you have seen that He conquered it? How can you grieve for someone who is not dead? How can you blame yourself for betraying Him when He has forgiven you for it?  

All that is true and I am profoundly grateful that I know what they did not. Yet, I think it is a mistake to fast-forward over Saturday to get to the happy ending. We are here, now, and it is right to mourn.  After all, Jesus mourned for his friend Lazarus and saw death as the great enemy to be conquered. It is right to remain cut off from the world, for now, as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for our neighbors. We should not be ashamed of fearing illness or death — Jesus Himself asked for the cup of suffering to be taken from Him.  

I believe that God respects and honors our human experience.  He doesn’t ask us to pretend that there is no pain in death or that we are not afraid. He doesn’t set up the false equivalence that faith is incompatible with feeling pain (it’s people who do that).  

If you don’t believe me, read the Psalms.  Every form of human emotion — anger, anguish, physical pain, mental torment, vengeance, jealousy, bitterness, you name it — is there, part of Holy Scripture.  Yes, the Psalms always end in praise, and that is a great balm.  But they tell me that God respects and welcomes the expression of our emotions. 

In that spirit, I offer a Psalm for Saturday

My heart is broken, Lord.

for the sick and the dead, and those who love them.

for those who have seen their livelihoods vanish and struggle to provide for their families.

For those who are lonely

The unbelievers ask, “Where is your God?”

And then I see where you are.

Where you have always been, a breath away from anyone who calls on you.

The unseen hand comforting the dying and giving strength to the caregiver.

Inspiring your people to generosity and selflessness in a time of need.

Showing your immeasurable love on the Cross.

Standing outside an empty tomb, triumphant over this world’s pain and death.

And through my tears, I praise your holy name.

Just like that first Holy Saturday, this seemingly endless one will end, although we don’t know when, or how, or what the world outside our isolation will look like when it does.  I do know two things.  That God is with us now, in all our fear and confusion and grief.  And that God will be with us on the other side, offering us a hope we never dreamed of. 

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Two Tickets to Paradise

In the past two weeks, I’ve seen the finale of the TV show The Good Place, an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and attended the funeral of one of my oldest and dearest friends.  All in all, I’ve had the chance to think hard about the afterlife. 

The Good Place was a unicorn—a network TV show that encouraged serious thought about the meaning of life and death.  Oh, and it was a comedy that trafficked in satire, slapstick and silliness.  

The show took place in the afterlife, where people are consigned to The Good Place or The Bad Place, depending on the number of points they scored for “goodness” during their earthly life. In the course of navigating this system, the characters were asked to consider: What does it mean to be good?  What do we owe each other? Can people change?  The satire was sharp, often hilarious.  But at the same time, it presented philosophical arguments in a way that assumed our willingness to consider Life’s Big Questions while still enjoying a good fart joke. 

Aside from a nod to religion in the first episode (“All the religions got it a little bit right.”), and the fact that there were supernatural beings in control of both the Good and the Bad Place, the show was a paean to humanism.  These four humans consistently outsmart and outmaneuver the cleverest demons and the most well-intentioned angels. Their belief in human potential, the essential goodness of of people, and a sense of obligation to each other allows them to design a better system of the afterlife.  

And yet, when they finally make it to the new and improved Good Place, they are profoundly disappointed. True, their every desire and fantasies are instantly fulfilled, and they are giddy.  But they discover that after a while it is mind-numbingly boring. An eternity of “happiness” as defined by their individual desires and whims is unbearable.  

The funny thing is, this idea is completely consistent with the Christian worldview, which posits that a life centered on the self is at its core, profoundly empty. Pascal called this “a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator.”  St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”  Although decidedly not Christian, The Good Place comes to the same conclusion:  Even if we have everything we want, it will not be enough. 

Paradise Lost gives us a similar view of what a human-centric Paradise is like. The play focuses on Eve’s temptation by Lucifer, who sees that despite the abundance of God’s creation, Eve wants more.  Not content to be able to communicate with birds, she wants to fly like one. She peppers Adam with questions about God, the garden, and why God doesn’t seem to have any grace to spare for Lucifer, who fascinates her.  God’s idea of Paradise isn’t enough for her; she wants more.  And more is what Lucifer offers in the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil.  Her desire to define Paradise on her own terms is her (and our) undoing.

