my pryor life

finding meaning in the mundane and sanity in the sacred

If God Were Siri

I called my friend last week and after 3 rings she answered breathless, “Everything OK??” We see each other several times a week, sometimes text dozens of times a day, but rarely talk on the phone. By calling her, I broke code. I indicated an emergency. This phenomenon is not unique to us. There is a whole meme market revolving around our cultural disdain for phone conversations. Texting is in vogue for more than introverts: it is fast, clean, and efficient. It puts us in the driver’s seat of our communications with other people. We are no longer dependent on them to take a long time to formulate their thoughts, we don’t have to pause while they shush their kids. We don’t even have to wait for a polite break in conversation to insert our own thoughts (or emojis) in return- we can interject them at will, rapid fire, like a gun. Then, we wait, dopamine flooding our brains, knowing those anticipatory three little dots could become anything.

Our approval, en masse, of this type of communication highlights hidden desires. Our prayers follow closely behind, reflecting our desire for God’s answers to our life’s problems. Throughout history, humans have sought out God’s will for their futures. Only now we want it with a texter’s speed, efficiency, and clarity. Just text me the address where you want me to go God, I’ve got GPS, I can find it. Just tell me what spouse, what job, what house, just give me the answers to what I need for this crisis, this relationship, this trial, and could you snap it up? Please and thank you. We can take it from here.

The problem is, of course, what it has always been: God moves neither succinctly, nor quickly, and often not at all what we would define as clearly. He does things His way and in His time which is His right as inventor and maintainer of all creation. Scripture reveals a God who refuses to work on other people’s timelines, as He led the Israelites in circles on a 40-year journey that should have taken about 2 weeks. Let’s go here, the pillar said, ok, now over here. Now let’s go back over here again. I once sat through a sermon where the pastor put a map of the Israelite’s desert wanderings into his PowerPoint presentation. It looked like a plate of cooked spaghetti noodles.

Yahweh said, ‘Lets go, Abram, start walking and I’ll show you the way when I feel like it. I’m taking you to a place I will show you.’ One can picture Jesus abruptly standing up mid-conversation and walking off into the forest for days on end of solitude. He was not concerned with other people’s schedules. He did not consult their temple bulletin. He did not ask their permission. He went where God told Him to go, did what God told Him to do, when He told Him to do it.

The desert wandering and the prophets calling shows us that God has been and always will be less concerned with information and much more concerned with transformation. The Israelites were not on a nature hike. God was using their surroundings and experience to re-form the damage done to their souls under a brutal and systematized Egyptian regime. The human soul is molded and shaped in real time and in a real culture, and unfortunately, God is not the only forming agent out there. The normal human tendency to want a plan, to want answers, is exacerbated in a culture like ours that says to one another with our thumbs: I care more about the content of what you have to say than how you wish to say it.

So, what happens when we attempt interaction with God? To be sure, we want to know the content of what God says. To the believer, Scripture is the authoritative voice of God; we test everything else by it. But the Bible is also a living word and a living document speaks with nuance, with purpose, with precision. It is crackling and sparking with personality, with character, with grace. I will read a verse today that will speak to me in an entirely different way than when I read it 2 yeas ago. It is alive, and when we submit to it, the Holy Spirit is free to speak to us through it. What happens to this sparking, crackling aliveness, when we read it like a text, only for downloadable content? Only reading it for how it can reinforce what we already think or help us win an argument or only to get clever quips, like my friend Chad says, ‘like an insight junkie’? Or worse, when we rely on other people to tell us what it says? What happens when we ignore Paul’s words and we stifle the Spirit that carries those words? What happens when we say to God, “I care more about what you have to say than how you wish to say it”?

We are beginning to see the corrosive effects of the internet age on human relationships. Likewise, the more we demand content over conversation from God we erode intimacy. Imagine a marriage without face-to-face interaction. Imagine sustaining any kind of intimacy solely through the transactions of written words; the passing of texts when one has the time.  I can send my husband an “I’m at Costco, what do we need” text without qualifiers, without sweetness, without tenderness because I rely on face-to-face time for that. But when we reduce God to a deity who is at Costco asking what we need we become interested in Him only for what He can give to us. We don’t care anymore what He sounds like, only what He has to say (and mostly about how that pertains to our current circumstances). He becomes more and more a vending machine god who we turn to only in crisis or need: here’s my dollar, god, gimme my snickers.

We have failed to wait on God to speak the way He wishes to. We don’t want to wait because waiting in our culture gets you run right over. In our vapid efficiency we have stopped lollygagging with Him. We no longer stroll along with nowhere to go. If we do gaze into His face it is to discern the answers to what we need, to seek His expression, His intent. We look into His face like we look in a mirror, to read what it says about us. We’ve stopped gazing at Him simply because He is beautiful. We need purpose, we’ve got places to go for the Kingdom; we are a driven people. I read recently that it is important that Scripture likens us to sheep and not cattle. Our souls were never meant to be driven; they were meant to be led.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Let’s look at the fruit of our texting culture to see if my argument sticks. Let’s look at the current flood in the literary market regarding hot button topics and how to interpret them through Scripture. They tell us: Here’s how to get the right answer scripturally to (fill in the blank) homosexuality, feminism, race. Here’s the Greek word, here’s the original intent, here’s what God meant to say.  We are supposed to be convinced by their intellectual arguments. But what about when both sides of the hot button topic claim superiority? They both claim to know what God says- who wins? The most charismatic interpreter? The smartest one? The one with the most degrees? The one who yells loudest? The one with the best publicist?

I called my friend that day because I wanted prayer. God was calling me in an uncomfortable direction and I needed reminding from her that the Voice was worth listening to. Our family’s finances were at rock bottom, and the Voice was calling us to give more of ourselves away and I was scared. There was no clear Scriptural example for the trial I was facing. There was no roadmap. There were no Greek words that I could translate enough to make it make sense.

But the tender voice of the Shepherd was clear to me, crystal. I know because it always stands in sharp contrast to how the world speaks to us: barking, snapping at our ankles, driving us relentlessly forward, shoving us along with the masses. The wolves of the world must use persuasion to coerce us. Or they use jealousy, telling us to grab and consume, shove in anything we can find to fill our desires. Fear and anxiety drive us onward: fear of being passed over and passed by.  This is where the tone and intonation of the Shepherd helps us see Him clearly; the way it lilts when something is important to Him. We begin to feel the cool of His breath on our faces, like a breeze in field of wildflowers. We feel our chest loosen when He speaks; the enticement of freedom. We feel ourselves beckoned forward in curiosity instead of driven frantically from behind.

From the world’s perspective, even the Christian world’s perspective, waiting on God looks like completely unproductive time. But it has been the most formative of spiritual practices for me. I’ve learned that even when there is no roadmap to whatever circumstance I’m facing, and there rarely is, there is still always the voice of the Shepherd leading on those quiet enough to listen. A field full of sheep would stand dumbfounded if Siri read aloud a text of their shepherd’s instructions, ‘Sheep. Go here. Sheep. Move this way. Graze that field’. They would not move an inch. They do not need a thorough scrutiny of the letters, they do not need a better translation. They need the familiarity of his speech. The sheep know when and how to move not only because of the wording of the command, but because they know their shepherd’s voice.



We Esteemed Him Not

Advent, my favorite time of year. I always get the tingles when the choir sings that first stanza from “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” Born to set Thy people free! I cry essentially non-stop from Thanksgiving onward. But this year’s tears feel different, they’re disappointed tears, dark and desperate. We are surrounded: racial divides, war, genocide, dumpster fire elections. No matter our efforts to evade suffering it has come for us. Favor has seemed to settle on the few but dissolve among the masses. I know one kindergartener who is winning a battle against cancer and one who is losing. Still, the weary world tries to rejoice.

Mary has come to me differently this advent season too. Familiar images of her seem fresh, she looks scared and unsure. I don’t see her tucked in by a cozy hay-filled cot. I see her wild eyes as unexpected birthing pains begin, I see Joseph’s shoulders to his ears. I see her frantically searching for something familiar, a relative, a midwife, a friend. I see her turn her face to the sky as she wills to mind the angels words, Mary! You are so favored by God!∗ She calms herself with the promise. God Himself is within her, surely every provision will come her way, every door will be thrown open in a royal welcome. The King of the Universe leads her waddling frame. I wonder how long until the tears pricked her eyes. Did she begin to doubt God’s call on her life when the 5th door was slammed in her face? The 10th? Did she question God’s favor while cold despair trickled down her fingertips? Did disappointment firmly settle into her gut when she saw the filthy floor where she would give birth? I once read a pillow in a Christian bookstore that said, ‘When God Closes a Door He Opens a Window’. But Mary might look at her world, our world, and deduce that sometimes God just closes the door.

