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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A Dwelling Place

Welcome back to Lent.  I’m feeling a bit different this year.  I’m still tired, overcommitted, buried (yet again) in construction dust.  Still homeschooling my children in fits of exuberance marked by moments of sheer panic and exhaustion.  Still making an attempt to be, if not the “perfect professional’s wife,” at least a companionable partner who makes a good show of respectability (on a good day I brush my hair) and charm when the occasion calls for it.  I can’t tell you exactly what feels different this year.  Maybe I’ll work that out over the course of the season.  We have roughly 6 weeks together.  Maybe we can all learn a little something about ourselves along the way.

As I have mentally rehearsed the return to the blog this year, there is a little word that has been beckoning to me, a word that seems to have fingers, tendrils, movement, fluidity, light, shadow, weight and depth.  A word I need to hear.  A word conspicuous in its absence and breathtaking in its presence.

Grace.

It’s one of those simple words most of us have heard all our lives.  In its voice we name our daughters.  Under its melodies we begin our meals.  It is in the songs we sing, the sacred texts we read.

By grace we are saved.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound.

Say grace.

The whole of the gospel in a tidy package.  So simple and yet…

My moments of (often hard-won and desperate) epiphany this year have led me to this…

Wandering in wonder naturally leads to dwelling in grace.

The last Sunday before we head into Lent, we read the story of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Jesus journeys to the top of a mountain with a few of his disciples.  They see him changed: divinity exposed.  And they decide that it would be good to just hang out there, basking in the glory-moment.  They want to build dwelling places for the prophets and for Jesus.  And you can just hear the exasperation in Jesus’s voice when he tells them “no.”  But Jesus understood what the disciples couldn’t.    Jesus was building something better.  Abide in me.  He tells his followers.  Abide in me.  Abide in my love.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  God made us, humanity, God’s dwelling place.  A dwelling place whose very air is filled with grace.

We dwell in God.  God dwells in us.  A dwelling fused together by grace and by truth.

Grace is our home.

Come, let’s begin the journey home.

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Perichoretic Dance of the Trinity

So when I think my children can no longer surprise me with the deep spiritual connections they make, they seem to take it to the next level.  Today, Ryan had a practice college application essay as an assignment in his Contemporary Literature/Freshman English class, one of the classes he takes outside of the house this year.  He was supposed to discuss something that makes him unique and he was supposed to do it in a way that would stand out to his reader.  After all, the college application boards see a LOT of essays.  So his teacher wanted them to dig deep to make an impression.

Ryan went at the essay from the standpoint of “balance” and the importance of being well-rounded.  He talked about how his academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits all work together to make him who he is and how each endeavor fuels the others.  As I read his essay, a passing thought entered my mind, What about serving others, or spiritual devotion? Can you really be “balanced” without that?

His closing brought in a comparison to the Trinity, and how each part of who he is cannot be separated from the other.  And while this might have been a bit simplified (and might have gotten him in trouble if he had to defend his analogy with Saint Athanasius?!?), I am amazed to think of how naturally he is able to bring his understanding of theology into play with his everyday life.

After I read his essay, we talked a little more about the Trinity, about how theologians talk about the mutual indwelling, the perichoresis, of the members of the Trinity.  Ryan told me that this is just how he sees the different aspects of his own life, dwelling within one another, supporting each other, morphing in and out of focus, ebbing and flowing, advancing and receding. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing one with the other in a beautiful God-waltz of creation, redemption, and manifestation.

Ryan didn’t need to list “church” or “service” or “religion” as one of his main life pursuits because, for Ryan, his spiritual life is his core. To work the analogy, it is the Godhead, the “One” of the Three in One.  All else finds rest in this whole.

Today, I pray that I may see the world through the eyes of a child, my child, who continues to amaze, and surprise, and, yes, teach me, gazing with wide-eyed humility as the perichoretic dance of the Triune God swirls around us, enfolds us, and lifts us up.

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The Best is Yet to Come

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’

We have had quite a weekend in the Jones household.  My daughter went to the annual Girl Scout Daddy-Daughter dance.  This is an event that she looks forward to every year.  I will be so sad when the year finally comes that she decides she is too big for Daddy-Daughter dances.  It is her big night out with Dad.  She had a wonderful time, right up to the point where a couple of girls fell down in front of her, she tripped over them, and her face met an untimely kick from another little girl. Mayhem ensued.

