Possum and Stump

“Possum and Stump.” Sounds like a name for a bluegrass band.

On my walk this morning I walked past a fence that used to be obscured by foliage. A couple of years ago the city decided to cut it all down. In a few cases they were too late. Some of the bushes had grown through the fence, and they couldn’t be removed without taking the whole fence down.

As usual, I see a metaphor.

There are parts of ourselves we would like to be rid of–old habits, memories, even a relationship or two. But they become part of us. Even if we manage to kill them, their effects remain. Life goes smoothly until KA-THUMP! YEOWWW! You stub your toe on that old stump.

In contemplative spirituality, we find that those old stumps are not to be ignored, but acknowledged. The least we can do is remember they are there so we can skirt around them. But eventually we can even come to appreciate them and learn from them. Ask questions like: “What did that part of my life teach me about myself? What are its gifts now that I look back on it? What does the sadness about that tell me right now? How can this actually be of use today?”

Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I finally decided to face the insomnia and ask it what it was trying to tell me. (I know, sounds a little like “kondo-ing,” how Marie Kondo tells us to thank inanimate objects. Stay with me here.)

After some exploring my inner landscape for a while, I found that old stump that has dogged me off and on for years: the search for significance. When I thought about the feelings I have when I should be drifting off to sleep, they are panicky and anxious. The specter of fading away unnoticed came into the light. Of dying without having made an impact or even being remembered.

The fear of insignificance–that old ghosty, jittery critter. He usually hangs out at night. I think he knows if I get a good look at him in the daylight, he’ll get his walking papers.

He likes to show up when I’m anxious about other things, like a new job (check) or a loss (daughter getting married; change in relationship). Funny how anxieties in one area get the whole gang riled up.

So. Today I stopped to ponder the stump with a fence in it, or a fence with a stump in it, depending on how you look at it. Something moved. A ghostly possum lumbered by.

Never would have seen the possum if I didn’t stop to ponder the stump. Funny how a dead tree can remind me what’s going on inside myself.

Church, Pie, and Rachel Held Evans

I share the sadness of thousands who were shocked this month at the death of Rachel Held Evans.  The experiences she wrote about in the church and beyond the faith of her upbringing resonated deeply with me.  I attended all but one of the “Why Christian?” conferences she led with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I sang traditional hymns alongside a thousand others at those gatherings, with tear-filled eyes.  It felt like genuine worship I didn’t realize I’d been missing, unbridled by exclusivism and dogma. 

Rachel’s struggle with loving God and the church while challenging its culture and beliefs was a public one.  She endured a lot of flak for it.  But her honesty was a balm to many of us who felt what she did as she worshiped in her beloved Baptist church: “I was surrounded by the people who knew and loved me best in the world, yet it was the loneliest hour of my week.  I felt like an interloper, a fake.”[i]

Rachel and her husband Dan left the church they had loved and supported for a lot of reasons.  Although it wasn’t the tipping point, the church’s endorsement of a proposed Tennessee bill (#368) to condemn same-sex marriage, with the banner “Vote Yes on One” (Marriage = One Man + One Woman) uncovered the dichotomy in herself that led to their departure.  She could no longer leave her heart and mind at the door and tolerate her own silence in the face of her church’s treatment of LGBT people. And here’s the thing.  Part of her struggle came from suspecting deep down that some people in that congregation would listen and engage with her about it.  But she couldn’t deal with her internal tension any more. [ii]

I get it, Rachel. 

Your integrity would not allow you to settle on a dualistic mindset.  It would be so easy to condemn the people whose minds seem closed to the new dimensions of faith you were discovering in the Bible.  Taking off the blinders of your childhood faith, you were letting the Jesus of the gospels question the assumptions you had been weaned on.  What inspired my respect was that you also let that same Jesus form your love for the people who keep uttering those assumptions like a mantra. Somehow you could still appreciate them as your spiritual parents and friends. 

Thank you, Rachel. 

It is that refusal to be defined by bitterness that has meant so much to me.  Your books explore the spaciousness of God’s reign but don’t dwell on the drawbacks of other perspectives.  I don’t know if it was intentional, but you and Nadia did not allow negativity or snark to hijack your gatherings.  It would have been so easy to take potshots at the “other side.”  But you stood fast in your commitment to the focus on God’s faithfulness and mercy that promise hope for the whole church, not just your version of it.  This is a monumental achievement in our current culture, both ecclesiastical and public.

How many times have I checked my sarcasm because you showed me how to be honest but not mean?  How many times have I not reined it in, and regretted it?  And then remembered your belly laughs at yourself for such slips and felt forgiven for my own pettiness? 

