Of Silence and Honking Geese

It starts around this time every year here in our little respite on Lake Berkeley.  I am awakened to the cacophonous sound of the Canada Geese honking just outside of my window.  A whole gaggle of them.  And their numbers seem to grow exponentially every day.  I know in the midst of their early morning tidings that their raucous honking is evidence that Spring is on its way. I also know that it is hard to keep sleeping with all that noise just outside of my window.  And the honking doesn’t stop at sunrise, it periodically returns throughout the day as the geese come and go.  I think sometimes that they leave only to gather reinforcements so they can honk more loudly!

Have you ever had that feeling that there is so much going on around you that you can ‘t even hear yourself think? Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that the church sets aside for for silence, for reflection, for penitence, for confession, for repentance.

It is an interesting time of year to demand silence.  Everything else around us is bursting forth with noisy signs of life.  It is not just the geese, but the songbirds and the squirrels, too.  Even the wind and weather want to get in on the fun with their gusts and storms.

And in the midst of all that energy, we take a day to sit in stillness. We take a day to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In the gift of our own silence, we take a day to hear the geese, and the birds, and the squirrels.  To hear the storms and the wind.  To hear the streams and the rivers and the oceans.  We take a day to remember that we are formed from the same stuff as all these things.

In the second chapter of Genesis, we hear of God forming humans from humus; dirt people from the dirt.  Ash Wednesday is the time we remember our calling to humility, to recognize that we humans are one part of an entire creation that God called very good.

Ash Wednesday is a time where humans are reminded that we need to take the time to be silent.  And in that silence, we need to listen.  And in our silence, it is possible that the first sound we hear is God’s voice saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”  God first tells us, “Take comfort in the sure knowledge that being God is my job, not yours. Your first job is to receive my love and my grace.”  Winston Churchill was not the first with the sentiment of “Keep Calm and Carry On”!  We can go boldly into the world knowing that God is God and we are not.

I have been re-reading Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I think we could all learn quite a bit from following Covey’s lead.  One of the habits that we Americans seem to have forgotten how to do is Seek first to understand…then to be understood.  It is interesting that if you put that into a Christian context where we are told to “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” it would lead one to believe that maybe the kingdom of God has more than a little to do with understanding others!

Our public discourse has become something akin to the honking of the geese under my window, a bunch of one way shouting matches.  There are a lot people yelling all at once, “Let me tell you what I think!” All this honking is not steeped in humility but rather seems hell-bent on humiliation.

This year for Lent, I’ve decided to listen.  I’m going to try really hard to listen without thinking about my own response.  I’m going to ask questions.  I’m going to continue to share my ideas, my hopes, my concerns and my fears here on my blog, but I need for you to talk back.  I need to know what your hopes are.  I need to know what concerns you.  I need to know what your fears are. And I promise to listen and to seek to understand. And when I don’t understand.  I will simply say, “I don’t understand. Please help me understand.”

Growing up, my dad tried time and again to help my sister with her math homework.  On more than one occasion, the session would end with my dad throwing the pencil across the room in exasperation. To his credit, my sister did once tell her math teacher that she “did not do word problems.” It was an uphill climb, both ways, from the start!

As a homeschooling mom, I’ve worked diligently to educate two very different children. Math was not a problem for the first.  He seemed to naturally understand the most complex problems.  But the second, well, we’ve worked our way through tears during her lessons on more than one occasion.  What I have found with my daughter is that I have to get creative.  I have to think more deeply before I speak.  I have to find multiple ways of engaging the subject. I have learned that the tears mean, “I don’t understand.  Help me to understand.” And in that way, tears can be a good thing.  I’m pretty sure that if I simply called her a whiner and ignored her, she would never understand math.  And the same goes for us.  Until we stop calling each other names like “whiner” and “hater” and truly listen to one another, seeking to understand one another, healthy change will be a monumental struggle.

Listening is an act of faith.  It is a way of saying that even though I don’t understand you, I trust God to heal the brokenness between us.  I have faith.  Help me to trust. I believe.  Help my unbelief. I don’t understand. Help me to understand.

I will leave you today with the Lutheran Book of Worship’s petitions for the Ash Wednesday confession. I will be praying these words every day during Lent as a reminder of my call to humbly listen and to understand all the complex needs of every single, intricate part of creation.  Will you join me?

