Monthly Archives: October 2015

Knock knock…

Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)     The Request of James and John

“35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I stood there in the dorm for students who traveled to attend seminary every week, feeling deeply ashamed that I had delayed God’s will for so long, so very long.

The first time that God called me into ministry, I was only 17 years old. My friend was feeling the call into the mission field, and I went to the altar rail to pray with her, to pray for her. As I prayed, God spoke to me, saying that He wanted me to go into ministry. This led to my first argument with God.

“I can’t go into ministry, Lord. There aren’t any women in ministry. So I’d have to become a missionary, and I don’t want to go to Africa!”

“I don’t want you to go to Africa, Tina” God countered. But I wouldn’t listen. I was in a fundamentalist evangelical Church that didn’t allow women to enter the ministry. “I can’t be a minister. There aren’t any women ministers, Lord! And I don’t WANT to go to Africa!”

“I don’t WANT you to go to Africa!” the Lord replied “I want you to be a minister for me.” And around and around we went. I think I argued with God for more than 10 minutes. Who argues with God?! Was I crazy?! Was I just disobedient? I don’t know! I just knew that I didn’t want to go to Africa and there was no such thing as a woman minister. Ignore the fact that God had tried to convince me to go to a Methodist school to pursue my undergraduate degree…I couldn’t afford it so I was already set to go to Illinois State University. I had my path set, and I was going to major in accounting and be a CPA.

That’s not how it worked out. Actually, about 9 weeks into my first semester I changed my major to Applied Computer Science, just like my dad predicted. I majored in computer programming and minored in communication and it worked perfectly for me. I loved my fields of study and excelled in both of them. An internship at Citibank sealed the deal and I graduated Cum Laude from the Honors Program at ISU. Obviously I had found God’s path for me; my skills told me so and so did my total satisfaction with my field of study and work. I took a job at Citicorp Mortgage in St. Louis and dived into my adult life head first, only to find God still knocking at my door.

He called again when I was only 22 years old. I felt the call as I read my Bible after a weekend out with friends. God encouraged me to take up my place as a minister in His Church, and all I could think was “Were You watching this weekend? Did you see me telling dirty jokes to a mixed crowd? Did you see me using all the wrong language? Are you kidding? I am absolutely the wrong person to be a minister! You must be out of your mind!” This call was much easier to ignore. I was attending Church regularly but didn’t that that meant much, and I didn’t see how God has set me aside from the very first day to serve His Church. All I could see was my faults, my failures, and my lack of holiness. That was enough to convince me that I was not fit to be anything at all in His Church.

God, however, was not so convinced. At 27 years old, I found myself serving on a panel discussion about faith in the workplace. One of the older women in the congregation was doing her best to convince the group at the panel discussion of how we needed to have our Scripture memorized and ready to deploy the minute it was needed; that Scripture was our best defense at a moment when we were called to testify. My college memories spoke to me and I blurted out “NO! That is not what we need to do.” Then I told the story of my roommate Nancy, who had remained an atheist for all four years of undergraduate study. She and I had been best friends, living on the same floor of the dorm and then moving together with two other friends to live in an apartment during our final two years of college. One day she said “Do you know when I know you’re a Christian, Tina? It’s not when you tell me about your God.” So I asked her how she knew I was a Christian. She said “It’s when you follow me around the house when I come home upset, trying to find out what upset me.” “Nancy” I said, “I don’t do that because I’m a Christian. I do that because I love you!” “But Tina” she replied, “no one else loves me that way.” At that moment I realized that I no longer knew where I ended and Christ began. I had been Christian for such a long time that I no longer knew what parts of me were mine uniquely, and which parts were expressions of Christ. I had become Christ-like when I wasn’t looking, and now I couldn’t find the edges of me…and I knew that if the love I was expressing for Nancy was mine alone, she never would have perceived it as an expression of my faith and my God. Suddenly I realized that God had changed me in ways I had not realized, and that the phrase “They will know we are Christians by our love” was far more truthful than I knew. So I told everyone who had gathered for the panel discussion that memorizing Scripture wasn’t going to increase the strength of our testimony one whit…we needed to focus on letting Christ into our hearts so deeply that we lost our ability to perceive where we ended and He began. Love was the answer…not reciting verses from some book, even a Holy book. Love would change everything and invite people into relationship with God in a way that book knowledge—even Holy book knowledge—could never approximate. At that moment, the pastor on the panel blurted out “Sounds like we have a future preacher in the room.”  I answered him swiftly “That’s not funny! Don’t say that!” I had no idea how close I was to the ledge.

It was only two years later that I succumbed to God’s call. God’s sense of humor is awesome: He sent a Jewish atheist to ask me questions about the faith. The more questions I answered the more still and thoughtful she became until suddenly my atheist friend exclaimed “You should be a minister!” For reasons I can’t explain, I believed her.

Suddenly I knew that God wasn’t joking anymore. That night as I read the Scripture for the Bible study I attended, I found myself telling God that I would go wherever He sent me and do whatever He wanted me to do, but that I was terrified. God answered “Not yet” and spent the next year readying me to answer the call more completely.

