Church – A Great Place to Hide

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

THE DISCONNECT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PROBLEM WITH DONUTS AND LATTES:

How about you?

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

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

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

STUCK IN ORDINARY

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

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

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

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

TRANSCENDING ORDINARY IS RISKY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUST WHO ARE YOU, GOD?

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

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

WHAT’S THAT SMELL?!

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

Now, dear friends, it’s our turn.

Oh Death Where is Your Sting?

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 midst of those deemed lesser and unimportant. They experienced 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 (ahem…the women!). But many, his disciples in particular, scattered for their own safety feeling powerless to stop it from happening.

Also, 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. As a professed Christian I am called to emulate Jesus’ radical love in every aspect of my life. I mostly fail, but keep trying and longing to be more like him in the ways I live my life.

And, George Floyd? I didn’t know him and likely never would have, nor would most of us, if not for witnessing his horrific death on the daily news.

Both men 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 God’s making, we are all interconnected – like it or not. 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 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?

For 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?

Surely You Were in This Place

We are called during this time to contemplate more deeply the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This central tenant of our Christian faith is also the cause of my innermost struggle with what I believe and how I am to live. Paradoxically, it has become the source of a deepening faith that I believe will sustain me even if I never enter another church building. I no longer find my “home” there.

The following is the content of a post I wrote in 2012. As I reread it I realized it was everything I still believe because there is no mention of Jesus’ bodily resurrection which has been my sticking point. So, allow me to share the short post followed by a feeble attempt to express my feelings about that with what will surely be impossibly inadequate human words.

So, here we go:

Consider this:

  • While we prepare the menu for an Easter feast; Jesus is preparing for the Last Supper.
  • While we scrub the house for guests; Pilate washes his hands of the people who demand Jesus’ death.
  • While we are shopping for new outfits; Jesus is stripped, humiliated and brutally beaten.
  • While we look forward to having all the family together again: Kids home from college, parents arriving soon, on the long walk to Calvary Jesus and his mother touch for just a moment as their eyes reveal the unspeakable pain of their suffering.
  • While we are feeling left to do all the work amidst our annual pity party; Jesus, in his weakened state, struggles with the weight of the cross he carries – alone and abandoned by those who called themselves his disciples.
  • While we fuss over last-minute appearances playing beat the clock: Taming cowlicks, straightening ties, new shirt without stains, socks that match – finished – Jesus’ face is streaked with blood and his broken body is no longer recognizable. It is finished.

Knowing what will take place before that glorious Easter Day should cause us to tremble – but we’re too busy with our “stuff”.

The soon to be revealed and unimaginable love of God for us should bring us to our knees – an uncertain and uncomfortable place that we avoid.

The reality of the cross should cause us to beg forgiveness for our sinfulness – but we’ve become desensitized to our own sin, while easily pointing out everyone else’s transgressions!

We don’t reach out to God during the darkness of Good Friday or the deafening silence of Holy Saturday because we’re afraid he’ll answer! And then, for many of us, Easter comes and goes with little more fanfare than any other Sunday.

Could we even bear to consider what just happened? Jesus as the Incarnation of God showed us the full expression of God’s own self: He is relentless, extravagant, merciful, indiscriminate, gratuitous, enduring, and grace-filled Love!  

In this most holy season of Easter we are called to remember and celebrate that love. But, not just that! Jesus never said, “Worship me.” He said, “Follow me. Do what I do.” What difference does it make if we have not changed in some way; if Monday is just business as usual, if we step over our suffering brothers and sisters on our way to more important things? If we forget.

Now, for my current, albeit meager, “resurrection” thoughts. This is probably a good time to remind everyone that this is simply my opinion which you are free to disagree with.

I have read and studied the writings of several people I love and respect. Each of them has, in some way, helped me to better understand and then put into practice my beliefs about Jesus’ life and how I am to “follow him”. Even though I may stumble to articulate those feelings, I am still at peace with saying, “This is what I believe. I have no clue what the “facts” are and don’t believe anyone else does either. And that’s okay.”

Bishop John Shelby Spong has had the most profound impact on me so I will begin with him (italics are mine):

 “I do not believe that the resurrection had anything to do with the physical resuscitation of a deceased body, but I do believe that an experience that transcended all known human limits was real. Mythology is frequently the only language we have to use in order to make sense out of a transcendent experience. Having said that, I still see no reason to doubt the historicity of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth or the conclusion that seems to have come from many sources that a deep and transforming God experience was met in him.

After the crucifixion some experience of great magnitude brought Jesus’ disciples back, empowered them and gave them the courage to take up the cause of this Jesus in the face of persecution and martyrdom. They never wavered. The way the disciples understood God was changed by whatever that Easter experience was.”

There it is: Spong says, “…a deep and transforming God experience was met in him.”  We may not know what that experience was and there has never been a consensus about it, but we do know something profound happened!And we know that because those once frightened disciples came back empowered to speak God’s truth and act on that truth no matter the consequences.

Jesus, trusting in his Father, freely chose to become victim and was put to death. This final profound act united humanity to divinity, bringing us into the relationship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Easter question for us then becomes, “What do you believe about Me?”  What I say I believe must manifest itself in the way I live my life, or it is a lie.

Rev. Dawn Hutchings gives us a timeline that should cause a whole bunch of head scratching regarding everything we’ve been told to unquestioningly believe about Jesus’ resurrection:

The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, about 20 years after Jesus was crucified, died and was buried….at least 20 years before the Gospel according to Mark, 30 to 40 years before the gospels according to Matthew and Luke and probably nearly 50 years before the Gospel according to John.

