Church – A Great Place to Hide

Church has been made safe, comfortable and non-threatening. We leave our messy and damaged selves outside freeing us up for Worship Aerobics. We greet, bow, kneel, sit, stand, sing, bow, kneel, recite, pray, hug, sit, stand, stare, judge, wiggle, squirm, and day-dream – then go home for a nap.

THE DISCONNECT:

Rev. Gretta Vosper shared these thoughts with a reader who left her church and feels disconnected, “It is so hard to realize that you are no longer drawn to a community of faith by the faith of the community.” She then offered opportunities to consider for community and service outside the church:  

There are so many places that need a helping hand from food banks to women’s shelters to garden centres and reading programs. Any one of them would lift your heart and connect you to that great power of love by which so many needs in the world are filled. In the process of finding that new ministry, be open to the new friends to whom it will introduce you. They may not look like what you’re used to, but your heart, next to theirs, will soon beat with a common rhythm.

For me, walking away from church was a formidable and uncertain experience. I thought I had everything figured out – I was wrong. Now, here I was, packing up a Master’s Degree that hadn’t even had time to collect dust.

Then came the guilt. My Graduate School education was completely paid for by a grant. When I was accepted into the program it was expected that I would return to my parish and begin work as a Pastoral Associate. What seemed to be forgotten, or missed all together, by those establishing the program, was the stubborn refusal of Priests to accept us…you know… women, as part of the leadership team. Apparently, the times they were not a changin’.

I spoke to some pastors, my own in particular, who flat-out told me they weren’t interested in what I had to offer even though I said I would work as a volunteer. I was shown the door and given a man-sized boot.

I’m sure the discouragement and frustration I felt were palpable. I couldn’t fight that male-dominated, power-hungry, muscle flexing attitude. It exhausted me and made me cuss more frequently, so I gave up. It was a short walk from there to totally leaving church, but I left broken-hearted.

THE PROBLEM WITH DONUTS AND LATTES:

How about you?

If, as a youth, going to church was nothing more than an obligation and the only time you didn’t drag your feet and complain was Donut Sunday – that’s a problem.

If the only thing that set your heart on fire at Youth Group were the cute girls/boys – that’s a problem.

If you quit attending church the minute you came of age because it was never your “thing”, whose failure is that? The Churches’? Your parents?  Yours?  Or….

STUCK IN ORDINARY

In the Catholic tradition we have what is called “Ordinary Time” – basically the times before and after Easter and Christmas. I would imagine that resembles other traditions even if it isn’t named as such.

Perhaps the word “ordinary” is a problem. “Hey, I live ordinary, monotonous, boring every day of my life! Why on earth would I want to get up early, dress up, squeeze into a pew full of strangers and listen to irrelevant “stuff” that puts me back to sleep and causes me to snore and drool out the side of my mouth? Why?

Megachurches have tried to fill the gap with music and light shows that could rival “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

The problem is, while folks are swinging and swaying and belting out thirty minutes of music (albeit beautiful music), Jesus left the building and no one noticed.

TRANSCENDING ORDINARY IS RISKY:

Is it the Church’s responsibility to turn “ordinary” into extraordinary?  And what exactly is “extraordinary? Can we even define “church” in the context of what we do know about God?

God is: Magnificent, gracious, merciful, and forgiving. His gratuitous love spills out into the heart and soul of every one of us. He cares deeply about the lost and forsaken. Is that what we experience in church? Is that what we hear from the pulpit? Is that what we base our actions and attitudes on? From the daily news of the violence and hatred emanating from many “Christians” today, it wouldn’t seem so.

How many of us would feel culpable if we stood by and watched but didn’t actively participate in that violence? How many of us hate in silence?

Mary Collins shares the words of the British writer Monica Furlong:

“It has been customary to talk as if the purpose of the Church has been to put people in touch with God, or to keep them in touch with God….although on the face of it the church seems to exist to help its adherents into relationship with God. It equally, and perhaps essentially, plays the opposite role of trying to filter out an experience of transcendence which might be overwhelming.”

Collins continues with a striking question, “What did she (Furlong) judge to be one of the church’s key filters for helping people avoid too great an intimacy with God? Liturgy. Liturgy as ‘keeping in touch’ without getting too close. Yet the bravest among us allow ourselves to wonder. Dare we agree that liturgical practice itself, in whatever form, conceals truth about God that we are unable to bear?”

In my own faith, which has grown from non-existent to something beyond my imagining, God-filled AHA moments did not happen while I was sitting in the pew on Sunday. Possibly because I was always on guard for lightening strikes against me or the guy next to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved certain aspects of being a part of a church community. What frustrated me was not seeing the most central expression of our faith – communion –forgotten the minute we (myself included) walk out the door.

When we share communion we are reminded of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Take this bread and never forget me. Never forget how much I love you! Never forget“. But, we do forget.

We stroll in late, then haul purses, coats, and kids through the communion line and straight out the door for the important stuff of the day: Soccer, brunch, bingo, whatever.

We forget there is more that must take place the other six days of the week. God’s call to take what we were just fed into a hurting world rings hollow in hearts that are not transformed.

We refuse to accept that the problem has anything to do with us and we certainly don’t want to get close enough to God to hear the truth. That’s too scary. It may expose us to the real God, and it’s that real God we go to great lengths to avoid.

Many come to faith in the same way we come to our day-to-day world. We bring our narcissistic attitude that the world revolves around us. The God we worship must meet our expectations and demands. The world is a mess – He must fix it. People are suffering – He must help them. I am a Christian – He must put me first. So our worship amounts to praise if things are going well and complaining if they’re not.

Those “bravest among us” Collins calls God-seekers who risk. She says:

Monica Furlong, speaking about liturgy as keeping in touch without getting too close to God, distinguished between ordinary churchgoers and “god-seekers”.  She observed that god-seekers risk more than the ordinary. They risk their sanity – their healthy adjustment to conventional thinking – by opening themselves to powerful disclosures of the divine. The rest of us, less adventurous, go to church. But it is possible to be both.”

WOULD WE LAY DOWN OUR LIVES? (JOHN 15:13)

Saint Oscar Romero was a bishop in El Salvador. He was gunned down at the altar while celebrating Mass. He knew full well that was likely to happen when the night before he pleaded on the radio for the violence and murders to stop.

He called out the National Guard troops in particular. They had already killed six other priests, so he was certain he was also going to die at their hands. But, he spoke out anyway, and he celebrated Mass anyway. And the people came anyway! He passionately and fearless upheld the gospel mandates to care for his brothers and sisters in Christ – all of them!  

The poor among him who suffered, as well as the soldiers, heard his plea:

“No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you! In the name of God: ‘Cease the repression!’”

The purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  We as Christians and the preachers who are called to lead, should hear and ACT ON Romero’s powerful words or our profession of faith is a lie:

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in. … The gospel is courageous.”

God wants us to know that every bit of pain and suffering that we see or experience calls for our response. Without us nothing will change. Nothing!

Annie Dillard also presents a tough reality, “There is no one but us. There is no one to send but only us. There never has been.”

What is required of us but to do justly and to love mercy (Micha 6:8). We are called to be the instruments of justice and mercy in this world. There is no one but us. If we can ever come to a place where we “get it” our worship will become the action that will resound into a world that suffers.

We will sing through our hurting, rejoice through our suffering, and be a beacon to a world that is yet to “get it”.

JUST WHO ARE YOU, GOD?

Can we ever be brave enough to accept the reality of a God we can’t imagine?