Most holy and merciful God,

We confess to you and to one another, and before the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned by our fault , by our own fault, by our most grievous fault, in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven.

We have shut our ears to your call to serve as Christ served us.  We have not been true to the mind of Christ.  We have grieved your Holy Spirit.

Our past unfaithfulness, the pride, envy, hypocrisy, and apathy that have infected our lives, we confess to you.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people, we confess to you.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to share the faith that is in us, we confess to you.

Our neglect of human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty, we confess to you.

Our false judgments, our uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us, we confess to you.

Our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us, we confess to you. 

Restore us, O God, and let your anger depart from us.

Hear us, O God, for your mercy is great.

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Christian Liberty and Religious Freedom

A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.
                                                                                              Martin Luther

Christian liberty is not about making others subject to us.  It is not about making others behave the way we want them to behave.  It is, especially, not about promulgating hatred for any person God has made.

In the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God looked at ALL that God had created and said “it is good,” and at humanity, in particular, saying, “It is very good.”  This means that God did not create the adherents to any specific code or creed and call only those folks “good.”

God created humans in God’s own image.  This means that EVERY person is created in the image of God.  When we look at each other, we see God looking back at us through the other person’s eyes, through their very soul. When we understand this, it makes it much more difficult to look at someone whose skin is a different shade, or who worships differently, or who loves differently, or who disagrees with us politically without seeing God in them.

It feels that the push for Religious Freedom in our country wants to take the first part of Luther’s statement and run roughshod through the countryside, the typical American rugged individualist.  “You’re not the boss of me!” we cry.  “I can treat you this way because of my moral superiority.”

But it is the second part of the statement that we are conveniently ignoring. It is the second part that defines the “freedom” of the first part. Christian liberty calls us to be servants to one another, recognizing with humility that we are ALL humans and equal in God’s eyes, in God’s heart.  Luther says that we are free to be the most dutiful servant of all, subject to every one.  The freedom of a Christian necessarily causes us to serve others with love and compassion.  Especially those others who are different from us.  Hatred and contempt are not the ways we spread the good news of Christ.

In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball writes, “At the heart of all authentic, healthy, life-sustaining religions, one always finds this clear requirement:” love of God and love of neighbor.  He continues, “Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed.”

I have observed the political events of the last few weeks: refusal of refugees in the name of “security;” killing of civilians, including children, in Yemen being dismissed as acceptable collateral damage; deportation of a mother in Arizona whose crime was, at its most fundamental level, attempting to work to support her family; and, the attempts at legitimizing hatred and discrimination surging forward in legislatures across the country in the guise of Religious Freedom.  I have observed the leader of my country use social media and public policy to bully judges, lawyers, leaders of other countries, reporters, businesses and business leaders.

We as citizens of this country have to admit our complicity in causing suffering and violence and destruction.  And for those of us who profess to be Christians, I have to believe that this is a strong indication that we are desperately in need of Reformation.

We need to recognize that violence does not birth liberty, violence engenders fear and animosity and hatred. Martin Luther knew the secret. Servanthood through love, compassion, understanding and shared grace ultimately bring about liberty.  It is a secret shared by others: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jesus.

Freedom of a Christian has nothing to do with legalistic, dogmatic morality. It is not about using the political and legal system to force that morality on anyone.

Jesus asked his disciples a pivotal question, “Who do you say I am?” The answer to this question is just as important for modern Christians as it was for those first disciples.

In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells us to look in the prisons, at the hungry and the thirsty, at those who have no clothing. We should look for Jesus in those with the least, those with nothing, those without value to society, those on the margins, those labeled worthless or disposable by society, those who are the target of hatred, those most in need of care and compassion.  And when we find those folks, and we serve them, we have seen and served Jesus.

John’s gospel has a lot to say on this topic too.  Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke have their parables, John tells of Jesus’s teachings in terms of “I am” statements.  In today’s political climate, it is hard to ignore one particular “I am” statement from Jesus. In John 14, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If you want to see the way to live, look at Jesus. If you want to see what truth is, look to Jesus. If you want to see what life looks like, look at Jesus. How did Jesus treat the poor, the moral outcast, those considered unclean by the religious leaders of his day? And then realize that this is the truth that indeed makes us freed. The truth of service in love.