The writings of the Apostle Paul contain the earliest writings that we have on the subject of the Resurrection. And the Apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection was good enough for the early followers of the Way….Paul never described Jesus’ resurrection as a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. Indeed in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul denies that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual physical resurrection.

The vision that Paul credits with having changed his view of Jesus is clearly that, a vision; a vision of a heavenly body.

….it is also difficult to reconcile a physical resuscitation with the details that are recorded in the Scriptures.

In an age in which, what we would define as supernatural visions, were commonplace, this experience of the power of the divine that their teacher had opened them to could have been interpreted as if the spirit of their teacher had never died because the power of God never does die.

Those who followed and loved Jesus experienced life in ways that were so earth shattering, so mind-blowing, that their lives would never be the same again. The power of the love they experienced in their life with Jesus could not be constrained or ended by Jesus’ death.

Long after they found the empty tomb, Jesus’ loved ones continued to experience his presence in very real ways. In the breaking of the bread and in the meals they shared together; as they walked the pathways they had walked with Jesus, and fished the waters they had navigated with Jesus.

Marcus Borg:

Many of these experiences were visions. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, described three times in Acts 9, 22, and 26, and referred to by Paul in Galatians 1, was clearly a vision. It happened a few years – three to five – after the death of Jesus.

As Acts describes Paul’s vision of the risen Christ, Paul saw a brilliant light, but not a bodily formThen a voice identified the brilliant light as Jesus. Yet Paul can say, as he does in 1 Corinthians 9.1, “I have seen the Lord.”

 “The Spirit of the Lord” was upon him, as the gospels put it – and his followers continued to experience the same Spirit after his death. The risen Jesus appears in a locked room (John 20). He journeys with two of his followers for a couple of hours and is not recognized – and when he is recognized, he vanishes (Luke 24). He appears in both Jerusalem (Luke and John) and Galilee (Matthew and John). He appears to Stephen in his dying moments (Acts 7). He appears to Paul in or near Damascus as a brilliant light (Acts 9). He appears to the author of Revelation on an island off the coast of Turkey in the late 90s of the first century (Rev. 1).

So, here is the question that I no longer struggle with, Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:13)  Every human being who knows the name Jesus will answer that question. Those who turn their backs say, “You are no one to me.” Some espouse it verbally, some more subtly by their actions. Many are Christians who profess their faith in a loud voice for all to hear, and cry out, “Lord, Lord!”  Yet, Jesus says, “I never knew you; go away from me you evildoers.” (Matt. 7:23)  Jesus does not recognize those who say what they do not live.  Every Christian must answer the question, “Who is Jesus,” and ultimately, “Who is the God revealed in Jesus?”

The answer I have settled into has given me more peace and joy than I ever imagined. It has stripped away all the spectacle and pageantry and ritual; the flowing robes, incense, drama, and hype.  It has defined and focused my attention on the simple yet profound reality of Jesus. The one I long to emulate. Jesus was God’s beloved son, just as I am his beloved daughter. His life had a purpose, just as mine does.

When I consider all the wonder and awe the disciples must have experienced after Jesus’ death; how he enlivened them with the strength and courage to stand against the same powers that crucified him and they ran and hid from; how he stayed with them in spirit, I am reminded of the most profound experience of my own life.

Jesus appeared to me most vividly in Kentucky twenty years ago (post), at one of the lowest times in my life. A time when I doubted God could possibly love me. I felt the tender hand of God – the touch of Jesus, through another living, breathing human and my life has never been the same since. I have often wished for more of those intense moments when in reality we are surrounded by them in the ordinariness of our lives if we would just stay open to them.

The central meaning of Easter is not about what happened to the corpse of Jesus. Its essential meaning is that Jesus continues to be known and experienced through his followers to this very day. Those whose lives manifest the love of God witness to the truth that Jesus is still here; hanging about loving on humanity.  And he still has his eye on you!

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.

Where was God when_______________?

The messiness of life has called us often to question what God is up to, if there even is a God. If you believe that God is up in the sky doling out rewards or punishments and you never received that promotion, perfect partner, or winning lottery ticket you begged him for, you may be very confused. If your words of wisdom for a friend who just received a terminal diagnosis are, “This must be God’s plan for you so suck it up buttercup”, then your understanding of God is likely skewed a bit  a LOT!

I believe many of us may be experiencing a significant crisis of faith and our understanding of just who this God is that we worship. At the core of the confusion may be the age-old question of where God is in the midst of all the tragedies and disasters we are witnessing.  All of us have been affected, some more personally than others.

So many are still impervious to human suffering because it normally happens far away in third world countries, so we can keep it from affecting us; from reaching down into our very being and ripping our hearts out. But, we can’t avoid it when it’s up close and personal.

So, we continue to question why God isn’t fixing all of this when we diligently pray for him to intervene? What kind of God would just sit back and ignore all the pain and suffering? Do I even believe in him? Is it possible to step back, take a deep breath, and start admitting that there are no words for, no answers for, the suffering or the possibility of branding God? And can that be okay?

You will not receive “answers” or certitudes from me because I gave up trying to figure him out a long time ago. I can now live with the possibility that life is just a crap-shoot. I wake up in the morning not knowing what the day will bring. Will I get cancer or a call from a long-lost friend? Will I win a new car or get run over by one? Will the cop who catches me speeding be cheerful and forgiving or a poopyhead?  Is today my last day here? I have no idea.