Within 12 months I was enrolled in seminary part-time, and by 18 months I had left my job as a computer programmer and enrolled in seminary full-time, traveling to California every week to take classes and prepare myself for full-time ministry. It was then that my guilt went into overdrive.

Why did it take so long for me to answer God’s call?

What the heck was my problem? God had made it clear from the time I was 17 years old, and here I was at 31 years old with two children and a husband and NOW I finally decide that maybe I should follow God’s will for me. What took me so long? What had I done to the Kingdom by waiting so long? What I denied God by waiting so long? What great things could I have done for Him if I had just answered sooner? I tortured myself with this guilt and with the awareness that God had been infinitely patient with me despite my unwillingness to hear Him.

It took me over a year (and the reassurances of many of my fellow seminary students) before I could realize the truth: God knew that I wouldn’t hear Him for a long time and so He started me calling me far in advance of when I would answer so that I could hear the call again and again and again.

It’s a little like James and John in today’s scripture.

We read this scripture and we think that James and John are just a little over the top. It’s not that they are bad disciples. It’s not that we don’t think they deserve to sit at Jesus’ right hand…in fact, we know that John was the disciple that Jesus loved the most. It’s just that…DANG! Asking so directly is just so BOLD! It seems a little arrogant and pushy and all the things that you think don’t go with being a disciple.
Yet at the same time, we relate.

There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t had the fantasy of Christ saying the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t wondered if they have brought enough souls into the Kingdom to honor God. There isn’t one Christian who hasn’t wondered if they’ve sacrificed enough, or suffered enough, or been bold enough and spoken up enough…

We wonder over and over if we are good enough for the Kingdom; good enough for God.

Jesus’ answer to James and John is very telling. He asks them “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:39b) As Christians, we automatically think of the crucifixion when we read this. We think that Jesus is asking them if they can suffer and die for the Kingdom, if they are willing to lose their lives to spread the word. But I don’t know if that was actually the question.

I think that Jesus was asking them if they could hang with him in his disgrace, after the betrayal but before the crucifixion. Between those two moments was the time when Jesus was considered a worthless criminal and nothing more than another idiot campaigning for political power. You see, before Jesus was betrayed he was seen as spiritual powerhouse that threatened the religious powers in Israel. After his crucifixion, the embers of Christianity has been lit, and Jesus’ death and resurrection gathered power, marking Him as God’s blessed Son that had come to save us from a spiritual death that was much more profound that physical death.

But during that middle time—after his betrayal by Judas and before his death—Jesus was just a criminal. Before his journey to the cross, he looked like one more political Messiah that failed and was about to die. Jesus looked small and insignificant, potentially worthless and ineffective at changing anything. It was during those hours between His betrayal and His death that every disciple was tested to the maximum. Would they retain their faith in Him and stand strong when the government threatened to reduce Jesus to NOTHING? Because aligning yourself with nothing is humiliating. Giving up your job, leaving your family, traveling the countryside as homeless vagabond reliant on the support of women…all this was stupid if the messiah you followed was worth nothing!

We focus so much on the crucifixion, but Jesus attained His glory in the crucifixion. Jesus changed the world forever through the crucifixion, but in the hours just before that moment he risked being nothing…being worthless…being a total failure. Real commitment to Christ was expressed in continuing to believe when He appeared to be…NOTHING.

We don’t ever have to live through that moment, because Christ has already proved that He is so much more than
nothing. But now the challenge is reversed, because we cannot stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are busy being next to nothing. We can’t stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are deep in our crap.

The journey to faith is long and slow, and there are years and years full of stuff that amounts to a whole lot of crap, a whole lot of nothing. Jesus opts to stand with us no matter what stuff we’re churning out right now diamonds for the Kingdom or total crap, and Jesus opts in all the way. And that’s really uncomfortable, because we think that God wants nothing less than our best; God deserves nothing less than our best.

The truth is, however, that God wants it all: our best, our worst, and everything in between. The evidence of this is given to us in the life of Christ. Jesus was born as an insignificant infant…the only people who knew they were supposed to worship Him were a bunch of smelly, dirty shepherds; a few immigrant Magi; and a teenage girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. This is not a high profile group of folks! Jesus was 30 years old before anyone else figured out that He just might be the most significant human ever born, and even then He appealed mostly to smelly fisherman, prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors that everyone hated. James and John knew that Jesus was the real thing, but in order to know that for sure they needed to hang with Jesus through His ministry, His triumphant return to Jerusalem, a night of doubt in the Garden, His arrest, His conviction, and His execution…all before they could see Him rise from the grave and enter into His glory. To be a real disciple, you had to hang with Jesus through all the crap before you could get to the glory.

It isn’t any different with us. Jesus opts in way before we show any promise, and we have to agree to let Him in, to let Him see us at less than our best, to let Him be with us in our worst moments and all of our crap…just so that He can draw us to those moments of glory. And the moments of glory will be few and far between. I heard God call me and waited for 15 years before I chose to answer…and instead of kicking me to the curb God chose to present that call over and over and over until I answered. When my guilt for failing to respond correctly the first time consumed my soul, God reminded me that He knew me before I was born, and knew everything I needed before I needed it, and knew all the crap I had to walk through before I could answer His Holy call…and that He was good with whatever it took to get me to answer Him. God is not worried about the details…He is only worried that we will never answer at all, that we will turn away from Him and refuse to let Him in.

