Bearing the Light

Light bearers

“May Light always surround you;
Hope kindle and rebound you.
May your Hurts turn to healing; Your Heart embrace Feeling.
May wounds become Wisdom;
Every Kindness a Prism.
May laughter infect you;
Your Passion resurrect you.
May Goodness inspire
Your Deepest Desires.
Through all that you Reach for,
May your arms Never Tire.
~ D. Simone

be-the-light

We are the light bearers, the evangelicals, which literally means those who bring a good word, a word of hope, a word of healing. And there is so much need for light bearing, for the good word, the word of hope today.

John 1 tells us that just over 2000 years ago a light came into the world; a light that would change everything, a light that came into darkness. This Lenten season we have been talking about our own darkness, our own desert journeys. There is plenty of darkness, plenty of wilderness and shadows to explore, to get to know. It’s important to know our own shadow side because then we can take responsibility for it, we know it when we see it and we won’t find ourselves pretending that it belongs to someone else. Holding our own weakness tenderly we can also be gentle with others. We can remember not to judge lest we be judged, we can refrain from throwing the first stone.

This week I heard Toni Morrison in an interview talking about racism. “it’s insanity,” she said, “it’s the need to see someone else on their knees so that you can feel OK.” It’s not black people who have work to do on racism but all who are racist. The reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement says a lot more about those reacting than it does the protestors. Do we really want to say that Black lives don’t matter? We must look carefully at our own shadow, our own darkness if we are to be sure that we are dealing with it, that we aren’t pretending that our darkness is really only a reaction to what others have done, is really justified. Our darkness, our shadow side, properly cared for and transformed by the Holy Spirit becomes fertile ground. It becomes that place where we have empathy for others because we know how hard this work is. We know what resistance looks like.

We know the resistance because we can and we do overcome it! We know it because it is that urge to not do anything, to let someone else take care of it. We know it because we want to deny and defend and justify why we acted or didn’t act. We know it because we can bring the light of Christ to it and watch it change. This transformation is that glorious moment when you realize you can and you do make a difference, sometimes just with a smile, with recognition, a way of saying to others, I see you and I care. Seeing others truly we bring the light of Christ to them. “Beloved child of God, you are treasured, you are loved eternally and no one and nothing can ever take that away.” And the shadows lift, they dissolve.

We can see our shadow side leaking out when we see our nation mourning the brutal death of Kayla Mueller; who looking like everyone’s next door neighbor, was killed by ISIS and how quickly this was followed in North Carolina by the murder of three innocent Muslim students, who looked like “others” and the burning of a mosque in Houston. This is our shadow, come back to haunt us. It is out there when we hear news commentators crying out for the murder of all Muslims and there is no accountability for the American participation in the creation of ISIS. This is shadow work at its deepest and darkest. It’s hard to look at and if we really consider it, let it sink in, it can make us feel sickened and hopeless.

It is into this we must bring the light of Christ.

Bring the light of Christ into our anger and pain.

Our resistance to dealing with our darkness shows up when we hear people deride Obama for saying that Christians have committed atrocities too and we need to be careful how we judge others. We have quickly forgotten the Christian militias that terrorized thousands in Central Africa just two years ago, where more than 6000 were left dead in an ethnic cleansing, or the Christian justification of slavery that happened right here. Not us, we want to say, we would never, all the while students are shot and mosques are burned. It’s so much easier to see the wrongs, to see the shadow in others. Not us, we protest, we couldn’t do that.

Bring the light of Christ into our sorrow.

We feel our resistance in the silence and the turned gaze when we don’t want to see our neighbors in poverty or pain. When we want to walk by and not see, not know. As if to know would implicate us, would drag us into their situation and it feels too big, too scary.

Bring the light of Christ into our fear.

It is into this darkness, the darkness where might makes right and the powers that be can be as vicious and brutal as any we have heard of, it is into this darkness that a light has come.

Light of Christ come into our most hopeless situations.

A light that cannot be overpowered. This light that cannot be overcome, it cannot be eaten up or digested by the darkness. It sticks in the craw of the darkness and no one and nothing can swallow it up. This light changes everything.

This light which will not go away illuminates our very being and we are seen, truly seen and perhaps there is a piece of us that fears this, that says “if you really saw me, truly knew who and what I am, you would not like me.” It takes courage to stand in the light and be truly, wholly seen. All our mistakes and shadows visible. We are human, faulty and frail. We are human, bearers of the image of God, created good, so very good, and faulty and frail. Both are true. The light of Christ transforms our darkness, our human soil into the richest of compost, into the fertile ground of compassion and abiding love.

Pain that isn’t transformed, is transmitted and so we mourn with those who’s pain continues to live in them, who’s pain continues to isolate and distance them, those who are afraid to stand in the light of Christ because they are so sure that no one could ever truly love them, not after all they’ve done and been. We mourn with those who cannot bear to look at their own shadow, their own darkness for fear that it will all be true and it’s too big, and it’s too scary.

We bring the light of Christ to those who are lost in the darkness when we tenderly hold a safe space and invite those who fear, who rage, who hurt to dare to show up wholly and completely. We bring the light of Christ when we look past the painful behaviors and say I still see you, I still see you, child of God and God still sees you. You are treasured, you are loved, you are forgiven, you are made whole.