Now, let’s recap all the terrible things that have happened just in the past year and then revisit the “where is God” question.

The following list of the pile-on of disasters comes from the CDP Website: https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2021-winter-storms/

  • DEVISTATING WINTER STORMS: The storms left extensive power outages, damage to homes, empty grocery shelves, massive electric bills, boil water advisories, deaths and vehicular accidents…in their wake.

 

  • COVID DESTROYS LIVES: Feb. 11, 2021: The U.S. case total is 28,542,904 with 505,795 deaths and 18,707,002 recoveries. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but more than 25% of its COVID-19 cases with minorities suffering the most.

 

  • RACIAL INJUSTICE: Being killed by police is the leading cause of death in the US for Black men and boys. They are 2.5-3 times more likely to die than white men and boys at the hands of police. Other people of color, including Latino men and boys, Black women and girls, and Native American men, women and children, also experience higher rates of death due to police violence than their white counterparts.

 

  • DEVASTATING WILD FIRES: The 2020 season was a record-setting one for the state of California and the United States as a whole. NIFC reported that as of Nov. 27 there were 52,113 wildfires that had burned 8,889,297 acres in 2020. This is approximately 2.3 million more acres burned than the 10-year average and almost double the acreage burned in the 2019 season. There were 10,488 structures damaged or destroyed and at least 31 fatalities.

 

  • ATLANTIC HURRICANE SEASON: At the conclusion of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season – damage assessments for many storms coming in at well over $1 billion. The total cost for the 2020 season was almost $47 billion. More than 430 people lost their lives.

 

  • SOUTHERN BORDER HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: As of December 2020, the Southern Border Communities Coalition reports that 118 people have died since 2010, including several who died while in Customs and Border Protection custody….problems of overcrowding, lack of hygiene facilities and health care access, as well as food shortages….extreme violence in border cities including kidnapping and rape. The conditions in camps for unaccompanied children have been reported as deplorable, lacking in food, health care, water, sanitation, hygiene and other services. Children have died or become severely ill in these camps. There are currently more than 500 children separated from their families at the border and those families cannot be found.

Of course, there’s more and getting into the details of the pain and suffering would surely add to the stress, anger, and fear that causes so many of us to shake a fist at “heaven”; at a void we once believed housed God. Some are asking, some demanding, that God show himself and answer for his lack of concern for us.

I want to introduce you to Kate Bowler. She wrote a book titled, “Everything Happens for a Reason; and other lies I believed” in 2018, when she was thirty-five-ish and diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. She was given two months to live. Know how she would respond to the question “where is God”? “When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.” She managed to get past stupid people saying stupid things and discovered God was revealed in the likes of all those who loved on her, quietly sat with her, and took care of day-to-day tasks in myriad ways.

Bowler speaks from her experience and from “great works of Christian theology”:

The sense of God’s presence will go. There will be no lasting proof that God exists. When the feelings recede…they will leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of an unbidden God. It is not proof of anything….It was simply a gift. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

You may not recognize God because everywhere you turn he’s disguised as someone who looks like your grandmother or brother or that kid down the street who raked your leaves last year when you broke your leg and refused any money – remember? That was God.

He’s been right here all along:

  • From owners turning their stores into warming centers, to a mystery man handing out $20 bills to shoppers in Houston.

 

  • Texans have instinctively turned to helping others. One such figure is Raymond Garcia of Houston, Texas, who, upon realizing he had no power at home, decided to use his time helping others. He has been visiting people in his local community, helping with tasks such as fixing burst water pipes.

 

  • Houston resident Max Bozeman II, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, knew first-hand the importance of asking for help in difficult times. After posting to Instagram saying he would give out $100 to ten people who needed the money for groceries, he received a deluge of messages. He ended up handing out 70 gifts of $100 each and says he’s prepared to part with as much as $10,000.

 

 

  • In Elgin, Texas, Monica Nava, owner of the Chemn Cafe, put in a big order just before the storm hit. Rather than see perishable items go to waste, she boxed them up with shelf-stable goods into care packages. She gave the packages to in-need members of the community.

 

  • In San Antonio, one Good Samaritan at the Martini Ranch bar put on a free grill complete with lobster bisque for anyone in need of a meal. “Just grilling away out front to provide some people with a free hot plate,” he said.

 

  • Another Houston hero is Jim McIngvale, better known locally as Mattress Mack. McIngvale opened two of his furniture stores to be used as warming centers. “Anybody who needs it—whether they’re homeless, whether they lost power, whether it’s just wanting to come in and get something to eat—anybody wants to come in, we’re here for them….during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he turned over some of his stores to be used as evacuation centers.

 

  • Texas Nurse and Mom Stays Behind to Help Neighbors: I Had to ‘Make Sure They Were Still Alive’ “It made me very aware that we had to stay to help,” she added. “There were opportunities for us to leave and it just wasn’t an option anymore.” Grigsby and her family have done what they can since then, such as bringing three meals a day to a neighbor who uses a wheelchair. “I needed to go check and make sure that our neighbors were okay and do pulse checks every morning.

 

More God spottings:

 

  • Adolfo Melendez, owner of Tex-Mex restaurant El Mezcal in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, has bought more than $2,000 in gift cards to restaurants in his community to raffle off to his customers. Winners received $20 gift cards to a local restaurant.

 

  • The daughter of Rafael Palomino, who owns Sonora said she always loved baking. “My dad would take care of dinner and I’d take care of the sweets,” said the 27-year-old self-taught chef.