You cannot be with Christ in his glory if you will not let Him be with you in your crap. If you look around you, the crap abounds, but God doesn’t care because what matters is that you let Him in…after that, it’s all a journey towards the glory, and Jesus had that part sewed up years and years ago, so it’s not like we need to worry if the glory is going to find us eventually. The glory is coming…and between now and then there is just one load of crap after another that will yield small glories along the way, small moments of brilliance that we can attribute to Him and thank Him for. In the end, it is a gathering of glory, one small spark at a time—one small flash of holiness and power at a time, that will gang up on us and overwhelm us with the almighty, amazing presence of God.

And in that moment, we will be with Him in His glory, and we will be His glory, and it be everything we have waited for.

Amen.

Healing the Blind

Mark 10:46-52  (NRSV)       The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[a] let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

My mom has dealt with chronic illness for as long as I can remember.  She has several things wrong with her spine as well as several autoimmune illnesses that cause pain and fatigue.  When you put it all together, what you get is a very tired woman in constant pain.  My mom has always handled all of this with more grace than I could ever have managed had I been in that much pain constantly. If she were able to speak through the computer she’d tell you that she loses that grace at times and just sits and cries, but the truth is that something like that is a rare occurrence.  Only recently, as age has added insult to injury, has my mom slowed down.  I mention all of this because my mom’s illness has impacted the way I view passages of scripture about healing; I can’t look at any scripture that discusses miraculous healing without thinking of my mom and the many, many times we’ve prayed for her to be healed of everything that causes her pain and limits her life.

Spoiler alert: no miraculous healing.  Sorry guys…this is not going to be a story of healing that defies human understanding.

As awful as it has been watching my mom suffer, I have to admit that I have benefitted a great deal from her suffering.  You see, even though my mom was in pain every day, she never failed to do everything that she could to make our home a most amazing place to be. She did the cooking and cleaning, she sewed our Halloween costumes, she baked homemade bread and canned delicious pickles and jams, and she baked tons of holiday treats, including killer birthday cakes and Christmas cookies that frequently cause me to be sadly disappointed at state of bakery/restaurant desserts.  I have this experience with soup and pasta sauces in restaurants as well. In so many ways, my mom ruined me for restaurant food—it never measures up to mom’s cooking.

Lest you are sitting there struggling with your own chronic illnesses thinking that my mom couldn’t have been in that much pain if she could do all these things, you are wrong. My mom had times when her pain was so great that she couldn’t do any of the things she loved to do for our family, and this is why our family was so grateful for all the things she was willing to do.  We understood that standing up for hours to chop and ice pack the veggies that she would later pickle caused her tons of back pain…and we understood that she chose to do it anyway because she refused to let her disease define who she would get to be as a mom and as a wife. Somedays all she could do was take her medicine and rest; somedays it was canning blueberry peach jam and baking four loaves of homemade bread before dad came home for dinner. As a kid, I came to understand that chronic illness ends up playing out as a tug-of-war between your will and your illness, and every day it’s a toss-up to see who wins.

Because of my mom, I learned compassion for the challenges that face the chronically ill. I’ve learned to respect for the ways that chronically ill people sometimes defy their illnesses by choosing activities and lifestyles that increase their pain and suffering just so that they can enjoy some quality of life.  I’ve learned not to discount the experiences of those people whose disability and/or suffering isn’t immediately visible (like chronic fatigue) and not to judge them when their disease overwhelms their ability to participate in life the way they want to. I’ve learned not to take it personal when a person with chronic illness cancels on me, saying that they are just too tired/unable to deal with another thing to do.  I’ve learned that most people who have chronic illnesses suffer in silence from our prejudice and ignorance of what it is to deal with chronic illness; I’ve also had to acknowledge that sometimes I am just as prejudiced and ignorant as everyone else when it comes to understanding an illness I don’t have and cannot imagine experiencing.

My mom opened my eyes to see what it’s like to live with chronic illness and chronic pain and because of that, I am a better counselor.  I am also really thankful that she was honest with me about her experiences when I was just a child, because it helped me be a better adult.

And that’s where Bartimaeus comes in.

Bartimaeus came to Jesus seeking healing for physical blindness, just like my family went to God seeking physical healing for my mom.  Bartimaeus got his healing; my mom didn’t.

Or did she?

My mom spent her entire life fighting to enjoy the simple pleasures in life: being able to sit long enough to take a drive in the country; being able to stand long enough to can the vegetables my father grew in the garden; being able to bend down to pick up her toddler son; being able to sit in bleachers to cheer at my first track meet.  How many people blow through those moments and fail to realize what a gift they are?  How many people will never understand what a blessing mobility is? How many people will never understand that every moment they are alive and aware is a blessing beyond words?  My mom praised God for moments like these, frequently out loud in front of our family, and after a while I learned to join her in thanking God for the simple pleasures of life.

