Today is Good Friday. I am struck to tears and unspeakable heartache, now more than ever before. Why? Every Good Friday we are called to remember the brutal beating and crucifixion of Jesus. He walked in the of midst of those deemed lesser and unimportant. They experienced of his love and compassion for them. But, he walked a lonely road to his death. Sure, there were a few who had the courage to walk with him, but many, his disciples in particular, scattered for their own safety. Surely, they all felt powerless to stop it from happening.
Today we are reliving the horrific facts of the death of George Floyd during the trial of Derek Chauvin. To hear the testimony of the witnesses as they broke down and grieved over watching Floyd die has been excruciating for many. Most of the witnesses were strangers to him, yet they all spoke of feeling helpless and guilty that they didn’t try to help him. Even though they also knew they were powerless to do so.
Jesus was innocent of any crime, George Floyd was not. But, the fact remains that neither deserved to die in such a violent way at the hands of another.
So I sit quietly and contemplate both these men and how their deaths have impacted me. Obviously, I did not know Jesus personally, but, as a professed Christian, I am called to emulate his radical love in every aspect of my life. I mostly fail, but keep trying and longing to be more like him in the way I live my life.
And, George Floyd? I didn’t know him either, and likely never would have, nor would most of us, if not for his horrific death. Both have touched my life. In those beautiful and poignant words of John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
“Any man/woman’s death diminishes me.” That is a fact of the God’s making, we are all interconnected – like it or not. That truth also goes beyond diminishment. It cannot end there. The death of another, be it a loved one or a stranger, should call us to stop and take inventory of our own lives. Every funeral I attend does that for me and often shines a light on my failings to be Christ-like to others. Thankfully, every day is a new day – a day to begin again.
So, here’s what I will be contemplating and praying about today, on this holy Good Friday, and hopefully be acting on it daily. It doesn’t have to be Jesus who calls us to be better, kinder, softer; to live and love more fully. It can also be the death of a stranger we have never met that wakes us from sleep-walking through life. Facing the realization that we will also die (sorry if that is news to you) – maybe sooner than later (sorry again) – should cause us to ask ourselves if our houses are in order and, more importantly, what we are leaving behind because…
Death does not care if we have left business unfinished, relationships broken, or children to be raised. It doesn’t matter if we are not ready, or sit on promises to change. It will take the weak with the strong, the humble with the proud, the saint with the jerk. Death doesn’t respect wedding plans, vacation plans, or unmet deadlines. It does not operate by a timetable we set, and is no respecter of age. It does not discriminate between the most loved or most hated. It may not wait for the most brilliant to cure cancer, bring peace to a troubled nation, or receive a Nobel Prize.
Denying that death is a part of life is like believing we still look like our high school picture. We can’t rely on death to come when we are ready. But we can rely on it to teach those of us who are willing, how to truly live. It can and should be a time of reflection: Have I lived well, loved well, forgiven — honestly – and sought forgiveness humbly?
Good or bad, I have touched the lives of family and friends, the mailman, and the grumpy receptionist at the doctor’s office. I may have amassed wealth and recognition, and may leave a fortune to my loved ones. All things they can pack away, gamble away, or throw away. But, at the end of the day...what have I left in their hearts?
We all know the words of 1 Corinthians 13. Right? It’s one of the most familiar verses in scripture. Who hasn’t been to a wedding, or two, or twenty that present it as a reminder of the love and commitment a couple is offering to each other?
But, do you know the original intent of Paul when he wrote it? Maybe he sat around the campfire with his “flock” and wrote this song to commemorate the establishment of his new faith community (though it’s not credited to him and he gets no residuals. Pity):
Anyway, everybody’s high-fiving as Paul slaps his own back for his ingenious efforts in the name of love. He may have even imagined himself receiving a Pulitzer Prize or at least Time’s Man of the Year. Temporarily losing sight of his own advice about “pride” and all.
Okay, fine…truth be told, none of that happened. He wasn’t in some mushy mindset when he wrote those words to the Corinthians. Actually, Paul wrote them in a fit of anger. I kid you not.
When he established Corinth, he imagined it being perfect. God’s dwelling place; a community of love and care for each other and all man/womankind. Peace on earth; Good will to men…and all that.
But, things quickly fell apart. He was peeved at them because of their short memories. As soon as Paul was out of sight and on his way to his next church planting the Corinthians began to fight and argue over everything. The rich and powerful immediately began to demand more and more for themselves, believing they deserved it. Jealousy often lead to striving for importance and self-promotion. And if you’ve ever wondered why many churches today use those little thimbles for communion wine, it may be because some of these guys got a bit carried away guzzling the stuff and making fools of themselves. I don’t know – just guessing.
But, the deepest split came when the self-proclaimed “authorities” felt compelled to form a committee to decide, and then pronounce, who was going to heaven and who was headed for hell because of their messed up beliefs. So, they drew a line in the sand: the “ins” over here, the “outs” here. Love got lost in the scramble for importance. In short, they were all a mess. Sound familiar?
Sure, initially, they may have bought into the idea of love. But it wasn’t the love Jesus taught and died for. They wanted it on their terms: less demanding, just as we do today. We want the watered down version that puts loving my new car in the same category as loving humans or puppies. (I know, I know, puppies are much easier!) Anyway, perhaps in our own time of so much strife it would behoove us to revisit 1 Corinthians 13 in light of what Paul was trying to get across to those hard-headed folks, immature in faith and lacking the love that requires self-sacrifice – a love rooted in compassion.
So, here goes.
Love Never Fails– 1 Corinthians 13:1-8 (NIV)
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Like when I put myself and my wants and presumed needs first.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. As in “I know everything about everything that matters – to me. That’s why I have given myself all authority to laud it over you.”
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. As in “Look at me, ain’t I special?!”
Love is patient – except when you annoy me.
Love is kind – except when I don’t get my way.
It does not envy – except when you bought that new, nicer, shinier car before me.
It does not boast – except when I excelled in some project at work, got a significant raise, and a corner office.
It is not proud – except when I installed the biggest pool in the neighborhood.
It does not dishonor others – except when they deserve it because they’re being poopyheads.
It is not self-seeking – except when I believe I am deserving of fame and fortune; power and authority; and fewer wrinkles.
It is not easily angered – except when my kids can’t seem to behave appropriately – by my rigid standards, of course.
It keeps no record of wrongs – except for all the people who just can’t seem to keep their broken, messy attitudes out of my broken, messy life.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth – well…I don’t necessarily delight in evil. It’s just that I can sometimes stretch the definition of “truth”.
It always protects – those innocents who suffer and are downtrodden.
