For years, as a Christian, I determined that my “job” was to inform everyone I encountered of their “heaven/hell” status. I was good at it too! I could even give you a check list of “requirements” to get into heaven and I can assure you the hoops you were required to jump through were daunting. It was not for the faint of heart! It’s no wonder I was never successful at “converting” anyone, including myself!
We sleep-walk through life with no clue what we’re doing here or that our lives have meaning and purpose – but they do!
We are all called to use the gifts and talents we already possess that have been uniquely designed for us. But it takes awareness on our part. We can be so enmeshed in, and blinded by, the things of this world we miss out on our whole reason 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. God needs your brilliance and love to shine his light in a darkened world.
You. Matter. That. Much.
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, Ivan ruminated about the reality that his entire life was superficial and self-serving as 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, “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life, my conscious life?”
And don’t look to me anymore (like you ever did) 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. And…no…sorry, there’s not a pill for that either.
We are so used to being in a world that is loud and demanding of our attention. We even busy ourselves filling in uncomfortably quiet places.
Socrates claimed the unexamined life is not worth living. “To live deep and suck out all the marrow” as Thoreau put it.
If we would just stop talking and LISTEN to the lessons life is trying to teach us! Geeeezzzzz, we’re SO BAD at listening.
The expression, “Life is short” is a yawner for most of us until it becomes a reality. My reality came a few months ago when I found my husband had died in his sleep. Now it’s real for me!
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?”
“Do you have a home, Bernie?”
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.
It’s Christmas. Advent is over – the waiting is over. The anticipation: waiting, sitting in darkness, in wonder and awe. Over.
My prayer for this Christmas is that what is not over is hope for a better, more peaceful, world, and an understanding that that begins with God, but is manifest through us, just as it was with Jesus so long ago. Archibald MacLeish explains that truth in a sermon on the Book of Job:
“Man depends on God for all things: God depends on man for one (ONE). And it is most itself…when it is offered in spite of suffering, or injustice, or death. It is in man’s love that God…triumphs; in man’s love that the world’s injustice is resolved.”
What does that love look like for us today? It looks just like it did for Mary. I’m imagining that when she humbly offered her “yes” to God’s call, that “yes” came from the depths of her heart, even in the midst of doubt. This was her purpose, to use the gifts God had given her, as Esther said, “For such a time as this.”
Surely, Mary contemplated the meaning of her “yes” to this new birth; to this baby she would soon be holding. Being a mother, I can picture her and Joseph just staring at the magnificence of this new creation that God had blessed them with, imagining what his future would hold and surely wondering if they were even capable of parenting him well, helping him to become fully who he was created to be. Remember, Mary was just a teenager, though she was blessed with awesome parents who excelled at Parenting 101 – training her up by their example.
I was just a teenager when my daughter was born and I can assure you that if I would have had the good sense to consider the magnitude of raising a child and loving them well, I would have been scared to death! Unlike Mary, I had no positive role models to emulate. It was trial by fire and I made plenty of mistakes, later requesting a do-over from God – which he never granted. However, in his infinite love and mercy and forgiveness he tenderly held and began healing those broken parts, infusing his love into our relationship. I suppose you could call that a do-over.
So, we reflect on the magnitude of Mary’s “yes” and Jesus’ “yes”, and let’s not forget poor Joseph. We’re always forgetting his “yes”, his contribution to this family and his obvious love and care for them.
Mary and I both questioned God’s wisdom. “Wait, WHAT?! ME? You’re kidding, right?”
God – “NOPE!”
And guess what…you’re not off the hook either my friends! God has called each one of us to be Christ-bearers as well. Scary, huh?
Take a deep breath. It’s okay.
God prepares us all for the work he has for us to do. Admittedly, it’s usually in hindsight that I see the progression of things God put in place to provide everything I needed short of my “yes”.
I recall many times in the past striking out on my own to do “volunteer work”. Those efforts usually failed in one way or another, never born of a longing, only an effort to garner praise from others and hopefully God. To get a few brownie points for heaven. But, in short order, I would lose interest or burn out because there was no real passion for what I was doing.
And, friends, you have to know that GOD DOES PASSION – OVER THE TOP!
When it’s God’s plan, it will not fail. He will see it through to completion. Jeremiah tells us so (29:11). Think of it, if he relied on us to figure it out by ourselves, we would surely mess it up and make him look bad. This, in turn, may cause others who may be watching to reconsider any thought of using their gifts. “WOW Linda! You royally screwed that one up! And wasted a whole lot of time and energy in the process! Alrighty then, no thanks. I’m not goin’ there. I have better things to do.”
Of course, we could argue that the expression, “Go big or go home” was probably coined by God. But, that doesn’t negate the fact that he initiates his plans for us, not the other way around. A great example is our friend Job. And, like Job, he doesn’t consult us for anything. Job found that out the hard way.
It wasn’t pretty when God confronted Job’s whiny self, “Hey buddy, I’m curious, when I was creating the world out of nothing I don’t recall seeing you there or consulting you on how to keep the oceans in their place or make a Zebra from scratch, or how to paint a breath-taking sunset. Whew, I outdid myself on that one even if I do say so myself! That was brilliant actually! And, of course, the myriad other uniquely spectacular feats of creation that no one has been able to top!
And what about my grand finale – humans?! Huh! Yea, I know, that was genius. Sure, there have been a few hiccups along the way – okay fine – major human failings. But, that’s not my fault! It’s you guys never seeming to get your part right.”
In any case, when we can’t see how we could possibly accomplish the task God sets before us, it takes trust and faith, like Mary, to say “yes” anyway.
So this Christmas, as we are reminded once again of the amazing story of Christ’s birth—God’s love coming to us with skin on, I pray we will all listen for and accept God’s call to be Christ-bearers in whatever way he has prepared us for.