Most of us will not come to understand these blessings until we are faced with a life-threatening illness, which if we are lucky, will not happen until we are well into our senior years.  We will live the majority of our lives blind—blind to the simple blessings of breathing and moving and doing whatever we will to do every single day.

Bartimaeus begged Jesus “Let me see again!”  My mother’s suffering blessed me because I began to see and understand the challenges of chronic illness when I was still a young girl and that sight is crucial for many of my clients whose chronic illnesses steal away their strength, vitality, and joy.  Because my mother suffered, I am not entirely blind to the blessings I have been granted that my mother had to fight dearly to hang onto.  While I may not have perfect sight by any means, I can see.

I guess this is a story of miraculous healing after all.

Chatter On

Psalm 104:1-4

1Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

Many years ago I was taught that to properly pray, I should remember the acronym ACTS:

  • Adoration
  • Confession
  • Supplication
  • Thanks

In other words, all prayers should begin with an expression of love for God—our awareness of God’s greatness and our thankfulness for God’s being, ending with an expression of pure, unbridled love.  After letting God know just how much we love Him, then we must confess that we aren’t what we are supposed to be, that we have failed and fallen short of what He calls us to be.   After confessing our failures and sins, then we should ask God for forgiveness and for anything else we need (supplication).  Finally, we should thank God for all that we already have, for His graciousness in forgiving us, for his patience in listening to our prayers, and for all that God supplies.

As a child my prayers were very simple and honestly did not follow this format at all.  As I grew older and was more aware of my need for God, I did my best to pray this way—so that I could please God—and to be mindful that I failed God daily and how He continued to love me, to forgive me, and to listen to my prayers and answer them.  I feared that God was perpetually displeased with me because I struggled with the same stupid sins day after day.  I found myself groveling before God as if my inability to overcome my own personality was a fatal flaw that left God perpetually shaking His finger at me, shaking His head in frustration. This mental image of the finger-shaking God actually distanced me from God quite a bit.  I began to dread praying because I didn’t want to have to grovel and beg for forgiveness.  I didn’t want to have to confess to the same stupid sins done the same stupid way for the same stupid reason and admit that I just couldn’t get over myself one more time.  I found myself resenting God and alternately hating my inability to overcome such simple challenges as cookies and cursing.

That kind of faith persisted in me well into my 20’s, past marriage and until after the birth of my first daughter.  Having kids changes a lot of things in life, and for me it changed the way that I imagined God…and how I imagined God’s reaction to me when I prayed.  It took a while for the change to develop, but around the time that Alex was 18 months old I had an epiphany.  Alex was driving me absolutely crazy and I yelled at her, which caused her to burst into tears.  As a parent you are simultaneously in charge of discipline and comfort, so once she started crying I bent down to pick her up and was amazed that somewhere between the floor and my shoulder, my anger dissipated entirely.  By the time I had Alex cuddled into me with her head on my shoulder, all that mattered was that she understood that I still loved her even though she was being obnoxious.  Epiphany: how could I be more loving than God? How could I be more patient than God?  What made me think it was any different between me and my daughter than it was between me and God?  Suddenly it became possible for me to imagine a God who could be frustrated with my bad behavior and determined to comfort me and reassert His love for me at the same time.  In other words, no finger shaking God!!

This little change in my mind yielded huge changes in my relationship with God.  It greatly reduced my sense that my sin separated me from God in some crucial way.  It changed the way I understood God’s reaction to my sin.  And it changed my conception of holiness, because holiness didn’t include finger-shaking condemnation and disgust.  Let me tell you, it gets hard to be self-righteous when your God doesn’t do the self-righteous thing either.   What a relief.  Maybe we should share this realization with Donald Trump?  But I digress…

Like I said, having kids changes a lot of things in life.  Recently, I ran into this acronym again and thought  WTH??!

The first thought I had was how sick and twisted praying like this would be.  Remember, I understand God as my heavenly father, my loving parent…not the finger-shaking jerk that I thought He was when I was younger.  So when I’m praying, I’m talking to my dad…or my brother if I’m feeling the need for a Jesus boost.   I would never, ever, ever talk to my dad—earthly or heavenly—according to this twisted acronym and I would freak out if my kids talked to me like this.  Can you imagine?

“Mom, I love you so much!  You are the most amazing mom and you give me everything I need! I truly love and adore you.  You are my everything and I am nothing without you; I can do nothing without you.  I admit that I haven’t been the daughter you want me to be.  I fail you every day, not always sharing the whole truth when you ask me a question.  I don’t always keep my room clean and sometimes when I’m mad at you I call you bad words in my mind.  Sometimes I mouth the bad words.  When I’m with my friends I call you bad names out loud.  I’m so sorry for that.  Please help me not to call you bad names anymore.  Please help me to clean my room more often.  Please help me not to lie to you when you catch me playing on my phone instead of doing my homework.  And please help my friend Anna, because she’s going out with a real jerk and is lying to her mom about it.  Thank you for hearing my requests, and thank you for all that you do for me.  Thank you for forgiving me for being a jerk sometimes. I am so thankful for all the stuff you’ve given me, and the great furniture in my bedroom, and all my clothes and my iPod and iPhone and iPad and all my other iStuff.  Just…thank you! You are so amazing! Amen.”