The Good Place and Paradise Lost both ask the same question: What happens when our idea of Paradise is based solely on our own desires? In The Good Place, without an idea of a good Creator who is able to provide what truly satisfies, the only choice is between eternal ennui, and escaping into nothingness. A Paradise of our making is fun for a while, but empty.

For their part, Eve and Adam do acknowledge a Creator, yet still behave as if what God declared good was not good enough.  Like the characters in The Good Place, they want Paradise to be about them. 

Which brings me to Max.  My dear, sweet, funny, exasperating, loyal friend for all of my adult life died this week.  And I’ve been thinking about what kind of a place I’d want him to be in right now.  

I don’t want him to be somewhere that is just a better version of this world, where we are granted every wish.  That’s not what the God of the Bible offers us, and we should be glad about that, because, let’s face it, even our purest desires are distorted by sin. 

No, for my friend I want something better, something purer, something that transcends my human capacity to imagine it.  I want him to spend eternity in a world that is God’s idea of perfection, not mine. I want an eternity– for him and for me — that is spent not looking in a mirror, but gazing on the face of God.

Throughout Scripture, God offers us so much more than our finite minds can think or imagine.  Listen to the invitation from the Prophet Isaiah: 

“Come, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

(Isaiah 55:1-3)

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Tabula Rasa

It is 6 a.m. on January 1st. The sun is not up yet, and neither am I.  Until I throw back the covers and my feet hit the floor, all good things are possible and all bad ones haven’t happened yet.  

The New Year is before me, clean and quiet as a new snowfall. There are no tracks left behind by words I regret, no rivers of dirty slush created by hurting someone I love.  I have not yet been petty or proud or petulant. I haven’t disappointed myself or anyone else yet.  I haven’t broken a promise, failed to be kind, or sinned in any number of ways against God or others. 

It is a delicious feeling, being suspended between the past and the future. 

Turning the calendar page allows me to put a bow on last year, with its joys and regrets, and look ahead to what might be.  I can imagine that I will do better this year — be more loving, braver, humble, fruitful. I can imagine that this time, all the discipline and goodness that has so long escaped my grasp will this year jump into my waiting arms and make itself at home.

After all, this is what New Year’s resolutions are all about.  Because the calendar says this is the start of something new, we say to ourselves, “I can be different and I will start now.”  Of course we can do this any month, day or hour of the year, but somehow we don’t.  We wait until an officially sanctioned New Beginning to wipe the slate clean and imagine a new story will be written on it. 

When I was little girl, that’s what I loved about going to Confession. I would go into the dark, musty-smelling box that was the confessional and tell my sins to the old, musty-smelling priest behind the screen.  When I emerged into the daylight, I loved the feeling that I had a tabula rasa — a clean slate.  

Today, when I say the prayer of confession in worship and the pastor declares my forgiveness, I often weep with gratitude. In that sense, every Sunday is New Year’s Day, because it places me on the fulcrum between the past and the future.

St. Paul puts it this way: 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) 

This is what we all yearn for.  A fresh start, another chance to be better, unencumbered by our pasts.  I’m grateful that I have that chance every week. 

As I approach the Lord’s Table, I can say that, through God’s grace, “I will be different, and I will start now.”  

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Knit, Purl, Me

 

Yesterday I took a piece of my life and wrapped it in cotton-candy-colored tissue paper. The attached note, tied on with matching ribbon, declared that in this gift — this prayer shawl — every stitch was a prayer.

This is not exactly true. It is true that when I take up the needles, I pray — if it is someone I know, I pray for the specific ways this shawl will bless them. If it is for a stranger, I pray for God’s peace and love to surround them.

But every stitch a prayer? That’s a bit of holy hyperbole.

You see, woven in with the prayers is my life. Like a second strand of yarn, the pattern also contains whatever spiritual vibe comes from binge-watching Monk. My intercessions are for the friend who will receive this shawl, but sometimes they are also for my anxiety du jour. The steady breathing of the cat who sleeps next to me is as much a part of this undertaking as the sheep who has offered his fine coat to warm another. I fear the frustration of ripped-out rows or the impatience of wanting to get on with the next project also becomes part of my offering.

All of which is to say, it’s not all spiritual ecstasy and choirs of angels. It is simply hour after hour of my life.