We bring the light of Christ when we love ourselves wholly and completely, all our faults and mistakes, and we honor our faults because they keep us human and keep us reachable. Can we say to ourselves, I see you child of God and God sees you; you are treasured, you are loved, you are forgiven.

We mourn and cry out against the darkness, the lostness, the injury and pain, but we don’t leave it there. We are called upon to bear the light of Christ into that darkness, into all the pain and lostness. We are called to show up fully, frail human, beloved child of God, and be with those who suffer. We are called not to judge but to be with, not to correct or fix but to love.

Mourn then and cry out, and rage against the darkness, but don’t leave it there. Go forth as the light bearers, as the image bearers, as the messenger of God and speak a word of hope, of truth, of light into the darkness.

Look deep into the darkness, because we might find part of ourselves there, some piece long forgotten, because we might find our sisters and brother there, and love deeply, love knowing that the darkness is the first wrap we put on our wounds, tucking them away when they are too painful for us to bear, to hold gently, tucking them away with the promise that we will release them soon, as soon as we can breathe through it and know we’ll survive. Love gently and deeply because sometimes, when we have covered a wound it is just to easy to let it stay covered and to refuse to heal. Love deeply because this is what it means to bring the light of Christ into the darkness; not a harsh, glaring, exposing light, but a soft, tender, loving light, a light which heals.

Love deeply because, as the poet Hafiz said hundreds of years ago, speaking to this eternal truth:

The heart is right to cry

Even when the smallest drop of light

Of love

Is taken away.

Perhaps you may kick, moan, scream

In a dignified

Silence,

But you are so right

To do so in any fashion

Until God returns

To

You.

And so yes, kick, moan and scream if you need to but don’t ever give up. Know that God is with you. And when you can’t feel God’s presence it is right to mourn, to cry.

Go into the darkness, because you bear the light of Christ with you, because you are the evangelist, because you bear the image of God in your very being. Go into the darkness because you are loved, you are treasured, you are never forgotten but loved eternally and no one and nothing can ever take that away. You bear the light of Christ within you, never forget that.

Desert Wanderings

Harry Randall Truman was a faithful and devoted man. He was the caretaker of a mountain lodge near Spirit lake and he loved, he truly loved the wilderness. The mountain with its depth and mystery, the lake with a cold, damp fog rising off of it in the early mornings. I imagine Harry in his devotion, his heart swelling and over-flowing with love, standing on the deck of the lodge in the early morning, coffee cup in hand, drinking in the almost silence, that golden silence when the world speaks as one with God before our busy schedules and to-do lists take over. I never met Harry, so I can only imagine, but I imagine Harry as one of those many people from the Pacific Northwest who proudly proclaim, the mountain is my temple, the forest is my sanctuary, I meet God there. I have no need for steeples or organ music, I have tall pine trees and birdsong.

spirit lake

When the call came to leave the mountain, Harry refused. “My mountain won’t hurt me,” he proclaimed and as he witnessed to his deep faith and love of the wild lands, the forests, his beloved mountain, people were inspired. He received marriage proposals in the mail. People took heart listening to him and they too refused to leave the mountain, at least until the evidence was more certain.

Harry said the mountain would take care of him and I suppose in a way it did. When Mount St. Helens erupted it folded it’s hot, molten lava around Harry and his cats and it held him eternally. He did not have to witness the devastation of his forests, of his lake, of his mountain; he was spared that. There is a certain grace and certainly there is fidelity in Harry’s story.

There is also a refusal. A refusal to enter into exile and endure the desert times, the I feel so lost times, the time of loss and grief. I can’t imagine Harry’s situation. But I do know that in some ways it is our situation. Most of us were raised in a certain church, a certain way of being church.

I have the fondest memories of Wednesday night potlucks and to me a church isn’t home unless I can enter the sacred places alone and walk through them as if I’m home. This naming and claiming for me as a child involved signing up to clean sections of the church and joyfully doing so every week, this quarter we have the kitchen and the narthex, next one we have the bathrooms and the adult Sunday school room, and so it would go. It was ours. We were home.

It involved sitting vigil at the foot of the cross from Good Friday service until Easter morning when the pastor arrived to do the Easter service- we would sign up for 15 minute increments and in complete silence we would enter and relieve those who had come before us and we committed to never leaving that cross alone in the horror of death until resurrection came. My mother loved to sign up for the middle of the night sessions so this vigil often began with her waking us at one or two in the morning and driving through the cold to church. All of this is viscerally encoded in my being.

This is how I know my church…except that, it changed. My church became the one where I was greeted with a hug and a soulful, “I see you” gaze. My church became the one where, and I know this is different, we did prayer stations and at a designated time during the service I could move from one prayer station to another, physically praying as I lay my body down on pillows, artfully praying as I painted a “graffiti wall” with my earnest prayer, or simply lighting a candle, and then, most significantly for me, receiving communion by name. I was known here, I was claimed here. As I moved through the service I would receive small pats on my shoulder, a brief smile here and there. Somehow I was known and loved and accepted and I felt it viscerally.