Does that not creep you out?  I cannot imagine letting my kid talk to me like that.  The level of butt-kissing in that previous paragraph approaches critical mass! The word ‘sycophant’ comes to mind…along with a few other words that I’m only saying in my mind.  Okay actually I’m mouthing them but not saying them out loud.  I’ve gotten a little better in this regard since I was a kid.  Anyway, I just find this whole thing creepy and gross because I don’t ever want my kids to talk to me like that.  I feel like it would shut down our relationship since relationship is built on intimacy which is built on vulnerability and honesty…and those things do not thrive well in environments where communication is formal and must adhere to rigid guidelines.  Then there’s the fact that butt-kissing is absolutely fatal to relationship because it is based in the belief that you must inflate the other person’s ego or they won’t respond nicely to your request.  Do we really think that God’s ego that fragile?  Is God having self-esteem issues?  I’m thinking that God has this ego thing nailed and really doesn’t need us to tell Him how almighty He is.  After all, He raised His kid from the dead.  I’m pretty sure that somewhere in Heaven there is a plaque of macaroni art from Jesus that says “BEST DAD EVER.”

What I’ve learned about communication and love from my daughters is that it works best when there’s lots of informal moments of ‘chatting’ where a whole lot of unimportant details get shared…because somewhere in all those details is the important stuff.  My kids never sat down and gave me a boiled down synopsis of their lives with bullet-points to highlight the important stuff.  Nope…I found out about their lives, their needs and their loves from the moments spent washing dishes after dinner, or giving each other manicures, or grocery shopping…and that’s still how I find out about their lives now.  I won’t lie: occasionally they do come over and request a serious ‘sit down’ discussion with me and their dad.  They come over so that they can pour out their hearts and their tears while cuddling on the couch. But you don’t get to those precious moments without the million minutes that come before and after, filled with endless chatter and emotions that change so fast that I have to keep a scorecard.

What I’m trying to say is that prayer should look a lot more like what Paul prescribed:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18)  Then you have to add what Peter said in 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” And then there is the Psalmist who said “I sought the Lord and He answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” (Psalm 34:4)

By the way, taking time to praise God isn’t a bad thing.  Just don’t be weird and compulsive about it.  Occasionally my daughters will text me a sweet message telling me how much they love me, or how they miss me now that they don’t live at home.  Sometimes they’ll come up to me and hug me out of the blue and tell me how much they enjoy spending time with me.  I love those moments!  I’m betting that God loves those moments as well, so praise and adoration are encouraged, and they don’t have to be accompanied by confession, supplication, and thanksgiving.  As a matter of fact, I’m betting that God would occasionally just like to know that you love Him.

When you put it all together, there should be an unceasing river of chatter that should flow from us to God…moments of praise, thanks, and joy mixed in with moments of frustration, anger, and confusion.  Momentous requests and confessions mixed in with mundane details and even trivial crap. If God truly is a parent, then God is interested in the minutia of our lives.  If God is truly a loving parent, then God wants to hear about it all even though He already watched it all happen (apparently God had live-streaming down way before the rest of us did.)  God isn’t worried that you won’t praise Him or that you won’t approach Him correctly or that you’ll be less than perfectly respectful in your prayers.  Like most other parents, what worries God is the possibility that you won’t talk to Him at all…that you’ll cut Him out of your life and won’t tell Him anything. Relationship stops when communication stops…so after a while no prayer becomes no relationship.  So talk to the man for goodness sake!  And skip the formula…the formatted “it has to be this way”-ness of praying.  Just talk.  Please talk.  God is listening.

 

one does not simply talk to god

Grace In The Water

Hebrews 4:14-16   “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

I went to see my counselor today.  She’s a great lady who gives me good advice and lets me prattle on until I actually hear myself and find my way to clarity despite all the clutter in my head. I see a counselor because I realized about four months ago that I was slipping into depression and needed some help to figure out what was knocking me down emotionally.  I also went to my doctor for a passel of blood tests to make sure that my health wasn’t giving me a run for my money, but pretty much all they told me was that I’m menopausal.  No?!  Really?  I would never have guessed that!  Actually, I’d already guessed that menopause was contributing to my depression.  Still, it’s always good to have a counselor to help you sort out your weirdness, so off I went to see Sharon.

Sharon and I had a lot to catch up on, since it had been a month since our last session and I told her all about my trip to Minneapolis and WX2015 (see earlier post from September 25) and my latest retreat with the Board of Ordained Ministry.  I found myself talking about how I continue to feel squished (earlier post from August 8) and yet how I feel called to take care of my colleagues in ministry.  I’m a licensed mental health counselor and a Methodist minister, and honestly, having a practice full of mentally ill clients to take care of is plenty of work to do.  I also do a lot of work for the Church that involves taking care of folks in my congregation who need spiritual care, working at the conference level to train people in health and caring ministries and working with the Board of Ordained Ministry to vet and develop of new ministers.  Believe me, I have more than enough work to do…and yet the minute I get some free time to hang out with my colleagues in ministry, I feel a deep call to provide pastoral care to some of them. Why?