Go ahead, allow yourself to sit in the darkness with God and bravely ask him what in the world you are here for. His answer will surely surprise you. And I guarantee you, if you utter that one little word “yes”, fasten your seatbelt because there will be no more business as usual!
“May 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.”
“Joe Newman is 107 years-old. He has survived two World Wars, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Great Depression. His advice after reflecting on all he has lived through? ‘Always look on the bright side. Don’t spend time worrying about what’s going to happen, since what will happen, will happen.’” Anita Sampson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is Joe’s fiancée. “Joe says the coronavirus is just another event in his life. He believes we should look forward to whatever time we have, be it years, weeks, or just days, ‘and then hope for another on.’”
Maybe work on those wedding plans – or not. (I’m not sure if this is true, but, Anita has reportedly demanded a “Promise” ring by Tuesday or she’s moving to her own rocker!) But, for now, it’s nap time.
Since there are now so many American Centenarians there have been many studies regarding these 100+ year-old folks. They all have survived so much. They have lived through misery, hunger and job loss, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones, and every imaginable heartache along the way. But, that’s not the whole story. There is much beauty and blessing intermingled with the suffering.
The most common and inspiring thread was just as I suspected (and, no, it has nothing to do with great sex or alcohol, so get your mind out of the gutter!) During the Depression, people learned to support and care for each other. They were generous with a few extra dollars, food from their gardens, and emotional support. Many discovered a deep well of strength and optimism that have carried them beyond those tough times. They had a shared sense of gratitude, kindness toward others and even a feeling of being blessed in the midst of unimaginable hardships. They learned acceptance of circumstances you cannot control. And hope – always hope. Happiness and fulfillment come from helping others; having a positive and optimistic attitude. Most have a strong faith and a deep commitment and passion for a cause beyond themselves.
I’m not close to 100, except for those achy things that are the bane of my existence. But in my seventy-one years, I have learned so much about the ugliness and beauty of the human condition; about reality and resilience. I have experienced joy and sorrow, loss and pain and grief and epic moments of delight and wonder and unexplainable joy. I hate and love, horde and give generously, fear and throw caution to the wind. One moment I close in on myself and another I can open up with compassion and empathy for the brokenness that surrounds me. I’m a mixed bag of pride and humility. I can be your biggest fan or your most vocal adversary. I can be quiet and reflective or noisy and blow things up. I’m confusing, even to myself! I think that makes me human, albeit a very messy, bewildering human, like everyone else – if everyone else were honest. Anne Lamott says it beautifully, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. So there’s no sense wanting to be differently screwed up than you already are.”
I believe those wise Centenarians still hanging around and those of us who have not simply survived, but against all odds, have thrived during this screwed up mess called human life, are not finished yet. We have a calling, a responsibility actually, to share those experiences with younger generations in these desperate, seemingly hopeless times. We owe it to them. We have a treasure trove of stories I believe they are hungry for.
What we are dealing with today: a failing economy, children going to bed hungry, job losses, covid, wild fires, hurricanes, racial tensions, protests, and violence in the streets is nothing new. But, all at once? Good Lord! Think about all those younger than us that have not lived long enough to feel any sense of hope for their future because they have not had much of a past to draw that hope from. I believe we are in the midst of our collective dark night of the soul and there’s a double whammy for those younger generations that have not found religion, or even God, to be relevant. They have rejected a religion based on duty and obligation. No thanks.
But, that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Religion” as we have come to know it since the first century has always been top-down and authoritarian. But, that is not God’s way. He sent Jesus on a mission, not the likes of Herod the power-hungry king, to show his steadfast, dogged, unwavering love to the lost and broken. I have openly admitted that I have given up on the Institutional church, but I have not given up on God or my faith which is couched in awe and wonder at the marvels of all of creation.
Jesus didn’t wander the streets playing whack-a-mole with anyone who didn’t follow the rules, memorize rote prayers, or tithe 10%. He was a hands-on guy. When he said, “follow me” he didn’t mean act virtuous, he meant be virtuous; be kind and gentle and caring for your brothers and sisters that suffer life’s cruelties. Consider these verses: Jesus touched the blind man (Mark 8:22), he touched the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:33), he touched a leper (Matthew 8:3). The gentle, compassionate, loving touch of someone who cares that is what we are called to. I’m not gonna lie, it can be scary! Reaching out will require some risk and could result in ridicule or rejection from others. Hum…isn’t that what Jesus accepted to his death? Do you think for one moment that Jesus or the countless martyrs throughout history went to their deaths for a bargain basement god? Would you?
Surely God put wisdom and gray hair together for a reason. I believe, like Esther, we were made for such a time as this. People are scared and hurting. We have been there and have experienced the love and healing power of God. Every life has a story and those are stories that must be told. If your story begins and ends with you we all lose a bit of God’s glory. So, what is your story? How have you overcome hurt and pain? How have you hurt others? How have you prevailed over life’s disappointments? How do you find joy and peace in these trying times? I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Are youready?
People today, especially young people, are living out of fear instead of the abundance of life God has promised each of us. What we fail to understand is that it isn’t God being the mean, authoritarian father that is holding back on us. It’s us holding back. It’s us not believing he’s worth the effort. I truly believe this is a remarkable time for us old folks to still be hanging around and to get ourselves off our rockers and into the fray. Why should we bother? Do they even want to hear from us? Well, you decide:
Let’s focus in on what young adults (ages 18-25) are dealing with in this frightening and uncertain time:
First, a recent article by CNN:
Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University says, “The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age.” He explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”
So, picture these young people that have likely never experienced even one of the many crises we’re facing today. They have had their certainties about life jerked out from under them without any warning.
The article continues:
Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.
There’s much more in this article that sheds light on what they’re dealing with: a government they feel they can no longer rely on, constant news coverage of injustice and violence, the tragedy of years of denial of climate change, loss of a sense of security and hope for their future.
