Monthly Archives: February 2016

Get The Sackcloth

Every now and then I come up against a week that just blows me away.  This week it wasn’t work or anything to do with work that knocked my socks off.  It was the sheer weight of evidence that discrimination and hatred are alive and well in the United States of America.

It isn’t that I wasn’t aware of this before this very minute. Discrimination and hatred have always been a part of our culture in the US and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.  I guess that I have just chosen to focus on the areas where the mess is slowly being chipped away, where things are actually improving. I like to focus on the positive and look for evidence that God is doing great things.  Usually I don’t have to look too far before I find evidence of God’s grace and handiwork, and not long after that I find myself filled with peace and joy, having much to praise God for.

Sadly, the last few days have been filled with an increasing amount of despair.

I like to watch the news, sometimes watching it twice a day: once during breakfast and again just before I go to bed. The news acts as a kind of bookend to my day, keeping me aware of the world around me so I don’t end up cocooning in my office with my clients, or cocooning in my home office with my books and my blog, or cocooning on the couch with my family…basically the news rips me out of my cocoon!  Unfortunately, the news is not there to tell us all that is good in the world.  Usually, the news reports on what is broken, destroyed, and badly in need of repair.

This would be why the news is currently reporting on politics.

I realize that we are currently attempting to find two decent individuals that we can choose between for the next president of the United States; it’s not as if the news simply decided to start talking about politics and nothing else.  Actually, I think I would be comforted if they talked about politics and nothing else because much of what I am hearing about the presidential race has little to do with politics and has much to do with all the -isms: racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism.  When you boil it down, all those -isms condense to one thing only: hatred.

I could insert a pithy quote here from a wide assortment of candidates (especially Donald Trump) that is anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim…or anti-women. (God bless poor Megan Kelly.)

But it isn’t just the candidates that are filled with hatred.  It’s my fellow countrymen!  My fellow Americans are busy spouting just as much hatred as any candidate on the podium, and some of them have chosen to add in the distinct flavor of violence as well.

At a recent Trump rally, a protester raised his voice and began shouting anti-Trump statements.  Understandably, he was removed by security, and this is not the problem.  As he was being removed, someone yelled “Set the *&#^%@ on fire!”

Who says that??? Who, in this country where free speech is revered as one of the most important rights we have, advocates to set a man on fire for speaking freely?

And then there were the pictures of klansmen in full KKK regalia outside Nevada caucuses, rallying for “President Trump”.  There didn’t seem to be one shred of shame in them as they paraded around, advertising hatred and yelling pro-Trump slogans…yet they hid their faces.  When you are doing the right thing you shouldn’t need to cover your face and hide your identity.   The KKK likes to say that they believe in God and the United States of America.  The only people I know who talk about God and Country are Boy Scouts and members of the US Armed Services…and none of them hide their face and very few of them advocate racial hatred.

These examples are only a few drops of water in the lake of evidence that we are neither as tolerant nor as free of hatred and -isms as we had hoped to be over 50 years after people of color and women achieved equal rights in this country.

I could give you a lengthy discourse related to all that is wrong with our country, but strangely, the show Black-ish nailed it just last night.  Please watch this clip. It made me cringe, but it was right on the money.

Black-ish Explains Why Racism Isn’t Over

The funny thing is that I started cringing even before Anthony Anderson made his point.  I started cringing as the clip of Obama was showing because I remember watching that exact scene during the inauguration.  I remember the moment that Obama stepped out of the limo and started walking down the road.  And I remember the sudden knot that grew in the pit of my stomach and the sick feeling that gripped me immediately.

I was waiting for the shot to ring out that would end our new President’s life.

I had trouble believing, back in 2008, that the sheer amount of hatred that had been levied against Barack Obama prior to the election wouldn’t conspire to end the hope that his election had brought to me and to many people in our nation.

The fact that Barack Obama is still alive and is our President eight years after his election is a testimony to just how far we’ve come in this country.

The fact that we have campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter (and that we argue about why we need such a campaign) is evidence that things are not progressing as they should.  We are still a racist nation.  And the clearest evidence of that is that we have to have “special episodes” of television programs like Black-ish and then again on Chicago PD to address the widespread violence against Black people in this nation.  Yes…Black people. Not African Americans…that’s not what the campaign is called.  It’s called #BlackLivesMatter.