My church was also a small church where my service began in the early hours of Saturday morning as my fellow seminarians slept in and I, I was off to buy groceries. Though, no, to be honest my worship and expressing my love for this congregation began earlier in the week, often on pinterest an internet site with lots of delicious recipes that I would peruse, trying to find and create the perfect menu. And after coffee I would run to the store, shop for wonderful, fresh goodness and spend the day in the basement of the church, again alone, working, cleaning, cooking, feeling myself at home in deep visceral ways, in the way of thanksgiving smells, and canning or jamming sessions with extended family, home is where the kitchen is, and with my radio on full blast I would dance and sing and cook, so that I might present a full meal to all these wonderful, loving, gracious people who took me in when no one else would.

My church became the message that you are welcome here; all your tears and anger and frustration, all of you, all that you are and all that you experience yourself to be, are welcome here. I’m paraphrasing, because to be honest this message was one I received in pieces, a little here, a little there. But again, I knew I had found my church. The final piece of the message, you have worth and value, you have something to contribute, and by the way, God sees you, God loves you. Huh, nothing more. No earn it. No if you do this…God will love you. No, if you do this…I will accept you. No if you are this you can be part of our community. No. No. Isn’t that something? You! Sitting there. You! Are loved! That final piece, once I was ready to let it in, to receive it, it made the whole world church!

So about now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Harry Randal Truman and his love of his mountain. Right about now I can imagine Harry twirling in his grave saying, how can you conflate my love for my mountain with church?! But I am sure that he would admit that standing on his deck in the morning, watching the mist rise off the lake, feeling and hearing the Spirit of God pulsing through the wilderness, singing with the birds, that this was church for him.

And I understand his refusal to leave church as he understood it, even if it meant death. Because I refused to leave church until it meant death, the death of who I was as a fully aware and adult woman, until it meant that I must become small and diminished. But I know something that Harry never had the chance to discover, that church comes in many and different forms. Some of them feel odd and different and off-setting, especially at first, but all of them are wonderous and grace inspired and beautiful. And Harry was not able to receive this.

My sister-in-law and my brother live on the Oregon coast and every week my sister-in-law posts pictures she has taken of the Oregon coast on facebook and it is devotional. I know, some of you are thinking, “how can anything on facebook be devotional” but it is. Her pictures speak of a deep love, a willingness to stand in awe and wonder, of a willingness to accept grace and love without explanaition. “Why are you doing this for me?” and no answer comes, and we wonder openly about the love or perhaps the silence, but we accept the gift. We accept it in wonder and awe!

So what is church anyway? Is it the grand and vibrant mountain, holy mountain, on which my ancestors worshipped? Is it the edifice of a cross that must be accompanied, that invites us into the death of Jesus Christ? Is it the kitchens and bible study rooms that must be cleaned and thus owned? Is it the liturgies that invite us into personal and public prayer? And when all around us are saying, in large and quiet voices, this will end, do we have the courage and the faith to believe that the church can and will exist in lots and lots of different and unexpected forms?

I wonder sometimes, if Harry had left his beloved mountain, his humble mountain, would he have learned to worship the grand and incredible mystery that is God on the beach as my sister-in-law does? I wonder if he would have named it and claimed it, saying here, today, I worship and adore, straight up adoration, the mystery that is God manifested yesterday in Mount St. Helens but today in Castle Rock, tomorrow who knows?

We have this resurrection faith. This faith that God will come even through, perhaps especially through, death. We die to what we know, the ways in which we have always experienced God, believing that God will become present to us in new and different ways, in unexpected ways. We die to what we know, perhaps because we need so desperately to believe, to know, that God will be present to us even when we have let go of all that is certain.

And in doing so we enter the desert. Halle, hallejuha, we enter the desert. Imagine Jesus, that human side of him, being so blessed at the river that the heavens split open and God said, I am so very, very proud of you. I don’t know about you, but if the heaven’s split at the river, in the midst of baptism. I would be dunking under that river over and over trying to hear it again. But Jesus leaves.

Harry could not leave the place where he experienced the divine. H would not be driven out to the desert, but Jesus, he leaves.

We stand at just such a cusp. There are so many, many memories of God-filled, God-inspired moments here. We have so many memories of worship being a certain way and like Harry our love of what we know, the ways in which we have experienced God, call to us. And we want to remain faithful to that just as he did. And like Harry we know that this cannot last. We feel the trembling of the mountain, the dissolving of finances, the empty pews. We know we cannot stay but like Harry we want to stay and continue to feel the blessed and gracious presence of God in the ways which we are familiar with.

Following Jesus out into the desert isn’t easy. Walking into the silence and the loneliness, encountering our darkest side, encountering our mortality is frightening. Jesus received this incredible blessing, sky splitting open, God speaking directly to him, and in response he leaves. In response he opens himself up to the mystery and the uncertainty. In response he walks into the darkness, into the desolation and he experiences temptation. It is a walk of faith, to walk into the darkness.

We are entering Lent, a time when we are invited to die with Christ and learn that we truly have a resurrection faith, that dying we live. We are invited into our greatest fears that we might learn that God is there too.

As we stand together on the edge of the desert, as we face our mortality we have a decision to make, to enter the unknown and let go of certainty or to die where we stand, remaining faithful to what we already know. I believe that Harry was not alone when the mountain erupted, that God was with him even then, loving him, protecting him, caring for him. I do not believe that if we decide not to embrace change that God will abandon us or be disappointed in us, but I do believe that this church will not survive it; we cannot keep doing what we have been doing and expect to get different results. This is a valid choice but it is not the only one.

