Is It Worth The Risk?

In the Book of Esther (I LOVE that girl!), Mordecai tells her she must go to the King to save her people; a life threatening proposition for her. He asks her to consider that this may be God’s calling, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” And her reply? You gotta love this!  “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”

So often God calls and we’re afraid to answer. If we choose to ignore him he may eventually go away, but the loss will be ours, not his, because he will find someone else. Yes, a call from God probably is risky. He’s an expert at risky. Remember he took the ultimate risk by giving us free will to tell him “No”. He has also provided examples of many Risk Takers to lead the way. Not the lease of which was Jesus. Of course, if you think Jesus is too difficult to emulate, you could start with any of the misfits he hand-picked to follow in his footsteps.

When I think of the question we are all called to answer: Is saying “Yes” to God worth the risk? –  the first thing that comes to mind for me takes me back sixteen years. In January of 2005, my husband and I were given the opportunity to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to spend a year working for Habitat for Humanity. Life in Belfast was full of blessings, many of which were realized from lessons learned only reluctantly (the story of my life, really).

We lived close enough to the City Center to walk there on occasion. One morning, I walked to the post office to mail some letters before going to work. My time was limited so I was in a hurry. By then, the route was so familiar to me that I rarely noticed the things that had taken my breath away just a few months earlier: The iron gates dividing the Protestants from the Catholics and the murals that told of each side’s pain and suffering during the “Troubles”. They no longer seemed quite so shocking.

On this day, God taught me a most profound lesson on the streets of Belfast. I was about to meet Bernie, my alcoholic teacher on my mission to tick off another task before work when I noticed a woman lying on the sidewalk. People passing her seemed to be oblivious to her. I even noticed some crossing to the other side of the street. And here’s me as I walk past her, “I wonder if she’s alive”. But did I stop? No. And then came that “Holy nudge” I knew so well.

Dang it! Not now. “Lord, don’t you have other heathens to reckon with?” I must have walked another five minutes before God got the best of me. I guess I thought I could out-pace him. I kept hearing, “Go back”. That’s all. Nothing about what I was supposed to do once I got there. No. That would have been too easy.

Fine. So, back I go.

As I sat down on the cold sidewalk beside her I nudged her but she didn’t move. Oh my God, I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if she was dead?! What if I stepped over a dead woman without a thought of her humanity?

I nudged her again. She slowly opened her eyes and I could tell she was intoxicated. “Come on, Love. Sit up.” (that’s what they say in Ireland. They call everyone “Love” even if they don’t know them).

She looked at me and angrily responded, “Leave me alone!”

“No, come on, you can’t stay here. It isn’t safe. Sit up.”

She managed to sit up and stare at me.

“What’s your name?”

“Bernie”

“Do you have a home, Bernie?”

“No”

Now I’m wondering what I am going to do with her. Being unfamiliar with Belfast I didn’t know where to take her. “Are you hungry? We’ll go get something to eat.”

“No. You got a fag?”

“No, sorry I don’t smoke, (are you ready for this?) it’s bad for your health.” That caused both of us to laugh. It was such a ridiculous response.

Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look at me! No one wants me. It’s no use. It’s no use. Just leave me alone!”

“No, Bernie, that’s not true. I am looking at you and what I see is beautiful. Now, come on, let’s get you to some place safe.”  Then, as I struggled to help her up, I prayed, “A little help here, Lord!”

Just then (I’m not kidding) a van pulled up and a young man got out. Bernie recognized him, “Here comes the welcome wagon.” We both laughed again. The man, calling her by name, very gently and lovingly got her in the van and climbed into the driver’s seat. Wait! He was interrupting my “Good Samaritan” moment! Not sure what to do, I quickly wrote down my phone number, “Please, would you give her my number if she wants to contact me?” He assured me he would and drove away. After they left, I resumed my walk to the post office, at a slower pace though, and still a bit stunned.