Yes they do!  Black lives matter!

Women’s lives matter.  Women’s sexual rights matter.  A woman’s control over her own body, which is gift to her alone from God, matters.

Gay lives matter. Gay couples matter.

Hispanics matter.  The lives of American citizens always matter and Hispanics are, by and large, American citizens.

Native Americans and First Nation People matter.  And the truth about how our nation has continued to sin against the Native Americans must be told, because the truth always matters.

Immigrants lives—legal and illegal—matter.

In the end I could go on and on.  But I don’t have to, because God’s children matter wherever they are, whatever color or gender or sexual orientation they are.  God loves all of God’s children and your particular opinion about that person’s spiritual status as a “sinner” or a “saint” does not absolve you of recognizing their inherent worth, nor does it give you permission to treat that person poorly or to discriminate against them.

Hate is not a Christian value.

Oppression is not a Christian value.

Discrimination is not a Christian value.

Jesus came to free us from the power of sin and the havoc that it wreaks in our lives and yet despite the many ways that we confess His name and call him our Savior, many of us appear to be clinging to all the things that Jesus came to free us from.

I look at such things and I despair of our nation’s future.  I don’t know what we need to do to stem the tide of hatred in our nation, but we need to do it soon.

Job 42:6  “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Random Jesus

Today a friend and I were working in one of the classrooms at church.  After several hours of working together, she looked up and said “Wow…I really like random Jesus.”

What??!

Actually, she was referring to the décor in the room, which was traditional Sunday School décor: a poster advertising an event that happened over a week ago; a map of the world in Biblical times; lots of chairs stacked against the wall; a whiteboard; and the word “Jesus” spelled out in shiny cardboard letters above the window.

Random Jesus, indeed.

The funny thing is that my first thought when she said that was “I really like random Jesus too!”  And I mean that.

I was standing in the parking lot talking to a friend who is a colleague after a meeting this week.  As we walked towards our cars, I realized that she had a new vehicle and commented on that…only to have her burst into tears.  The only reason she has new vehicle is because her son was in a horrible car accident that totaled his car and took the life of his girlfriend Ashley.  After many months of healing and grieving, life had to return to normal and that meant her son needed a car to get to school and work, so my friend gave her son her car because he couldn’t afford a new one.  She and her husband bought a new vehicle…and every time she drives it she is reminded that Ashley is gone and her family will forever grieve her loss. Every time she sees her new car she is reminded that her son was badly injured and easily could have died, leaving my friend and her husband to grieve that loss for the rest of their lives.  We stood in the parking lot crying and admitting that tragedies like this take a long time to stop hurting, and then we prayed.  We blessed Ashley and her family. We blessed my friend’s son and his healing. And then we prayed God’s blessings upon my friend, her ministry, and her car.  I have never prayed blessings onto a car before, but it sure felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

I found myself praying again this morning, getting ready for a meeting.  I got a call from Joe who didn’t have good news to share. The cancer is back and it doesn’t make sense because things were going so well until now.  All I could do was listen to the bad news and then sit alone and pray that God would do the same miracle this time that God did for us when the cancer was first diagnosed. Not long ago, Joe told me that he has stopped praying for himself and has chosen to pray that God will answer the prayers of everyone who prays for him simply so that they will know that God hears them, loves them, and answers their prayers…and so this morning I prayed for everyone who was praying for Joe, asking God to strengthen their faith and show them that their prayers are effective.

Shortly after I took that call, I met with two people from my church, Beth and Troy, so that we could prepare the cardboard testimonies for this coming Sunday.  I thought it might be a good idea to have some folks help me get the signs all lettered and prepared…legible handwriting is a gift many of us do not possess…and then we could photograph the testimonies so they can be projected on the screens during worship.  As we worked we told the stories of how we became Methodist, how we all came to worship at our particular church, and how our faith histories formed us.  After Troy left to help his girlfriend welcome a brand new grandbaby, Beth and I continued discussing our own personal challenges, especially the challenges we have with our kids and our jobs.  We unloaded our hearts and our worries and all of our fears onto one another.  It’s always an anxious thing to talk about those places where things aren’t going smoothly, those places where you feel like you are falling short or should be doing better. We spent a lot of time looking at what we were working on instead of looking at each other because it was hard to say the words we had to say.  Still, it was really good to speak our peace and finally get things off of our chest knowing that we could trust each other; knowing that we were speaking with someone who would listen and not judge; knowing that we were with someone who wouldn’t minimize the struggle or the fear or the pain.  Friends like this are truly friends in Christ and they are priceless!