Now, she’s launched her own company: Batter that Matters, an online bakery focused on cookies, which donates a portion of its profits to various charities.

 

  • Haley Bridges, 17, of Appleton, Wisconsin, knew her friend and fellow Chick-fil-A employee, Hokule’a Taniguchi, 19, was commuting to work in the Wisconsin winter by bicycle. So when she learned she had won a car at a company Christmas party raffle in December, she knew exactly who she wanted to gift it to. (Got that?! A 17 year-old gave a car away!)

 

  • A rival “tip war” that’s been escalating for nearly a month has now generated over $34,000 for Cincinnati restaurant workers struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. It all started on Jan. 9, when an Xavier University alum left a $1,000 tip on a $54.59 bill and a note on a napkin that said: “Please share this tip with all of your employees as they work so hard and are dealing with COVID.”

  • A 10-year-old boy decided to thank the front-line heroes battling the relentless coronavirus pandemic by clearing snow off their cars outside a Rhode Island hospital this week. “I was thinking they’ve been helping us a lot through this whole pandemic, and I figured why don’t we help them, you know?” Christian Stone told a local news station.

 

  • Eight-year-old Cavanaugh Bell lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I spread positivity to inspire others to change the world. Because the pandemic left so many in need, I decided to make care packs to help elderly people in my community. And now, I’m able to gather supplies to give to families across the country,” he said. Cavanaugh initially created his care packages for elderly people in his neighborhood using his own savings from birthday and Christmas money. As word spread and donations grew, he and his mom opened a food pantry called Love is Greater than COVID-19.
  • Madison, Wisconsin — Morgan Marsh McGlone started a virtual lemonade standlast spring to raise money for a local food charity that lets people pay what they can. It was the 8-year-old’s plan to help struggling families during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

  • Two Bismarck families are determined to focus on the good and to spread kindness. This moment was the best part of 11-year-old Eva Brooke’s Christmas vacation. Eva and her family collected money from friends and family, “It was $280” They gave it all to their server at Rockin’ 50s. “We called it ‘Project Kindness.’” Heather Frey’s family did the same thing in December. They raised more than $1,600. “It was from all over United States.”

 

 

  • Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso and HOPE Border Institute Announce ‘Border Refugee Assistance Fund’ to Aid Migrants at the US-Mexico Border. Thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America, are currently stranded in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Grants from the fund will be used to support the initiatives and shelters providing for the immediate humanitarian needs of migrants in Ciudad Juárez, the majority of which have been organized by faith communities. Bishop Seitz said, “The need in Juarez is tremendous. Churches and community-led initiatives there are doing everything possible to feed, clothe and offer shelter to thousands of migrant families fleeing desperate conditions and looking for safety and refuge. Here we have a real opportunity to serve Christ in the migrant.” Faith communities and individuals across the country have asked how they can help at the border.

Pope Francis asks: “Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it.”

 

Remember the story of the stupidly rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel? (Luke 16:19-31) We often think the story is about how the rich man refused to help Lazarus and was likely annoyed by Lazarus’ presence in his front yard. But, it is more likely he didn’t even notice Lazarus. His life’s obsessions were himself and his “stuff”. Jesus warned us about our attitude toward the poor in Matthew’s gospel: When we found ourselves having to ask, “But, when did we do that? I don’t remember doing that!” Jesus said, “Whatever you did or didn’t do for the least of these – you did or didn’t do for me”.

 

So, where is God? He’s as close as your mirror. You will only “see” where God is when you are doing something to relieve the suffering of others, when you are his hands and feet.

 

Lord, help me to be more like you and “Less like me”!

The Best of Times – The Worst of Times: The Sequel

“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.”


https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/25/opinions/coronavirus-pandemic-racism-generation-resilient-fredrick/index.html

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.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/25/opinions/coronavirus-pandemic-racism-generation-resilient-fredrick/index.html

Check this out for inspiration: https://www.nunsandnones.org/

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.”


https://www.ncronline.org/news/parish/study-asks-why-are-young-catholics-going-going-gon

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.


https://www.springtideresearch.org/belonging/

“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?!

God’s Full Refund Offer

It seems like such a stretch…no…an impossibility, for us to accept what God really desires from us and for us: Not a list of commands we can tick off like the rich guy in Matthew (19:16), not a quick rote prayer on our way to more important things, not a list of complaints we keep bringing to him until they are heard and remedied.

And so, here we are, stuck in our miserable small lives, blaming our unhappiness on God or some inept human and demanding the universe be reordered in our favor! All the while, we seem to be oblivious to life’s special moments with friends and loved ones, majestic sunsets, breathtaking rainbows, the pure pleasure of chocolate, and most of all, a magnificent life full of richness and purpose. All planned out for us by a God who doesn’t’ do ordinary and never did.

Do you ever think about why we stay stuck there? I believe we are afraid of intimacy. Deny it, poo-poo it, thumb your nose at it, but think about it. Keeping ourselves at arm’s length from relationship with God and others requires nothing from us. Intimacy is too scary. But surprisingly, it too makes no demands. By its nature it cannot demand.

Intimacy is the love relationship modeled for us by the Father and his beloved Son through the work of the Spirit. It is self-emptying and gratuitous. It seeks the best for others over our own wants and needs. It is life-giving and it is what God longs for with each and every one of us. He beacons us into relationship with him and he will court and swoon and get all mushy over us until we let go of our fears. But, intimacy requires trust and vulnerability and we’re terrified of being vulnerable and exposing our weaknesses. Yeah, I tried that once and got smacked silly. No thanks. If we could just realize that vulnerability is not a character flaw to be conquered. It is integral to our relationship with God and is meant to be transforming. It means accepting and loving who we truly are, sins and all. It is birthed in the grace of God, not shame.