We can choose to follow Jesus into the desert, into the unknown, embrace change and let the Spirit transform us. We can open our hearts and souls up to the incredible process of transformation and say, yes this too. We can walk into the darkness, encounter our mortality, grief, and loss knowing that we do not walk alone, that God is holding our hand as we go.

We stand on the cusp decision just as Harry must have as he watched his neighbors pack up and leave.

Please pray with me, Most holy and gracious God, teach us not to judge one another as we struggle to know what the right thing is. Teach us to be kind and to respect the decisions that we each must face. Teach us to seek You always knowing that whether we can face the desert and transformation or whether we stay resolutely where we have experienced You once before that You are with us. Amen

The Beauty of Being Wrong

kids-playing-outside

Matthew 18: 1-5

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

 Reflection,

There was a young gentleman who had just ended his long term romantic relationship and he was struggling. It seemed to him that he might never date again and one day as he was thinking about this he realized that he was afraid of rejection, but, if he didn’t risk rejection then he was sure to fail. He spent a lot of time thinking about rejection, what did it really mean about him if others rejected him, was it personal or perhaps something else, why was he so afraid of rejection, all of this and then, he decided to get used to rejection and he had a plan. He would deliberately seek out one rejection every single day. The first one was easy, he walked up to a stranger in the parking lot and asked them to drive him across town, they said no. Imagine his sense of relief, a sort of “whew, I did it! And I’m done with that for today.” Over time it became easier and easier. In order to be done with his project for the day he needed a rejection so what this rejection came to mean to him changed. It was no longer a dismal reflection on his character or his being but rather an accomplishment, one he could chalk up to “well done!” and feel good about. It represented not his worth but his courage, his bravery and willingness.

 

Our scripture today asks us to become as little children. Not to seek power or privilege but to be simple and powerless. At the time Jesus pulled that child into the midst of the disciples there were few things considered as worthless as a child. So many died so young it really was easier to simply not get attached. Child sacrifice was so common that much of the Hebrew bible is dedicated to speaking against it. The prophets, speaking for God, state, “Never had I thought of such a thing!” and the gentiles around them were especially horrific for practicing this. A child, small, vulnerable, powerless, easily disposed of. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery only because killing him was distasteful to a couple of them. In a rarely told story Jephthah kills his daughter in thanksgiving to God for victory on the battlefield. He graciously allows her to spend a couple days with her best friends first.

 

This is what Jesus was holding up for the disciples to become. The one who is most vulnerable and often most tragic. Become this. Weak, vulnerable, trafficked, murdered, over looked, it’s a state that most of these men must have been eager to escape, to make it out of. And they are still eager to make it. This quest for achievement is never ending and Jesus asks us to halt, to stop. Do not attempt to become more powerful, stronger, victorious, stop trying to win and succeed, to be the one who comes out on top.

 

As in the story I opened this sermon with, become the one who seeks out rejection, who adopts failure and loss as a way of life. And there he goes again. Jesus, always turning our exepectations on their head. Just when we think we know the way he comes along and upsets our expectations. Imagine what the disciples were thinking:

 

“Just how do I become the best, the most important and beloved disciple. Because I am, really I am, the most pious and I always have Jesus back. I say the right things at the right time. I just, man I just really am the best! But what does he think, is there something I should be doing more of, or maybe less. I did look at that girl the other day. Dang. It’s so hard to meet all these expectations!” Imagine the anxiety of wanting to be the best disciple, the most perfect one. This is what our society tells us we have to do if we are to be worthy, if we are to be loved and the disciples had grown up with the same message.

 

How incongruous to be told, no, stop trying to be perfect, to be worthy, and be like a child. Make mistakes, fall down, be vulnerable, be at risk, it’s OK. Your Father loves you. I’m not sure the disciples got it, I’m not sure we do. I thought about making a grand mistake this week just to illustrate, you know, not having a sermon prepped or messing up communion but then I thought I’d better not!

 

The truth is, if we are to revitalize and renew our worship life here we need to be willing to make mistakes. I’m not sure we are there yet. We need to be willing to say, well, that didn’t work. And move on, knowing it is OK that we tried something different, something new. Yet we must also be gentle with ourselves because there is a certain rigidity and fragility to being human. There is a saying I learned in seminary, if you do something once it’s innovative and scary, if you do it three times then it’s “the way we’ve always done it.” Our security can so often arise from the comfort of what we know. We know how things are supposed to be done and this gives us security.

 

Freedom to be wrong is the freedom to innovate, to be creative, to try new things. Freedom to be wrong is the security we give children. I remember watching my daughter learn to walk. She had learned to cruise the furniture. You remember that? When a small child learns to pull themselves up on the couch and walks along sideways hanging on for dear life? She had done this but she was always on the look out for a soft landing. I placed pillows all over the floor and she would look for them and when she saw one near, she would release her grip on the couch and take a step toward it, only to fall, collapsing on the pillow. To become like a child is to be very, very bold. It is to try again and again knowing that failure is part of the bargain. Our Father who watches over us has thrown some pillows on the floor and we need only to trust it will be OK to fall. It is to know that if we say the wrong thing, pointing at cow and saying, doggy, doggy, that it’s OK. How much easier it would be for me to learn Spanish if I were willing to speak it more often, knowing that I will get it wrong, over and over, like a child, and that’s OK.