Always trusts – our God who never fails us.
Always hopes – in a better way; a better life for all mankind.
Always perseveres – even when things seem impossible.
Love never fails – NEVER! END OF STORY
Diana Butler Bass says it beautifully:
Yes, we may be in hell. The world may be hellish. COVID is hell. Our political crisis is hell. The climate crisis is truly hell. But there is another story, another song, a different word. A word we can speak and a word we can act upon.
Peace has been born. We wait for its fullness….we claim the power of the Christmas story to bless, to redeem, to transform the stark earth. While “death howls in strife,” we embrace and embody the poetry of God and beat back the walls of hell.
Make ready the stable of your heart. Fear not. And get busy with the work of peace.
Bishop John Shelby Spong and Martin Luther Kings words should be written on our hearts, “Dream of Peace on Earth and good will among men and women, and then dedicate yourself to bringing that vision into being.”
Peace to you and your loved ones this Christmas. It is certainly a Christmas like no other most of us have experienced; a Christmas that may seem to counter all we have believed about goodness and love. But, only if we have lost sight of the one who changed everything for all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike. This Christmas Day, may we finally “see” Jesus as an incarnation of God’s immovable, constant, abiding, majestic, unfailing LOVE for ALL: every single messy, broken one of us! A LOVE that is not returnable. You can’t refuse it like that ugly tie you’re getting – again – from Aunt Lucy.
Have you ever regifted something your Aunt Ethel gave you for Christmas that you have absolutely no use for, which she probably got last year from her tasteless brother? Come on, you know you have. We probably all have. It’s okay. Regifting is in scripture you know. John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I have a new appreciation for those words this year.
For the last three weeks we have been decorating for Christmas and we’re not finished. Not even sure what Christmas is going to look like, but my anticipation this year has taken on a deeper meaning. It’s not the expectation of the sweet, non-threatening, “baby” Jesus arriving. It’s about the Jesus who seems to have gotten lost among us, especially during this year.
We have all been witnessing our world collapse into chaos: the anger and violence and hatred brought about by Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement, economic collapse, natural disasters, and the elections. That’s a LOT to deal with in such a short time. And watching the steady stream of sucky news isn’t helping. Some may wonder if Christmas is even worth the hassle, or anticipate more violence, or obsessively shop and decorate just to dull the senses. But, as I prepare for this season, I have been imagining a different, better scenario.
As one who has fallen away from the “Institutional” church with all its trappings of dogma and rules and birthday cake for baby Jesus I seem to be left with the stripped down version of the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps I can see much better, like the blind man Jesus healed. I’m not sure if Jesus would have “physically” healed his blindness. He certainly could have. But, more importantly, I think of it as compassion revealing itself. I believe it was the tender touch of Jesus that changed that man others rejected and cast aside. Maybe for the first time in his life, he felt his worth and innate dignity. If you have ever “experienced” Jesus’ tender touch you know what I’m talking about. But, there’s more – and this is where it gets uncomfortable. Jesus expected him, as he does us, to not cling to that love he was shown, but to reach out to others and share it. It’s not a commodity to horde like the last roll of toilet paper on the shelf; it’s a gift to be given away. I have come to see this Christmas as an opportunity like no other to do just that.
God wants my excitement and anticipation to result in action. He is telling me; all of us really, “That’s great you’re excited. Now go do something about it!” Offer kindness and compassion to those who suffer: the elderly who are alone, millions of children in America that go to bed hungry, the neglected and abused. Check on your neighbor. Offer a smile and kind word to everyone you meet. Quit hating and judging others. Quit whining and complaining about what you don’t have, feel gratitude for what you do have, and then find a way to share it.
When we are called to “give till it hurts” that’s not referring to outlandish presents under the tree that are often not even appreciated. It’s about offering love back to God and others with all your heart and soul. (Matt. 22:37) That’s how we can more meaningfully celebrate Christ in our midst!
For the year of 2005, my husband and I had the incredible opportunity to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland and work for Habitat for Humanity. During that year we learned about a sectarian conflict there known as The Troubles. After thirty years of hatred and violence some were able to forgive and love neighbors once considered their enemy. But, there was also ongoing refusal of others to let go of their hatred. Annual Orange Day parades continued to fuel division year after year since the Peace Accords of 1998. Many parents passed that hatred on to their children. Today, the divisiveness and conflict may be played out differently, but it is still a reality, often manifested in rival gangs.
Ten years later, we were in Rhonda and learned about the horrendous massacre of 800,000 men, women, and children, slaughtered by their own neighbors. It took only ninety days – NINETY DAYS! Most of the perpetrators of those atrocities were never brought to justice. They scattered into the mountains or other countries and regrouped. They’re still out there causing mayhem and promoting hatred.
Now, here we are, reliving hatred and strife in America that is pitting us against each other. Extremists groups fueled by years of hatred going back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow are more and more embolden today to act out that hatred encouraged by a wink and a nod from the President. Some White Evangelical churches advocating their claim of being “Christian” – cling to power presumed given them by God.
What is going on? Did Jesus lose his way? Or have we reinvented him and relegated him to a dashboard Buddy Jesus bobblehead?
Let’s listen in on a few guys trying to figure it all out for themselves – perhaps you can relate:
One night a few friends gathered in a neighborhood bar. Their conversation quickly turned to questions of how to overcome fear (they won’t admit to) and frustration over the current crisis playing out over their backyard fences, at family dinners, and in the news. The violence and anger coming from all sides was hard for all of them to reconcile with their beliefs. They were a varied group: two Catholic brothers – one “devoted” (as in a follower of all the “rules”) and the other lukewarm (as in “rules suck”), a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. After several beers they found it difficult to come to any consensus on what part they played as Christians. They were even struggling to agree on what a “Christian” was.
Before departing they jokingly decided to invite Jesus to their whinefest the following week so they could drill him to see if he could help them come to some agreement on the most basic fundamentals of their Christian faith. They really weren’t looking for clarity on what was true and noble and right as much as fodder for their own arguments. Something they could use to counter those they did not agree with. But, none of them would admit to that either. Considering the stark differences they held on who was right and who was totally on the path to hell they were at an impasse. They would let Jesus decide.
So, on the allotted day they all showed up for a second installment of “My God can beat up your God”. And who shows up? – Jesus (through the front door, not the wall). “Hey, guys, what’s up?” Still in shock that he actually came, they offered him a chair and a beer…or…uh…wine. He took a seat and declined the alcohol, “I’m driving, but you go ahead.”