We continually believe that we’re not good enough, not perfect enough, not “holy” enough.  Who told us that? I can think of several people in my life, beginning with my parents, especially my mother. There have been countless more people over the years eager to reinforce that lie. It’s actually amazing when you think about it that we allow other broken people to define us and determine our worth. Then point to them when we try to prove to God that we are not worthy of love.

Truth be told, it’s the ego that holds us back, which is a paradox actually. The ego is our sacred cow. And yet, we live this meager, paltry, desolate life tethered to our fears, all the while pumping up our false selves for display to anyone who threatens our fragile sense of self. I wasted so many years of my life trying to defend myself against the lies and blamed God for all my misery. In my lowest moments I accused him of not caring, “If you loved me, where were you when I needed you?! What was I supposed to think when you were silent while my mother abused me?”  More silence. “Yeah, I thought so.” Proving my point I could go off and do what I damn well pleased. You’re on your own Linda. I’m pretty sure God was silent in those moments because he knew I was a hot mess; that my heart was too closed off to hear him. I wasn’t interested in healing I just wanted him to bring down fire and brimstone on everyone else.

Fear makes no sense. It denies us a loving, generous, merciful, forgiving, extraordinary relationship with God, and in turn, with others. Instead we settle for crumbs. We live in defiance of our truth because it seems impossible to believe that God would really “desire” our broken, self-centered, imperfect selves. What Glennon Doyle calls, “this crappy version of ourselves.”  Instead of embracing it, we give up trying because it’s just too hard to be the flawless human we’ve been lead to believe God requires. We’re certain that we are a disappointment to him. That he’s tallying up all our transgressions. That nothing gets past him. It’s really annoying.

Fear has a source that God continually warns us about. I love this quote from John Eldridge:

When we don’t believe in our blessedness we begin to doubt and fear just as Peter did when Jesus invited him to walk on the water (Matt 14:29)and that’s just where Satan wants us. So, how do we get beyond that? How to we learn to embrace; to love what God sees in us? Perhaps we should start with this truth: Even if your parents failed to love you well, it’s okay. It really is okay. You are okay, because you already possessed an innate capacity to love and be loved before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Our mothers, no matter if they love us well or totally suck at nurturing, are not the creators of our essence. That distinction is God’s alone. Got that? Let that soak in.

I was able to begin my long journey of change when I came face-to-face with this God who seems to forget our offenses even when we can’t. Not a change that signifies accomplishment, but change that allows me to embrace my messiness, my brokenness, my imperfections.

One of my most powerful moments of growth came when I was able to realize that my mother, my mean, abusive mother, was loved by God. But, sadly, she was never able to grasp her truth. When I was younger I hated her and told her so. She lived and died never having known the person God longed for her to accept and embrace as His beloved daughter. What I wouldn’t give to have her back. What I wouldn’t give to offer her the forgiveness and love that I now know. But when she was alive I was too lost and broken myself. God knows that and he has been relentless in his pursuit ofmy heart, so that I could forgive myself and offer his love to others. I honestly feel that the moment I was able to forgive my mom, even though it was long after she died, that our spirits connected and that mysterious, mystical love of God transcended all our barriers and healed both our hearts. I could deeply sense it even though I couldn’t explain it. Of course, as soon as you try to “explain” mystery it is no longer mystery.

When we allow ourselves to open our hearts to God the magic begins. Suddenly, our worldly longings don’t seem so significant. We stop demandinganything from anyone, ourselves included. If we can get just a small taste of the peace and indescribable joy God will bring to our lives when just sitting in his presence becomes everything it is tantamount to heaven because it is heaven.

Jesus said to all with ears to hear, which has never been many, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (my emphasis). Luke 17:21. You don’t have to strive for it or wait till you die for it.

Saint Iraneus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.  Conversely, the joy of Satan is man sound asleep. Are we even aware that there is a battle raging in the very depth of our hearts that is continuous and unrelenting? Jesus warned about it but we’re not listening because we don’t think it applies to us. Why is that? How much of Scripture do you believe is meant for us today; is meant to be a guidepost for how we should live and move and have our being? And, how much do we toss away as irrelevant? That, my friends, is Satan at his most cunning. Like that pesky snake in the garden, “Oh, come on, you don’t really believe all that stuff do you?! God wants you to have a fun-filled life with no worries! Party on munchkins”.

Jesus warned his followers then and warns us now, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they (you and me included) may have life and have it to the full.” John10:10. Do you feel like you’re living your fullest life possible; that you are the best version of yourself? Or does it feel like one hurdle after another to overcome; barriers and heartaches and detours that wear you down?

Well, I believe God has a challenge for you if you’re willing to give him a chance. Ready?

“Try me out for thirty days. When you arise in the morning, come talk to me first. Read some Scripture, tell me what’s on your mind, what breaks your heart. You may already be doing that, but, I would ask you to go deeper because this is where it gets real. Give me ten or fifteen quiet minutes of your time without expecting anything. Then, if you don’t feel something stirring within you (by the way, that would be me), I will give you your miserable life back! What do you say?” – God

I see you there, thinking, “Yeah, been there done that and got lost in a maze of “rules and regulations” from days gone by. I’m busy and this is complicated. Can you just give me the bullet points?” I think we have the notion that God doesn’t understand our obsession with bullet points in this hurried life we live. Look how we are drawn to articles that provide 5 Easy Steps to _________ (fill in the blank). Actually, four would be better. Just get to the point! For example:

4 Easy Steps to permanent weight loss (I could offer this in 1 Easy Step):

  • Stop eating crap. BAM! See how easy that is?

