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. 

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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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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.

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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.

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

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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Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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Anniversary

 

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Today is the anniversary of the first time I cried. I was probably hungry, or in need of a clean diaper. Perhaps it was the bright lights, the shock of being smacked by the doctor, or the odd sense that my body was no longer tethered, protected, safe. It surely wasn’t the last time. There have been many tears over the years, some, like that first day, because I felt a need that I couldn’t satisfy myself. There have been hot tears of anger, helpless tears of frustration and tears of stone cold fear. I have cried over the sublime and the ridiculous. I have wept with grief and with gratitude. I have cried mysterious tears with no obvious cause —”holy tears” the mystics call them.  But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first breath I drew, the first of millions. Most of them I breathed without noticing, like an app running quietly in the background while I focused on more important things, like why I wasn’t popular or what I should have for dinner.  Even so, there are some breaths that I do remember: The breath that was knocked out of me when my parents died. Breaths that came quickly when I danced to my favorite song (Uptown Funk, anyone?) Slow, steady breaths as I fell asleep in my husband’s arms. The breaths that emerge from my body as song. But that day was the first.

Today is the anniversary of the first time I felt someone touch me. That first touch was likely a firm smack on the bottom (see The First Time I Cried), but after that, there would have been kind hands cleaning me, wrapping me, placing me gently in my mother’s arms. That day was the first time I felt my mother’s hands holding me, touching my cheek, stroking my hair (I had a lot of it!). There have been many touches since then. How small and safe my hand felt enfolded by my father’s, and the sting of that same hand when he hit me — just once, when his rage at my teenage rebellion boiled over, but a reminder of how we can hurt those we love the most. Holding my big sister’s hand as she walked me to school, hugs of consolation, triumphant high-fives, pats on the back (both literal and figurative), having my forehead anointed with oil — so many touches followed that first one, long ago.

Today is the anniversary of the day my life — this life — began. There will be a last day, too, something I think about more than I used to. Sometimes I find myself wondering how and when that day will be — more with curiosity than fear. I am acutely aware that I have more days behind me than ahead and I want them to count. I want to love well, do good work, and feel joy, even in sorrow.  I want to honor the God who imagined me and created me, who has known me from the beginning — and I mean the real beginning, before the first breath, the first cry, the first touch.  

The Psalmist put it this way:

For you formed my inward parts;
    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
    my soul knows it very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
    the days that were formed for me,
    when as yet there was none of them.

                                              (Psalm 139: 13-16)

 

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please and thank you

 

 

“I totally forgot to pray for J. last night!  I prayed for dogs and not for J.!!”

Such was the chagrined email I received from the leader of our weekly Bible study. The night before, after our study time, we opened up the floor for prayer requests. We prayed for a niece’s surgery. We prayed for the well-being and safekeeping of children. We asked for comfort for a friend facing the illness of his beloved dog.

Here’s what we did not do: we did not thank God for the miraculous healing He brought to our friend J., who had recently had extensive, complicated surgery. We remembered to pray for God’s intercession in our lives, the lives of our children, even the lives of our pets. But we forgot to praise and thank the God who was healing our friend, prompting our leader’s self-flagellating morning-after email.

Now I should tell you that this sin of omission was unusual; this is a group of faithful pray-ers (both individually and communally), and I chalked it up to a rare instance of spiritual amnesia. Still, it got me thinking:

Why is it so easy to focus on today’s pain and troubles and forget to be thankful for prayers God has already answered?

Why I am quick to catalogue my requests for God’s intercession, but slow to give thanks for what He has done, or for the fact that I can ask Him for anything at all?

Why am I so much better at “Please” than “Thank you?”

For one thing, Please is easy. Please is all about me: my needs, my pain, my worries, my fears. Let’s face it: what’s easier or more interesting than focusing on me? Please is the clarion call from a Laura-centric universe.  Thank you — well, thank you is a whole ‘nother thing.

If Please is about me, then Thank You is about God.

Thank You puts me in my (rightful) place in God’s universe — at His feet, under His power, in His debt. For someone who likes to live under the delusion that I am in control, that’s tough stuff.

Thank You also raises the ugly specter that haunts every pray-er: unanswered prayer. Thank you acknowledges that the healing wasn’t a coincidence. It acknowledges that it wasn’t random. God acted and the diagnosis changed. God acted and the relationship was repaired. God acted and I had courage and strength where there had been fear and weakness. Yay!

But once you say “Yay!” “Why?” isn’t far behind.