Then right out of the gate, one guy at the table explained what had happened the prior week and why they invited him (as if he didn’t know…duh!). Anyway, the argument conversation begins but immediately deteriorates into the same dispute as before. Each of them chimes in with their “beliefs”. Then someone has the foresight to ask the “Expert” sitting right in their midst, “Jesus, how would you resolve this?” Jesus sits quietly for a moment and then the men observe his eyes welling up with tears. They are shocked and don’t know how to react. Why isn’t he angry and pounding his fist like we do? Why isn’t he pointing out people to blame? There are plenty of them: the media, politicians, white supremacists, other so-called Christians.
Jesus’ weeping felt akin to the times their wives would cry about something they could not get their heads around – like the broccoli soufflé that fell right before Christmas dinner with the in-laws. And, buddy, you learned very quickly that your response better not be some lame man-up comment because you just want that awkward moment to be over! How’d that work for you? Exactly.
This Jesus moment was like that. Sure, he was known to throw a few tables around when he got mad, but we only see that once in all of scripture. So, why don’t we put that angry, show em’ who’s boss, can’t-control-his-temper-just-like-me Jesus to rest? This is not the no-more-mister-nice-guy Jesus you were hoping for. Sorry.
So, the world is falling apart and Jesus weeps. That’s it? That’s all he can offer us? What are we supposed todo with that? Well, let’s see:
Joan Chittister says of weeping:
Indeed, few of us see our weeping as a spiritual gift or a matter of divine design. But we are wrong. Weeping is a very holy and life-giving thing. It sounds alarms for a society and wizens the soul of the individual. If we do not weep on the personal level, we shall never understand humanity around us. If we do not weep on the public level, we are less than human ourselves.
The Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander offers:
There are…some things that ought not to be endured. There are some things worth weeping about lest we lose our sense of self. We must always cope with evil, of course, but we must never adjust to it. We must stay eternally restless for justice, for joy. Restless enough to cry out in pain when the world loses them.
If we do not allow ourselves to face and feel pain…our lies about life shrink our hearts and limit our vision. It is not healthy, for instance, to say that massive poverty is sad but “normal.” It is not right to say that sexism is unfortunate but “necessary.” It is not human to say that war is miserable but “inevitable”. To weep tears of frustration about them may be to take our first real steps toward honesty, toward mental health, toward a life that is worth living.
Now, we know Jesus did not just sit around weeping all day long. As with Jesus, so with us, God took that pain, that compassion Jesus felt in the deepest part of his being and turned it into action. “Now go”, God would tell him and “do something for those you weep for”.
He longs to tell us the same thing if we can just get over ourselves; if we are able to see clearly the suffering all around us that breaks God’s heart. The next hurdle is being accountable. It’s way too easy to shirk our responsibility to bring Christ into this battle for the soul of America with whatever excuse happens to work in the moment. Lately, we seem to be so overwhelmed by the reality of the pain and suffering right in our midst that we have either become numb to it or shake our fists in anger. We don’t feel like we have the power to address the massive needs of others even if we wanted to. And truth-be-told we don’t. Not my problem. So, we shrug our shoulders, retreat into our little bubbles, and utter some feeble justification for not “getting involved”.
But we’re definitely not weepers – that’s a weakness we are not willing to put out there. If suffering humanity is lucky, Jesus just blew that myth to shreds for you! Fine. He doesn’t blow things up. But, you get it. Right?
And don’t worry I’m not going to spew some moral edict to try to guilt anyone out of being a self-serving, self-absorbed jerk. This isn’t about taking on a rule-following, righteous, high and mighty stance. That would amount to the lowest common denominator required for entry into “heaven” at some later date. Is that what you want out of life?
If your faith subsists within the rigid and narrow parameters of acceptable and unacceptable “Christian” behavior you may want to ask yourself: is that what Jesus’ life was about? Is that what got him killed? Would anyone have even bothered with him if he was just another face in the crowd? Or is that the metric you use to justify yourself and “judge” others?
So, let’s reconsider the gift of weeping that Jesus modeled, now seemingly lost as a Christian response to hatred and suffering. Not only should we weep for the state of our nation and the wrongs done to others, but we also need to realize that Jesus isn’t your personal fixer of all things that suck. That is not his job.
I believe the question is not “what are you going to do about this, Jesus”? The real question should be “what am I going to do about this in so much as I have the power to effect change in myself and the world around me?” Should my response be couched in adherence to the “rules” of morality or compassion born of an inherent desire to be Christ-like?
Let’s revisit Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) which magnifies Jesus’ longing to reveal her sacredness to her. She had several strikes against her. She was a Samaritan which made her the lowest of the low. She was married and divorced five times and was now living with a sixth man.
Most of the women enjoyed gathering at the well early in the morning for their daily gossip-fest and no doubt she was often the topic of their natter. So, she went alone in the heat of the day to avoid them. And who shows up at the well? – Jesus, the Jew, asking her, the outcast, for water. She could not believe what was happening. Here is a guy who’s clearly a prophet speaking life into her. She quizzed him relentlessly, certain she had to be dreaming. And Jesus’ reply? “Did I stutter? You are loved now go act like it.”
And how did she respond to that love? She danced all the way back to town. She couldn’t wait to announce to everyone who would listen, “You’re not gonna believe what just happened!” Because of her witness many other Samaritans became believers. And don’t think those nasty women weren’t pissed when they heard her! The next day they followed her to the well and hid in the bushes in an attempt to catch her in a lie.
Anyway, did all that happen because she was now on some moral high-ground or because Jesus sparked within her a hunger that surprised her? For so long she had learned to endure the rejection of others. She accepted that she was unworthy of love or acceptance or dignity, and lived accordingly, having no understanding of her intrinsic worth.
I think Rami Shapiro in his powerful book, “Holy Rascals”, gives us the most powerful definition of people of true faith that I have ever read:
Holy Rascals have only one aim: to pull the curtain back on parochial religion in order to liberate people from the Great and Terrible Wizards who use religion to frighten them in to submission and to manipulate them into doing evil under the banner of good.
We are not anti-religion: we are anti-unhealthy religion: religion that promotes a world of “us against them” and sanctions the exploitation, oppression, and even murder of “them” in this world and the torture of “them” in the next.
We are not anti-belief; we are anti-irrational belief: belief that substitutes ancient fiction for modern science.
We are not anti-God; we are anti-mad Gods: Gods who sanction the lust for power that rules those who invented them.”
What saddens me more than anything today is the fact that there is such contention and visceral hatred among those who profess to be “Christians”. But, the louder they are the less like Jesus they are, which is clearly an oxymoron: “Christians” who hate, “Christians” who seek power and prestige, “Christians” who have no empathy or compassion for others. Jesus was the Suffering Servant not the King of the elitists.