Random Jesus.  This is Random Jesus.  Those amazing moments when Jesus pops up unannounced and unexpected in the middle of things to make the mundane holy, to create sacred space in the middle of nowhere, to consecrate words and emotions and tears.

One friend sharing her grief.

One friend sharing bad news.

Three friends sharing the story of how they got here.

Two friends sharing their fears and their failures and all the places where they don’t feel like they stand on solid ground.

This is where Jesus shows up and sits with us and gives us ease and peace where formerly only fear and pain existed.  This is how Jesus begins the healing and promises us that we don’t have to do anything alone, and then proves that by providing people to be with us, hear us, sit with us, and walk our journeys with us.  Jesus—his life, his death, and his resurrection—are the promise that we will never have to walk this difficult journey alone, ever, because God likes to show up in flesh.

Blessing a car.

Finding the strength to move forward in the face of death.

Knowing that you are exactly where God wants you to be.

Realizing that we are not enough but we are more than enough through Christ who strengthens us.

Random Jesus.

I really, really like that guy!!

 

Toddler Spit Proof

I was talking with a client this week.  She and her husband have been having marriage difficulties, and they are at that point where they have begun admitting to their part of the problem and asking for forgiveness.  For her husband, this is difficult. Not the asking part—he knows how to ask for forgiveness and has asked over and over and over. He really means it too.  It’s the forgiving part that he struggles with.  He cannot seem to accept forgiveness, or maybe I should say that he can accept forgiveness but has trouble believing that forgiveness is real and permanent.

This is when many people step in and say that those who have trouble believing they are forgiven are reflecting their own inability to forgive others.  I don’t disagree that this happens sometimes, but that’s not the issue for everyone.  For this man, it is an issue of grace.

You see, forgiveness is a part of grace, which is a much larger reality that encompasses things like unconditional love, self- and other-acceptance, humility, inner peace that is large enough to share with others, and of course, forgiveness.

Grace is a gift of God that is undeserved and unmeasurable.  Grace comes at us from all sides even before we believe in God or seek a relationship with Him.  Grace is what draws us to God, causes us to seek forgiveness for our failures, and drives us to rise above our fears and our pettiness and become all that God created us to be. Grace is what helps us to accept ourselves as we are even as we know that we can be better.  Grace is what allows us to accept others as they are and forgive them their shortcomings even as we encourage them to grow and change.

The problem with grace is that anything that is undeserved is scary. If we don’t deserve it, how can we guarantee its presence? If we didn’t earn it, how can we insure that we won’t lose it? If we can’t do anything to secure it, how can we be certain that it will be there when we need it?

Grace does not adhere to the rules of logic and it is not like material goods.  Grace cannot be bought like groceries. Grace cannot be insured like your car. Grace cannot be stored like dried beans.  Grace cannot be quantified, like the money in your bank account.  Grace cannot be positively identified by everyone present, as if it had a photo ID and was equally visible to everyone.  Grace is mostly recognizable to those who experience it and those who are looking for it; attempts to describe grace are difficult because it is so personal. Grace is different for everyone because it is given to each individual separately, based on their individual need.  Grace is neither average nor standard. Grace is a gift directly given to each individual on purpose by God.

This is why my client’s husband is having so much trouble with grace.  He is a man in his later years who is used to working hard for everything.  He earned his nation’s gratitude in the Vietnam War and pays the price for that war with his body and his nerves even now. He earned his wife’s love with his faithfulness and his good provision for his family and did so until she died. He earned his children’s respect and their love with firm parenting and wise words.  And now he seeks to re-earn his new wife’s love with efforts to change and admissions that he hasn’t always been kind…but he fears that there is not enough forgiveness in the world to undo the damage.  He has earned everything he has ever possessed and is having a terrible time believing that he can receive forgiveness from his wife and from God before he changes anything at all and proves that he is worthy of that forgiveness.  It’s a good impulse to want to be worthy of the forgiveness you receive, but the truth is that we can never undo the past or our own actions and the consequences can haunt us and everyone we love in powerful ways that leave the evidence of our wrongs in front of us daily.  How do you earn forgiveness if you can’t escape the consequences of your bad actions?