Mary instructs me in this season of suffering advent-ing. In suffering, she didn’t wring her hands, she didn’t demand answers, she didn’t pass the buck. She made herself at home in it, tucked her questions like blankets all around her, and tucked the wonders given into the folds of her heart. In shame, Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock, just as it was with shame that Jesus hung naked, putrid and bleeding on the tree. We avert our eyes and hurry past since public suffering embarrasses us. What was true then is true now- we see it play out with those experiencing homelessness. We disengage on a grand scale, securing distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; we encamp and isolate them. We shut door after door in their faces. We demand answers as we recoil from the unwanted. We need the separation of their choices, ‘What did they do to end up like this? What choices did they make that I can avoid?’ I know because I’m often the one asking the questions. We determine they are in some way inherently faulty in a way we are not. Even in advent, arguably the most charitable time of year we ‘love’ and we ‘serve’ carefully. We ladle soup into waiting bowls keeping a safe arms length from the stricken, for the lightning that has struck them can surely strike again.

I think the fear of getting struck is why the prophet Isaiah told us we would despise Jesus, we would keep our distance from Him∗∗. We are the crowds Isaiah predicted we would be. We found His sacrifice ineffectual, unproductive, and we esteemed it not. We stood at the cross slack jawed, the ways of Christ nonsensical to us. We demanded signs and miracles and smoke and rabbits pulled out of hats. We esteemed Him not because His priorities were all out of whack. He showed us He had the power to heal from afar but often chose not to. He instead stopped what He was doing to enter into the pain of irrelevant and disposable people: the dying girl, the bleeding woman, the dirty children. He esteemed their pain, He found it worth His time. When Satan tempted Jesus with pride He chose humiliation, or with power He chose meekness or with relevancy chose to be viewed as completely and utterly irrelevant. Satan told Jesus He didn’t have God’s favor and we nodded in agreement. We said that if God’s favor was truly upon Him He would have gotten off that cross, out of those dirty clothes, and into a nice house in the ‘burbs. We wanted Him to be the kind of savior we thought we needed, victorious and proud, valiant on a white horse. Instead He was ignored and rejected and homeless and invited us into a life of the same. We wanted to conquer the world and He offered us a job washing its dishes. He told us this is what it means to be favored by God: Get elbow deep in the suds with Me, loves.

I look at Mary and I wonder, if He allowed His own mother to be treated this way, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m not wondering if God allows suffering or if we must sometimes ‘suffer for doing good’. I’m wondering if favor and suffering are intertwined to the degree that there is no favor to be had apart from suffering. Jesus swimming within her did not secure Mary a VIP pass in the world, instead it invited rejection. Even in utero He was despised, even unseen He was excluded, even in the womb doors were slammed in His face. God’s favor over Mary did not make her life more comfortable and secure it made it less. To carry Jesus within us is to be shrouded in His character, the closer we are to Him the more humble our circumstances will be. I would guess that Mary probably birthed every subsequent child predictably and comfortably in her own home. All of Jesus’ siblings most likely entered our world in mundane safety. It’s not just that we ‘may’ suffer as Christians it is that indifference, rejection, disdain seem to be the very hallmark of the favored.

We have this constant dripping need to be seen, validated, liked, relevant. We saddle up to the most recognized among us, we follow and ‘like’ them. But suffering we reject, we bind, we shout against it. We are like the Israelites who never learned to esteem suffering as a worthy teacher. When they were gathered up by the Babylonians and taken off into captivity, Jeremiah sent them God’s message: You have been taken where you don’t want to go, the Land of Suffering and Disappointment, where everything is new and weird and smells bad. You will be nobodies there. You will be tempted to clench your eyes and fists until its over, but that’s a mistake. Build houses there, not tents. Settle in. God goes with you and this foreign landscape is where He will do His best work. Marry off your kids with the full treatment, not at City Hall. Open the good champagne. Suffering awaits you, but wait like people who have hope. Take lessons and learn to waltz on the dance floor of Disappointment.∗∗∗

When I had cancer, I didn’t mind that suffering made me wait on God. I knew He met me in my suffering; that He knew it as His own. I didn’t mind that connection point with Jesus, I just mind when it is my only connection point to Jesus. I’d like to hurry through and get over and get past. This advent season has shown me how lazy my waiting has become. Suffering forces us to advent differently, waiting less like someone at a bus stop, phone in face, and more like someone waiting in a hospital waiting room. The latter is waiting in anticipation and on purpose, like God is actually restoring and redeeming even when every possible indicator points otherwise. He draws us into these waiting rooms where He can do His best work and like Mary we are wisest when we take what is offered. There’s no room for Him in a life filled up with the comforts of ‘stuff’, so suffering remains the most useful tool in emptying us of our tired junk. The manger is dirty and disappointing but at least it is empty. There is room for Him there.

  • *      Luke 1:30
  • **    Isaiah 53:3
  • *** Imagery borrowed from Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Amanda Cook’s song, Heroes

The Heavy

Lets play a game. Its called ‘How did you wake up this morning?’ It’s super fun. I’ll go first. I woke up this morning to the adorable pitter-patter of tiny feet coming into my room at 6am with the proud announcement, “I go potty mama!” My eyes flew open to see my grinning two year old naked from the waist down and smeared head to toe in her own poop.

I bolted out of bed shocking the 7 week old who, because he has a cold, will only sleep at the most perfect 45-degree angle that can apparently only be achieved by sleeping directly on my chest all night. I jiggled the baby, ran the tub, simultaneously scrubbing hair, nursing a baby and ordering the older 3 into clothes. I brushed hair, checked homework folders, threw bagels around and decided just to nurse the baby again because ANYTHING TO STOP THE SCREAMING. This is all before I’ve had a cup of coffee. Or brushed my teeth. Or put on a bra. Have I mentioned my husband works 24- hour shifts?

In the best of families (of which I count myself) the workload is shared, but moms possess a unique role. My husband jokes that I am the magnet of our family- everyone slowly gravitates to wherever I am. In a 3,000 square foot house my children are often within 6 inches of my face. And although most fathers I know bear the majority if not complete financial responsibility for their families, I hear over and over that in parenting, dad gets to be the fun one and mom has to be the heavy. No matter how much they work or don’t outside the home, most moms I know balance the checkbook, do the shopping, know where the wrapping paper is and how much is left, which is good because they are the ones buying the presents for little Johnny’s friend’s party this Saturday. They know to the minute how much screen time their kids have logged that day and who has on clean underwear (or underwear at all). Moms make the dentist appointments and make sure the kids’ hair is trimmed. Moms are the frontlines with the teachers, the coaches and the bullies. They filter out the bad influences; they have their radars up and ears to the ground. It is always the moms who feel the peer pressure from the devil’s spawn Pinterest to dice vegetables into whimsical shapes in the hopes they will get eaten.

So to keep sanity, we share kid antics over coffee with friends. We enjoy the exaggerated mom blogs and pass the links on. We laugh but the humor often comes with an undertone of disdain. I hear it in the world and I hear it in my circles.

It seems moms are sick of being the heavies.

One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, wrote a book about his transition from an esteemed position at Harvard to taking his priesthood to live amongst the mentally handicapped. He describes exactly what I felt when I became a mom,

“Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could not longer be counted on. This experience was and in many ways is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self- the self that can do things, show things, prove things built things- and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

Being a mom, to me, feels like this stripping down to my truest self. It exposes my nakedness, my selfishness, my neediness. It shows my incompetence. It highlights my lack of skill. Motherhood is showing me the outer limits of myself: my great capacity to care and to love. It reveals my quick temper and lack of control over my tongue. It shows me fierce and protective.

(Also: did I just equate raising children to living in a mental institution? Well. If the shoe fits.)

The heaviness started not long after conception, when our two bodies were asked to share one. Room grew scarce and I had my first taste of moving over and giving in. It does not get any better after delivery: waking up exhausted every morning and going to bed exhausted every night. Sacrificing big chunks of myself, if not all of myself, my ego, my pride, my time, my nails (which, by the way, are a total disaster).

It has also allowed me to see my barest self before God. Prestigious degrees, success in the workforce, a good reputation amongst colleagues can all give us the impression that we’ve figured this whole gig out. We can start to think we’ve really got our act together. But if one leans into parenting, embraces this stripping, the exposure of the ‘unadorned’ self we begin to see ourselves as we truly are: Broken sinners in need of Grace, cheerios in our hair, scrubbing poop off the sofa.

This being at the bottom of the totem pole is the heaviest of all.   Sometimes the heaviness can become so heavy that it even blocks out the light. The heaviness can become a deep recess of isolation and loneliness. It can become sleepless nights and anxiety driven days. It can become ever-increasing panic attacks and bondage to the mantra that This Will Never End. The heaviness has been known to crush some under its weight.

However. And it is a big however. I base my entire life around following a Man who once said, “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” So I have this inkling about Jesus that He does not want us to feel burdened. I have this little notion in the recess of my mind that He wants me to enjoy the gifts He’s given. And when I have an inkling about God I feel like I am in an empty room with nothing in it except the unbound end of a roll of red twine. And I pick up the end of the line and I pull it towards me, following it from room to room where it leads. This is how I learn about God. I read the Word or I listen to that Still Small voice inside that has something to say, and it starts with an inkling, with that red strand that I pick up and follow.