“Lord, what just happened? You stopped me dead in my tracks and sent me back to help her.  Now I’m certain I’ll never see her again. What was the purpose of all of this?”

No answer.  I sensed he was going to let me struggle with that one for a while. Except he did fire a Matthew 25:41-43 warning shot at me! As I continued to walk in silence, I could feel God speaking to my heart, “Linda, next time, don’t pass me by.”

A few weeks later, I broached the subject with God again, “Come on, Lord! You’re killin’ me. I know you aren’t finished with this lesson.”

And then came my answer, “Oh, Linda, you poor thing! I didn’t send you to save her, I sent her to save you – from your indifference.” (Ouch! I should have left well enough alone!) 

Soon my next risky adventure came along. I was walking down Falls Road behind a woman and a little boy about four years old. It didn’t seem to concern her that I was right behind them when she suddenly reached down and smacked the little boy on the face. I have no idea why. He said something, and she hit him again. Amazingly (or not so amazingly, I suppose), he clearly was not surprised by the abuse. Then, they crossed the street and I continued toward home, which was just a block away. I didn’t get there though, because I knew instantly that voice I had heard so clearly before was going to strike again. But I got a jump on it this time, “I know, go back!” I crossed the street and headed toward the woman, having no idea how she would respond to the intrusion. If she would hit her own child, what would stop her from striking at me?

“I don’t like this, Lord. Please help me out! What do you want me to say?” It felt very awkward, but as I approached her, I simply asked, “Do you need help? Do you want someone to talk to?” She gave me the stink-eye and brushed past me and the little boy stuck out his tongue at me. Cute.

I assumed they lived close by. Maybe I would see her again. Maybe she would knock on my door one day. But that never happened.

After our year in Belfast, we returned home to settle back into our former lives; to business as usual. I found a beautiful trail nearby to begin running again. I loved the beauty and serenity there. At times, I encountered a few cyclists along the way, and occasionally a scary dog, but I was usually alone.

One day, I noticed someone coming towards me. He was walking alongside a bicycle with a chain of baby bike trailers behind it. It’s funny how you can suddenly become acutely aware of your surroundings. We were approaching each other in a secluded area of the trail. Trees blocked the view of the road and there was no one else nearby. I ran a little faster andoffered a “Good morning” as I passed. I’m sorry to say that, as we approached each other, I did not feel less threatened because I gave my trust to God – I felt less threatened because I was confident I could outrun him –okay, and someone else was approaching on a bike. As we passed each other, we both said “Hello”- but he did something I did not, he stopped to talk to the man; the man who is our brother; the man I should love and respect because of his dignity as a child of God – no different than me. I was feeling pretty crappy right then. So, I went back and we spoke for an awkward moment.

Then, my emotions kicked in – or God kicked me (whatever). I said goodbye and ran quickly to my car, drove the three miles home in a cloud of dust, woke my husband to enlist him to help me pack up a cooler and some money to take to my soon to be new friend. We found him by the river – fishing. He was amiable and enjoyed telling us about his travels, and he allowed my husband to take a picture of us:

Here’s what makes me so sad. Look closely at this picture. He didn’t want me to touch him because he hadn’t had a bath in a while. Yeah, I knew that, but after running for an hour, I was pretty smelly myself! There we were, two smelly, beloved children (and one worm) of one AWESOME God!

From these three very brief incidents I learned volumes about risking and reaching out to others: That the outcome may not be ours to know, and about the unexpected blessings we receive from it.

These were momentary encounters with hurting people that I fancied myself saving. Truth be told, they actually saved me. We weren’t meant to have ongoing relationships that would last a lifetime. None of them would be calling me years later to tell me they named their first-born child after me, or to invite me to their college graduation. God was working quietly and without fanfare on my hardened heart which he somehow knew was not beyond reach. It would just take time.

There are signs all around us of man’s inhumanity to man. Violence against our brothers and sisters never seems to abate. We strip our fellow human beings of their dignity when they are suffering and we refuse to involve ourselves in their lives. How easy it is to ignore the misery of others! But when God teaches us to “see” with our hearts there’s no going back.