“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s it.
We are so far removed from the Jesus known to his disciples. When the Church turned him into “Jesus Christ Superstar”he got lost in the power struggle for whose faith was the true faith. I would say many Christians probably have no idea that it was the Church struggling for power that created the Jesus so many “worship” today. And there’s the rub I think. Jesus never told us to worship him. He said, “Follow me”. When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross kid and follow me.” What do you think he meant? Pick up your bucket and shovel we’re headed to the beach?
Jesus lived and moved and had his being on the fringes of society. He was a revolutionary, a rebel, an outsider among the powerful leaders of his time. Why? Because he loved without regard for position or status or how it looked to others. He loved “the least of these” with abandon. He touched and healed and served the broken and the outcast. And they responded in love; a love that blurred distinctions between us and them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, saint and sinner. Does that sound anything like what is preached on street corners and in some churches today? Or the hatred spewed by “White Supremacists”? They have tried to remake Jesus into someone who would be unrecognizable to his followers and they have been given a thumbs-up by a president who, at the same time, secretly makes fun of them. It is frightening to watch.
Trillia Newbell, an author and Christian commentator, says, “I want to hear that we’re mourning and weeping, that we are active in our community, that we are going to work to love our neighbor as ourselves, that racism and any kind of hate is evil.”
I would like to share one final, uncomfortable, not proud of this, Linda-you-suck-at-caring-but-it-will-get-easier, story about two women I met in Belfast in 2005. Both taught me about what compassion looks like up close and personal.
Not long after we got there, I was walking to the post office before work and I was in a hurry. Several blocks ahead of me, I saw a woman lying on the sidewalk. I watched people walk right past her without giving her a thought. Here’s the awful truth, I did the same thing. I was thinking of the fact that I needed to get to work, I wasn’t from there and wouldn’t know what to do, and…and…and. I didn’t get far when I heard that “still small (annoying) voice” – “Go back”. Just two words that felt like a gut punch. So, I turned around. Fearful now that she might be dead and then how would I feel? “Okay, Lord, this was your big idea please tell me what to do.”
I set my things down and sat next to her. It was clear she was drunk. I had to nudge her several times before she responded. She looked irritated at me, but sat up. I tried to find out her name and where she lived, but all she said was, “Leave me alone. I’m not worth it.” To this day, I can hear her say those words that pierced my heart. I held her dirty; make-up streaked face, and told her she was worth it because she was a child of God. She said again, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m not worth it!” I said to her, “I am looking at you and what I see is someone God loves deeply!” Through tears I tried to get her up so I could put her in a cab and take her to get something to eat. Just then a mission van pulled up. A guy got out and addressed her by name. He gently helped her up and walked her to the van. I never saw her again.
My second experience wasn’t quite so involved, but was equally as dramatic. Again, I was walking down the street and saw a woman with a little boy about five or six walking toward me. He said something that angered her and she slapped him, which shocked me. Again, I summoned that annoying voice within, a bit more willing to cooperate. “Okay, Lord, what do I do here?” When I got to her I simply asked if she wanted to talk. She slapped me too, walked around me and kept going. The little boy turned around and stuck his tongue out at me. Alrighty then. Yeah me!
Encountering those two women for just one moment in time literally changed the trajectory of my life and gave me purpose! Seeing the humanity of others teaches us compassion. Allowing ourselves to see Jesus in everyone we encounter we will grow in love for those we usually disregard, or worse, reject outright. Seeing beyond the degenerate, the depraved, the lost and broken takes courage, humility and trust in a God who shows us the beauty in others – and BONUS – in ourselves.
So, there you have it you macho-guys guzzling your beer and feeling a bit queasy watching Jesus weep for those who suffer. How do you respond to that? The first thing you need to do is offer a resounding, “YES” to whatever Jesus has in mind for you. That’s it. Easy enough. Right?
Then fasten your seatbelt brother, this is when the rubber meets the road because God has a plan for you (Jeremiah 29:11) and this probably won’t be an “I’ll get back to you next week” moment either. There’s much to do and you’re running out of time because you sat on your duff in that bar so long trying to get out of it. Just pray and stay open to your calling. You’ll know it. Then, brave heart, this is your moment! GO!
Wait…maybe lose the war paint. You don’t want to scare the crap out of people. They have enough to deal with.
“Joe Newman is 107 years-old. He has survived two World Wars, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Great Depression. His advice after reflecting on all he has lived through? ‘Always look on the bright side. Don’t spend time worrying about what’s going to happen, since what will happen, will happen.’” Anita Sampson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is Joe’s fiancée. “Joe says the coronavirus is just another event in his life. He believes we should look forward to whatever time we have, be it years, weeks, or just days, ‘and then hope for another on.’”
Maybe work on those wedding plans – or not. (I’m not sure if this is true, but, Anita has reportedly demanded a “Promise” ring by Tuesday or she’s moving to her own rocker!) But, for now, it’s nap time.
Since there are now so many American Centenarians there have been many studies regarding these 100+ year-old folks. They all have survived so much. They have lived through misery, hunger and job loss, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones, and every imaginable heartache along the way. But, that’s not the whole story. There is much beauty and blessing intermingled with the suffering.
The most common and inspiring thread was just as I suspected (and, no, it has nothing to do with great sex or alcohol, so get your mind out of the gutter!) During the Depression, people learned to support and care for each other. They were generous with a few extra dollars, food from their gardens, and emotional support. Many discovered a deep well of strength and optimism that have carried them beyond those tough times. They had a shared sense of gratitude, kindness toward others and even a feeling of being blessed in the midst of unimaginable hardships. They learned acceptance of circumstances you cannot control. And hope – always hope. Happiness and fulfillment come from helping others; having a positive and optimistic attitude. Most have a strong faith and a deep commitment and passion for a cause beyond themselves.
I’m not close to 100, except for those achy things that are the bane of my existence. But in my seventy-one years, I have learned so much about the ugliness and beauty of the human condition; about reality and resilience. I have experienced joy and sorrow, loss and pain and grief and epic moments of delight and wonder and unexplainable joy. I hate and love, horde and give generously, fear and throw caution to the wind. One moment I close in on myself and another I can open up with compassion and empathy for the brokenness that surrounds me. I’m a mixed bag of pride and humility. I can be your biggest fan or your most vocal adversary. I can be quiet and reflective or noisy and blow things up. I’m confusing, even to myself! I think that makes me human, albeit a very messy, bewildering human, like everyone else – if everyone else were honest. Anne Lamott says it beautifully, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. So there’s no sense wanting to be differently screwed up than you already are.”
