(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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To Die For

In the courtyard of Caiaphas' house, Jerusalem

In the courtyard of Caiaphas’ house, Jerusalem

Have you ever watched someone you love when you think they’re not looking and think, “Yes, if it would mean your happiness, if it would save your life, I’d die for you.” 

Maybe you have believed so strongly in the righteousness of a cause that you were willing to risk your very life for it. Some powerful images come to mind: the lone protester defying tanks in Tianamen Square, civil rights marchers facing snarling dogs in Selma, or a line of martyrs kneeling on a beach, seconds before they are beheaded for their faith. I am in awe of such people.

Popular culture is full of epic love stories and tales of heroism that demonstrate love and commitment so strong that it would pay any price to protect and ensure justice for the innocent.  These stories give us goosebumps and allow us to believe in the goodness of humanity.  They are beautiful stories, but they are not the story of Good Friday.

Like all of Jesus’ life, the story of Good Friday turns a familiar narrative upside down:

in this story, the Hero doesn’t sacrifice himself to save the innocent; he dies to save the villains.  Think Batman dying to save The Joker and you’ve got some idea of what happened on Calvary.  

This is how Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it: 


We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him. (The Message)

 

We can understand dying for someone worth dying for. But what about the person who has hurt you deeply?  Would you give up everything so that person could live a life of freedom and peace?   What about the parade of evildoers that come into view every day:  terrorists who murder and rape, child abusers, financial criminals, politicians who make the veins in your neck pop and bile fill your mouth. Any volunteers to die in their place? Anyone?  

Maybe when I’ve mastered Jesus’ command to bless those who harm me, I can tackle something more challenging.  But for now, my answer is:  I would die for my husband. I would not die for Donald Trump.  But Jesus would and Jesus did.

And it wasn’t just for some abstract multitude of Sinners. What Jesus did was also very specific, very personal, and beyond any human calculus of good or bad, worthy or unworthy. Before He died for All of Humanity, he willingly died for one human: Peter, his weak and cowardly best friend.  The intimacy of his sacrifice is often lost in the Grand Story of the Passion. 

It all played out in a courtyard, where a cold wind blew and a rooster crowed.

There Peter stood by a makeshift fire that couldn’t warm the spiritual shiver slicing through him. Just a few hours before, he proclaimed with great bravado, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”  Those words mocked him now; with each denial, he grew colder and more ashamed. The rooster crowed, and his despair was complete. Bad enough he had failed so miserably, but His Lord knew he would and knew he did.

He knew he did because Jesus was near, just beyond that courtyard in a dark, damp pit, utterly alone. Jesus heard the rooster crow and He knew it happened exactly as He said it would.  Peter — His comrade-in-arms, who promised to defend him to the end — had failed him miserably. His friend has broken his heart. And still, He allows himself to be tortured and humiliated and mocked, not only for the sake of all sinners past present and future, but also for this sinner, for this one, weak, flawed man who had abandoned Him.  

Christians often talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  If we’re anything like Peter, that means there are times we’ll boast about our faith and our fidelity and in the next breath, lie to save our own skins.  It means that, for all our confidence in our own goodness, we will falter and break His heart.  For us, in our humanity, this would seem to be a deal breaker.  But Jesus knows that our human frailty, while painful to Him, is exactly why He had to step into the breach.  

This Good Friday, let us not be satisfied to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was grand, sweeping and for the salvation of all.  Let us stand in the courtyard with Peter, shocked at the pain we have visited on our Lord.  Let us crouch in the pit with Jesus, the Hero of this upside-down story, whose sacrifice for the unworthy was and is intensely personal, emotionally costly and for the salvation of one.  

And let us remember that Peter’s story didn’t end in that courtyard and neither does ours. God will do for us what he did for Peter:  Forgive us.  Give us resurrection life, fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Give us grace to heal, reconcile, love, maybe even to sacrifice ourselves for those we consider “unworthy.”  

More from Paul’s Leltter to the Romans:

“We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.”