And reading Scripture? Really?! How many attempts have you made to read the Old Testament before your eyes glazed over? Exactly.  If God could just make this easier. Actually, he did. Perhaps he made it too easy and we can’t wrap our minds around something so simple. Ready?

1 Easy Step to permanent peace and joy:

  • “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 – Any questions?

 And this, dear ones, is what I hope and pray for you:

Santa, Won’t You Buy me a Mercedes Benz

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!

dear santa

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,

Linda

You are NOT Going to Heaven

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

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

So let’s continue.

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

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

Heaven This is not heaven!

fire And this is not hell!

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

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

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

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

circle of life

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

Anyway…

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

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

How about this uplifting thought: Gian Carlo Menotti tells us, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.” Wait now, this is actually good news. If hell is here now, and we somehow figure out what our true purpose is then we have a chance to correct our pathetic, despicable, pitiful selves before we drop dead. That is Good News, right?!

oh-crap-was-that-today

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

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

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

olive oil sleep walking

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

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

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

Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

I have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Love,

Linda

Passion, Purpose and Poopyheads

Life sometimes seems like a “Comedy of Errors” from our very first breath. You probably expected something very different while you were being formed in that cozy little B&B. You’re all comfy in there aren’t you? Floating around getting all your needs met. It’s pretty sweet. Except for those damn hiccups; people poking on you and trying to have a conversation with you right in the middle of your nap. But, then the party’s over. Without any warning, whoosh, out’cha go there little feller. You get flipped on your head and slapped silly by a perfect stranger. All the while, you’re thinking this is not what the brochures promised!

I have fourteen grandkids and at last count fifteen great-grandkids. I am always awe-struck at the sight of babies. They show-up all fresh and new; a clean slate. Well, they do have all that slimy stuff all over them, true, but, it washes off.

And then, life happens.

Good grief life can be a shit-storm some days can’t it? It really wasn’t meant to be that way you know. Long before we set one teeny foot into this world, God had our life all figured out. He gave us a big hug and a heart bursting with love and passion for all creation that we were meant to share. That was our purpose: To use the gifts he gave each of us to share his love. After all the work of creating us in his image (remember that for later), He kicked back, patted himself on the back and proclaimed to himself, “Yep, it’s all good!”

Then, it all went side-ways.

Maybe a parent failed us, a friend betrayed us, a cheating spouse or a devastating illness smacked us silly. Then, just for good measure, throw in our own missteps and sinfulness. All of which helped to build a wall around our fragile hearts that God can’t even penetrate. That wall is also fortified by a culture that worships independence, self-sufficiency, and self-promotion. We grow further and further from God’s intended purpose for us and we lose our way. The world does not offer us choices that are meant to fulfill our lives we simply learn how to climb into the least leaky boat.

If we dare step back, take a deep breath, and pay attention, the emptiness is almost palatable. If it wasn’t meant to be that way how did we end up here? Well, somewhere along the way we forgot who and Whose we were.

Being indoctrinated into “religion” only made it worse. We forgot that Jesus’ whole purpose was to remind us once again of the love of God, the desire of God for relationship with us, the longing of God for us to share that love with a broken world. But, we forgot. We got lost in the “rules” and fell asleep. 

Oh sure, there are times when we get some crazy notion that we are here for a reason. We start beating our chest determined to face our fears, stand down the bullies in our lives, and our own shadow. But, it doesn’t seem to last long. We fizzle out for any number of reasons: Confusion, fear, lack of trust in ourselves, that stupid poopyhead that keeps showing up uninvited to the party, or that damn zombie apocalypse in our heads (you know that’s not real, right?)!

Well, crap!

But hey, if it’s any consolation, just think about the hand-picked bunch of misfits Jesus had to deal with! Allow me to paint a picture for you. Better still, stick yourself in this moment. You’re Simon Peter at the Last Supper. Now, don’t get all gender specific on me, just indulge me okay?

Anyway, everyone’s enjoying fellowship and a great meal. You start to take an extra helping of mashed potatoes with a big slab of butter. Yum. But, just as you’re about to dig in, Jesus turns to you and asks a question that seems to come out of nowhere, “Simon Peter, do you love me?”

You, “What?! Seriously? Of course I love you” you say as you go back to stuffing your face (by the way, you should seriously cut back on those carbs).

Jesus, “Feed my sheep”.

You nod.

But, you barely get that spoonful of lusciousness to your mouth when Jesus asks again, “Simon Peter, do you love me?”

You’re flabbergasted and your potatoes are getting cold. “Yes, Lord, I do. I swear (oops)!”

“Where is this coming from?” you mumble under your breath.

Jesus, unrelenting, “Feed my lambs”.

You scratch your head, but get lost in – drum roll please – dessert. OMG! Your favorite, apple pie ala mode! You grab the server before she gets away and ask for an extra scoop. You start to dig in, and….yep…

There he is in your face, “Simon Peter, one last time, are you sure you love me?” Now, in all fairness, it’s understandable why Jesus keeps asking you that since, well, you did run and hide when it all got too scary for you. But, you’re about to lose it anyway, “Why do you keep asking me that same question? Yes, yes, yes, I love you!”