I believe those wise Centenarians still hanging around and those of us who have not simply survived, but against all odds, have thrived during this screwed up mess called human life, are not finished yet. We have a calling, a responsibility actually, to share those experiences with younger generations in these desperate, seemingly hopeless times. We owe it to them. We have a treasure trove of stories I believe they are hungry for.
What we are dealing with today: a failing economy, children going to bed hungry, job losses, covid, wild fires, hurricanes, racial tensions, protests, and violence in the streets is nothing new. But, all at once? Good Lord! Think about all those younger than us that have not lived long enough to feel any sense of hope for their future because they have not had much of a past to draw that hope from. I believe we are in the midst of our collective dark night of the soul and there’s a double whammy for those younger generations that have not found religion, or even God, to be relevant. They have rejected a religion based on duty and obligation. No thanks.
But, that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Religion” as we have come to know it since the first century has always been top-down and authoritarian. But, that is not God’s way. He sent Jesus on a mission, not the likes of Herod the power-hungry king, to show his steadfast, dogged, unwavering love to the lost and broken. I have openly admitted that I have given up on the Institutional church, but I have not given up on God or my faith which is couched in awe and wonder at the marvels of all of creation.
Jesus didn’t wander the streets playing whack-a-mole with anyone who didn’t follow the rules, memorize rote prayers, or tithe 10%. He was a hands-on guy. When he said, “follow me” he didn’t mean act virtuous, he meant be virtuous; be kind and gentle and caring for your brothers and sisters that suffer life’s cruelties. Consider these verses: Jesus touched the blind man (Mark 8:22), he touched the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:33), he touched a leper (Matthew 8:3). The gentle, compassionate, loving touch of someone who cares that is what we are called to. I’m not gonna lie, it can be scary! Reaching out will require some risk and could result in ridicule or rejection from others. Hum…isn’t that what Jesus accepted to his death? Do you think for one moment that Jesus or the countless martyrs throughout history went to their deaths for a bargain basement god? Would you?
Surely God put wisdom and gray hair together for a reason. I believe, like Esther, we were made for such a time as this. People are scared and hurting. We have been there and have experienced the love and healing power of God. Every life has a story and those are stories that must be told. If your story begins and ends with you we all lose a bit of God’s glory. So, what is your story? How have you overcome hurt and pain? How have you hurt others? How have you prevailed over life’s disappointments? How do you find joy and peace in these trying times? I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Are youready?
People today, especially young people, are living out of fear instead of the abundance of life God has promised each of us. What we fail to understand is that it isn’t God being the mean, authoritarian father that is holding back on us. It’s us holding back. It’s us not believing he’s worth the effort. I truly believe this is a remarkable time for us old folks to still be hanging around and to get ourselves off our rockers and into the fray. Why should we bother? Do they even want to hear from us? Well, you decide:
Let’s focus in on what young adults (ages 18-25) are dealing with in this frightening and uncertain time:
First, a recent article by CNN:
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University says, “The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age.” He explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”
So, picture these young people that have likely never experienced even one of the many crises we’re facing today. They have had their certainties about life jerked out from under them without any warning.
The article continues:
Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.
There’s much more in this article that sheds light on what they’re dealing with: a government they feel they can no longer rely on, constant news coverage of injustice and violence, the tragedy of years of denial of climate change, loss of a sense of security and hope for their future.
Perhaps here is a glimmer of hope:
In (one) study, young people said they were “empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency — the strength of their social bonds able to provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms.
So, as their lives seem to be falling apart and the government can no longer be trusted to shore up confidence in their future, or that they will even have one, that leaves a huge gap to be filled, a gap between their current reality and hope. And that’s where God can use us to step in because dancing in the midst of tragedy is our specialty. There, of course, is a hurdle to jump first (not that God isn’t the world’s best hurdle jumper!). They don’t think much of religion or God or the pain of Judgment Day…..Ohhhh, don’t get me started on “God’s gonna-take-you-to-the-woodshed on Judgment Day”! Let’s quickly move on…
Here is a great article from National Catholic Reporter: “…the Study asks: Why are young Catholics going, going, gone?” Since we know it’s not just Catholics that have left their faith, this is very telling for all young adults that feel disenfranchised and left to their own devices to find their own way.
“Whether it’s feelings of being judged by religious leaders who don’t know or understand them, or being forced by their parents to attend church, or witnessing the sexual abuse scandal and the hypocrisy of church hierarchy, young people are expressing a desire both to break free from organized religion and to be part of a community. As emerging adults continue to navigate a difficult period, it is crucially important that they are able to maintain wellbeing and seek support where needed from those around them.”
Then there’s this from Springtide Research Institute:
Springtide Research Institute is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning. We exist at the intersection of religious and human experience in the lives of young people.
Our newest research found today’s young people are the most lonely and isolated generation that has ever existed. One in three young people feel completely alone much of the time. The good news though? You’re the solution (my emphasis).
What would it look like for belonging to come before believing?
One of the fundamental truths about communities is that belonging comes before believing. As our research demonstrates, we often get that equation backward, especially when it comes to young people. The traditional institutional tools for engaging with young people are no longer effective as trust erodes across all institutional sectors.
Young people are facing epidemic levels of isolation and loneliness.
Young people are struggling to connect with each other and the adults who care about them. Nearly 40% of young people feel at times they have no one to talk to and attending religious groups or gatherings does not have any effect, unless they have a relationship with an adult who cares.
“Belonging before believing” may be the key in all of this! The Institutional church teaches “rules” necessary to live as a “good” person of faith is expected to. That rigid voice has become old and tiresome; void of meaning and purpose. It cannot address the deepest longing of a soul that knows deep down it belongs to something bigger; something more. Where do we see in any of Jesus’ teachings to the masses gathered everywhere he went that he stopped mid-sermon for an alter call? “Look guys, we know you’re hungry after walking for miles and sitting here in the heat for hours. The food trucks won’t be coming any time soon…BUT…we’ve got fish! Come on up and get yourselves saved and you get some!” Years ago, when I was a youth minister one of the most basic truths that I grew to understand about human longing and relationship came from one statement, “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”
I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I first got some teens in our church together to start a youth group. Truth be told, I was probably needier than they were, but I sincerely wanted to give them a place to gather, safely question anything about their faith (when Father wasn’t within ear shot), serve the community, and have fun. Granted, I suffered the pains of having an A.D.D. brain that called into question my “fly by the seat of your pants” leadership style. More than one parent informed me how unorganized I was – thank you very much. Of course, they were too busy to help.