My husband and I were returning from a funeral when I saw the news of Rachel’s death.  I was heartbroken.  When I got home I was glad to have the task of mowing the yard ahead of me.  I had to muscle out my grief.  After the yard was done, I picked new rhubarb and made a pie, feeling some of the nurturing spirit I sensed in Rachel.  I chopped, rolled, sprinkled, and baked out more of my sadness. 

I brought the still-warm pie to the musicians who shared the pit that night with me in our community theater production of “Mamma Mia!”  As we did the mic checks, the aroma of lard crust with cinnamon wafted upward, and a few cast members noticed it.  They peered into our midst and asked what smelled so good.  I smiled and explained, “Sorry.  The musicians are having pie before the overture tonight.”

My growing sense of unease at some of the assumptions of my faith and my church has nagged me to the point where I, too, had to take action.  I simply could no longer tolerate living in tacet agreement with ideas and practices of my congregation and denomination.  Something told me that God is more loving and life-giving than a religion based on transactional atonement and purity rules.  I had to respond to the faint but insistent aroma of something more, something fragrant and delicious, like the pie in the orchestra pit.

I have no idea how much Rachel had to wrestle with the temptation to condemn people on the other side of today’s theological arguments.  It has taken up a lot of my own time and energy.  It seems that the sorting process of changing my thinking comes with the impulse to think in black and white terms: this is good, so the other is bad. 

But theology, biblical interpretations, even the church are not so simple to parse.  Like the many mysterious aspects of faith, ideas and practices are complicated.  There is much to appreciate (usually) even when the assumptions don’t line up with the perspective I’ve gained.  We are the church, united in the cross of Jesus (Ephesians 2.14), and we cannot condemn the way other people see that cross, no matter how much we want to. 

So I sit with my family in the church I left, whenever I can.  I also go to another church down the street, and I preach in pulpits where the diverse understandings of God are represented by the faces turned to listen.  I find the islands of common ground among us and stand on them to gently push at the assumptions about God that have proven too small and harsh for me.  I try to point out the sea monsters that threaten us all and proclaim the same kind of hope Rachel insisted upon. 

Because you have taught me to be gracious, Rachel Held Evans, I can do it with love in my heart.  Thank you. 


[i] Evans, Rachel Held.  2015.  Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Nelson Books), p.58.

[ii] Ibid., p. 61-62.

Good Friday 2019: Spillage

The pain he bore upon the cross

was heavy, breaking him

and not the scale on which he hung.

Its heft was lightened

only by the blood that leaked

and dropped onto his earth.

The soil beneath

receiving liquid seed

was not newly stained

but saturated

time and time before

by rebels’ hearts spilled out.

Their desperation dried and dead

now mingled with his love

re-moistened by his tears,

together breaking open,

new life rising from

the humus of our fears. 

Tears and Sin

(The bulk of this post is an excerpt from “Willing to Love,” my sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find the Lectionary Sermon of the Week and all three years’ messages
under the menu.)

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:31-35)

Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem, profoundly disappointed in the religious establishment that was charged with shepherding God’s people. 

It is easy to join in heaping blame on the “scribes and Pharisees” who are usually cast as the bad guys, relegate the story to ancient history, and move on to Luke 14. 

But I want to talk about sin.

Despite all that we have been taught about sin offending God, sin separating us from God, and so on, what motivates me to avoid sin is not belief in some column of misdeeds in some divine bookkeeping system.  When I am mindful enough to forego temptation, the idea of God’s sadness is what keeps me on a better path. 

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because they will not hear and embrace God’s message of love for them and all the world.  They amended God’s simple laws of love and well-being so many times that it took a professional to keep track of them.  They insisted on making religion about judgment and power. 

Jesus had been working so hard to restore people to wholeness, healing their diseases and casting out demons.  Maybe his tears came from exhaustion in that moment.  But I think he was also frustrated.  He did everything he could to embody the reality of God’s love, and it wasn’t enough to change the hearts of the law-obsessed leaders.

What if we imagine Jesus weeping over our hard-heartedness?  Our sins are essentially modern versions of the power-hungry, judgmental ways of Jesus’ detractors.  What if we don’t walk past Jesus this time, but allow him to critique our non-acceptance of God’s love message?

So, here goes.

Jesus says, “I tried to get you to understand that people are more important than rules when I freed a woman from her infirmity on the Sabbath.  But you were not willing.  You’d rather keep score.

            “I called you to repentance, to turn away from the pursuits of money, prestige, and control—all those things that make you serve them but never satisfy.  I called you instead to a way of love and trust.  But you were not willing.  You were suspicious of my motives.