You can’t.  It isn’t possible.

Some things must be forgiven by grace alone, and when you have trouble believing in grace…forgiveness seems impossible.

This is when some people say that some things, like grace, must be taken on faith.  I say that’s not necessary, not if you can find evidence.  Evidence gives testimony to the truth and with evidence, you can move beyond faith alone.

I believe that I have evidence.

Grace is much like love in that love doesn’t adhere to the rules of logic or material possessions.  You can’t insure love, you can’t store it, you can’t quantify it, and you can’t guarantee it.  In the end, grace and love walk hand.  They rely on one another to exist.  Without love, there is no grace at all. Without grace, love is terribly fragile and dies easily like an un-watered plant.  Grace and love are interdependent and cannot exist separately; therefore, to prove that there is evidence of one is to prove the other definitively.  Provide evidence of undeserved, unearned love and you will have evidence of unearned, undeserved grace.

Let me prove love for you, so that I can prove grace.

If you are not a parent, please forgive me. I can only know what I know, and after two children, this is how I understand undeserved, unearned love.

Oh that moment when you first hold your brand new baby!  They are so beautiful and perfect!  Ten little toes and ten little fingers and that squished look on their face.  Their little bow mouth and tiny upturned nose are the essence of adorable.  They are so cute you could eat them like candy!   The first minute that you hold your child, you are consumed with the most intense love for them. Right?

Okay…first of all, no. Not right. Not everyone bonds with their child immediately. Science tells us that the bonding process is driven by chemicals like Oxytocin that are released during the birthing process. However, most parents bond with their infant very quickly, and since this is not a scientific dissertation, we’re going to stick with the folks who do bond quickly and insert a little reality into that sweet moment of love we have for our adorable, tiny infants.

Adorable my behind!  What you are holding in your arms at that moment is a small screaming, eating, sleeping, puking, poop machine!!  Infants are not capable of “loving you back” in the most traditional sense.  They don’t look lovingly into your eyes as you hold them…they can’t even focus their eyes!  They keep you up half the night because they have to be fed every 2-3 hours and then rocked back to sleep. Half the time they soil their diapers before you can even finish changing them, and if you have a little boy, they pee on you regularly.  Only a few days after she was born I was in the bathroom giving my daughter Alex a sponge bath. I felt water pouring onto my foot only to realize that she was peeing over the edge of the counter and that’s what was pouring onto my foot.  I grabbed her little behind to keep the flow on the counter, and she immediately pooped in my hand.  My God how she loved me!  Can you feel the love? I felt the love…all over my foot and in my hand, too.  To be honest, it felt nothing like love at all, and it took my mom—who was in the room with me—a good five minutes to stop laughing hysterically and come help me.  Again, can you feel the love?

Infants are tiny little screaming, eating, sleeping, puking, poop machines!  And we love them…we love them with an intensity that is almost insane, and they do nothing to earn that love. They do nothing to return that love.  They simply exist and we love them.  This is undeserved, unearned love.  Some of you will remind me about the Oxytocin and some of you will say that we are biologically programmed to love our infants because we have to propagate the human race.  I will remind you that not everyone bonds with their infants and some of us feel no need to propagate the race at all despite our biology.  In the end, if we choose to have children and love them, it’s because we choose to give undeserved, unearned love to someone who cannot return that love.  We CHOOSE to give UNDESERVED, UNEARNED love.

Evidence.

Of course, by the time our children are toddlers, closer to 12 months or 18 months, we start receiving what we think is evidence that they love us in return. Wet, sloppy kisses and hugs; cuddle fests that end with your toddler fast asleep on your shoulder…surely this is evidence that they deserve our love, that they are returning and trying to earn our love…right?  This goes on for years, expressed in macaroni necklaces and scribble drawings posted on the refrigerator. But do we really want those things? If your spouse gave you a scribble drawing, would you feel loved?  If your sibling gave you kiss after they smeared their face with food, would you feel loved?  This Valentine’s Day, will you open the box with the macaroni necklace in it and think “Oooh, he went to Jared!”??