As I literally and figuratively strap the weight of my 7 week old to my body everyday, I see that the heaviness cannot be avoided- it can only be used. I’m forced to hold in one hand the truth of Psalm 127 that says that ‘Children are God’s best gifts’ and in the other hand I’m holding a handful of trash because my children could be surrounded by trash cans but assume that everything they are done with is of great personal interest to me. Not only am I burdened; I’m conflicted about my burden.

My red twine led me to the idea of God’s character. How can I trust God wants good for me in the form of inevitable heaviness if I don’t trust His character? I landed in Exodus where Moses asked God to reveal His true self to him. In Exodus 33:18-19, “Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name the LORD in your presence.” And so for a few months I meditated on the following verses (34:6-7) where the LORD describes Himself and His character: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love, etc. But I kept getting stuck on Moses asking God to see His GLORY. Its clear that He wanted to know whom God was so why ask for God’s glory? I couldn’t get past it, not in small part because I have no idea what it means. I saw my red twine going in that direction so I looked up what that word Glory means in the text. And wouldn’t you know the first word used to describe the Hebrew word kabod is… weight? Dictionaries are quick to back it up that it describes a good kind of weight, an imposing, a splendor, an importance. Still, I felt tears prick my eyes when I read it for the first time. God knows what it means to feel heavy too.

And while I’m forcing you to take a ride on the Nerd Train, do you know what Glory translates to in the New Testament? A manifestation of God in luminosity, brilliance, brightness, and splendor. Reading that I heard Jesus’ echoing’s to His disciples,

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

I felt a pang of something in my soul. I am God’s light. I have the power to give light to everyone in my house. I have the power to give or withhold that light. My role as wife, as mother, is not my definitive title. It is just parts of who I am. But if my heaviness highlights my importance, then I am vital in setting the tone of our household. Instead of giving light, I saw that sometimes I let the heaviness be a cloak. I let it dampen and shut out and shut in. Unchecked resentment manifests and my attitude seeps poison into my home. Moms bear the weight of being the barometer of the home, intrinsically aware of the atmosphere and vital in shaping it.

If we shirk this heaviness, if we distance ourselves from it, if we outsource it and distract ourselves from it, we can go through life relatively unchanged. But it is a travesty to leave this life unchanged. Not everyone is destined for parenthood and parenthood is not the only catalyst to strip us down, it just happens to be mine. Whatever the walk of life, those who walk in the footsteps of Jesus are called to death to self. Parenthood is used for people like me who have a hard time laying it down willingly.

I think that if we could see our importance, our utter indispensability in motherhood we could rejoice in the weight. The weight is non negotiable. The stakes are too high. The caring for a life and forming of a soul is no small thing and carries with it an awesome task. That’s when I found the whole red ball of twine: Just because it is heavy does not mean it has to be a burden. Life, motherhood, tasks, to do lists; expectations from outside and within, PINTEREST… can all be a weight. It is a weight because of the scope of its importance. It is heavy because it is a privileged responsibility. But the weight need not be burdensome.

At Water’s Edge

This week we went on vacation. Anyone who has young children can tell you that vacation with kids is not really a vacation at all- it’s just doing the same things you do at home but with less of the accoutrements that make life easier. The only tradeoff is that you are hopefully closer to a body of water.  

It usually takes about one full day to get de-aggrivated, unpacked and settled in. And somewhere in the middle if you are lucky you discover the sweet spot, and all the schlepping and sweating and, ‘Are we there yet?!’s and ‘I WILL TURN THIS CAR AROUND!’s becomes something sort of magical. On our second night I took this picture:

This was the sweet spot for me. The sun showing off her colors, the sound of the waves crashing in my ears mixed in with the squeals of my delighted children. The boys swimming out further than we’d like, because they are boys, and Claire sticking close to her dad, because she is His Girl. Fiona parked next to me content in her sand digging. All was well with the world.

Just after taking this picture on my phone a text came in from my friend Kristy. Kristy’s husband, our dear friends, our people, our tribe, our Simon, was dying from cancer. In the text she told me the doctors had just said he only had days left. Maybe a week.

The cancer progressed so quickly. In my last interaction with Simon we were pushing our kids on the swings at the park, the band in the gazebo our background music. We were all oblivious to the cancer ravaging his body as we told kid antics, the twilight sun warming our calves. That was six weeks ago.

Now he was a shell of himself, relegated to a hospital bed, dependent on tubes for breathing, for pain. Now with even less time than we thought. My heart swelled with grief.

I looked up at my kids, squealing, splashing. Drew at waters edge looking at me and pointing to them as he saw me holding my phone. He was mouthing for a picture, “Did you get this?” He, beaming, a bigger version of a child himself, content to enjoy their joy. Yes, I nodded.

I’m getting this.

I sat and thought of what to say to this dear friend, how to thank her for letting me into her tribe, how to hold up her grief as I hold up my own, how to bring a truth or a comfort to her aching soul. But all I could think of was her children. They would be just like mine in the water. James and Violet (especially Violet) the two oldest, would be pushing the boundaries of comfort and safety, they would be farther out in the water than their parents would like. But not Maggie. From her face to her temperament she is all Simon. The third born like our Claire, would be close to her Daddy, because she too, is His Girl. My heart ached for those babies, for Kristy, for us all. It ached because life seems so unbearably unfair, that I get to sit at waters edge while she sits next to a hospital bed. But like all things in this upside down kingdom with a servant King and the least being the first, it didn’t diminish my joy in my own children. It didn’t give me guilt. Instead it enhanced my joy because joy is meant for the taking when it is given and like grief it must be accepted wholeheartedly.

I had a dream about Simon that night. Some of the more Pentecostal among us may call it a vision. I call it the space between sleep and consciousness, somewhere along that cliff we fall off of. I won’t judge where we land.

Simon was rowing a boat, alone in the ocean. He wore a white-buttoned shirt. He rowed towards the shore. He was the mirrored opposite of what my family had been that night. My children wanted to journey out farther into the sea, but I could tell from Simon’s steady determination, his only goal was to make it to shore. I watched his boat touch the edge, he put down his oars and got out. I woke up when his foot touched the sand.

I didn’t need to see where he had landed. I knew exactly where he was. He had entered the shores of God’s Kingdom. I knew without looking that the beach contained a long table, outfitted with white linen and sparkling china. I knew it was what Revelation calls the ‘Feast of the Lamb’. I didn’t need to see the embrace between Simon and the Lamb to know that he was heartily welcomed onto those shores. As sure as I am without looking that there is skin on my own body, I didn’t need to see the feast to know that it was there.

And that was it. He crossed over. He merely went from a boat to dry land. And I woke up thinking of 1 Corinthians 15. I read aloud that morning verse 50,

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”

I thought all last week of his perishing body, wasting away, just waiting for the imperishable to take over and row him to shore. I thought of it as I tucked my kids into bed and when I made breakfast. I thought of it when I heard the news that he died yesterday morning. I thought of it today in Church as we sang hymns of our future hope. And as we took communion, my eyes emptying their tears, Dan spoke the familiar words from Mark 14,

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

Dan instructed us to drink of this promise and eat of this assurance. I waited for him to finish the next words written in that account of the Last Supper, I mouthed them myself willing them to be spoken. When everyone had put down their tiny plastic cups, the sanctuary clinking with life, I finally heard the words that give me peace,

“I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew with you in the Kingdom of God.”

I whispered thanks to Jesus for this promise that He sees our suffering. Although He is, even now, at the right hand of God, He is not celebrating. He is not drinking and feasting. He is suffering with us. He is making the point that until all His children are home, and all suffering has ceased, the chapter is not closed. And while we wait He proves Himself again El Roi, as He described Himself in Genesis when He spoke to Hagar in the desert. To grief stricken, banished, alone and afraid Hagar, “I am El Roi, the God who sees you”.

I AM El Roi, Kristy, the God who sees your suffering. The God who does not witness it from afar, detached, but the One who engages in your suffering to the point of abstaining from celebrating until all is made right. And I will make it right.

I closed my eyes for the closing hymn. I saw Simon, toes in the sand wearing his white-buttoned shirt. I saw the Feast, laid out and ready. I saw a knowing smile play on Simon’s lips as he held the glass of wine. I saw the Lamb with a mirrored smile hold His too.

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A Letter To My Sons On Mother’s Day

I’m writing this letter to you and not the girls because they’re too young to feel the tides shifting.  I feel the shift within me as the grip of social media gets stronger and I’m more exposed to how Mother’s Day Should Be Done.  I feel the shift within you, right now at almost 7 and 9 you are blissfully unaware of obligation but, I sense, on the cusp of realization. 

