This post has been developing into a book! I have spent a great deal of time reading and researching massive amounts of material concerning the hatred and violence we have been witnessing for so long, not just on January 6, 2021. It began long before Donald Trump and those who monitor it, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, warn that it is getting worse. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch
While watching the violence escalate that day something shook me to my core. Since then, I have sat with, prayed about, and reaffirmed my deepest beliefs about who Jesus is, who I am as a professed follower of him, who my neighbor is, and who we are as a country.
It has been messy and fluid with so many nuances but here we go.
This is a thought process that I began for my own understanding and sanity…mostly sanity, because trying to know anything concerning God and the way he operates, without any doubts, can be likened to figuring out how birds know I just washed my car!
The need to know, to understand, presupposes that somehow, someway, we can reason this out. Like when Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say I am?” – that was not an academic question. It will not be satisfied by any amount of head knowledge. It is answered by first falling on our knees in awe and reverence before the magnificence that is God’s love on full display in the life of Jesus. That’s a great start, but, it can’t stop there. And that’s the rub. We want it to stop before that. Let’s just go to church – get our cards punched –done – go home and watch football. But, Jesus never said, “Worship me”, he said “Follow me”. OUCH!
You may not agree with me when it’s all said and done and that’s fine. These are just my thoughts not any attempt to coerce or judge anyone who differs. If we were all meant to be robots marching lock-step through this life God could have easily made that happen. Although, I wonder if, for his own sanity, he may now regret not doing that!
Anyway, I believe it is incumbent upon each of us to decide; to take a stand once and for all. To not be afraid of what others will think or say about us. Rather be afraid of not being the person we claim to be only when others are watching. We should be more concerned that God is watching! And I am betting that it’s not the god who keeps a running total of our church attendance and tithing spreadsheet. That would be a shallow, small-minded, authoritarian god who is out to get you if you make one wrong move.
The God I’m going to stick with tells us through the uncompromising words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13, spoken to the hard-headed Corinthians. I know these are verses we have heard so often our eyes glaze over. So, perhaps reading them again, slowly, one at a time, picturing all the hatred and violence we are witnessing we could see them as God intended:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Love is patient.
Love is kind.
It does not envy.
It does not boast.
It is not proud.
It does not dishonor others.
It is not self-seeking.
It is not easily angered.
It keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is…following the “rules” some guys made up over beers in a bar…wait…no…that’s not it…sorry. Just seeing if you’re still there.
“The greatest of these is love”.
From where I stand, it seems to have come down to two options if I claim to be a Christian: Either I stand with the Jesus who loves or the Jesus who hates.
I once would have said there was a third option of neutrality, but, not anymore. Too much is at stake. God is adamant about it when he says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:16) Ewwwww…nothing ambiguous here.
Let’s say you agree that you need to decide where you stand and why. The “why” is critical. I believe stopping short of fully embracing your “why” leaves you wobbly and vulnerable to anyone who can shove you off-balance. Believe me; I have had that happen more times in my life than I care to admit.
So, this is where I landed: As a Christian, I am compelled to consider my life and purpose from my essence, my very being, where God resides. How I live that life, if I own up to being a follower of Jesus, is to manifest his love in every moment and with every decision.
Not that seeing the hatred spewed by those who profess Jesus is anything new, but it has challenged me to look honestly at how I am living my life in light of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) I believe at times we all need a wake-up call because too often we simply muddle through our days numb to what we’re even doing here.
And so, as I see it, the most important question to begin with must be: Justwho is this Jesus I claim to follow? I think it’s fair to say that one of Western Christianity’s most espoused and fervent beliefs is that Jesus is the Answer. But, are we asking the right question?
It’s Christmas. Advent is over – the waiting is over. The anticipation: waiting, sitting in darkness, in wonder and awe. Over.
My prayer for this Christmas is that what is not over is hope for a better, more peaceful, world, and an understanding that that begins with God, but is manifest through us, just as it was with Jesus so long ago. Archibald MacLeish explains that truth in a sermon on the Book of Job:
“Man depends on God for all things: God depends on man for one (ONE). And it is most itself…when it is offered in spite of suffering, or injustice, or death. It is in man’s love that God…triumphs; in man’s love that the world’s injustice is resolved.”
What does that love look like for us today? It looks just like it did for Mary. I’m imagining that when she humbly offered her “yes” to God’s call, that “yes” came from the depths of her heart, even in the midst of doubt. This was her purpose, to use the gifts God had given her, as Esther said, “For such a time as this.”
Surely, Mary contemplated the meaning of her “yes” to this new birth; to this baby she would soon be holding. Being a mother, I can picture her and Joseph just staring at the magnificence of this new creation that God had blessed them with, imagining what his future would hold and surely wondering if they were even capable of parenting him well, helping him to become fully who he was created to be. Remember, Mary was just a teenager, though she was blessed with awesome parents who excelled at Parenting 101 – training her up by their example.
I was just a teenager when my daughter was born and I can assure you that if I would have had the good sense to consider the magnitude of raising a child and loving them well, I would have been scared to death! Unlike Mary, I had no positive role models to emulate. It was trial by fire and I made plenty of mistakes, later requesting a do-over from God – which he never granted. However, in his infinite love and mercy and forgiveness he tenderly held and began healing those broken parts, infusing his love into our relationship. I suppose you could call that a do-over.
So, we reflect on the magnitude of Mary’s “yes” and Jesus’ “yes”, and let’s not forget poor Joseph. We’re always forgetting his “yes”, his contribution to this family and his obvious love and care for them.
Mary and I both questioned God’s wisdom. “Wait, WHAT?! ME? You’re kidding, right?”
God – “NOPE!”
And guess what…you’re not off the hook either my friends! God has called each one of us to be Christ-bearers as well. Scary, huh?
Take a deep breath. It’s okay.
God prepares us all for the work he has for us to do. Admittedly, it’s usually in hindsight that I see the progression of things God put in place to provide everything I needed short of my “yes”.
I recall many times in the past striking out on my own to do “volunteer work”. Those efforts usually failed in one way or another, never born of a longing, only an effort to garner praise from others and hopefully God. To get a few brownie points for heaven. But, in short order, I would lose interest or burn out because there was no real passion for what I was doing.
And, friends, you have to know that GOD DOES PASSION – OVER THE TOP!
When it’s God’s plan, it will not fail. He will see it through to completion. Jeremiah tells us so (29:11). Think of it, if he relied on us to figure it out by ourselves, we would surely mess it up and make him look bad. This, in turn, may cause others who may be watching to reconsider any thought of using their gifts. “WOW Linda! You royally screwed that one up! And wasted a whole lot of time and energy in the process! Alrighty then, no thanks. I’m not goin’ there. I have better things to do.”
Of course, we could argue that the expression, “Go big or go home” was probably coined by God. But, that doesn’t negate the fact that he initiates his plans for us, not the other way around. A great example is our friend Job. And, like Job, he doesn’t consult us for anything. Job found that out the hard way.
It wasn’t pretty when God confronted Job’s whiny self, “Hey buddy, I’m curious, when I was creating the world out of nothing I don’t recall seeing you there or consulting you on how to keep the oceans in their place or make a Zebra from scratch, or how to paint a breath-taking sunset. Whew, I outdid myself on that one even if I do say so myself! That was brilliant actually! And, of course, the myriad other uniquely spectacular feats of creation that no one has been able to top!
And what about my grand finale – humans?! Huh! Yea, I know, that was genius. Sure, there have been a few hiccups along the way – okay fine – major human failings. But, that’s not my fault! It’s you guys never seeming to get your part right.”
In any case, when we can’t see how we could possibly accomplish the task God sets before us, it takes trust and faith, like Mary, to say “yes” anyway.
So this Christmas, as we are reminded once again of the amazing story of Christ’s birth—God’s love coming to us with skin on, I pray we will all listen for and accept God’s call to be Christ-bearers in whatever way he has prepared us for.
Go ahead, allow yourself to sit in the darkness with God and bravely ask him what in the world you are here for. His answer will surely surprise you. And I guarantee you, if you utter that one little word “yes”, fasten your seatbelt because there will be no more business as usual!
“May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you,and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
We all know the words of 1 Corinthians 13. Right? It’s one of the most familiar verses in scripture. Who hasn’t been to a wedding, or two, or twenty that present it as a reminder of the love and commitment a couple is offering to each other?
But, do you know the original intent of Paul when he wrote it? Maybe he sat around the campfire with his “flock” and wrote this song to commemorate the establishment of his new faith community (though it’s not credited to him and he gets no residuals. Pity):
Anyway, everybody’s high-fiving as Paul slaps his own back for his ingenious efforts in the name of love. He may have even imagined himself receiving a Pulitzer Prize or at least Time’s Man of the Year. Temporarily losing sight of his own advice about “pride” and all.
Okay, fine…truth be told, none of that happened. He wasn’t in some mushy mindset when he wrote those words to the Corinthians. Actually, Paul wrote them in a fit of anger. I kid you not.
When he established Corinth, he imagined it being perfect. God’s dwelling place; a community of love and care for each other and all man/womankind. Peace on earth; Good will to men…and all that.
But, things quickly fell apart. He was peeved at them because of their short memories. As soon as Paul was out of sight and on his way to his next church planting the Corinthians began to fight and argue over everything. The rich and powerful immediately began to demand more and more for themselves, believing they deserved it. Jealousy often lead to striving for importance and self-promotion. And if you’ve ever wondered why many churches today use those little thimbles for communion wine, it may be because some of these guys got a bit carried away guzzling the stuff and making fools of themselves. I don’t know – just guessing.
But, the deepest split came when the self-proclaimed “authorities” felt compelled to form a committee to decide, and then pronounce, who was going to heaven and who was headed for hell because of their messed up beliefs. So, they drew a line in the sand: the “ins” over here, the “outs” here. Love got lost in the scramble for importance. In short, they were all a mess. Sound familiar?
Sure, initially, they may have bought into the idea of love. But it wasn’t the love Jesus taught and died for. They wanted it on their terms: less demanding, just as we do today. We want the watered down version that puts loving my new car in the same category as loving humans or puppies. (I know, I know, puppies are much easier!) Anyway, perhaps in our own time of so much strife it would behoove us to revisit 1 Corinthians 13 in light of what Paul was trying to get across to those hard-headed folks, immature in faith and lacking the love that requires self-sacrifice – a love rooted in compassion.
So, here goes.
Love Never Fails– 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 (NIV)
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Like when I put myself and my wants and presumed needs first.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. As in “I know everything about everything that matters – to me. That’s why I have given myself all authority to laud it over you.”
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. As in “Look at me, ain’t I special?!”
Love is patient – except when you annoy me.
Love is kind – except when I don’t get my way.
It does not envy – except when you bought that new, nicer, shinier car before me.
It does not boast – except when I excelled in some project at work, got a significant raise, and a corner office.
It is not proud – except when I installed the biggest pool in the neighborhood.
It does not dishonor others – except when they deserve it because they’re being poopyheads.
It is not self-seeking – except when I believe I am deserving of fame and fortune; power and authority; and fewer wrinkles.