            “I described God’s way to you, what I call the kingdom of God.  It is the powerful, life-giving force that fuels an exciting, world-changing adventure.  My unstoppable love is the essence of this life I call you to follow.  But you were not willing.  You chose mediocrity instead.

            “I told you not to be afraid of those who can kill the body, or your reputation, or your 401K.  I asked you to trust me enough to give your life for my sake.  But you were not willing.  You’d rather keep your life for yourself, even though in keeping it, it is devoid of meaning.

            “I entrusted my other children to you.  As part of my body, the church, I depended on you to encourage one another in faithful service and watchfulness for my return.  I expected you to be so energized every Sunday after worshipping God, that you’d be driven to be a source of hope and rich possibilities as my people.  But you were not willing.  You preferred to have a cup of coffee and go home.

            “I taught you that to love me is to love the least of these my brothers and sisters, my term for the poor and oppressed and discouraged.  You saw the joy and wonder of those I healed, blessed, forgave.  You knew how much I love them.  I asked you to love them too.  But you were not willing.  You didn’t have time.

            “I gave you chances to confess my name in the public arena, and at your own family dinner table.  It was your job to proclaim that God is worthy of your worship, that you will bow the knee to no other.  But you were not willing.  You allowed yourself to be distracted by cheap substitutes.

            “I prepared a life for you.  My plans for you were developed in love before I fashioned your body and your personality to leave your unique stamp on the world.  I could have used you to bless many.  Your part would have been hard, but not nearly as hard as following a course you were not fitted to follow.  I used many ways to invite you to the adventure.  But you were not willing.  Instead you defined your own version of adventure and comfort, so you missed out on the amazing, Spirit-filled experiences you could have recounted to your grandchildren as a testimony to my faithfulness.

            “I provided ways for you to know me intimately, to be captivated by my relentless love.  I gave you my Scriptures to read for this purpose.  But you were not willing.  You thought it would be too boring.

            “I poured out my grace on you in your baptism, offering you the gift of belonging in the church, where you agreed to be set apart from the world, marked by love for one another.  But you were not willing.  You rationalized that you were too busy to take any initiative for the work of the gospel, even though you spent great amounts of time and effort on many other endeavors.

            “I taught you to pray.  But you were not willing.  You were too tired.

            “I gave you spiritual gifts for the building up of my church, so you could know the pleasure of participating in the greatest project ever undertaken: radically changing the world with the power of my love.  I called you to share my love with your community, so its families, its unemployed, its disillusioned, its exhausted people could be renewed in hope.  But you were not willing to use your gifts for this purpose.  You chose to use them for your own ideals instead.

            “I created a world of beauty to reveal my goodness to you.  I made it productive so that you could use its resources to be sure that everyone had enough.  But you were not willing.  You bought into the notion that some can have more than others, and that’s just the way things are.

            “I asked you to take up your cross and follow me.  But you were not willing.  You said I was asking too much.”

Jesus said we were not willing.  What keeps us from doing what Jesus wants?  I wonder if it is a matter of trust. 

            I think we don’t trust God because we are afraid.  We don’t know what God will ask of us.  We like our comfort, even if we know that God offers us more.  We fear exchanging what we know for the unknown, even if we have all the Scriptures to convince us otherwise.  So what is the solution?

            In God’s kingdom the opposite of fear is not courage, but love.  All Jesus wants us to do is love him.  Remember?  The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  God does not expect great faith from us, but great love. 

            So when Jesus says we are not willing, how can we be more willing?  Not by convincing ourselves to do it, or by reciting a list of theological truths.  Not by feelings of guilt because of what you think you’re “supposed” to do.  We need to look at the cross, where Jesus gave his life for us because he loves us.  We can respond to that kind of love.  We can be energized, motivated, blown away by love.  We can love.  Love makes us willing.

            Love is often hard, and complicated.  But love—the authentic, self-giving kind—always wins.  It wins our hearts and steers us in the direction of the life Jesus desperately wants to give us.  Desperately enough to weep when we resist it.  Desperately enough to die so we will know it.

Glory

I

Three years old, my grandson

played happily with the boy next door

as I kept vigil with my chair and book,

content to be in the autumn air.

He caught sight of me, lighting up with joy,

ran to me as always,

eager for embrace and kiss,

but then I watched—I’m a witness!

Delight fell away.

He moderated himself,

arriving nonchalant.





Come as a child.





Most days he still breathes

the glory of discovery,

shame lurking mostly impotent

against the force of childhood,

until exhaustion or reason take over. 





I saw him push the glory away.