But, here’s the thing: not one of the kids walked away because a teaching was rescheduled due to a bit of forgetfulness by one flighty adult. Not one kid complained when said flighty adult was the only one who thought an ice breaker consisting of sticking life savers on someone’s face was funny. I still think that one’s funny! But, oh well. (Note to self: teenager = insecurity. Got it.) They forgave my every misstep as we all learned together. Why? Because they knew I loved them. That’s it. That’s all that mattered…well…except that I made some badass cookies!
I also recall a young pastor we had, new out of seminary. He came to a meeting one night and later complained that there were only ten kids there. So, why did we bother? I didn’t see that one coming and had no reply for him until a few days later. I invited a therapist to come speak to the kids about suicide: how to recognize it and what to do if they suspected a friend was at risk. One of the kids at that meeting called me a couple of days later to thank me – like sobbing thanking me – for having her there. He got her phone number afterwards and called her because he was contemplating suicide. They began therapy sessions with his mom. I still get teary when I think about that.
Another day, that same priest was talking to me and a girl in our youth group. She told him she hated her mom and he immediately cut her off telling her she could not hate her mom, that her mom was a wonderful person. I knew why she said that and knew she was suffering a lot of pain in their relationship. I could not share that with him, but I did “share” the fact that he managed to shut her down and she would never confide in him the pain for which she needed help and healing. I could go on, but I won’t, except to say that I have so many great memories of those times and am still in contact with some of the teens that are now parents themselves.
We all have life’s most critical and basic questions that need to be answered if we are to live fully the lives we were meant to live. Who am I? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Are you someone that can help young people answer those questions? You can, you know, just by being present to them, listening to them, and trusting God. Knowing he has already given you all the tools you need to fulfill your own destiny – you can now help them do the same. And I will tell you this without the slightest hesitation – they will do just as much, if not more, for you!
One final note: if you are considering forming a relationship with young adults it would behoove you to know that they will see right through any hidden motive to “straighten them out and save them from hell and damnation. Don’t do that. Okay? Here’s one final example of someone wanting to do just that. An “older” woman in our parish called me and wanted to “help” with the kids. I invited her to come to our next meeting just to observe. In that particular meeting we were going to watch a new T.V. show….ready?…”Married with Children”. I wasn’t concerned about exposing them to something distasteful because they were already mindlessly watching it at home. I wanted us to watch it together and talk about it. Hopefully they would make a more informed decision about watching it. It shouldn’t surprise you that my “older” friend only lasted about five minutes into the show when she walked out in a huff and never returned. But, at the end of that meeting, the kids were upset about the content of it. As a result they all wrote letters to the companies that sponsored it! How cool is that?!
Recently, I read this reflection, “Please show me is one of the most powerful prayers you can speak. You can avoid painful trials and errors by inviting Spirit to guide you at the outset of your decision making process. He will direct your efforts telling you exactly what to do.” Alan Cohen
I bulked at that, or more accurately, painful memories and an ego ever on high-alert, bulked, “It’s not that simple. Life is not that simple.” That partly comes from a place long ago when I learned not to trust anyone but myself (well…that’s a scary thought!). As a child, I needed to trust my mother so I could learn to trust the world around me, but she often lied and proved to be untrustworthy, which, in turn, meant the world was untrustworthy too. The World loves those who don’t know who to trust and empowers the ego to walk itself right off every unmarked cliff until we begin to doubt ourselves.
To this day, my ego-driven mind wants every aspect of my life to be certain and laid-out clearly and at the same time believes that the Spirit that I deal with doesn’t seem to be so concise about its guidance in my life, “You’re on your own kid. Good luck!” Old memories combine with my return again and again to my default setting dredges up my monumental failures to prove I’m right – hoping that Spirit-guy will finally see that I have good reason to question what I read.
The two major events that always come to mind are: (1) writing a book, and (2) attending Graduate School – the biggest, most profound, scariest, decisions of my life that did not turn out the way I planned. It seemed so obvious to me that the outcome of these events was confirmation that Spirit-guy could not be trusted either. And just to remind him we had a little review:
1) One day, out of nowhere you clearly told me to, “Write a book”. That was you – right? Admittedly, after laughing hysterically, I finally did believe you and wrote the damn thing. That led to me imagining myself becoming a famous and sought-after author. But, that’s not what happened is it? No.
2) Then, how about this? When offered the unbelievable opportunity to attend Graduate School, after much consternation, I did, even though I fully believed I would be discovered as a fraud and be tossed out on the street. When I finally realized I might actually accomplish such a crazy endeavor (which took nearly the entire three years I was there), I began to imagine myself becoming a beloved Pastoral Associate destined for sainthood, fulfilling my need to be somebody special. But, that’s right, that’s not what happened either.
Are you still with me Spirit-guy?
All of these “failures” were confirmation to me that what I read, “You can avoid painful errors and trials by letting the Spirit guide you”, did not apply to me. In a rare moment I sat quietly and prayed. The response came quickly. I suppose because it has been the same obsessive struggle I have had for years now and you were probably peeved weren’t you?
Spirit (eye roll here), “Sit down and take a deep breath, Linda. Ready? Here we go for the bizzilionth time.”
1) Yes, I did tell you to write a book. And, no, it did not catapult you into fame and fortune. BUT, it did develop into your blog postings and both have touched lives. How many? It really doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. Maybe a review of Luke 15:4-6 is in order here. It went something like this, “Jesus dropped everything and went after ONE lost sheep. ONE! And then he danced and sang all the way back to camp like he hit the lottery!!”
Purpose can never be driven by the world’s definition of success. But your ego is often too needy of praise to allow you to use this gift you have been given for others beyond yourself. So, stop putting expectations on the outcome and just write already!”
2) Sorry to be the one to inform you that you will not win the ‘Catholic Woman of the Year’ award. It’s actually funny that we’re still having this conversation since you seem to have pushed away from some aspects of your Catholic faith. But, that’s a conversation for another time.
So, admit it Linda, it took these experiences and growing pains to strip away enough of your own brokenness (not all, but enough for now) to open you to the love of God that resides deep in your heart. And, yes, I’m still going to be there, as always, to offer you guidance even if you pretend not to notice me: the elephant in the room!
Anyway, let’s think of the things that you have done just since graduation that you would probably never have considered being capable of before Aquinas wrested your shallow ‘faith’ from you and replaced it with a love for others.