In his essay “Faustian Economics,” Wendell Berry writes that the word “freedom” is etymologically related to the word “friend.”  He notes that the Germanic and Sanskrit roots “carry the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved,’” and “we set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. This suggests that our identity is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.” Freedom comes from treating others like dear and beloved friends, making connections, acting selflessly.

The hard truth is that we feel threatened by people who are different from us.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had it right when the villagers attacking the Beast sang, “We don’t like what we can’t understand, it kind of scares us!” Different can be scary. And it is so much easier just to try to make a law to make that scary different thing or person just disappear.  Christian Liberty says “no” to this.  Christian Liberty says reach out, understand, care for, include, respect, love.

So if some feel a need to force others, by the laws of this country or state or city, to adhere to some form of life-crushing dogma, they may attempt to do so.  And they can call this “Religious Freedom.”  But understand that this is not Christian Liberty. And I would chose Christian Liberty over Religious Freedom any day.

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Wrestling with Complexity and Imagination

I am not a Republican or a Democrat. I am not a Conservative or a Liberal. And as I have grown in my faith over the last 40 plus years, I have come to realize that I really don’t need to label myself as a Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran or Episcopal, though I have been a part of the congregational life of each of those denominations at one time or another.  I am simply a child of God, trying my best to follow the way that Jesus showed us, the way to abundant life, to wholeness, to healing.

Labels can simplify things and simplicity seems like it would be nice because the world appears to be confoundingly complex. But labels often become distractions, dangerous distractions.  When we label someone, we objectify them.  We begin to think of them as only the label.  It opens the door to violence in body or spirit because it is so much easier to harm someone if you have taken away their humanity first.  I wonder if, in the objectification of others, we drag ourselves into the cycle and our limited thoughts begin to suffocate us, to deny our creativity and growth by limiting us to the enclosure of the labels we have chosen.

What I am seeking to do with my blog right now is to get us to see past the labels and to realize that real change can only happen through widening our perspectives, through deeper understanding of self and other.  I think that being able to see things differently is a gift. I think it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote that the gospel was “God’s gift to the imagination.”

Even within the Biblical narrative we hear different perspectives because it is telling the story of God’s relationship with humanity in a myriad of contexts and from diverse perspectives. Why have four gospels, right? Wouldn’t one be enough to get the point across? But each gospel writer gives us something different to think about, something different to value in the experience. They saw things differently. I don’t see that as a flaw in the scriptures or as insecurity of faith or as moral ambiguity. I see it as a starting place for dialogue. Maybe the answers we are seeking are informed by the scriptures but can only be formed through harmonizing all of our voices with those of our spiritual traditions and scriptures. I can benefit from hearing the life experiences of others and when I do, I might look at what the Bible says and see something I didn’t see before. And that can be really good!

I pray that we can begin to ask the right questions and that we, as a country, can learn to have respectful conversations. That’s what I want my blog to be. I don’t want a monologue. I don’t want to make proclamations. There’s plenty of that online already. I really want to understand the issues, to understand how others feel about those issues and, maybe more importantly, why. If social media is going to be something that brings us together, it can’t just be a place to tweet barbs at one another. It is impossible to understand something complex in 240 characters or less. So use the comments section here to share your story, share what is in your heart.  Be respectful. Be honest. Be thoughtful. Be vulnerable.  I know I plan to be.  And I want you to hold me to that!

I think the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel until he got a blessing is a good metaphor for what we need. It is going to take a lot of hard work, some pulled muscles, some grunting and some groaning. But I think if we stick with the arduous task of looking for solutions together and we keep pushing forward with our imaginations, we will find that, in the end, we are all blessed. As Saint Julian of Norwich reminds us “All shall be well. All shall be well.  And all manner of things shall be well.”

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Here I Stand; I Can Do No Other

I have a confession to make. I let Donald Trump silence me.  I had started my blog back up during Lent last year.  It began much as it had in years past.  And I was writing about faith and life.  Mostly, I was writing about Grace. And then Donald Trump made his comments about Mexicans and about building a wall.  And about women.  And about Muslim people and the need to ban them from the country. And people were responding to him and his candidacy in a way that made me want to scream.

It felt like grace was slipping away from our grasp and the anger and blame and hatred that were replacing the grace were simply unfathomable to me. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…simply not important anymore.

