Chatter

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”
Frederick Buechner’s words resonate deeply. The chatter is exhausting. Maddening. Deadening. We are a culture of chatter; chatter that chirps day and night, chatter that chips away at humanity – yours and mine. 
I do not even realize the toll it takes until I am so tense every muscle aches, or so utterly depleted that I want to sleep for days.
“Unclench the fists of your spirit,” Buechner says.
I do not think this means to abandon one’s convictions. On the contrary, this is what might enable one to live out deep convictions without losing one’s mind. Or all of one’s friends. What a novel idea.
Once in a great while, I meet a person who embodies what Buechner names. I know it almost immediately – faith, integrity, grit, a calmness that resembles the eye of a storm, and love. He or she embodies convictions without shaming another. He or she inspires change, not demands it. He or she has a full life with relationships that have been tended to and meaningfulness that goes beyond work.
The chatter pulls us further away from what so many of us seek: peace, salvation, purpose. We long for an affirmation that we are on the right path but spend most of our time criticizing the “wrong” path. We fear wasting our lives, yet we waste so much time. We want to be part of something greater than ourselves. But we put much of our energy into breaking things apart.
I think it is scary to ease the chatter. What will the silence bring? What do I not want to hear? What if I hear nothing at all? And so we chirp away. We speak even when we have doubts. We speak regardless of who is listening. We speak until we cannot stand the sound of our voices anymore. And we speak some more. Until eventually our souls wither or something shatters, forcing us into silence. Then, if we have an ounce of consciousness left, maybe we just might hear the collective sigh of heaven.

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.

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.

I Choose

I choose love over hate.

I choose faith over fear.

I choose hope over despair.

I choose good over evil.

I choose joy over cynicism.

I choose to laugh and cry.

I choose to believe.

I choose to be inspired.

I choose to seek ways can make a difference.

I choose to stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves.

I choose prayer over gossip.

I choose reconciliation over division.

I choose gratitude over self-centeredness.

I choose peace.

I choose kindness.

I choose life.

May God help me to live my choices which often contradict my very nature.

Amen.

The Paradox of Unity and Justice

Last week, I posted “Trump or Love” believing that you cannot choose both.  I made the case that Trump’s rhetoric counters love. Jesus was for the poor, the marginalized, the weak and the oppressed. None of those descriptors fit Trump or the majority of his supporters. And it is often the marginalized, the weak, the outsider who is painted by Trump to be the enemy.

Last night, I was challenged to seek unity by avoiding what is divisive. It was a challenge for me because I have felt strongly of the need to speak out against Trump. Each divisive statement he has made that preys on the fears of Republicans at the expense of minority groups has increased my resolve to be clear about how dangerous Trump is. I know my opinions have made people uncomfortable as evidenced by the conversations and cold shoulders I have experienced as a result. Am I working against unity by speaking out for justice? This is the question that weighs heavily upon me now.

I am highly unhappy with politics in general. I think politics has gone the way of religion and education in our country – we are more concerned about protecting the systems we have than educating, inspiring, and empowering those we lead. The systems are antiquated and failing. I have friends and family who are wonderful teachers and pastors, but they operate in these systems that more often hold them back than help them move forward. I was a Bernie Sanders supporter because he was the only candidate asking inspiring and relevant questions. His movement reengaged me and many others across the political spectrum. Even though there was great disagreement on the answers Bernie gave, we engaged the questions as we considered what might be possible and practical for our future.

But here we are, many of us unhappy with the options for November’s presidential election. Is seeking unity in our unhappiness the best choice we’ve got? Or is there another point in which we can connect? How do we unify and seek justice? What if our definitions of justice differ? I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. What we need are people with different perspectives who are willing to respectfully engage the conversation in order to seek the solutions. I have increasingly little patience for one-sided thinking which appears to be more egocentric than helpful.

Maybe unity isn’t about getting along in spite of our differences, but engaging our differences with respect. What surprised me about my post on Trump wasn’t the level of engagement about Trump but a retaliation against Hillary. I don’t blame you. You felt hit by my post so you swung back. It is so hard to stay engaged when we passionately disagree.

I am also thinking about how unity for unity’s sake can be dangerous. Germany was unified as it exterminated millions of Jews. I want to seek ways to unify through respectful dialogue. And where unity impedes justice, I want to speak out. How do I value and practice both?

So many thoughts swirling in my head today…

Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,

Jen

What Just Happened?

Every once in awhile, something happens that leaves me utterly speechless. It is as if someone has stolen my words before they were formed, leaving me with what feels like a vacuum in my mouth. I can open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Maybe it is the introvert in me, but at times like this, words can feel profane. As if somehow filling that vacuum with forced sentiment might actually accomplish something. But perhaps that is because I have no words. Instead I sit in the silence, which feels somehow like a scream. Silently screaming, or screamingly silent for what has occurred that is both unimaginable and utterly heartbreaking.

If you have the luxury of comfort tonight, pray for those who need to feel peace in the midst of chaos. Pray for those who need to feel love and comfort in the midst of heartache. Don’t be a self-centered, self-seeking jerk. Not tonight. Instead think of those who are desperate for something, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. And for God’s sake, if you can help, offer. Don’t ask yourself if they deserve your help. Just do it. Life is too short, my friends.