We call this growing up. 

The children learn to

hurry past it, resist its pull

until restraint becomes second nature

and we applaud the quelling of tears,

the skill of overcoming distraction.





When we come halfway to our senses

we are nostalgic for the capacity

to play and wonder with abandon.

We take great pains to manufacture awe

that was second nature

before we succumbed to the nonsense

of pushing the glory away.





II

I used to think the anticipation

was as fun as the trip itself. 

The dream of escape offered respite

from the mundane.

The hunger for adventure

aroused the senses lying untapped,

hidden in the succulence of now.





I thought I could locate glory on a map

somewhere else where they have guides.

It turns out the Wizard of Oz is

just a grumpy old guy who paints

everything the same color and doesn’t

really care about your dog.





III

The little boy loves diggers

and bulldozers.

Religion’s heavy equipment

laboriously pushes all the glory

into the future.

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

to the sweet by and by!

But what is nigh?





“The kingdom of God is within you.”

The map you need

is the one that says

“You are here.” 

For Russell

russ-c

Some of my favorite people are farmers.  They are practical, resilient, smart, deeply committed to their work, and graced with a sense of humor, if only for longevity’s sake.  A few weeks ago a cattle farmer named Russell Christensen died.  He was a dedicated father and grandfather, a wise leader in his church and community, a fun-loving storyteller, and a key player in the growth of the cattle industry in Iowa.  It was a privilege to know him.  

Solid as a tree he was

at least by all appearances.

He had his soft spots.

Mary knew them best.

 

Roots deep in the soil,

stories reaching through time,

pulling nutrients from the memories.

Riches no farm report could touch.

 

Shade for the cattle,

lumbering beasts graced with his care.

 

Branches extended

across acres and country and continents,

wood grained with faith and love

in equal measure.

Now felled, lives on

in each new sapling.

 

Grow tall and strong,

for him.

A Way in a Manger

A Christmas Message

           Tatya was a sweet girl, a typical teen with plenty of homework, friends and text messages.  Her parents were model citizens by all appearances.  They were almost too busy to recognize Tatya’s increasing silence.  They noticed that she was more withdrawn, but they thought it was a normal teenage thing.  They hoped it was just a phase.

Tatya herself couldn’t put her finger on the problem.  There was just this…emptiness.  It was hard to get up in the morning, and it took every ounce of her energy to get herself dressed and off to school.  She didn’t care about her classes, even creative writing with her favorite teacher.  Then Jose got assigned as her lab partner.  He was quiet like her, and nice.  They started sitting together at lunch, and within a week they were inseparable. Jose was funny in a shy sort of way, and Tatya liked that he was different from anyone she’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were happy that Tatya seemed more happy, had more energy.  Jose’s family was Catholic, they didn’t mind that.   They seemed serious about their faith.  The kids never stayed out past their curfew, and Jose treated Tatya like a queen.

Then it happened.  Tatya started losing her appetite, missing school because she felt sick.  Mom was suspicious, but didn’t dare entertain the thought until one day she couldn’t ignore it any more.  She confronted her daughter, and Tatya tearfully confessed that she was pregnant.

Their family would never be the same after that.  Accusations were hurled, doors slammed.  Silence hung heavy for hours, then more bursts of anger and cries of anguish.  Tatya would not consider abortion an option, and her parents agreed.  She loved Jose, and she loved her baby.  Eventually the arguments lost their steam, and acceptance settled over them.  Anticipation, even.  By the time little Joey was born, both families were thrilled to see the baby.  Tatya’s parents provided room in their home for a little one.  Jose’s family helped support the baby.  The young couple wasn’t sure if they had a future together; it would take time to figure that out.  Meanwhile, baby Joey needed lots of love, and he got it.

A baby changes everything.  Whether born into a stable home or as a feature on the old reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” a helpless infant reminds us what really matters.  A new life forces us to rediscover how much we can care and nurture.  We change the object of our focus to the needs of a small child instead of all the other aspects of our lives that demand attention.  This is what life is all about, we tell ourselves.  The baby is worth whatever it takes to protect him and provide for him.  Our hearts are captivated by a tiny, wet, innocent baby.  We shake our heads and smile, and admit that life is good when it’s all about the baby.

This week we will celebrate Jesus who came into our world like that.  He was a vulnerable, hungry, sleepy little infant cradled in his mother’s arms.  The baby was Joseph’s top priority, and he managed to get Mary a warm, dry place for the night, even though it was among the livestock.  What a night for Mary to go into labor!  What a strange way for God to appear.