And so this loud noise, like a scream, started in my mind and it drowned out any coherent thoughts.  I think my whole system went into a form of shock.  And I couldn’t write.  I was in a mental and spiritual panic about Donald Trump’s candidacy and what his popularity meant about who we are as Americans.  And, for those supporting him within the church, who we are as Christians.  I was in a panic about what this meant that even people in my own life whom I love with all my heart would be willing to vote for a man who, to me, stood for everything that is abhorrent, the ugliest parts of who we are as humans and as Americans.

And so here we are.  I lost my voice and Donald Trump is now our president.  And that whirling vortex in my brain has coalesced into a laser sharp point of clarity and words just seem to be tumbling out faster than I can capture them.

In the confession that we recite in worship each Sunday, we confess to the sins of both commission and omission, to the things we have both done and left undone.  I confess today that I left a lot undone.  I left a lot unsaid.

As I have searched for my voice this last year, I have continued to read and study.  I keep coming back to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of my heroes.  Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Nazi Germany.  He was eventually jailed and executed by the Nazi regime.  In his sermon from July 8, 1934, he says, “Perhaps you are startled by this text and think it is just too relevant today and thus dangerous for a worship service.”  This sermon was preached after the bloody events of the so-called Röhm-Putsch, or the “Night of the Long Knives,” where the Nazi regime ordered the murder of several government officials in order to consolidate Hitler’s absolute power. The gospel, preached in the face of oppression, is most certainly relevant and dangerous!

Bonhoeffer’s sermon goes on to say, “We really want to get rid of the world of newspapers and sensational news” when we walk into the church.

The more things change the more they stay the same.  People in 1930s German were wanting to retreat into the church, hoping to spend a couple of hours away from their everyday reality, to experience solace. They didn’t know quite what to make of the newspapers.  I wonder what they would say about the myriad voices of truths, half-truths, and lies that constantly compete for our attention?!?

In his sermon, Bonhoeffer denies them this retreat.  He says that closing our eyes to the suffering right in front of us is not the Christian way.  He also says that finding someone else to blame or fault is not the Christian way, either.  The long and short of it is that the Christian way is to say, “these events took place in my world, the world I live in, the world in which I commit sin, in which I sow hatred and unkindness day by day.  These events are the fruit of what I and my family have sown…Therefore let us repent and recognize our guilt and not judge.”  He says that recognizing and acting on this way of renewal and repentance is quiet, slow, and even strange.  It is not natural. But, it is the only way to “overcome the world of the newspaper, the world of terrors, and the world of judging.”

I am making my confession to you all here today. There are things I have done and things I have left undone. I have worried and I have dithered. I have lost sleep.  I have paced the floor. I have yelled and I have wept.

Singer/songwriter Jewel Kilcher captures the words in my heart when she sings, “Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom.  No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.  Fill your lives with love and bravery and you shall live the life uncommon.”  I have, for nearly a year, given my strength over to “that which I wish to be free from.”  No more. On these pages, I will continue to wander in wonder.  I will also share with you on the days I am stumbling around in utter confusion or despair.  It helps me feel less alone. Maybe it will help you as you wander or stumble or stride along on your journey, too.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived his life with love and bravery. I pray that my life and my words may stand as a witness to the gospel of love and of peace that is such a mystery in this world.  I will lend my strength to the cause of justice, to the fight against oppression. I will not let terror, fear, anger, hatred or indifference have the last word.  I will use my voice to speak and to help give voice to others who have been silenced.  I will not stand in judgement. But by and in God’s grace, I will stand. In the words of Martin Luther, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

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Grace Groove

Grace is the word that we’ve heard. It’s got groove.  It’s got meaning. Grace is the time and the place and the motion. Grace is the way we are feeling.  Doot, Doot, Doo, Doo, Doot…Is the word, is the word, is the word…

Once I got going with that thought, I couldn’t really stop.  It’s catchy isn’t it. But seriously, grace really does have a certain groove to it.  I think we realize this when we talk about someone being “graceful,” as if grace and movement somehow float along together.

