Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bearing Emmanuel

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
                                                                                                Matthew 1:23

Bear—It is a word rich with meaning. The dictionary gives these definitions for bear:
o   carry
o   support
o   endure
o   give birth to
o   turn and proceed in a specified direction

Mary carries Jesus, the Son of God, the Divine Godself, in her womb. The Light of the world was in her. Mary, by giving birth to Jesus, bears him throughout her life. Parents know that their lives are always bound up in the lives of their children for as long as both parent and child live. One never outgrows the connection with the other. Mary bears both Jesus’ rejection and his acceptance, his miracles and his crucifixion, and his resurrection. Mary bears it all, enduring the achingly agonizing death of her son, the one whose conception was announced by the angel.  She remains by the cross, supporting her son with her presence, and in the Pietàwe see Mary supporting her dead son’s body.

We too are called to bear Christ, to carry Christ within us, to let Christ be born in us and in the world by the way we let the Light shine in us. Each one of us is called to bear Christ and as we do so Emmanuel happens now—God is with us.

We are the reason Christ comes. It is only as we bear Christ that Christ lives in the world among us. Advent is not only a time of waiting and watching for the Messiah to come. It is a time for us to prepare our wombs, our hearts, to bear Christ and bring forth Christ into the world. It is how Christ comes each Christmas, through the faithful preparation of our hearts to receive him but not for ourselves alone. We give birth to Christ as we are part of his work in the world.

I pray that we all, male and female alike, have wombs prepared for the coming of Emmanuel.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Active Waiting

The waiting is the hardest part. – Tom Petty

We are not a culture that embraces waiting. Five-minute oatmeal is not fast enough for us. Most of us would rather do something than to be still, even as we complain of having too much to do! And if we are still, it is often to watch someone else do something by watching sports or other entertainment.

Tom Petty is right – the waiting is the hardest part. But in this season of Advent, we are called to wait, and wait, and wait some more. Most of us ignore this call, choosing instead to rush from store to store and event to event. We eat too much, shop too much and spend too much money. We reject the message of Advent to wait and watch.

In the Common English Bible, Psalm 37:3 says: Trust in the Lord and do good; live in the land, and farm faithfulness. Farm faithfulness – it’s an interesting choice of words, one that offers a good example of how to actively wait.

There is waiting inherent in farming but it is not a complacent waiting. The farmer plants seeds and then waits for them to grow, but soil must be cultivated, plants must be thinned, and the growing plants must be cared for if they are to bear fruit. Our spiritual lives benefit from this sort of active waiting.

Fruitful active waiting can only happen by our attention and intention. We have to push back the temptation of our culture, especially in this season, to only be consumers – of products, food and activity. If we are to farm faithfulness, we will have to wait. But we are given a great gift if we will choose to wait. Our active, faithful waiting produces in us the fruit of patience. This superfruit combats anxiety and overconsumption and promotes trust and peace.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cold Turkey

The holidays are here. Beginning with Thanksgiving, the season of setting the bar too high is upon us. What should be a time of joy and wonder often dissolves into frustration and unmet expectations. The season can be a time of peace and anticipation if we choose to approach it with a sense of expectancy rather than expectation. While these two words sound similar, they could not be more different.

Expectancy implies unknowing. We wait with a certain amount of breathless anticipation and wonder for what might happen. Expectation, on the other hand, is a preconceived notion of what will happen. Expectancy lives in mystery. Expectation lives in concreteness. Expectancy welcomes surprise. Expectation hates surprise.

Last week we celebrated Thanksgiving. I had purchased the turkey and was planning a meal that could be easily prepared in an unfamiliar kitchen. We were traveling to my parents’ house in Tennessee, which we have been cleaning up since my dad, who was my last surviving parent, died last year. While I wasn’t looking forward to the work we would be doing, I was glad to have the opportunity to spend time with one of our sons. But because I’ve been facilitating an Advent study, where the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving we had talked about approaching the season with a sense of expectancy rather than expectation, I sought to practice expectancy toward Thanksgiving.

So when I discovered that my son’s plans had changed, I was not disappointed. My husband suggested we do turkey sandwiches, so we could focus our energy on our cleaning project, which was the reason for our trip to Tennessee. On our way to my parents’ house, we stopped at a favorite store in Chattanooga and bought some good bakery bread, deli turkey and a delicious pumpkin pie. Purchasing our dinner was great fun, because the store was offering samples of different pies and we tried all the different ones before deciding which one to buy.

Because we approached the holiday with a sense of expectancy, we enjoyed our meal, we enjoyed being with each other, and we made a good memory in the midst of a different way of celebrating Thanksgiving. Had we had a certain expectation for the celebration, we would surely have been disappointed. Expectancy allowed us to be fully present in the moment, and to savor it with joy!

I invite you to approach the season, and frankly, all of life, with a sense of expectancy, not expectation. Let expectancy become a spiritual practice and allow yourself to encounter God and others with freshness and wonder.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Creating Hospitable Holidays

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group about hospitality. As we enter a season where many of us will either open our homes to others, or be the guests of others, it seems a good time to reflect on hospitality as a spiritual practice.

Christian hospitality is more than good manners. Whether we are the hosts or the guests, we should assume a posture of humility and vulnerability. This is likely more obvious if we are the guest in the home of another, but it should also be the case if we are hosting another in our home. As the host, we assume the posture of a servant. As Parker Palmer suggests, we let the stranger be a stranger. Even if our guests are family members, we allow them the space to simply be themselves.

Yet many times, family gatherings can turn into efforts at manipulation and domination, not expressions of love and humble service. If you have shared a meal with family or friends, and the topic of conversation has turned to what someone either at the table or absent from it has or hasn’t done or should or shouldn’t do, you know it is not an open or welcoming place to be. That is especially true if you are the target of another’s criticism or manipulation, but even if you are not the target, such conversation is uncomfortable and uncaring (although it may be couched as being for one’s own good).

St. Augustine said, “The human race is inquisitive about other people’s lives, but negligent to correct their own.” He says this because some seemed to have a prurient interest in the sexual excesses of his life prior to his conversion. When holiday gatherings become opportunities for interrogation and criticism about the lives of family members either present or absent, hospitality is nonexistent. This is true even if the inquisition is framed as loving care or concern.

Augustine goes on to say, “A brotherly person rejoices on my account when he approves me, but when he disapproves, he grieves on my behalf.” True grief on behalf of another does not manifest itself in manipulation and criticism. May we practice such hospitality this season that others feel comfortable and welcome in our presence. Let us rejoice and grieve with those with whom we share space, not criticize, manipulate or interrogate them. Let us make space for grace and love.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Demise of Humanity

Last night I was in the San Francisco International Airport, awaiting a flight back home. I witnessed something solemn and moving—a ceremony to honor a fallen Marine, whose body had been flown in on a commercial airline flight. A variety of people lined up at a window to watch as two fire trucks sprayed an arc of water over the top of the airplane as it taxied to the gate. We observed the flag-draped casket taken from the plane by a Marine Honor Guard and the family of the soldier gathered around each other and the casket. As we stood silently watching the ceremony, quiet and respectful, one woman stood by the window, also watching, but absorbed in a cell phone conversation. Her voice was the only sound in the area save the regular canned airport announcements that continued their unbroken cadence. As twenty or thirty people watched loss unfolding before them in silence, this woman continued her conversation, oblivious to the solemnity surrounding her.