Honestly, I’m not sure I will ever stop gauging my compassion by my sense of safety. But, I pray for the grace to let go of my fears, so that I can reach out freely – out of love instead of guilt – like Sister Karen Klimczak.

Many would say that  Sister Karen Klimczak  should have paid closer attention to the dangers that surrounded her. For years she ran a transitional housing program in Buffalo, New York, for men who were being released from correctional facilities. Her selfless, heroic work ended with her murder on Good Friday of 2006, at the hands of one of the very people she had cared for. Ironically, Sister Klimczak, like Jesus, believed that “people will die if we don’t reach out”. 

Fifteen years before her murder, Sister Klimczak dreamed (or had a premonition) that she would die a violent death. Just before Holy Week of 1991, in her personal journal, she wrote the following words to the person who would take her life:

Dear Brother, I don’t know what the circumstances are that will lead you to hurt me or destroy my physical body. No, I don’t want it to happen. I would much rather enjoy the beauties of this earth, experience the laughter, the fears and the tears of those I love so deeply! Now my life has changed and you, my brother, were the instrument of that change. I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you, help you in whatever way I can. Continue living always mindful of His Presence, His Love and His Joy as sources of life itself – then my life will have been worth being changed through you.

Sister Klimczak’s advanced warning that she would meet a violent death didn’t stop her from championing the world’s outcasts. Instead, she simply continued doing what she knew she’d been called to do, for as long as she was able.

“You leave your fingerprints on everything. We need to be people who leave imprints of peace wherever we go in our world.” Sister Klimczak

Fear does not protect – it limits – it limits the blessings and grace God longs to pour out on us, and those we reach out to in his name. 

Richard Rohr in his book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, explains risk beautifully:

There are two things that draw us outside ourselves: pain…and…beauty. Those – pain and beauty – constitute the two faces of God. Whenever we see true pain, most of us are drawn out of our own preoccupations and what to take away the pain. I think we are rushing not just toward the hurt child, we are rushing toward God. That’s why Francis could kiss the leper. That’s why so many saints wanted to get near suffering – because, as they said again and again, they met Christ there. It saved them from their smaller and untrue self.

Jesus’ Matthew 25 challenge is always right in our midst: The poor, the homeless, the lonely neighbor, the crotchety checker at the grocery store, the elderly left to die alone in nursing homes. If only we would embrace the vulnerability that allows us to dare bravely for the sake of others what a different world we would create.

What Are You SO Afraid of?

Did I tell you about Justin (not his real name) the kid who taught me a lesson in love? Okay, well, if so, I’m gonna tell it again because it’s freakin’ awesome!

About twenty years ago, I worked for Youth in Need, a wonderful organization that helps teens, usually wobbling vicariously between their broken world and the road to juvenile detention. This was often the last best hope for them.

I was basically a house mom and often worked the night shift in the house they lived in. It was a time in my life when I was also a broken mess, not long before my husband and I separated for a year (another God story). I’m not really sure how I ended up there, thinking I had anything to offer them. It would be much later before I could see God’s hand in it.

The police often brought the kids to us. Sometimes they were runaways, or castaways by their parents or guardians. Justin came to us, a little guy – for a twelve-year-old – with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was always angry and struck out at anyone who looked at him wrong.

Easter Sunday was my day off but I decided that I would buy a ham and ask some of my neighbors to make some covered dishes. How nice of me! Look out Saint Mother Teresa…Linda’s vying for your spot in heaven! I can see the headlines now:

LINDA RUSSELL CANNONIZED BY POPE FRANCIS: THE PARTON SAINT OF MISFITS…

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But, I digress…

The evening went unusually well. That is until we discovered that one of the Easter baskets went missing. Later, I found it under Justin’s bed. When I called him out on it he went ballistic! He started pounding on the walls and yelling obscenities. When I headed down the steps to contact our on-call therapist, he followed me. Still yelling! And then he spit on me. Okay, now I was mad! I began thinking of how very generous I was to come in on my day off. I muttered under my breath, “Kid you’re outta here!” And I meant it. I was determined to send him away and I had the power to do it. When I shut the office door and picked up the phone I knew he was listening.