Ministry is an incredibly draining job.  I won’t go into some long explanation to try and justify that statement because nothing I could tell you can describe what it’s like to be a minister…except to say that you do your best to be a spiritual guide for your congregation, a leadership coach to develop new ministry leaders, and an impartial referee to the many ministry groups at the church who want time and resources so they can do their very important jobs in the church.  Essentially you become the parent-figure to a huge body of adults who want the right to cry on your shoulder when they hurt, be comforted and guided when they are wounded, and get advice when they feel lost, while they retain the right to tell you to shut up, go away, and do what the congregation tells you to do when they’re feeling like you stepped on their authority. And don’t get me started on the power struggles between the various church leaders and ministry groups.  And let’s not forget that these ministers usually have families and that means children…sometimes teenage children…at home.  NOW you know why your pastor is so frazzled.

Anyway…Sharon and I were talking about why I feel such a strong calling to take care of my colleagues, to listen to them and cry with them and pray with them.  I told her that when I get together with my colleagues, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of broken bodies, all of them doing their best to suffer quietly and not drown.  I told her that I often wish I could just swim by and go about my business but any time I try to do that, I remember that God never tells me that He’s too busy to listen, or too overwhelmed to stop and deal with my fears or my pain. You could say that it’s guilt that motivates me, but it isn’t guilt.  It’s an extreme awareness of the grace that is mine every day.

Then Sharon reminded me that this is why I feel squished…why I get so exhausted and exasperated.  Then she asked me why I feel so responsible about this, why I feel like I have to do something about it when in reality I am no less broken than the folks in the sea around me.  I know that she’s right, and yet…

Mark 6:30-34b30 “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

This part of scripture occurs shortly after Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is murdered in prison.  Jesus is grieving and his disciples are exhausted, so they try to escape to a quiet place to rest and recoup…only to be met there by throngs of broken people.   34b And he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

I don’t abuse myself with the notion that Jesus was infinitely patient at moments like these.  I don’t pretend that He wasn’t exasperated and frustrated and feeling squished.  But I know that despite all of that, Jesus found compassion for the sea of broken bodies He was swimming in and He reached out them, to heal them, to comfort them, and to listen to all their sorrows.

I’m not the greatest Christian in the world.  I fail the holiness test in a BIG way, every time.  I’m not doing justice ministries out in the streets.  I’m not out in some far flung location in a third world country, living barely above the poverty line as I reach out to those who live in far worse circumstances than I do.  I’ve never been on a mission trip, and I don’t do youth lock-ins. I’m not much for leaving behind my physical comforts.  I don’t do any kind of ministry that gets accolades for being really bold and out there on the cutting edge.

On the other hand, I am filled with compassion for the broken bodies that are all around me everywhere I go, especially when those broken bodies are my colleagues in ministry.  I am just as tired and exasperated as I think that Jesus was…and yet I can’t find my way to doing anything other than what He did, which for me looks like reaching out and grabbing onto the closest broken and possibly drowning person and listening to them pour out their frustrations and their sorrows. I can’t seem to turn away from their pain because it calls to the Christ within me, calling out the best parts of me that can only really be Him living within me, doing the healing work that only Christ can do.

I sat there in Sharon’s office crying while we talked about this because I feel it so deeply.  I told her that I don’t see myself ever doing anything great for the Kingdom, but that doing this one thing would be enough to serve Him.  And that’s why I can’t swim past the broken bodies of my colleagues.

All I know is that I follow an exhausted, exasperated Savior who stopped and cared for every gasping, drowning, broken body He found, including mine, and I would do anything to pay Him back for that.

This Is Your Solemn Vow

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”    Mark 10:2-12     (NRSV)

I have been married for 27 years.   A lot of people gasp when I say that because I don’t look like I’m old enough to be married for that long (okay…I think I look old enough but everyone else says I don’t because they don’t know what I looked like ten years ago or how I have resting bitch face that makes me look every minute of my 51 years when I’m not smiling or talking.)  Anyway…I have been married for a really long time.  Long enough that I have been married longer than I was single before I was married…by several years now. I got married about two months before my 24th birthday, and I thought I was so mature and adult and ready to be married.  I realized a few months ago that my oldest daughter will turn 24 in January, and were she to choose my exact same path she would be getting married this November.  My stomach turns when I think of that, and suddenly I am not so sure that I was very adult or ready for marriage at the time I got married, but I suppose that the proof is in the pudding.  We’ve been married a long time and so…it works for me!

Being married a long time makes me think about marriage a little differently than other people do.  Lots of people have been married unsuccessfully.  They have had to divorce.  They know what’s it like to dream of forever and then have to let go of those dreams, have to let go of the person they thought they would spend the rest of their life loving.  I can’t imagine what that feels like.  I can’t imagine the sense of loss, the sense of failure, of being ripped off, of losing the dream.  I can’t imagine how unfair it must seem.  I only know that I have never, in all 27 years of marriage, had to put up with some of the crap my friends and colleagues have had to endure prior to their divorces.