It is not easily angered – except when my kids can’t seem to behave appropriately – by my rigid standards, of course.
It keeps no record of wrongs – except for all the people who just can’t seem to keep their broken, messy attitudes out of my broken, messy life.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth – well…I don’t necessarily delight in evil. It’s just that I can sometimes stretch the definition of “truth”.
It always protects – those innocents who suffer and are downtrodden.
Always trusts – our God who never fails us.
Always hopes – in a better way; a better life for all mankind.
Always perseveres – even when things seem impossible.
Love never fails – NEVER! END OF STORY
Diana Butler Bass says it beautifully:
Yes, we may be in hell. The world may be hellish. COVID is hell. Our political crisis is hell. The climate crisis is truly hell. But there is another story, another song, a different word. A word we can speak and a word we can act upon.
Peace has been born. We wait for its fullness….we claim the power of the Christmas story to bless, to redeem, to transform the stark earth. While “death howls in strife,” we embrace and embody the poetry of God and beat back the walls of hell.
Make ready the stable of your heart. Fear not. And get busy with the work of peace.
Bishop John Shelby Spong and Martin Luther Kings words should be written on our hearts, “Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being.”
Peace to you and your loved ones this Christmas. It is certainly a Christmas like no other most of us have experienced; a Christmas that may seem to counter all we have believed about goodness and love. But, only if we have lost sight of the one who changed everything for all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike. This Christmas Day, may we finally “see” Jesus as an incarnation of God’s immovable, constant, abiding, majestic, unfailing LOVE for ALL: every single messy, broken one of us! A LOVE that is not returnable. You can’t refuse it like that ugly tie you’re getting – again – from Aunt Lucy.
It’s a shame that Gandhi, Buddha and all their followers are in, or headed to, hell. So say many Christians. What do you believe? What do I believe? People who profess to be Christian surely have a sacred calling. Scripture tells us so. If that’s true – what is it? Is it to announce the luck of the draw for members in an exclusive club with the secret handshake and a never to expire ticket to heaven, or to announce the bad news of condemnation and the hell-bound destiny of all those tough-luck-for-you-non-Christians? Over all my seventy-two years, I have probably accepted, without question, those beliefs more than I care to admit.
This post is my attempt, as feeble as it is, to offer a very different possibility of what Christianity means to me. Though it is different than what so many have come to embrace, it is actually what the first Christians believed about themselves as followers of Jesus. You may agree or you may not. Either way, this is where I have landed after many years of struggling with and contemplating my ongoing journey of faith, anger, falls from grace, brokenness and healing – all in one day sometimes. My very being has been squeezed through the wringer, patched together, taped up and super-glued so often I look like Humpty Dumpty!
This post has been difficult and challenging for me to write. It has developed through months of witnessing the continued dumpster fires of 2020. In particular, the ugliness, anger, hatred and violence that seem to have rendered many of us oblivious to the suffering of so many innocent people, children in particular. They have just become collateral damage in this war – and it is a war – a spiritual war.
But, what has endured through it all for me are the words of wisdom and encouragement of those I quote in this post. Those folks that I consider to be outstanding voices and true examples of what it means to be a follower of a Holy, Magnificent, All-Loving God of every single messy one of us! Every one! You will see a lot of italics within the following quotes. They are all my doing! They have powerfully pierced my heart and uplifted my soul. They have reminded me and given me new hope that the God I love; have always deeply loved even when I often lose sight of him, has never changed. He is certain and immovable even when we have tried so desperately to change him to suit our egocentristic selves in moments of darkness and uncertainty.
I have been in that place more often than I can count. But, I do not want to be stuck there again. I recognized that god-awful place where it seemed to be easier for me to default to taking sides and raising my own fist against those I disagree with than to follow in the footsteps of those I so admire: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and, of course, at the top of that list, the One we all should be emulating – Jesus. Even Gandhi liked Jesus and learned from his life. He loved the Sermon on the Mount! And yet, it’s very telling that he once remarked, “I like your Christ, but not your Christianity.” Ouch!
Vance Morgan helped clarify my struggles to define how “Christianity” applies to me today. What is that “new way of life” I am called to?:
“I don’t believe Christianity can be packaged in a doctrinal statement at all. Jesus did not come to establish a new set of beliefs. Jesus came to show us a new way of life, a new way of being in the world and with that which is greater than us.
Seek to discover how the heart of the gospel is relevant to and can be lived out in our contemporary world. Choosing to understand Christianity as something that one lives rather than something that one believes is, of course, problematic for those whose Christianity is more about orthodoxy (what you believe) than about orthopraxy (what you do).”
I believe the most critical questions for me to address have welled up from the deepest part of my being. They are: (1) how did we get here? And (2) how can we possibly move forward with any semblance of self and care and compassion for each other? These questions have required more soul-searching and truth-telling than I have ever been willing to engage in for any length of time. Questions I have touched on, danced around, and often ignored for fear of what the answers might require of me. I will admit that God has had to drag me here kicking and screaming; lovingly and patiently loosening my clenched fists from my arrogance and ignorance.
So, here we go.
Addressing these questions begins and ends with Jesus. Who was he? What was he doing here? And how in the world have we forgotten?
Before attending Aquinas Institute in 2006, I believed, without question, what I was told to believe by the church. For three years, my professors challenged my blind faith and lovingly confronted me with words I can still hear, “How do you know that, Linda?” – a question that I was only able to respond to with, “I don’t know”. Before that adventure I would never have considered these historical facts presented by Dr. Carl Krieg in Progressing Spirit – 10/15/2020, Racism, How Did We Get Here:
Speculation about who Jesus was and who he thought he was, begins in the New Testament itself. Layer upon layer was added to the original story and what we have today in the Christian Writings is far removed from the initial encounter between Jesus and the disciples.
It was not until 325 CE that the Council of Nicaea concluded, under imperial pressure, that Jesus was God. It was in 451, at Chalcedon, that the church threw up its hands and confessed that it had no idea how Jesus could be both God and man. The contemporaries of Jesus confronted no such issues. For them, Jesus was a man, but a man like no other, a man who presented to them who they were and could become. All the disciples knew was that Jesus empowered them to discover the truth of their humanity.
The original story of Jesus and his followers has been transformed into a story alien to what he intended and what they experienced. We now have someone born of a virgin who dies for our sins, appeasing an angry god, who will come in the future to judge all who have ever lived, and whose power isnow controlled by the church (this is so critical to understand).
The good news is that this is not really who we are. None of us. Jesus showed us that, and we all know it in our hearts, in the depths of our being. The truth of our humanity, manifest in Jesus, requires that we dismantle the egocentricity that encapsulates us so that we can reconnect with ourselves, with one another and with God. Clearly what’s required is to rediscover the Jesus story.”
The truth of who Jesus was and who we are as God’s beloved may be lost to us in the West, but it has not been lost to so many in other countries who have long risked their lives and are still today being martyred for their faith. The numbers are staggering!
Consider these startling statistics on Christian persecution compiled by Open Doors USA.org:
Every day, 8 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith.
Every week, 182 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.
Every month, 309 Christians are imprisoned unjustly.
The listed nations comprise 260 million Christians suffering high to severe levels of persecution, up from 245 million in last year’s list.
We can’t imagine any of this can we? People are literally dying for their faith while we rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Brilliant! Yeah us! Speaking the truth to power doesn’t often end well. But, in the immortal words of Saint Mother Theresa, “Do it anyway”.
Nothing in scripture tells us that Jesus, or any of his followers would die for the belief of those Christians today who condemn non-Christians to hell or proclaim some sort of special status for themselves. Rob Bell in his powerful book, “Love Wins” says:
“Jesus talked about hell to the people who considered themselves “in,” warning them that their hard hearts were putting their “in-ness” at risk, reminding them that whatever “chosen- ness” or “election” meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.”
And if that’s not enough, here’s another stark and uncomfortable reminder for us comphy, cozy American Christians in our watered down, lukewarm faith. You know, the faith that Jesus railed against? (Rev. 3:15-16). Whew…yeah, that one’s way too awkward! Let’s just skip over it. Surely, he didn’t mean it. He was probably just having a bad day…maybe too much caffeine. (But, I digress.)
Here’s another powerful article by Jeremy Weber that should cause some serious squirming in the pews. If there’s anyone left in the pews:
No Cheeks Left to Turn:
In America can I hate you for your faith? Absolutely. Can I practice my faith openly? Yes. And do I do that without fear of persecution or violence against me? Many Christians live in countries where gathering for church is illegal. They are forced to live their faith behind closed doors; in secret. The consequences are dire if they get caught: imprisonment, persecution, violence, beheadings, and death. One American pastor retold his story of visiting an underground church that villagers walked miles to attend in a country in Asia. He sat with them as they recounted with tears flowing what following Christ meant to their very existence. But, they did it; week in and week out, knowing full well they were risking their lives for Christ. Teenagers determined to share the love of Christ with others would say goodbye to their parents when they left their homes knowing they may not return.
And, here we are, in America with our comfortable lavish multimillion-dollar churches, many now half full. They live a radical and dangerous faith, while we settle for a comfortable, feel-good experience. We demand certitude in our beliefs and our dogmas, while they risk danger and uncertainty to follow Christ just as he calls us all to do, “If you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me.” But, we want to ignore the “pick up your cross” part. We prefer the easy way: Drop to your knees, bow your head, pray this prayer, sign your commitment card and you’re in our exclusive club full of perks, not the least of which is a direct ticket to heaven as you kick the lost and suffering to the curb on the way.”(OUCH AGAIN!)
Jesus said abandon your possessions (Matt. 19:21) – we try to dicker, “Ummm, how about if I sell one mink coat, or one car. No? Okay, this is killing me, but how about if I sell one condo and then donate a few dollars to charity? Will that get me a ticket to heaven? Come on, cut me some slack, Lord!”
Jesus said abandon family and friends (Luke 14:25-27) – instead we cling to them and turn our backs on those not like us.
Jesus said abandon your very self (Matt. 16:24) – we might lay one bad habit down. But give up all our “stuff” – all our striving for power and influence – all our dreams of fame and fortune? No way!
There it is. We have just watered Jesus down and settled him into our comfort zone rendering him mediocre – right along with God. Hmmmm, sorta like us. But, what have we lost in the process? I can easily imagine, but dread to think, that I could one day say the same thing as Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich said on his deathbed, “What if my whole life has been wrong.”
Bishop John Shelby Spong says, “I hope I never disparage or look down on the way any person journeys into the mystery and wonder of God. I do not want to be against any religion. I want to walk beyond all religions, even my own, in my lifetime quest for the truth of God that all of us can only ‘see through a glass darkly’”. Bishop Spong has taught me so much about true faith! Here is another example of things we profess about Jesus, that have no basis in fact. If you care to read further: https://mailchi.mp/6447ab6ffa68/getting-beyond-the-usual-giving-birth-to-jesus-in-the-2020s-760564?e=8b67574a56
Steven Weinberg reminds us that, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Why do we stay stuck in doctrines and dogmas? Because it’s safe. But, is that actually what God wants? Is that what Jesus, and so many others died for? So, it appears there are two options to consider: Would I march myself into martyrdom for a doctrine created long ago by a church seeking control of its people? Or would I commit to an unwavering faith in the God who makes no demands for allegiance, but simply and profoundly speaks within the depth of our hearts and calls us all to love; to show compassion and care for others, no matter the cost? I want to be counted among the latter. Thanks.