What you do for me now on Mother’s Day is how I’d always like it to be: a plate of burnt toast with manhandled sliced strawberries in huge uneven chunks because I only let you use butter knives instead of steak knives.  And you each standing on either side of the table- beaming with pride that you used a toaster and knives all before I heard you and stumbled down the stairs. That look on your faces is all I want, because something burst inside me and broke at the sight of those two little faces.  Just that- gleeful pride in yourselves- that you were able to express yourselves as you wanted to

That’s how I feel on your birthdays every year.  There has not been one year since you were born that I did not throw you a full-blown party.  I don’t do this because I feel obligated or because I have an outward expectation thrust on me by the Better Parents Of the World.  I do it because I desperately want to express myself in that way.  I want every year to pause and think and be grateful and make cake from scratch (except for your second birthday, Jack.  Finn was born 6 days before your party and I had to get a Costco one.  That was the only time.  I swear.)

I celebrate you out of gratitude and awareness.  I am well aware that other mother’s don’t get the privilege to throw their children birthday parties.  There are some mothers that would kill to throw one more celebration to honor the life of their child.  So I do it willingly and gratefully.  I can’t recall a time you have ever thanked me for a birthday party, and I wouldn’t want you to.  It is my act of acknowledgement that I am the luckiest.    

I read an interesting quote from this Monastic Cookbook we have on the shelf in our kitchen.  A monk is quoted as saying that many monks don’t consume meat because meat is not available to all of God’s people, and they don’t feel like it honors God to indulge in something most of the world cannot afford.  I’m beginning to feel that way about Mother’s Day. 

I’m writing about it to try to flush out how I feel but its still in shadows and shapes.  I don’t know fully how to express it but part of me feels like if the Westernized version of Mother’s Day cannot be experienced by all mothers then it’s a paper maché sham puffed up by Hallmark and Hershey’s and I shouldn’t consume it myself.  Or maybe I can ingest it but it just wont sit well.  I don’t want expensive spa days or crowded restaurants or elaborate flower arrangements.  Not just because they carry the potential to be given dutifully and with gritted teeth.  And not just because mothers in third world countries could not conceive of such luxuries.  But more so because you would be expressing what the world tells you to instead of what you feel: That something must be bought or given or consumed to be celebrated- that just being with one’s children on Mother’s Day is not enough. 

Your birthday parties don’t have expensive favors or elaborate decorations, or usually even paper invitations.  It’s just us, the people who love you and the friends you want to play with and pizza and playing and splashing and cake smearing on my couch.  And me being ok with cake smeared on my couch.  And mostly, a pause, a prayer, a thanks to God for the Life of You. 

So this Mother’s Day, and all Mother’s Days, please reject what the world tells you to do.  If you choose to honor me, do it in a way that acknowledges the most fundamental truth about me: you made me who I am, and my gratefulness to you is only eclipsed by my overwhelming love for you.  And don’t just honor your grandmothers and me.  There will be people in your life who mother you in a way worth acknowledging.  There will be friends of mine who drive you places while enduring backseat bathroom humor.  There will be mother’s of your friends who cook you meals or listen to your high school drama as so many of my friend’s mothers did for me.  There will be women who aren’t even mothers themselves that will invest in your life and point you to God in Sunday school or who bring me dinner or scrub my toilets when I just cannot do it myself.  These people are worth honoring because a mother’s heart does not solely reside inside those who have borne children.  It resides in those who know that everyone (sometimes even mothers) need mothering.  

A sin by any other name

I have intentionally not blogged during my pregnancy. This is because my predominant pregnancy symptom is rage, every pregnancy, every time. I once took a (positive) pregnancy test because Drew noticed the knife I was dicing vegetables with inch closer and closer to him as I gesticulated about something I found irritating.

It was with clenched teeth that I watched the events of the World Vision scandal implode a few weeks ago. It took all of my self-control not to spew off the cuff, but to sit, meditate, process and most importantly, listen to that Still Small Voice that comes only with a surrendered heart. It’s important to me that you know that my comments here, although presumably flawed, are well thought out and well intentioned, measured and spoken in humility.

Just when I thought I wasn’t going to say anything at all, I read a post by popular Christian blogger Jen Hatmaker, whom I admire and respect. She had written a well thought out original response to the scandal. The backlash against her grace-based stance was so intense that an event planner for a conference she was asked to speak at asked her outright for her ‘position on homosexuality’. This, presumably, to make sure that her beliefs lined up with the venue and people with which she was to speak. And that in itself was the nail in the coffin for me.

Homosexuality has become an incredibly divisive issue in today’s church. Many Christians will point to passages that condemn such behavior. One of the few verses in the New Testament to broach the subject is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

So my question is: Why didn’t the event planner ask for Mrs. Hatmakers position on swindling? Or on idolatry? Or on slander? Why doesn’t anyone’s opinion on such things hold as much weight as the homosexuality issue? Why has it become such a line in the sand where people are forced to ‘take a stand?’

I’d like to pretend just for a little while that homosexuality was not the banner issue it is today. I would like for you to suspend your belief and pick one of these other sins as more important. Lets take drunkenness or slander. I don’t know anyone who has never told a lie. The people I know that have never been drunk I can count on the fingers of one hand. What if those were the Church’s banner sins?

You might stroke your beard or adjust your glasses and say, “Well, Alyson, here is the difference. A believing Christian may stumble in the area of drunkenness and repent. A believer may tell a lie, but realize his or her fault and make amends with God. Homosexuality is a lifestyle. Homosexuality is a choice to live outside of God’s intended purpose. Homosexuals who engage in same sex marriage are celebrating their sin instead of repenting of it. That is the difference.”

And I will nod my head and say, “What about greed? That is the one that always seems to get me personally. Lets make greed our banner sin.” And you will say, “Same thing, we should repent of greed and not celebrate it.”

So now we are pretending that the American Church does not celebrate greed? We are pretending the people in it do not embrace greed as a lifestyle? Is that where we are going with this? Indulge me as I bore you with a few stats:

The latest Gallup poll states that 77% of America identifies as Christian. So if the other 23% of different religions are much more adept at giving than us, please let that slide for now. I’m pregnant and irritated. Lets just say for the sake of argument that America is a Christian nation since we self identify as such.

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest income countries (that would be us) account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures. (Took me a minute too. 20% of us rich folk are gobbling up 86% of the WORLDS resources. And if you have access to a computer to read this blog, own a bank account or have food in your fridge, you count as ‘the rich’.)

Annual U.S. spending on cosmetics? $8 billion

Basic education for all GLOBAL children? $6 billion

The average American spends nearly $3,000 a year dining out while over 1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean water and half of the worlds population lives on less than $2 a day.

America (remember, 77% of whom apparently love homeless, penniless Jesus) is the biggest consumer IN THE WORLD.

Twenty five thousand people die every day because they do not have enough food.

The average American church spends 30% of their annual budget on building construction and 5% on missions

You want to argue with me that America and Her Church do not embrace and celebrate greed??!!! Come at me with it bro, I’m pregnant. COME AT ME.

And even if I didn’t have all the statistics to back up my argument, I still have an Instagram feed of pictures of (eek!) Louis Vuitton purses! I still see mega Church parking lots filled with BMW’s, Pinterest feeds where every other pin is titled, “WANT.” If all else fails I can easily point to myself- my inherent need to self protect, to hoard, to take care of me above all else. I have my own sin to battle (especially with that beautifully darned Threshold line at Target) that proves me right- my overwhelming perceived need and nearly inescapable greed.

So, what if, despite what our surrounding culture (and churches) tell us, God really really really cares about our greed. It’s not too far of a jump from the actual words of Jesus. Jesus who never touched on homosexuality but told 11 parables out of 39 that dealt with money. He talked about money more than any other topic outside the Kingdom of God. If you recall, He is the wacky guy who said things like, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Lk 12:33) Or even more wacky, “For whoever wants to save (hold on to) his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Mt 16:25)

I would argue that the message of giving and generosity is one of the strongest in all of scripture. We are exhorted throughout scripture to give of our time, talents, money, possessions, forgiveness, grace, sexuality, desires, food, clothing, I could go on and on. We are told to give our very bodies (Romans 12). After all, we serve a God who gave His. “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.”(I John 2:6) So I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that Jesus cares more about greed than He does about sexuality. People generally talk about what most concerns them. But I don’t want to get into a battle of one sin above another- I am arguing only for consistency within Scripture interpretation. I’m here only for one little favor: Take a journey with me.

Imagine for a moment that we live in a culture where greed is the banner sin. Imagine it is the major faux pas within the Church. Imagine that people who are greedy and admit to being as such are not welcomed into churches or places of Christian employment. Imagine they are shamed and rejected, ostracized and excluded.

