America’s Beatitudes

Blessed are the powerful, for they will dominate the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of others, for they will be filled with self-righteousness.

Blessed are the theologically merciless, for they will be merciful to themselves.

Blessed are the sure in heart, for they will think they are seeing God.

Blessed are those who wage war, for they will call themselves children of God.

Blessed are the powerful who consider themselves persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of The End That Justify The Means.

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Mr. Rogers Is My Hero

I will confess that while I grew up with Mr. Rogers, I was more of a Sesame Street fan. Maybe I preferred its pace to the more methodical pace of Mr. Rogers. But this isn’t a comparison of the two. It is merely to point out that it took me almost 50 years to recognize the brilliance and prophetic nature of Fred Rogers.

I took my daughter to see the documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I left that experience realizing how hungry I was for kindness, which seems to be in short supply these days. Rogers was a man who lived his convictions beautifully and sacrificially. He respected people and acknowledged their whole selves, which included their thoughts and feelings. He knew their value wasn’t in what they could do or who they had been born to, but simply by being themselves. Fred Rogers embodied the command to love God, and to love neighbor as oneself. And he didn’t ever have to quote scripture to do so.

I have since immersed myself in the theology and philosophy of Fred Rogers. I am finding so much inspiration for my spiritual journey. I see now that it was his simplicity that caused me to miss his depth. I could write about it. Or you could see if for yourselves.

Click here to watch this clip of Mr. Rogers from his television show, introducing Jeff Erlanger to his neighbors. It is long in this day and age of 10 second clips. But I encourage you to watch it in its entirety. And listen to what is shared and explored. Imagine what this meant to Jeff and to the many children (and adults for that matter) who may look different or do things differently, and yet aren’t so different.

Now click here to watch another clip, years and years later, when Mr. Rogers is inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Watch him climb to get to Jeff. Listen to his words of gratitude. See his face of appreciation and care. You can’t fake that level of love and selflessness. Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

While he received many accolades, Fred Rogers was also often the butt of many jokes. Perhaps it was his singsong voice, his methodical approach, or his childlike enthusiasm that invited these jokes. But when we laugh too quickly, as I believe I used to do, we miss the truth he embodied. And let us note, and be thankful for the fact that he never wavered. I suspect it wasn’t easy. There are glimpses of his doubts and fatigue, when you look closely enough. But he forged ahead anyway. And how wonderful to hear that he did so with his real family in addition to his television family. As I said already, Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

I wish I could say thank you to Mr. Rogers, for his message, his courage, his resilience, his convictions. I am glad so many people over the years did just that. Mr. Rogers, you are my hero.

Friday Favorite, 3.23.18

There is an unsettling story in which Jesus tells a potential follower to sell all that he has and give it to the poor first, if in fact he wants to follow Jesus. Some cite this story as what it costs to be a christian. Many christians are quick to say that the story is but one facet, and to make this the litmus test of faith is taking that story out of its context.

Robert Gundry has a different take, and it is his words that I sit with today.

” ‘Jesus did not command all of his followers to sell all their possessions’ gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”

When I use my conviction of faith to diminish or judge another, I have missed the point of that conviction. My convictions should make me uncomfortable, not be used to make you uncomfortable. Your convictions belong to you, and are yours to do with what you choose. When we come to different conclusions in our convictions, one does not diminish the other. They are simply different.

I don’t think giving away all that I have would be the most unsettling question asked of me. What I hold onto the tightest, what would be nearly impossible to give up if asked, that is what I am pondering today.

 

What Is Normal Anyway?

normal |ˈnôrməl|

adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected: it’s quite normal for puppies to bolt their food | normal working hours.

I think the idea of what is normal or what should be normal messes a lot of people up. “Normal” gives the impression of certain guarantees. As one prone to analytical thinking, I recognize predictors of outcome. But I rarely see a solid 100% guarantee on any outcome. When an expected outcome doesn’t occur, it can cause a person to question who is to blame for what went wrong. After all, wasn’t the person entitled to a normal outcome?