Can you not see how much your faith grew and flourished when you cared for the dying as a Hospice volunteer? Working with the homeless you showed them love when they only knew rejection. We will soon be venturing into a new ministry together: some, maybe even just ONE (remember, numbers don’t matter), of the countless and nameless sex trafficked youth will also encounter the love of God through little ole you, Linda. This is what you have been preparing for; this is your calling. And no award, book contract, or flurry of accolades will come close to invoking those tears of love and compassion you reveal every time you think about those kids.
Now, come on, enough with the pitty-party already. We have lots of work to do and you aren’t getting any younger you know. Just sayin’.
Can you relate? Have you experienced your own come-to-Jesus moment but you’re not sure what that means for you?
Understand that when Jesus said, “Follow Me” it was a radical call not an invitation to tea. It wasn’t the Jesus version of Simon says, “Touch your toes. Wiggle your nose. Bend your knees”. Pat on the head. Here’s your prize.
You realize don’t you that Jesus never said, “Go to church”. Never. Church is where we so often hear the word of God, rejoice for a millisecond at its splendor, and then go home to cut the grass. Following Christ means living the Word; it means being Christ to others. He told us, “I have suffered the hatred of those in power to serve those at the bottom: the forgotten and rejected. If you follow me you will do even more and, yes, you will suffer for your efforts as well.” Our response to that call must be a resounding, “Yes”! But, it’s often, “I’ll get back to you.”
Remember that all the disciples ran for cover when Jesus was taken away. When they saw the empty tomb, in unison they proclaimed, “Bummer, this is not how we imagined it turning out.” When Jesus showed up unannounced at their pitty-party he was surely in the same place Spirit-guy has been with me so often, “Okay guys let’s try this again. First of all, let’s get this out of the way – none of you will be sitting on any throne. You’ll be sitting in the muck and mire with the least among you and, get this, you’re going to love it there because that’s what you were created for: selfless love and compassionate care for the lost and hurting.”
Over the past few months we have been inundated by images and news concerning Covid-19, our broken economy, hunger and homelessness, and the BLM protests that have shed an uncomfortable light on the inequities in this country. Every day, people are suffering and dying because they have been victims of Covid or hatred or both. How are you affected by these realities? What do you think of when you witness what is surely a most profound moment in our history? Do you turn off the TV, retreat to your safe place, and pray, or send a check to a food bank? I’m not discounting those things. Both are needed for sure. But, do you also feel guilty for not having to suffer what your brothers and sisters are suffering and don’t know what to do? Is there a tugging on your heart to not just “be” a kind, compassionate person, but to act on that reality?
I think this is a time of reckoning for all of us who consider ourselves decent human beings. Never mind any label you may attach to that: Christian, Jew, Atheist, none of the above, whatever – just decent human beings who know deep down we are now called to lift our “caring” to a whole new level.
I love the expression: “Bidden or not bidden, God is still present”. God still lives and moves and has his being in the very depth of your heart, whether you believe in him or not. And even if you don’t he just hangs out there hoping you will one day acknowledge who he is, and in turn, who and Whose you are. He’s like the heart whisperer, “I love you, you are mine, and your life has a purpose.”
If I ever sound like I have totally got my act together don’t think for a moment that’s true. We are all a work in progress. We have all sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23). I’m just thankful that God’s love and grace know no bounds. My weaknesses don’t anger him and my fears won’t push him away. He is merciful, forgiving, empowering and likely has a wicked sense of humor! Oh yeah, and he has never lied to me. Not once.
So, let’s do this. Yes, it’s important to sit quietly to discern how and where you are called to serve. But then, just like Jeremiah, get off your butt and get over your self-doubt because God will give you all you need to do what he calls you to do. That’s a promise we can all trust.
And know this: God is a constant, unfailing certainty beyond every struggle, every perceived failure, and every disappointment.
I will end with this wisdom from Anthony DeMello, SJ:
Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use” the disciple asked, “are all the spiritual exercises?”
“To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
I offer this post right before what may be the most popular day of the year – Black Friday. It is my lame effort to curtail the insanity. You’re welcome!
Have you ever read about Janis Joplin’s life? I watched a documentary about her called, Janis: Little Girl Blue. I found it to be such a sad account of a desperate and broken life. Her song Mercades Benz was recorded on October 1, 1970, three days before she died, alone in her motel room, of a heroin overdose. The song was actually a slam against consumerism. As Performing Songwriter Magazine stated, “She was outspoken about the illusory happiness promised (but rarely delivered) by the pursuit of worldly goods, a hippie-era rejection of the consumerist ideals.” But then, in contrast to that, she was often seen wearing a mink coat given to her by Southern Comfort because she offered free advertizing for them. It seems to have been her drink of choice. Needless to say, she was complicated.
Joplin grew up in a town that was right in the heart of what her sister called redneck country. It had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. And weren’t they thrilled when she spoke out against racial segregation, which also made her a target for ridicule by the other kids in her school. According to her sister, they were relentless in their attacks on her.
Her fragile ego wasn’t spared when she went away to college either. In 1963, Joplin was cruelly voted “The Ugliest Man on Campus” at the University of Texas. “She was left with little more than the yawning chasm of a tortured loneliness,” her publicist and biographer, Myra Friedman, wrote after Joplin’s death. Her book was titled, “Buried Alive”. On the Dick Cavett Show, she once said, “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of the state.”
Even after she managed to get away from Texas she could never seem to escape the loneliness and rejection she experienced there. She just wanted to be happy, to be loved, but those longings always eluded her. The sex, the drugs, the fatalistic sense of being lost and alone tormented her to her death.
In 1968 she wrote to her family, “From all indications I’m going to become rich & famous. Incredible! All sorts of magazines are asking to do articles & pictures featuring me. I’m going to do every one. Wow, I’m so lucky – I just fumbled around being a mixed-up kid (& young adult) & then I fell into this. And finally, it looks like something is going to work for me. Incredible. Well, pin the review up so everyone can see – I’m so proud.”
On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died of a heroin overdose. When she heard of his death she told friends, “he beat me to it.” Two weeks later, on October 4th, she was found dead. In her will she left her friends and family $2,500 to throw a wake party which was held on Oct. 26. One partier remembered, “Everyone got drunk and messed around and nobody mentioned Janis at all.”
Ronald Rolheiser summed up her struggles this way, “She simply lost the things that glue a person together and broke apart under too much pressure. Janis Joplin could not will the one thing.” That “one thing” of course is our innate connection to God, not things of this world we aimlessly strive for to take His place.
If the current rates of depression and suicide are any indication, people of all ages continue today to struggle to fill a void left by our rejection of God and the great American obsession with self.
According to the CDC, in 2017, suicide was a Leading Cause of Death in the United States:
Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.