I was blessed several years ago to be given the opportunity to learn something new, something people my age rarely undertake without previous experience.  Ballet.  Yes, ballet.  As a youth, I attempted cheerleading which did require a modicum of coordination.  I remember failing at that endeavor quite miserably.  My elementary school also offered a session of after-school lessons in baton twirling. I twirled my heart out practicing at home, but alas the glistening silver devil of a stick just wouldn’t obey my commands. Exercise in my college years and since has focused on physical movement that could be easily performed with little coordination: step aerobics (up, down, up, down, cross over, repeat) and stationary bicycling (which I could also do while reading, a bonus for most any type of activity for me!).

So, what possessed me to try ballet, you might ask.  IMG_0451 (2)Yes, I still am asking that.  My daughter had been taking classes for several years. Her instructor and the owner of the studio is not only a graceful person, she is also very gracious and grace-filled.  She invited me to take their Adult Beginner Ballet class, and for some reason, I decided, “Why not?”  I ended up at the dance studio most Saturday mornings for a golden age of time before my children’s activities encroached on that hour.

I can tell you that I LOVED the experience of dancing.  Ballet has a sort of disciplined fluidity to it.  It has the specific movements: the plie, pas du chat, the ronde de jamb, each requiring the precise placement and movement of the various parts of the body.  But even when you are simply moving through the exercises at the barre, the way the movements flow one into the other takes on a meditative quality.

When I combined the discipline and precision with the art and soul, I felt like I was embodying something other, something beautiful.  I was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great dancer.  But in dancing, I felt the very real presence of grace.

Learning something new is hard, whether it is dancing or writing or swimming or loving or giving.  That feeling of grace didn’t come the first or second class.  In the beginning I felt very awkward.  And the awkwardness never fully went away.  But after I let go of all my worries about perfection and control and became fully present in my own body, Grace was able to find me even in my awkwardness.

Trying to define what grace is can be elusive.  Sometimes grace is simply that feeling of oneness within myself, a word of acceptance for my imperfections.

I look back on my early adult years, about how I would look at people who are where I am now and wonder why they couldn’t hold it all together. For one thing, they were older and much more experienced than me.  They should have it all together, right?  Why are they late for meetings?  Why can’t they get their children to behave? Why does their car look like someone has been living in it?  I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years.  20 years later, I don’t have it all together.  And I never have.  Sometimes I’m late for meetings.  Sometimes my kids say things that make me say, “where on earth did they hear that?!?”  Sometimes (well, most of the time) it looks like wild animals have ransacked my car and it is far beyond habitability.  Sometimes I don’t say or do the right things.  It’s taken me 20 years to understand that no one is perfect.

My son helped me learn this lesson.  When he was 6 years old, he attended a Montessori school.  Each year, the school had “Mom’s Night” where Mom or Grandma could come to school and the child would give the mom lessons and share their “school world” with Mom.  (They also had “Dad’s Night” at a separate time).  We had been at the school since Ryan was three years old and we always looked forward to Mom’s Night.  I was in my second year of theology school and Tuesday was my full day.  I left the house at 5:45 to beat the traffic into the city.  I was in school all day, until dinnertime.  I picked him up, we had dinner.  Something was unsettled in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was not right. And, as I was putting him to bed, we snuggled in to read a book before lights out. I suddenly realized that we had missed it.  I gasped and said, “Oh no!  Tonight was Mom’s Night!” I told him how sorry I was that we had missed our special night together.  He calmly patted my shoulder and gave me a hug and said, “That’s OK Mommy, we all make mistakes sometimes.”

Being accepted in the midst of our most imperfect moments, the moments where we have disappointed, or hurt, or simply missed the mark in some way…that is grace.

How much better the world is when grace is leading the dance.

 

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Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Grace

I mentioned in my first entry this season that we are in the process of yet another home renovation project.  Living through home renovation while attempting to homeschool your children is an exercise in trying to control chaos, something that even God needed 6 days to reign in.  And then Sabbath on the seventh day was a must-have.  The project scope this time around is half of our basement.  When we renovated the upstairs, one of the structural changes we made was to open the stairwell, removing the door to the basement and the wall on one side of the stairwell so that you don’t feel like you are going down into a dungeon.  The nasty side effect of this feature is that every particle of dust from the construction in the basement seems to come floating up that stairwell.  The years of dust hiding in the walls and freed into the atmosphere with demolition, the cement dust from cutting the slab for the new plumbing, the sawdust from cutting boards for framing and trimwork, the sheetrock dust from sanding the new walls, the masonry dust from the brick mortar, the marble and travertine dust from cutting the tile…you get the picture.  New week, new dust.  So my Swiffer and I have become quite intimate.