Perhaps here is a glimmer of hope:
In (one) study, young people said they were “empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency — the strength of their social bonds able to provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms.
So, as their lives seem to be falling apart and the government can no longer be trusted to shore up confidence in their future, or that they will even have one, that leaves a huge gap to be filled, a gap between their current reality and hope. And that’s where God can use us to step in because dancing in the midst of tragedy is our specialty. There, of course, is a hurdle to jump first (not that God isn’t the world’s best hurdle jumper!). They don’t think much of religion or God or the pain of Judgment Day…..Ohhhh, don’t get me started on “God’s gonna-take-you-to-the-woodshed on Judgment Day”! Let’s quickly move on…
Here is a great article from National Catholic Reporter: “…the Study asks: Why are young Catholics going, going, gone?” Since we know it’s not just Catholics that have left their faith, this is very telling for all young adults that feel disenfranchised and left to their own devices to find their own way.
“Whether it’s feelings of being judged by religious leaders who don’t know or understand them, or being forced by their parents to attend church, or witnessing the sexual abuse scandal and the hypocrisy of church hierarchy, young people are expressing a desire both to break free from organized religion and to be part of a community. As emerging adults continue to navigate a difficult period, it is crucially important that they are able to maintain wellbeing and seek support where needed from those around them.”
Then there’s this from Springtide Research Institute:
Springtide Research Institute is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning. We exist at the intersection of religious and human experience in the lives of young people.
Our newest research found today’s young people are the most lonely and isolated generation that has ever existed. One in three young people feel completely alone much of the time. The good news though? You’re the solution (my emphasis).
What would it look like for belonging to come before believing?
One of the fundamental truths about communities is that belonging comes before believing. As our research demonstrates, we often get that equation backward, especially when it comes to young people. The traditional institutional tools for engaging with young people are no longer effective as trust erodes across all institutional sectors.
Young people are facing epidemic levels of isolation and loneliness.
Young people are struggling to connect with each other and the adults who care about them. Nearly 40% of young people feel at times they have no one to talk to and attending religious groups or gatherings does not have any effect, unless they have a relationship with an adult who cares.
“Belonging before believing” may be the key in all of this! The Institutional church teaches “rules” necessary to live as a “good” person of faith is expected to. That rigid voice has become old and tiresome; void of meaning and purpose. It cannot address the deepest longing of a soul that knows deep down it belongs to something bigger; something more. Where do we see in any of Jesus’ teachings to the masses gathered everywhere he went that he stopped mid-sermon for an alter call? “Look guys, we know you’re hungry after walking for miles and sitting here in the heat for hours. The food trucks won’t be coming any time soon…BUT…we’ve got fish! Come on up and get yourselves saved and you get some!” Years ago, when I was a youth minister one of the most basic truths that I grew to understand about human longing and relationship came from one statement, “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”
I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I first got some teens in our church together to start a youth group. Truth be told, I was probably needier than they were, but I sincerely wanted to give them a place to gather, safely question anything about their faith (when Father wasn’t within ear shot), serve the community, and have fun. Granted, I suffered the pains of having an A.D.D. brain that called into question my “fly by the seat of your pants” leadership style. More than one parent informed me how unorganized I was – thank you very much. Of course, they were too busy to help.
But, here’s the thing: not one of the kids walked away because a teaching was rescheduled due to a bit of forgetfulness by one flighty adult. Not one kid complained when said flighty adult was the only one who thought an ice breaker consisting of sticking life savers on someone’s face was funny. I still think that one’s funny! But, oh well. (Note to self: teenager = insecurity. Got it.) They forgave my every misstep as we all learned together. Why? Because they knew I loved them. That’s it. That’s all that mattered…well…except that I made some badass cookies!
I also recall a young pastor we had, new out of seminary. He came to a meeting one night and later complained that there were only ten kids there. So, why did we bother? I didn’t see that one coming and had no reply for him until a few days later. I invited a therapist to come speak to the kids about suicide: how to recognize it and what to do if they suspected a friend was at risk. One of the kids at that meeting called me a couple of days later to thank me – like sobbing thanking me – for having her there. He got her phone number afterwards and called her because he was contemplating suicide. They began therapy sessions with his mom. I still get teary when I think about that.
Another day, that same priest was talking to me and a girl in our youth group. She told him she hated her mom and he immediately cut her off telling her she could not hate her mom, that her mom was a wonderful person. I knew why she said that and knew she was suffering a lot of pain in their relationship. I could not share that with him, but I did “share” the fact that he managed to shut her down and she would never confide in him the pain for which she needed help and healing. I could go on, but I won’t, except to say that I have so many great memories of those times and am still in contact with some of the teens that are now parents themselves.
We all have life’s most critical and basic questions that need to be answered if we are to live fully the lives we were meant to live. Who am I? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Are you someone that can help young people answer those questions? You can, you know, just by being present to them, listening to them, and trusting God. Knowing he has already given you all the tools you need to fulfill your own destiny – you can now help them do the same. And I will tell you this without the slightest hesitation – they will do just as much, if not more, for you!
One final note: if you are considering forming a relationship with young adults it would behoove you to know that they will see right through any hidden motive to “straighten them out and save them from hell and damnation. Don’t do that. Okay? Here’s one final example of someone wanting to do just that. An “older” woman in our parish called me and wanted to “help” with the kids. I invited her to come to our next meeting just to observe. In that particular meeting we were going to watch a new T.V. show….ready?…”Married with Children”. I wasn’t concerned about exposing them to something distasteful because they were already mindlessly watching it at home. I wanted us to watch it together and talk about it. Hopefully they would make a more informed decision about watching it. It shouldn’t surprise you that my “older” friend only lasted about five minutes into the show when she walked out in a huff and never returned. But, at the end of that meeting, the kids were upset about the content of it. As a result they all wrote letters to the companies that sponsored it! How cool is that?!