A Warmongering Faith

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

This is the latest beatitude I have been studying for a series at my church. Peacemaking is the idea of standing in the gap between two sides, recognizing that the separation between the two sets of people isn’t good for any of the people. The peacemaker believes that by standing in the middle, one might have the ability to help build reconciliation.

The cornerstone of peacemaking is grounded in the belief that all people have value. Not to say that all opinions have equal or even any value. But the hope nonetheless is that despite the divided opinion, a connection can still be made through the humanity we all share. However, taking sides is much easier. And when you choose to not take a side, you often piss off both sides. In spite of the challenges and even the alienation, the peacemaker remains committed to reconciliation.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are children of God.

The benefit for those who dedicate themselves to peacemaking is being given a place of belonging. Children of God – is there a better family in which to call your own? Yet in the name of belonging, Christians put the cart before the horse by claiming the belonging without ever doing the work of peacemaking. The latest example is Starbucks’ holiday cup. Some Christians have waged war against the company for removing the sacred symbols of snowflakes. But look back and you will find plenty of other examples where Christians have waged war. Whether a concept, an organization, a corporation, legislation, presidential candidates, political convictions, money, physical appearance – I mean seriously, the list goes on and on. Christians are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

While I am all for living out one’s convictions, where did the notion of waging war become acceptable? What makes us Christians in this country think we are persecuted? You cannot claim persecution while being part of the majority. When did we as Christians lust for conflict? I believe this occurs when a religion and a political infrastructure become deeply intertwined, or in other words a theocracy is revered and pursued. Theocracy is the idea that a system of government is able to rule on behalf of God. Who do you know that could do that? Who would you trust to speak for God while having incredible resources at his or her disposal?

I’m pretty sure God is not American, nor has any interest in joining our team. And evidenced by our lack of peacemaking, I believe we as American Christians are way off track. We cannot claim to be God’s if we are not doing the work of peacemaking. We do not belong to God if we are not working towards reconciliation. That involves the reconciliation of all people. All people. Gay and straight, black and white, Christmas-loving and Christmas-hating, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Muslim and atheist, and all the in-betweens.

As I have reflected on the consequences, a new study came to my attention. It found that children of both Christian and Muslim households are less kind and more punitive than children of non-religious households. Can we just sit with that for a minute? I won’t speak for the Muslim households, but I do feel compelled to comment as a Christian. While we wage war on all that offends us, we are raising offensive children. While we build a legacy that is largely based on what we don’t like, we leave little or no room for what we love. We are Christian warmongers, God help us.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

An Easter Without a Resurrection

Easter was strange this year. The day arrived. Eggs had been decorated and baskets were filled. The sun was shining and dinner preparations had been made. Although resurrection is central to my theology, I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I saw the Facebook posts wishing folks a happy Easter and proclaiming the risen Christ. I thought I should acknowledge the day and so I stared at my screen trying to write a greeting of my own. After a few attempts, I gave up because nothing sounded right. I wished a few people happy Easter but mostly in response to having been wished one. Actually I think I said “hoppy Easter” more often because I could hardly get the word “happy” out. By mid-afternoon I concluded that I was just too tired. I spent my Easter feeling pretty empty and lethargic.

And then came Monday. I realized that it wasn’t life that had worn me out and ruined my Easter. It was Christians. It was Indiana and pizza shop owners and $840,000 and a whole lot of enthusiasm from Christians celebrating discrimination. But the discrimination didn’t stop there because there were also Christians who discriminated against the discriminating Christians. Everywhere I looked there were angry, pointing fingers, with most of them belonging to Christians. No wonder I didn’t feel much like proclaiming a resurrected Jesus because there didn’t seem to be much evidence of one.

And so I did what I always do when I feel like this. I unplug from the world as much as I can. I spend time in the sun if it’s out. I put my hands in the soil. I prepare and eat fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. I spend time with those I love. I surround myself with life. I remind myself of what is true and real. Somehow the tactile experiences of nature, life, and love bring me back to a place of feeling centered and whole. I am reminded of what is real. And what is not. The empty rhetoric, though not gone, loosens its grip on me. I read poetry and stories that breathe life into me. I sing songs of praise and lament as a way to carry both the good and the bad. I reconnect with a faith that isn’t fueled by anger, entitlement, or selfishness. And I start to find myself again. I start to find my faith again. This year Easter came on a Monday.

Jesus was asked many questions. Whereas he often answered with confusing stories or a question in return, one question he answered with absolute clarity: What is the greatest commandment? To love God with all that you’ve got, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31). This is important, critical, imperative – love God, love neighbor, love self. Fully. Wholly. Completely. This is not easy even with significant effort. If we are to make any progress on what Jesus calls the greatest commandment, we have got to think, breathe, live, and act in love. Sometimes love requires a tough call. However love never belittles, demeans, or diminishes.

The resurrection is meant to proclaim God’s love to and for all. Lately I have been hearing a lot more proclamations about self-preservation and entitlement than of God’s love. Maybe we have gotten so busy with our proclamations about God that we’ve forgotten to experience God. Maybe we have gotten so busy speaking for God, we have forgotten to listen to God. Maybe Easter was a reminder of how much we still need a resurrected Christ.