Even though every theological method of putting a label on God has been tested through the ages, one fact remains, and it’s one we as human beings refuse to accept: We will never figure God out! And I am certain (metaphorically) he rolls his eyes at our feeble attempts at it.

WHAT’S THAT SMELL?!

We can affect change in the world if we become bold enough.  God is in search of people hot after his own heart, like David. Yes, that David, the adulterer and murderer. He was a screw-up who hobbled through life, often missing the mark. But, when he got it right, when he was on fire for God, there was no stopping him! And people took notice! They smelled something burning and came to check it out.

Now, dear friends, it’s our turn.

Never, Never, Never Give Up

I know so many people, and I’ll bet you do too, perhaps even you yourself, who just can’t believe God has a plan for them. Over the years, I have encountered people who don’t believe me when I tell them my story. “Oh, really?! God told you to do that, huh?  Right!” To be honest, I wouldn’t have believed it myself if he hadn’t gradually brought me to a place where I could trust him even if I was fearful and had no idea what he was up to. For years, there were little promptings that, in hindsight, proved to me that he was on the job (Romans 8:28). Then bigger ones that required more trust; offered way more grace than I deserved, and opened my heart more than I could have imagined.

God was always longing to grow me into the person he meant for me to be. It was me resisting; me not being present to him; me missing the mystery and majesty that surrounded me because I was just too busy to notice, or more likely, too afraid. Instead I skipped along trying to drown out his voice, “Lalalalalalalala I can’t hear you!”

We can be so enmeshed in, and blinded by, the things of this world we miss out on our whole purpose for being here. If you are going through life day-after-unremarkable-day; schlepping through the same routine to ad nauseum – STOP IT! Your life has a purpose people…you matter that much!

We are all called to holiness; called to use the gifts and talents already given us for God’s kingdom work right here – right now. It just takes awareness on our part. (I would highly recommend Anthony DeMello’s book by the same name, Awareness).

Leo Tolstoy’s  novel, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”,  considered a masterpiece, was written just after his own “profound spiritual awakening” and conversion experience. While lying on his deathbed, Ilyich ruminated about the reality that his entire life was superficial and self-serving and he profoundly stated, “Maybe I didn’t live as I should have done!”At the end, he posited a question that Tolstoy must have pondered himself, “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?” Oops, a little late buddy!

“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” Gian Carlo Menotti

It  was too late for Ilyich, but not Tolstoy. He discovered his purpose and rejected his aristocratic life to follow Jesus’ teachings – in particular – the Sermon on the Mount. Years later, his writings also had a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others.

Soooooo, what are you waiting for? You must still be breathing or you wouldn’t be reading this. That’s a start. Incredibly, no matter how you lived your life to this point, it’s not too late to begin again. New beginnings are God’s specialty! He has proven that through the lives of every misfit from Moses to this ole grandma – To infinity and beyond!  God coined that phrase you know. Don’t believe me? HUMPH! Check out Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Alrighty then, you’re pumped and ready to go, right? You’re packing your sandals and camel hair coat and checking Google Maps… for what? A sign from God?

Stop! Take a deep breath. Maybe start by sitting quietly with God and waiting.

Don’t look to anyone to give you a formula or a check list to send you on your way to sainthood. But, I will tell you this: You cannot love and serve others (which is our greatest calling) until you are able to love yourself. And you can’t love yourself by means of any of the myriad of self-help books on the market. You can only do that by growing in the knowledge that you are deeply and passionately loved first by the God who created you! And you can only do that by being in relationship with him, which requires your time.

You are his son/daughter with whom he is well-pleased (Matthew 17:5). Let that sink in. We are deeply loved sinners. It’s high time we act like it, don’t you think?

We are so used to being in a world that is loud and demanding of our attention, especially today. We even busy ourselves filling in uncomfortably quiet places. That’s how we miss God’s “still small voice” or “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Sure, he’s good at those show-stopper whirlwinds and earthquakes and fire. Even what I have called 2×4 moments, but they didn’t leave marks like the ones my mother inflicted. Because of her I was always on guard for those “laying down the law” whacks that I expected from God too when I messed up. But, I believe he more often speaks through Spirit – whispers of pure grace.

Now, though I still mess up – and often – I know God’s response is out of love for me; his admonitions tell me that he loves me too much to let me stay stuck in the muck.

Absolutely, go to church, take the time to read scripture, and pray, But mostly...LISTEN! Geeeezzzzz, we’re so bad at listening.

God Reimagined

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s there was a popular TV show called “To Tell the Truth”. I loved watching it as a kid.

Then I wondered: What if it came back and the first episode had three contestants that claimed to be God? They would all have to be hidden behind a screen or in a disguise because we’re pretty sure we could identify him.

Then, I wondered: If I was on the panel what questions would I ask to flush out the real God? That might be tricky. But, here it goes:

1. “One of my grandkids would cheat at board games that I wasn’t familiar with and make up the rules as he went along. So, I quit playing with him. Do you make up your own “rules” depending on your mood that day?”

2. “How many “rules” can I break without coming back as a slug in my next life?”

3. “What are you made of – flesh and bone or smoke and mirrors?”

4.”If you really loved us, why did you make ice cream fattening?” (Oops. How’d that get in there?)

That was fun to imagine, but let’s move on to the reality that is life today in the midst of Covid and one catastrophe after another. So many lost souls are wandering around without a clue of how they got where they are or what to do next.

Then there are those who believe they have it all figured out – it’s the Apocalypse! The end of the world! So, they packed their bags for heaven and made a mental list of all those that will be “left behind”. They’re all giddy at the thought that ALMIGHTY GOD will exact his punishment on you heathens (you know who you are)! But, don’t say they didn’t warn you. You had your chance to get your sorry-self saved and get all righteous like them but you turned them down – twice – for a cold beer and a football game. That your team lost by the way! Big mistake!

 I imagine most people hang out somewhere between the two. I’m not sure that’s a great place to be either. But, if God’s not going to send us a current day “Moses” to help us tic off an updated list of “rules to live by” then we will need to make some decisions ourselves. I think it’s more critical than ever for each of us to decide where we stand on issues of faith and then stay there!

Perhaps the place to begin is to come face-to-face with the age-old idea of an angry, vengeful God who confounds so many of us. Even though today’s young people seem to be able to see right through him. They reject the blind faith of the older generations and I can speak to that because I’m old.

In my past life of black and white faith I was certain about EVERY SINGLE THING, even the fact that God would get those who refused to follow the dogmas and dictates infallibly laid out for us in his own words in a nicely leather-bound Bible that he dropped from heaven like manna.

I read that Bible front to back several times. As a die-hard Catholic I wasn’t supposed to do that. I was supposed to leave it to the “Experts”. But, I had to see for myself. And, yep, it was all in there. All the literal “truths” that I didn’t discover until later were reformulated over and over to keep the powerful – well – powerful, and the ignorant masses in line.

And then it happened: In 2008, at the age of fifty-nine, a course of events upended everything I was certain about. I was offered a rare opportunity to attend Graduate School paid for by a grant. That’s a whole, “How the hell did you get in here?!” story all by itself, but we’ll leave that for another day.

I quickly discovered that there was a reason a string of Bishops made every effort to have that school shut down because those professors were corrupting minds. They had the audacity to challenge us to think! One of the first questions in my Scripture Studies class was, “What if the story of Adam and Eve was just a myth and they were not even actual people? Would it shatter your faith or would it still have meaning to you?”

Wait! What?!

For the next three years, the certitude I clutched like a security blanket was unraveling. I had so many “what ifs” to sort through I’m surprised I survived. My righteous, superior attitude was being dismantled right in front of me and it wasn’t pretty! But, I stayed and endured the painful reality of my shallowness – because – well – what if?! I could give you example after example of how so much of scripture was written, not by God, but by faulty humans, many with an agenda. But I won’t.