Recently, I read a reflection by Alan Cohen. It began with, “Please show me is one of the most powerful prayers you can speak.
I bulked at that, or more accurately, painful memories and an ego ever on high-alert, bulked, “It’s not that simple! Life is not that simple!” That partly comes from a place long ago when I learned not to trust anyone but myself (whew, that’s a scary thought!).
As a child, I needed to trust my mother so I could learn to trust the world around me, but she often lied and proved to be untrustworthy, which, in turn, meant the world was untrustworthy too. The World loves those who don’t know who to trust and empowers the ego to guide itself right off every unmarked cliff until we begin to doubt ourselves.
To this day, my ego-driven mind wants every aspect of my life to be certain and laid-out clearly and at the same time believes that the Spirit that I deal with doesn’t seem to be so concise about its presence in my life, “You’re on your own kid. Good luck!” Old memories combined with my return again and again to my default setting dredge up my monumental failures to prove I’m right – hoping that Spirit-guy will finally see that I have good reason to question everything.
Two major events that always come to mind are: (1) writing a book, and (2) attending Graduate School – the biggest, most profound, scariest, decisions of my life that did not turn out the way I planned. It seemed so obvious to me that the outcome of these events was confirmation that Spirit-guy could not be trusted either. And just to remind him we had a little review:
1) One day, out of nowhere you clearly told me to, “Write a book”. That was you – right? Admittedly, after laughing hysterically, I finally did believe you and wrote the damn thing. That led to me imagining myself becoming a famous and sought-after author. But, that’s not what happened, is it? No.
2) Then, how about this? When offered the unbelievable opportunity to attend Graduate School, after much consternation, I did, even though I fully believed I would be discovered as a fraud and be tossed out on the street. When I finally realized I might actually accomplish such a crazy endeavor (which took nearly the entire three years I was there), I began to imagine myself becoming a beloved Pastoral Associate destined for sainthood. Fulfilling my need to be somebody special. But, that’s right, that’s not what happened either. Are you still with me Spirit-guy?
All of these “failures” were confirmation to me that what I read, “You can avoid painful errors and trials by letting the Spirit guide you”, did not apply to me. In a rare moment I sat quietly and prayed. The response came quickly. I suppose because it has been the same obsessive struggle I have had for years now and you were probably peeved weren’t you?!
Spirit (eye roll here), “Sit down and take a deep breath, Linda. Ready? Here we go for the bizzilionth time.”
1) Yes, I did “suggest” you write a book. And, no, it did not catapult you into fame and fortune. BUT, it did develop into your blog postings and both have touched lives. How many? It really doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. Maybe a review of Luke 15:4-6 is in order here. Jesus dropped everything and went after ONE lost sheep. ONE! And then he danced and sang all the way back to camp like he hit the lottery!!
Purpose can never be driven by the world’s definition of success. But your ego is often too needy of praise to allow you to use this gift you have been given for others beyond yourself. So, stop putting expectations on the outcome and just write already!
2) Sorry to be the one to inform you that you will not win the ‘Catholic Woman of the Year’ award. It’s actually funny that we’re still having this conversation since you seem to have pushed away from your Catholic faith. But, that’s a conversation for another time.
So, admit it Linda, it took these experiences and many others to strip away enough of your own brokenness (not all, but enough for now) to open you to the love of God that resides deep in your heart. And, yes, I’m still going to be there, as always, to offer you some insight even if you pretend not to notice me – the elephant in the room!
Anyway, let’s think of the things that you have done just since graduation that you would probably never have considered being capable of before Aquinas wrested your shallow ‘faith’ from you and replaced it with a love for others.
Can you not see how much your faith grew and flourished when you cared for the dying as a Hospice volunteer? Then, working with the homeless you showed them love when they only knew rejection. We will soon be off on a new venture together. Some, maybe even just ONE (remember, numbers don’t matter), of the countless and nameless sex trafficked youth will also encounter the love of God through little ole you, Linda. This is what you have been preparing for; this is your calling. And no award, book contract, or flurry of accolades will come close to invoking those tears of love and compassion you reveal every time you think about those kids.
Now, come on, enough with the pity-party already. We have lots of work to do and you aren’t getting any younger you know. Just sayin’.
Can you relate? Have you experienced your own come-to-Jesus moment but you’re not sure what that means for you?
Understand that when Jesus said, “Follow Me” it was a radical call not an invitation to tea. It wasn’t the Jesus version of Simon says, “Touch your toes. Wiggle your nose. Bend your knees. Pat on the head. Here’s your prize.”
You realize don’t you that Jesus never said, “Go to church”. Never. Church is where we so often hear the word of God, rejoice for a millisecond at its splendor, and then go home to cut the grass. Following Christ means living the Word; it means being Christ to others. He told us, “I have suffered the hatred of those in power to serve those at the bottom; the forgotten and rejected. If you follow me you will do even more and, yes, you will suffer for your efforts as well.” Our response to that call must be a resounding, “Yes”! But, it’s often, “I’ll get back to you.”
Remember that all the disciples ran for cover when Jesus was taken away. When they saw the empty tomb, in unison they proclaimed, “Bummer, this is not how we imagined it turning out.” When Jesus showed up unannounced at their pity-party he was surely in the same place Spirit-guy has been with me so often, “Okay guys let’s try this again. First of all, let’s get this out of the way – none of you will be sitting on any throne. You’ll be sitting in the muck and mire with the least among you and, get this, you’re going to love it there because that’s what you were created for: selfless love and compassionate care for the lost and hurting.”
We have been inundated by images and news concerning Covid-19, our broken economy, hunger and homelessness, and the BLM protests that have shed an uncomfortable light on the inequities in this country.
Every day, people are suffering and dying because they have been victims of Covid or hatred or both. How are you affected by these realities? What do you think of when you witness what is surely a most profound moment in our history? Do you turn off the TV, retreat to your safe place, and pray or send a check to a food bank? I’m not discounting those things. Both are needed for sure. But, is there a tugging on your heart to not just “be” a kind, compassionate person, but to act on that reality?