Then, without responding, Jesus stands up, goes to the window and pulls back the curtain. “Simon Peter, come here.”

“Oh man”, you groan. Great, now your ice cream is going to melt. Everyone else is finished and the server comes to clear the table, “Don’t take this”, you say, “I’ll be right back”! You walk to the window.

Jesus, “Simon Peter, look outside. What do you see?”

At this point you get a little snarky: “I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and you, And I think to myself what a wonderful world.”

Jesus, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake! You don’t see that mother crying as she holds her starving child? You don’t see the beggar everyone is ignoring? You don’t see the broken humanity right outside this window?”

You swallow hard because you sense your moment of reckoning is here.

Jesus, Three times I called you to feed my sheep and three times you chose to feed yourself instead. You give lip service to my call to care for those who hunger and in the same breath claim to love me.”

Hopefully, this is where you pass on the dessert and get your sorry self out there doing what really matters like you were supposed to all along. But, how do you do that? That, my friend, is a good question. It was supposed to have been answered by your Kindergarten teacher when you were learning “This little light of mine”. Unless, of course, you were a public school kid like me. Okay, then, maybe you began to learn it in Sunday school. Unless you were a heathen like me. Then, there’s the possibility your dear granny sat you on her knee (before knee surgery) and taught you all about Jesus’ love. Unless your granny was a heathen too.

I think we were set-up too when the Church decided to take control by creating lots of rules to keep us in line. It worked for a while, actually a very long while. But then people got smart and tired of “rules” that couldn’t fill the void. The latest study from Pew Research can attest to that fact, even if the churches have decided to ignore it. The study shows 23% of Americans, mostly millennials, self- identify as “nones”: atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” (whatever that means). And, the numbers are growing.

Even older folks are just showing up to get their cards punched. They shake the Pastor’s hand and lie about how good his sermon was (if they stay that long), then grab a bulletin to prove to anyone who might care that they were there. Done for another week or two, or maybe till Easter. 

Where did we ever get the notion that the narrow definition of religion was going to get us anywhere meaningful? There are actually several definitions of “religion”. The etymology of the word is often times connected with religare “to bind fast”. Great! What image does that conjure up for you?

Then, as if that isn’t enough to render anyone a total numbasille (I just made that up. Spellcheck doesn’t like it, but I think it works), we have the “stories” in the Bible. I know, we could debate all day long, because people do, about whether or not the “stories” are factual or myth. You’ll have to decide that one for yourself. (If you would like some help with that read anything by John Shelby Spong. I wouldn’t share that one with your grandma!)

Let’s look at just two that I have a real problem with: Adam and his accomplice/wife Eve. We’re told that Adam and Eve set us up for failure. No sense trying to be good. That’s a lesson in futility because, well, we can’t be “good”. It’s called “Original Sin”. It’s like a hereditary disease. We all have it and there’s no cure for it. (Believe me, if the pharmaceutical companies could come up with a pill for it they would have long ago!)

“I’ve got you now you wretched little creature!” (Not sure how the Scripture verse that says we were made in God’s image reconciles with that, but there it is.) Yep, like the Elf-on-the Shelf, he watches our every move, just waiting for us to screw up. I mean really. He was lurking around in the garden while they tried to hide, but he caught em’.

adam-and-eve-hiding-1

“I can see you, Adam.”

“No you can’t.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can.”

Then, there’s that whole burning bush thing. Do you think for one minute that wasn’t a set up for Moses? “Come on out God we know you’re hiding in there waiting to pounce on our slightest indiscretion. That’s sneaky. No one likes a sneak!”

Sorry, I just can’t believe in that kind of God. It’s more that we have turned our backs on Him and our full potential, our purpose, our call to love beyond measure.

Somewhere along life’s journey we are supposed to grow into the person we were created to be. But, we got hornswaggled by the lies. And, unfortunately, it isn’t going to happen on its own.

And don’t think for a moment that it’s just you. People who seem to have everything, are hungry for that something “more” just like the rest of us. Deep within every one of us is a longing for purpose. But, we can spend a life-time raking the muck this way and that in our foolish efforts to figure it out.

I think our world today has successfully sucked the life out of anyone who believes for one minute that we are here for more than accumulating fake friends on FB, making lots of money, having the newest iPhone, or investing in the latest miracle weight loss cure. And for what?

Get up. Do life. Go to bed. Repeat.

We have all been given a purpose in this life, the passion to fulfill it, and lots of poopyheads along the way intent on screwing it all up!

The truth of our very existence has been stifled, stuffed away, and rendered irrelevant right along with God and all that matters for humankind. But, I believe “religion” became something long ago that God never intended. For so long, if we stuck with it we learned to stay within our comfortable unquestioned faith because to do otherwise was just too daunting. Religion became empty and void of meaning. And when young people came along who were not afraid to ask the hard questions and were not content with the canned answers the Church offered they left in droves, and they’re still leaving.

So, what is my purpose? – you ask. Why am I here? Good question and one that is asked over and over again when the answer is really quite simple. Our struggle is embedded in worldly pursuits that ultimately bring us to a dead-end. We want life on our terms. We don’t want to struggle, we don’t want to suffer, and we damn sure don’t want to encounter anyone else’s suffering. We have enough to deal with trying to stand out in this dog-eat-dog world: An impressive degree, the next promotion, a face life, the biggest house, exotic vacations with pictures to prove it. I could go on. The point is that none of it offers fulfillment that lasts. Striving for more, paradoxically, leaves us emptier and hungrier. If we could just realize that hunger will never be filled with anything this world has to offer. NEVER.