Kevin G. Forrester, Ph.D. speaks of maturing in faith, “…while your “belief” in antiquated teachings is diminishing, at the same time your authentic faith is maturing. And maturation, whenever and however it occurs, involves “loss” of what we have previously taken ourselves to be.”
From the book “Holy Rascals”, “The God that can be branded is not the true God. Our job isn’t to dethrone the emperor, only to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Our task isn’t to banish the Great and Terrible Wizard, only to reveal that the Land of Oz is run by a small man with a large megaphone.”
In the words Mirabai Starr:
We are conditioned to treat the spiritual life as another commodity, rather than as a discipline of inner transformation with a corresponding commitment to alleviating suffering in the world.
The sacred scriptures of all faiths call us to love as we have never loved before. This requires effort, vigilance, and radical humility. This is the narrow gate Jesus speaks about… mutual dedication to lovingkindness as the highest expression of faith.
The call does not come softly. It bangs the shutters of your heart and wakes you from a deep sleep. You have no choice but to respond.
This faith is not predicated on belief. It is informed by experience….with an ongoing encounter with the Mystery….it is a direct engagement with the roots of poverty, a willingness to sacrifice our own comfort for the well-being of someone else, an unqualified identification with those on the margins and a wholehearted effort to bring everyone home to the table of the Holy One.”
So, here I stand naked and humbled before God. As uncomfortable as that may seem, it is far more desirable than sleep-walking through this one, short, marvelous life we have been given.
The experience of my seventy-second birthday a couple of weeks ago was more profound than even life’s typical milestones some call “rites of passage”. Like sixteen when I smoked in front of my dad for the first time. Guess he was just tired of me stealing his cigarettes and since I now had a job I could buy my own. Not sure how that stacks up with being allowed to wear makeup or going on a first date. It simply paved the way for a swifter road to possible lung cancer. But who thinks about that at sixteen? At twenty-one, I could discard the fake ID I had already used for a few years to get drunk. Now I would remain drunk and stupefied for years! Woohoo!
As you may have deduced by now there have been few birthdays for me that became Kodak moments. With the exception of this last one. Hopefully not last as in LAST. But, that’s the final point I want to make here. If this past year has not impacted me any other way it has reminded me of what’s really important, because I often forget that we have no guarantees in this life. And God is going to be VERY disappointed if, for whatever time I have remaining that I have not left this world better in some way for my having been here. Thankfully, there’s still time as long as I am breathing.
At the end of my life I DO NOT want to be reminded of these profound words by Gian Carlo Menotti, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”
I would prefer to dust myself off, let go of the negativity of 2020, and embrace these thoughts to empower my every action from here on out. Because every day is a new day. Every dayI am a new creation in Christ. Every day I can here God say to me, “Okay, Linda, let’s try this love thing again.”
Richard Rohr says it beautifully, not that God doesn’t (sorry, Lord), “We must re-teach all things their loveliness. That could be your one and only life calling!”
Howard Thurman tells us: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The beginning of my quest for truth came with my willingness to question what I believed about who God was, who Jesus was, who I was and who my neighbor was. Dag Hammarskjold said, “The longest journey is the journey inwards. Of him who has chosen his destiny, who has started upon his quest for the source of his being.”
Well, alrighty then…that was fun! Are you still here?
Let me leave you with my favorite prayer of blessing and this awesome song by Casting Crowns as we prepare for Christmas. I pray for God’s blessings for you and your loved ones during this season of remembrance. This time of renewal and commitment to love God and each other!
“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Have you ever regifted something your Aunt Ethel gave you for Christmas that you have absolutely no use for, which she probably got last year from her tasteless brother? Come on, you know you have. We probably all have. It’s okay. Regifting is in scripture you know. John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I have a new appreciation for those words this year.
For the last three weeks we have been decorating for Christmas and we’re not finished. Not even sure what Christmas is going to look like, but my anticipation this year has taken on a deeper meaning. It’s not the expectation of the sweet, non-threatening, “baby” Jesus arriving. It’s about the Jesus who seems to have gotten lost among us, especially during this year.
We have all been witnessing our world collapse into chaos: the anger and violence and hatred brought about by Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement, economic collapse, natural disasters, and the elections. That’s a LOT to deal with in such a short time. And watching the steady stream of sucky news isn’t helping. Some may wonder if Christmas is even worth the hassle, or anticipate more violence, or obsessively shop and decorate just to dull the senses. But, as I prepare for this season, I have been imagining a different, better scenario.
As one who has fallen away from the “Institutional” church with all its trappings of dogma and rules and birthday cake for baby Jesus I seem to be left with the stripped down version of the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps I can see much better, like the blind man Jesus healed. I’m not sure if Jesus would have “physically” healed his blindness. He certainly could have. But, more importantly, I think of it as compassion revealing itself. I believe it was the tender touch of Jesus that changed that man others rejected and cast aside. Maybe for the first time in his life, he felt his worth and innate dignity. If you have ever “experienced” Jesus’ tender touch you know what I’m talking about. But, there’s more – and this is where it gets uncomfortable. Jesus expected him, as he does us, to not cling to that love he was shown, but to reach out to others and share it. It’s not a commodity to horde like the last roll of toilet paper on the shelf; it’s a gift to be given away. I have come to see this Christmas as an opportunity like no other to do just that.
God wants my excitement and anticipation to result in action. He is telling me; all of us really, “That’s great you’re excited. Now go do something about it!” Offer kindness and compassion to those who suffer: the elderly who are alone, millions of children in America that go to bed hungry, the neglected and abused. Check on your neighbor. Offer a smile and kind word to everyone you meet. Quit hating and judging others. Quit whining and complaining about what you don’t have, feel gratitude for what you do have, and then find a way to share it.
When we are called to “give till it hurts” that’s not referring to outlandish presents under the tree that are often not even appreciated. It’s about offering love back to God and others with all your heart and soul. (Matt. 22:37) That’s how we can more meaningfully celebrate Christ in our midst!
For the year of 2005, my husband and I had the incredible opportunity to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland and work for Habitat for Humanity. During that year we learned about a sectarian conflict there known as The Troubles. After thirty years of hatred and violence some were able to forgive and love neighbors once considered their enemy. But, there was also ongoing refusal of others to let go of their hatred. Annual Orange Day parades continued to fuel division year after year since the Peace Accords of 1998. Many parents passed that hatred on to their children. Today, the divisiveness and conflict may be played out differently, but it is still a reality, often manifested in rival gangs.
Ten years later, we were in Rhonda and learned about the horrendous massacre of 800,000 men, women, and children, slaughtered by their own neighbors. It took only ninety days – NINETY DAYS! Most of the perpetrators of those atrocities were never brought to justice. They scattered into the mountains or other countries and regrouped. They’re still out there causing mayhem and promoting hatred.
Now, here we are, reliving hatred and strife in America that is pitting us against each other. Extremists groups fueled by years of hatred going back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow are more and more embolden today to act out that hatred encouraged by a wink and a nod from the President. Some White Evangelical churches advocating their claim of being “Christian” – cling to power presumed given them by God.
What is going on? Did Jesus lose his way? Or have we reinvented him and relegated him to a dashboard Buddy Jesus bobblehead?
Let’s listen in on a few guys trying to figure it all out for themselves – perhaps you can relate:
One night a few friends gathered in a neighborhood bar. Their conversation quickly turned to questions of how to overcome fear (they won’t admit to) and frustration over the current crisis playing out over their backyard fences, at family dinners, and in the news. The violence and anger coming from all sides was hard for all of them to reconcile with their beliefs. They were a varied group: two Catholic brothers – one “devoted” (as in a follower of all the “rules”) and the other lukewarm (as in “rules suck”), a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. After several beers they found it difficult to come to any consensus on what part they played as Christians. They were even struggling to agree on what a “Christian” was.
Before departing they jokingly decided to invite Jesus to their whinefest the following week so they could drill him to see if he could help them come to some agreement on the most basic fundamentals of their Christian faith. They really weren’t looking for clarity on what was true and noble and right as much as fodder for their own arguments. Something they could use to counter those they did not agree with. But, none of them would admit to that either. Considering the stark differences they held on who was right and who was totally on the path to hell they were at an impasse. They would let Jesus decide.
So, on the allotted day they all showed up for a second installment of “My God can beat up your God”. And who shows up? – Jesus (through the front door, not the wall). “Hey, guys, what’s up?” Still in shock that he actually came, they offered him a chair and a beer…or…uh…wine. He took a seat and declined the alcohol, “I’m driving, but you go ahead.”
Then right out of the gate, one guy at the table explained what had happened the prior week and why they invited him (as if he didn’t know…duh!). Anyway, the argument conversation begins but immediately deteriorates into the same dispute as before. Each of them chimes in with their “beliefs”. Then someone has the foresight to ask the “Expert” sitting right in their midst, “Jesus, how would you resolve this?” Jesus sits quietly for a moment and then the men observe his eyes welling up with tears. They are shocked and don’t know how to react. Why isn’t he angry and pounding his fist like we do? Why isn’t he pointing out people to blame? There are plenty of them: the media, politicians, white supremacists, other so-called Christians.
Jesus’ weeping felt akin to the times their wives would cry about something they could not get their heads around – like the broccoli soufflé that fell right before Christmas dinner with the in-laws. And, buddy, you learned very quickly that your response better not be some lame man-up comment because you just want that awkward moment to be over! How’d that work for you? Exactly.
This Jesus moment was like that. Sure, he was known to throw a few tables around when he got mad, but we only see that once in all of scripture. So, why don’t we put that angry, show em’ who’s boss, can’t-control-his-temper-just-like-me Jesus to rest? This is not the no-more-mister-nice-guy Jesus you were hoping for. Sorry.
So, the world is falling apart and Jesus weeps. That’s it? That’s all he can offer us? What are we supposed todo with that? Well, let’s see:
Joan Chittister says of weeping:
Indeed, few of us see our weeping as a spiritual gift or a matter of divine design. But we are wrong. Weeping is a very holy and life-giving thing. It sounds alarms for a society and wizens the soul of the individual. If we do not weep on the personal level, we shall never understand humanity around us. If we do not weep on the public level, we are less than human ourselves.
The Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander offers:
There are…some things that ought not to be endured. There are some things worth weeping about lest we lose our sense of self. We must always cope with evil, of course, but we must never adjust to it. We must stay eternally restless for justice, for joy. Restless enough to cry out in pain when the world loses them.
If we do not allow ourselves to face and feel pain…our lies about life shrink our hearts and limit our vision. It is not healthy, for instance, to say that massive poverty is sad but “normal.” It is not right to say that sexism is unfortunate but “necessary.” It is not human to say that war is miserable but “inevitable”. To weep tears of frustration about them may be to take our first real steps toward honesty, toward mental health, toward a life that is worth living.