I have never had my dreams or my goals demeaned by the person I love the most.  I have never had my body judged, or my sexual attractiveness rejected by the person I vowed to spend my life with.  I have never experienced what it is like to have my closest friend reject me, or how it feels to be lied to and cheated on.  I have no clue what this is like.

I guess I have to say that I got the winning lottery ticket when it comes to marriage.

We were married for about 8 years when I revealed to my husband that God was calling me into ordained ministry.  Many people, at that moment, are rejected by their spouse.  Lots of people hear the words “I didn’t sign up for that!” when they reveal their call.  Instead, my husband turned to me with a huge smile on his face and asked “Are you going to be a youth minister or the regular kind?”  He was visibly excited about the idea and filled with joy.  He and I had already taught a senior high Sunday School class together and had gotten deeply involved in our student’s lives.  We had spent a great deal of time at church and away from church with these kids, and my husband seemed to love every single minute.  He was as committed as I was to the Church, and so my declaration of “call” was received with great joy.  It’s still the same way now.

My husband willingly committed his saving and his retirement to my seminary education, and when I revealed that God wanted me to spend more years in graduate school so that I could become a licensed counselor and have a ministry in the mental health field, my husband rejoiced that he would never have to move to Ajo, Arizona (**1) and he subsequently forked over another $30,000 to my graduate education, bringing our grand total to $80,000 spent to make me ridiculously over-educated and bi-vocational.

I’m telling you all this to demonstrate the extreme levels of commitment that marriage can demand.  Only my husband can tell you what the payoff has been for his devotion and willingness to put his money on the line to answer God’s call to me…although I’d like to think that he realizes what a critical part he played in God’s will for us as a couple, and how we are blessed because he chose to obey God without question or hesitation.  Not that spending eight (8!!!) years in graduate school wasn’t a sacrifice on my part, but really, what complaints could I possibly have?  Seminary is harder than you can possibly imagine and possibly the most difficult graduate education available (see the story below **2) but honestly, following God’s call was a joy for me.  I got all the benefit, and my husband got the bills.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the lectionary Gospel reading for this week is one of those passages that make me cringe.  Why is God so hard on people who need to divorce?

There are a lot of things I could cite to explain this passage: the way that women were treated in Israeli society at that time in history; the way that divorced women often ended up working as prostitutes because they had no other way to earn their living (the alternative was to be destitute and on the street); the way that women lived in fear that they would displease their husband and be dismissed (and divorced) for the smallest infraction.  There are tons of cultural and historical reasons why Jesus would have reinforced the prohibition against divorce when asked about it by the Pharisees.

But my guess is that God doesn’t favor divorce because God never divorces us.  No matter how difficult we get, no matter how sinful, or unfaithful, or mean, cruel, and unloving we become, God never divorces us.

If you ask someone whose marriage ended in divorce, they will tell you how painful it is, how incredibly agonizing it is to lose the dream of forever that they had built with their partner.  They had dreamed a dream of the future together, and they had fallen in love with each other and with their dream.  Later on they fell out of love with each other, but in losing each other they lost their future.  They lost the dream—and losing that dream is more painful than you can understand until you’ve lost a dream of your own.  For a couple that divorces, the future they had crafted together goes black. It dies, and in the midst of the pain of their divorce they have to craft a new future for themselves; one that features them alone, facing each difficulty without a partner to soften the blow and help them carry the load.  Sometimes I think they mourn the death of that dream more than they mourn losing their partner, because by the time they decide for divorce they usually don’t want to live with their partner anymore…but they can’t imagine life without a future and the vision of their shared future is no longer valid.

I think that divorce distresses God, not because it’s some sort of sin, but because it makes it hard for us to believe in a love that lasts forever, the kind of love that God has for us.  It makes it hard for us to believe in a love that continues despite all difficulties and trials, that stands the test of time and actually endures for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do you part.  This is a very solemn vow, one that sends shivers up my spine when I speak it while officiating at a wedding because it is so very holy to me.

I know what it’s like to live into this vow, what it is like to have a spouse that lives into this vow, and it is the most grounding thing I know.  I wake up every morning in the glow of my husband’s love, even if that glow is expressed with squinty eyes, morning breath, and his customary morning grunts that I’m supposed to be able to interpret. (He’s not incredibly talkative when he first wakes up.) I go sleep in the glow of that love every night, as we settle into another night of reading until we fall asleep and occasionally sharing passages of our books with one another as we toot out what’s left of dinner’s gas.  We have endured all sorts of things together: moving to Arizona (we didn’t have family here), career changes for both of us, graduate school for both of us, raising two girls, dealing with a drug addicted child, dealing with a severely ill child, losing both of his parents, my brother’s mental illness, and my parent’s advancing age and physical decline.  I don’t know that I could have done it without him, and I don’t think he would have wanted to face all that we’ve faced without me there at his side. The best part of all of it is having someone that knows me better than anyone else in the world…and knowing that person loves me despite all my crap, all my failures, and all my obnoxious weirdness.  He does get to celebrate the good parts with me as well.  He even encouraged me to set aside a day to write so that I could share this blog with you…mostly because he knew that God and several of my friends were encouraging me to write more.  I really do have the best man in the world.  Sorry about that…I snapped him up as soon as I found him because he was (and still is) so very amazing.