 

But I, like a lot of you, want to be right. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I don’t want to seem ignorant and so I hold back. This resistance becomes rigidity. It becomes brittleness. It is the way we say, “We’ve never done it that way before.” And innovation, creativity, newness is shamed, is backed into a corner. Would any of us speak that way to a child? Yet, we often speak that way to ourselves. How can we soften the rigidity of our hearts?

When I worked in counseling I used to have many of my clients do a visualization with me. You can do it now if you wish, simply close your eyes and imagine that young child is sitting with you, is seeing what you see, is feeling the same hopes and dreams that you do, and that this child is looking to you for guidance, for love, for nurturing. Imagine taking that child up onto your lap and giving it the love and care that this child needs and recognize that this child is you, is a part of you, is always with you and that some part of who you are is still this small child, looking to the adult you for love and acceptance.

 

So often we can think and speak harshly to ourselves. I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, just not enough. These are words, voices, that we pick up along the way, that for some reason we internalize, we take into ourselves and we keep them alive. And feeling the impact of these shaming words and voices we can become rigid, defensive. As human beings we are generally masters of justification. Because being wrong feels so bad, so terrible, we learn to justify whatever we just did, whatever we just said. Well I didn’t mean it that way, well you have to understand I was scared, well, and we go on and on. We are good at it.

 

It is so much harder to say, Yes, I did that. It’s my fault. I was wrong. I’m sorry. It is so counter intuitive that being vulnerable and showing our weaknesses is strength, is resilience. When we admit that we are wrong we are pushed into the process of change and we don’t always know what that will look like. It brings unease and uncertainty with it. Often we remember times when we were really, truly wrong, with a hot flush of shame and yet these are places of transition.

 

Last week I read an article by a man who was recalling his father’s unending patience. His father was a roofer and over the summers this young man would work with him, and he made mistake after mistake, after mistake. Often this meant longer hours for the two of them as they tore the roofing off and replaced it, or had to explain to the customer why it wasn’t done yet. But one mistake he recalled especially vividly. It was a hot summer’s day and he and his father were working way up on a two story house. They had arrived at sun up before the heat of the day and had gotten most of their supplies up on the roof when this young man bumped the ladder. The ladder he was supposed to have secured, the ladder which was their only way onto and down from the roof, the ladder which he had not secured. And it fell. He remembers most the look on his father’s face and how his own heart dropped down out of his chest and into his stomach before the ladder even hit the ground. It was a mistake they never forgot. He could have gotten angry, defensive, claimed it wasn’t his fault, that he hadn’t been told to secure the ladder or any number of justifications, but instead they both waited together silently, till a passerby saw them, stuck on the roof. Because there had been no angry justification, because this young man let his heart soften and his father knew that watching that ladder fall had been enough punishment, there were no recriminations. “We laughted about that until my father died.” This young man recounts.

 

The beauty of being wrong. It takes us back to childhood, to the time when it was OK to make mistakes, in fact it was expected, and our faults were met with laughter and gentle corrections, not shame. It opens us up to try new things knowing we aren’t expected to be perfect and we don’t have to be

 

 

Love Insists, We’d Better Not

dimensions-of-dialogue

A sermon on Matthew 5: 21-26, 38-48

Our scripture today asks us to, “be perfect as your father is perfect” wow! Not asking too much today, huh? As Delia said when looking over the scripture for this Sunday, this one really hits you! It doesn’t cut any corners, it lays it right out there, be perfect, don’t think bad things about others, don’t spread malicious gossip, don’t harbor feelings of anger, etc. love those who persecute you, be reconciled to those you have problems with, be perfect.

 

So far this year we have talked about becoming the beloved community, going to pieces without falling apart, finding beauty in our brokenness, and now we are talking about reconciliation, which, as we hear from the sermon on the mount is essential. We have been directed to reconcile with those who hurt us and as I prepared to write this sermon it occurred to me that reconciliation is best discovered through story.

 

Jesus gave us parables and examples of reconciliation over and over again. It is the prodigal son and the reconciling father, the father who forgives again and again, the father who, at the end of the story is not in the party with his reconciled son but is out in the courtyard with his son who refuses to be reconciled. Even in this refusal, the father is with him, waiting, entreating, calling him to reconcile. The older son in his anger and perception of injustice remains in the outer courtyard, something that Jesus likens in other parables to being cast out into the darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth.

 

It is the story of Jesus’ gentle words restoring a woman to community after she was brought out to be stoned; he asks for those who have no sin to throw the first stone. In their empathy, their awakened sense of connection with this woman who has sinned they cannot act. She is restored into community.

 

It is in Jesus permitting a woman who has sinned to wash his feet with her tears, allowing her to touch him as if nothing could be wrong, as if she had never done anything questionable but was and always would be, simply a beloved child of God, that she is restored.

 

It is in Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and sending her back into community as the first evangelist that she is reconciled to her community. Over and over Jesus acts to reconcile us, to restore community, to uplift the outcast and the broken, to bring health and wholeness to those in need.

 

So I want to share with you a powerful story of reconciliation I discovered while searching for restorative justice information. I’ll post the video of this woman sharing her story later today on facebook, if you want to hear it in her words.