No.

I am acutely aware that we use our children’s hugs and sloppy kisses to justify our overwhelming love for them.  We see their adoration and efforts to ‘love’ us as solid evidence that they truly love us.  But the truth is that we wouldn’t let anyone else love us that way.  No one in their right mind wants to be hugged and kissed by someone who smells like diaper and is covered in spit, food, snot, and anything else they could smear on their hands and face while playing and eating. No one wants to be laid on like a sofa and have their shoulder turned into a pillow by random folks who sweat and snore away no matter what you actually need to be doing at that moment.  The reason that we perceive these moments as acts of love by our children is because we already loved them first!! Any feeble attempt at returning that affection is received by us as if it came coated in diamonds and gold.

In the end, the love we have for our children is proof that we know how to give undeserved, unearned love…and how to accept and value even the most misguided and messy attempts to return that love.

Evidence.

God is just like this with us.

No matter how old we get in this earthly realm, we are just infants and toddlers to the Eternal God, and His love for us and His grace for us comes to us undeserved and unearned simple because we are His.  He feels about us like we feel about our infant children, and the depth of that love is very great, very intense, and borders on insanity.  Lest you worry that you are the one child that God doesn’t bond with, let me remind you that God doesn’t rely on Oxytocin and other chemicals created during the birthing process to create the bond between you and Him.  God’s choice to create you at all was proceeded by His love for the idea of you, and that idea was made flesh only because He wanted it that way.  If He didn’t love you, you wouldn’t be here at all.  Surprise!  You are…because you are loved by God.  If you exist, then you are loved…and there is nothing that you can do change that.  It was His choice to love you in the first place, and you can’t undo his choice.

Undeserved. Unearned.

EVIDENCE.

And if love and grace are interdependent, then the grace that God has for you…that grace that makes you forgiveable, acceptable, esteemed, that grace that calls you to become all you were ever created to be…that grace is just as unearned and just as undeserved and there is not one thing you can do to make it go away.

And all the times that you screw up or do something awful cannot be greater than the meager, faltering attempts you have made to show your love for God. The times you have gently served God’s creations: his Earth, his children, your loved ones…each of these acts was received by God like a wet, sloppy kiss.  The love you have for your own family? the love you have for your children? Every time you express that love you give God a great, big hug. Every time you have been grateful is a scribble drawing on His refrigerator.  Every time you have forgiven another person is a macaroni necklace given directly to Him. It’s kind of hard to screw this up, you know?  Because in God’s house, you are that messy, silly toddler tripping along, food all over your face…and He thinks you are adorable beyond words.  He loves you so intensely it borders on insanity.

If you are a parent, you know exactly how this feels.

Evidence.

If I can prove love, then I can prove grace, and love…is a given. It. Is. Proved.  Don’t even get me started on all that Jesus is and was. Love. Is. Proved.

Therefore…GRACE, undeserved, unearned, abounding for you.

It. Is. Proved.

I hope my client’s husband reads this and finally finds the space to believe in grace and forgiveness.

I hope you do too.

The Society of People Who Drown

Today is one of those days when I have mixed emotions.  Let me explain.

I’m sad because all my clergy friends are on their way home from The Gathering, a yearly convocation of pastors in our conference of the United Methodist Church.  I haven’t been able to attend The Gathering for the last eight years, and it’ll be 2021 before I am able to attend.  Bummer!  The reason behind all this is long and complicated, so I’ll simplify it: you can only be out of the office so much if you are going to be a counselor that is effective, and so I allocate my days off to things like family vacation, family emergencies, and the things I do as a Methodist clergywoman that require me to be away from my counseling office.  There are only so many days off that I can take, and when it comes to attending The Gathering, I just don’t have enough days off to make it happen.  Again, bummer!

I suppose I can’t really complain. It’s not like I never get to see my clergy friends. All the clergy in our conference gather twice a year: once in February at The Gathering and once in June at Annual Conference.  And that’s where the happiness comes in!