Who knew that one little lip could bleed so much?  She was not a happy Girl Scout.  Even after a half hour drive, she arrived home inconsolable.  She told me that she couldn’t stop thinking about Saving Mr. Banks.  And I couldn’t figure out why.  This is the movie about the making of Mary Poppins. And then it dawned on me (Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks and you are worried about ruining it, skip to the next paragraph!).  She was remembering the flashback where P.L. Travers’s father dies.  After years of alcohol abuse, his health deteriorates and he is coughing up a lot of blood.

Oh my.  My sweet little 8-year-old girl thought that she was experiencing something far more traumatic than a little blood from a cut on her lip.  It broke my heart to think of the fear she must have been carrying around inside of her for the past hour.  After I assured her that her condition was in no way related to what the father in the movie experienced, her panic finally dissipated.

I find that with my children, they often say things that seem totally unrelated to the current situation.  But if I stop to think for just a minute, I can figure out the connection they are making.  With homeschooling, we spend so much of our time together that it often feels like we live in one big conglomeration of inside jokes and references, our own little mini-civilization, that other people can’t readily decipher.  I feel extremely fortunate to have this kind of close relationship with my children.

Nathanael recognized in that very first meeting that Jesus already understood all the quirky, indecipherable things he might say, or think, or feel. He realized that Jesus truly knows him. How wonderful to have the feeling of being truly known by another!

It is hard to tell from this short story just why Nathanael gets this overwhelming feeling of connection. It also seems that Jesus is a bit surprised at the effect of this short conversation. But he takes it as a beginning.  A good beginning, for Jesus recognizes that Nathanael is beginning to believe.  And believing in John’s gospel is seeing.  And seeing is what is important.

If you don’t believe me on this, hang on.  As we continue through John’s gospel, you will recognize this theme over and over and over again.  And pay attention to the order.  It is not that seeing is believing.  It is that believing is seeing.

During this same weekend, my 15-year-old was at a church event for high-schoolers called Happening.  I can’t tell you much about it.  That is part of the fun and impact of the event.  The first-timers, those who are “happening” don’t know much about “happening.”  It is entirely youth-led.  Those who are leading are the youth who have “happened” previously.  There are adults on hand to make sure nothing goes too far awry, but the youth are the ones leading the sessions, leading the music, leading worship.  The knowing, believing, seeing methodology can be experienced live and in action at a Happening. When anyone asks about what is on the agenda, they simply say, “The best is yet to come!”

The youth are expressing the same idea that Jesus did as he told Nathanael, “You will see greater things than these.”

Because God knows us, we can rest in the knowledge that, even when we don’t understand ourselves, God understands us.  Paul writes, regarding prayer, that if we can’t figure out what to say, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  I love that.  Sighs too deep for words.  So when all you can get out in between sobs is “Saving Mr. Banks.”  God knows what you really mean.  God knows.  Believe it.  And you will see greater things than these. The best is yet to come.

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The Servants who Drew the Water

A meditation on The Wedding at Cana

The servants knew.
The ones who drew the water.
Knew that it was water.
The wine, that is.
What must they have thought?
Fine wine indeed.  The finest.
“Ha!” they say, “The steward has lost his mind!”

“See how the Emperor is wearing no clothes.”
But just which Emperor, you ask.
Why, the one who sanctioned the killing of the babies, of course.
In search of the one who would turn the water into wine.
What must the people have thought?
The Emperor is exposed. For what he is.
And the first morsels of Empire begin to crumble.

Water for purification.
The blood of a lamb.
This is my son in whom I am well pleased.
This is my body given for all people.
This is the blood of the new covenant, drink it all of you.
And God said, “It is good.  It is very good.”
And the steward said, “You have kept the good wine until now.”

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Come and See

‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’
He said to them, ‘Come and see.’

If you know me, or if you have read very many of my blog posts, you have probably figured out that two of my passions are spirituality and education.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus opens his ministry by fulfilling prophecy, preaching, or  working miracles.  In John’s gospel, though, Jesus begins his ministry by teaching. But that’s not the real hook for me.  It is more specifically how Jesus teaches that draws me in.  Just as it draws in his disciples and the crowds of people who follow him from town to town.

Come and See he says.