 

Anne Marie Hagan begins her story by saying, “In an ideal world, this never would have happened, but when you look at the fact that it did happen, aren’t I so blessed to be taken full circle? Plus I’m free, free from all the anger and the bitterness and the vengeance?“ Anne Marie looks defiantly and openly straight at the camera as she says this, something she could not do when all those years ago.

 

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon when a neighbor and friend of the family walked into Anne Marie’s home wielding an axe. He brutally murdered their father and attacked Anne Marie herself before the attack was over. In the photo taken shortly thereafter Anne Marie stares blankly into the distance, disassociated and unseeing. As she talks about her life after the attack she states, “I was one mean, nasty individual, I was always being triggered back into the event.“

 

She was a woman living her own personal hell, one that crept into her ability to have empathy and compassion for others, one that made her life small and kept her focused on the man who killed her father. She was stuck in this place of pain, loss, and despair. “How long, oh Lord, How long,” the psalmist cries, “For 18 years Satan has kept this woman bound,” Jesus stated, isn’t it time for her to be free? For Anne Marie her freedom came after 17 years during which time she had prepared over an over to get some piece of vengeance on this man.

 

When his parole hearing came up, after 17 years in a mental institute, she attended meaning to shame him, to reduce him, to hurt him. But this did not happen. Something shifted when she was confronted with this man, his remorse, his brokenness, his frailty. As Anne Marie describes her impulse to reach out to this man whom she had spent so many years hating, how she had to “rush around the table, I just had to hug him, had to touch him,” as she talks about her heart being opened to him and empathy, compassion being restored to her, I can only imagine that the Spirit was there, enfolding them all, transforming them, changing everything. Seeing him again, in person, after all these years, her heart was opened, the rage and anger left her and she was no longer a victim but someone who had been victimized.

 

Anne Marie’s story reminds us that we can get stuck in the midst of trauma, we can get stuck in the midst of anger, hurt, and despair. While we may appear to move forward on the outside, some part of us can remain behind, stuck in events that shook our lives and from which we long to be freed.

 

So let’s look again at our scripture, specifically this word perfect. Be perfect Jesus says, as your Father is perfect. This perfection, what exactly is this? The Greek word that is used in this scripture is teleos. You might be familiar with the word teleology. It implies something a little different from perfection but rather a sort of completion, a wholeness, as well as a sense of destiny or purpose. Something that exhibits clear teleology demonstrates its purpose clearly, such as a shovel is clearly for digging and doesn’t have frills on it or a fancy design. It’s teleology is clear. If you use a shovel to dig dirt you have fulfilled its teleology. It is perfected, it is finished, a satisfied teleology.

 

Does our scripture read differently if Jesus is saying, hey, stop being so angry with one another, repeating traumas and injuries, let them go and be reconciled so that you may be whole and complete as your Father is whole and complete? So that your purpose may be satisfied as your Father’s purpose is.

 

Reconcile so that you might be who you were created to be, not a bent or twisted version, not angry and bitter, not seeking vengeance and acting in anger, but whole, healthy, completely and exactly as you were created to be, the loving and creative person God made you to be. Reconcile because to not do so is to remain stuck in the past, owned by the past rather than informed by the past.

 

Reconcile, be restored, repent, all of these words suggest a return; a return to wholeness. We have this choice, this freedom, to step outside the grace of God, and sometimes we do, and sometimes it happens without our even being aware of it. Sometimes events are so shocking, disturbing or painful that our very brain structure changes and it’s hard to find restoration, to find health and wholeness again. It’s hard to find peace again. We have been taught that this peace will come when the scales are balanced, when we have our pound of flesh, but Jesus tells us this is not so, he tells us to forgo our just vengeance. Wholeness, health, being restored to our true purpose, our teleos, occurs through reconciliation, not through balancing the scales, not through exacting our vengeance.

 

The world tells us to seek justice, to get our due, but Jesus tells us to reconcile, to reconnect. Many of us grew up watching westerns and other TV shows where the finale, the thing that made everything all right again, was killing the bad guy. As Anne Marie discovered pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted, it’s passed on and on. It infects all parts of our lives and creates disharmony and disruption.

 

There is an old Jewish tale about a learned Rabbi who examined his students one day asking them, How do you know when the dawn has come? His students were eager to please and they offered many ideas, perhaps it is when it is light enough you can see the difference between a cow and a horse, one suggested, the Rabbi said, no, no, “is it when it is light enough that you can see the difference between a man and a woman passing on the street,” another asked, no, no, the Rabbi said, “is it when you can see the difference between a tree on the horizon and a hedge” one asked hopefully, no, no, said the Rabbi.

The dawn comes when you can look into the eyes of a stranger and see there a brother, a sister, then the dawn will have come. We need one another to be whole, to perfect our teleos.

 

Last week I saw a revolutionary study in addiction medicine. It reflected a new paradigm, one that I knew intuitively was right even before I read the evidence because I have seen it lived out again and again. This new study looked at the rats that were used so many years ago to study cocaine dependence and someone wondered if they would have the same results if the rats were not in isolation but were in happy, healthy communities. They recreated the same test, only this time the rats were not isolated but kept in communal groups, they were happy and well fed, they even had toys to play with. Even though these rats in community had the same access to drugs, they did not use them. This sparked further study and it began to appear that addiction is a disease created less by chemical hooks in our brain and more by isolation and disconnection from meaningful relationship. This makes a lot of sense to me as most of the youth I have worked with who were successful developed very strong relationships with each other and with staff, they reconciled with family members. When we are most unlovable, that is when we need love the most.