Maybe I was more acutely aware of her intrusion because I had just come from Grace Cathedral, where I had walked their labyrinth and participated in a service of Evening Prayer before leaving for the airport. The experience of silence, reflection and worship was still fresh in me. What I recognized as I grieved with the soldier’s family and the larger human family that surrounded me at the window is that our efforts to multitask, our attempts to be more and more productive, rob us of our humanity. We, in our fast-paced Western society, don’t know how to stand still, shut up, take our phones out of our ears and acknowledge life and death going on right in front of us. We have become so robotic that we cannot pause to act like human beings.

At 9:00 p.m. San Francisco time, this same woman was sitting behind me at the gate talking business. I could tell she was returning from a convention, so Atlanta or somewhere in the southeast was home for her. Talking business at 9:00 p.m. is bad enough, but she was talking to someone 3 time zones later about the next day’s work.

St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” It seems to me that we strive to be less and less alive and instead choose to function more like robots, devoid of compassion, unaware or uncaring of the needs of others, and focused on productivity at all costs. Glory in our culture derives from greater productivity. But what glorifies God is when we are fully alive, attentive to all of life as it unfolds around us.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What We Worship

I am participating in a small group that is reading Advent Conspiracy. We are doing this study now so that we might prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas as a Christian holiday. The authors of the book note that the fastest growing religion in the world is consumerism. If that is true, and I believe it is, then Christmas has become consumerism’s biggest holiday.

I have often heard that we can determine what we worship by looking at our calendars and our checkbooks. I wonder how much time those of us who claim to follow Christ will spend preparing our hearts for the birth of Jesus versus how much time we will spend making lists, scouring ads and shopping from now until December 25. Our time and our money will indicate the object of our worship.

It is no easy task to leave behind the idolatry of consumerism. I don’t claim to be successful at it. But I recognize that what fills my time fills my heart, and I hope to make a change in what fills my time between now and December 25. If my heart is full of the trappings of consumerism, then I am like the Bethlehem inn, with no room in which Jesus can be born.

Every Advent brings the opportunity to clean out the things that clutter my heart to make room for the birth of Jesus. As we approach the season of Advent, it is not too early to choose well what we will worship. I pray to choose well for myself, and to allow space for grace when I fail to choose the One Who comes to bring life.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Healing a Different Brokenness

I am the Lord; at the right moment, I will hurry it along.
                                                                                                                                Isaiah 60:22b

Two weeks ago I broke a bone in my hand. I have had to make adjustments to compensate for the lack of use of my left hand (fortunately, I am right handed). It takes me longer to do many things (like typing this blog post), I have limited my driving and there are some things I simply cannot do by myself. Moving slower means that I have to eliminate certain items from my daily to-do list. This means I must be content with less efficiency and productivity.

I am no longer making big plans for myself each day. I am allowing more space in my schedule and, surprisingly, I have been content with the ability to do less, with slower progress in what I am able to do, and with adjusting my daily schedule around when my husband can take me to and from work. What I know in my head, I am now accepting in my heart—I am not in control.

The verse above reminds me that any thought I have of being in control is really an illusion. God is in charge of the moments of my life. I am grateful for the patience that comes with this recognition. I hope I will remain this way even after my hand is healed. I thought what was broken was my hand. I wonder if the greater brokenness in me is the notion that I am in control, that my agenda is of utmost importance and that my worth is tied to my productivity and efficiency. More significant than the healing of the broken bone is the healing of attitudes and behaviors that have been barriers to increased trust in God.

In John 15:2, Jesus says that the Father prunes branches that are producing fruit so they will bear even more fruit. The “pruning” caused by this lack of mobility and corresponding lack of control is bearing fruit through increased stillness and patience in my life, and through recognition that life isn’t about my productivity or effectiveness or my agenda, but about trusting God with my life. With that trust comes the peace of not having to meet a set of expectations (which are mostly my own). Instead, I am free to recognize that God loves me both in my brokenness and in my healing. As Sister Kathleen Flood reminded us at the Academy for Spiritual Formation, my faith is making me well.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Engorged and Empty

I don’t know where it began—this notion that we need more. Maybe it was cable TV, when we went from three channels to hundreds. Maybe it was all-you-can-eat buffets. Or maybe it arose with mass production. However it began, we live in an age of choice, of muchness, of endless options.

Years ago, when my children were small, one of them told me about a toy he wanted for Christmas. My husband and I went to a big-box toy store to buy the requested item. When we found the aisle where the requested toy was sold, we were greeted with so many choices that we didn’t know which one to buy.

At the grocery store where I most often shop, soft drink choices line both sides of an aisle. Sometimes my husband and I sit down to watch TV for a short time and spend so much time scrolling through the available programs that we find it’s bedtime before we can figure out what to watch. I can’t even listen to all the songs on my iPod, so I cannot imagine what I’d do with Spotify. And when I broke my hand last week I even got to choose the color of my cast.

A few weeks ago our pastor spoke in his sermon of the tension between the desire for more and the sufficiency of enough. In a society where we are inundated with choices in everything from potato chips to cast colors, why are we still so dissatisfied? Why are so many people angry, unhappy and miserable?

I have just come off two months of a very full schedule. While the items on my calendar were all good, I felt as though I was drinking from a fire hose—too many events, too much food, and too little quiet. I am part of a small group that is studying spiritual disciplines this fall. All the calendar activity wound down about the same time that we came to the chapter on fasting. As the author described how fasting makes us light, joyful and pure, I thought of how tired, heavy and unfocused I felt. I actually began to look forward to less—less food, less noise and fewer events.

With all the choices I have available to me every day, what nourishes my soul is the intentional choice to avoid the barrage of options I have for stimulation that keep me living at the surface of life. Instead, I need to open a space within for Christ. I want to be content with the sufficiency of God.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Experiencing the Miraculous

Control is an illusion, although we usually live as though it is a certainty. We meticulously plan and execute our plans and as long as everything goes off without a glitch, the myth that we are in control is perpetuated. I wonder if this is why we fail to see or believe in miracles. Our propensity to explain away events blinds us from seeing the Holy Spirit work in ways beyond rational explanation.

If we are lucky or blessed, we get to be swept up into the mystery of God’s miraculous power. Our mission team experienced such an encounter with God’s miraculous and mysterious ways, for we saw the work of the Spirit in a way that defies rational thinking.