Imagine that on March 24th Richard Sterns, the president of World Vision got out in front of the media and said, “We have made a decision. We will hire greedy people. We know this is controversial, but we believe that if you profess a love for Jesus Christ, you are welcome to work along side us as we seek to serve the poor.” I wonder if the outcry would have been the same. Would famous Christians have taken to their blogs denouncing their decision? “What about scriptural inerrancy! They can’t leave that decision open to the local churches interpretations! Generosity is a foundational pillar of Christianity! Without it, it falls! And what about the children??! Its one thing to have greedy people taking phone calls and filing papers, but what if they put greedy people out there on the field? What if the greed rubs off? What if those children become greedy too??!!!

Because in this example, the sin considered is same sex marriage (the celebration of something deemed by many as sinful) I would like to quantify the concept of greed by making it equally tangible. So lets define greed as people who do not tithe (or give away) 10% of their money. “But tithing is an Old Testament principle”, you interrupt me, “we don’t have to give a set 10% anymore. We are not under law but under grace.” You may be among the vast majority that argues that because tithing is a principle introduced in the Old Testament that the rigid 10% number does not apply to today’s believers. You may think that you can give ‘what you can’ or ‘give of your time, energy or other resources.’ You may not like it if I point out that the vast majority of the verses in scripture regarding homosexuality also fall within the Old Testament.

And I will say, “Shh. Don’t interrupt me because I am on a roll. I will be fair and deal only with the New Testament. In fact, I will only use one verse. Lets just take Jesus’ own words for it, in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices- mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law- justice, mercy, faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former.” Yes! Justice! Yes, Mercy! Wait. What was the former again? The one we are told NOT to neglect? OH YEAH, tithing TEN PERCENT.” (Come at me.)

I clearly have definitive views on greed and tithing. Please recognize that I am going easy on the subject. I am only talking here about 10% of your money, even though, biblically, 100% comes from and belongs to God. I’m not going to get into the American consumption mindset and the power of our dollars and the little African boys on the Ivory Coast who spend 13 hour days hacking down cocoa pods in the hot sun with machetes bigger than they are but have never tasted chocolate in their lives. (Buy fair trade.) So the question is not whether I am right or not (I am). The question is: How do my strongly held Biblical views impact the way I interact with other people?

If I believe so strongly in the Biblical principle of tithing, how do I respond to people within the Church who do not believe what I believe? What happens when someone I encounter who claims to love Jesus does not abide by what I am convinced of as mandatory Biblical generosity? Do I bash them over the head with scripture? Do I use my convictions backed by God’s word as a weapon?

Me personally? No. And I think it’s important for you to know why. I know it has taken me a long time to get here because I am pregnant and fat and slow, but this is the heart of what I want to tell you.

First of all, I think there is a way to live out God’s truth, and hold tight to Scripture without making judgment calls on other people. I think we are exhorted time and again throughout scripture not to judge because it is not good for us (never mind the people we are judging). After the big homosexuality blurb in Romans 1 (the second of three verses where homosexuality is actually addressed in the NT) we are warned in Romans 2:1, “You, therefore, have no excuse you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” We cannot be gods in each other’s lives. We cannot lookout for every misstep and try to catch it. Judging makes us hard, bitter and worst of all: outwardly focused instead of inwardly focused. Scripture is clear, we cannot know the hearts of our fellow man; we cannot even know our own hearts. We need God’s discernment in searching our hearts, and our outward focus is to be grace based. “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13)

Secondly, My journey to Christ is a long and winding road. I was not a convert who made a one-time decision at an altar and my life was irrevocably changed. Don’t for a minute believe that my life has been defined by financial simplicity and radical generosity. I came to God (and by the way, still come to God) with halts, and missteps, tripping and dragging my feet. I don’t think that the second a person comes to Christ they are immediately convinced of all the truths of the Bible and willingly submit every aspect of their lives to it. I for one, take much longer. I struggle with God for days, week’s years over something He is saying to me. I often feel convicted for long periods of time before I have the courage to do what I should. I am just scratching the surface of who He is and what it looks like to be conformed to His image. I think it is vitally important for God to make the changes necessary in a human heart. Shaming, condemning and judging can only affect the outer performance of a person (if at all). It takes a work of God’s spirit to produce real change in someone’s heart. And He does it with kindness. I don’t want to ‘show contempt for the riches of His kindness, tolerance and patience not realizing that God’s kindness leads you (us) towards repentance.” (Romans 1:3). And more importantly, can’t we give God time and room to do that? Do we doubt His power to change lives so much that we feel we need to try to do His work for Him? Or can we do our part of loving our neighbor and leave the rest to Him?

And lastly, I believe the Bible is a love letter, not a list of to do’s. I believe that every command given has behind it the intent of a loving Father’s heart. I believe that when we are exhorted time and time again to be generous it is not just a rule to be kept, but is for our benefit. If God is who we say He is, He has access to all the resources in the world. He could end global poverty today. In a way I am not smart enough to understand, He invites us into His work, He engages us as co-laborers for His cause and with His heart.

He knows we are changed in the engaging. Last week I was late to a meeting and waiting impatiently at a stoplight. Walking at a snails pace on the sidewalk next to me was a homeless man. He was probably in his 60’s and quite possibly the dirtiest, saddest looking homeless man I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. His face was downcast, his jeans ripped and filthy. He had no possessions. I kept driving. I made it one block until I turned around and started rifling with the hand that was not steering through my purse. All I could come up with was 2 packs of princess fruit snacks, which seemed pretty offensive. But I pulled into the parking lot and ran over to him anyways. He stopped and looked me full in the face. I don’t remember touching him, or speaking to him or giving him food although I’m sure I did those things. I only remember his eyes. Ever since Claire was born, I have tried to explain the color of her eyes. The layperson might say hazel. But they are not. They are every color of the rainbow mixed together; they look like every season has come at once. Sometimes I tell her intricate stories or count her cheek freckles over and over because that is the only way that I can get her to sit still so I can gaze into those perfect eyes. And when I looked at this man, my only thought was that he was the only other human I have ever met who has eyes just like hers. My ‘generosity’ was irrelevant. I only wondered if he had a mother who went to great lengths to gaze into them. It made me wonder when she caressed his little baby hands if she could imagine the state he would be in today. I went back to my car. I shut the door. And I sobbed.

Grief and Promises

15 years ago today was the day the last cancer cell was sliced from my body. On every February 2nd I go to the beach to celebrate this milestone.  Even the February 2nd of 2010 when my beautiful (and ahead of schedule) Claire was born 48 hours later.  My immense form waddled down to the shoreline because that is where I belong on February 2nd; standing on the edge of the world.

It started the summer after I was healed.  Even though the cancer was out in February I had a follow up surgery done in June to remove my remaining lymph nodes in case any more cancer cells had gone rogue. I was given the opportunity to go on a summer missions trip 10 days post surgery.  On the beach.  So in my airtight 20 year-old thinking I reasoned that staying at home all summer with my parents would make me a cancer patient, but immersing myself in a group of strangers at the beach would make me a normal college student. But I was not normal. I was worn down from the extensive surgeries.  I was leaking heavily out of the hole in my armpit where they had removed the drainage tube.  The thick white gauze had to be changed several times a day.  I could not swim in the pool or the ocean.

The strangers did not make me feel healthy or better because they were…strangers. I was despondent.  While everyone else was making friends and giggling about possible couples, I was withdrawn.  But since it is not my nature to be withdrawn I didn’t do it well and I was awkward about it.  Everything felt hard and isolating and weird.  And I wondered what I had done.

This feeling swelled until it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I needed to escape.  I ran for the horizon, for space to breathe, for distance, but the wound under my arm throbbed so intensely I settled for a fast walk. I passed by tanned surfers and chatting couples as I hurried to the pier.  I didn’t know where I was going or what I was running from, I just knew the beach wasn’t far enough.  I needed to get as far away as I could.

Mercifully, the end of the pier was vacant.  It was silent but for the crashing waves.  The sun was setting.  The weather was gorgeous. And I was miserable.  I sat down and dangled my legs off the end and watched the waves.  Their rhythm calmed my own breathing as I felt them break into the base of the pier.  I regained my breath and realized that I had been clutching my Bible when I left and it was still with me. 

I don’t know how long I cried or what I was thinking. I prayed no prayer, only emotions and thoughts swept over me.  Despair, death, outcast, lonely, sad.  I only remember being grateful I was alone.  I fingered the corner of my bible as my tears subsided and it flopped open.  There was only one verse on the page that was underlined. It was Jeremiah 29:11. I blinked back tears to clear the fog and I read it,

“For I know the plans I have for you’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

I felt my heart ache and my cheeks flame.  I felt God saying that it was true.  But I immediately rejected it because there are no guarantees.  Loving God was not going to save me from cancer.  My theology wasn’t very strong but it was strong enough to know that not everyone who asked for a miracle got one.  I smelled a rat whenever someone tried to tell me otherwise.