It strikes me how different that is from the prevalent educational paradigm in the United States.  Notice he doesn’t say please choose one of the following answers:

I am staying…
(a) in an inn
(b) with Aunt Sarah
(c) in a van down by the river
(d) in a fishing hut
(e) none of the above

He also doesn’t turn to them and say, “To ascertain my transitory abode, indicated by the antithesis of my not staying locale, assuming the current price of housing and the direction of the prevailing winds from the Sea of Galilee, write a five paragraph essay of 100-150 words on available architectural domiciles not in the unlocal area.”

No.  He said Come and See.

Jesus taught by immersion, by actions, by careful observation, by investigation, by exploration, by conversation, by storytelling.

Ryan, my 15-year-old, started high school this year.  He signed up for two Advanced Placement classes at a local á la carte style school for homeschoolers.  Since multiple choice constitutes a large portion of the AP exam, we have spent an inordinate amount of time this year replicating that process.  I think he has answered so many multiple choice questions that we could wallpaper every room in my house with the remaining  paper detritus. And the questions are meant to be tricky.  Anybody else remember those types of questions with great loathing?  The ones where one three letter word, or even a single letter, changes the entire meaning of the question?

And, apparently, many colleges won’t even look at the kids if they don’t have the requisite number of classes with the AP designation.  Rigor they say.  The easiest way for them to define rigor with absolutely no work on their own part. Why bother reading the essays these kids write, or looking at the meaningful extracurriculars, or interviewing the kids, if you can just boil each applicant down to a number? As if their worth as a person and the predictability of all future contributions they might make to the university, to their family and friends, to the workforce, or even to society as a whole could be summed up in the tidy little package of GPA, as adjusted, of course, for the number of rigorous AP classes taken prior to application.

As a homeschooler, I have been investigating the idea of teaching AP coursework using a more come and see kind of approach.  It can be done. But I think you have to give up on the idea that you are “teaching for the test.”  You have to trust that the students learn the material so well that they are simply prepared. Or maybe one three hour test, comprised of 60 multiple choice questions and a handful of free response, over an entire year’s worth of material is simply a ludicrous expectation in the first place?!? There are a handful of cutting edge groups working on project-based, exploratory learning. And I know there are great teachers out there.  We have encountered some of those this year, too. That gives me hope.

It seems to me that Jesus’s methodology of immersion, action, investigation, conversation, observation, and storytelling would provide a much more meaningful, lasting paradigm, an alternative to what is so affectionately called the “drill and kill” method of learning.

As Ryan has taken the AP Biology class, I have read each chapter in tandem so that I could be an effective study partner with him.  The material itself is fascinating.

I’ve come across articles in your standard grocery store checkout magazines that talk about, for example, the relationship between mitochondrial counts in muscle cells and a person’s long-term health and fitness. And, because of my reading, I can actually tell you what they are talking about. Without the class, I would never have given mitochondria a second thought!  Every class out there has practical, everyday connections.  Keep your eyes open. Discuss what you find.  Come and see.

When studying genetics, how much better will we remember Huntington’s Disease after listening to the story of one family and the angst they experienced when waiting to find out their test results on This American Life? There are real stories behind the heritable diseases.  These stories are told in television and radio programs on Nova or Discovery Channel or a plethora of other outlets.  Watch them, listen to them, understand that the research is about real people, real stories.  The research matters. Come and see.

Labs, labs, and more labs.  Hands on projects.  Field trips.  Immerse yourself in relevant experiences.  Discuss what you have seen and done. Make stories of your own come to life.  Come and see.

And then keep a journal.  Write a paper.  Give a speech. Craft a lab report.  Create a graph.  Paint a painting.  If we are working off of a Come and See paradigm, naturally, Go and Tell must follow.  Somebody has to write the gospel, after all. Somebody has to be prophetic, speaking tough truths.  And sometimes, if we do our job as educators well, our students might even be a part of creating the good news and unearthing world-changing truths!  And good news and great truths can be found in Biology, and in Human Geography, and in Calculus and Statistics, in Art History and Psychology, in Music Theory and Chemistry and Literature. And the list goes on…

I don’t mind hearing my children complain about how hard their work is.  But I never again want to hear my kids say, “I hate insert school subject here.” And I especially don’t want to hear them say “I hate school.”

And the best way I have found to avoid these phrases in my household is to follow the radical, counter-cultural, simple example set by Jesus.

Come and see.  Go and tell.  

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