Consider this: If someone approached you and demanded everything you have accumulated and cling to or they will kill you right where you stand, what would you be willing to die for? Any of it? Or would you quickly, without hesitating, had over your wallet, credit cards, and keys to that new car? I’m guessing you would. I would!

Martin Luther King said, “If a man has not found something worth dying for, he is not fit to live.” Ouch! So, the question then becomes, what is worth dying for? I have a one word answer. Ready? Love.

There it is.

I don’t know about you, but my most profound moments of clarity are at funerals when I do a life review. If funerals don’t cause us to evaluate our own existence, I don’t know what will. We may still be standing at the grave site when the questions surface: Do I matter? Have I value? What is my legacy? Will anyone care when I’m gone? Do I really have a purpose? What have I done to make the world a better place? Will I have to eat that crappy potato salad at the luncheon again? (Oh, sorry, I digress)

Sometimes funerals can cause us to throw up our hands and proclaim, like Macbeth after the death of his wife, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”

Oh joy.

But wait, look closer at the life Macbeth lived:

(1) He was evil.

(2) He believed three witches who told him he would be King of Scotland.

(3) Egged on by his equally evil wife, Lady Macbeth, he kills the king to become the new king.

Oh it gets better.

(4) He continues his killing spree out of fear that he can’t hold on to his power.

(5) A war erupts to overthrow Macbeth, resulting in more death.

(6) Lady Macbeth eventually kills herself.

(7) Macbeth gets himself beheaded.

The End.

Macbeth was bamboozled by witches because they offered him certainty that he would get what he wanted: Power and fame. He really was an idiot. Look at his motives because this is where we take a deep dive into God vs. the world. This might be pretty heavy stuff so buckle up, dear ones.

Today, we too want absolute certitude that what we are after is real. Faith is a calculated risk, but we don’t like risk even if there is a high degree of probability. It’s too iffy. No thanks. Which I find pretty amusing considering the things some people will do for “fun”. Like, I don’t know: Jumping off buildings, scaling walls, motorcycle stunts! And that’s not risky??

A shaky questioning faith might be less cut and dry than mindlessly following a set of rules.  It may be more uncontrollable and mysterious than what you have ever experienced, but that is what will bring you into the presence of Love and the very essence of God.

What’s the difference between unquestioned faith and allowing life to run rough-shod over us while we sit in the middle of the road? You may not have been told this but you’re allowed to wrestle with God; to question the reason for the suffering and heartache in the world. You can tackle the very struggles within yourself that you have never thought you could bring to him. God’s tough. Trust me. He can take it.

I got so angry with him during a very difficult time in my life, I cried and shook my finger at Him, “God, if you love me so much where were you when my mother was abusing me?!” I ranted on and on about all the suffering he allowed in my life. And what I got back from him was not a lightning strike which I was prepared for, but a gentle loving response that unsettled the very core of my being. “Linda, I did not abandon you during that time. I suffered along with you. My heart ached for you. I have lovingly, sorrowfully, held your tears. But, the choices people make are beyond my control. I’m truly sorry. But, you, my dearest daughter, have also sinned and fallen short. Even then, I never have I stopped loving you. I’m just waiting for you to trust me and start loving me. Then, your healing will start and you will be able to forgive those who hurt you.”

You see, there are no church “rules” or dogmas that will ever bring us into that kind of deep abiding relationship with God, which, in turn will shine a light on our purpose in life. It is what we call “experiencing” God. Until we can let go of our need to “know” that God is real, we will never allow ourselves to open our hearts to experiencing Him.  It’s that simple and that critical. It’s no more complicated or profound than that!

That is Good News!

William O’Malley nailed it when he said, “Genuine religion begins – not as it did for most of us, with indoctrination and imposing worship but with a personally captivating experience, a “sense” of the numinous, a presence larger than the capacities of this world to produce.”

Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

YOU HAVE TO KNOW THAT YOU MATTER!

That is what John Eldredge tells us, “If we could believe that about our lives, and come to know that is true, everything would change. We would be so much more able to interpret the events unfolding around us, against us. We would discover the task that is ours alone to fulfill. We would find our courage. The hour is late, and you are needed. So much hangs in the balance. Where is your heart?”

Alrighty then, I’m done, and if I didn’t lose you long ago I would like to offer you one last thing to contemplate before I go: Which of these scenarios would most likely bring you right to the heart of this very critical moment of truth, the deepest question of our existence?

  1. All your years growing up, you were drug to “church”. Parents started it: “Get up, clean up, sit quietly, don’t touch your brother, and act like this isn’t the most boring thing in your life! Then you’ll get donuts.” Then teachers of “religion” stepped in: “Memorize all the sins that will send you straight to hell: Miss one Mass – straight to hell. Think those dirty thoughts – straight to hell. Do not pass “GO” do not collect $200.” In short order “that little light of yours” has been snuffed out!

2. Every day you encounter Someone (guess who) doing things that draw you to him: Feeding the hungry, comforting the dying, kissing the leper, dining with prostitutes and beggars. He is so sincere and passionate about what he is doing that something incredible reaches deep down into the very core of your being and you can’t shake it. You are awe-struck, probably for the first time in your life, and you want to emulate him. You want to follow him. You want to sit at his feet and learn from him.

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

Linda