Perhaps that’s why God votes so much for marriage to last.  I got lots of unconditional love and acceptance from my parents, but I literally am a part of them.  I came out of my mother’s body and am formed from their DNA…I couldn’t be more like them if I tried.  On the other hand, my husband CHOOSE me, just like I choose him.  My parents didn’t get a choice…they got pregnant, and there I was!  My husband fell in love with me as I am: incredibly flawed, crazy, difficult me.  And he has stayed with me for more than 27 years, dealing with my particular ways of being, both good and bad, that entire time.  If anything gives testimony to the unconditional love of God, to the grace and forgiveness that God has for us…it’s successful marriage.  Unlike the experience we have with our children, there is no DNA, no Oxytocin, no genetic material to make us love our partner.  Staying in love is a choice, remaining in the marriage when you’re sick and tired of all the crap is a choice, forgiving is a choice, choosing to do the things that make your partner happy is a choice, honoring their contribution to the marriage is a choice, valuing what they bring to the table is a choice…all these things and many more that contribute to the joy of marriage are choices.

God knows this, and it’s important for us to remember that God chooses US—and there is no DNA, no genetic material, no 9 months of gestation, no Oxytocin to encourage this choice…God chooses us simply and only because God chooses US.  It’s that simple.  God chooses us because God loves us and isn’t interested in not loving us, ever, no matter what we do.  So maybe this passage about divorce is about God wanting us to find out what it is like to choose love…not to have love choose us, but to choose love and choose to stay in love…so that we can understand just how serious and committed God is to us.

It’s kind of hard to believe in love that will choose you and keep choosing you if you’ve never had anyone who made that choice and just kept making it over and over again.  Marriage turns out to be one of those amazing ways that life imitates God so that we can understand who God is and how much God loves us.

If you have been through the pain of divorce and my words are making you ache, remember that God loves you more than you can ever imagine or understand.  I pray that one day you find someone who will make that love as real as possible for you so you can find out just how beloved you are and come to believe that nothing you can ever do will change that truth.

If you are already married to the love of your life, do everything you can to be the unconditional love and grace of God to that person so that they can know just how incredibly precious they are, and so that you can know it in return.

May God bless the union of each and every person who commits to loving for better and for worse until death do you part. This is your solemn vow, and it is truly holy.  Amen.


 

**1  The United Methodist Church practices something called “itinerancy”, a practice that means that ministers are moved from church to church at the will and request of our Bishop.   This practice means that any given appointment to a church is only guaranteed for a single year, and that every April and May we wait for a call from the Bishop that asks us to pack up and move to a new town and a new church.  Only the Elders of the UMC are required to be itinerant, because only the Elders are charged with the administration and leadership of the church.  Deacons in the UMC have specialized ministries (like the one I have in mental health counseling) and we are not required to be itinerant. On the other hand, we are not guaranteed an appointment to a church (like Elders) and therefore we are not guaranteed to have a paying job each and every year.  Deacons find our own employment and are subject to layoffs and reduction-in-force issues just like everyone else who has a job in the secular world.  It’s a trade-off, but it allows United Methodist ministers to respond to the unique call of God and to enter into whatever ministry God calls them to do, no matter where God calls them to be.  It allows the UMC to be flexible and responsive to the needs of God’s children everywhere, at all times.

 

**2  I was a computer programmer for eleven years before I answered my call into ministry.  My last year as a programmer was spent as a contractor for Compuware, a large consulting firm that bought out the tiny, locally owned consulting firm I was working for in 1996.  I remember meeting with my new manager for the first time; he was taking the team of consultants that were placed at “Large Credit Card Firm That I Refuse to Advertise” out to lunch.  I had just started seminary and had realized just how heavy the workload would be; I was really concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up.  During our lunch, I informed my manager that I had just started graduate school and was going to want a reduced workweek during weeks that I had papers due or midterm/final exams—perhaps only 30 hours.  My manager laughed and said “Oh for God’s sake, graduate school isn’t that hard!  Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.  Now…if you want hard, try seminary.  THAT’S HARD.  My brother went to seminary and my God, the amount of work that he had was ridiculous.  I have never seen anyone work that hard.  Trust me, you’re not going to have any problem in graduate school.”  Then my new manager asked me what I was studying.  I told him that I was going to seminary.  He laughed and said “Very funny.  Seriously, what are you studying?”  I told him that I was going to Claremont School of Theology to get a Master’s in Divinity so that I could become a Methodist minister.  He immediately looked at my team lead with a very stern look on his face and said “She needs to only work 30 hours in any week that she has a paper or a test.  Immediately! Do you understand?”  Honestly, I had to work hard not to burst out laughing.  I appreciated his help, but he looked like I told him I was studying to cure cancer.