 

Reconciliation requires reconnection, it requires presence, that we would show up, emotionally, physically, spiritually with one another and we do not withdraw when the going gets tough. This is how we begin to foster open, honest, genuine relationship, by staying present during tough times, through hard truths.

 

It has been said that our nation is not ready for reconciliation between races because we are not ready to hear the hard truths. I don’t know if that is true. For some people it may be, perhaps not for others. What I am sure of is that when we cannot stay present, cannot hear the truth, the experience, of others, cannot bear to hear the impact that we have had on their lives, then we have silenced them and we cannot have a healthy relationship, we cannot be reconciled with those we will not listen to, with those we will not stay present to.

 

And I say this knowing that allowing another’s truth, another’s story, to impact us, to touch us, will change us. We might feel impelled to act, to stop the pain and loss, if we hear these stories. We may be drawn into compassion, to suffer with those who are oppressed. I certainly hope so. Knowing another’s story will not leave us where we began. It will change us.

 

It has always been easier to not hear, to not be touched, to withdraw. Fear suggests we do just that. Love insists we’d better not. Love insists we must draw near to one another. Love insists we hear the hard stories, look into one another’s eyes and let ourselves be touched, let ourselves be changed.

 

If we would reconcile we must commit to staying present, allowing our hearts to be open to the mystery, our minds to remain curious, that we might see the image of God in one another. Reconciliation is unleashed through signs and stories as we meet the other, look them in the eyes and see a brother, see a sister. When we are willing to see them exactly as they are, to hear their stories without any need to deny their reality. When our hearts are changed and we are impelled to act, to love, to befriend, to defend. Fear would have us be small, harden our hearts, protect ourselves.

Love insists we’d better not.

Spacious Christianity

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Recently I was introduced to the concept of Spacious Christianity and I had one of those “aha!” moments, that moment of recognition.  The pastors at my local church, Steven Koski and Jennifer Warner, are incredible innovators and, as the kids I work with would say, whenever I talk to them I leave “mind-blown!”  So I’m not surprised that they have introduced me to a concept that gives me a much needed framework.

The idea of Spacious Christianity extends an invitation to show up, a promise that there is room for all of us with all of our diversity. It implies that in and through exploring our differences with respect and kindness we will develop a more nuanced and insightful understanding. This isn’t about dichotomy, it’s about dialogue.

It’s a recognition that we are all burdened by baggage, some of it’s ours, some inherited. It’s a way of being that is gentle with each other because of this and it never promises to have the final word or answer. It’s an invitation to explore the mystery of God and to do this together.  It requires really good listening and communication skills. It requires the ability to value and honor differences.  It implies a recognition that we are all doing the very best we can with the tools that we have and that some of us have different tools so our best looks different. And this is not only OK, it’s necessary. 

Somewhere along the line I heard a metaphor for interdependent wholeness;  that we are all working on our own image, our own masterpiece, just like someone piecing together a puzzle, only we don’t have all our pieces. And some of the pieces we do have don’t belong in our puzzle, they belong in someone else’s and someone has the missing piece we are looking for.  We need each other and this need extends beyond our working on a common project. I need you in order to be fully who I am because you help me see myself, you supply the missing pieces without which I will never be complete.  I think that’s beautiful. 

Engaging with mystery has a whole lot to do with letting go of preconceptions,  and so does really, truly listening to others.  Perhaps that’s because others are essentially mysterious. It is their otherness, their difference, that is both challenging and which invites us into a true encounter. Our preconceptions provide stability and this can feel really comfortable; it’s the “I know what kind of a person you are,” that helps us maintain our status quo. But we cannot meet one another until we let go of our preconceptions, our history with each other, our baggage, which categorizes, isolates, and separates us. To peer beneath the mask of our baggage and preconceptions requires vulnerability and a willingness to be changed by this encounter.

I do want to be clear that these are my own musings. I may be way off from where my pastors are headed but I am encouraged to share because if we really are being spacious then there is room for my voice too. And if we are creating space for all people to show up then we will have a diversity of views and that’s more than OK, it’s beautiful and amazing.

I trust that as we dare to meet each other, bravely putting down our preconceptions, dropping our baggage and forgiving ourselves and each other, that we will be transformed by this experience, that we will be drawn into a genuine encounter. And I want to be brave, I want to open myself up to God as God works in my life and in yours.  And I know if we do this we will challenge and discomfit each other and we will all be “in process” and very much unfinished and that’s OK. Because I won’t leave you hanging out there all alone and I trust you won’t leave me because there is lots of space, enough for all of us, and that’s pretty sweet!

You can read more at: http://www.bendfp.org/Who_We_Are/What_We_Believe/

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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 illustration by Nadezhda Illarionova

Recently I read Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Tara is a therapist and  Buddhist. She writes from this combined perspective and as such is prone to asking such questions as “who is the one who is watching,” and “can I feel compassion for the one who hurt me.”  These are good questions but as I read I began to wonder about another question; one she didn’t ask, “what story am I telling myself now?” You see I realize that often when I am angry, hurt or upset about something there is a narrative going on that justifies that feeling.