On Thursday morning of our week in El Salvador, we were on our way to the village where our team was drilling a well and teaching hygiene lessons. Rain the night before had made the dirt road we travelled daily more rutted and bumpy than usual, and our driver, Angel, drove slowly. As we passed a sugarcane field not far from our destination, I felt the van suddenly lurch to a stop. Out of the sugarcane three hooded men appeared and blocked our van. Two were armed with machetes and the third had a short barreled shotgun.

Angel told us to stay put as he got out of the van to talk to the men. None of us moved or said a word to each other as Angel and one of the men had an intense dialogue that none of us could understand. In what seemed simultaneously like an instant and an eternity, Angel was back in the van and we were on our way, charged to say nothing in the village. A former gang member himself, Angel told us these men were gang members who had intended to rob us. When Angel explained to them that we were Christians, there to drill a water well in the village, they let us pass without incident on the condition that we divulge nothing of the encounter to the villagers. We obliged, saying nothing to each other until we were well on our way to the mission house that evening.

With work to do in the village, I did not think much more about the incident until that evening, when we were finally able to process as a group the day’s events. In our team’s conversations with each other and as we’ve shared the story with others since returning home, the miracle has become increasingly apparent to us all.

There is power in the name of Jesus. Angel stressed to the men that we were Christians, there to serve the village, and they let us go without taking anything from any of us. Angel’s past life as a gang member was more than coincidental in that encounter. And Angel’s name – well, that is amazingly obvious!

Our team had feared that this incident could kill future well drilling trips from our church, yet when the story was first shared upon our return, people were caught up in the fact that we were let go without anything being taken from us. The Spirit has been at work by taking what could have been a negative result and turning it into an awe-inspiring demonstration of God’s power and presence.

Our team has been praying for these three men. Our lives are forever bound up with theirs, and we wonder how God is at work in their lives because of their decision to let us pass without taking anything from us. What prompted such action on their part? Surely it is the unfathomable mystery of God, a miracle beyond rational explanation and we had the privilege not only to experience it but to be able to share it with others!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Locked Doors

The evening we arrived home from our mission trip to El Salvador, I unlocked our house and was convicted by that simple act that I routinely perform. Unlocking the door was a profound demonstration of our culture of ownership and individualism. The reason unlocking the door seemed suddenly so odd was because we had spent a week in a village where houses and hearts were open and unpossessive.

We took a Frisbee, some rubber balls and a soccer ball for the children of the village to play with. Our entire group observed a different spirit among the children than we are used to seeing among children at home. Often, what we see with children here is a desire to possess something entirely. It is not easy to have a community ball because someone wants to claim ownership, or wants to monopolize the use of the ball. However, we saw none of that among the children of the village where we spent the week. It was so amazing to us that we regularly commented on it. We would hear lots of noise as children played with the items we had brought, but never any angry words, and never any tears.

One child took the Frisbee home one evening and I wondered if we would see it again the next morning. But when we arrived, there was Kevin with the Frisbee, ready to play with the other children and with us. He knew it belonged to the community and had only taken it home for safekeeping until it could be stored at the village school.

Why the difference between our children and the children we encountered in the village? I wonder if our locked doors teach our children more about title law than we realize. Our notions about possessions and ownership filter down into the minds of our children even if we have not directly taught them anything directly about these concepts. We used to hear our own boys say “Dat mine” when playing with each other or with other children. Even as we try to teach our children to share with others, our own locked doors proclaim “Dat mine” to the world outside our homes. Our keys and alarm codes speak louder to our children than our lessons about generosity and sharing.

Thomas Merton said this: “God, Who owns all things, leaves them all to themselves. He never takes them for His own, the way we take them for our own and destroy them. . . His love is not like ours. His love is unpossessive. His love is pure because it needs nothing.”

When I think of the way we saw the children share the few simple toys we brought, I believe we caught a glimpse of pure, unpossessive love. Their love and their lives reflected purity because there was nothing that they held back from us or from each other.

I wonder what I miss by living behind my locked doors. Jesus’ words in Luke 9:25 give me a clue: What advantage do people have if they gain the whole world for themselves yet perish or lose their lives?

Life doesn’t happen when doors are locked, either physical doors or the doors of my heart. Purity is not compatible with possessiveness. I pray for life, for release from locked doors.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Small Things

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin . . .
                                                                                                                Zechariah 4:10a

A fond memory from my recent mission trip to El Salvador was a small event, taking no more than 30 seconds, but one that made a big impact on me.

Liz, our translator, had supplies to make piñatas, an activity we could do with the women and older children after teaching the day’s hygiene lessons. It took two days to make the piñatas. On the second day, we strung some cord between two trees for hanging the piñatas to make it easier to decorate them. One of the women on our mission team was pulling the cord from one tree to the other. She tripped on a large rock, just a small trip, an incident that didn’t draw any attention.

Debora, the same girl who had given us her bracelets the previous day, saw it happen. With no fanfare, I saw her move the rock, along with another large rock, to the base of a nearby tree.

It was a small gesture that touched my heart and told me volumes about this young girl. Her attentiveness and action were a lesson to me. She simply saw a need and acted. She paid attention closely enough to notice the trip, and responded from a heart of compassion. I think I am the only person who even saw Debora’s action.

How many such opportunities do I miss because I get distracted by other things going on or worse yet, by my own thoughts? I wonder how often I am so preoccupied with myself that I don’t see a simple way to make things better for others. The pace at which we move can blind us to small acts of love and thoughtfulness toward others. When my head is down, looking at the screen of my phone, I miss the chance to show love to one of my brothers or sisters.

1 John 3:18 says: Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. Debora loved with action. He act of noticing and moving the rocks and her generosity in sharing her bracelets with us was love that needed no words. These were simple but powerful acts of love that challenge me to follow her example. If I am to love with action I must be intentional about paying attention to the rocks in another’s path.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Divisiveness of Privilege

Privilege can be a terrible burden. I don’t know that I really understood this before the first day we were in the village in El Salvador. Some clothing had been sent with our mission team to share with the children of the community. Although our team had not intended to be involved with the distribution of the clothing, we ended up doing so.

I was tasked with the responsibility of giving shirts to the boys. I could not bear just to hand out shirts with the attitude of “You are needy. I have something to help you. Take what I offer, whether you want it or not.” So as each boy came up to receive a shirt, I first tried to find what would fit, then I asked if he liked it. Sometimes I would go through several shirts before finding one that suited, and sometimes I was unable to find one that made someone happy. As the stack of shirts decreased, the whole project grew more uncomfortable. I realized that the last children would not get to choose and that we might even run out before all the boys received a shirt.

It was an awful feeling. I felt acutely the burden of privilege. I feared that we had sacrificed relationship with these children for the sake of a material item. Instead of a relationship of mutual love and generosity, we were thrust into one of wealthy vs. needy.