Well, okay, maybe just a short one. How about the Creation Story?

I’m just gonna throw this question out there: Is it possible that a few mistakes were made when God so quickly created the entire universe and all its content? Not sure what his hurry was. I mean he was just hanging around for billions of years with nothing to do and all of a sudden he gets a wild hair to create something outrageously new and unique. It was a pretty lofty goal to get it all done in just six days. Maybe this too hurried planning stage was the problem. I get it. I am terrible about following directions and often in a rush leave out steps that are critical to the outcome.

Admittedly, I never tried to make a human though. I suppose that would be a bit complicated.

This would probably be my feeble attempt..

But, Thomas Edison, who failed 2,000 times trying to invent the light bulb, kept trying till he got it right. Why didn’t God just keep trying till he got it right? Surely he could foreseen the messiness of humanity and tweak them somehow. Reconsidering free-will might have been a good place to start because it probably didn’t take long for God to wonder what he was thinking with that one.

Let’s do a follow-up to that story, one that Alexander would define as a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” for humanity. Except in this case, not just a single day, but an entire life for every human from Adam and Eve to that adorable brand-spankin’-new nephew of yours. That’s right. We’re talking about the stain of “Original Sin”. Do you know where that “infallible truth” originated? No? That’s a huge one! Weren’t you even curious?

Let’s pick it apart beginning with a peek into the relationship between Augustine, the author of “Original Sin”, and his mother, Monica. He was a rebel-rousing, partying, sex-lustful heathen with no intention of changing. Still, she was relentless in her prayers. She admonished him over and over, but he was having too much fun to take her seriously. Until finally, after years of her incessant nagging and possibly a heavenly whack (I’ve received my share of those, they leave marks!) he finally saw the error of his ways, or maybe a paternity suit influenced his decision. Anyway, he did a 180 and converted to a man of faith. But, then there was the terrible reality of his life of sin and debauchery. How would he account for that? Well, being unwilling to take responsibility for his miserable life he conjured up a brilliant idea, “I know”, he said to himself, “I will blame it all on Satan! Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

And so he set out creating this incredible story about two characters he named Adam & Eve. Oh yeah, and the Devil disguised as a snake who talked (nothing sketchy there). The story went like this: Adam was going about the business of being holy when out of nowhere the evil woman, Eve, seduced his senses with an apple and a promise (fingers crossed) from a snake. When they got caught butt-naked, Adam the Cowardly immediately blamed both the snake and Eve for conniving against him in this wretched scheme. 

So, what does God do? He apparently lost his cool and in a fit of anger condemned all of humankind from the moment of their birth to a life of misery and sinfulness that they can never, ever, ever, recover from. And, voila, Augustine is off the hook for all his sexual indiscretions and Satan took the fall. Brilliant!

Then, in the 16th Century the Council of Trent gave that inane doctrine its stamp of approval and the rest, as they say, is history. Thus the well-worn bumper sticker, “THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT!” was created by some genius who got rich from it and moved to the Bahamas.

Now, that brings me to another story. Sorry. But, this transitions perfectly into the great and only flood that God dreamed up. Again in total frustration over the mess that was humanity. You would think that he might have stuck with plants and crawly things by then; maybe a few cute puppies – they’re great companions that love unconditionally and don’t talk back! But, no, again God seems to have made another hasty decision with dire consequences.

Okay, the story of Noah and the great flood. If God was so intent on wiping the slate clean and starting over wouldn’t he have first tried to figure out what went wrong and then create a new template? Maybe messed up DNA, gene sequencing issues (whatever that means), possibly needing to tweak a few chromosomes?  Anyway, that was all before the immortal words of wisdom attributed to Albert Einstein which might have helped, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  So, not surprising, after all that workAGAIN – the first thing Noah does when he steps foot on dry land is make wine, get naked and drunk, and embarrass his son, Ham. Guess they were cooped up too long and got on each other’s nerves! Great start for God’s new creation huh?! And, of course, we know it all went south from there.

Oh my gosh! We haven’t even talked about Jesus! Please indulge me for one more story. I promise this is the last one!

Consider Jesus’ baptism. By all accounts, John was a wild and crazy guy! He was all about “turn or burn” and preached God’s vengefulness and “requirements” for repentance and baptism. One could certainly consider him a militant. Did Jesus?

Imagine the scene: Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River. The fact that he went through that ritual presumes that he followed the teachings of John. But, somewhere along the way there were likely things that John preached that must have been unsettling for Jesus.  John the Baptist was all about power. Jesus, by his very nature, rejected power. Recall, that he was raised by two people who humbled themselves and surrendered A LOT when they both could have been on the cover to TIME magazine as Persons of the Year”!

Perhaps Jesus had an AHA moment because he skipped the after-baptism party and went right to the desert to reflect on the truth of who he was and discern how he was to live that truth. While there, our buddy Satan pulled out all the stops in a cunning and deceitful effort to lure Jesus away from his quest for clarity about his life’s purpose. But the promises of Satan fell on deft ears. Jesus was totally focused on this next phase of his life, trusting just enough to get on the path and go. Maybe stop for some breakfast.  

Now, the obvious question arises: Does all this raise any red flags regarding the convictions we have about scripture and God? Anything? I have one: How are we supposed to believe in and follow a God we don’t understand and can’t label; a God that truly is more mystery than certainty?

Robin Meyers’ most recent book, “Saving God from Religion” offers his thoughts for:

…everyone who is struggling with the old and narrow definitions of God but has yet to see any coherent and comprehensive way to reimagine the Ultimate Mystery…. we long for a faith that is more than judgmental certainty, more than “believe and receive.” ….we are hungry for new ways to heal and transform the broken world we inhabit.

I know, that’s a little daunting, huh? We don’t remember this, but one day each of us let go of our mother’s hand and took our first steps. One night dad had to come in our room and turn on the lights to show us there were no monsters under the bed – and then we slept. And, now, in this moment we are all challenged to reject that Great and Terrible Wizard that has been pulling our strings for too long. I don’t know a lot, but I do know that is NOT the God I have grown to love.

I don’t recognize the God defined by today’s Extremists. Do you? A God invoked by violence and hatred against those who are different than them, seen as lesser, or not seen at all. According to the militant Nationalists and Evangelicals their God did not create allhumankind in his image. Instead, they created their own God in their image and then defined “Christians” as only those adhering to the creeds and doctrines of their particular denomination which requires completion of a membership form, three references, and paid dues. The God they worship is a Mighty Warrior that will beat the crap out of the rest of humanity – the lesser than, outcasts, poor, and lost beings.

We must ask ourselves honestly, does any of this make any sense at all? Can we just stop and have the courage to question our beliefs that someone else with control issues instilled in us? Is it starting to feel like we have been conned by a little man with an intimidatingly loud voice behind the curtain?

I know it seems unsettling to live in the question. But blindly following beliefs that just don’t work anymore isn’t the answer. I believe that’s what Father Richard Rohr may be speaking to here:

 The human ego hates a genuinely new experience. It hates to change and is preoccupied with control. A genuinely new idea leaves you out of control for a while and forces you to reassess your terrain, find new emotions, and realign your life coordinates. We prefer to stay in our small comfort zones. God usually has to break in or break us down to break through to us.

So, if we really desire to be more like Jesus and less like those who use fear to claim power and control over us, then we must recognize, reject, and expose that little man with the big megaphone!