I love stories. Sometimes that makes me so gullible because someone will be sharing this incredible tall tale and I’ll be all like, “Wow! What happened next?” when someone more wise would be shaking their head. I love stories. I tell myself stories all the time and these stories usually make me either the good guy or the victim. I prefer to be the heroine even if it is a heroine in distress. I tell myself that I’m the one who was injured in my divorce, so wronged! I tell myself that I was one voice speaking up for abused women at seminary. I tell myself that I am one of those hurt and abused women and that the world is dangerous. I tell myself that as a single middle aged white woman I have privilege and responsibility while also being divested of power.  I tell myself a lot of things. And I usually believe my stories and that’s the rub. You see most people believe my stories and they believe their own too.  My friends have my back and they believe in me and my stories.

And my stories are true, at least historically, from my perspective, but the rub is they aren’t always true now. Not now, not today. And sometimes I act as if these old stories are still going on. I feel the emotional brunt of them and I make decisions as if. So I began to wonder what would happen if I simply asked myself, as Tara Brach did with so many other wonderful questions, what story am I telling myself now? When I am hurt and angry, what story am I telling myself? When I am sad and lonely, what story am I telling myself? When I have to move from one house to another, to another, because I don’t have a home, what story am I telling myself? When it’s been years and years since I went out on a date, what story am I telling myself?  You see some of these stories aren’t even mine. The story that if you are larger than a size 6 or 8 that no one will date you is a media story, it’s a myth.

We all have our stories. We create meaning in our lives by telling ourselves stories that explain why things happen. But sometimes we also create pain. Sometimes we diminish our expectations because it’s just too scary to hope, to try for something better. Sometimes we justify continuing in negative patterns and habits and we tell ourselves stories that make this OK.

So I’m wondering today what story I want to be telling myself. What stories empower me. What stories leave me feeling devastated and powerless.  What story do I want to hold close to my heart?

On being a grand dame, or why I like Maggie Smith

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First I think of Maggie Smith. Every time. She is the quintessential grand dame. She is incredibly unapologetic and she stirs admiration, she inspires courage and she lives with integrity.

 

In the past I have written about wanting so badly to fit in to the athletic model of beauty that is so prevalent. I generally eat less than 1800 calories a day and am usually on a diet of some kind. I work out whenever I am not injured and sometimes then too. And I recognize a sort of self-betrayal in this.

 

Lately I have been wondering about aging and what aging well would mean. I have begun letting my hair go gray and I have insisted that exercise must be joyful or I won’t do it. I have begun to imagine that I too could be a grand dame, that I too could live with the integrity and courage that I imagine someone like Maggie Smith to live with. 

 

When others look at me askance because I am overweight I want to raise my right eyebrow and look them dead in the eye. Dare them to comment and make fools of themselves. Sometimes I do manage a little anger but often I turn that anger on myself. And I wonder what it would be like not to do that.

 

When courage is called for and someone needs to speak up, often I do, but often my voice shakes and my words lack conviction. I hesitate and I wish I didn’t.

 

When I think of women of courage and authenticity I am inspired. I too want to stare down people who would disparage me. I too want to raise my voice when courage and compassion are called for and not hear it quaver. And I want to be fully who I am even when, or especially when, it’s just silly and it’s just fun and it makes me laugh.

 

And so I wonder if the process of becoming a grand dame isn’t about owning the desire to fit in and be liked, to be approved of. If it isn’t about recognizing that loneliness is the intermediate step between fitting in and stepping out on your own to find internal acceptance that doesn’t diminish or rely on other’s recognition.

 

I am beginning to realize that I can never hope to live as fully and joyfully as a grand dame nor command the respect of one if I try to make myself over into other’s expectations.  I must insist on being treated well and being valued.

 

One thing I am sure of though is that becoming a grand dame requires one to authentically like oneself. It requires a quiet acceptance of one’s flaws and one’s strengths. And I am beginning to believe that it requires one to mourn the loss of youth and a nubile frame, to go beyond that and accept aging. I am aware that sometimes being young and firm makes it easier to avoid difficult issues that seem to simply wait us out, hanging on the edge of consciousness until we can no longer ignore them. 

 

I am beginning to believe that being a grand dame means living on the existential cusp of being, where one faces dissolution and death as imminent and inevitable possibilities  and chooses life instead of despair. And I believe that becoming a grand dame means refusing to diminish oneself even if showing up fully makes others uncomfortable. 

 

As I think about the future what potential exists I know that I will never again be a sexy young thing but that I can become more myself. As a young woman I lived for others and sought their approval, met their needs, fulfilled their desires and when I was no longer able to do this I was discarded. I had difficulty even identifying what I wanted or liked.

 

Becoming a grand dame means choosing to honor myself as well as others. It means not participating in my own betrayal, my own diminishment. It means choosing positive self-regard. It means honoring my own wounds and respecting the brittle edges that surround them. It means finding that balance between being gentle with myself and being rigorous in maintaining my standards. It means showing up fully as who I am and doing my best to be unapologetic about it. It means accepting that my own power and ability to influence others, to effect change, and to speak wisdom.  It also means acknowledging that only if I can do these things will I be able to encourage other women, young women, to do the same. It is because of Maggie Smith and women like her that I feel I might be able to do the same.