Now, we know Jesus did not just sit around weeping all day long. As with Jesus, so with us, God took that pain, that compassion Jesus felt in the deepest part of his being and turned it into action. “Now go”, God would tell him and “do something for those you weep for”.
He longs to tell us the same thing if we can just get over ourselves; if we are able to see clearly the suffering all around us that breaks God’s heart. The next hurdle is being accountable. It’s way too easy to shirk our responsibility to bring Christ into this battle for the soul of America with whatever excuse happens to work in the moment. Lately, we seem to be so overwhelmed by the reality of the pain and suffering right in our midst that we have either become numb to it or shake our fists in anger. We don’t feel like we have the power to address the massive needs of others even if we wanted to. And truth-be-told we don’t. Not my problem. So, we shrug our shoulders, retreat into our little bubbles, and utter some feeble justification for not “getting involved”.
But we’re definitely not weepers – that’s a weakness we are not willing to put out there. If suffering humanity is lucky, Jesus just blew that myth to shreds for you! Fine. He doesn’t blow things up. But, you get it. Right?
And don’t worry I’m not going to spew some moral edict to try to guilt anyone out of being a self-serving, self-absorbed jerk. This isn’t about taking on a rule-following, righteous, high and mighty stance. That would amount to the lowest common denominator required for entry into “heaven” at some later date. Is that what you want out of life?
If your faith subsists within the rigid and narrow parameters of acceptable and unacceptable “Christian” behavior you may want to ask yourself: is that what Jesus’ life was about? Is that what got him killed? Would anyone have even bothered with him if he was just another face in the crowd? Or is that the metric you use to justify yourself and “judge” others?
So, let’s reconsider the gift of weeping that Jesus modeled, now seemingly lost as a Christian response to hatred and suffering. Not only should we weep for the state of our nation and the wrongs done to others, but we also need to realize that Jesus isn’t your personal fixer of all things that suck. That is not his job.
I believe the question is not “what are you going to do about this, Jesus”? The real question should be “what am I going to do about this in so much as I have the power to effect change in myself and the world around me?” Should my response be couched in adherence to the “rules” of morality or compassion born of an inherent desire to be Christ-like?
Let’s revisit Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) which magnifies Jesus’ longing to reveal her sacredness to her. She had several strikes against her. She was a Samaritan which made her the lowest of the low. She was married and divorced five times and was now living with a sixth man.
Most of the women enjoyed gathering at the well early in the morning for their daily gossip-fest and no doubt she was often the topic of their natter. So, she went alone in the heat of the day to avoid them. And who shows up at the well? – Jesus, the Jew, asking her, the outcast, for water. She could not believe what was happening. Here is a guy who’s clearly a prophet speaking life into her. She quizzed him relentlessly, certain she had to be dreaming. And Jesus’ reply? “Did I stutter? You are loved now go act like it.”
And how did she respond to that love? She danced all the way back to town. She couldn’t wait to announce to everyone who would listen, “You’re not gonna believe what just happened!” Because of her witness many other Samaritans became believers. And don’t think those nasty women weren’t pissed when they heard her! The next day they followed her to the well and hid in the bushes in an attempt to catch her in a lie.
Anyway, did all that happen because she was now on some moral high-ground or because Jesus sparked within her a hunger that surprised her? For so long she had learned to endure the rejection of others. She accepted that she was unworthy of love or acceptance or dignity, and lived accordingly, having no understanding of her intrinsic worth.
I think Rami Shapiro in his powerful book, “Holy Rascals”, gives us the most powerful definition of people of true faith that I have ever read:
Holy Rascals have only one aim: to pull the curtain back on parochial religion in order to liberate people from the Great and Terrible Wizards who use religion to frighten them in to submission and to manipulate them into doing evil under the banner of good.
We are not anti-religion: we are anti-unhealthy religion: religion that promotes a world of “us against them” and sanctions the exploitation, oppression, and even murder of “them” in this world and the torture of “them” in the next.
We are not anti-belief; we are anti-irrational belief: belief that substitutes ancient fiction for modern science.
We are not anti-God; we are anti-mad Gods: Gods who sanction the lust for power that rules those who invented them.”
What saddens me more than anything today is the fact that there is such contention and visceral hatred among those who profess to be “Christians”. But, the louder they are the less like Jesus they are, which is clearly an oxymoron: “Christians” who hate, “Christians” who seek power and prestige, “Christians” who have no empathy or compassion for others. Jesus was the Suffering Servant not the King of the elitists.
“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s it.
We are so far removed from the Jesus known to his disciples. When the Church turned him into “Jesus Christ Superstar”he got lost in the power struggle for whose faith was the true faith. I would say many Christians probably have no idea that it was the Church struggling for power that created the Jesus so many “worship” today. And there’s the rub I think. Jesus never told us to worship him. He said, “Follow me”. When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross kid and follow me.” What do you think he meant? Pick up your bucket and shovel we’re headed to the beach?
Jesus lived and moved and had his being on the fringes of society. He was a revolutionary, a rebel, an outsider among the powerful leaders of his time. Why? Because he loved without regard for position or status or how it looked to others. He loved “the least of these” with abandon. He touched and healed and served the broken and the outcast. And they responded in love; a love that blurred distinctions between us and them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, saint and sinner. Does that sound anything like what is preached on street corners and in some churches today? Or the hatred spewed by “White Supremacists”? They have tried to remake Jesus into someone who would be unrecognizable to his followers and they have been given a thumbs-up by a president who, at the same time, secretly makes fun of them. It is frightening to watch.
Trillia Newbell, an author and Christian commentator, says, “I want to hear that we’re mourning and weeping, that we are active in our community, that we are going to work to love our neighbor as ourselves, that racism and any kind of hate is evil.”
I would like to share one final, uncomfortable, not proud of this, Linda-you-suck-at-caring-but-it-will-get-easier, story about two women I met in Belfast in 2005. Both taught me about what compassion looks like up close and personal.
Not long after we got there, I was walking to the post office before work and I was in a hurry. Several blocks ahead of me, I saw a woman lying on the sidewalk. I watched people walk right past her without giving her a thought. Here’s the awful truth, I did the same thing. I was thinking of the fact that I needed to get to work, I wasn’t from there and wouldn’t know what to do, and…and…and. I didn’t get far when I heard that “still small (annoying) voice” – “Go back”. Just two words that felt like a gut punch. So, I turned around. Fearful now that she might be dead and then how would I feel? “Okay, Lord, this was your big idea please tell me what to do.”
I set my things down and sat next to her. It was clear she was drunk. I had to nudge her several times before she responded. She looked irritated at me, but sat up. I tried to find out her name and where she lived, but all she said was, “Leave me alone. I’m not worth it.” To this day, I can hear her say those words that pierced my heart. I held her dirty; make-up streaked face, and told her she was worth it because she was a child of God. She said again, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m not worth it!” I said to her, “I am looking at you and what I see is someone God loves deeply!” Through tears I tried to get her up so I could put her in a cab and take her to get something to eat. Just then a mission van pulled up. A guy got out and addressed her by name. He gently helped her up and walked her to the van. I never saw her again.
My second experience wasn’t quite so involved, but was equally as dramatic. Again, I was walking down the street and saw a woman with a little boy about five or six walking toward me. He said something that angered her and she slapped him, which shocked me. Again, I summoned that annoying voice within, a bit more willing to cooperate. “Okay, Lord, what do I do here?” When I got to her I simply asked if she wanted to talk. She slapped me too, walked around me and kept going. The little boy turned around and stuck his tongue out at me. Alrighty then. Yeah me!
Encountering those two women for just one moment in time literally changed the trajectory of my life and gave me purpose! Seeing the humanity of others teaches us compassion. Allowing ourselves to see Jesus in everyone we encounter we will grow in love for those we usually disregard, or worse, reject outright. Seeing beyond the degenerate, the depraved, the lost and broken takes courage, humility and trust in a God who shows us the beauty in others – and BONUS – in ourselves.
So, there you have it you macho-guys guzzling your beer and feeling a bit queasy watching Jesus weep for those who suffer. How do you respond to that? The first thing you need to do is offer a resounding, “YES” to whatever Jesus has in mind for you. That’s it. Easy enough. Right?
Then fasten your seatbelt brother, this is when the rubber meets the road because God has a plan for you (Jeremiah 29:11) and this probably won’t be an “I’ll get back to you next week” moment either. There’s much to do and you’re running out of time because you sat on your duff in that bar so long trying to get out of it. Just pray and stay open to your calling. You’ll know it. Then, brave heart, this is your moment! GO!
Wait…maybe lose the war paint. You don’t want to scare the crap out of people. They have enough to deal with.
“Joe Newman is 107 years-old. He has survived two World Wars, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Great Depression. His advice after reflecting on all he has lived through? ‘Always look on the bright side. Don’t spend time worrying about what’s going to happen, since what will happen, will happen.’” Anita Sampson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is Joe’s fiancée. “Joe says the coronavirus is just another event in his life. He believes we should look forward to whatever time we have, be it years, weeks, or just days, ‘and then hope for another on.’”
Maybe work on those wedding plans – or not. (I’m not sure if this is true, but, Anita has reportedly demanded a “Promise” ring by Tuesday or she’s moving to her own rocker!) But, for now, it’s nap time.
Since there are now so many American Centenarians there have been many studies regarding these 100+ year-old folks. They all have survived so much. They have lived through misery, hunger and job loss, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones, and every imaginable heartache along the way. But, that’s not the whole story. There is much beauty and blessing intermingled with the suffering.
The most common and inspiring thread was just as I suspected (and, no, it has nothing to do with great sex or alcohol, so get your mind out of the gutter!) During the Depression, people learned to support and care for each other. They were generous with a few extra dollars, food from their gardens, and emotional support. Many discovered a deep well of strength and optimism that have carried them beyond those tough times. They had a shared sense of gratitude, kindness toward others and even a feeling of being blessed in the midst of unimaginable hardships. They learned acceptance of circumstances you cannot control. And hope – always hope. Happiness and fulfillment come from helping others; having a positive and optimistic attitude. Most have a strong faith and a deep commitment and passion for a cause beyond themselves.
I’m not close to 100, except for those achy things that are the bane of my existence. But in my seventy-one years, I have learned so much about the ugliness and beauty of the human condition; about reality and resilience. I have experienced joy and sorrow, loss and pain and grief and epic moments of delight and wonder and unexplainable joy. I hate and love, horde and give generously, fear and throw caution to the wind. One moment I close in on myself and another I can open up with compassion and empathy for the brokenness that surrounds me. I’m a mixed bag of pride and humility. I can be your biggest fan or your most vocal adversary. I can be quiet and reflective or noisy and blow things up. I’m confusing, even to myself! I think that makes me human, albeit a very messy, bewildering human, like everyone else – if everyone else were honest. Anne Lamott says it beautifully, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. So there’s no sense wanting to be differently screwed up than you already are.”
