A Theology of Running

Yep, there is such a thing! Okay, I could have made it up, but just work with me here.

It has been ten years since I ran my last half-marathon, and I have decided it’s time to dust off my running shoes and get back in the game. God help me. This will probably kill me!

I began running thirty years ago when a friend dragged me to a high school track near us. We planned to run the St. Patrick’s Day 5K in St. Louis. It was three miles. Since I had never run a day in my life, it seemed reasonable. I could easily drive three miles without getting winded. So, why not?!

The first morning we ran once around the track – a quarter mile. OMG, I thought I would die! But I didn’t. So, I went back for more; again and again, until it got easier, and I decided I could do it. Not just that, but I was actually beginning to love it and the challenge that came with each turn around the track. Initially, my ambitions didn’t go beyond the 5K and the free beer at the end!

It wasn’t long before I was hooked as I grew to love the challenge of discovering my ability to go beyond anything I had imagined. Let’s see whatcha got, Linda! Though I have run several half-marathons over the years since then, it has always been that initial 5K that developed my theology of running.

I started off slowly, but pushing myself to run faster became a passion for me, especially when we moved to a rural area where I would run country roads at 5:00 in the morning. I was often told I was getting too old to run. That I should slow down because it wasn’t good for my joints (jealous couch potatoes, every last one of them!). I had no desire to slow down. Every time I decided to walk instead of run, it didn’t last long. It wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel the joy and fulfillment I experienced when I ran.

I discovered that I am most fully alive when I am running, especially in nature. I enjoyed it even more when we moved further into the country. I could run right out my front door and be in the woods. It was so peaceful and serene. In the early morning, the sunrise was breathtaking.

There was something else I noticed: God was there. My connection with God was most vibrant in those moments, and my prayers seemed most profound. That never happened for me sitting in a pew in church (I don’t need forgiveness, father…that ain’t a sin!)

St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Being fully alive is the quintessential manifestation of Divine Love. That magical, mysterious Love is most revealed to me in the moments when I am in the midst of and know I am fully a part of his creation.

One of the beauties of running is its simplicity. You need only a good pair of shoes. Actually, shoes aren’t even necessary, as Ethiopian Abebe Bikila proved. He set a world record in the Rome Olympics barefoot! 

For sure, there is a stark difference between the simple needs I have as a runner and the “perceived needs” of those in many sports. How does that relate to what we understand as “church”? Is church the magnificent cathedrals built centuries ago? Is it mega-churches today that entertain like a new rendition of Jesus Christ Super Star?! Not according to Jesus. The “ideal” church he modeled was about action: humble service, love, unity, hope, and mission – all easily accomplished barefoot – or, at the most, wearing sandals.

When training for a race, specific practices can be incorporated. One such practice is called “fartlek”. It’s a Swedish word for “speed play,” and it’s simply short bursts of acceleration at various times during a run. Here again, fartleking could have a spiritual meaning. Well, it could! Okay, the name might have to be changed to something a bit less like a bodily function, but it could work nicely when considering the process of growing spiritually, and, yes, it is a process.

I believe there is a misunderstanding for so many of us about just how important it is to “train” if we are to grow in faith, and that may be what discourages new Christians. I don’t believe faith just “happens” with a dunk in a bucket of water, even if there is some sort of “ritual” to prepare new converts for acceptance into a particular faith. There’s just more to it than that. It’s not an event; it’s a life-long journey. What about babies that are baptized in some faiths? Does that baby jump right out of the Priest’s arms and start serving in a soup kitchen? No.

You start out testing the waters with things that aren’t too risky, like smiling instead of flipping someone off in traffic. Then, maybe you graduate to a bumper sticker…or two…or six. Don’t do that. That’s not right.

Anyway, we are taught that in baptism, we are to put on Christ. But what does that really mean? We are called to live and move and have our being as followers of Christ, who teaches self-giving love by his example. And how does that happen? We learn from him to be less self-centered and more other-centered. For most of us, none of that growth happens at the moment of our baptism. Instead, we will struggle in life, have setbacks, and often lose our way. We have fits and starts trying to believe we indeed are God’s beloved and our life has purpose. 

