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.

 

Holy Week from Hell

For Christians, this week is a big one. We began with Palm Sunday, a story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in royal fashion. But things go downhill pretty quickly. Friends fall asleep in spite of his pleas for them to stay awake and pray. Friends betray him and deny him multiple times. He’s tried, convicted, tortured, humiliated, and killed. That’s one hell of a week.

I know there are many layers to the week’s events, and we hold the hope that in spite of all the shit Jesus goes through, God has a plan and purpose. Perhaps the use of holy is to remind us of that. But I wonder what my non-Christian friends think of a week that’s identified as holy yet filled with all of these terrible events. No wonder they are not signing up. The use of holy does seem a little off, as if it’s in denial of the full reality of the week. Jesus anguishes. He prays about wanting to give up.

I know Jesus didn’t give up or walk away. I know what comes on Sunday. But do we miss something if we jump ahead too early to the resurrection? Do we miss the depth of betrayal felt? The fear? The disappointment? The overwhelming despair that must have been always whispering in Jesus’ ear? I wonder if our impulse to skip the tough stuff or to deem it holy then causes us to ignore, wish away, or deny our own tough stuff. Do we assume we should call all things holy, even when they are in fact quite awful? And what about people whose lives never seem to reach Easter? Do we give the subtle (or not-so-subtle) message that those folks somehow missed God or didn’t get “it” right – whatever “it” is?

This week is about being well outside of our comfort zones and pondering tough questions as we navigate the dark. If not one of mine, consider a question that haunts you. We might convince ourselves, on the surface at least, that we are already living in an Easter reality. Based on human behavior, I suspect that is more often the exception than the norm. We have been hurt and rejected, suffered pain and loss, and our behavior often reflects our past wounds. A sanitized faith isn’t going to help us learn to live it better. And it’s certainly not going to get us to a true Easter any faster.

I find many people, not just Christians, want to put a positive spin on something before the dust even settles. By doing so, we might avoid some of the overt pain, but we also avoid maturing emotionally and spiritually. My challenge this week is for us to resist the impulse. Live in the dark with Jesus for the rest of this week. Let’s fully engage the Holy Week from Hell. Let’s assume we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and see what happens. Let’s navigate our fears and disappointments and failures as Jesus navigates his. We’ll have to be more attentive, more honest, and more vulnerable. We’ll need people who can walk this journey with us. We might discover a faith that is able to travel with us wherever life might take us, even to hell and back.

 

“Who Do You Say I Am?”

“Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying ‘I am here’, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

I grew up with a whole lotta Jesus. Jesus saved me. Jesus heard and interpreted my prayers to the Big Guy in the sky. Jesus related to what I was going through. Jesus would eventually be the one to usher me into heaven. Jesus had the starring role of my religious life. Jesus was that fair-skinned-white-robed portrait, looking kind and clean like a tour guide who wouldn’t roll his eyes when I strayed away from the rest of the group.

As a child, I remember several occasions where I was up in my room and very upset. My dad would come to me and listen for a bit while I ranted and cried. In the height of my emotional upheaval, he would say, “Let’s pray.” I know my dad wanted to be helpful, but it wasn’t. I would sit next to him anyway while he prayed that God would help and that blah blah blah, in Jesus’ name, Amen. This continued until the day arrived when a combination of courage and rebellion came over me. In the midst of my rant when dad asked me to sit down to pray, I yelled back, “I don’t want to pray! I want to be angry!” It felt so good to say, so liberating. I think that was the beginning of the end of my interest in tour-guide Jesus.

I don’t mean to pick on my dad. He has several wonderful qualities. But I don’t think it’s coincidental that in my mind Jesus was like my dad. We do it all the time with anything relating to God. We base our image on something we already know.  Have you ever heard someone first, make a mental picture based on the voice, only to be shocked by how the person actually looked? We hear something about Jesus and in time have Jesus firmly pictured in our minds which may or may not be based on much more than an impression someone else had given us. When my life became increasingly complicated, I didn’t need the Jesus I thought I knew. I benched Jesus and forged ahead.

In my 20’s, I began to study Jesus from a Jewish perspective. I learned more about the context of the bible, the gospels in particular. And I found a whole new Jesus. This Jesus was gracious, loving, forgiving, AND confrontational, offensive. He was aloof, witty, sarcastic, and often asked more questions than gave answers. He got under one’s skin, that “shard of glass” as Christian Wiman writes. This was a Jesus I could relate to, learn from, and be helped by. This was a Jesus worth following.

Throughout the gospels and even beyond, the question is continually raised about who Jesus is. Is he the son of God, meaning that he is also divine? Is he the Messiah, rescuer of the Jewish people? Is he the Christ, bringing restored life for all? Is he a good teacher worth our time and attention? Jesus claimed all of the above. But there are occasions where he instructed people NOT to tell others who he is. When given the opportunity to properly introduce himself to a big audience, he chose instead to stay silent. While Jesus seemed to be clear about his identity, he didn’t spend a whole lot of time explaining it to everyone else. This, I believe, is crucial. Jesus is more concerned about what you think about him, than he is about telling you what you should think.

If we believe that Jesus was sent by God, we are given a window into the Great Unknown of God. Early in Luke’s account, Jesus goes to the synagogue, opens the scrolls of what we know as the Old Testament, and reads from Isaiah:

The Lord has put his Spirit in me, because he anointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to tell the captives they are free and to tell the blind that they can see again. God sent me to free those who have been treated unfairly and to announce the time when the Lord will show his kindness. (Luke 4:18-19)

After reading, Jesus sits down. The place is utterly silent and all eyes are on him. He says, “I’m that guy.” These are ancient words that the Jews had been faithfully reading for years while anticipating its fulfillment, and he quietly announces that it is done. What??? So maybe he is crazy. But when you look at the life of Jesus through the lens of this passage, his words and actions take an interesting turn. He’s not being ambiguous or aloof, but rather working to bring good news, to set people free, to help them see what they have been unable to see. And that requires his being present with each person he meets, confronting them with where they are. “Who do you say I am?” The gospels are full of these stories.

There’s no formula for experiencing God in spite of what religious people keep saying. It’s work. Others can’t answer the question for you. If they try to, ignore them.  We often start with a big question: Why am I here? What do I want? How do I find contentment? What fear is holding me back? What if I die? The questions are great. But Jesus compels us to take an additional step. Who do we think he is? Jesus then becomes not the parameters of the exploration as some Christians might suggest, but the rudder of your exploration as you move ahead. The rudder helps you stay your course, reminds you that you are loved, exposes your self-centeredness, draws you to something beautiful and complicated and totally worthwhile.

This is the Jesus I am getting to know, reminding me that I am loved by God and challenging me to be increasingly awake to the reality of God. It is work, frustratingly so. But as I continue to wrestle with who he is, I find my life becoming increasingly focused and meaningful. I am getting to know peace and contentment. Love is more compelling. Some people want easy answers, but easy answers rarely bring lasting change. “Who do you say I am?”