I believe those wise Centenarians still hanging around and those of us who have not simply survived, but against all odds, have thrived during this screwed up mess called human life, are not finished yet. We have a calling, a responsibility actually, to share those experiences with younger generations in these desperate, seemingly hopeless times. We owe it to them. We have a treasure trove of stories I believe they are hungry for.
What we are dealing with today: a failing economy, children going to bed hungry, job losses, covid, wild fires, hurricanes, racial tensions, protests, and violence in the streets is nothing new. But, all at once? Good Lord! Think about all those younger than us that have not lived long enough to feel any sense of hope for their future because they have not had much of a past to draw that hope from. I believe we are in the midst of our collective dark night of the soul and there’s a double whammy for those younger generations that have not found religion, or even God, to be relevant. They have rejected a religion based on duty and obligation. No thanks.
But, that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Religion” as we have come to know it since the first century has always been top-down and authoritarian. But, that is not God’s way. He sent Jesus on a mission, not the likes of Herod the power-hungry king, to show his steadfast, dogged, unwavering love to the lost and broken. I have openly admitted that I have given up on the Institutional church, but I have not given up on God or my faith which is couched in awe and wonder at the marvels of all of creation.
Jesus didn’t wander the streets playing whack-a-mole with anyone who didn’t follow the rules, memorize rote prayers, or tithe 10%. He was a hands-on guy. When he said, “follow me” he didn’t mean act virtuous, he meant be virtuous; be kind and gentle and caring for your brothers and sisters that suffer life’s cruelties. Consider these verses: Jesus touched the blind man (Mark 8:22), he touched the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:33), he touched a leper (Matthew 8:3). The gentle, compassionate, loving touch of someone who cares that is what we are called to. I’m not gonna lie, it can be scary! Reaching out will require some risk and could result in ridicule or rejection from others. Hum…isn’t that what Jesus accepted to his death? Do you think for one moment that Jesus or the countless martyrs throughout history went to their deaths for a bargain basement god? Would you?
Surely God put wisdom and gray hair together for a reason. I believe, like Esther, we were made for such a time as this. People are scared and hurting. We have been there and have experienced the love and healing power of God. Every life has a story and those are stories that must be told. If your story begins and ends with you we all lose a bit of God’s glory. So, what is your story? How have you overcome hurt and pain? How have you hurt others? How have you prevailed over life’s disappointments? How do you find joy and peace in these trying times? I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Are youready?
People today, especially young people, are living out of fear instead of the abundance of life God has promised each of us. What we fail to understand is that it isn’t God being the mean, authoritarian father that is holding back on us. It’s us holding back. It’s us not believing he’s worth the effort. I truly believe this is a remarkable time for us old folks to still be hanging around and to get ourselves off our rockers and into the fray. Why should we bother? Do they even want to hear from us? Well, you decide:
Let’s focus in on what young adults (ages 18-25) are dealing with in this frightening and uncertain time:
First, a recent article by CNN:
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University says, “The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age.” He explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”
So, picture these young people that have likely never experienced even one of the many crises we’re facing today. They have had their certainties about life jerked out from under them without any warning.
The article continues:
Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.
There’s much more in this article that sheds light on what they’re dealing with: a government they feel they can no longer rely on, constant news coverage of injustice and violence, the tragedy of years of denial of climate change, loss of a sense of security and hope for their future.
Perhaps here is a glimmer of hope:
In (one) study, young people said they were “empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency — the strength of their social bonds able to provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms.
So, as their lives seem to be falling apart and the government can no longer be trusted to shore up confidence in their future, or that they will even have one, that leaves a huge gap to be filled, a gap between their current reality and hope. And that’s where God can use us to step in because dancing in the midst of tragedy is our specialty. There, of course, is a hurdle to jump first (not that God isn’t the world’s best hurdle jumper!). They don’t think much of religion or God or the pain of Judgment Day…..Ohhhh, don’t get me started on “God’s gonna-take-you-to-the-woodshed on Judgment Day”! Let’s quickly move on…
Here is a great article from National Catholic Reporter: “…the Study asks: Why are young Catholics going, going, gone?” Since we know it’s not just Catholics that have left their faith, this is very telling for all young adults that feel disenfranchised and left to their own devices to find their own way.
“Whether it’s feelings of being judged by religious leaders who don’t know or understand them, or being forced by their parents to attend church, or witnessing the sexual abuse scandal and the hypocrisy of church hierarchy, young people are expressing a desire both to break free from organized religion and to be part of a community. As emerging adults continue to navigate a difficult period, it is crucially important that they are able to maintain wellbeing and seek support where needed from those around them.”
Then there’s this from Springtide Research Institute:
Springtide Research Institute is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning. We exist at the intersection of religious and human experience in the lives of young people.
Our newest research found today’s young people are the most lonely and isolated generation that has ever existed. One in three young people feel completely alone much of the time. The good news though? You’re the solution (my emphasis).
What would it look like for belonging to come before believing?
One of the fundamental truths about communities is that belonging comes before believing. As our research demonstrates, we often get that equation backward, especially when it comes to young people. The traditional institutional tools for engaging with young people are no longer effective as trust erodes across all institutional sectors.
Young people are facing epidemic levels of isolation and loneliness.
Young people are struggling to connect with each other and the adults who care about them. Nearly 40% of young people feel at times they have no one to talk to and attending religious groups or gatherings does not have any effect, unless they have a relationship with an adult who cares.
“Belonging before believing” may be the key in all of this! The Institutional church teaches “rules” necessary to live as a “good” person of faith is expected to. That rigid voice has become old and tiresome; void of meaning and purpose. It cannot address the deepest longing of a soul that knows deep down it belongs to something bigger; something more. Where do we see in any of Jesus’ teachings to the masses gathered everywhere he went that he stopped mid-sermon for an alter call? “Look guys, we know you’re hungry after walking for miles and sitting here in the heat for hours. The food trucks won’t be coming any time soon…BUT…we’ve got fish! Come on up and get yourselves saved and you get some!” Years ago, when I was a youth minister one of the most basic truths that I grew to understand about human longing and relationship came from one statement, “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”
I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I first got some teens in our church together to start a youth group. Truth be told, I was probably needier than they were, but I sincerely wanted to give them a place to gather, safely question anything about their faith (when Father wasn’t within ear shot), serve the community, and have fun. Granted, I suffered the pains of having an A.D.D. brain that called into question my “fly by the seat of your pants” leadership style. More than one parent informed me how unorganized I was – thank you very much. Of course, they were too busy to help.
But, here’s the thing: not one of the kids walked away because a teaching was rescheduled due to a bit of forgetfulness by one flighty adult. Not one kid complained when said flighty adult was the only one who thought an ice breaker consisting of sticking life savers on someone’s face was funny. I still think that one’s funny! But, oh well. (Note to self: teenager = insecurity. Got it.) They forgave my every misstep as we all learned together. Why? Because they knew I loved them. That’s it. That’s all that mattered…well…except that I made some badass cookies!
I also recall a young pastor we had, new out of seminary. He came to a meeting one night and later complained that there were only ten kids there. So, why did we bother? I didn’t see that one coming and had no reply for him until a few days later. I invited a therapist to come speak to the kids about suicide: how to recognize it and what to do if they suspected a friend was at risk. One of the kids at that meeting called me a couple of days later to thank me – like sobbing thanking me – for having her there. He got her phone number afterwards and called her because he was contemplating suicide. They began therapy sessions with his mom. I still get teary when I think about that.
Another day, that same priest was talking to me and a girl in our youth group. She told him she hated her mom and he immediately cut her off telling her she could not hate her mom, that her mom was a wonderful person. I knew why she said that and knew she was suffering a lot of pain in their relationship. I could not share that with him, but I did “share” the fact that he managed to shut her down and she would never confide in him the pain for which she needed help and healing. I could go on, but I won’t, except to say that I have so many great memories of those times and am still in contact with some of the teens that are now parents themselves.
We all have life’s most critical and basic questions that need to be answered if we are to live fully the lives we were meant to live. Who am I? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Are you someone that can help young people answer those questions? You can, you know, just by being present to them, listening to them, and trusting God. Knowing he has already given you all the tools you need to fulfill your own destiny – you can now help them do the same. And I will tell you this without the slightest hesitation – they will do just as much, if not more, for you!
One final note: if you are considering forming a relationship with young adults it would behoove you to know that they will see right through any hidden motive to “straighten them out and save them from hell and damnation. Don’t do that. Okay? Here’s one final example of someone wanting to do just that. An “older” woman in our parish called me and wanted to “help” with the kids. I invited her to come to our next meeting just to observe. In that particular meeting we were going to watch a new T.V. show….ready?…”Married with Children”. I wasn’t concerned about exposing them to something distasteful because they were already mindlessly watching it at home. I wanted us to watch it together and talk about it. Hopefully they would make a more informed decision about watching it. It shouldn’t surprise you that my “older” friend only lasted about five minutes into the show when she walked out in a huff and never returned. But, at the end of that meeting, the kids were upset about the content of it. As a result they all wrote letters to the companies that sponsored it! How cool is that?!
With the election just a few weeks away I only want to ask you to consider the fullness of God’s Word in light of your choices. It disturbs me beyond measure that there are some Priests and Bishops that have taken to twitter to endorse Donald Trump and vilify Joe Biden. This is SO WRONG on so many levels. They are not to tell anyone who to vote for. Not that this is the only madness in the church. But, let’s move on before I say something I may, but probably won’t, regret later.
Below I offer the words of Pope Francis and excerpts from a statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You may not be Catholic but I believe these words offer something for everyone’s consideration if you believe in the dignity and worth of every human being. I have included the link below if you want to read it in its entirety. All bold type is mine.
Pope Francis tells us:
…the very love which is (God’s) gift, brings forth in our lives and actions a primary and fundamental response: to desire, seek and protect the good of others.
An authentic faith . . . always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, it hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,” the Church, “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183)
God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: “As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). It corresponds to the mercy which God has shown us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you . . . For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:36-38). What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of “going forth from ourselves toward our brothers and sisters” as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm….(no. 179)
…the creation’ refers to every aspect of human life; consequently, ‘the mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ has a universal destination. Its mandate of charity encompasses all dimensions of existence, all individuals, all areas of community life, and all peoples.
“We are faced . . . with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (Laudato Si’, no. 139).
Thus we take up the task of serving the common good with joy and hope….God is love, and he desires that we help to build a “civilization of love”-one in which all human beings have the freedom and opportunity to experience the love of God and live out that love by making a free gift of themselves to one another.
The political realities of our nation present us with opportunities and challenges. We are a nation founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but the right to life itself is not fully protected, especially for unborn children, the terminally ill, and the elderly, the most vulnerable members of the American family. We are called to be peacemakers in a nation at war. We are a country pledged to pursue “liberty and justice for all,” but we are too often divided across lines of race, ethnicity, and economic inequality.We are a nation of immigrants, struggling to address the challenges of many new immigrants in our midst. We are a powerful nation in a violent world, confronting terror and trying to build a safer, more just, more peaceful world. We are an affluent society where too many live in poverty and lack health care and other necessities of life. We are part of a global community charged with being good stewards of the earth’s environment, what Pope Francis calls “our common home,” which is being threatened. These challenges are at the heart of public life and at the center of the pursuit of the common good. They are intertwined and inseparable.