If I love a certain way, I will be loved in return.

If I save a certain amount of money, I will retire the way I want.

If I parent a certain way, my kid will become the kind of adult I hoped s/he would be.

If I work hard enough, my efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.

I could go on. Maybe some come to mind for you?

There are several religious systems that support this kind of thinking. In my faith tradition it goes like this: “If I obey God, God will bless me.” Even if that is true, I don’t know that we do much work to wrestle with the ideas of what it means to “obey God”, and what “God blessing us” means. Rather we tend to define it in ways that suitably fit us. If or when they don’t, we go somewhere else.

Normality makes dealing with anything perceived to be abnormal as difficult or worse yet, a failure. The goal tends to be to pull or push or force or squeeze or shove what was happening into some kind of “normal” explanation. For example, when my friend died tragically, I couldn’t reconcile her death. “It shouldn’t have happened!” I cried out to God. Her death had no part in my perception of normalcy. Part of my journey through the grief was having to face the reality that there is no normal. I became increasingly aware that tragedy exists everywhere. I started to see how sheltered I had been from it up to that point. It didn’t make my loss easier, but somehow it made more space for the loss and all my feelings that went with it. Instead of judging whether or not it should have happened, I learned to deal with what had happened.

Believing in a norm can provide comfort. However I find the people who have deeply immersed themselves in normalcy to be fragile. They wall themselves off from anything or anyone that might challenge their norms. Their worlds get smaller as their voices get louder regarding what is acceptable, or what is right, or what should be normal. The thicker their walls, the more demanding of others they become. This is where their fragility becomes most obvious. The demand isn’t, as they surmise, for the betterment of others but rather an ongoing “Hail Mary” attempt to protect themselves. The problem is, superimposing one’s norms onto another can be ignorant, and even quite hurtful at times.

I have seen walls obliterated with one tragic event though some have the luxury of maintaining those walls for a lifetime. And honestly, I guess we all build walls to a certain extent. But for most of us, walls eventually fall down or get torn down. The conclusion I have come to is that “normal” is entirely overrated. Instead of building more walls or repairing old ones, maybe we could pour that energy into what is actually going on in us and around us. Rather than spending time wishing for what we have defined as normal or telling others what should be normal for them, we can spend time navigating what is meaningfully and healthily. That, for me, is the “new normal” or in other words, there ain’t no such thing as normal.

Honesty Isn’t Easy

A close friend recently said to me, “Some people will say something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ You on the other hand are more likely to say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, but we are going to get through it together.'” Initially I was surprised by what she said. As I continued to think about it, I realized this was an insightful observation.

Some people – maybe many people – don’t want to deal with the reality that life is fragile and unfair. Instead we want to believe the age-old adage that if we do the right things, it will all work out in the end. I am not pessimistic or overly cynical. I have simply learned that life doesn’t often work that way. People die prematurely. Bad people sometimes win. Health-conscious people develop cancer. Some are born into great families while others are born into terrible families. Poor decisions can sometimes have no negative consequences and good decisions can sometimes lead to trouble. And on and on and on. You can imagine how popular I must be, especially at parties.

The downside to being honest is that one then has to face the implications of this honesty. And this is why I believe many people prefer the easier-in-the-short-term answer of “It’s going to be okay.” They can keep doing what they have been doing and believe at some point that the outcome will be different. But what if the outcome never changes? What if you wake up tomorrow and things are exactly the same?

Believing everything is going to work out alright is really just a procrastination. Acknowledging everything might not be okay invokes decision-making. Instead of waiting for change, one seeks to change what one is able to change. We see this in nearly every survivor story, nearly every heroic story: letting go of the outcome and do what one can do in the here-and-now is often how we see a person make a difference for the better. But that takes work, painful work often.