Not cowering in that courtyard — but standing tall and shouting our praise in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

 

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Jesus Is

“It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” This was the famous response then-President Bill Clinton gave to a question asked of him about the scandal that rocked his presidency. Much fun was made of his lawyerly parsing of the question, of his squirrelly, squirming attempt to avoid telling the plain truth.

Oddly enough, this phrase came to mind when I considered the third aspect of Advent: the Advent of the present tense. In between the Advent of history — when Jesus came — and the Advent of the end of history — when Jesus will come again — is the Advent of the present, when Jesus comes into our personal history. It is here that we consider the Jesus of the here and now, the Jesus who is.

But what does it mean that Jesus is? In Advent, we contemplate Jesus’ Incarnation, His becoming human. But having “put on humanity” in the Incarnation, did He shed it once His earthly assignment was done? In other words, is Jesus still human? When we speak about Jesus in the present tense, are we talking about a purely spiritual being that has gone “home”, reverting to some pre-incarnation state? Or are we talking about someone who retains His humanity even as He has been glorified and is seated on the throne?

This isn’t merely a matter of splitting semantic hairs. It makes all the difference in the world to me. I always took great comfort in knowing that Jesus was human. He laughed and loved and mourned. He was hungry and tired. He became angry and frustrated and felt pain when his friends betrayed him. But if Jesus’ humanity isn’t just past tense, if it isn’t just some sense memory, if He knows what it is like to be human because he is still human — that adds a dimension of intimacy and immediacy that someone who is merely remembering an experience can’t give.

Jesus is — and not just in an ethereal way, at great remove. Now, maybe this isn’t the revelation to you that it has been to me. Perhaps you are one of those people who talks about and actually has a personal relationship with Jesus. Maybe you talk about Jesus as your friend or brother. I’ve long felt like a second-class Christian because as often as I’d heard these words, that was not how I saw Jesus.   Until recently, that is.

I was in a prayer session and during a guided meditation, I was asked to recall an early childhood memory. What surfaced was a frightening one: I’m five years old, blinded by the bandages covering my eyes after eye surgery. My cousin taunts me about all the monsters I can’t see lurking around every corner. I am helpless and afraid and vow that I never will be again. This was a seminal experience; so much of my life has been spent trying to protect that little girl.

My prayer partner asks me to imagine Jesus in the scene. I see Him sitting next to me, I feel His arm around me. She asks, “What does he say to you?” “He is says ‘I’ll take care of little Laura. You go and do what you have to do’.”

Jesus has never been more real to me than at that moment and all the moments since when I feel weak and small. Jesus comes, body and soul, to reassure, to comfort and to free me to move forward. In His eternal humanity, He comes as my brother and friend, who knows firsthand the joys and sorrows of this life. He comes as “the image of the invisible God” to offer me hope and healing as only God can. And every time is a new Advent, a new coming of Jesus into the world, my world. Jesus is.  

 

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Faith and Fear

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When I was 30, I thought that my life had become too safe. I decided that every time I went on vacation, I would do something that terrified me. So I parasailed over the Atlantic Ocean. One time, despite my fear of heights, I climbed a series of rickety ladders leaning unsteadily up against the side of a mesa in Arizona. I keep pictures of these accomplishments on my bulletin board to remind me that it is possible to not let fear rule my life.

Fear is just part of being human, which is why the Bible talks about it a lot. (The word itself appears 399 times!) Scripture assumes that we will feel fear. The question it asks is, “What are you going to do about it?”

One of my favorite stories is from the book of Daniel. Here we find Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, condemned to die because they would not worship the golden idol of the king of Babylon. They expected God would be faithful to His faithful promise to be with them, even if he didn’t save them from the fire.  Now it’s easy to think that their great faith in God meant they weren’t afraid. I think they were plenty afraid.

But faith is about what we do with our fear.

Do we allow our fears to set the boundaries of our lives, then resign ourselves to living within them? Or do we acknowledge our fear, even respect it, but make it subject to boundaries set by God – what God expects of us and what we can expect of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did that. Afraid or not, they knew what God expected of them: You shall have no other gods before me. Afraid or not, they knew what they could expect of God: God would be faithful to them, too.