(We are called to the care and concern for ALL OF THESE CHALLENGES. God is not a one issue God and we cannot be one-issue voters.)
This statement highlights the role of the Church in the formation of conscience and the corresponding moral responsibility of each Catholic to hear, receive, and act upon the Church’s teaching in the lifelong task of forming his or her own conscience. Foremost amongst those teachings are the four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 160). With this foundation, Catholics are better able to evaluate policy positions, party platforms, and candidates’ promises and actions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church in order to help build a better world.
In this statement, we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth. We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.
…. the foundational principles that guide these teachings should not be ignored in any case nor used selectively in order to serve partisan interests.
This post was a huge, deep, thought provoking undertaking for me. That’s why it’s so long. Sorry.
Starting with this disclaimer is probably in order: What you are about to read is based on my opinions. I will admit that no religious publication – NOT ONE – has contacted me for a quote or a book deal. But that does not change my convictions which have evolved over years of studying the works of many respected Christian leaders, authors, and theologians like: Richard Rohr, John Shelby Spong, John Phillip Newell, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, and Dr. Seuss, just to name a few. This process has required me to open my heart and mind to possibilities beyond religious orthodoxy or “rules” that often made me uncomfortable in my own skin. I have grown to understand the folly of my long held beliefs that you are going to hell and I am not, and other ridiculous “truths” of faith. You’re welcome.
So, let’s start here: Do you know how Christianity, as we know it, began or why there are only four gospels in the Bible? Many studies have revealed that there were more than four gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, in the beginning of Christianity. Who decided on the four? Was it God? You might think so if you subscribe to the notion that God wrote and/or directed every word in the Bible. Or maybe it was a group of Jesus’ followers that started a Jesus Fan Club: #jesusrocks, and wanted to develop a list of requirements for membership. Stephen J. Patterson tells us:
“The study of Christian origins during the last fifty years has revealed a great deal more variety than our forebears ever thought possible. How did it happen that the many versions of Christianity that existed in the beginning were eventually overshadowed by the one version we know as Christianity today?”
What was so important about the Matthew, Mark, Luke & John gospels that the others were discarded? Hint: They are called “synoptic” gospels which means all four of them rocked the same message the church could offer on a continuous loop to the illiterate masses of the day: Get in line or get snatched by the powers of hell! Your choice.
According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith religion “systemized ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them’”. Smith explains the stark difference between our understanding of religion and religio is that religio describes “a particular way of seeing and feeling the world. The archaic meaning of religio was that awe that men felt in the presence of the uncanny dreadful power of the unknown….it is something within men’s hearts.” When was the last time “religion” rendered you awestruck? Exactly.
Do we even care about any of this in the midst of Covid, the loss of jobs, despair, and the civil unrest we see in the news daily? I believe that’s exactly why we should care (the point of this post).
Anyway, let’s take a peek at just one of the rejected gospels: The Gospel of Thomas. Because why not, right out of the gate, bring up something contrary to everything we Christians have been taught! In it Jesus’ disciples asked him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by looking outward….Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’” In other words God’s kingdom is not “located” up in “heaven” and the only way to “get there” is to “believe brothers and sisters” in the church’s heaven and hell theology. Thomas is telling us that the kingdom of God is right here, actually within our very being.
“So, wait, Linda…you’re saying you don’t believe in heaven and hell? Good luck with that on Judgment Day standing there all exposed surrounded by your big huge piles of regret!Then, you’ll be singing a different tune!” You be like, “Sorry, Lord, I didn’t mean it! How about a redo? You’re good at redo’s right? I take back every hateful word and thought I ever uttered!!!”
And God be like:
I never said I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. Actually, that’s one of my core beliefs, right up there with “I know I am a beloved trainwreck; peevish with a little touch of psycho mixed with an occasional love the world moment”. However, my belief in heaven and hell is in the context of relationship. (More on this later)
Anyway, back to Thomas. Elaine Pagels (Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas) tells us:
The Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Jesus is aware of, and criticizing the views of the Kingdom of God as a time or a place that appear in the other gospels. Here Jesus says, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there first. But the Kingdom of God is within you.”
It’s hard to describe. But the Kingdom of God is something that you can enter when you attain gnosis, which means knowledge. But it doesn’t mean intellectual knowledge. So this gnosis is self-knowledge. It’s a question of knowing who you really are…knowing yourself at a deep level. The secret of gnosis is that when you know yourself at that level you will also come to know God, because you will discover that the divine is within you.”
Alrighty then, so why didn’t Thomas and other gospels make the cut; didn’t make it into the Bible? Is it because the Church wanted to control God and charge admission to heaven?! That is very likely considering what we know about Irenaeus who created this mess:
Irenaeus of Lyon was a second-century bishop and an unapologetic antagonist toward Gnosticism that had crept into “his” church, corrupting “his” people. The following is from an article in Christianity Today. There’s a lot here, but well worth the read:
FOUR GOSPELS, NO MORE, NO LESS
Near the end of the second century a church leader in the Roman provincial city of Lyon became concerned about a new prophecy that had recently come to his part of the world. Irenaeus of Lyon was worried. Such sayings seemed to open the floodgates, allowing prophets to say whatever they chose no matter how odd or scandalous. Irenaeus felt he had to do something.
In Lyon, dozens of Christians had been thrown to the beasts to be ripped limb from limb. In the face of such danger, Irenaeus wanted solidarity. The new prophets threatened to divide his house. He countered this “false religion” with five books titled: “Against Heresies” where he describes and then refutes many early schools of thought that thrived in the first two centuries of Christianity. In fact, Irenaeus’s work went a long way toward establishing the notions of Christian orthodoxy and heresy. To refute the ideas of his opponents, he drew upon four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He said, “It is not possible gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.” (He used some nonsensical formula to “prove” it.)
Irenaeus was interested in identifying a story around which he could rally his churches in the face of possible persecution and martyrdom. His choices reflect precisely that circumstance. The canonical four are all very similar. Each presents the story of Jesus as that of a martyr. In each, Jesus lives his life in faithfulness to his calling. In each, he is betrayed by a friend and suffers an unfair trial. In each, he is tortured and finally executed. And in each, God vindicates him by raising him from the dead.
What, then, should Jesus’ followers do? Just as Jesus persevered to the end, they too should persevere, even to the point of death. God had raised Jesus from the dead. God would do the same for them, if they remained faithful until the end. This, then, became the Christian story. The gospels that Irenaeus embraced were gospels that interpreted his own life and the martyrs he admired around him.
The gospels provided the theme of fidelity, but also the specific beliefs to which Christians were expected to remain true: Jesus’ miraculous birth, the vicarious nature of his death, his resurrection, and his eventual return to judge “the quick and the dead.” Christianity was a religion of beliefs. Those who wandered from those beliefs were punished. Those who refused to accept them, like Jews, were persecuted.
Today, churches of every stripe continue to insist on right belief—their beliefs. Through all of this, Irenaeus’s four-gospel canon remained. But beginning in the eighteenth century, some scholars of the Bible began to wonder about the biblical gospels themselves. The faith they seemed to authorize—that Jesus was born miraculously, that he raised the dead, that he himself rose from the dead—now struck them as less than credible. This was the Age of Reason. Did Christianity have anything to offer modern people whose capacity to reason and think critically would not permit them to believe the unbelievable?
I’m not certain, and even the researchers of “belief” admit that many people won’t tell the truth when surveyed about their faith. But, we can still address the fact that there seem to be many “professed” Christians that adhere to the orthodoxy of their particular faith tradition without a second thought.
Paul Coutinho, SJ (How Big Is Your God?) says:
The Western understanding of truth is a philosophy. It is a set of beliefs that you can think about and know….God’s love must be merited through prayer, good works, and obedience to the rituals of the Church. God is the great Other.” Growing up Coutinho was taught to believe “God was a small and petty God” that “God was waiting for me to come up to heaven so he could send me to hell.”
Gandhi believed, “Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. It became the religion of kings.”
Do we wonder how it is that God is seen as a distant and punitive judge, not a loving Father? Marcus Borg tells us Jesus was brutally crucified by the powers that be for defying Roman authority. His death was not God’s plan to atone for our sins. What kind of God could we even believein that would do such a monstrous thing? This is a God who “loves” a special few of us with conditions. Great. Sign me up.
This God, this distant up in the sky God, looks down on us with obvious frustration and shakes his head, “No, I’m not coming down there. You people are messed up! Besides, I’m in that high risk category for Covid, you know, with my age and all. But, I’m rootin’ for ya’!”
And what about the idea of belief? What does that mean anyway? If I say I’m a Believer does that require anything of me? Not really. Not if I believe in a God of rules and regulations. That’s a huge stretch from its original meaning. Borg explains:
Prior to about 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object. To believe in somebody (in this case, God) is not the same as believing somebody. But it goes even deeper. It’s origin means “to hold dear, to belove”. Thus, to believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. For a majority of American Protestants and some Catholics (believing in the rules) is what saves us. Or is it beloving God as known in Jesus that saves us by transforming us?”
Ouch. So, we should ask ourselves, “If believing in the rules that are meant to keep us in line will not transform us. What will? Well, if being transformed has some inherent, unrelenting appeal to you it can get really dangerous because beloving God comes with a caveat: It requires change at the deepest level of our being.
John Phillip Newell has observed:
“The walls of Christianity are collapsing. In many parts of the West that collapse can only be described as seismic. It had become isolated from the other great religions of the world, ossified in its dogmas, paralyzed in the trappings of infallibility. What is the new thing trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity?”
Is Christianity as a set of rules and infallible truths, dying? That seems to be what some believe regardless of the fact that many church leaders of all faiths appear to happily whistle past the graveyard regardless of the deafening echo of emptying churches and the statistics:
A 2015 Pew Research study showed that Americans who believe in God dropped from 92% to 89%, and a bigger drop of Americans who say they believe in God with absolute certainty (from 71% to 63%). The largest drops have been among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. Among non-Christians, the pattern is mixed. Most religiously unaffiliated people continue to express some level of belief in God or a universal spirit. However, the share of religious “nones” who believe in God has dropped substantially in recent years.
Bede Griffiths calls our current state the “fossilization of Western Christianity” leaving a vast expanse of emptiness in its place. We are a country that is broken; a people struggling for meaning. A truth that has become more and more apparent during these trying times. So many people feel lost and afraid with no sense of hope for our future. We are barraged daily with violence and hate from all sides. And it should frighten all of us that our political leaders have also lost all sense of decency and concern for the greater good of all Americans. And leading this shit-show is Donald Trump. We have a president who is a self-proclaimed “Chosen One” who has followed the “prosperity gospel” all his life. If you’re not having enough trouble sleeping at night here’s some fun reading:
And if that isn’t bad enough, according to the Freedom from Religion Foundation we have a bunch of politicians involved in a “Bible Study” with this guy: “Capitol Ministries’ founder and president, Ralph Drollinger, teaches homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic bible studies to politicians across the country. Drollinger’s access to high-level officials with what he calls his “para-church ministry” is concerning, especially when his draconian views are examined.”