I no longer struggle to define God by my human understanding. I have fallen in love with the idea of God being “Ultimate Mystery” as Meyers says. I believe deep down that God is Unrelenting Love, Forgiveness, Compassion, and Mercy. I have given up on any need to go beyond that because none of us really knows. I’m good with that, although, it makes life right here, right now, more critical than ever because Jesus tells us that “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) God is alive and well within our very heartbeat.

What are the “facts’ of our Christian faith? I have no clue and I don’t dwell on it. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I simply try to be the best version of myself, to do the next right thing, to give and ask for forgiveness, to grow in empathy for those who suffer, and to imagine a better world; a kinder, more compassionate world.

Okay, that was some heavy stuff so I want to leave you with the hysterical and profound thoughts of Rami Shapiro the author of, “Holy Rascals”. In one section he offers made up letters written by made up kids addressed to God. What’s so incredible is that these thoughts came from beliefs he literally heard from adults. He says, the letters “are not about dismissing dogma, doctrine, or belief, but about taking dogma, doctrine, and belief to their absurdist conclusions.”  They made me laugh so hard I spit coffee through my nose – just giving you a heads-up. Here are just two:

Dear God,

My pastor says you need the blood of Jesus to calm down so you won’t get mad and send us to Hell. My mom makes me go to my room when I get mad. Maybe you should try that instead

Dear God,

My pastor says when your son comes back to earth, he will send my gramma and grampa to Hell because they are Methodists. Please don’t let him come back before my birthday because they promised to take me to Disney World.

THE END – OR JUST THE BEGINNING?

You are NOT Going to Heaven

Oops. Did you just spit your coffee on that new white shirt? Sorry. My bad.

While you’re cleaning up there and before I go any further, I think a disclaimer may be in order. Everything I say about God, aside from my own personal experience, is my humble opinion and has no basis in fact.  What did you pay for that opinion? Nothing. So, what is it worth? That’s right. Nothing.

So let’s continue.

There are many different beliefs and opinions concerning heaven and hell. But, there is only one fact: no matter what someone tells you, no matter what “proof” they provide, no one knows. No different than a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who collects clowns. She thinks they’re delightful and enchanting. I actually believe they were created by some satanic force to kill us in our sleep. So, who’s right? (I’m pretty sure I am, but I have no proof of that either.)

So, if your bubble just burst or your halo deflated, I apologize. But this is kind of important stuff to consider because if heaven and hell aren’t an actual piece of real estate, then maybe your reason for being nice, or not, to the jerk next door needs to be reevaluated. And, spoiler alert, this is not going to be easy or fun.

Heaven This is not heaven!

fire And this is not hell!

Diana Butler Bass speaks of this idea of heaven and hell as “vertical faith”. She says:

“Sacred traditions replete with metaphors of God in the elements were replaced by modern theological arguments – about facts and religious texts, correct doctrine, creation versus science, the need to prove God’s existence, how to be saved, and which church offers the right way to heaven. These are the questions of vertical faith.” (Did you catch that –  metaphor was replaced with fact?)

So, when it is said that we make our own heaven and hell right here, where we live and move and have our being, what exactly does that mean? Well, this is the tough part I referred to earlier because our Western brains can’t seem to grasp or accept anything mysterious or inexplicable. Everything in existence has to be named and categorized or it gets cast aside as irrelevant.

We are very good at compartmentalizing everything in our lives. Nice people who are low-maintenance  get to be a part of our club. Unpredictable, moody, or disagreeable people don’t get to join. We easily converse with those who agree with us and avoid or argue with those who don’t. We “attend” church on Sundays and then divide up the rest of the week into unrelated “things”. We even compartmentalize life and death. We separate the two with the certainty that there is no connection (Mufasa would not approve!).

circle of life

You may be too young to recall the days when wakes were held at home in a family parlor where the life and death of a loved one was celebrated as a continuum.  That all changed with the advent of the funeral parlor. Funeral parlors opened so “professionals” could manage the uncomfortable aspects of death and turn bodies into pasty replicas of loved ones. Frankly, I think funeral parlors came into existence when some guy got tired of his mother-in-law hanging around in a box in his living room for a week, but I can’t prove that either.

Anyway…

Considering how we keep everything in our lives separated into neat tidy boxes that we can easily manage, like peas and applesauce on our dinner plate, (yuck, don’t want those to touch each other) it’s no surprise how easily we accepted God’s separation from us as well. We can’t fathom the thought of God being right here in our midst looking for any soft entry into our walled up hearts. If we could just stop for one minute, let down our guard, and imagine how different; how rich and full our lives would be if we let Him in.

Try as we may to ignore it we all have an emptiness that God placed in our hearts that can only be filled by Him and not with things of this world. Augustine said it best: “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  I think, as I found in my own life, it requires us to admit our need for God; to truly see how our lives are empty of purpose and meaning without Him; that He has not left us to fend for ourselves.

How about this uplifting thought: Gian Carlo Menotti tells us, “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.” Wait now, this is actually good news. If hell is here now, and we somehow figure out what our true purpose is then we have a chance to correct our pathetic, despicable, pitiful selves before we drop dead. That is Good News, right?!

oh-crap-was-that-today

So, what does all this mean? Again, I can only speak from my own experience. For most of my life I ignored God and when I did acknowledge Him it was usually in a display of anger directed at Him. I believed He was distant and could care less about me – a heathen.

If God is known as “Father” then it would stand to reason that I would view Him just as I viewed my own father. In which case, he would be distant and aloof. He would be sitting on his sofa eating ice cream and mindlessly watching TV, while the world fell in around him. Or if my mother was any indication of who God was as a parent, I would have run like hell in the other direction. I would have seen Him as a controlling, punishing, and unforgiving God. And who needs that? Either way, He would not get a Father of the Year award from me and there would be no Hallmark card created for Him.

I think we actually like the notion that God is way up there while we’re way down here.  We might be relieved to think He’s not watching when we try to run our own lives. “Don’t need you, God. I’ve got this!” We’re probably hoping He’s much too busy with other more important things to pay any attention to us mindlessly sleepwalking through life?

olive oil sleep walking

In many traditional faiths, God sits in His heaven and doles out rewards and punishment to each of us according to our merits or sinfulness. Think of Job in his most distressing time and how his friends wagged their accusing fingers at him, certain that he had sinned in some terrible way to have been the recipient of God’ wrath. “It’s pretty obvious Buddy. You screwed up big time! Now, you need to fess up before God gets His second wind!”

So, what changed for me? It certainly wasn’t that God changed His ways. No, I had changed and it wasn’t because I was growing in knowledge about God. It was because I opened myself to a relationship with Him that allowed me to experience who God really was, not who I created Him to be. Knowing about God and experiencing Him is the critical difference necessary to live as fully as we are called to live, and to trust what lies ahead. God tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, “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.” We can choose to believe what we have long been told about a God whose wrath is to be feared, or we can choose to experience the God of immeasurable love and compassion.

Oh, if we could just grasp the reality of heaven and hell perhaps we would live our lives differently so that Menotti’s words would not be the end of our story.

Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr:

“When hell became falsely read as a geographical place, it stopped its decisive and descriptive function, and instead became the largely useless threats of exasperated church parents. We made (heaven and hell) into physical places instead of descriptions of states of mind and heart and calls to decisions in this world (emphasis mine). We pushed the whole thing off into the future, and took it out of the now.

Jesus clearly says the kingdom of heaven is among us (Luke 17:21) or “at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). One wonders why we made it into a reward system for later, or as Brian McLaren calls it, “an evacuation plan for the next world.” Maybe it was easier to obey laws and practice rituals for later than to actually be transformed now.”

