Moments of Grace

My last post was a cri de coeur , a lament over the current state of discourse.  Particularly painful was that, on occasion I found the same brittleness, the same arrogance in the the Christian community as in the rest of the world. 

And yet, that is not the whole story.  Because as many times as I have been disappointed by harsh words and intolerance, (and have disappointed others with the same), I have glimpsed moments of grace among believers.  Moments of grace that have brought me to tears, moments so improbable that they could only be supernatural. 

One such moment happened in the midst of great conflict, as accusations flew and demonization was the price of admission. 

I was at a Christian conference at which the hottest of hot-button issues was being debated.  The usual battalions faced off in a hotel conference room.  I rose to propose an amendment to a resolution being considered, an amendment vehemently opposed by another group.  I was suggesting the removal of a paragraph in an otherwise worthy resolution, a paragraph that was asserting things that were simply not true, and irrelevant to the issue at hand. 

To everyone’s surprise, Candy, part of the group opposing my amendment, spoke in favor of it.  Certain she misunderstood, the chair explained that she was speaking in favor of the amendment, not against it.  She understood, all right. She was willing to withstand the scorn of her group because although she and I disagreed about just about everything else, she did not think her “side” needed to lie in order to win points. 

Later that day in front of the entire assembly of 1,200, Candy approached me and we talked, as unlikely a pair was you’d ever want to see. When we parted, we hugged.  It was a moment of sheer grace for all to see.  In that moment every division, every disagreement of policy and theology, every contemptuous put-down either of us had ever offered or received vanished. 

I have thought about her a lot lately.  More than anything, I want to have her bravery, her humility, her love that doesn’t require agreement or capitulation.  In the time since that moment of grace, I have come to see that if we as Christians can’t talk about hard things with each other, we certainly can’t expect the world to be able to do it. And so, I try to learn from her example:

  • You must never sacrifice the truth in the pursuit of what you consider your just cause.  
  • The minute you think “Us vs. Them” you have abandoned the way of Jesus. To Him, no one was beyond grace, no one was irredeemable. Just read the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).  Both sons were “lost”. The father held his arms open to both, welcoming them home. 
  • It takes great strength and integrity to be humble.  Along with the firm conviction that I am right, I try to leave space for four important words:  “I could be wrong.”  

Yes, there are still times when I am disappointed in myself and others when we behave badly.  But there are times — transcendent times, joyful times, — when empowered by the Holy Spirit we can speak the truth in love, when we recognize Christ in the other.  

And it is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, because as we see in the world, this is not something we are able to do ourselves.  Let’s face it, it is downright unnatural to give mercy, to admit our own failure, to continue to love when all we feel is hate.  But when we can, when we do, it is the power of God in us.  

Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples sat in that room, full of fear, grief, and uncertainty.  And the holy wind swept through and replaced their fear with boldness, their grief with joy, their uncertainty with an unshakeable determination: to leave that room and take the Gospel to a sometimes hostile the world.  

On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the church.  Yes, that church that is only as good as the people in it, a church that is full of flawed saints who nevertheless have the light of Christ in them.  I’m reminded of these words from 1 John 4:4:

“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” 

We celebrate the birth of the church where that holy wind is still blowing, allowing us to show extraordinary love, practice forgiveness, and experience grace.  

I want more of that in my life, don’t you?  

Come, Holy Spirit, come. 

Loss For Words

It used to be that when I was having trouble writing, the best remedy was to read. It reminded me that I loved words.  I loved giving myself over to someone else’s vision, to being led, to being thrilled by a turn of phrase, a clever twist, being surprised that words on a page could evoke emotions usually reserved for real life. 

When I seemed unable to do any of those things myself, I sat at someone else’s feet and let them school me. It was liberating, nourishing, invigorating.  

Lately, it has had the opposite effect. The more I read, the less I want to write.  In the last few years, the non-fiction writing I have consumed from newspapers, magazines, Twitter (lots of Twitter) has left me exhausted and for the first time in my life, at a loss for words. 

Two things have happened that have made the thought of opining about anything as appealing as root canal.  Twitter is at the heart of both.  

Ironically, I started on Twitter because of  my writing.  I was told that to be successful, I had to build my platform, and social media was the way to do it.  I quickly realized I’m just not a Twitter kind of gal.  Other than promoting my blog, I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  But, I did get sucked into the vortex of other people’s opinions, hot takes and flame wars. And all those voices have just drowned out my own.  Like someone who spends all day working in a candy factory, the last thing I wanted to do was have a chocolate bar when I got home.

It’s not just exhaustion, it’s also fear. Because of the nature of Twitter — of any kind of public discourse, really — I am loath to peek out of my foxhole for fear of drawing fire.  I have seen what happens to people to wade into that battlefield and it ain’t pretty.

When I think about it, there are things I want to say, but I am afraid.  I want to set the record straight about things I know are not true.  I want to present another side to a story that is being presented as incontrovertible fact.  I want to come out of the closet and say, “You know those people you think are stupid/evil/enemies of all that is good and holy — well, that’s me.” This leaves them with two choices:  reevaluate their assessment of those people, or reevaluate their assessment of me.  I fear it would be the latter. 