What the hell happened to separation of church and state?
But, dear ones, take a deep breath! This is not the end of the story because God does have the last word. He does have the power to heal our individual and collective brokenness if we would just allow him into our hearts. That’s where change must begin. That’s where our ethos of faith can bring forth and empower the essence of our very being and create change. I believe we are now on the precipice of a conversion experience like we have never seen before. The time for change is now, but we have to know what that change looks like. We have to be able to name “truth”. It is not the “truth” that we have been spoon-fed by church and government leaders, but the “Truth” of an omnipotent, loving, merciful, compassionate God who longs for us to recognize our own belovedness as his blessed and broken sons and daughters. He longs for us to recognize Jesus as his beacon of light that will guide our way in the darkness. And he longs for us to rejoice in the certainty that all are welcome at his table of plenty. All. Of. Us. No matter if others are of the same faith, a different faith, or no faith at all. This is not a private club. God wants you to know who and Whose you are. He wants you to claim your birthright and help others do the same.
We have wasted far too much time scratching around in the dirt eking out a mundane existence when we were meant to soar; to thrive and to be the light of Christ to a hurting world which is the essence of our very existence.
Joran Slane Oppelt interviewed Bishop John Shelby Spong who says we need the “antidote to toxic Christianity.” Ultimately, what he recommends is the creation of a new church — not Christianity 3.0, but a full re-boot; a Christianity that returns us to the original teachings, mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. https://youtu.be/eyjUFRNbQPY
Polls abound that document the mass exodus from the intuitional Church. I’m among those numbers. As I grew spiritually I realized that in good conscience I could not continue to “show up” for praticipation in a broken, hypocritical church that left me empty and wanting. It is a church refusing to let go of remnants of a sinking ship. Going down with that ship are its leaders clinging to imagined power and pew sitters content with the status quo because of the false belief that it rewards their adherence to their religious obligations and their willingness to do what they’re told without question, holding out for the rapture I suppose. Diana Butler Bass tells us that a good example is “Willow Creek Community Church which is one of America’s most famous mega-churches. It has suffered membership stagnation and a lack of enthusiasm among the faithful. Pastor Bill Hybels confesses that Willow Creek….has failed to meet the congregation’s deepest spiritual needs.”
Butler Bass quotes David Korten from his book, The Great Turning“The Great Turning is an awakening – a movement to reorient human culture toward connectedness, economic quality, democracy, creation, and spirituality. The Great Turning awakens us to becoming ‘fully human’”.
Bass says, “Awakenings imply new awareness, inner transformation, a change of heart and mind, and a reordering of priorities, commitments, and behavior. The Great Turning is less of a turn toward something completely new and unknown; it is more of a Great Returning to an ancient understanding, of finding a forgotten path of wonder and awe through the wilderness of human chaos and change.” She believes that “many people in the West have been reaching toward religio – only they call it ‘spirituality’”.
Harvey Cox, “…people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding. They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit.”
Is it reasonable to assume that those who have left the church have done so because it leaves them empty of purpose and void of a fulfillment they know intuitively as their deepest longing? I can speak to that question within the context of my own story.
By the Church’s definition I would have been labeled a heathen most of my life until my wretched soul was “saved” at the time of my baptism into the Catholic Church forty years ago. But, upon closer inspection my heathenness was merely whitewashed for appearance sake and for the pictures and the celebratory luncheon that followed. You could say I was probably more heathenly after rising up for those baptismal waters all full of my new found piety.
John Eldredge tells us, “Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person….when transformation comes, it is always the aftereffect of something else, something at the level of our hearts. Christianity begins with an invitation to desire.”
Paul Coutinho, SJ – excerpts from his book, How Big Is Your God?
“The Eastern understanding of truth is an experience. In the East, experience that affects life is true. Truth is that which touches ones heart and changes one’s life. In the Yahwistic tradition God never forgets we are weak, imperfect and sinful. This God is intimate. If you don’t experience the Divine inside you, you won’t find God anywhere. Each one of us is an unrepeatable revelation of the One from whom all things have come. Gandhi used to say, if Christians had actually done what Jesus taught us to do – namely, love our enemy – the world would long ago have been transformed. He challenged us to turn our creed back into deed.”
Luke 10:27 in The Message, “He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” How powerful and scary is that? What would it mean to our world right now if we actually loved like that!? But, that is what God has deeply, fervently, longed for since the beginning of humanity. And since the beginning of humanity we have mostly failed him with the exception of a few shining lights in the darkness; a few God moments which is the Divine trying to get our attention in an otherwise ordinary existence. God hides in plain sight. He is ever present to us in myriad ways, but we’re too busy or indifferent to notice.
Remember when the churches were closed because of Covid and we got to go to “church” in our pajamas? Well, guess what? In Genesis 28:16, Jacob is all tucked in bed when he has this revelation, an AHA moment if you will, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” Today’s translation might be something like: “Holy Moly Batman! God is everywhere! Not just in the church building at 9:00 on Sunday morning!” If that fact didn’t just cause you a bit of trembling and a whole lot of angst you might need to get your pulse checked.
During this critical juncture in our history, you may feel overwhelmed and frightened. You may have bought into the belief that we are beyond hope. But, that is a lie. There have been countless positive and hopeful examples of those who refuse to give up on themselves and others the world has rejected but God named blessed.
Those who can rightly see God, who lives and moves and has his being right in our midst, will lead the way to a “rebooting” if you will; a movement back to God’s creation story of love. The indifference to God, injustice toward our fellowman, the environment are in-our-face truths that have played out on T.V. and social media for months now. How can we go back to business as usual? We can’t “unsee” the abuse that we have either participated in or have chosen to deny. Either way, we are culpable.
Heaven and hell can be best understood here in this place of uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s time to choose. We have created and are living our own heaven or hell right here – right now. They are both manifest in our relationships, first with God and then with each other. If we push God away that is our hell. If we choose God over all the worldly lies and temptations, that is our heaven.
BUT! Big, huge BUT here, we are in a very exciting place in that we have an opportunity to be a part of the change God longs for. It’s time and we are uniquely prepared, whether we know it or not, to step into the void; to reimagine and then participate in God’s plan of renewal for a broken world. We are called to love and serve; to be Christ to others. Now is our time. Let’s do this!
“Let us not become weary in doing good” Galatians 6:9
And, lastly, what you have been waiting for with bated breath. Here’s my life in two phases. My rendition of Dr. Seuss –
My life before God’s intervention:
d. Sorry, you are not allowed to assign the provided terms.
But, then God grabbed onto the worst of me until I gave up my stubborn will. Just in the nick of time I might add!
“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential!”- Charlie Brown
I want to dedicate this blog post to my granddaughters, great-granddaughters, and all the little girls out there (or big girls getting a late start – like me!). Girls who may not yet be aware of their great warriorness. In particular, those who may not have someone in their lives to instill in them a belief in their magnificence, brilliance, and untapped potential. I often wonder what a difference someone like that may have made in my life as I was growing up.
Certainly I have grown immensely over the past twenty+ years. I have gained strength and courage to recognize and face down many of the lies I believed for so long about my insignificance. Mostly it was an uphill battle that I often felt I fought alone. Of course, in hindsight I know I was not alone. I could not possibly have overcome what I have without the strength, tenderness, and guidance of God which enabled my heart and soul to begin healing and grow into the life I never believed I was worthy of.
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do” Brene Brown
A review of my life may seem to a casual observer that I wasted a lot of time. Yes, I may have wondered in the desert for fifty years. But, this last twenty years of working to fulfill a life of meaning and purpose tells me now that everything in God’s planning is just as it should be. I am awestruck at how far I have actually come in these most recent years! Truth be told, even in the midst of the “fruitfulness” there will always be messiness and missteps, mostly of our own doing. I seem to step in it, clean myself up, move on, forget, and step in it again. But, hey, it is said that you’re okay if you fall, as long as you fall forward.
So, now that I am higher on that mountain than I have ever imagined I would love to reach back to encourage and help lift little girls and young women God has given me a heart for. I want you to know that among all your attributes you are a warrior; a superhero, a gift meant to be shared with those who suffer.
I have often written about Esther, you know the “made for such a time as this” Esther? But let’s look at another courageous young woman, Joan of Arc.
Here’s a short biography of her young life from the St. Joan Center Website:
“From her earliest of years Joan was known for her obedience to her parents, religious fervor, goodness, unselfish generosity and kindness toward her neighbors. Simonin Munier, one of Joan’s childhood friends, tells how Joan had nursed him back to health when he was sick. Some of her playmates teased her for being ‘too pious.’ Others remembered how she would give up her bed to the homeless stranger who came to her father’s door asking for shelter.
Joan was ‘like all the others’ in her village until her thirteenth year. “When I was about thirteen, I received revelation from Our Lord by a voice which told me to be good and attend church often and that God would help me.” She stated that her ‘Voices’ were Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. At first her ‘Voices’ came to her two or three times a week but as the time for her mission drew near (five years later), they visited her daily telling her to ‘Go into France’ to raise the siege of Orleans, conduct the Dauphin Charles to Reims for his crowning and to drive the English from the land.”
That simple peasant girl stood her ground against English kings and a motley crew of bishops in the Catholic Church. It was a good-ole-boys club in which she was not welcome (little seems to have changed, huh?!). One bishop declared that she should be sent home and given a good spanking. How dare she think anyone would believe angels spoke to her? The audacity of her leading men into battle! They would have none of it. She was arrested and put on trial by a bunch of weak men who got their underwear all bunched up because she had the strength and courage none of them could come close to. And to add insult to injury the French loved her! She was too much for their fragile egos. They had to make an example of her lest other women got some crazy notion they were meant for more than servitude. So, they conspired to condemn her for heresy, witchcraft and violating divine law for dressing like a man (huh?). They were hell-bent to prove it was Satan, not angels, that spoke to her and led her astray. By conspiring and lying they eventually got what they wanted. She was put on trial, condemned, and burned at the stake for good measure. Needless to say, they hated her and everything she stood for. There is even controversy concerning her canonization in 1920 as being more politically than faith motivated.
Now, don’t start imagining that you would end up like Joan if you followed God’s calling and reconsider what being a warrior asks of you, “No thanks. I’ll just hang out here with my Barbie and Macho Ken.”
Remember in Luke’s gospel when Jesus was hanging on the cross and those cocky rulers sneered at him? “You supposedly saved others why don’t you save yourself?Ha!” Well, Joan, like Jesus, had the courage all her life to listen and obey God’s call. All the while not really knowing what that would entail. On the surface, you might conclude that the way it ended for both Joan and Jesus would not make a powerful recruitment tool. They both felt abandoned by God at a most critical point in their lives. But, God did not abandon them. We know how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have sustained Christians throughout thousands of years so we can rest assured that God fulfilled his purpose in Jesus even when he was silent.