Several years ago, on an earlier mission trip to the Dominican Republic, we were playing with children in the batays, which are migrant camps for the Haitians who come to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane. Many of the children were wearing sweaters, long-sleeved winter sweaters. I asked the missionary who lived there why these children were wearing sweaters in such a hot climate. She responded that when clothing is collected in the States, people put in all kinds of clothes. It is boxed up and shipped to the Dominican Republic and distributed to the missionaries. The children basically get whatever comes out of the mission box, even if it’s the wrong kind of clothing for the climate. Hearing that, I was angry and ashamed.

Thoughtless giving, giving our “trash,” giving that destroys relationships, is not generosity. It’s insulting, heartless and demeaning. Instead of building another up, it belittles them. And as the giver, such giving hardens our hearts, separates us from each other, and fosters arrogance.

Recalling the act of clothing distribution to the children in the village in El Salvador is still painful, even now, three weeks afterward. As I hold that pain, I pray that it opens my heart to just how much privilege inhibits meaningful relationship with others. May I instead live in this way:

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
(Philippians 2:3-4)

I am grateful we had the rest of the week to build genuine relationships with the children. Their love, joy and generosity with each other and with us embodied the scripture above. I pray I may follow their example in my relationships with others.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hopes & Dreams

While in El Salvador, we listened to Jenny, a beautiful fifteen year old girl, talk about what she wanted for her future. This is her final year in the nearby schools. To go to high school means leaving her community.

She wants to be a teacher. She wants to go to high school and actually has a sponsor family in the city that will support her and give her a place to live. But her mother and older brother don’t want her to leave the village. Her father, who shared her dream, died several years ago, and the family struggles without him.

When I think about the opportunities my own children and the children of most of my friends have had, it grieves me to think that Jenny may not get to fulfill her dream. There is a risk in leaving the community, but staying home means that Jenny’s future consists of picking corn and raising children. Neither of these is bad, but she is capable of and wants more for her life.

So how do we pray for Jenny? As a mother I know about wanting to protect your children. El Salvador is a tough country. Gangs are so powerful there that the government negotiates with them.

Whose hopes and dreams prevail? Jenny’s? Her mother’s? I cannot even begin to say the right thing to do. Jenny lives in such a different culture, in such a different place, and I have not right as an “Americano” to impose my thoughts.

Romans 8:26-28 comes to life for me as I struggle with how to respond in prayer in a way that is faithful to Jenny, her mother, and the village:  In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans. The one who searches hearts knows how the Spirit thinks, because he pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will. We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

I won’t know how Jenny’s story, her life story, turns out. But I know that my act of praying for her keeps my heart tender, and gives me the great privilege of bearing a small part of the burden of those with limited resources and opportunities. As long as my heart aches for Jenny, I know the Spirit is at work in me.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Sacrificial Gift

“I won’t offer up to the Lord my God . . . offerings that cost me nothing.”                                                                                                                                      2 Samuel 24:24b

For a gift to mean something to the recipient there must be a cost involved, whether the cost is measured in dollars or thought or time. If you’ve ever been the recipient of a thoughtful gift, you know that the impact of another’s thoughtfulness far outweighs the financial cost. On the other hand, an expensive gift that fails to consider the heart of the recipient or is offered only to fulfill an obligation, or worse yet, to impress folks other than the recipient, is not a sacrificial gift.

Last week, I was part of an eight person mission team that traveled to El Salvador with Living Water International to drill a well in a community without nearby access to clean water. The three women of our team, with the help of Liz Trigueros, our LWI translator, taught hygiene lessons to the women and children of the village so that once the well was complete, they would know the importance of clean water and how to keep the water clean once it was drawn from the well.

Spending four full days in the village, we developed relationships, especially with some of the children. But even before we had time to let these relationships grow and blossom, I experienced what for me was the most profound moment of the week. One day one, we met people from the village and walked from house to house to meet folks and to see how they lived. Carlos, the community leader, gave us a tour of the village and a crowd of children accompanied us. One girl, probably 12 years old, taught me about sacrificial giving.

Debora had two bracelets, one black and one green. Each consisted of several elastic strings of beads tied together with a matching ribbon. She untied the ribbons, divided the strands of beads and shared them with the four women in our group. I felt as though I had received the widow’s mite, for Debora gave us all she had to give.

While I have bracelets that involved a greater financial outlay, and ones with sentiment and memory attached to them, I have no costlier one than these four simple strands of green beads. I am grateful for and humbled by this sacrificial gift of love. As I look at it and remember Debora, I hear Jesus’ challenge to me, “Now go and do likewise.”

In the Common English Bible, the story about the poor widow reads like this:
Looking up, Jesus saw rich people throwing their gifts into the collection box for the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow throw in two small copper coins worth a penny. He said, “I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than them all. All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had to live on.”    Luke 21:1-4

The rich put in their spare change, but the widow gave everything she had. I cannot look at the bracelet on my arm without feeling the conviction of my economic station. I, the rich, received from a poor girl, a truly sacrificial gift. But I also am challenged to follow her example of giving, to give generously and joyfully, to give without holding back, to give as I have received from Debora and from God.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.
                                                                                                                Matthew 5:48 (NLT)

Perfection is an intimidating term. Jesus gives this instruction and I feel hopeless to follow it. But I am encouraged when I read the same verse in the Common English Bible:

Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Completeness sounds more doable than perfection. If I think about perfection as completeness, then I can see a way to begin the process toward perfection.

Yet even completeness can be misunderstood. As I am writing these words, a fellow church member sticks his head in my office and talks about all the various "balls" he is trying to keep in the air. If completeness is thought of as an attempt on our part to be all things to all people, then it becomes just another ball we juggle--a burden rather than a blessing. Surely this is not what Jesus means!

But if we think of completeness as the recognition and use of our gifts and abilities to glorify God, then moving toward perfection/completeness becomes the process of self-discovery, of learning who we are in Christ (Colossians 3:3). It is not about adding more items to an already full to-do list, but about pushing some of those items aside to journey inward, to move past the labels that describe what we do (parent, employee, child, volunteer, etc.) and to consider what it is that brings me the deepest joy. For when we consider that, we discover our place of completeness.

Living a faithful and obedient life in Christ is not about gritting your teeth and pushing through a jungle of "shoulds" and "oughts." The only "should" is that a faithful and obedient life should be a life of joy and peace. This is only possible when we strip away the "doing" that is burdensome, and instead attend to our "being." As we come to know who we are in Christ, we can live fully alive, from the depths of our being, and such a life is manifested in the joyful offering of our spiritual gifts, in fact, our whole selves, to the world.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Prayer as Life

This past Saturday I presented a workshop on prayer, sharing how we can really pray continually, as Paul instructed the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:17). As I prepared for the workshop, I considered opening the session by asking participants, “How would you describe your prayer life?”

That got me thinking about the term “prayer life.” As often as I have heard, or even used, that term, I never realized before last week how much of a misnomer it really is.