But I tried to let it sink it.  I tried to give it room.  And I looked out at the horizon line.  I liked my unobstructed view of the worlds’ end.  It made me feel like there was room enough for my big swollen heart.  Here she had room to breathe.  My mind stuck on the words, a future, a hope.  The craziest thing I could hope up for my future was that I would live, that I would get married, that I would miraculously have children.  That I would be normal. It was so outlandish at the time that the fantasy was hard to conjure up.  But I could almost see them out on the horizon line, a toddler skipping, a husband holding a baby.  But before I could really see them, they disappeared like a mist and for the first time I looked at what was really there. 

I was out above the vast ocean gazing into the most amazing sunset I have ever witnessed.  I had been sitting before it this entire time but never actually saw it.  The colors reached above my head and beyond, every color of the rainbow.  The epicenter halfway past the horizon now, was blazing neon orange, and tinted everything it touched that wonderful hue.  A fantastic sunset is like a work of art.  I could not possibly describe what it looked like; I can only describe how it made me feel.  And this sunset filled me with hope.  Hope in God’s insane love.  Hope for the future.  So even though the promise didn’t match my theology, even though I knew there were no guarantees, even though it was the wackiest thing I could imagine.  I felt my heart wanting to embrace the promise.  Tentatively, like a child testing water.  The perishing sunset gave one last kiss of orange light, and with that I accepted the promise.  I chose to believe. 

Now I function on a daily basis in a way that does not leave much room to sit in the suffering.  I am extinguishing flames all day between siblings and chores and who threw what down the toilet.  Even in my times of stillness before God I don’t enter the grief. The Diagnosis was such a shocking and tremendous event that even 15 years later the earthquake of that grief still reverberates. It is soft and subtle now, but its still there. It only takes seeing the bravest of the brave with no headscarf and no eyebrows and no hair in line in front of me at Target. 

I went to a friend’s funeral.  A friend whose only daughter is 27 days younger than Jack.  I gripped the pew hard and cried hot tears.  I cried because she was gone and I am here- opposite sides of the same cancer coin. I cried because it all seems so arbitrary.  And I cried because of the possibilities. I remember grief and feel the vibrations and even in the remembering a new grief is born because the other shoe could still drop.  It is suspended in the air possibly indefinitely, possibly not.  So I know my time will come and that life is fragile and that every moment is worth living and this is my catalyst to move on.  If I stay in the behind grief or if I project to the possible future grief I rob myself of the joyful present.  I can give my child raspberries or kiss their impossibly tiny toes, but I have to be solely focused on this one thing or else I am not really there. I am performing a raspberry for a hearty belly laugh but it produces no flood of joy in my own heart.  So in choosing to be in the joyful present, to laugh in tandem at the raspberries, I choose to abate grief.  I tell grief, “Shh. You’ll have to come back later.  I don’t have time for you right now.” But grief cannot be suppressed forever; she builds up and needs room to expand. 

I find that room at the end of the world, at waters edge in the sand or on the pier.  Every February 2nd, I gaze at the openness and sheer volume of space and my grief has room to take off like one hundred million balloons. I let them out of my chest one by one until I feel like I can breathe again.  And when I regard the vastness of God’s creation I remember His promise every time.

Today is the first year I will not go to the beach.  The grief has not swelled, there is nothing that needs to escape.  Maybe next year there will be, but not this year.  Today is only celebration, and remembering that yes, God is crazy and yes unexpected and terrible things happen.  I can’t control God just like I can’t control my cancer returning.  But this year is different because God has displayed before me miracle after miracle.  I mean water into wine, raising the dead kind of miracles. I watched His hand move and knew that it was Him.  If there is one thing I have learned this year in the big miracles and in the small is that God is for us. 

This may not seem profound to many, but it is to me.  When I drift from God, I immediately begin to view my life as a list of tasks to accomplish and Him the Taskmaster.  The farther I am from Him relationally, the more burdened I feel and more stoic and detached He seems.  My prayer of late has been for God to show Himself to me, as He is, not as I think He is. Of one thing I am assured, “God is for us” (Rom 8:31).

I don’t want to let fear of the unknown trump that.  God is for us.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot He was on our side. I see the pain and hurt and suffering and seeming chaos and forget that He is working behind the scenes not to make us happy but to draw us to Him, the ultimate source of Joy.  And everything that we fear, everything that has the potential to devastate, every rug that can be pulled out from under us, has all been overcome.  It may hurt, but it cannot destroy.  He has overcome the world and all that is in it, and He is for us.  

The Nature of Sin

When I was 9 years old I broke a glass thermometer.  My then 15-year old sister and I were home alone and neither of us knew that mercury was toxic.  So when the thermometer broke, the little grey ball gushed out of the water and went rolling across the linoleum floor.  It looked like the shiniest little ball I’d ever seen, almost like a baby pearl.  So I reached to pick it up.  I looked at my fingers and they were empty, the mercury ball still on the wet kitchen floor a few inches from where I had reached for it.  For the next 15 minutes, I attempted unsuccessfully to pick up that perfect shiny grey ball.  It was elusive and no matter how many times I thought I had it in my grip it slipped away. 

Sin is a toxic, elusive, little ball.  I’ve been thinking about sin within myself, and how I see it manifest in my life. I’ve been thinking about its individual and global impacts. I’ve been thinking about what it is, where it starts and how it can be nailed down.  I’m not sure I’m any closer to grabbing that little ball but I’ve decided it definitely isn’t Phil Robertson’s definition.  When the reporter asked him, “What, in your mind is sinful?” he responded, “Start with homosexual behavior and morph it out from there.”  There are lots of people infuriated by his comments, and lots of people infuriated with the response to his comments but I’m most concerned that a man who loves God thinks that sin starts with homosexuality.

For centuries, Christians have had a stance on homosexuality that has not deviated: it is sin, it is to be avoided, and most people agree.  For centuries the Church condoned slavery.  For centuries the Church maintained that women should not have the vote. For centuries birth control and divorce were considered sinful. These ideas were widely accepted and practiced and by in large remained unexamined by the actual people that made up the Church.

Things continue in a certain way for centuries but then society shifts and grows and changes.  These change points are full of dialogue and beauty and ugliness. These shifts are like a woman in labor. It is when our culture grows and changes that the congregants are forced to form their own beliefs about the issues.  That’s the beauty of the change: there is talking and thinking for one’s self.  But the pain is because most people don’t like change because change hurts and change means adapting.  There is pain because perhaps we are doing it wrong, perhaps we are rejecting God’s heart. There is pain for the people involved. And change starts and stops and spurts and is awkward and gangly.  Kind of like puberty.  These times are awkward and tense but they are also great.  It is a time where people have to truly seek out what they believe, what the Bible says and what our response to it should be.  The church has been having birth pains about homosexuality for decades now, and a new era is about to be born.

I used to be bothered that Jesus didn’t directly address the issue of homosexuality.  Didn’t He know that thousands, millions of His followers would need His response? Didn’t He know the wounds that would occur to our brothers and sisters without His clear instructions? But Jesus purposely didn’t give us a checklist of behavior choices.  We are not robots He gave an instruction manual to.  We are His beloved children that He wrote a love letter to.  I used to find this irksome and now I find it refreshing.  Jesus did this for a reason; He wants us to seek answers for ourselves.  And the only way to know WWJD is to seek out the heart of God. When you seek, you will find. And to know the heart of God you have to seek Him and form a relationship with Him. And Boom: God wins again. 

We exist in an era where no one wants to be told what to do, and certainly no one wants to be told that what they decide to do, is wrong.  Where there used to be a wide view of sin (drunkenness, adultery, slander, lying, coarse speaking, anger, strife, malice…there are such lists all over the New Testament) we have replaced it with a narrow view of sin. Now, through growing pains and shifts, those things are seen in some circles as merely character flaws and are encouraged in other circles.  The Church, or better put, those in it, have successfully narrowed the Biblical view of sin. 

I recently read that the American Church, “embraced birth control like they did penicillin”.  In most part, the Pill was embraced Church-wide with opened toddler-filled arms. The idea of birth control use being labeled a sin died.  And not much later when infidelity rates skyrocketed, divorce being labeled as a sin died right along with it. And it died with a whimper.  The death of homosexuality being labeled as a sin is a long loud yell, but I’m here to warn you, that yell will not last forever.  It will die.  History has proved such.  It almost seems like we want to keep the sin circle wide enough for our comfort but narrow enough that we are not trapped inside of it. We successfully sidestep Jesus’ voice when He said that remarriage is tantamount to adultery.  We ignore God’s purposeful blessing of children and His abhorrence to those who separate the act of sex with the act of procreation.  We ignore how Jesus told us to spend our money.  We ignore His imploring to give it away, to actually pay our taxes.  All of them.  And when I say we, I do mean me, and you and WE. We as a church have been collectively picking and choosing what we like and don’t like from scripture for quite some time now, which leaves many of us confused and disillusioned.    

 I see considerable confusion from people who say things like, “hate the sin love the sinner.” These people may say, “I have a gay brother (uncle, aunt, cousin) and I love them but I still have to let them know that I don’t condone their actions! Right? Hate the sin, love the sinner?’