I think this is a time of reckoning for all of us who consider ourselves decent human beings. Never mind any label you may attach to that: Christian, Jew, Atheist, none of the above, whatever – just decent human beings who know deep down we are now called to lift our “caring” to a whole new level.
I love the expression: “Bidden or not bidden, God is still present”. God still lives and moves and has his being in the very depth of your heart, whether you believe in him or not. And even if you don’t he just hangs out there hoping you will one day acknowledge who he is, and in turn, who and whose you are. He’s like the heart whisperer, “I love you, you are mine, and your life has a purpose.”
If I ever sound like I have totally got my act together don’t think for a moment that’s true. We are all a work in progress. We have all sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23). I’m just thankful that God’s love and grace know no bounds. My weaknesses don’t anger him and my fears won’t push him away. He is merciful, forgiving, empowering and likely has a wicked sense of humor! Oh yeah, and he has never lied to me. Not once.
So, let’s do this. Yes, it’s important to sit quietly to discern how and where you are called to serve. But then, just like Jeremiah, get off your butt and get over your self-doubt because God will give you all you need to do what he calls you to do. That’s a promise we can all trust.
And know this: God is a constant, unfailing certainty beyond every struggle, every perceived failure, and every disappointment.
I will end with this wisdom from Anthony DeMello, SJ:
Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use” the disciple asked, “are all the spiritual exercises?”
“To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
The Lord gives us eyes to see, really see, IF (big if) we are willing, open, and present to Him.
For too long this country has cast God aside for our own wants and desires, striving ambitions, and material obsessions. Things we thought we couldn’t live without may have now become a hindrance to our ability to survive what is surely coming.
As I write this, the coronavirus is rearing its ugly head in every area of our lives, but I would like to focus here on one area – churches are closed all over the country.
This can’t be…
What will we do?
God must be beside Himself knowing we aren’t sitting in pews praying.
Or is He?
That depends on how we are actually living our new reality. And that runs the full spectrum from those who are frightened and immovable to many who seem to be indifferent.
Yes, these already are, and will continue to be, trying times as we suffer the physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic impact unlike anything we have ever known.
But, hold on…don’t leave me for a stiff drink yet! I have GOOD NEWS. Really!
Here we are experiencing the worse disaster we have ever known right in the midst of the most holy season of Lent. We have no idea what the outcome of the virus will be, but we do know how the Passion of Christ plays out. So, let me ask you a question: what has your celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant to you up until now? (To make this work, you have to be brutally honest. Okay?)
Many faiths observe various practices during Lent. The Catholic Church has requirements and suggestions for observing this season. Over the years, some of those “requirements” have become “suggestions”. For instance, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence, unless you’re old like me. Daily Mass, prayer, Scripture readings, traditional Lenten Devotions, sharing our abundance with the poor, and throwing in a confession somewhere are all strongly recommended. Oh yeah, and then there’s that pesky self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification” which in no way should be misconstrued as self-flagellation, an extreme practice of physical self-punishment that somehow, since medieval times, has been thought to imitate Christ’s suffering. Don’t do that!
Mortification in this sense means “cause death to our self-will” which is what Jesus meant when He said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mat 16:24). When we surrender our self-will we are imitating Christ. Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).
So, let’s take an honest look at our individual observances of Lent shall we? Then we’ll break down the three phases of The Passion in the context of today’s reality. I’ll go first.
I used to love fish fry’s when I was still a beer drinker and less concerned about recycled hydrogenated oil – YUCK!
I used to go to confession until, on two separate occasions and two different priests, they each said something totally inappropriate. I never went back.
I do Intermittent Fasting for my health regularly, but my “spiritual” fasting practices are, honestly, pathetic…okay, non-existent.
Going to Mass always felt like a requirement to have my card punched once a week. Sort of like getting that sticker, “I voted” or “I Gave Blood”.
When I outgrew the fear instilled in me by the Powers-That-Be within the Church, I grew into a different person; a better person hopefully. I quit “volunteering” to impress others and started to actually care about my suffering brothers and sisters. Which, in turn, led me to my life’s purpose.
I gave up my ambition of being the Catholic Woman of the Year or Saint Linda, and began to give myself to God for His purpose even though I had no idea what that purpose was. He just seemed to be a bit wiser than I always imagined myself to be.
Fear of going to hell got me to church most Sundays until I discovered this definition of hell: “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…OUCH!
Okay guys, I’m standing here with my sins exposed. It’s your turn. Don’t worry no one’s going to call you out. You don’t have to expose yourself to judgment like I just did. Just take a quiet moment to think about it and then we’ll move on. Go ahead I’ll wait right here.
Okay, so, Pope Francis offered some powerful words to consider this Lent, “Jesus’ Pasch is not a past event; rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit it is ever present, enabling us to see and touch with faith the flesh of Christ in those who suffer.”
And there it is.
God has been making this call to us since Jesus walked the earth; the call to get off our backsides and care for the poor and suffering among us. Jesus was here in the flesh to show us how that should be done. And how do we respond today? There are many who heed that call, some just half-halfheartedly drop coins in a beggar’s hat”, while some simply aren’t listening. Not much has changed in two-thousand-some-odd years I suppose.
Now, let’s consider the three phases of Jesus’ Passion: His life, death, and resurrection, in light of our call to imitate Him.
His life: Of his thirty-three years here (give or take a few), on the surface, it appears that only the last three were spent fulfilling His purpose. Three years. That’s it. I’m seventy-one and hate to admit that I have probably wasted at least sixty of it. But, Jesus wasn’t wasting His life. He was growing into His purpose.