And what about those who have not become a suicide statistic? According to the American Psychological Association:
7% of the U.S. population over age 12 took antidepressant medication in the past month.
There has been a 64% increase in the percentage of people using antidepressants between 1999 and 2014. In 1999, 7.7 percent of the population took the medication.
Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, has studied people’s values and goals for over twenty years. He says:
The materialistic or “extrinsic” goals are the goals for money, image and status that are so encouraged by consumer capitalism. We contrast these with the “intrinsic” goals for…affiliation (e.g., having close relationships with family and friends) and community feeling (e.g., helping the broader world be a better place).
The take away of those studies?
We find that when people prioritize materialistic, extrinsic goals at a relatively high level compared to intrinsic goals the lower their personal well-being, lower happiness and life satisfaction, more depression and anxiety, and a variety of other personal ills….Materialistic goals are associated with being less empathic and cooperative, and more manipulative and competitive….They care about ecological sustainability and their lifestyles tend to have a damaging effect on the planet.
….People who strongly value helping the world and improving the lives of others are happier and better adjusted than individuals who care about other, more materialistic values. Individuals oriented towards community feeling and helpfulness report greater self-actualization and vitality, less depression and anxiety, fewer behavior disorders, and less narcissistic tendencies.
And the bottom line? Our hunger for love is insatiable outside of God, but there’s a catch. Marianne Williamson tells us that, “A love that hovers above the earth, however well intentioned, is not enough…. It is a willing heart and love embodied that carry with them miraculous authority to turn darkness into light.”
In my last post, I touched on our desire to keep God at a distance. How often we pray for God to do something for those who suffer, but fail to hear His reply in the depths of our hearts, “I did do something, I created you.” Matthew West expressed this beautifully in his song titled, “Do Something”.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_RjndG0IX8
Why do we seem to fail to remember that God sent Jesus here to live among us, to show us what that love looks like? And then…ready?…and then He called us to carry on that embodied love by giving fully of ourselves. By using the gifts He has given us for His glory. Just like God counted on Jesus, He now counts on us. Jesus says to each of us who continue to follow Him, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these”. John 14:12-14
I could give you pages and pages of examples of people who live that truth and many are kids who are having a huge impact in the ways they strive to make a difference in their communities.
Look at what Jon Bon Jovi and his wife are doing. This brought me to tears: https://jbjsoulkitchen.org“The way to feel good is to do good.” Jon Von Jovi. There you go. He just said in one sentence what it took me three pages!
I hope this sheds a whole new LIGHT on Black Friday for all of us. Maybe we should call it “ILLUMINATED Friday”. Yeah…I like it!
I pray that we may all stop in the midst of the usual holiday chaos and contemplate the true wonder and magic of Christmas and then share that magic with some part of this broken world.
May God richly bless you and yours this Christmas season,
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.
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.” (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!).
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.
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?!
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?
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 experienceGod.
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,
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:
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
Some day, you’re going to apologize to your neighbor (who hates you, by the way) for backing over his cat and blaming it on the mail carrier.
Some day, your humdrum existence will magically transform into the fairy tale life you have always dreamed of.
Some day, you will hit the lottery and buy your neighbor a new cat. Okay, you won’t do that because you’ll move to a deserted island where you won’t have any neighbors.
If you believe one morning you’ll just wake up and your butt will have fallen off as you slept – that’s right – you’re delusional. (You might want to just lay off the chocolate darlin’)
Wanna know where I’m at as I write this and why my thoughts went were they did? I am sitting with a dying hospice patient. I’ll call him Fred. I can’t show you a picture of him for obvious reasons, but I can show you a picture of the wall I’m staring at in his room. It’s 2:30 am and I have been staring at this wall for two hours.
I have been visiting Fred for about five months now. He has little family and no one visits him. He was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease when I first met him, so we were never able to communicate. I have no idea what he did for a living, but, for now, he is my teacher, like all the patients I see.
I know what you’re thinking. How could someone who has lost the ability to respond to their environment or converse with anyone teach you anything? How could they impart words of wisdom like Mahatma Gandhi; shine light on injustice like Martin Luther King; inspire Jesus’ call to “serve the least of these” like Mother Theresa? Well, they can’t….
They can do more – at least for me – in this moment.
When I meet a new patient the first thing I do is look at the pictures in their rooms. Some, like my dear mother-in-law, have their walls and shelves cluttered with family pictures. They make for great conversation. But, here’s my buddy Fred with four blank walls.
What am I supposed to do with that? I have discovered that that is the wrong question. The real question is: what is God wanting to teach me here?
It is no coincidence that at this very time I am also reading a most profound book by Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging. I read her other “most profound” book during my clinicals, The Grace in Dying.
So, what am I finally learning at this late stage in my life? What I have grown to believe from Gandhi, King, and Mother Theresa, has been personified by Singh and Fred.
What I am reading in Singh’s book moves from words on a page to experience that reaches the depth of my heart as I sit here with a dying man.
I got up in the middle of the night to come here because I believe no one should die alone. I have grown to appreciate that this is Holy Ground; that God is truly present here and he calls out to anyone with ears to hear, “You’re gonna die too! Maybe even today”. Which makes me laugh (maybe I’m just silly tired) because I remembered this hysterical cartoon.
At this stage in life it’s about time for us to be getting our act together before it’s too late! Don’t you think? To stop obsessing over things that don’t…actually, never did…matter. Stop dwelling on old hurts, lost opportunities, and someone else’s expectations. Stop striving for more and more of what someone else will trash before you’re cold in your grave. Stop lusting after useless stuff. Stop trying to control everything. Stop shadow boxing.
Singh tells us:
When we are deeply aware of our own impermanence, every fleeting moment is recognized as precious. Our desire to be present in each moment amplifies. Contemplating the fact that we truly do not know if we will still be alive in this human body with the next breath, we can witness a stunning decrease in our attachment to and interest in anything but now.
Meditating on death instantly calls us to question on the deepest of levels. What am I doing? What do I want? What does this all mean? What is it all about? Who or what is the “I” that is asking the questions?
Our desire to explore, to inquire, to see, intensifies in urgency….Contemplating our own mortality…our precariously impermanent existence, can call us to complete and thorough accountability. It can call us to instant reordering, a rearranging of our priorities and our intentions. A deep opening to our own mortality brings us to our knees and down to the nitty-gritty. It blocks off all of our habitual detours into denial. It forces us to face the way we’ve lived our lives, the choices we’ve made, the polestars we’ve chosen.
Thank you, Fred. In your dying you are teaching me how to truly live while there is still breath in me.
Now, go in peace…I pray…into the hands of our loving and merciful God. I’ll be right behind you.