As we journey through life, hopefully, we will grow in the fullness of that baptismal call to be an instrument of God’s love for the good of the world we live in. This realization can indeed be likened to a “runner’s high”! When we finally become conscious of who and whose we are, we respond through works of love, justice, forgiveness, and mercy. Call it a “Jesus high”! You just can’t get enough.

Now I am at the place where I need to tell on myself and share a couple of final important AHA moments in my running and faith journey. The first experience goes back to the beginning when my friend and I started training for that 5K. When we got to the day of the race, we both felt unprepared, especially since, just a few days before, her husband, an avid runner, told us that the race’s route was very hilly! Wait…what? Hilly?! As in mountainous hilly? As in, crap, we didn’t train on hills…hilly?! But, after that initial shock, we decided to do it anyway, even if we had to walk – or crawl – or call an Uber.

But we were going and we were getting that beer at the end. Period. So, off we went. When we got to the start line, we immediately saw the “hill” staring down at us, laughing hysterically! Undeterred, we went for it. It was hard, but we both endured and walked when we had to. AND THEN, we turned a corner and saw the finish line! I got so excited I took off running with all I had in me (it was downhill this time which helped). As I got to the end, gasping for air, my friend caught up with me. She was visibly upset, “Why did you take off like that? We spent all this time training together, and we were supposed to finish together! Why did you do that?” I felt so bad for leaving her behind. I was only thinking of myself, and that was just wrong. Sadly, I suppose I believed that everything revolved around me.

NO. IT. DOESN’T. DUMBASS.

Our faith journey is also not meant to be about us alone. If we are merely growing in a personal faith that does not embrace others on their journey, if we are so self-centered that we sprint toward life’s finish line knocking others aside, I’m pretty sure God will be waiting with those chilling words, “You came alone? Where’s your friend?”

Okay, that experience wasn’t funny, but this one is. A few years ago, another friend and I signed up for a 10K. She wasn’t concerned about training because she planned to walk. I think she just wanted to be sure I survived because, well, by then, I was old. So, off we went agreeing to meet at…that’s right…the beer truck at the end.

There were a lot of turns, so volunteers stood at designated intersections to point the way. At one intersection, I was confused and alone to choose. So I turned right and kept running. After a mile on that road with no one in sight, it became clear to me that I had gone the wrong way. So, I turned around and ran another mile back to where I should have been. I was tired but knew the end was near. And there, around the last corner, I saw it! The finish line! WOOT WOOT…

Suddenly I realized the race was over and they were deflating the blow-up finish line! I panicked and ran faster, but I was too late. By then, most everyone had left. No one is cheering. No one telling me I was almost there and to not poop myself (they tell you that. It’s not funny. Neither is the lie that “You’re almost done” when you’re not. It’s not right). Anyway, I was devastated, and my friend was in a panic! When I finally did see someone carrying some medals, I insisted I deserved a first-place medal for being the only person who ran eight miles instead of six! So, I reasoned I came in first in the unofficial eight-mile race. That logic didn’t fly. I was handed a “Yep, you did finish even though you screwed up” medal. FINE. WHATEVER. “Where’s the free beer?”

There were still a few drops of beer left for my friend and me to cheer each other. I did survive, so it wasn’t all in vain. And the lesson? On this journey of faith, we will also make wrong turns, but God is always at the finish line with a cold beer (don’t tell me there ain’t no beer in heaven!) and a “well done, my good and faithful servant” cheer! But, no medal.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if there’s beer at the finish line of life or if that’s really why you want to run that race – to get some reward. As for me, I fully trust that a life of faith is all about the journey, not the finish line. That will take care of itself.

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.

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 or what “proof” they provide, no one knows. No different than a recent conversation I had with a friend who collects clowns. She thinks they’re delightful and enchanting. However, I actually believe some satanic force created them 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 will not be easy or fun.

Heaven 

This is not heaven!

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.”

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? This is the tough part I referred to earlier because our Western brains can’t seem to grasp anything mysterious or inexplicable. Therefore, 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 only converse with those who agree with us and avoid or argue with those who don’t. 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 life and death were celebrated as a continuum. That all changed with the advent of the funeral parlor. Funeral parlors sprung up 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 (before the invention of formaldehyde!). But I can’t prove that either.