As for Joan, I read a fascinating unpublished novel by Virginia Frohlick, The Lost Chronicles, The Story Of Joan of Arc. Frohlick by profession is a registered nurse and writes extensively about the wounds sustained by Joan during battle. She details (to ad nauseam really) four of those wounds and said each of them alone would have been fatal. All this to say that God truly was with Joan and guided her from the moment of her calling at the age of thirteen until her death.
Okay, now that we have established the fact that God is totally enamored with you, your brilliance, and your eagerness to answer the battle cry that is your destiny…
Good question. I don’t know. Sorry. I have no idea what God has planned for you. 1 Corinthians 2:9 tells us, “But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined,are the things God has prepared for those who love him.”
However, what I can share with you is a bit of my own journey full of twists and turns and doubts and, yes, awesomeness, because that’s really all I know for sure. I was made to believe that I was nothing special; that anyone who made something of themselves possessed gifts or talents or even some magical powers that I did not have. When you feel so beaten down you begin to believe the lies. It’s hard enough to drag yourself out of bed in the morning without having to perform like it matters. So, then you begin to tell yourself that everyone but you got “the gift”. You got a lump of coal.
So many of us spend our entire lives dreaming of what’s possible, at the same time shaking in fear of what we might become if we let down our guard and welcomed the discovery of some unmet potential that we could never have imagined. To protect our fragileness we label those who excel “genius”. “Yeah, she’s smart while I barely got through high school. She’s prettier while I could be Anne Ramsey’s stunt double!”
It gets us off the hook. We have a valid excuse for sitting back and accepting that we will never amount to anything because, well, we were not blessed with those God-given talents we see in everyone else. Oh well.
I tried to stop comparing myself to all those people I grew to envy, but in truth I continually found myself deficient in so many areas of my life. Then, ever so slowly, the changes began. God knows how to deal with each of us. He knows some, like Paul, can get wacked off a horse, rub his lumps, and instantly convert to Man of the Year. Others, like me, need a gentler, more gradual tap, followed by a soft landing. I suppose that’s why it took so long.
If you would have approached me any time prior to the start of my transition to a semi-caring human and asked, “Hey, Linda, you wanna go out in the world and serve lost, dying, broken, humanity?” My immediate response would be, “Hahahahahaha. NO!” Do you think God had any idea that would be my response? Of course, he did. So, he waited. And waited. And waited. He seems to be really good at that. Then, like the masses at Walmart on Black Friday, when the door of my heart opened ever so slightly, he quickly stuck his foot in the door. (Right! I know. God doesn’t have feet. Just work with me here okay?)
To spare you the long version of the past twenty years I’ll just give you the bullet points, remembering what one of my professors in graduate school seemed to only ask me, “What’s your point, Linda?”
(And, yes, these are bullet points for an A.D.D. brain so cut me some slack.) Anyway:
This is where it all started: Call it baptism by fire! My first AHA moment came when I worked for Youth in Need. I had an “I’m the boss” attitude until a little twelve-year-old boy taught me what loving kindness looked like. I was basically a house-mom and he came there hating the world. He would start a fight with other kids at the slightest provocation. He was a very difficult child to deal with. One evening, he stole something from another resident and got very angry with me for confronting him when I found it under his bed. I told him I was going to the office to call our therapist and he spit on me. Now, I was angry. I mumbled things under my breath I will not repeat here. When I called the therapist I knew he was listening at the door. I explained what happened and she asked me if I felt threatened. At that moment, something inside me changed. It was Easter Sunday. The day we remember Jesus’ story reflecting God’s love promise. A promise made to me in spite of all my sin and brokenness. A promise made to this child I was about to have removed and sent to Juvenile Detention. I told her “no” I did not feel threatened and we hung up. He fell into the room when I opened the door and started yelling at me to go ahead and call the police he didn’t care! I told him I was not going to call the police and if he would calm down, take a shower, and go to bed, it was over. He got up, attitude still on display, and out of somewhere deep inside of me I said, “And, Justin, if you need a hug I have one for you.” He shoved the chair and “yeah, right!”ushered out of his mouth as he slammed the door and left. I repeated his “yeah right” a few times as I completed an Incident Report. What was I thinking? As I walked up the steps, Justin came out of the bathroom. He looked at me with a different demeanor now and asked, “Can I have that hug now?” I’m not sure how long I hugged that child or how long we both cried. I wondered if anyone in his young life had ever hugged love into his fragile heart. And there was God on full display hugging love into both our hearts on Easter Sunday!
A few years later, there was the moment God’s clear voice told me to write a book, followed by my hysterical laughter which I’m sure he did not find amusing. Anyway, I shook it off and went on about my business. A few months later, I went to community college and wrote a paper for an English class. When my teacher returned it to me he said, “Linda, this is really good. You should see about getting it published.” Wait…WHAT?! So, I started writing my life story. Right! Like anyone would care. But, I persevered, finished it, self-published it after a multitude of rejections, even got a little award from a Writing Guild no one ever heard of. The books were piled up in my basement and Oprah never called so my hopes of becoming famous were shattered. Fine!
In 2006, I was given the opportunity to attend graduate school with full tuition paid by a grant. God didn’t have to wait long for that rolling, side-splitting laughter from someone who barely finished high school! I prayed about it and after a deeply mystical experience, not really, I just said, “What the hell! What have I got to lose?!” There are no words to describe how those three years challenged every fiber of my being. Then, beyond anyone’s expectations, except God’s, I graduated with a degree in Pastoral Studies. Then came the job search. If you think I had a hard time getting any Priest to welcome me into the good-ole-boys-secret-hand-shake club, you’d be right. Of course, I whined to God…again…about why he had me on what surely was a wild goose chase to nowhere. “I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!” No answer. Fine!
Fast forward to 2014. Tired of sitting at home and listening to my own belly-aching I decided to just go volunteer somewhere. After all, I was already beyond the age of retirement, so why not? Remembering what a beautiful experience we had with Hospice when my dad was dying, I started working with them. During that time I learned a lot about the dying process. That we are not simple observers from a distance for those who are taking their final journey. Hospice care involves participating in what I can only describe as a profound sense of empathetic being-with; participating in a deepening movement through a process that is almost palpable. It was truly holy ground and I always felt sitting vigil with the dying was a privilege that blessed me to the depth of my very soul. I left there when my beloved mother-in-law, Catherine, went into hospice care as we sat vigil with her on her final journey. Then I waited…more calmly this time.
Next, I stepped a bit deeper into my fear and vulnerability by working with the homeless for St. Vincent de Paul, which ended up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But, if you would have told me I would be hugging and loving on two ex cons at a dumpy motel they were staying in I would have straight up denied the possibility. But there I was. There were many encounters like that. Most of them I didn’t tell my Supervisor about because I didn’t think his heart could take it. Like the day I got the call from another agency, “Hey, you want to come help this girl who’s hiding from her mob boyfriend?” Here’s me, “Sure, why not?!” Sadly, our homeless program ended when our funding ran out. We then had to refer people to other agencies and I did not feel the other programs were a good fit for me so I stepped aside to discern what God had up his sleeve next. As of this writing I’m still waiting, but I’m pretty sure God has removed his ear plugs because I’m more patient now. You’re welcome, Lord!
I just shared with you a capsule version of my last twenty years. When I think about how I have grown and matured in faith; how others have taught me to live with ambiguity and uncertainty and be okay with it, I am stupefied! To be able to say to someone in their brokenness, “I don’t know why this happened to you, but I care” – and then really care and be vulnerable to their pain, is all God asks of us.
Learning to love and serve with God’s heart didn’t come naturally for someone who never had it modeled for them. I know that each step has built upon another to bring me to this place. It may not have seemed to make sense at the time. I may have spent too much time trying to repackage God’s perfect plan to fit my expectations, fixating on my own plans. But, at the end of the day, I know I am exactly where God wants me and I know he does not waste time.
So, now what?
“God gives food to every bird, but he doesn’t throw it into the nest.”
An ancient Hindu saying
Angela Duckworth did a lot of research for her book, Grit. She says:
“Often we believe that people who excel have some innate gift that no one else has. But it seems it isn’t so much ability or talent as zeal and hard work.Without effort your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t. Enthusiasm is common, endurance is rare.”
Duckworth names four psychological assets necessary for success in any worthwhile endeavor and addresses critical aspects of growing into our God-given purpose:
Development: Daily discipline.
Purpose: Conviction that your work matters. A lifetime of deepening.
Hope (needed in every stage) keeps you going when things are difficult, even when you have doubts.
I can relate to all of these aspects that have continually reinforced God’s plan for my life, but I would add one more: Trust. If we cling to our fears we will stay stuck in our emptiness. You have to own your story not wait for someone else to write the chapters.
Through that still small voice, in my most broken moments, God spoke into the depth of my heart, “No matter where you are at this moment, no matter what heartache or pain you may have suffered you are now, and always have been, enough because you belong to me. You can trust me.”
Granted I did not run into God’s arms with wild abandon. It was more like a slow crawl and a lot of back-sliding. I wanted to test him because trust was not one of my strong suits. But then, the more I submitted to him and experienced the changes in my heart, I was hooked. I just knew this was different; my life was different. I began to breathe in a love I had never known before. It was incredible and I couldn’t get enough of that sense of God’s immense love for me even when I mess up. I still need to remind myself daily that being worthy and imperfect are both aspects of our humanity. They are not contradictory.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
So, dear ones, it’s up to you to pray and listen for God’s whack or still small voice, whichever one works. Pay attention to your desires that speak to God’s desires which would probably not be the newest iPhone. What are you passionate about? What breaks your heart? What gives you joy? (Again, please say it’s not a new iPhone.)
“Don’t ask what the world needs.Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that.Because what the world needs is people who have come alive”
The author of the article, Nicole Carroll, tells us:
“They didn’t succeed despite adversity, but often because of it. They didn’t just blaze a trail. They hammered one with their voices, their ideas and their grit. They did it at massive protests and in church basements, on big stages and in dusty fields. They stood on the shoulders of ancestors and pulled along those behind them.
The lessons of the women who brought us this far show that from the darkest moments, we find our greatest resolve. So many women who’ve achieved have first been hurt. Trauma can shame and shatter. But, they will tell you, it can also guide.
How do women keep pushing forward in the next 100 years? The same way they always have. They’ll imagine. They’ll create. They’ll fight. With grit and with sacrifice. With not enough sleep and not enough help. With bright days of self-confidence and desperate nights of self-doubt. With courage.”
So, here are a few thought provoking questions for you. I’m sure you could come up with more. I pray you will hear the voice of God speaking to your heart and you will respond with a huge, “Here I am Lord! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). And then dear one fasten your seat-belt for the adventure of your life!
How are you unique?
Do you know what your gifts are?
Who do you admire and why? (Often what we admire in others is what we would like to develop in ourselves).
Do you like helping others?
Do you consider yourself a leader?
What makes you happy – sad?
Has someone else told you you are good at something?