One way of thinking about Jesus is that he came to set things right in the world.  You would think that in order to do that, God would make an appearance in a way we could understand—as a mighty warrior king.  Powerful, commanding, authoritative.  The world needed a firm hand back then.  The powers that kept shifting through political schemes and military battles could have been instantly quelled by a show of God’s spectacular strength.  Then they would know who was in charge, once and for all.

But God wouldn’t compete for attention like that, with something even louder or more forceful than our own methods of control.  I grew up in a large family with five siblings.  Mealtimes could get pretty noisy.  As the second to the youngest, I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention.  I certainly couldn’t holler above the voices of my older brothers and sisters, and that was frowned upon anyway.  So I took to quietly tapping my neighbor and then whispering in their ear, “Pass the salt.”  It worked; my quiet method of communicating was noticed, at least by one other person, and I got what I needed.

God sent Jesus in the most unassuming, humble, quiet way that demands a different kind of attention than the noise and force of a busy, sometimes violent world.  He overturns our understanding of what God should be like to show us how God operates: through the poor, in the quiet, almost hidden.  It’s as though God prefers to come in the back door instead of the front.

God’s way is reflected in the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

A baby reminds us what is important, and that is what Jesus did.  Babies don’t care if we are rich or poor.  They don’t know anything about reputations, beautiful homes or sculpted bodies.  Babies ask only to be cared for and accepted as they are.  They teach us to love simply by loving us without condition.  If you think of it, Jesus does that too.  He simply asks us to accept his love, accept him as he is.

And of course our innocent little ones aren’t always so innocent.  They start knocking over each other’s blocks and pinching their little brothers.  They get bigger and cheat on tests and wreck the car.  They demand a different kind of attention.  Kittens grow up to be cats, they say.

Jesus grew up too, but the message we get from the manner of his birth didn’t change.  His birth signaled God’s way, different than that of the respected religious leaders of Mary and Joseph’s time.  They emphasized purity and strict obedience, while Jesus grew up to focus on forgiveness and grace.

His way was different than the Roman way too, that of enforced oppression and containment of the masses.  It seems that wealth and political power were coveted as much back then as they are today.  Jesus insisted that the force of God’s love is made perfect in weakness.  He showed how God’s goodness is reflected in humble personal relationships, over time.  Jesus’ way is never in a hurry to prove itself.

In order to show us his radically different way, the way of love and mercy.  Jesus came into the most vulnerable situation: an infant in a common, working family scraping to get by, subject to the whims of the Roman powers.  He asks us to meet him there, not in the temple or the state house.  He came in the same way he wants us to follow him, where it is messy and human and often inconvenient.

Maybe his way involves loving your annoying sister-in-law or being patient with the slow progress of your child.  It could mean giving in on a longstanding dispute, purposely trying on powerlessness as an act of love and humility.  Or standing firm for those who have no voice. In other words, making his way your way, in your own life right now.

There is one other aspect of Jesus’ coming that is easy to overlook.  In this season, we have come to think that generosity is God’s way, and that is true.  God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus.  But Jesus came and also intentionally received from us—from humans—the whole time he was growing up and even sometimes in his ministry.  He let his mother Mary raise him.  He let his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fill his need for friendship and comfort.  He enjoyed the friendship of his disciples and sometimes made jokes with them.

We are invited to be givers as God’s people, but giving can also be a position of power.  Jesus shows us how to have less control for the sake of more love.            His way sometimes means we listen to others and learn from them, even though social or educational or financial status would dictate otherwise.  Jesus sees what everyone has to offer and blesses it, blesses us.  And he asks us to do the same for each other.

A baby changes your focus for good, if you let the experience affect you from the inside out, like Tatya’s and Jose’s families.   It changed Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth.  It changed the shepherds and the magi too.

The Christ child demands our focus.  Nobody has to tell us “what Christmas is all about.”  It’s all about Jesus.  The trick is not to discard the infant after Christmas, as you might toss the Christmas cards into the trash.  To turn your attention from the noise and demands of popular culture often enough to hear his message of love.  Let your heart be moved by Jesus on his terms, in his way.

God did not come to a world that was expecting a baby.  It was a messy, obstinate, power-hungry world then, and it still is today.  It is a world of chaos and disappointment, greed and violence.  We see it in shootings and political standoffs.  So many in this world continue to suffer from lack of resources.  We are desperate for peace, for well-being, for some idea of what life is about.

And so God calls us to come away to a cow shed, to a makeshift nursery.  Our gaze is drawn there to a baby, the Son of God himself bearing God’s unmistakable message of love.  Go and find the nearest baby and let Jesus teach you his way, the way of love, the way to life.