Now, they weren’t sure how God would do that. They just knew he would. And when they are thrown into the furnace, we see how God fulfills his promise. A fourth man, “who had the appearance of a god” enters into the fire with them, and all four emerge, unharmed. Instead of removing these three faithful believers from the danger and pain, God was with them – in the most literal sense.
And for a completely different picture of faith and fear, I think of Peter. Peter and the disciples find themselves in a storm — the wind is howling, the boat is pitching back and forth and when he sees Jesus walking on water towards him, he thinks it’s some ghost come to finish them off. But even though it looks like Jesus, and sounds like Jesus, Peter needs more proof. He says, “If it is you, tell me come to you on the water.” Peter gets his proof – he is able to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then Peter looks at the storm and sinks because in that moment, he doubts that God is with him.
In the middle of the fire, you can almost hear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego look at the fourth man and say, “God is with us!” as if they expected him all along. Of course God is with them! That is what God does.
In the middle of the storm, Peter seems to say, “God is with us?” as if he can’t quite believe it.  Peter not only didn’t expect God to be with him in the storm, he didn’t believe it when he was.

Faith is about what we do with our fear.  It is not about some unshakable certainty. It is not some superhuman bravado. It is expecting God to show up when what we fear has come true.
When you are in the middle of the storm, or the fire, or the health crisis, or the family problem, what are you expecting?  Do you expect God to show up?  More importantly, do you recognize it when he does?

 

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Mighty Mouse and Me

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My friend died and I am sad. But I am more than sad about when and how she died. I am profoundly sad about how she lived.

For as long as I’d known her, she lived with a variety of serious medical problems. Some she survived much to her doctors’ surprise; some were chronic and intractable. In addition to her overwhelming health problems, she lived in utter chaos. In her apartment, there was barely a path to walk amid all the piles of paper, newspapers, magazines, and just plain STUFF. The only clear surface where anyone could sit was on her bed, and “clear” is a relative term.

I accompanied her to doctor’s appointments. When she was in rehab after her major surgeries, I did her laundry, helped her pay bills, took care of her cats. I attempted to tackle some the mess in her apartment, throwing away bag after bag of trash, and corralling what was left into boxes with labels like “Top of Desk,” “Sofa” and “Table Next to Kitchen.”

I say all this not to tell you what a wonderful friend I was. I say this as a confession, because while I did these things out of love, I realized after she died that I was also trying to save her. I wanted to be the one who rescued her from her loneliness, from the home that was not fit to live in. I was going to be Mighty Mouse, swooping in to right all wrongs to the strains of my triumphant theme song: “Here I Come to Save the Day!”

Then she died and now it would never change. When I went to her apartment after she died, the boxes I packed three years ago were still there, stacked against the wall, now surrounded by a fresh layer of detritus. Those words, in my own handwriting — “Top of Desk,” “Sofa,” “Table Next to Kitchen” — mocked me and my fantasies of rescue. As I grieve the loss of my friend, I am also mourning my failure to be her savior.

I know how those words sound: full of hubris and delusions of grandeur. Yet, I suspect I am not alone in this. Many of us want to feel wise enough to know what someone needs and powerful enough and capable enough to provide it. Many of us want to believe we are wise enough to understand our own needs and self-sufficient enough to see to them ourselves. We like knowing we have a Savior in Jesus; we just don’t always live like we need one. If I admit I can’t be someone else’s savior, I have to admit that I can’t be my own either.

I am reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen: “It is Jesus who heals, not I. Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I. It is Jesus who is Lord, not I.” I can — and should — be loving, merciful, and self-sacrificing to others. I can — and should — do what is within my power to care for myself.   But I must be careful. I cannot cross that line from “serving” to “saving.” I cannot be seduced into thinking I have the power to  bind up the brokenhearted or heal deep wounds. That is Jesus’ delight. That  is Jesus’ mission, which can be accomplished through me, not by me.

My faith tells me that whatever disappointments, suffering and frustration this life had for my friend, they are gone now. She is with the God she loved and who loved her. Whatever struggles she had with her own limitations are gone. She is in the care of someone — the only one — who could truly save her. The same could be said of me, this side of Paradise.

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