“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.
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
Evans, Rachel Held. 2015. Searching
for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Nelson
(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
“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
“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.”
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
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
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.