So, what is sin? What are we supposed to hate? When does it start? How do you know when someone else is doing it and more importantly how do you know when you are doing it?

The Bible is clear that sin is contrary to God and those who choose sin and persist in sin will get their hearts desire.  If you don’t want God, in the end you will get what you want.  Sin is separation from God.  The Bible is equally clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  The entire Old Testament and all its specific teachings are meant to show us God’s perfection, God’s glory and how very very short we fall from that. 

We are born into sin.  We are sin.  We are broken. Every act is merely a logical conclusion.  Every misdeed is a working out of that cancer within us.  I have an unfounded speculation that the Bible’s first recorded sin was not when Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit.  I think it may have been many steps before that.  Somewhere along the line, she separated herself from God.  Maybe she stopped walking with God in the cool of the day.  Maybe she began to doubt His goodness towards her.  Maybe she thought, “What God has given isn’t enough”.  She turned away from Truth.  So when that sneaky snake said, “Did God really say?” She was ready to agree.  Maybe Adam too, in his thoughts harbored distrust against God.  He may have already turned, already sinned, because as he stood there next to her he didn’t slap the fruit away from her mouth and yell, “RUN!” He took and ate too. 

My view of sin has become wide- it is every way we turn away from God.  Sometimes that turn is a 180 in an opposite direction and sometimes it is an almost unperceivable shifting. That’s all it is.  Everything else is a natural product of that turning.  Adultery isn’t its own separate sin.  Its not a one time compartmentalized flaw.  It’s not the one-time actual act of having sex with someone who is not your spouse. And when we view it as that we are deluded into thinking that if we just don’t do that one thing, we can be ok with God. We become obsessed with sin avoidance. We become people who value behavior modification over a transformed heart. 

Perhaps our biggest problem is that in our narrowing of sin we have become complacent over our own sin while being excruciatingly nit picky about the sin we see in the world. But what if we chose to ‘hate the sin’ in ourselves and ‘love the sinner’ in the world? What if we actually opened our ears to the things Jesus did say? Like when He told us how to address sin in the world, in our brothers and sisters? Jesus is clear that other people will sin in this world.  He calls their sins ‘specks’.  He calls our internal sins ‘planks’.  This is meant to illustrate how we view sin.  Our sin? Huge.  Sins of anyone else? Tiny. 

“Do not judge or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in you own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye when all the time there is a plank in your won eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

And we read these words in church and agree in theory but do we really? Do we really see our own sins as huge and the sins of others (no matter what they are) as tiny? Do we take our own sin so seriously that it is magnified in the face of what we see externally? Or do we compare? Do we justify?

I think I have perhaps lost quite a few of you who ask, “So what? So we just condone sin? We just let them off the hook? We just roll over and let the world go to hell in a hand basket? What about family values? What about free speech?” 

We live in a country that was founded on Christian principles.  The Bible was used to form our laws.  And I am so grateful for that.  I am so grateful to live in a country where the laws are founded on the idea that I am God’s workmanship.  The rights I have were delegated to me by God alone.  But the problem is, that the rights God grants are very few.  Our country grants free speech, which is a blessing (in most cases), but God does not grant free speech.  In fact He says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” He tells us to guard our words because the tongue is like the vessel of a mighty ship, able to turn the boat in any direction it wishes.  God tells us to use our words only to build others up ‘according to their needs’. God tells us to keep a tight rein on our tongue while America tells us to flap our gums at every opportunity. God does not condone the spewing of any idea and every idea that pops into our heads.  Jesus Himself modeled this during His trial.  He was like a sheep led to slaughter and not a word escaped His mouth.  The king of heaven, who could, at any moment, have called down legions of angles, chose not to avenge Himself.  He chose to stay silent.  He had more right to ‘freedom of speech’ than we can comprehend; yet He stayed silent.  It is an American idea to ‘use our freedom of speech because others died for that freedom’, which is true.  But it’s not a Biblical truth.  The freedom Christ died to give us does not leave us grappling for Our Rights. It is a hard reality that we are called to pattern our behavior after a Savior “Who being in the very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing.”(Philippians 2:6)

Our job as a church is to love people; we are not in the business off behavior modification.  We need to acknowledge that no one changes their behavior or rejects sin, whatever their sin, unless they are compelled by God to do so. A human can never change another human’s heart.  There is a war to be fought against sin.  A war so vast and so wide that only God can overcome it.  Only God holds that power, and He holds onto it very delicately.

Right before the big diatribe in Romans 1 that everyone on the internets seems to be quoting lately about homosexuality being a natural derivative of God ‘giving them over’ (Romans 1:28) to their sinful desires there is something profound in verses that follow.

In Romans Chapter 2:1-4, “You therefore, have no excuse you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.  So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?’

When we deem another person’s actions as sinful and condemn them in our hearts we are showing contempt for God’s kindness toward that person. Have we forgotten that ‘while we were dead in our sins, Christ died for us?’ We weren’t just kind of messed up.  We weren’t just sinning little sins.  We didn’t need a Band-Aid.  We were actually grey, bloated, dead carcasses and God brought us back to life.  I don’t ever want to show contempt for this rich kindness He shows to us. 

As the moral or societal view of sin becomes narrower it is my opinion that the church’s view of sin become wider.  We should ask God humbly to examine our hearts and minds.  Have you ever done this? I do it every night and boy are there ugly things to be found.  God gets out His Maglite and finds all those hidden crevices, pride, anger, and unforgiveness.  I let Him examine the way I speak, the way I think, the way I react.  I let Him inspect my quick responses and coarse tongue.  I sit in silence.  I confess all and every way I have offended Him.  And I let it go.  I give it to Him.  But the most important part of that whole equation is that I have to accept that I did it first.  And that is something we can never do for another person. 

Then God floods my heart with the good things of His spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self Control.  When my heart is full of these things I don’t have room to worry about other people and whether they are sinning or not.  I just don’t have the room.  And do you know whom my heart really loves? Spoiler Alert- it’s The Gays.  I do.  I love them.  When I hear the term ‘gay’ I don’t think of a people group I think of my gay friend and how he takes his coffee.  I think of another gay friend and how one time we were on an airplane and me made me laugh until I peed my pants.  I recall tender coming-out stories. They have faces, faces I know and love.  And so do my divorced friends. And so do my friends who got wasted at a party last Saturday night. And so do my friends who have cheated on their spouses, and so do my friends who refuse to tithe because they are afraid to do without.  So do my friends with unforgiving hearts and ugly minds and backwards thinking. I love them, I do.  Partly because I have committed several of those in just the last week.  But mostly, because I am not their taskmaster and I am not their savior. It is not me they aim to please and I am glad for that.  We were put on this earth to love and support one another.  To share money and show kindness.  But most of all we were put here to point one another to a True Savior, the only One who can take sin and throw it away for good.  When we each go astray we need each other to point the clear way to Him not a pointing finger at each other.  And crazy as it sounds, people can’t hear that we love them when we are poking our finger in their faces. 

The disciples asked Jesus if there were commandments more important than the others, and He was clear, He was crystal clear over and over, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.” If these two commandments are the pinnacle of truth, then they become like an umbrella over us.  Whatever rains on the outside falls, only what comes under Love remains. And I think that this is the answer on how to deal with people on both sides of this issue.  We need to remember that only a select few on both sides are screaming crazy and the vast majority welcomes dialogue. But in our dialogue may we show love in our doubt and love in our certainty. Maybe then Love can grow.


The Comparison Trap

Yesterday, Ann Voskamp wrote an excellent blog post about the dangers of comparison.  I had so many friends link it on their Facebook page that I couldn’t help but read it.  I’d link it here for you too, except I don’t know how.  My little secret is that I’m not a real blogger.  I blog like Creed from The Office blogs- hammering out my frenzied thoughts on a Word document.  My advantage over Creed is that I figured out how to copy and paste it onto WordPress.  There. Glad that’s out. 

So she wrote this blog post about how comparison is a thief of joy and all sorts of great stuff you should really find and read.  While I read it the defensive part of me bristled, the truthful part of me agreed and the therapist part of me asked, “Why?” Why do we do this?

Although attracted to women, this is not a female-only problem.  It’s a humanity problem.  The measuring stick is ingrained in us. It’s why shows like Jerry Springer exist.  We each view the world through a greater than/less than lens and measure ourselves against it.  Nobel Peace Prize winners? Less than.  Jerry Springer contestants? More than.

This gets stickier on a personal level. We look at people in our circles, our churches, our schools and workplaces.  We compare, we judge.  I compare. I judge.  But if I know in my soul that Ann is right, and that it takes my joy, why do I keep doing it?
The answer for me lies in when I do it most.  I am most likely to compare myself to others when I am least sure of who I am.  Although there are many ailments hiding themselves behind Comparison, the greatest is that comparing tells me if I am ok.  When we judge and slice and scrutinize what we are really asking is: Am I ok? Am I enough?