And when I go downstairs, the mess is even worse: Piles of lumber and tile.  Bags of mortar.  Stacks of bricks. Broken boards, electrical wires, shards of wood, mounds of sawdust.  Holes in the walls, (where we also found the skull and skeleton of a small animal that looks like it must have expired twenty years ago.)  But the basement is slowly transforming before our eyes.  Our contractor is truly an artist.  All the dirt and mess and chaos are becoming something beautiful.

As I looked for pictures to go along with the “grace goggles” post, I began to wonder if we IMG_9201need to rethink our baptismal theology, our baptismal practices.  My kids are swimmers, so we have a lot of pictures of kids in goggles, a lot of pictures of goggled, wet heads above water, under water, diving into water.  The water always looks so clean and inviting. But the picture of my daughter in her goggles at the mud run, sloshing through the knee-deep, cold, grimy muck seemed somehow much more appropriate.  (That is me trudging along beside her, carefully hidden by the goggle-wearing male mud runner in the foreground, so I know just how cold that water was).  As I pondered that picture and why it spoke to me, I began to think that maybe, instead of being washed clean in the waters of baptism, we should be baptized in mud.

Christian theology likes to talk about being “washed clean,” as if somehow in the act of baptism we have had a special wax applied that makes all the nasty muck of the world just roll right off of us, like we are now beyond being contaminated.  There have been times and places throughout history that we have emphasized righteousness to the extreme.  And each time we do so, we run the risk of allowing our own personal opinions of right belief and right behavior to create de facto rules for everyone else.  More plainly, we become prideful in our righteousness and turn righteousness into “I’m right-ness.”

Jesus had something to say about this. He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  Yeast, to Jesus’s audience was a contaminant. It made you “unclean,” thus the call for unleavened bread. And yet, Jesus tells his followers that this contaminant is a way of understanding the kingdom of heaven.  And, not only was the yeast a contaminant, but this (now unclean) woman has gone and mixed it into the flour so that all of it was leavened.  And when this contaminant is added to the mix, some crazy chemical reactions take place.  The bread begins to change.  It begins to breathe. And rise. As if it has a life of its own.  All because of this contamination.

In my own project, I see the dust flying every day.  But if I don’t get into the truly messy parts, I will never witness the transformation that is taking place.  And I certainly can’t be a part of that transformation if I stay upstairs, out of the way, pushing around the surface dust.  And if I think that I am keeping myself and my own little part of the world clean by some sort of isolationism, the daily settling of dust attests to the fact that this is not how the world works.  The world is changing and transforming all around me.  By choosing to be intimately involved in the greasy, grimy, gritty process, I can be a part of giving birth to something beautiful.

IMG_9213 (2)So much of the political conversation in recent days has been about avoiding contamination.  About keeping people out.  Out of the country, out of the courthouses, out of the critical conversations.  To keep “us” (whoever that homogeneous group is?) clean. And this simply is not Christian.

God’s grace is freely given to all. Our baptism reminds us of this in a very special way.  We are baptized so that we may be “workers in God’s kingdom,” a kingdom of contagion, of contamination.  We are not baptized to set us apart so much as we are baptized to bring people together. The work of the kingdom is reconciliation, transformation, and life abundant for all people.

Grace is the yeast that sets off the reaction, that leavens the bread, in order that all people may change, and breathe, and rise, and live.  And for this, I say, “Thanks be to God!”

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Grace Goggles

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

Incarnation. God became incarnate.  God took on flesh. Divinity embodied.  Why would God do such a thing? Incarnate.  It has the same root word as Carnivore, Carnal.  Isn’t this “fleshiness” thing akin to violence, animal instincts, tooth and claw and all that comes with it.  Why would God do that?

If we listen to the words throughout the Gospel according to John, we get a clue that it may have something to do with seeing.  Jesus in John’s gospel was all about perspective.  Those who are blind tend to be the ones who are capable of seeing the truth. I wonder if, through the incarnation, God’s perspective changed too?