Why did God act this time and not others? Why was this prayer answered and not others? These are uncomfortable questions, because honestly, we don’t know why. Not really. Sometimes in retrospect, we think we can see a good reason why our prayer wasn’t answered in the way we asked, and maybe we’re right. But more often, we really don’t know why God sees fit to heal some and not others. Some people look at that last sentence as prima facie evidence that God is either cruel and arbitrary, or doesn’t exist at all. And some believers look at that sentence and find it hard to be grateful to a God who doesn’t act predictably and in accordance with our desires.

But Scripture tells us to give thanks at all times, in the “Yay!”, when it’s easy, and even in the “Why?”, when it’s not. Perhaps in those moments when we confront unanswered prayer, we can still give thanks for the privilege of prayer itself. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we can even approach the Creator of the Universe with our concerns, our pains, our joys and yes, our thanks. It is only because of His grace that, broken and imperfect as we are, we can come into the presence of such perfect love and power.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
                                                  1Thessalonians 5: 16-18

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(Un)Welcome

Or, Why I Stopped Being Such a Good Hostess

 

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One Sunday I stood in the back of an empty sanctuary. I was the “substitute preacher” that day, and was taking a few moments to center myself before worship began. I closed my eyes and began to shake my head emphatically from side to side. My husband asked, with some alarm, “Are you all right?”

“I’m shaking off the sign,” I said, as if I was a pitcher who didn’t want to throw the fastball. Not only didn’t this clarify anything for him, it made him even more concerned for my sanity, so I told him about The Thoughts.

Sometimes, right before I preached, I would start thinking, “What makes me think I can do this? I’m not holy enough, not learned enough, haven’t been a Christian long enough. It wasn’t that long ago I was the person who mocked believers, who scoffed at the very notion of God. It’s pretty cheeky of me to think I have any business being in the pulpit. Who do I think I am, anyway?”

With shaken confidence I would preach anyway — after all, what choice did I have? But once I began, I remembered that it wasn’t my worthiness that consecrated the words; the Word consecrated me. Once I began, I would feel the joy that I always did, the feeling that this is exactly where I should be. Still, the next time, The Thoughts showed up on cue.  

After a while, I got tired of them. I got tired of being thrown into a tizzy right before I was going to lead worship. I got tired of doubting that God wanted me in that pulpit.

I got tired of the sniping, snarky, soul-sucking voice of Satan.

Because that’s what it was. The Thoughts had me asking, “God, am I unworthy? Does my past unbelief permanently disqualify me from proclaiming the gospel? Am I kidding myself when I think that You have called me to this?”

When Jesus says that His sheep recognize His voice, He is right. When I thought about it, I could see that The Thoughts were not the voice of my shepherd.  Jesus doesn’t sow doubt and fear and shame.  Jesus would never say “You’re not good enough.  You can never be better than your worst sin.”    

No, The Thoughts gave voice to one who only wanted to silence me, to make me believe that a transformed life was not possible. 

I recognized in them the voice of Satan because, let’s face it, who else would want to keep the Gospel from being proclaimed?

Why, then, was it so easy, so natural, to entertain these thoughts? And entertain them I did. They rang the doorbell, and I showed them in.  I entertained them because they disguised themselves well, either masquerading as humility, or sneaking in on the coattails of my dear old friends self-doubt and despair. 

I showed them to the most comfortable chair, and fed them so they could grow fat and happy. I made up the guest room with its breakfast tray and fresh flowers and invited them to stay as long as they liked, even if that meant there was no room at the inn for my shepherd and his unmistakeable voice.

I pride myself on being a good hostess. My greatest joy is house full of people, all talking at the same time, entering and exiting separate streams of conversations seamlessly, like some kind of conversational double-dutch. And food, lots of food. So the thought that I would ever refuse hospitality for any reason makes me shudder. And yet, I have learned that some guests should not be welcomed.

There are guests that are not coming to me for the warmth of my table or to share the blessings of my home.  Instead, they seek to “steal and kill and destroy” and I have let them. I have listened to them tell me I’m not enough or that I’m too much. I have been attentive to the whispers that insult and demean me, that steal my hope. 

St. Paul knew what to do with such things.  This is what he tells the believers in Corinth: 

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

                                      ( 2 Cor. 10:5, emphasis added)

Now, when The Thoughts present themselves, I can say, “Oh, so it’s you again! Have you met my shepherd?  He’s in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t.” I’ve never thought of Jesus as a nightclub bouncer before, but that’s the image that keeps coming to mind:  my Savior working the velvet rope that guards my heart and my soul.  It makes me feel safe.  It makes me smile. 

 

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