When we look to others to answer this question for us we fall dead center into the comparison trap.  We try to fight our way onto a swinging pendulum, constantly looking for our place.  Our eyes swing up to the More Than’s and swing down to the Less Than’s. Constantly searching for our value.  Constantly feeling the need to critique others because I can’t determine my worth until I determine yours first.  

The answer, for me, has been to look to God to answer this question.  I look to God for my Ok-ness.  I look to God for my worth.  But it doesn’t come easy.  It comes with a price.  I must ask.  And when I ask, I must listen. To listen we must be silent. And this is when things get scary.

Because listening is raw and scary and vulnerable, we fill the silence with Things. We fill it with smartphones or work, or sex or booze or food or we are just too busy doing too many things for other people that we just don’t have the time to listen to God.

But this too, comes with a price.  This price is having to decide for yourself where you belong on the pendulum.  And who knows what kinds of crazy variables can affect this decision? The late night brownies? If your significant other returns your calls? What time of the month it is? What your mother thinks of you? What your boss thinks of you? What the scale says about you?  Some people spend a lifetime on this ride, arranging and re-arranging themselves according to arbitrary standards-stuck and unsure how to get off.  For me, the only way off is to Listen.

Think about the night Jesus was born.  To whom did God entrust with this sacred knowledge? For whom did He shine His light and play His trumpets? For whom did the angels sing?

Shepherds.  Dirty old shepherds sitting in a field in the middle of the night.  Sitting in the dark with nothing but drowsy sheep and crickets and grass and sky.  Silence broken by Heaven’s chorus. 

Whom did God make His covenant with? Abraham, who was out in the desert at night.  Nothing but sand in his toes and a huge expanse of sky and stars.  And God spoke to Him, God made him a promise.  God made him His friend.

And Moses? Surprised at night by the burning bush? He too was in silence, nothing but sand and sky and bushes set ablaze because God had something to say and He was looking for someone to say it to.

And what happens when we listen? Well, silence first.  But then other things. Wonderful things.  Things about who you are and what you are for and most importantly how extravagantly you are loved.   

Comparison wants us to be concerned with what people are doing (so we can accurately judge them).  God wants us to be concerned with how they got there. My favorite question to ask people right now is, “How do you know when God is speaking to you?” I find the different answers fascinating. There are certain fundamental truths God has for us all, like Love God and Love Others.  But then there are special things He has for each of us.  We are each created uniquely.  All in His image, all different.  We have different temperaments and skills and families and abilities and He has specific plans for each of us. He is working and involving us in that work and inviting us in to listen.

Paul described the Church as a body.  Eyes, ears, hands and feet.  We are not all eyes, we are not all hearts, we are not all feet.  Some of us are feet and called to Go.  Some of us are eyes full of tears.  Some of us are hands willing to serve or ears willing to listen.  Some of us are different things at different times.  But instead of telling an ear he should be a foot we should celebrate the different workings of the members without worrying if they are doing their job right.  We should stop comparing belly buttons and backsides. We should recognize that we are all different pieces of a Beautiful Puzzle and if I spend all my time shaving off my sharp edges to make my piece look round like yours, I am defeating the purpose and will never fit into the Puzzle.  Most of all, we should take time to hear.  God is still speaking to those willing to listen.  

What I want you to know

I sat in church yesterday morning, my body in the pew but my thoughts with you. Dan spoke on the omnipotence of God: God’s unlimited, eternal power. God cannot be thwarted.  God is supreme. I thought of you on a hospital gurney, sick with detox, tossing and turning under florescent lights. I searched for the sovereignty of God.

I don’t know why if He is all loving and all-powerful bad things still happen. I don’t know why 18,000 people died yesterday simply because they didn’t have enough food. What I’m really saying is, I don’t know how I have it so good when some people have it so bad.  My theology gets broken down for what it is: Survivors guilt. 

I didn’t earn my way into God’s family.  All is gift; all is grace.  I didn’t make ‘better choices’ than you.  I wasn’t luckier.  I was chosen. And if God is all-powerful, who can resist Him? I hold my head in my hands and ask, how can you resist Him? How do you battle your demons day after day? How do you silence them when I can’t silence mine? And I sat in that pew yesterday wondering, praying, begging: Aren’t you chosen too?

As Dan wrapped up his sermon, he said, “Does anyone have any doubts on this?” Any doubts? On the goodness of an all-powerful God in a broken and tormented world? My hand shot up in the air.  I held it as high as it would go. The room grew silent. Dan’s eyes scanned the silent room, searching, but mine was the only hand that was up. Then he locked eyes with me across the room and said, “Well.  We have one honest person.”

Isn’t that what they taught us in Al-Anon? That darkness breeds addiction? That lying makes us hide? Didn’t they tell us to be truth-tellers, to bring it to the light? Didn’t they tell us that shame is mirage?

My truth is that I don’t know.  I have doubts. I don’t know why God seems to choose some and not others.  I don’t know why all are called but only some can hear. I don’t know why I can listen to His voice and can feel His presence and love and others can’t or won’t or don’t. Sometimes my hand is the only one that is up.  But my cheeks won’t flame hot and I’m not ashamed, because even though I don’t know much I do know this:

Jesus loves the doubter.

I know I am loved within my doubt and I am reminded again that the answer to every question is love.  I feel secure in questioning God and His motives because the answer to all my questions is always His love.

Sometimes I feel like we are divided by a fence, me on one side, and you on the other. We are sorted and filed by affiliations and ballot choices.  I’m cool if I believe in God, or god or gods.  Or Buddha or free love or recycling.  But when I throw all my cards into the Jesus basket, I become other.  And when you don’t, you become other.  Jesus becomes the fence. But those aren’t His words.  He said, “I am the gate.”

When I think of us I think of my own kids.  As my body made room for theirs, I was allowed to be a part of their creation.  I helped to grow and nurture them; eating organic kale and taking inhumanely sized prenatal vitamins.  I avoided hot tubs, I refused alcohol, I held my breath while they searched for a heartbeat. 

Do I love them more than God loves us? Is He less tender in His creation, less involved in the weaving and spinning in the womb and of the soul? If His ways are higher than our ways then He must be to an exponential degree more loving, in fact Most Loving.  Most Tender, Most Involved, Most Fiercely Protective.  Isn’t that at the heart of omnipotence- that He is unlimited, that He is everything in its most supreme form? If we posses even a small portion of goodness, He must be the fulfillment of it.  Love for us is a noun or a verb; to Him it is a personality trait. 

So then would God in his ‘capital L’ Love for us, create us, love us, breathe us into existence just to throw us out like yesterdays trash? Could He doom to destruction that which He has loved and cradled and conceived of? Could He pick me up and cast you off? Does our very existence not proclaim His love loudly the way the mere existence of my children proclaims my love and desire for and acceptance of them?

And if I was on one side of a fence and they were on the other is there anything I would not do to get to them on the other side? Would I not claw and tear down and rip apart? Would I hold back? Would I not shred the fence to pieces? Wouldn’t I even give my own life? And so I see Jesus no more as a fence to divide, but a gate to get in.  The fence is our brokenness, our addictions, our sickness, our secrets.  It divides us from God’s love.  The shame tells us to hide and the darkness forms the chain links. 

So then God’s omnipotence becomes both the question and the answer.  It is His power that makes me question His goodness and it is His power that is strong enough to save me. It is God’s strength that can break every chain.  That power that makes me so uncomfortable is the very thing that sets me free.

The first time you went into rehab we all sat in a circle with letters.  We read our letters out loud.  Mine shook in my sweaty hands as I choked and swallowed my written words.  I was instructed to end the letter with what I wanted; what I wanted you to do.  That’s what the lady on the intervention tapes said: Tell the addict what you want them to do. I listened to her seasoned voice come to me over my car speakers.  I drove slow on icy roads, the tires crunching on ice, every turn of the snow caked wheels taking me farther from my dorm room and closer to you.  My mind fixated, my attention riveted on this detail, on what I want for you

So I sat on a folding chair in a basement and read my rehearsed plea.  I remember how your eyes stayed on the floor when everyone else read their letters, but your eyes bored into me when I read mine.  I remember thinking that maybe that meant you were really paying attention to mine which was a shame because I really had no idea then what I wanted for you. I only knew that I loved you and I was scared and that I wanted you better. But I know now.  This is my encore letter and these are my choking words: What I want more than anything for you is to give up trying so hard to do this on your own.  There are no awards at the end of this life for going it on your own.  There are no merit badges for gritting your teeth and earning your way. There are no winners and losers.  There are only those who think they are healthy and those who know they are sick. 

I want you to know how deeply accepted you are where you are.  I want you to accept the forgiveness freely offered.  I want you to know what its like to take off your baggage and lay it down, and walk away for good.  I want you to know freedom.  I want you to know forgiveness.  I want you to know that you are beloved.  I want you to enter green wide-open pasture and find rest for your soul.  I want you to walk through the gate.  

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