#RESIST

I don’t care what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says, “gift” is not a verb. When I hear someone talk about gifting something, I want nothing more than to make them a gift of The Elements of Style and smack them upside the head with it.

I recently discovered that while I have been defending the world against the scourge of nouns-as-verbs, they have quietly made their way into the dictionary. I refuse to acknowledge or acquiesce to such barbarism. In the spirit of the times, I am declaring:

#NotMyDictionary  #Resist

I vow to preach the gospel of #neveraverb as long as I have breath. In the words of Martin Luther, patron saint of resisters, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

At the heart of my resistance — of all resistance — is the belief that I know better than The Authority I’m resisting. My defiance denies the authority’s moral, legal, academic or spiritual legitimacy in favor of my own. Now, resistance can be a principled, brave opposition to an obvious wrong. (Think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce or Martin Luther KIng, Jr.) It can also be petulant, obstinate and self-aggrandizing, like my linguistic jihad against verbified nouns.

If it were only a matter of grammar, I could chalk it up to a charming quirk. But I fear this rebellious streak goes far beyond the Word Wars.

If resistance is substituting my own judgment for an authority’s then I am guilty of resisting God. You probably are, too. It’s OK, we come by it honestly. We inherited it from Adam and Eve.

“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.” (Genesis 3:6)

In other words, God said “No”, but I know better.

She knows God has prohibited it; she says as much to the serpent. But she rationalizes her rebellion. It looks good, it probably tastes good. It will make me wise, and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t a loving God want me to have it?” (By the way, I think this last is one of the most dangerous questions we can ask. For one thing, it assumes that if God loves us, He will give us our every desire, even if that contradicts His will and His word. For another, it often precedes an argument that ends in “I know that’s what He said, but He didn’t mean it that way.”)

Eve and Adam’s rebellion — and ours — is rooted in the desire to be the judge of what is good and what is not. Their desire has convinced them that they can ask God to scooch over so they can share His throne.

This is why our resistance hero Martin Luther famously wrote that the root of all sin is idolatry. We never break any commandment without having first broken the first: “You shall have no other gods before me.” After all, once that is abrogated, then the absolute moral authority that undergirds the rest of the commandments becomes just another voice in the din of relativism. And all the while we pile up one rationalization after another for why this is all perfectly fine and God is cool with it.

From that day in the garden to this day at my desk, people have struggled with the radical claim on our hearts and our heads of that first commandment.

1. There is one God, and it’s not me.
2. God alone has claim to all authority and truth.
3. When God’s word is clear, but I think I know better, see #1

When it comes to words, I cling to the notion that I know better than the dictionary. I suppose there is no real harm to this, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades.

But when it comes to God, my resistance reveals a dangerous idolatry.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks a haunting question:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”    (Luke 6:46)

Why indeed.

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Meryl Streep is a Pharisee and So Am I

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Let me get this out of the way: Meryl Streep is a phenomenal actress. I admire and respect her talent and have been moved by much of her work. She has the right and privilege of free speech. I am not here to dispute or debate any of these things. In fact, in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes the other night, she said something that was absolutely dead on.

“Disrespect invites disrespect.” I wonder if she knew how right she was.

After declaring that those gathered were “among the most vilified segments in American society right now,” she warned that if we kicked out all of the “outsiders and foreigners” in Hollywood, “You’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.“ Really? Without Hollywood we wouldn’t have the arts? What about ballet? Music? Theater? Hollywood certainly isn’t the only — or even the best — source of great art around. That she could be at once so self-pitying and self-aggrandizing is remarkable. Yes, the Hollywood she rhapsodizes about can produce great art. But for every “Sophie’s Choice” there is “Ricky and the Flash” which you’d be hard pressed to describe as Great Art.

Second, who’s to say that movies and television are better (that is to say, more refined, more edifying, more civilizing) than sports? Has she ever seen “Marriage Boot Camp?”  How about “Gigli?”  Apparently, instead of “vilifying” Hollywood, we should be thanking it for saving us from a life of low-brow entertainment (at least the kind that doesn’t come from Hollywood). 

She went from celebrating diversity to looking down her nose at any other form of entertainment than her own in seconds flat.

I heard another voice when I heard her say these words. I heard the voice of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, he tells this story:

“He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Jesus makes plain who the “villain” and the “hero” of this story are. The Pharisee is self-righteous and lacking humility before God; the tax collector was self-effacing and very aware of his sin.

The message was not lost on the Pharisees who were among his original audience: be on guard against the insidious sin of pride.

And here’s just how insidious that sin is. When we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our natural instinct is to denounce the Pharisee’s arrogance, self-importance and sense of superiority over that sinner over there. We might even say to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that legalistic, bombastic Pharisee.” And in doing so, we become the Pharisee ourselves.

In telling this story, Jesus shows us how easy it is — how human it is — to become what we condemn.

I can’t help wondering if my pointing out Meryl’s Streep’s condescension isn’t tinged with a little, “Thank God I’m better than that.”  How easy it is to feel pride over my humility!  All I can do is echo the words of the tax collector: “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Meryl, if Hollywood continues to be “vilified”, don’t be surprised. As you so plainly put it, “Disrespect invites disrespect.” May God give us all the humility to break the cycle.

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I shift in my seat.
I grumble and mumble.
I roll my eyes and let out exaggerated, exasperated sighs.

This is how I wait.

I’m not proud of this, mind you. I know that petulance never makes the line move faster or the plane take off any sooner. But man, I hate to wait.

There seems to be only two ways to wait: passively and actively.
The passive waiter is patient, unhurried, easygoing. In other words, not me. No, I take charge and act: I switch lines or switch flights. I make things happen, though often action born of impatience turns out to be ill-advised, unwise and generally not a good idea.

But Advent shows us a third way of waiting.

In Advent, we see a push-and-pull of action and stillness, of active preparation and passive acquiescence that leads to nothing less than a miracle.

Mary and Joseph are able to act decisively and boldly when it is required of them to act. They both actively collaborated with God’s plan when they each said “Yes” to the angel’s proclamation to them. Mary wastes no time hurrying to Elizabeth when she hears of her miraculous pregnancy. Joseph obeys his visions and marries Mary, then takes his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous rampage.

Yet, they are also able to be still, to rest and allow God to work out his purpose, in His time, in His way. They could prepare for his birth, but nothing they could do — no amount of  impatience — could hasten the birth.  Once their son was born, they would feed and clothe, nourish and instruct him in the the faith. But their actions could not prepare them for the singular challenge of raising the Messiah, for watching Him die, or seeing the glory of His resurrection. For this they could only depend on God’s action, and they did.

Mary and Joseph live in this tension of action and rest, knowing and not knowing. They are able to live “in the meantime”, not with passive inertia nor with frantic, panicked activity.

They know the difference between what is theirs to do and what is God’s.

In Advent we mark the time when we wait for Christ to be born in us.

  With Mary, we ponder how God will use us to bring about his Kingdom.

  With Mary, we wonder how He will make life where there is none.

  With Mary, we hear ourselves say, “I don’t see how you’re going to use me, but I’m willing.”

  With Mary, we do what is asked of us, then wait with patient trust and expectancy.

The first Advent, and every one since, marks the uneasy, uncomfortable, hidden, mysterious, beautiful time when we are asked to act and wait, to be still and to be on the move, to do our part and to leave room for what God will do.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability —and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
                                             (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

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Division

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THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME  … is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But laws cannot change the human heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s Afraid of Election Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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