A bit more on the reality of hell by Joanne M. Pierce in Sojourners Magazine (italics mine):

“Pope Francis said, ‘Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.’ Most contemporary theologians would agree with the pope. Hell is not about fire and brimstone; it is about our freedom to say no to God, our freedom to reject love and choose loneliness. When we close our hearts and tell the world to go to hell, we are in fact choosing hell for ourselves. Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion. We are not sent there; we choose it. God did not create hell; we did.”

When I write a blog post there is always an AHA moment involved. Sometimes it’s what prompts the post, and other times, like now, it comes in the process of writing. It’s like getting my proverbial thump from you-know-Who that causes me to stop and listen closely knowing I am about to be inspired. It happened this morning as I was sitting in silence. Okay, actually I was whining to God. I had a particularly bad couple of days and sleepless nights. I beat myself up so much I thought there would be obvious bruising when I got up this morning.

What I read was in the Gospel of Thomas. Yes, there really was one, but he didn’t make the cut. Neither did Mary Magdalene but don’t get me started on that one! So, Thomas writes, “Jesus said, “Seekers shall not stop until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed. After being disturbed, they will be astonished (my emphasis). Then they will reign over everything.” Now, hold that thought a minute. The scripture verse we are most familiar with is similar, but clearly less challenging, it is Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Our shallow, non-threatening translation? Just ask and you’ll get whatever your little heart desires. This reads like a Christmas wish list: Apple AirPods? Done. Captain Marvel Legacy Hero Smartwatch? It’s yours. Chanel’s Quilted Tote bag? Because Lindsay Lohan!? Whatever. Here you go.

Now, back to Thomas. I’m guessing that his gospel was rejected by the powers that be because they were afraid they could not control us if we discovered who God really is and the power that truth gives us. Of course I wasn’t there, so I’ll admit I’m really just pushing hot air, but I think the verse is useful for making the point of this blog.

Thomas tells us that we are to be seeking God and when we find Him in our very hearts, it’s all over. What being “disturbed” and “astonished” means to me is that this only happens when we experience God.

I also read Micah 6:6-9 this morning which tells us what God wants from us. In verses 6-7, these two stupid rich guys were trying to gather up all the best they had to appease God and buy their way into heaven. Somebody even threw in a first born child for good measure. But, God rejects their attempts to buy His favor. God, “Nope, I don’t want your stuff, I want you.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let’s look at that last verse again. Read it slowly because it is the very core of who we are called to be as children of God: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I fully believe that we are living our heaven and hell right here on earth, in our day in and day out lives. Each time we make choices to love and serve others, or conversely, serve ourselves. Each time we seek out those God calls us to bring His love to, or we take care of number one. Each time our hearts break over the pain and suffering that permeates our world and then do something about it or turn our backs and cling to our fear of what it might require of us. With every choice we make to love or hate we choose our own heaven or hell right here.

Now, how does that translate to what eternity looks like for us when we take our last breath?

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

I have no idea.

But, I will tell you this: I have lived as a sinner/saint (don’t laugh, my mother-in-law thought I was a saint once for about five minutes) and everything in between, in my seventy years. I have lived many years of anger, pain, and bitterness. I have been hurt and I have hurt others. At one point I attempted suicide because the idea of living another moment was too unbearable (clearly I sucked at that too – thank God).

In recent years, I have been blessed to live with the indescribable joy of a rich and full life, even in the messy parts.  A life that encourages giving, serving, and caring for others. That calls us to be in relationship with God and everyone around us – to be Christ to a broken world.  A life that requires forgiveness of others and ourselves. To be totally honest, still today, my virtues and faults are often intermixed on any given day. We humans are complicated, but it’s okay.

I now know that I can show up for life unkempt, messy, disordered, and at times unpleasant because I am a beloved sinner. I know I serve a God of mercy and unconditional love so I am not afraid to humble myself before Him and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life.

And as for you, my friend, if you’re reading this you are still breathing, and if you’re still breathing it’s not too late. Even if you feel like your life is empty and you’re a total failure – you’re wrong! How do I know that without even meeting you? Because you were created in God’s image and He said as much when He first laid eyes on you as a tiny thought in His imagination, “Yep, I did good, real good! You’re a work of art, even if I do say so myself!”

You always have another chance to get life right. To erase regrets, to heal broken relationships, to seek forgiveness, to serve others, and to be all you were created and gifted to be! God is your biggest cheerleader (don’t try to visualize that!).

And, dear ones, this is not something you want to put off till Monday, like that diet!

I will leave you with this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

 

May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace,

Love,

Linda

WACK!! Welcome to my Most Profound 2×4 Moment Ever!

Originally posted on October 25, 2012

Many people use, and believe, the expression, “the patience of Job”.  Actually, Job was not a patient man. Perhaps a bit more patient than his lovely wife who told him to “Curse God and die!”– And his so-called friends who insisted God had exposed him for his wickedness. Their accusations had no limits:

Eliphaz, like most people in Jesus’ time, and many people even today, sadly, believed suffering was a direct result of sin; that suffering exposes you to God’s wrath – you’re busted!

Eliphax tells Job that he suffers at the hand of God because “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”. (Job 4:7-8)

Bildad chimes in, “God has rejected you because you’re evil!” (8:20). Ouch!

And, of course, not to be outdone by the others, Zophar annihilates any sense of worth he may be clinging to, “You’re a damn fool! Waxing poetic nonsense like you can dupe everyone, even God. Are you crazy?! We’re going to hang out here until God decides to give you a piece of his mind. And he will. You watch. If you weren’t such an idiot you would reach out to God while you still have breath in you!” (Job 11-14). Honestly, that’s all in there. Okay, I might have taken some license with it.

So, would “patient” be the appropriate verb for Job? After all, he admits, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:26). I do, however, believe Job endured through more hardships than most of us could possibly imagine. So, let’s give him that.

Then, there was God, who was eerily quiet, until he came storming out of the whirlwind (38:1-40:2) into Jobs broken heart, revealing his power and majesty. And what was Job’s response? How could it have been anything other than “what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth” (40:4). And later, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3). So, I think we could also give Job credit for finally surrendering to God even in the midst of his suffering; even though he still had no idea why God allowed him to suffer such pain and loss. God owned him no explanation and he no longer questioned God.

As for me? How long have I been questioning God? Forever, I think. Questioning often grew into whining and whining into mistrust until I felt I would never know or abide in the deep faith I so longed for. I was too afraid and too busy trying to control my own destiny. I talked about surrender and wrote about surrender, but felt my hypocrisy would one day be exposed because I wasn’t living it. Easy enough for me to tell you to surrender your life to God! Go on now. You’ll be fine. Honest.

In all fairness to my fragile ego, in two of the major events in my life: writing a book and going to graduate school, I did get the first part of God’s calling right. Go. The problem was my need to second-guess him; to run on ahead of him. But, let’s go back to where it all began.

God said to me one day, out of the clear blue, “Write a book.” Long story short, it was a work in progress for ten years: written, rewritten, and self-published twice. Writing the book was the part of God’s call I listened to and accepted.

The part I added later went something like this: “I’ve just written a book! Since this came from you, Lord, I can only assume it’s going to be on the New York Times best seller list! WOW! I can’t wait!” When that didn’t happen, I began to grow weary of God failing to meet my expectations and started to whine and complain, again. “God, why did you have me write this book? There have been so many mistakes made in the process. You knew I didn’t know what I was doing. So, why? Why? Why? Why?” Those incessant questions were born out of my feeble attempt to control the process and the outcome.