Using the term “prayer life” implies that prayer is a compartmentalized part of life. We “do” our praying, check it off the list, and move on to the rest of our life. If that is what prayer is, then Paul’s instruction is nearly impossible. We would have to give up work, family time and most everything else in order to pray continually.

If that is what we think prayer is, we have an inaccurate description of prayer. Prayer is life, not just a part of life. Prayer is living in the continual awareness that we are always in the presence of God. Thus all our activities are continual prayer offered to God if we are attuned to God’s continual outpouring of love over us.

To talk about “prayer life” is like talking about “breath life” or “heartbeat life.”  We cannot compartmentalize our breathing into a certain block of time, or stop and start our heartbeat at our convenience. Our very breathing is a gift from God, and is offered back to God in gratitude without us even thinking about it. Our heart beats in praise to God. When we are aware of these great gifts, our awareness becomes a prayer to God for them.

We offer petitions to God, but these are only part of a life of prayer. Living a life fully alive and aware and in a state of gratitude makes all of life a prayer. When we live life this way, we cannot help but draw nearer to God. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Senses as Sacrament

O taste and see that God is good.
                                                                Psalm 34:8

Taste is not the sense I first think of when speaking of the goodness of God. In fact, when I hear taste and good in the same sentence, I think of something to eat. Yet the taste of food should remind me of God’s goodness. The orange juice I drink with breakfast, a sweet cookie enjoyed midafternoon, the bread and wine of Eucharist—all these are gifts from God and should be present reminders to me of God’s goodness.

But this verse is not exclusively about tasting the goodness of God. Each of my senses should draw me to a deeper awareness of God’s goodness.

The warmth of sun on my skin, the coolness of a breeze, the hug of a friend—O touch and see that God is good.

The sight of a sunrise, the color of a flower, the smile on a child’s face—O look and see that God is good.

The sound of a bird’s song, laughter around a table, or the whistling I hear in the hall outside my office—O listen and see that God is good.

The aroma of freshly baked bread, the scent of a baby’s neck, the smell of a ripe peach—O sniff and see that God is good.

With all my senses I can praise God. I worship with every hair, every heartbeat, every breath, every swallow, every blink. It is all available as sacrament—an outward and visible (or tactile, auditory, gustatory, olfactory) sign of God’s grace. Each of my senses tune me toward God, turning my mind to worship, to awareness, to prayer.

So taste and touch and look and listen and sniff and experience God’s goodness, which is in and around us every moment of every day!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Listening for Quiet

Most of us have almost constant noise in our lives. Whether it’s the inadvertent sounds of air conditioners, traffic or computers or the intentional sounds of television, music or conversations, we are surrounded by sounds. Many people I know invite background sounds of television or radio because they don’t want their surroundings to be quiet.

We may hear the Spirit through the voices of friends and family or through music or through other sounds. However, we may be more likely to hear God’s voice in silence.

Elijah, the famous prophet, whose story is told in 1 Kings, received God’s messages regularly. But when Elijah’s life was threatened, God came to him in an unexpected way:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.”
A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord.
But the Lord wasn’t in the wind.
After the wind, there was an earthquake.
But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake.
After the earthquake, there was a fire.
But the Lord wasn’t in the fire.
After the fire, there was a sound.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat.
He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance.
A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”      1Kings 19:11-13(CEB)

Wind. Earthquake. Fire. These are ways we might expect the God of all creation to make God’s presence known. Instead, God came to Elijah in quiet—quiet that Elijah can hear.

When we intentionally choose quiet, it is a fast from the almost perpetual sound that keeps us always at a level of semi-attention. We may not even be conscious of the wear such sound is placing on our souls. Quiet gives our souls time to rest, time to heal, time to listen for that thin sound of God.

If you are not practiced at intentional quiet, I invite you to try it. Start small—5 minutes a day, or if you are really feeling adventurous, try 5 minutes at two different times a day. Like physical exercise, you have to be deliberate, be consistent, and build up gradually.

Thin. Quiet. It is a marvelous invitation to listen for the whisper of God!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Burnout or Burning Love?

When I was a child, I remember making a piñata out of a balloon and papier mâché. We inflated the balloon and applied the coating of papier mâché. Once the coating was dry, we popped the balloon and the papier mâché retained the shape of the balloon that had been inside. Without the extra strength of the balloon inside, we had to handle the piñata carefully, as it was rather fragile (which is a good thing if you are going to swing at it with a bat).

I see many folks whose Christianity could be illustrated with a piñata. They have experienced the Ruach, the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, at some time in their lives. It filled them and their lives expanded. As they took on the works that manifested their faith, these outward signs of discipleship became the manifestation of their Christian walk. These important acts of discipleship—missions, Bible study and attendance—at some point displaced the inner Spirit as the primary expression of faith.

A faith practiced only in outward works is quite fragile, and I’ve seen many who crack under the pressure of this one-sided, outward discipleship. You will know them by expressions such as these: “I’ve done my time,” “I need a break from church work,” “Let the folks with children handle it,” “I’m burned out.” I’ve heard these comments and, I confess, at one time in my life, I said such myself. When works for Christ are done from a sense of obligation rather than passionate desire, burnout is the eventual result.

Works are certainly important, and the world is in great need of visible expressions of the love of Christ. But the primary cry of the heart is for an indwelling Spirit, not a project to complete. The “Protestant work ethic” falls short in creating disciples who are aflame with love for God and for each other.

Everything changes when one’s life is fueled by the Spirit. Burnout is replaced with burning love. The heart of stone is replaced with a living heart (Ezekiel 36:26), a heart that beats for God, and thus, for all of God’s creation. It is such a passion that called me into the work of spiritual direction.

Works, if they are to be a true expression of discipleship, must flow from a faith enflamed by the Holy Spirit. A life lived from the Divine Center leads us to works that are uniquely ours to do, that God created us and gifted us to do. From such, there is no burnout, just the heat and flame of an all-consuming love. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Coming Home

Last week I attended SOULfeast, a conference organized by Upper Room Ministries. Each year people of various denominations travel to Lake Junaluska, in the North Carolina mountains, for several days of soul exercise. We learn, we are stretched, we rest, we pray, we eat, we celebrate, we worship, we sing, we play. Children and adults, individuals, families, church groups—all sorts of folks pilgrimage to the mountains to be both spiritually renewed and challenged to grow.

When I arrived and checked into the conference, I had a deep inner peace that I had arrived home. I don’t live in the area. As far as I know, I am not related to any of the other participants at SOULfeast. But the sense of being home was overwhelming. The mountains are already where I feel closest to God, so just being there is a good head start for spiritual renewal, but that was not the whole of what I experienced. It was being with a family of faith, a group of people from all over the world whose deep yearning for greater intimacy with God compelled them to this holy place, this weeklong community of the body of Christ.

I had always thought of home as a place inhabited by folks with whom I shared a common life experience. Even in that sense, I was still home at SOULfeast. I saw folks I see there every year, some of whom travel great distances to be there. I marveled at children who had grown and changed because I see them each year.