Perhaps that is why I feel an emptiness when a project is wrapped in its beautiful paper and given away. I am proud of the beauty I have created and anxious to see it wrapped around someone who needs the joy and comfort of knowing that they have been prayed for. But I also feel like I’ve given away a chunk of my life, hours that do not seem as abundant as they once did. Wrapped in that tissue paper, tied up in that beautiful raffia bow is nothing less than months of prayers and petulance, intercession and impatience, and the discipline and occasional tedium of showing up, day after day, row after row, and committing to the work.

People who have received shawls often comment that they can feel the prayers embracing them. I wonder if they can also feel all the other things that have been absorbed into the strands. I wonder if I am now spiritually connected to this person in ways neither of us can fathom.

Of all the shawls I have made, some stand out.

  • The shawls I gave to my friend Jean when her mother was so gravely ill — one for her, one for her Mom. Jean and her Mom are both gone now, and I wonder where these pieces of me are now.

 

  • The one I gave to one of my oldest friends on the eve of her first chemo. In the months that followed, when I felt frustrated at being so far away, I imagined the shawl was an adequate stand-in for me.

 

  • The one that was left behind on one of the trips to the emergency room that were too commonplace in the last year of my father-in-law’s life. I like to think that part of me still rides around Kansas City in an ambulance with others who are afraid and in pain.

These invisible bonds between knitter and knitee bring to mind Dorcas, a woman we meet in the book of Acts. Dorcas was a seamstress who formed a community with needle and thread. She sewed tunics for “the widows” — women who were vulnerable, forgotten and often in need. And when she died, the widows held her legacy in their hands — all those simple, everyday garments that at first glance were unremarkable. Until the widows told their story — how they were made with love and how they bound Dorcas to them, and them to each other. As I work on my latest project, I wonder if when I’m gone, my “widows” will show their shawls to the other mourners and say, “See how she loved us.”

The story of Dorcas goes on to include a miracle. Their grief was so intense that they sent for Peter, who raised Dorcas from the dead, restoring her to the community, mending the fabric torn apart by death.

When I die, I do not expect to be miraculously resurrected as Dorcas was, at least not right then and there. But I do expect that the same power that brought Dorcas back to life will be active in me today and will allow me to serve others. I do expect that same power that brought her back to life will one day do the same for me.

Until then, I bind myself to people I love and people I will never meet with the softest wool and the smoothest needles, weaving in prayers and To Do lists, fervent intercession and mindless sitcoms. I will sit alone, hour after hour, like a busy little spider creating webs of connection between me and the world.

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Are You Ready?

 

I stood in her kitchen, holding a pan of lasagna.

She was a new mother and she had the disoriented look of someone who had just parachuted into enemy territory. I guess you could say that’s exactly what had happened to her, because this was not the homecoming she had planned. For one thing, after spending an extended time in the hospital, her newborn was already a month old. For another, his head was held in place by a metal bolt through his neck.

My friend who was involved in a ministry to parents of babies born with major cranio-facial abnormalities asked if I would bring this new mother dinner, since we lived in the same town. Even more than most new mothers, this woman had very little time or energy to worry about such mundane tasks as making dinner. So there I was, making awkward small talk with this woman I had never met.

After thanking me several times, she finally asked, “Why did you do this for someone you don’t know?”

I blathered on about how happy I was to help, that I knew she needed one less thing to worry about. All that was true, of course, but I could tell it wasn’t a satisfying answer. After all, why would a perfect stranger walk into her house bearing dinner?

I offered something bland and vague, along the lines of “I’m happy to help,” but even I knew that was inadequate.

Here’s what I wished I had said:

“I’m here because God loves you and I am just His caterer.”

“I’m here because God wants you to know that you and your son are perfect and precious to him.”

“I made you lasagna because God has rescued me from pain and confusion and exhaustion and I want you to know that he will do the same for you.”

Most of all, I wished I had said that I didn’t bring dinner because it was the nice thing to do. I didn’t cook for her because, as the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, ” My religion is kindness.”

The world can certainly use all the kindness it can get; I’m not discouraging it.  God knows (and I mean that literally) that we need to be more tolerant, compassionate and helpful to one another.

But the kindness of bringing dinner fills your belly, but not your soul.

Kindness can offer kinship and fellowship, but it doesn’t offer hope and it doesn’t comfort you when everyone has gone home and you are alone with your pain and fear.

No, my religion isn’t kindness.

My religion is belief in a God who sees beauty where the world sees deformity. My religion worships a God who knows what it means to be human, in all its glory and all its pain, and never leaves us.