The next chapter begins with a friend asking me to speak at her church. I muttered a few words in God’s direction, “Lord, if you are now calling me to speak, even thought this is also something I never would have imagined doing, then I will do it.” I enrolled in a Speakers Training Workshop, had promotional DVD’s made and mailed to everyone I could imagine would care. I was offered a few opportunities to speak, and although I was extremely nervous, they went well and the feedback was positive.

Would it surprise you that I again tried to finish this chapter without any input from God? Oh boy, speaking! Yippee! I wanted to be faithful, funny and famous; Beth Moore, Sheila Walsh, and Chonda Pierce all rolled into one. And why not? This was God’s calling for me and he doesn’t do ordinary. But, except for those few opportunities, I sat by a silent phone practicing my funniness in the mirror.

“Oh, hahahahaha Linda, you are so funny!”

Wait, don’t leave! There’s more! In 2006, I was approached by my pastor to consider a program that would entail studies for a graduate degree in Pastoral Care (I still have the laugh lines from that one!). Seriously, I was nine credit hours short of an Associate’s Degree from a community college, and this was a graduate program! Right! To appease my pastor, I completed the application forms certain they would not accept me.

When the letter came I confidently opened it. My rejection began with “We are pleased to inform you…” That’s not nice I thought. You are pleased to tell me what I already know – I’m a loser?

But wait…

The letter went on to say they had accepted me. .

“Oh shit!” That’s what I said. That word usually only comes out in extreme circumstances like a car coming at me head-on, being stuck in a burning building, or having Robert Redford knock on my door and I’m in my bathrobe and curlers. (Yes, I’m that old!).

So…

“OH SHIT!”

An impossible and immutable reality was staring me in the face and I was scared to death! But, I went, frightened and uncertain, and graduated in 2009. Glory be to God – well, and to Linda, who, after one semester of preaching classes, and a head full of myself, determined that I would probably become the female Billy Graham on the preachers circuit. But, alas, more dashed dreams of fame.

I was supposed to move right from graduation to a position as Pastoral Associate in my comfortable little church. But, yep, you guessed it, that’s not what happened. After three grueling years of studies, I was told that position was not available due to lack of funding. So, there I sat in my pile of poopy dreams and unfulfilled aspirations as imminent writer, speaker, preacher and/or Pastoral Associate faded into oblivion.

For three years, I have been bellyaching to God just like Job. And then it happened, though not out of a whirlwind. God’s preferred method of attention getting for me is a 2×4.

While driving down the highway, minding my own business – from out of nowhere – WHACK!

“Are you paying attention, Linda?”

“I am now!”

Suddenly, I was pummeled by God, or at least that’s how it felt, with a review of the course of events that had transpired. Here’s a chronology of those events:

  • My book is the story of how God reached into my pain and suffering at the hands of others, and my own sinfulness, and spoke healing into my brokenness. He used the process of writing the book and the opportunities I have had to speak to continue that healing, which in turn, has helped others who have shared their own experiences with me.

 

  • Graduate school was really, really, REALLY a struggle for me. Writing graduate level papers and reading the works of theologian’s like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan, made my head explode! I was anxious most of those three years. I felt inadequate at best and downright stupid at worst. Academically, I felt I was not on the level of most of the other students – always looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to show me the door. I got some of it, forgot most of it, but, somehow, in the process, I grew spiritually in    ways I could never have imagined. One of my last classes dealt with the foundations  of ministry. I remember my professor telling me at the end of the semester that I had  a simple way of approaching ministry that would serve me well. He was telling me  that I didn’t need to feel incompetent because I couldn’t put together a string of  theological thoughts that would rival the best in the field. But I didn’t understand or  appreciate his words at the time.

 

  • Just before graduation, I asked my pastor, “Do I still have a job when I get out of here?” He replied matter-of-factly, “No.” I was shocked! He stated that because of the economy they could not afford to hire an associate. I was devastated and shaken to my foundation. I would only realize later that much of that was due to fear. If I was going to apply for a position in a different church, how would I fair in the interview process? Even though I had a 3.7 GPA, I had little confidence in my abilities, especially since I knew there would be lots of applicants and very few positions available. Oh yeah , and I was old. So, I insisting that I lived too far from the churches that were making job offers. I’d wait for something else to come along.

 

  • I have often heard people say that they did not have closure when a loved one died. I have come to believe, since my mother’s death, that closure happens in the day-to-day moments when we do or say stupid things, or we fail to love well. Scripture tells us in Matthew 5:23-24,“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Don’t wait, take care of it immediately. It’s too late when you’re lying cold in a casket, or your ashes are scattered over the gulf course.

Do you see how God has moved in my life over all these years? I didn’t until that fateful trip in my car last week, when all of these events and situations came flooding into my head – then my heart. And, just as with Job, God spoke:

Linda, Linda, Linda, what am I going to do with you?! I called you to write a book, to do some speaking, to go to graduate school. Who told you you were going to be a famous writer, speaker, or preacher?! Much of the time you ran off on your own without waiting on me; without even consulting me. You had it all figured out and then when it didn’t happened the way you planned it, you came complaining to me. My time is not your time, my ways are not your ways. It’s about obedience and trust, Linda. I think you are finally ready to hear that. Why, according to your timing, has it taken so long?

It was important for you to feel the pain of the loss of your mother and to go through your own healing process before you could enter the sacred space of others who suffer; are dying, or have lost a loved one. This is Holy Ground that I am asking you to step into. You were not ready before.

Somehow you have managed to move in the direction I have called you. You’ve made it an uphill climb, but you have been falling forward, so that’s progress! I placed the desires in you before you were born, and I have set in place my plan for you and long to bring it to completion…

If you will just get out of my way!

A few days after the Holy Whacking in my car, I received a Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr. Quite appropriate I think:

All of Jesus’ guidance for ministry…are very concrete and interpersonal. They are all about putting people in touch with specific people, and especially with people’s pain. Person-to-person is the way the Gospel was originally communicated. Person-in-love-with-person, person-respecting-person, person-forgiving-person, person-touching-person, person-crying-with-person, person-hugging-person: that’s where the Divine Presence is so beautifully revealed.

I have come to understand through personal experience what Richard Rohr also says about grief and death and dying:

We must learn how to walk through the stages of dying. We have to grieve over lost friends, relatives, and loves. Death cannot be dealt with through quick answers, religious platitudes, or a stiff upper lip. Dying must be allowed to happen over time, in predictable and necessary stages, both in those who die graciously and in those who love them. Grief is a time where God can fill the tragic gap with something new and totally unexpected. Yet the process cannot be rushed.

It is not only the loss of persons that leads to grief, but also the loss of ideals, visions, plans, places, and our very youth….Grief work might be one of the most redemptive, and yet still unappreciated, ministries in the church. Thank God, it is being discovered as a time of spacious grace and painful gift.

What a dunce I was, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). I pray I have finally learned to wait on God and know his plan for me is perfect; to trust his infinite wisdom more than my finite and feeble efforts to do things my own way.

Okay, that is the post from 2012.

And the saga continues…

I would like to conclude with a quote from Glennon Doyle that sums up where I’m at right now in my life.

do the next right thing

“About time – huh God?!”

“Still not holding my breath, Linda.”

 

Surely You Were in This Place

In 2007, Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, dressed in ordinary street clothes and played his $3.5 million dollar violin at the metro station in Washington D.C..

Watch the reaction…

That’s right. There was no reaction.

Then, he went back. This time announced.

Every time I watch these videos I wonder how often we think of God and how we miss him in our very midst; how often we expect Jesus to just drop down from heaven:

I'll be back

Just to be disappointed.