The week did my soul good. The experience of being united with others who long for more than a casual faith sustains me when I get discouraged. I know that I will be back next year, if possible, because the connection to this family of mine is strong and life-imparting. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Performance and Pride

“Does the LORD really want sacrifices and offerings? No! He doesn’t want your sacrifices. He wants you to obey him. Rebelling against God or disobeying him because you are proud is just as bad as worshiping idols or asking them for advice.”
1 Samuel 15:22b-23a

These words from Samuel convict Saul. Saul disobeyed, but he thought he was doing a good thing by reserving the best animals for God. When do we add to what God has directed, thinking that our addition is good? Such thinking is arrogant on our part, for we demonstrate that we believe we know better than God what is needed.

I wonder how much of our activity is done to make us feel better about who we are. When we act in a way that draws the approval of others, or do something because we think we are “supposed” to do it, are we risking rebellion against God? Are we being driven by pride? 

The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer has a line that challenges our notions that what God always wants is our activity: let me be employed by Thee or laid aside for Thee. We embrace being “useful” for God, but are we willing to be laid aside for God? To listen, rest, and wait? To be silent, to be voiceless in church affairs, to be on the sidelines when that is the obedient thing to do?

When we allow ourselves to be “laid aside” we confront just how much our self-worth is driven by our addiction to productivity. Without an activity to do, a contribution to make, a role to fulfill, we lose the attention and approval of others, and we may believe we are not worth much. But only when all that activity and productivity is stripped away can we even begin to discover who we really are in Christ. It is then that we learn that what is important is our attention to God, not our activity for God.

Sadly, many people never learn this lesson, or they only learn it when something catastrophic happens—job loss, major illness or debilitating injury, or a difficult change in relationship. When we either cannot be productive or when our productivity is no longer valued, we come face to face with our false notions of self-worth. It is in learning to love ourselves simply for who we are that we can learn to love others the way God loves us—unconditionally, not based on performance. And when we love ourselves and others that way, we are no longer driven by pride and performance but instead share and receive the grace of God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Despicable People

 “Can you see the one the Lord has chosen?” Samuel asked all the people. “He has no equal among the people.” But some despicable people said, “How can this man save us?” They despised Saul and didn’t bring him gifts, but Saul didn’t say anything.                                                                                                                  1 Samuel 10:24, 27

The ones who failed to trust God in the selection of Saul as king are called despicable. Their doubt, their inability to see God at work, their lack of faith that God could work in and through Saul earned them a rather harsh assessment.

Yet in our culture, and sadly, even in the church, we would hold such people up as shrewd, careful and reasonable. We admire those who won’t be “duped” by “fanciful” notions of faith, such as trusting God to provide and direct, who won’t be “gullible” enough to be amazed at the way God can work in and through people. We don’t believe God can change people, that God’s nature is more powerful than human nature, or that people can really be reborn in Christ.

A friend of ours recently returned from a mission trip to Uganda, where one of his tasks was to distribute reading glasses. A girl who needed glasses to be able to continue her education came to get a pair. The team had collected glasses in certain strengths, the strongest of which did not help the girl. That morning, our friend had found an odd pair of glasses in a strength they had not collected for their trip. He laid it aside, but when this girl came, she tried the glasses and could see. Our friend had no explanation other than God, because the glasses had not been in their collection the day before, and they had carefully cataloged what they took prior to leaving the States.

Why can God only act in miraculous ways in Africa, or in a hospital or among the poor, and not in a church budget committee meeting? Why do we not believe that God can provide the resources we need in our first world, upper middle class churches to do God’s work? Why do we, the members of these churches, cling so tightly to what God has given us, as if it is all we can expect to receive from God? Why do we worship the idols of scarcity and fear and rationalism instead of the God of abundance and peace and joy? Scripture has a word for us: despicable.

All powerful God, who created all, have mercy on us for being despicable people who doubt your ability to act, who fail to worship you, who think we know better than to trust in your provision. Rend our hearts and minds, smash the idols we elevate as greater than you, strip away anything that we trust other than you. As we stand empty and shaken before you, fill us with your joy, your peace and utter trust in you, that we may be forever changed from despicable to disciples. Amen.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Perfect Present

Recently I’ve been thinking about the notion of perfection. Although we tend to think of perfection as flawlessness, I wonder if a better definition of perfection is the fullest appreciation of the present moment.

I spent a quiet day yesterday at Green Bough House of Prayer. It’s a place I go when I need to hit the pause and reset buttons on my life. As I sat outside yesterday morning on the porch of the retreat house, anticipating the silence, a mockingbird war broke out in the yard in front of me. Fully distracting and plenty loud, three mockingbirds hissed at each other and flew at each other, fighting in midair. They did this over and over again. There was nothing quiet about this quiet space!

I could have gotten frustrated with the lack of quiet but instead I thought, “Perfection is being here, not having perfect silence.” Isn’t this true about many of life’s situations? Perfection could be having your grandchildren visit, even if your picnic is rained out. Or maybe it is putting up a batch of peach jam for Christmas gifts even though one jar doesn’t seal (that’s the one you get to eat). Or maybe it’s getting the garage cleaned out enough to get a car in it, but not completely empty.

When we can celebrate the present moment’s blessings instead of falling into the defeating attitude of “if only” thinking, that, to me, is perfection. Rejoicing in what is going right helps us to be light-bearers for Christ. When we wallow in regret and discontent, we extinguish the light of Christ within us.

Paul, even while imprisoned said, “Be glad in the Lord always. Again I say, be glad.” (Philippians 4:4) Certainly if perfection for him had been the ability to move freely in the world, he would have not been able to be so joyful. But Paul had the fullest appreciation of the present moment, and God’s presence in that moment. If Paul could be joyful in prison, what is holding us back from perfect joy?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mindfulness vs. Busyness

And I find [God] never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness.
–Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

This past weekend my husband and I attended a wedding in North Georgia. We were in the heart of Georgia wine country, and because we had arrived prior to the time we could check into our accommodations, we decided to stop by one of the wineries to pass the time with a wine tasting. The tasting consisted of half a dozen different dry wines, two white and four red. Paying attention to the often subtle differences among the different wines, I was reminded of the importance of mindfulness.

We sniffed, sipped and noted the hints of flowers, oak or other characteristics of the various samples. I expected to be able to differentiate between the tastes of whites and reds, but was surprised at how I could tell the differences among seemingly similar red wines. Because my full attention was devoted to what I was doing, and because I was not in any hurry, my senses were more acute to details I might have otherwise missed.

We stayed the night at an eco-friendly lodge. On Saturday morning after breakfast, we had the opportunity to tour the grounds and learn about permaculture practices the owners had adopted. While there was more than I could absorb in one walk around the lodge, what I did learn was that the owners paid attention to which areas received morning or afternoon sunlight and also the direction of prevailing winds. They grouped plants so that the different plants helped each other by providing shade or beneficial insects or important nutrients. For them to experience success with their practices, the owners had to approach their project with mindfulness.