When I look back on my life: all the mistakes and missteps, the hurt inflicted on me and by me, the selfishness and rejection, there simply would have been no way for me to be all God created me to be because I didn’t even know who that was. But, I do now! I don’t know how much time I have left here. But it doesn’t matter because time has no meaning for God, so it shouldn’t for us either. Each day is a new opportunity to bring Christ to our suffering brothers and sisters. And it isn’t just a privilege; it’s a responsibility we all have.
His death: Jesus knew that His constant presence was a threat to the status quo. He knew that every choice He made to expose the rich and powerful of his day would risk His very life. That became more and more clear as He pushed against the power that held sway over the most vulnerable and lost. He didn’t hold back from calling them out with choice words to describe them even though it surely sealed His fate: Hypocrites, brood of vipers, prideful, whitewashed tombs, legalists disguising an inner corruption. “They preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). His death was inevitable.
Most of us will not be called to sacrifice our lives, but we are all called to die to our self-will so that we can be used by God in whatever way He has already predetermined. That might just mean having the courage to step into what will likely be uncomfortable, probably risky, perhaps even scary. And expect it to be a wild adventure because God doesn’t do ordinary! (You know that right?)
His resurrection: When Jesus died everyone believed they would be returning to their ordinary, mundane lives. “Alrighty then, that was a wild and crazy ride! We could liken it to that special vacation we always dreamed about and finally got to experience. The difference is that we probably have pictures to reminisce over; they got nothing, not even a stinkin’ T-shirt for heavens sake.
Anyway, when Mary and the girls got to the tomb they were met with, “Surprise! He isn’t here!!” And when He showed up at the disciples pity party later, they were all overwhelmed, first with fear, then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they discovered within themselves a determination and fervor that would send them out sharing the Love of Christ with anyone with ears to hear. With the exception of John, all the disciples were martyred for their willingness to go when God said “GO!”
And for us? Following death to self, resurrection, I believe, does not mean a new birth, but a “rebirth”. It means returning to our original holiness. Before we were born God created us with Love, for Love. But, we have somehow lost our way. We have forgotten who and Whose we are. Saying “yes” to God means saying “yes” to our true selves and “no” to the lies we have believed about our unworthiness.
Jesus’ Passion was a disaster turned triumph. The conventional thinking of our time is that we can’t handle tragedy and suffering; that we will fall apart and resort to some sort of primal survival instinct. Though I suppose as we watch people claw each other to death for toilet paper some could make the case for that belief. But, I choose to look instead at the myriad examples of people all over the world who have shown love and compassion and hope in disasters. Countless studies have born witness to the fact that most people are altruistic not barbaric. And out of the ashes of disaster comes the gift of the blessedness and fullness of our humanity. Yes, you and I are our brother’s keeper! It’s in our DNA.
This, my dear friends, can be a turning point in what we believe about ourselves and our neighbor; of what we are capable of in the face of fear and uncertainty if we trust in the divinity of our very souls where God resides and where we live and move and have our being. What you believe right now will determine how you act. So, it’s time to believe and act like you and everyone around you; friend or stranger, are a beloved and precious child of God.
In our new coronavirus reality, we need to do away with “practicing” our faith and get to the business of “doing”. And how better to begin than to be kicked out of our comfortable pews, locked out of church, and sent on a new meaningful, mystical and mighty mission?!
GO ON NOW!…“see and touch with faith the flesh of Christ in those who suffer.” And fear not. Remember the immortal words of Esther when Mordecai told her that her people were going to perish if she didn’t do something. Then he said to her, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” And what was Esther’s reply without hesitation? “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:14 – 5:16)
As I write these words I fully understand that none of us have any idea how this will turnout. But, I do know this – God does not cause such tragedy (so get that idea out of your head), but He will use it for good!
God is our steady strength. He will not abandon us. He hears our prayers and tells us: “Don’t be afraid!”
I love this quote by Rebecca Solnit, “Disaster could be called a crash course in Buddhist principles of compassion for all beings, of non-attachment, of abandoning the illusion of one’s sense of separateness, of being fully present, and of fearlessness…in the face of uncertainty.”
My prayer is that we will take on that mantel of courage and faith now, whatever that looks like, wherever we are.
So, hang in there, pray, wash your hands, and take care of your neighbor!
Just kidding. Not happening. Not today anyway. I don’t think. I could be wrong. Sorry if that disappoints you. Nothing I can do about it.
Anyway, let’s jump right into the muck shall we? Weren’t the 2016 elections fun?! And the aftermath? – there doesn’t seem to be an end to it.
Many people on both sides are everything from angry to frustrated to fearful. It’s all over the internet and the news ad nauseum. You can’t get away from it if you talk to friends, family, or strangers in the checkout lines who need to vent. Hateful rhetoric, anger, and violence are now the norm.
(Spoiler Alert: This is NOT a political post. Honest!) Stay with me now…the Good News is coming!
If you’re scratching your head because you don’t understand how we got here, maybe because you still believe Christianity is the foundation of this country, I am sorry to inform you…in recent years, it seems, we have become a more and more secular country.
So, this post is not about Democrat vs. Republican. It’s about our changing culture and how we are to live as people of faith in America today because I think we may need a refresher course on Luke 10:27.
Let’s begin with this excerpt from First Things written after the 2012 elections. What Reno wrote is even truer today:
The New Secular Moral Majority, by R. R. Reno
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life tells us that 20 percent of Americans (that number increased to 23% in 2014) now check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. Many are fed up with religion’s longstanding influence on American society, making them likely to attack the public role of religious institutions and further polarize politics. (Source)
Never mind that “until recently, all the progressive movements in American politics were promoted and heavily influenced by the mainline Protestant churches.” (Source: Reno)
But, that’s not the whole story. It isn’t just their politics that’s concerning.
Consider thisarticle in the NY Times from April, 2016:
Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years with increases in every age group except older adults….sending a signal of deep anguish from a group whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s. The overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
In all, 42,773 people died from suicide in 2014, compared with 29,199 in 1999. The rate rose by 2 percent a year starting in 2006, double the annual rise in the earlier period of the study.