Jesus false alarm

Do we realize he has been here all along?

John Phillip Newell tells us that “at the heart of the physical is the spiritual. Hidden within the mundane is the Divine.”

It is in the ordinary, everyday, that God reveals himself most profoundly: Our ordinary-everyday-get-up-go-to-work-feed-the-kids-walk-the-dog-clean-the-toilets-go-to-bed life.

We can miss the magnificence of God in a beautiful sunrise – blocked by a computer screen. We miss the profound in the lonely widow sitting next to us in church, or the tears of a neighbor estranged from his family.

We miss it because we are either waiting for more, or hoping for less. Less would be easier because the thought of an “almighty, glorious, brilliant, magnificent” God – right here where “we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)” is just too much for us to believe.

But why?

It’s not like Jesus made some kind of grand entrance the first time. Right? I mean – come on – he showed up in a diaper and smelled a bit like a stable.

It's a Bird It's a plane

If we are even willing to consider an encounter with God we’re certain it must be in a beyond super-human, out-of-body event. I actually think we prefer to believe that is the only time he exists. We want God to be predictable and keep his distant.

We want to dress up in our finest attitudes and go somewhere else, far away from our messiness, to experience him: Church, Wednesday night prayer meetings from 7:00 – 8:15, annual retreats in the mountains, revivals, far away mission trips.

But, please God, don’t be snooping around my house when my husband comes home drunk at 1:00 am.

rolling pin

Don’t “show up” right in the middle of my nastiness; my jealous rants against my neighbor, or arguments with my teenaged son. Also, you really shouldn’t sneak up on me when I’m watching my R-rated T.V. show!

So, we move through our ordinary life – constantly on guard – expending all our time and energy to keep God at a comfortable distance. And what do we get in return? An ordinary, mundane, routine, humdrum, tedious life.

I’ll just hang out here, thanks, waiting to die and get to heaven after barely surviving my ordinary, mundane, routine, humdrum, tedious life.

Delightful.

STOP IT!

We can spend a great deal of energy doing “things” in an effort to “get to” heaven where we will finally find happiness; finally meet that ever elusive God. And in the meantime? What about the ‘meantime” that we are wasting; time we will never get back, time we could, as Martin Buber so beautifully said, “be stringing pearls for heaven”?

What do you think about when you read this scripture verse? Genesis 28:16-17, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

Bidden or not

And how about Luke 17:20-21, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” (My emphasis)

Ewwww…that’s terrifying, huh?

But, when you refuse to open your heart to that reality, you have no idea what you are missing! For example, I volunteer for a charitable organization. We have a hotline and people call in with many needs: some are homeless, some are so desperate that when you talk to them it’s like looking at a 1,000 piece puzzle with 800 pieces missing. Which is what happened to me last week.

For obvious reasons I can’t give you any details, but I can tell you this, his situation was that 1,000 piece puzzle. When I gathered all the information I could from him and stepped back to review it, I was literally overwhelmed with what he was dealing with, and, of course, he was too. But, I prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide us and bring the people into his life who could help him.

Within three days, all – got that? – ALL the necessary resources he needed were in place! When I spoke to him and told him – we both cried. We were both overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty and tender care of a mighty God who is right in our midst; right in our messiness; right in our suffering; and, yes, in the ordinary.

Later that night I sat in prayer and felt God telling me, like Moses, “Remove your sandals, Sister, you are standing on Holy ground!” How often do you think you have stood on Holy ground and didn’t realize it because you were too busy looking up or looking away?

 

 

Theology Can Render You a Moron

moron

Okay, I can’t speak for everyone, but it certainly applies to me!

My adventures into the great unknown – better known as graduate school – began just as it ended three years later. My initial question, “What am I doing here”? – morphed into my final, most profound, and current question, “Really! What am I doing here”?

There I was, barely a high school graduate, with just a bit of junior college and a whole lot of “know-it-all” religion, running head long into theological studies. Fortunately, at the outset, I agreed to allow God to have his way with my pebble-sized faith and my Goliath attitude. He wasted no time. From my first class to my last exam, God pelted me with enough “what ifs” to render me stupid. “Linda, what if some of the stories in Scripture aren’t “factual”?  What if I don’t have a beard? What if Heaven’s not a “place”, eternity is here and now, and my “church” includes everyone – even those you don’t like? How’s your faith holding up so far?”

My faith was black and white, and it seemed so simple. In reality, “religion” may be, but true faith is hardly black and white, yet, paradoxically, it’s simpler. For example (here’s the moron in me): I had a long list of people who were destined for hell. Not specific names (well, okay, I had some), but rather, specific attitudes and actions that qualified. To be fair, I myself slipped on and off that list all my life for not following the “rules” – even when I didn’t know what the rules were!

Reality tells me that things are not what they seem and only God can know what is in the heart. My neighbor may seem like the jerk of all jerks, but only God knows him well enough to decide that. I Samuel 16:7 says, “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  God may very well agree with my “jerk” label of someone, but he says in no uncertain terms, “He may be a jerk. But he’s MY jerk, so lay off”!

In my first semester at Aquinas I encountered the infamous St. Augustine, considered one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of all time. At the end of his life, he decided he was an idiot and didn’t know what he was talking about (see, I’m in good company!). So he quit writing and speaking. It didn’t take me that long. I’m sure God is still rejoicing over that!

Fortunately, deciding you are a moron early on has some unforeseen benefits:

  • You no longer have anything to “prove.”
  • “Rules” transform into possibilities.
  • You encounter the living Christ, in the here and now – not the long ago, far away, dead and buried – thus rendered irrelevant and easily dismissed, Jesus. Nice guy though.
  • Righteousness gives way to solidarity with all your brothers and sisters in faith, or no faith at all.
  • Unknowing looks more like wisdom than stupidity.
  • Humility flourishes. Acceptance of self, of God, and of others is borne of true humility.
  • Loving relationships carry no conditional baggage.
  • Faith and trust in a loving, extraordinary God is now actually possible.
  • And finally, you can live in this messy, sometimes violent, darkened world, with a sense of hope.

Lord knows, I don’t have all the answers. “Yes, I do, Linda!”

Actually, I probably don’t have any answers.  But I still know that my only source of grace and hope lies in the mystery of a God that holds it all together, and holds us gently and lovingly in his embrace.

Now I can say with great conviction, “I am a deeply loved moron”!

Can I get an AMEN?

How to be a Human – for Dummies

Originally posted on May 21, 2012

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Yesterday, I invited God to a whinefest, “I’m so sorry! Why do you put up with me? I can never seem to get this human thing right.” Paul and I are like kindred spirits, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). Mea culpa, mea culpa.

And then, this morning – an AHA moment! That holy 2×4…WACK, “Pay attention Linda. In the name of all that is holy – PAY ATTENTION”!

It began a few weeks ago as a presumed uneventful adventure into the Bible. I was going to read a bit of Old Testament, Psalms, and New Testament every day. I would resist my usual habit of skipping or glazing over during the “begots” and “genealogies” and the “order of Creation.” Which is why I avoid the Old Testament, unless I am searching for a particular verse. You know, the short, profound, meaningful ones.

In spite of myself, I have persevered.  Almost to the end of Genesis now – whew – it’s like running a marathon! Suddenly, the reality of yesterday’s whinefest smacked me silly. I act like I’m the only misfit God created; the only failure. God’s only recorded mistake – ever!