The process of slowing down enough to pay attention enough to taste the differences in wines, or to notice which way the wind normally blows at one’s home, or to see that someone’s eyes are sad even as they are responding “fine” to you as you ask them how they are, requires practice for most of us, because we are so used to rushing from task to task and place to place. Living our lives at a frantic pace is not following the way of Jesus. Jesus could minister to people because he was deliberately mindful.  Jesus promised a light burden if we follow him. Following “The Way” means mindful living, not panting feverishness.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Understanding and Indifference

Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.”  Genesis 11:7

Our church is doing a summer sermon series on Genesis. This past Sunday, the message was about the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-10). It has been good to revisit a familiar story that I probably haven’t read closely in quite a while.

This account explains why we have different languages. Yet even when we speak the same language, we don’t understand each other. It’s more than dialectical differences that separate us. It’s the differences of culture and family history and economics (to name a few) that keep us from understanding one another. Frankly, I’m not sure that we always want to understand each other, because that puts us in the uncomfortable position of recognizing that we need to change—our beliefs, our habits, our ways of seeing others and the world.

We can choose not to change, but when we make that choice, we grow a calloused layer of indifference around our hearts. This is an evil indifference for it arises out of knowing and not caring. Once you know something, you cannot un-know it.

Understanding is risky business. It is deep and disturbing and that is why we are much happier in our ignorance. When we don’t understand, we can spew our shallow knowledge at each other, using our limited understanding as a weapon to defend our position rather than letting knowledge grow into something that draws us to those who are different from us.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If knowledge is a tree, we too often choose to cut it down for spears to hurl at each other rather than nurture its growth and welcome its gift of shade for us, inviting others to join us in its shade. When I see the way we treat each other, I wonder if any of our ancestors really did eat any fruit of the tree of knowledge. Our unwillingness to understand each other seems evidence to the contrary!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Way to Peace

“This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you . . . Peace I leave with you.”     John 14:17, 27a

Truth and peace go hand in hand. If we have Christ’s peace, we also know the Spirit of Truth. It dwells in us and gives us peace. The world doesn’t know truth because it cannot recognize peace. At least it seems that way in our culture. We are a fearful, anxious, reactive society. We put our faith in impermanent things—money, status, power and possessions—but because they are impermanent, we are perpetually anxious.

We need to recognize that truth is not found in worldly power but in letting go, in generosity, sacrifice, humility and weakness. It is the way Jesus came. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) This is about how to live. The way is a life of downward mobility and humble service, the pattern of living that Jesus modeled for us. We have turned it into an exclusivity that allows us to build ourselves up materially and egotistically. We never get to truth and life if we don’t even follow the way.

It is why we cannot recognize the Spirit of Truth, because what we recognize is ego, power and accumulation of wealth. We don’t understand that to be strong, one becomes weak. To gain one’s life, we must give our life away. To be born in Christ, we have to die to self.

We cannot have the peace of Christ if we are constantly protecting our egos, our possessions, our status and our power. We think peace is found by defeating our enemies, but we find peace by defeating our ego and its overwhelming appetite for control. When I have nothing left to protect or defend, nothing I must possess or control, when I release the burden of self-preservation, I then have the unshakable peace of Christ and a home within for the Spirit of Truth. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why I Love the Lectionary

I thrive on order and structure. My husband knows that to spring something on me on short notice is to create stress for me. Years ago, I heard a speaker describe a “time fence.” A time fence is a boundary around your time. For those who are spontaneous, their time fence is small or nonexistent. Time for them is like the open prairie. You cannot trespass on their time because they freely give whatever you need.

For others, like myself, time is bounded by a large fenced enclosure. I sit in the middle, but I want a large space between my fence and myself. I want to see what has come into my fence from a long distance away. I like time to plan and prepare. I am one who looks at restaurant menus online if I know I am going to an unfamiliar establishment. I want to know my options ahead of arrival.

My preference for structure may be why I like the lectionary. The lectionary is a listing of scripture readings appointed for given days. The Revised Common Lectionary used by many Protestant churches includes readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospel, with some variation depending on the seasons of the Church. Many pastors preach from lectionary texts. The beauty of the lectionary to me is that I can read and pray over the texts prior to attending corporate worship and hearing a message preached on one or more of them. This is a particular advantage if you are traveling and attend an unfamiliar church. If the pastor of the church you are visiting preaches from the lectionary, you can still prepare for worship by praying over the texts ahead of time.

Since my dad died, we’ve been traveling often to his house in Tennessee. We attend worship at his church on Sundays when we are there. It is such a joy to arrive and to hear the texts preached that I have already spent time with in prayer. This preparation makes corporate worship more meaningful for me.

On a larger scale, I know that others all over the world are hearing messages preached on the same set of texts. It connects me to the wider Church in a deeply spiritual way. Across differing denominations and worship styles, the lectionary is a thread that binds us all together. It keeps us from falling into ruts of only hearing “favorite” passages. It challenges us to read scripture more broadly than we might otherwise. It calls us to structure and discipline, to growth and order, by giving us a framework for scripture study. And because the Revised Common Lectionary is on a three-year cycle, it calls us to revisit the same passages time and again, so that the texts meet us in different stages of our lives.

The discipline of praying the lectionary texts has become a transformational spiritual practice for me. The more I do it, the more I appreciate the beauty of the lectionary.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Lighted Path of Righteousness

Light is planted like seed for the righteous person
                                                                                Psalm 97:11a

It is enlightening (bad pun) to think about light as seed. It’s easier to think of seed needing light to grow. Imagine the ground looking like the sky on a dark but clear night, light beaming out all around your feet. It is like a scene from a Disney movie, a path so illuminated that it is nearly impossible to stray from the right path.

Ah, you say, if only the path were so clear! But is it really that hard to see the right path, the path that God has for you? I believe that righteousness, while a gift from God, grows within us as we practice living rightly day in and day out. It’s not about “being good” but about such an overwhelming love for God that you want what God wants. This deep love compels you to faithfully walk in the way of Christ, and as you do, it becomes easier to see and follow the path.

Like exercise, the regular practice of walking in the way of Christ strengthens our faith muscles, and what was once unnatural for us simply becomes who we are. Several years ago my New Year’s resolution was to eat more fruits and vegetables. It was quite hard at first to change my eating patterns. I had to crowd out the other foods to make room for more fruits and vegetables. But consistent practice has changed the foods I crave. It is the same with living righteously. It begins with falling in love with God and grows to be who I am, instead of something I have to consciously do.