I imagine all of us from time to time are too tired to really be honest, especially with ourselves. But if we avoid honesty altogether, we will find ourselves living superficial lives. And the superficiality is the first thing to go when life throws us a curveball. Maybe this is why I have found it helpful to be honest when things are relatively calm in my life. What do I like about my life? What is missing? These questions help me to see how I might reprioritize or what I would like to change. That begins with an honest look at how things are actually going. No bullshit. No excuses. What is working and what isn’t working? In this process, I am exercising the mental, emotional and spiritual muscles needed when tragedy does hit. Tragedy is still incredibly hard and painful. And it is a lot of work. But I have begun the conditioning that will help me through.

I don’t fault those who walk away from honesty. Perhaps if I could believe everything will always be okay, I would choose that too. But I have noticed that those who walk away take their pain with them. I have also noticed that the folks who espouse everything will all be okay rarely get their hands dirty, so-to-speak. They are supportive from the sidelines. I have been left behind by “supportive” people. I want people in my life who will stay beside me no matter how uncomfortable that space is. Hopefully you know what I am talking about: The friend who will sit with you as you ask the unanswerable questions. The partner who will hold you even when you are inconsolable. The family member who doesn’t take it personally when you lash out in your darkest moment. These are the people who will inhabit that difficult space with you. These are the people who provide love and hope when it is most desperately needed. I suppose that is why my mantra is twofold: I don’t know if it’s going to be okay and we will get through it together.

Yeah, I believe my friend was right in her observation. This has been a guiding principle of mine for most of my life, and I couldn’t really name it until she stated it so simply and matter-of-factly. I am so grateful for her honesty, which she has demonstrated time and time again. May we all have at least one person who chooses honesty over ease. Or better yet, may we be surrounded by many who do.

Mind, Matter & Hurricanes

This summer, a good friend of mine took me out for a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. The experience was somewhat challenging and totally exhilarating. In the midst of a very busy time in my life, I was reminded of how time spent outside was so good for my mind, body and soul. What normally takes effort – recalibrating the mind to a sustainable pace; broadening my perspective beyond my problems; connecting with something larger than myself – seems to occur naturally and without mental effort when out in nature. It’s like the physical challenge of navigating a natural environment helps reset my mind to what is healthy and natural and sustainable. Maybe that is because the environments we build tend to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy…

Perhaps a counterintuitive idea to consider in light of recent events. Two major hurricanes devastated parts of the US, putting nature’s power on full display. People lost their homes and all of their belongings. Some are without food and water. Others lost their lives. Maybe what differs between physical challenges and the mental ones is that the physical challenges are straightforward. The line between life and death is clear. But when we delve into our minds, the line between life and death blurs. What aids in our wellbeing can be ignored. What kills us – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – does so slowly, and without notice at first. And by the time we do notice, we might be too numb to change anything. Or too deep in denial. Or too entrenched in what we have always done and perhaps will always do. To help someone devastated by a hurricane is much easier to navigate than to help a person who is overcome with anxiety or depression. Identifying excess in nature is not debated, while we rarely agree on how much is too much when it comes to our own excesses. Physical malnourishment is significantly easier to recognize and address than spiritual malnourishment. The mind cannot cover up signs of under eating. But the mind can be quite good at hiding the signs of a dying soul. As human beings we rise to the occasion in the wake of a natural disaster. And on a daily basis we cause great destruction to ourselves and others through our thoughts, attitudes, and opinions.

I know not everyone responds to nature as I do. And I don’t believe that being outside equals healthiness. But there is something about the natural world, however that might be experienced, that differs from the world we tend to create.  And that might be worth pondering for awhile. Maybe we have taken the expression “mind over matter” too far. In our admiration for the power of one’s mind, have we forgotten the limits and sometimes the destructiveness it also holds? I am beginning to see, deeply see, what it means to find the answer beyond my own self. The mind is a wonderful gift. And the mind has its limits. Finding that space where mind and matter intersect seems to be where I find my whole self.

Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.

Messy Relationships

I am frequently reminded of the fragility of life. I am often reminded of the fragility of relationships too. I came to a crossroads with a friend, someone who didn’t like what I had to say about how it felt being his friend. My words had been carefully chosen because I cared deeply for him and for our friendship. It was because of my care for him and the hurt I had experienced from him that I felt I had to say what I was seeing and feeling, and what was causing me concern. He didn’t want to hear my words.