I could throw in statistics on road rage too (I was a victim of that recently, it was frightening!). Are you aware of how many fatalities are a direct result of road rage? And the numbers are increasing.
Data gathered by SafeMotorist.com indicates that 66% of recent traffic fatalities can be linked to aggressive driving. More disturbingly, 37% of those fatalities were found to be caused by a firearm, rather than a typical accident.
Here are some more fun facts concerning the rise in mental health disorders, according to the latest statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Then you have to wonder about the extent of usage of all those legal and readily available drugs. Well, one in six U.S. adults reported taking a psychiatric drug, such as an antidepressant or a sedative. The data comes from an analysis of the 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS).
Okay. I’m done.
Now, let me ask you. Does it sound like we Americans, who supposedly have everything, are living full, joyful, blissful lives? Which, surprise, is what God intended. We may have lots of “things” and the sense that we can do what we damn well please, but do our lives have purpose? According to the above statistics, it doesn’t appear that way.
Weseem to be trudging through life on autopilot.
I believe what underlies all of this is that the American people are dying for hope.
We have everything else!
People in Third World countries have nothing and are literally dying of starvation. We recently spent two months in Rwanda and encountered the survivors of the genocide of 1994. They lost almost 1 million loved ones in one-hundred days! They experience hunger daily! Which would make their faith and hope in God incomprehensible to Americans. I wrote more extensively about it here.
So, I believe this is our challenge: We, as people of faith are called by God to be that hope for others. 1 Peter 3:14-15 tells us “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”
The question that God puts before every person of faith is this, “Are you living a life of hope and joy; of compassion and mercy and generosity that speaks to the emptiness of those who have lost their way?”
Not according to Barna Research Group (sorry, this is the last one – promise):
It may come as no surprise that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have all been dropping for decades. By consequence, the role of religion in public life has been slowly diminishing, and the church no longer functions with the cultural authority it held in times past. These are unique days for the church in America as it learns what it means to flourish in a new “Post-Christian” era.
Geeezzzz, Linda, if I wasn’t depressed before you shared all this “stuff” I am now!
Oh, come on, stay with me guys cause we’ve got work to do!
God’s call in this day and time may seem overwhelming. After all, I am just one person, right? So was Esther! If you have been following my blogs, you know I have a special place in my heart for Esther. God prepared her for “such a time as this” (4:14). And here’s the key: we rarely know the outcome of God’s calling before our “yes” response. So, it’s too risky for us. We want to say, “Yes, if…”
“Yes, if it won’t cost me anything.”
“Yes, if I’m going to be rewarded for my effort.”
That was not Esther’s response, and it shouldn’t be ours. She said “yes” to God knowing full well she would likely be killed, “When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” But, she didn’t perish; she saved her people. (Esther 4:15)
“Okay” you say with great trepidation. “But, where do we start?”
Well, perhaps we’re standing in the wrong line;
Putting our trust in the wrong people;
Believing the rhetoric that there is no heaven or hell;
Spending too much time shopping online, obsessing over Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media sites;
We first have to come to the realization that we will never be fulfilled by our consumerist obsessions; our need to succeed at any cost; our inflated egos and narcissism. We never seem to be satisfied. We want more, but more of what? Richard Rohr calls it our “survival dance” which keeps us from “getting to our sacred dance.”
There is an incredible book I have read and reread, titled, Waking the Dead, by John Eldredge. Powerful stuff. He asks:
What is really going on here? Good grief – life is brutal. Day after day it hammers us, till we lose sight of what God intends toward us.” He quotes St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive” – and goes on the say, “You’re kidding me. Really? Is that what you’ve been told? That the purpose of God –the very thing he’s staked his reputation on – is your coming fully alive?
Eldredge believes that:
We are at war.I don’t like that fact any more than you do, but the sooner we come to terms with it, the better hope we have of possessing the life we want. I’m sorry if I’m the one to break this news to you: you were born into a world at war, and you will live all your days in the midst of a great battle, involving all the forces of heaven and hell and played out here on earth.
Yeah, thanks! That insight surely makes you want to trade your Armani suit for an itchy camel hair coat; pack your lunchbox with locust, and find your prophetic voice doesn’t it?
Alternatively, I don’t know about you, but I’m not anxious to end up as the one referred to in Revelations 3:16, “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
So many people have become fearful of what our future, in particular the future for our children and grandchildren, will look like. Focused entirely on the makeup of Washington, the seeming inability to correct the direction we are headed, and what all that will mean for this fragile country.
When I read the article I shared with you in the beginning of this post, God revealed to me something much graver. No matter how any of us voted, there is something much more critical to address. I have a great sense that our work, the work of all people of faith, at this time in history, is more critical than ever.
Okay…there you go.
What are we, as God’s people, supposed to be thinking, and feeling, and doing in what seems to be a hopeless situation?
Well, not this – please – not this:
If you’re wringing your hands, hunkering down, barring your windows, loading your guns, andwishing for the apocalypse, perhaps this is a good time for a refresher course in what it means to be God’s beloved. That’s where it starts. Then, it should flow out to others. People all around you are desperate to hear they are worthy. That is our “great commission” today, just as it was for the first disciples so long ago. In case you’ve been so busy you haven’t noticed, they’re long gone and there is a void that we ALL are called to fill.
Perhaps, for starters, some sobering questions need to be answered by each of us:
Does my “yes” to God call me to a responsibility that compels me to a response?
Why, if we are 40% of the population, have we not influenced the “nones”? We are the same 40% while they are growing in number. Why?
Are we culpable in the course this country has taken because of our limited desire to live the “Good News” in a way that makes others want what we have? When we “go to church” an hour on Sunday and the rest of our lives are enmeshed in worldly pursuits, how are we any different?