That doesn’t mean I never fail. Righteousness does not equate to perfection. Righteousness is a way of living in obedience to Jesus, an obedience that bubbles out of you because the center of who you are is overflowing love for God. We daily learn to follow more closely and we discover that our failures are caught in the net of grace! We can acknowledge our failures, repent of them, but not be defined by them or held hostage by them. They don’t rob us of our joy. They don’t turn our vision from the light on our path.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wonder and Oneness

I pray they will be one . . .
                                 John 17:21a

I’ve been thinking about reverence this week, because I am part of a small group studying An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. As I read the gospel lesson for this past Sunday, from which the above verse is taken, it dawned on me that reverence means the ability to recognize that we are all one, that we are all in Christ—not only people but all created things. Paying attention—being reverent—is to see the thread of Light and Love that binds us all one to another: apple to fish to person to tree to ant to star to water to bird to God.

I wonder how my seeing ever got so bad that I was no longer able to see that thread. My husband tells the story of getting his first pair of glasses as a child and being surprised that the mass of green on the side of the road was comprised of individual blades of grass! It seems that for a time I lost my “glasses” of grace and wonder, glasses I had as a child. When I do put those glasses on, I can see God in everything. When I see with grace and wonder, the thread that connects us all is obvious.

It takes conscious effort on my part to put on the glasses of grace and wonder. Our culture, with its cynicism and frenetic pace of life, is not going to encourage me to view the world through lenses of grace and wonder. While our culture loves to idolize created things—money, possessions and status—it does not encourage us to be reverent, to hold the mystery of what we cannot explain, nor to even attempt to explain that which is greater than us.

Glasses of grace and wonder differ from regular glasses by training my eyes to see reverently all the time. I want to be where I always see the oneness of all creation with its Creator. I want to be able to see all creation as holy so that all of life becomes sacrament (visible image of the invisible God) for me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Lines are part of our lives. We are encouraged as children to stay in lines—whether it is walking in a line to the school cafeteria or coloring a picture or arranging our desks in the classroom. Lines are good. Lines give us order, boundaries, certainty.

As an accounting student, I learned that lines had meaning—a single underline meant a subtotal while a double underline signaled balance and a final total. Numbers were in columns, vertical lines providing order and readability.

In geometry, I learned that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Our culture of productivity seems to thrive on straight line thinking and the efficiency it represents. But life cannot always be lived in a straight line. On a recent flight, I noticed the curves of one particularly curvy river. Back and forth it curved, almost meeting itself, carving out land that looked like light bulbs. Hills and valleys, contours of uneven land create the curves and bends in a river, just as they change the direction and perspective of our lives.

Hills, valleys, curves—all lend a sense of expectancy, surprise, and mystery to our lives. When we can’t see what’s around the bend, over the mountain, or in the valley, we have to move forward without a clear vision of the future, even if that future is only a few moments ahead of us. While that can make us anxious or uncertain, it can also fill us with anticipation and excitement in a way that a straight road on flat land cannot.

I wonder if our Creating God created curves and hills, bends and valleys so we would learn to walk by faith and so we would not always be so darn efficient that we miss the joy of surprise and anticipation and expectancy. If you’ve ever driven a curvy mountain road, you know that you can’t drive it as fast as a flat, straight stretch of interstate highway. Maybe that’s the point. By navigating the curved lines of our lives, we learn to slow down and appreciate the unpredictability of our path. With faith, we can move to and through the unknown curves because we know who has drawn the curved lines of our lives.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Grace of Self-Forgetfulness

And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.               Matthew 22:39                                                      

Likely you are familiar with this verse, for it appears in some form in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is not original with Jesus, though, for it first appears in Leviticus 19:18. As easy as the verse is to remember, it is not easy to practice. We have as hard a time loving our neighbor as we do loving self.

I have been reading Abandonment to Divine Providence
 by Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade S.J., which is a treatise on the sacrament of the present moment and a collection of letters to different people encouraging them to self-abandonment. Over and over again, de Caussade encourages the recipients of his letters to be gentle with themselves. He says that just as they treat others with gentleness and patience, they should extend the same treatment to themselves. 

We may balk at such instruction, but I believe that is because we equate self-love with self-indulgence. On the contrary, while de Caussade encourages gentleness toward self, he also urges the recipients of his letters to not be self-absorbed but instead to be self-forgetful. If we are beating ourselves up over our failures and inadequacies, we are exhibiting self-absorption. Being gentle and patient with ourselves, letting our failures drop like a stone in water, is actually self-forgetfulness. Far from self-indulgence, such patience recognizes that we are going to fail. That acknowledgement and acceptance of our limitations increases our dependence on God, de Caussade observes.

Gentleness with ourselves translates into gentleness with others. And when we accept that others will also fail, we can love them for who they are, failures and all. Such acknowledgment allows us to forgive others as we are also forgiven. In this gentleness and patience with ourselves and others, we can find rest for our souls.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plastic Fruit & Poison Ivy

We’re praying this so that you can live lives that are worthy of the Lord and pleasing to him in every way: by producing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God
                                            Colossians 1:10

Two years ago we had pole beans in our garden. They grew well and had lush green leaves but we only got a handful of beans. We also had some scrawny tomato vines that produced an initial flurry of tomatoes, leading us to think we would have great production all summer, but because they were such weak vines, they quickly perished in the heat.

Neither plant was an asset to the garden. What we want are plants that both grow and produce fruit. That is what God wants from us as well. I can apply myself to knowledge about God, participating in Bible studies and analyzing scripture. If that is the extent of my effort, I am nothing but an educated fool, a big empty sack of information, all head but no heart. I may know scripture, but I use it as a weapon against others, a sword that divides instead of a balm that heals.  In contrast, if I devote myself only to service, I may produce fruit, but it is fruit that comes out of my own strength and ability, and I will likely burn out. The folks that say “I’ve done my share of church work” are a good illustration of fruit without growth.

Fruit production, if it is to be sustained and Kingdom-bringing, has to be augmented with growth, and vice versa. There has to be inward growth in faith and in intimacy with God (knowing God, not just knowing about God). We don’t force the fruit. We focus on being connected to the Vine. If we do that, the fruit production takes care of itself, by God’s action in and through us.

I believe that a significant reason the institutional church does not appeal to folks is that they don’t see us growing and producing fruit. Often, the growth people see is knowledge that defends and excludes. When the focus of our “knowledge” is on condemning instead of understanding, on certainty instead of mystery, on proving ourselves right instead of recognizing our own blindness, then what we proclaim as growth is poison ivy.

In our efforts to keep Christianity “pure,” we produce vapid fruit—perfect and pretty to look at, but devoid of taste—like a Red Delicious apple. Our fruit just looks like one more activity for people to add to their already overstuffed lives. Without passion that is cultivated through a growing relationship with Christ, church gets dropped from one’s to-do list.

I would rather be part of a church filled with characters—misshapen, odd-looking fruit—than a church that looks like a bowl of plastic fruit. I want to be with those who hunger and thirst for more of Christ, who live hopeful and faith-filled lives instead of lives of pessimism and gloom. I want to be part of a church that is a living, breathing, growing plant, where fruit production is the result of being rooted and grounded in Christ.