I think I know what I can expect from the world at large.  But it becomes particularly difficult when it comes to people who share my faith.  I’ve come to expect vitriol and closed minds in the public square.  It seems people have retreated to their own fortified castles where only the like-minded are welcomed and the thick stone walls ensure no other voices penetrate.  I fight hard, not always successfully, against this in my own life.  When I come across a story that fits a little too perfectly with my ideas about things, I try to stop and see if it is really true.  Often it is not, and I am chastened.  I fight hard to keep the drawbridge down, lest someone with whom I disagree cares to visit. 

But I have a higher standard for people in the body of Christ.  Not that they’re perfect saintly people all the time.  I know I am not, and I know they aren’t either.  But, I do expect some shared notion of grace and mercy, some expectation of mutual respect simply because we are both children of God.  Alas, I have been disappointed many times.  Disappointed in how others spoke to and of me.  Disappointed in how I treated others.  

I once belonged to a Christian organization that preached the virtue of diversity, and rightly so.  But when I dared to transgress the accepted zeitgeist, I learned that this didn’t include diversity of opinion.  When I tried to express my (unacceptable) views, I was called vile names, the worst being “not a true Christian.” I expected that from cable news.  I didn’t expect it from the gathering of saints.  So, I stopped speaking and I stopped listening. Another fracture in the body of Christ. And wasn’t Satan pleased!  

In fact, I wonder if this era of fighting like cats in a bag isn’t Satan’s finest hour. Encouraging our darkest impulses, especially those who belong to the Lord, hoping to peel the sheep from the shepherd. Fomenting fear, keeping people slinging mud, hurling epithets, using primal screams in the place of reasoned discourse.  Or worse, scaring people into silence and silos.  

“The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” (Job 1:7)

It is has ever been thus.

A Tale of Two Sheep

I‘ve been thinking about sheep lately.  Two in particular: let’s call them Trevor and Charlie.   

Trevor is the star of a car commercial.  While his flock is contentedly grazing, he takes off in the opposite direction and jumps into an SUV driven by an affluent couple.  He becomes their pet, of sorts, going for walks on a leash, being bathed, enjoying car rides with his head out the window.  The voice over proclaims: “Life just gets better when you break from the herd.”  

We smile as he chooses individualism over stultifying conformity. If Americans had a motto, it would be “You’re not the boss of me,” and Trevor would be our mascot.   

The second sheep is Charlie. Charlie was found wandering the hills in Australia, alone. Like Trevor, Charlie broke from his flock, but he wasn’t living the life of a pampered suburban pet.  

After the initial exhilaration of breaking from the herd, Charlie began to feel the weight of his “freedom.”  Year after year, without his annual shearing, his wool became heavier and heavier until he could barely move or see, and heat stroke threatened to kill him. His “freedom” was slowly killing him and there was nothing he could do about it. 

When he was found after 6 years of wandering, his rescuers sheared 80 pounds of wool from him (about half his own weight).  At first unsteady and uncertain about walking without the crushing weight he had grown accustomed to, soon he was running and leaping and playing with other sheep.  Back in the fold, he found freedom where he once saw captivity.  

We have all been Charlie at one point or another.  If you have wandered off from the safety of God’s herd, in search of your own freedom or adventure or self-determination, know this:  What seems like freedom will one day be a burden you will be powerless to lift on your own.  The burden will grow, year by year, immobilizing you, blinding you, threatening your life. 

Our wandering isn’t always a dramatic leave-taking.  More often, it is small, seemingly harmless digressions. Every time I try to handle pain on my own, I break from the herd.  Every time I go off in search of some shiny object that promises freedom, I wander.

By the way, the enemy of our souls knows this well.  He knows what will tempt us and he knows just as well that once tempted, it will be hard to free ourselves.  As Thomas Brooks wrote, “Satan presets the bait, but hides the hook. “ 

Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing is one of my favorite hymns, in no small part because of this verse: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the one I love.”  We are all vulnerable to the “bait” despite our best intentions and resolutions. But this is not cause for condemnation, or despair.  

There is good news:  We will wander, but our shepherd will never stop looking for you or for me.  He is the shepherd who will leave the 99 in search of Charlie and Trevor.  

(Yes, Trevor, too, because he is just as lost.  As happy as Trevor might be at the end of our commercial, it will not last. He will likely break from his new found “herd” in search of something else — someone with a better car or a bigger house.  Perhaps he will long for the company of those in his flock.  Either way, he will search for freedom where it can’t be found.   I am more like Trevor than I’d like to admit.)

When we allow Jesus — our shepherd — to “find” us, he will lift our self-inflicted burdens, not with reproach or “I told you so” but with tender care. Every time.  

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5)

Thanks be to God.

Love My Neighbor?

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

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

All because neighbors were kind to her.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those who have ears, let them hear.  

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of this got me thinking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forever 53

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

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

As it is, she is forever 53.

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

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

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

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

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

Every Sunday during worship, I say these words:

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Mom.

Naming Names

My father’s name was Howie.

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

My father’s name was Nicholas.

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

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

My father’s name was Angelo. 

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

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

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

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

There are the names we are given. 

There are the names we give ourselves. 

And there is the name God gives us. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Day is Saturday

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

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

I don’t wonder any more. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that spirit, I offer a Psalm for Saturday

My heart is broken, Lord.

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

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

For those who are lonely

The unbelievers ask, “Where is your God?”

And then I see where you are.

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

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

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

Showing your immeasurable love on the Cross.

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

And through my tears, I praise your holy name.

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

Two Tickets to Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

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

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

(Isaiah 55:1-3)

Tabula Rasa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Paul puts it this way: 

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

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

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