You see, this week was a rough week: lots of tasks, lots of clients, too many crisis situations, etc.  I’ve written about this in past blog entries—weeks like this can make me feel squished. I start feeling like I am drowning in a sea of endless tasks and endless human need, feeling pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who want to lean on me and believe that I can somehow give them what they want, what they think they need.

This, of course, is why I let my mind wander off to The Gathering, where a good friend of mine was giving her testimony about her call into ministry…and that’s when the happiness started.  I started thinking about her, and praying for her…and then I started thinking about Annual Conference.

Annual Conference is not some playground for pastors; we actually get quite a lot of work done, and I often find myself a bit stressed out during the conference because I have things I am supposed to get done, official roles I have to play, or presentations I have to make.  But no matter what, Annual Conference makes me happy, because in the end, I get to hang with my peeps. I get to spend five days with all my clergy friends. If I were being honest, I would mention that I’m not friends with all the clergy in this conference, but it doesn’t really matter because I’m just glad to be with my clergy colleagues.  When we get together, it is almost always a truly joyous occasion.  We laugh with one another, we pray with one another, and in general we love on one another as much as possible.

Why?  Because we are The Society of People Who Drown.

There isn’t a pastor or clergyperson on the face of the earth who doesn’t understand what I mean.  It doesn’t matter what kind of ministry you do—youth ministry, general church ministry, chaplaincy, counseling, urban ministry, ministry with the poor—if you are in ministry, some days you drown.  The human need is so great!  People come to pastors because they are seeking something, or more accurately, they are “wanting”: wanting answers; wanting connection to something bigger than themselves; wanting to feel God more deeply; wanting to hear God’s voice more clearly; wanting an instant family; wanting to know if what they are doing is right or wrong; wanting to know if they should give up or keep trying; wanting financial help; wanting forgiveness; wanting validation; wanting something that will end their misery and pain, wanting…wanting…SOMETHING.  Add that to all the other demands that go with managing a church (or an urban mission or a vital missions program or a counseling practice, etc.) and suddenly you find yourself drowning in a sea of tasks and endless human need, pushed under the surface by the sheer number of people who are leaning on you and hoping that you can help them get what they want, what they truly need.

Together, with my clergy colleagues, we are The Society of People Who Drown, and we are okay with that.

Because we have a Savior, and He has a boat.

And we know exactly whose hand plunges into the water to pull us to the surface.  Even when that hand looks exactly like the hand of one of my colleagues and comes attached to their voice, I know who is reaching into the water after me. And when I plunge my hand into the flood to grab one of my colleagues who is starting to go under, they know exactly who is guiding my hand; they know exactly who is pulling them out of the sea.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

Before we accepted our call to ministry all of us found ourselves standing on the beach, looking out across the water at Jesus in the boat.  There He was, floating in a sea of human need, calling to us as we stood on the shore, and one by one we all said “That’s it! I love you, and I’m coming in!” and then we waded into the water.  It seemed like the craziest thing to do, and yet none of us seemed to be able to choose anything else.

So here we are, treading water in a sea of human need, and occasionally drowning.  And we are okay with that.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat.

There is a reason why my clergy colleagues and I love each other so intensely; why we enjoy our time together so much.  There is a reason why we seek each other out to share both tears and laughter and to lift each other’s spirits.

It’s because each and every one of us is crazy.  Only crazy people wade into the water when all the evidence makes it look like you’ll drown!  But here we are, treading water in a sea of human need and occasionally drowning…and while it’s very difficult to do, we wouldn’t do anything else.  And we wouldn’t do it with anyone else.  These are my colleagues and like me, they are all crazy…crazy for the Man in the boat who is going to save us all…crazy for the One who reaches his arm into the flood over and over to pull us up and let us know that it’s okay…we aren’t going to drown, not really, because He has His eye on us, and He isn’t going to let anything take us under for good.

That is as true for me and my clergy colleagues as it is for everyone else. Jesus doesn’t just pull a few of us to the surface. He reaches in for each and every person, everywhere, all the time.

It isn’t just me and my clergy colleagues. It’s everyone.

We have a Savior, and He has a boat!

Hallelujah! Amen.