My religion is in awe of a God whose Holy Spirit could overcome my fears and allow me to hold this mother’s child, looking past the rod in his neck, and smile at his sweet face.  I brought her a meal and she was appreciative.  I cooed at her baby boy and she was joyous.

Still, I regret my silence all those years ago. I take comfort in the possibility that maybe someone else was bolder than I and told her all the things I should have.

I’ll be ready next time.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  yet do it with gentleness and reverence.   

                                                                                                       1 Peter 3:15-16

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When Evil Walks In

“I don’t want you to alarm you …” Tell me, is it possible to hear those words and not be alarmed?

The pastor of the church where I would be preaching that Sunday called to alert me about an “incident” during worship the previous week. A man showed up in the middle of worship and walked down the center aisle carrying a large duffel bag and ranting. He was “subdued” by the ushers and escorted out. “I don’t think he’ll be back, but the state police will be there on Sunday just in case. I thought you should know.”

Her voice was calm, and reassuring. Still, this is what I heard:

Crazy man.
Large duffel bag.
Had to be subdued.
State police.

My training as a lay preacher covered the design of worship services, doctrine, hermeneutics and Biblical exegesis. But not once did anyone tell me what to do when worship was disrupted by an angry man with a large duffel bag. All I could think was, “I’m just the substitute teacher! This is way above my pay grade.”

Other than being greeted by state troopers (which was, at once, reassuring and unnerving), it turned out to be an unremarkable worship service.

My worst fears didn’t come true that Sunday, but other churches haven’t been spared the horror I feared.

This week, it was Sutherland Springs, Texas where murderous evil breached the sanctuary. And, as if the execution of 26 people and wounding of as many more wasn’t horrible enough, the fact that it took place in a church was particularly hard to bear.

For believers, the idea that their sanctuary could be violated in this way was unthinkable. Many people think of church as the ultimate safe space, a place we can enter and then pull the drawbridge up behind us, leaving the world and its madness behind. When massacres happen in Sutherland Springs or Charlottesville, our idea of church as a spiritual stronghold is challenged.

So, here are the questions I’ve been chewing on:

Should we expect to feel safe in church?

Is church a space where God will not allow the world to intrude?

It strikes me that this is a First World Question. According to Open Doors USA, each month, 214 churches are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians worldwide. In countries like Syria and Iraq, the Christian population has been decimated. Churches in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia Pakistan and Kenya have been destroyed and Christians murdered.

For all the talk of the marginalization of the church in the U.S., and the ongoing culture wars that can make us feel under attack, the church in America doesn’t know the first thing about persecution. For too many of us, church is a soft place to land, a city whose walls protect us from all harm. The rest of the world has no such illusions. Every worship service is a defiant declaration that Jesus is Lord; no one expects the surrounding culture or political organization take that lying down. They are sorrowful, but not surprised, when evil comes to church.

I’m not suggesting that what happened in Texas last week was persecution; in fact, as of this writing, motives are unclear. But it has caused me to admit that I think that somehow when the church doors close behind me, the world and its evils will not intrude. I admit that I am like many people who think of church is where I can let down my guard and make the world go away.

But if the church is being the church — open doors, no moats or drawbridges here — it is possible evil will walk in. It is possible that God’s holy space will be profaned in word or in bloody deed. It is easy to worship in safety. Worshiping without guarantees of physical safety or comfort — now that’s real faith.

I recently went on pilgrimage to Ireland, tracing the steps of St. Patrick. One of my favorite places was Ballintubber Abbey, continuously in use since it was built in 1216. In 1653, the abbey was burned by Cromwell’s forces, destroying the roof and several outbuildings. Nevertheless, for the next 250 years, people continued to worship there, week after week, regardless of weather, and in spite of laws prohibiting it. As I sat in the rebuilt abbey, I wondered: Would I have been so faithful? Would I have been as brave? Would I have been a lookout for the priest hunters who came to kill my pastor? Would I have helped him escape certain death? Would I have been willing to kneel on the cold ground in worship?

Or would I have wondered, as I did this week, “Should I expect to be safe and comfortable in church? Will God allow the world to intrude?”

I don’t know why, but sometimes evil walks into church the same way it drives down the bike path or firebombs prayer meetings or enslaves young girls. I don’t know why God doesn’t always intervene to prevent such suffering.  But I do know that proclaiming Jesus is Lord is a declaration of war and I should be ready:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:13-17

 

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