I explained to the therapist what had happened. She asked me if I felt threatened. If I would have said yes, the police would have been called. But, then, in that moment God grabbed my heart…this was Easter Sunday! On Good Friday, Jesus was spat on and mocked and crucified. Justin was just a child; a hurting, suffering child. I assured the therapist that I did not feel threatened and would handle it.

When I opened the door, Justin fell into me – still angry, “YOU GONNA CALL THE POLICE?! GO AHEAD CALL THE POLICE I DON’T CARE. CALL MY DAD, I DON’T CARE!” I calmly (which surprised me) said to him, “No Justin I’m not calling anyone. Just go upstairs, get your shower, and go to bed. Oh, and, if you need a hug I have one for you.” I think that offer surprised both of us, but his response didn’t. He uttered, “Yeah right!” just before he knocked the chair up against the wall and stormed out of the room.

Yeah right. What was I thinking? And now I had to fill out an incident report! Oh joy. “I’m taking my ham back! You hear me buddy???”

Twenty minutes later, report finished, I headed upstairs just in time to encounter Justin coming out of the bathroom. There was something different about him when he looked at me. He was calmer and then asked something that, to this day, I still get teary eyed thinking about it. “Can I have that hug now?” I can’t even describe the emotions that filled my heart as I hugged that little boy. I have no idea if he had ever been hugged before or since then. I hope that’s not the case, but I never saw him after he left.

When I consider that for just one moment  that I had the power to influence a little boy’s life – for good or bad – it’s mind-blowing! I know this for sure, if I would have followed through and had him sent away, that would have certainly been my own narcissistic doing. But, the ultimate outcome of that incident was totally God’s doing and took place even in the midst of my own brokenness (that’s a very important fact). It wasn’t by my own strength or even care for Justin. I was not some amazing spiritual giant responding as would have been expected of the likes of Saint Mother Teresa, But, and this is huge, I was able to hear Jesus speak into the depth of my otherwise hardened heart, which in turn allowed him to speak love into the soul of another broken heart. He used me in all my messiness. Unbelievable.

When I look back on my life it is simply astounding to me to consider what God is able accomplish when he has so little to work with. If such incredible acts of love, mercy, and healing can take place even when we are so resistant to him, I have to wonder what America would be like today, if more Christians would stop resisting God’s call. It is breathtaking to consider the possibilities.

Sadly, so many who confess to be Christian are believers in name only – lukewarm God calls it. Revelations 3:16-17: “I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit. You brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone, oblivious that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.” (The Message)

How much do we hate the thought of being that person before God? – Because we don’t act like it. I don’t know if it’s as much a matter of indifference as fear.

What ARE we so afraid of? Trusting? Possibly.

Are we afraid of what God will require of us if we come out of hiding? Perhaps.

Fear of the unknown? Absolutely.

Let’s go back a ways. There are many people in the Old and New Testament that were afraid to trust God; afraid of the unknown, “You want me to do what?” They came up with some pretty lame excuses considering they were arguing with God himself.

Coming out of our comfort zones and believing we have gifts to be used for God’s kingdom is just too hard to get our heads around. But, it’s true. When I have the opportunity to share my story, I have heard so many people tell me they can’t imagine God working in their lives like that. I have to remind them of the heathen I was before God caught my attention. And when that did happen it wasn’t a sudden thrust into a world I knew nothing about…

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God isn’t in the business of scaring us to death to get his point across. He knows each one of us intimately. He knows how to gently encourage our trust in him and the fact that our lives have a purpose.  Just little moments of grace, then more to follow,  like a child learning to crawl, then holding onto something sturdy to stand before he could trust enough to walk…and then run.