A few weeks after that incident, I wrote the following about my work as a pastor:

My dream of a church came from my desire to be part of a community that goes deep. It is in the depths that relationships are forged that can last a lifetime and withstand the storms that can come with life. I also believe that it is in this depth God is most profoundly experienced. The heart of The Other Church’s vision is connection. Connection is fun, but in ways it can feel painful too at times, because in the depths we are most vulnerable, most human. Our flaws are laid bare along with our hopes and dreams and disappointments and hurts. I have felt this pain, along with great joy in these last few years as I have done a lot of my own work as a pastor, spouse, mother, chaplain, friend.

I wrote these words because maybe I needed to remind myself. To be deep, it will be messy. And painful. But it will also be healing and hopeful and sustaining. This is the kind of community I have been called to serve. This is the kind of person I am called to be.

Sometimes when we stumble upon a wound, we touch it and feel pain. I realize now that this is what I did to my friend. I didn’t look for a wound. I didn’t know I was touching it. I didn’t intend to cause him pain. But in my passion of connecting deeply, I did just that. We have a choice whether or not we want to tend to our wounds. My friend had a right to walk away, and he did.

I know the pain because I have felt it frequently in my own work of healing. And I will feel it again. I am thankful to have some people in my life who, when they touch my wounds, stay with me as I work towards my healing. All relationships are messy. But not all relationships are healthy. It is worth the work to find those who will take this journey with us. Jesus is quoted several times saying, “Follow me.” But he didn’t walk ahead of people like the leader of a parade. He journeyed with people. He ate with people. He got to know people. And he touched their wounds. He didn’t judge those wounds or shame the wounded. He offered healing. I think this is why I have so profoundly experienced God in this work. It is about connecting honestly, deeply, meaningfully, sometimes painfully, certainly safely and joyfully too.

I hope my friend is doing okay. I still sometimes feel my own tinge of pain when I think of him. But the pain is my reminder that I connected with him.

Good Isn’t Good Enough

If you are ever looking to have the last bit of hope sucked out from you, just read the comments section on nearly any article, post, or picture that has been largely circulated. You will find some dialogue of differing opinions and perspectives. And you will find a lot of mean, angry, name-calling responses. When I make the mistake of reading comments, usually under the guise of thinking “How could anyone have anything to say about this that isn’t nice?” I am quickly reminded that there are plenty of people out there who are always ready to insult, verbally assault, and destroy my faith in humanity. These exchanges don’t fuel an introvert, at least not this introvert. It makes me want to take my family and move far away from all of civilization. M Night Shyamalan’s idea of The Village begins to sound like a good idea, monster and all, because that monster seems manageable.

I wish silence was an option. I know many people are choosing silence these days. And I don’t blame you. Really. I get it. The problem is, staying silent is as much of a problem as bullying. Neutrality is a lie because being neutral just gives more space for the bullies. You cannot watch someone being beaten up and say, “It’s not my place. They need to work it out.” Good people regularly look the other way. But good people don’t change the world. They maintain status quo. We need courageous people who are loving and invested. We need thoughtful people who will step into the tension and attempt to navigate it. Those are the people who help bring healing. Those are the people who bridge the divides.

I suspect part of the problem is that many of us had the luxury of not getting involved in anything too messy, up until now. Many of us got by with being good people. We found little ways to make a difference. We were surrounded by people who got along and were on the same page. But today, being good isn’t enough. If we are going to see and be and experience healing, we need to do more. I wonder how many of us are simply stuck because we don’t know where to go. We have inhabited the Land of Good for so long. We don’t want to go to the Land of the Divided or the Land of Lost Hope. And so we don’t go anywhere.

Maybe you believe “this too shall pass.” You stay put and hope for the best. I have two problems with that. First, who gets hurt while you opt out? Second, what will be the collective cost? Jesus never opted out of the difficult. Jesus never ignored the problem. Jesus never chose superficial bullshit over substance. Jesus never turned away from what needed to be done. Jesus entered right into the fray with conviction and compassion, depth and substance.