I know in theology circles there are different camps on the whole idea of whether God is immutable.  Can a divine being, one that is eternal and perfect, change.  I’m going to go out on a limb here.  I’m going to show all my cards.  I believe that God changes.  In Jesus, God was born, God lived, God saw, God loved, God wept, God died.  God experienced what it is to be human.  To experience a human life is to change.

In the popular song From a Distance, we hear the lovely sweet melody intoned…”God is watching us; God is watching us; God is watching us…from a distance.”  But that all changed with the incarnation.  God’s perspective was no longer simply from a distance. God’s perspective was no longer from the burning bush or the pillar of fire.  God’s perspective wasn’t even walking side-by-side in the garden.  Through the incarnation, the human perspective pervaded God’s perspective.

In the AP Psychology class I am teaching this year, the students recently read about a cognitive trap that we humans tend to fall into.  Psychologists call it belief perseverance.  The concept of belief perseverance means that we have a tendency to cling to our beliefs even in the face of incontrovertible, contrary evidence.  And, we also tend to seek out more evidence and observations to pile on to our deeply held belief.

You can see the danger here.  We believe something.  That something turns out to be wrong.  But, by golly, there is no way we are letting go of that puppy!  Psychologists have found that the only way out of the trap is to consider the opposite belief.  What is really interesting about the studies on belief perseverance is that it is not enough for the researchers to appeal to the participants to be unbiased or objective as they consider the evidence.  Asking people to be unbiased or objective in their responses produced no appreciable change.  Change only happened when people were asked to imagine and ponder the truth of the findings opposite to their beliefs.  To counteract belief perseverance, what has to take place is a change in perspective.  We have to imagine that the opposite belief is true.  We have to embody that belief, try it on, live in it.

This is what God has done for us. God became human.  God loudly announced that it was not enough to be unbiased or objective.  God went all in for humanity. This is grace.

Grace is not just being unbiased or objective.  Grace means not persisting in our own beliefs about the way this world works.  Grace means changing our perspective.  God became incarnate so that, by seeing through our eyes, we could see through God’s eyes, through the eyes of grace.

And when we put on our Grace Goggles, the whole world shines with God’s glory.  Thomas IMG_9201Merton tells a story about standing on a street corner and, all at once, becoming overwhelmed by the fact that God was present in all of the other people standing at that same street corner.  When we wear our Grace Goggles, we look at other people and see God dwelling in them, we see that they have been created in God’s image, and we realize that to dwell in grace means to change our perspective.  We don’t see a cleaned up image of who they are either.  The mud and the muck, the earthiness, the carnage as it were, it is all still there. The parts we love, and the parts we think we could (in our wisdom?) carve away, the beauty and the brokenness, all transfigured and perfected in God’s grace right before our very eyes.

When I serve at the Eucharist meal and I come upon a child, I always bend so that I can see the child eye to eye because I believe that God meets us in the meal where we are so that we are then filled up to go and meet others where they are, to have the strength to imagine the world from their perspective.  This is the hard work of faith.

Derek Webb sings in his song, Take to the World, “…like the three in one, know you must become what you want to save, ‘cause that’s still the way, he takes to the world…”  It has taken me a long time to understand just what those lines mean. God becomes incarnate so that we can have the opportunity to understand what it is like to be someone else.  It may be someone else that we love.  It may be someone else that we despise.  It may be someone else who has hurt us.  It may be the person who migrated to find a better, safer life.  It may be someone half-way round the world whose religion or politics don’t seem to mesh with what we believe. It may be a neighbor, a teacher, a parent, a partner, a child.

Some scholars say that the definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding.”  I had always thought of this “understanding” in terms of a cognitive, logical thought process.  When doing theology, we seek to understand all the nooks and crannies that make up faith.  The “understanding” part to me meant that we dove into the deep study of the thing, like we would understand geometry or physics.  (At heart, I am truly an academic nerd and I like it when things make logical sense!)

I had always thought that the “faith” part of that definition held the mystery of the thing, the touchy-feely-ethereal part of what it meant to do theology.  But I have come to see that in truly doing theology, the understanding is part mystery, too.  To understand is to see the truth through the eyes of grace, not from a distance but up close and personal. When faith seeks understanding, it does so in the way of incarnation.  To understand, we have to become.  And then we see.

God I pray that you will dwell in us that we may have the strength to truly understand. Give us eyes of grace to see others as you see them.

 

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