But, alas, realizing a common bond, I have found myself shaking my head and laughing at the characters in Genesis! I’m sure you know these stories well. But have you ever connected the dots between them and us? Here’s what I find so amusing (in condensed form), though I’m not so sure God was amused:

  • God creates paradise. He plops Adam and Eve right in the middle of it. Eve barely gets her first morning stretch in before Satan offers her breakfast –THE APPLE! She bites (literally). Gives it to Adam. He bites. God shows up unannounced (he’s sneaky like that!). Adam whines and passes off blame to Eve, “It’s not my faultShe made me do it”! (Genesis 1:1-3:24)
  • Adam and Eve have sex, as the job of being “fruitful and multiplying” rested entirely on them at this point.
  • So, Caine and Able are the first to arrive. Time lapses. Then, Caine, out of jealousy, kills his brother Able.  God shows up unexpectedly, again. He punishes Caine. Caine whines, denies any wrong-doing, and with an in-God’s-face retort, “I don’t deserve this!” – he pleads for his life. (4:1-15)
  • Now, along comes Noah. He most likely didn’t whine. Well, maybe he whined about cleaning up after all those stinky animals, but we don’t know that for sure. Perhaps he kept his mouth shut because he was privy to God’s anger about all the stuff God was having to put up with. He knew God was having Creator’s remorse and decided to wipe humanity out and start all over (6:9-8:19). (I don’t know. Maybe this would have been a good time to reconsider that whole free-will thing. Maybe.)
  • Even though God promised not to wipe out all of creation ever again, he didn’t promise not to annihilate a small part. Just a sort of shot across the bow, if you will, on Sodom and Gomorrah. God couldn’t even find ten faithful people there.

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  • So, Sodom and Gomorrah are no more. (19:1-25) Then, God says to anyone watching, “How do you like me now?!”

 Okay, now, back to Noah…

  • Noah and Mrs. Noah also have sex –a lot! Somewhere in all that begetting, Abraham is born, grows to manhood, and marries Sarah. And they have sex too, but Sarah can’t conceive. In their old age, God promises them a son, but they do not believe it, and Sarah is even caught laughing at Him (18:10-15). Really!
  • When Abraham told Sarah she would conceive at the age of ninety-five, she rolled on the floor laughing. God heard her, “Are you laughing at Me”? Sarah tries to deny it, “No, no, I wasn’t laughing…really”! God replied, “Yes you were! Just for that, you’re not only going to conceive, I will give you, and  every woman after you, stretch marks! Not so funny now is it?”  But, really, I’m not sure Sarah grieved over her stretch marks. It’s not like bikini lines were an issue.

Anyway…

  • Remember, back in verses 16:1-6, the waiting got to be too much for Sarah, she failed to trust God’s promise. Whining to him for making her barren, Sarah takes matters into her own hands and gives Abraham her maidservant, Hagar, to conceive a child for her, and we all know how that turned out! Now, Sarah whines to God again. Hagar is making her life a living hell (16:1-6). Then, unbelievably (even though God promised), Sarah conceives Isaac (21:1-7).
  • Okay, now here’s Isaac, a grown man. He falls in love with beautiful Rebekah, who becomes his wife (24:62-67). Ahhh, a marriage made in heaven…NOT! They have twin sons, Jacob and Esau…awe…. Mom and dad play favorites: Isaac loves Esau and Rebekah loves Jacob (25:27-28). And, you guessed it, Rebekah whines because Esau was born first and therefore had the birthright she wanted for Jacob. So, she and Jacob trick IsaacIt was a very sad and deceitful trick  (25:29-34, 27:1-46).
  • Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but is coned by their father into marrying her older sister. Then, whining, he realizes he has no alternative but to work longer so he can also marry Rachel. And, of course, there was plenty of whining between the two sisters, now sharing a husband. They were each pumping out baby after baby trying to win his favor (29:1-30:24). Whoever thought of that arrangement never knew about PMS! Yeah, I say Jacob deserved it. Can I get an AMEN sisters?!

Okay, that’s as far as I have gotten in the Old Testament – the FIRST BOOK! And, of course, there’s lots more to come. We know that – deceit, murder, adultery, incessant whining – everything we’re seeing and doing today, they were doing then. Even those God loved and favored. This has been the reality of humanity throughout the ages. Yes, we are sinners, grumblers, selfish, self-centered creatures – the whole lot of us. But, God refuses to wipe us out again. And because we have not changed one tinsy bit, what he did do seems more ridiculous than ever, “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

If Jesus wanted to walk with the sinless, he would have had to walk alone. If he was looking for someone, anyone, who was without fault, he would have had to look in the mirror. If he would only die for those who deserved it, he would not have bothered to come.

We humans. We sinful, messy, prideful, self-centered, outcasts, are deeply loved by God, in spite of ourselves. Why? It bears repeating over and over again, we were made in his image and yet we beat ourselves up constantly for who we have come to believe we are; for only seeing our faults, and assuming that’s all God sees too. Oh, he see’s our faults – don’t ever doubt that! But, he also sees the beauty deep within when he gazes lovingly at us. Every stinkin’ one of us.

And how about this for a revelation? Do you think God “gazed lovingly” at the Pharisees in the Old Testament times, or their counterparts today? He shouldn’t have by our standards. Brood of vipers they were; self-righteous and arrogant; they denied to their last breath that they were sinners. They had no need of God! “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). But, here’s the reality. The sun shines; the cooling rains fall gently; the mighty Oak tree’s shade covers – all – the good and the evil. It is not God’s loving gaze that distinguishes us from them, it is our response to him.

Unlike the Pharisees, we “Publicans” know we need God. I ask you, is that not what is going on every time we whine? Call that whine the canary in the coal mine. Something is happening in our life at that moment that is not right, and we know as Christians that God is the only one who can make it right. We grumble to the One who can take it and turn it around – it’s the Job story played out over and over again.

I would like to share with you an excerpt from a wonderful book by Henri Nouwen titled, “The Life of the Beloved.”

I would like to speak to you about the spiritual life as the life of the beloved. As a member of a community of people with mental disabilities, I have learned a lot from people with disabilities about what it means to be the beloved. Let me start by telling you that many of the people that I live with hear voices that tell them that they are no good, that they are a problem, that they are a burden, that they are a failure. They hear a voice that keeps saying, “If you want to be loved, you had better prove that you are worth loving. You must show it.”

But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, “You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.

 Jesus heard that voice. He heard that voice when He came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother’s womb. I’ve written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don’t be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are.

I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are. That is where the spiritual life starts — by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved.

Life can seem as painful as being pecked to death by a chicken…but live it we must if we are to fulfill our calling; our destiny. Claiming Christianity offers no trophies to set on a mantle, no promises of worldly success, no protection from pain, no surety of love from others. What it does offer, with surety, is a life unimaginable. It requires faith and trust in a God who loves us more passionately than we dare believe, even when we are sinful, even when we reject or ignore him, “Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you.” (Isaiah 30:18) Beyond a simple wish, “longing” holds a tension between yearning and frustration.

God pleads with us and longs for us to claim his LOVE and believe it. If that were not true he would not have come to SHOW us, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings (not to be pecked to death of course), but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

Here’s my “Tear-Out for Quick Reference” because I daily forget who I am. What would yours look like?

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Tear-out for Quick Reference:

  • Begin and end every day in prayer. Spend a good deal of that time listening.
  • Stop my incessant whining, and start living as the deeply and radically beloved sinner I am.
  • Admit my faults – ask forgiveness from those I have hurt.
  • Let go of my “right” to hurt others as they have hurt me – forgive them.
  • Follow this simple and straightforward path of Micah 6:8,“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”
  • Live fully – laugh often – love unconditionally.
  • Leave the world a better place than I found it.