We need a lot less people to be followers of Jesus in their comfortable way and people who will follow Jesus right into the thick of this mess. We need people to stand not for a party or ideology, but to stand for and with and alongside those in need. We need people who don’t support causes but support people. Where are the people whose faith costs them something? Where are the people who not only believe God will one day bring peace but are willing to advocate for and live in that peace now? Where are the people who have the audacity to believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand, which doesn’t mean “Hey you folks who’ve got your home, car, 401k, and health coverage: Welcome to the Kingdom of God! Now live it and enjoy it!” “The Kingdom of God is at hand” means that we have the guts to believe that every person has value, that every person deserves respect, that every person should be fed and clothed and cared for. Every person. And so we live it, breathe it, work towards it.

That is our work, yours and mine. And there is much work to be done. I don’t know what it is going to take or how we are going to get there. I imagine lots of mistakes will be made along the way. Many people are needed for this work – people who will roll up their sleeves, take risks, have the difficult conversations, face their own assumptions and fears, listen to and know and maybe even love someone who is different. And why, you ask, would anyone agree to this? Because this is where God is already at work. This is where life and meaning and purpose are found. This is the Kingdom of God.

Oswald Chambers says it beautifully:

The greatest enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but good choices which are not quite good enough.

May we who have been lulled into comfort become dissatisfied.

May we who know God be shaken by the Unknowable.

May we who dismiss those who are different from us see Jesus in those faces.

May we be brought to our knees by our own self-centeredness.

May we truly believe that the kingdom of God is at hand, and then live as if it is true.

 

 

Foot Pins and Ultimatums

Three and a half years ago, I had foot surgery which left me with some hardware in that foot. For the past several months, I have had increased pain in that same foot, specifically in my big toe joint. Today I learned why: the pin in my big toe has come loose and is protruding from my toe joint. I could either live with the periodic pain and exchange all my shoes for large-toe-box varieties. Or I could have the pin removed.  Surgery isn’t to be underplayed. There are always risks. It won’t be inexpensive. I will miss some work. “It’s not going to get better?” I asked the doctor. “No,” she said. “So I am looking at 40+ years (I’m being optimistic of my lifespan) of babying this foot with what shoes I wear and avoiding contact where that pin is protruding?” “Yes,” she responded. I don’t know about you, but the answer seems pretty clear to me. I’m going to do the work, get the pin removed, and get this resolved.

While the decision is easy, it is not without sacrifice. I didn’t budget for the surgery. I’ve got a list of things to do that will take time in the midst of my very busy life. But the ultimatum is crystal clear. If I don’t have this surgery, I may as well give away at least half of my shoes. I will have to watch my activity level. I will continue to experience pain. And I might never be able to enjoy a Frye’s shoe sale again. I am 48 years old. I am too young to live with the side effects of a protruding pin.

This got me thinking about how much of our lives are filled with protruding pins. It happens slowly. We have adjusted due to the discomfort. We even settle for something less. If we took the time to identify that protruding pin and determine what it would take to have it removed, we would be freed from the handicap the pin created. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone in our lives to help diagnose our pins? Wouldn’t it be helpful if we increased our self-awareness? Doesn’t it make sense to listen to those we love and trust in order to better see ourselves? Wouldn’t it be wise to pay attention to the patterns in our lives regarding our work, quality of relationships, and the way we manage our ups and downs? Why don’t we take several steps back to look at the whole of our lives to see what is working and more importantly, what isn’t working?

Instead we change our shoes. We walk differently. We medicate to lessen the symptoms. We ice to numb the pain. In essence we fuss all around the protruding pin without ever dealing with the pin itself. We baby the pin while we live a life that is less than what it could be. If only it was as simple as scheduling an appointment and having someone identify the problem and then discuss what options we have. Or maybe it is, and we are not interested in learning what really ails us. Perhaps what we want to do is nothing at all.