 Eventually I discovered, as I hope you will, that God gives us everything we need to be all he created and called us to be; that my past did not define my future, and that the lies I lived were Satan’s stronghold on me – not my truth.

When we doubt ourselves Satan gets all giddy inside. When we question God’s call to us, the kingdom work he has planned for us to do never gets done. And Satan cheers. Sure, he could go find someone else, but with the number of us who are never willing to step out of our comfort zones, that leaves him limited resources.

And Satan cheers again.

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Our strength is limited, but we don’t need to rely on our own strength because God’s boundless, inexhaustible, immeasurable grace is just a prayer away. Not convinced? Pick one:

The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless his people with peace. Psalm 29:11

In quietness and confidence shall be my strength. Isaiah 30:15 

I am strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Ephesians 6:10

I have put on the complete armor of God. Ephesians 6:11

God gives power to the weak. And to those who have no might, He increases strength. Isaiah 40:29

Here’s more

Enough? Yeah, it seems God knew we needed lots of convincing. Has it worked? Not according to Ed Stetzer in his article titled, Too Many So-Called Christians Merely Giving Lip Service to Jesus. Below is an excerpt, and if you would like to read the entire article go here.

I suspect many churches have forgotten their main calling: to make disciples. Instead, we believe drawing a crowd of people on Sundays is enough. We invite people to come to church or to be good people—but not to follow Jesus.

Sociologists like Christian Smith say many Americans follow something called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief in God that’s mainly focused on being a good person and having a positive self-image. 

That kind of religion feels good. But it doesn’t motivate people to act on their faith in areas where it costs them.   

Mediocre. Is that what you’re striving for? Is that what gets you up every morning and fills you with excitement about what life has in store for you? Are you content to sleepwalk through this life waiting for the next (whatever that means)? Have you thought about what you’re missing when you sleepwalk through life? That’s a shame because God could put those gifts he gave you to better use. Imagine him watching you just sitting on them…

Oh, okay, maybe you’re waiting until you get your life straightened out before you think God can use you. After all, you may reason, I’m just too broken myself.  There’s no way I could help anyone else if I can’t even help myself. That’s true, if in fact it is you that you’re relying on the fix yourself. It’ll never happen! Sorry. I can’t imagine you haven’t heard the expression: God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. Catchy huh?

Come on. Wake up!

There’s kingdom work to be done. God’s waiting…

Here’s a little food for thought: Do you realize that God is dependent on you?  That’s not a typo.

Say it to yourself, “God is dependent on ME!

“Linda, you’re crazy!”

Really? Then what does this quote by St. Irenaeus mean? “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Let that sink in a moment. You see, God needs us. It’s true. Anyone ever tell you that before?

So, you see, you MUST WAKE UP because this broken world needs you! God needs you! Now more than ever.

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.

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:

You are NOT Going to Heaven

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

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

So let’s continue.

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

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

Heaven This is not heaven!

fire And this is not hell!

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

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

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

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

circle of life

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

Anyway…

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

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

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

oh-crap-was-that-today

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

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

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

olive oil sleep walking

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

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

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

Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

I have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Love,

Linda

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

Originally posted on October 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But wait…

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

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

So…

“OH SHIT!”

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

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

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

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

“Are you paying attention, Linda?”

“I am now!”

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

If you will just get out of my way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, that is the post from 2012.

And the saga continues…

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

do the next right thing

“About time – huh God?!”

“Still not holding my breath, Linda.”

 

Surely You Were in This Place

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

Watch the reaction…

That’s right. There was no reaction.

Then, he went back. This time announced.

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

I'll be back

Just to be disappointed.

Jesus false alarm

Do we realize he has been here all along?

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

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

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

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

But why?

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

It's a Bird It's a plane

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

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

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

rolling pin

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

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

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

Delightful.

STOP IT!

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

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

Bidden or not

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

Ewwww…that’s terrifying, huh?

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

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

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

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