We keep everything in our lives separated into neat, tidy piles that we can easily manage, like peas and applesauce on our dinner plate (yuck, don’t want those to touch each other). So it’s no surprise that we stick God in heaven, so he’s separated from us by time and space.

The thought of God being right here in our midst, looking for any soft entry into our walled-up hearts is just too much to fathom. But, let’s stop for one minute, let down our guard, and imagine how different, how rich, and full our lives would be if we could comprehend that reality.

How about this uplifting thought about hell: 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, if hell is here now, and we begin to understand our true purpose, 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 too 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: a controlling, punishing, and unforgiving “parent”, it’s no wonder I ran like hell in the other direction. 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.

We seem to 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 while 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 and our antics.

In many traditional faiths, God sits in his heaven and doles out rewards and punishments 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’s 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 after he read a book annominously sent to him, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. No, I had changed. I opened myself to a relationship with him that allowed me to experience who God really was, not who I imagined 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.”

I love 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! 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).”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.

Okay back to Thomas. I’m guessing that his gospel was rejected by the “editors” of scripture 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 my assertions.

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 are in relationship with God.

Micah (6:6-9) 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 firstborn child for good measure. But God rejects their attempts to buy his favor.

God: “Nope, I don’t want your stuff, I want you.” Micha lays it out succinctly, “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.”

That last verse 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. Does that sound like the demanding, controlling, cruel, never to be pleased God you learned about in Sunday School when you were six and then couldn’t sleep for weeks because you had nightmares about him finding out that it was you who dunked your sister’s doll in the toilet?!

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 live daily as a sinner/saint. Don’t laugh, my mother-in-law thought I was a saint once for about five minutes (I screwed that up the first time I opened my mouth!). In my seventy-four years, I have known 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).

I have come to realize that I have been blessed to live the indescribable joy of a rich and full life, even in the messy parts, especially then. A life that encourages giving, serving, forgiveness, and caring for others. That calls us to be in relationship with God and everyone around us – to be Christ to a broken world.

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!”

(I have to throw this in because I’m still laughing) My all-time favorite book is “Holy Rascals”, by Rami Shapiro. I have read it so many times it’s falling apart. It is ridiculously poignant and hysterically funny! He says that we are all children of God. Every last one of us. That includes Saint Mother Theresa right alongside Jeffrey Dahmer. The only difference, he says, is “if Jeffrey Dahmer invites you to dinner, you should decline!”

You always have another chance to get life right, to erase regrets, heal broken relationships, seek forgiveness, serve others, and 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

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 and announce himself:

I'll be back

Just to be disappointed.

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 that God reveals himself most profoundly: In 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
(I could not locate the source of this image)

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 distance.

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, and far away mission trips.

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

Don’t “show up” right in the middle of my nastiness; my jealous rants against my neighbor, or arguments with my teenage 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, a 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 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 headlong 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 are 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. “As a matter of fact, I do know that, Linda!”

Actually, I probably don’t have any answers.  But I now 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

how-to-be-human-for-dummies

Yesterday, I invited God to a whine-fest, “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 read a bit of the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testament daily. I resisted my usual habit of skipping over the begots, genealogies, and the “order of Creation.” This is why I usually avoid the Old Testament unless I am searching for a particular verse. You know, the short, profound, meaningful ones.

Despite myself, I have persevered. Almost to the end of Genesis now – whew – it’s like running a marathon! Suddenly, the reality of yesterday’s whine-fest 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 is 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 the blame off 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 wrongdoing, 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 complained 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 had 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, God. 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 shot across the bow on Sodom and Gomorrah. God couldn’t even find ten faithful people there.
poof-001-300x185
  • So, Sodom and Gomorrah are no more. (19:1-25) Then, God asks 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. God promises them a son in their old age, 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, but I will also 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…

  • So, 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 an unfortunate 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 are 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, and 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 seems more ridiculous than ever, “Christ died for the ungodly. Scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet perhaps for a good man, someone would dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for 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 that 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 sees 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.

Henri Nouwen, in his book “The Life of the Beloved” says, “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 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. 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?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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 and 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.