The secular may have pushed God out of our schools and Public Square, but are we, a people of faith, just as guilty of keeping Him hidden in our places of worship?
Still waiting for Jesus to come? Still waiting for the “Good News”?
Well, guess what? YOU are the bearer of God’s “Good News”! All wrapped up in the bright, shiny LIGHT of Jesus! YOU are God’s gift to a hurting world.
Indeed, we need God, but, are you aware that God needs us too? Right. You thought God didn’t need anything. But, it’s true. Archibald MacLeish, in his sermon on Job tells us why:
Man depends on God for all things: God depends on man for one. Without man, God does not exist as God, only as creator, and love is the one thing, no one, not even God Himself, can command.
Do you believe that? If so, what are you “doing” about it? Sure, you may not be the next Mother Theresa or Ghandi or Martin Luther King – or you could be. Either way, God has gifted you, and likely in some way you may not even have imagined. God prepared you before you were born and has called you into the fray and the messiness of this world to serve.
If the love of God is not manifest in and through us to others, how will the “nones” ever know there’s a better life waiting for them? If that beautiful nun, Sister Maureen, had not spoken God’s love into my heart fifteen years ago, I would likely still be drunk! If she had only seen the exterior of the obnoxious heathen I was, and not the very breath and heart of God buried deep within me, I would likely be one of those statistics.
Ask yourself how many Linda’s you have turned away from God because you were too busy or too afraid to be vulnerable and risk reaching out? Then, ask God to change your heart and move your feet.
Jesus came to earth as a human being just like you and me (we seem to have a hard time believing that). He had a special purpose to fulfill, just like you and me (we can’t seem to believe that either).
God wanted him to show us by his life, death, and resurrection, how deeply and passionately we are loved; how much he longs to bless us; how we should care for and be blessings to others (those truths also seem to have been lost to us on our often broken journey).
Jesus fulfilled his purpose even though he knew he was making a lot of “important” people angry. So angry they would kill him. I’m pretty sure no one wants to kill us for striving to be all God created us to be (though that is not the case for many Christians in other countries). So, we have to come up with a different excuse – and we do: I’m not smart enough, I’m busy, I don’t think that applies to me. I need to straighten up my messy life and my underwear drawer first…wha-wha-wha…
Daily, Jesus had to decide if he would keep doing what he came here to do. And just before they came to take him away, scripture tells us that he was in agony praying that God would just make it go away (Luke 22:39-46). After all, the human side of him did not want to suffer. But, in the end, he accepted whatever God’s will was. Just think about how that turned out!
We are now in Holy Week – when we remember Jesus’ suffering, death and his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday – which we celebrate because we are reminded of how much God loves us! This is the moment in time when the disciples came out of hiding; when their fears and doubts fell away, and they tripped all over each other to get busy preaching and teaching and glorifying God. Skipping happily to their own deaths (except for John).
Jesus could have made a different choice. He could have said “no” to God. The disciples could have stayed in hiding. What about you?
God tells you in scripture that he made you and had special plans for you before you were even born. He gave everyone gifts and talents and at the same time made each person unique and special. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Sure, you may doubt yourself. You may not want to risk using gifts that you think others will make fun of or criticize. But, if you trust that God gave you those gifts, then you must believe that he has already given you everything you need to use them. Not doing that would be sort of like gifting you with a new car and not giving you the keys wouldn’t it?
So…what do you say? There is no better time than this moment to reflect prayerfully on what your life’s purpose is, if you haven’t already. Sit quietly with God and just ask him to help you consider:
How are you unique?
Do you know what your gifts are? Let’s think about that…
Who do you admire and why? (Often what we admire in others is what we would like to develop in ourselves).
Do you like helping others?
Do you consider yourself a leader?
What makes you happy – sad? What are you passionate about? (These can be thoughts that can lead to discovery of gifts)
Has someone else told you that you are good at something?
God is waiting for each of us to step out of our comfort zone; to come out of hiding, and serve this broken world.
During this Holy Week, perhaps for the first time, deeply contemplate Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in light of your own life; your own purpose. Is this your resurrection moment? Is it time for your “yes”?
2 Corinthians 5:17 proclaims that you are a new creation in Christ each new day, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”
Also, and very importantly, when you’re considering your gifts and how you are called to use them try not to get all full of yourself in the process – okay? It would be easy to do, but, dear heart, this isn’t about you!
Always keep Jesus’ example in the forefront of all you do:
Why did God send Jesus here?
It wasn’t to flex His muscles – although he could have. He could have taken his anger out on our sinfulness and rejection and wiped us all out. He did it before you know…
No, it was to show us in the most powerful way he could how deep his love is for us, and in particular, those who suffer.
It wasn’t to gather groupies who would idolize him, serve him, and cater to his every whim – although, that would have been easier. All he had to do was eliminate free-will. But our free-will to love him – or not – was too important to him. Even though that very will nailed his Son to the cross.
No, it was to model meekness, humility, and service to those most in need.
It wasn’t to puff out his chest and boast of his great might – although he had plenty to boast about. No one, no matter what pedestal we set them on, or place of honor we bestow on them – ourselves included – no one should brag or exult themselves (though we often try).
No, his extravagant love was manifested through his beloved Son, not puffed up and boastful, but rejected and slumped over on a cross.
Now, go on – what are you waiting for? Sure, God knows, you’re a hot mess – so what?
Esther was the joy of her cousin, Mordecai, who raised her. She was a beautiful Jewish girl who became the wife of King Ahasuerus, after he defrocked, dethroned, and de-vorced Queen Vashti, for refusing to obey him. Big mistake Love!
When the king went searching for a replacement, he chose the meek (not really, as we will see) and lovely Esther. In Esther’s day women were literally to be seen and not heard. No doubt she was reminded of Vashti’s fate as the crown was placed on her head. Even as Ahasuerus’ wife there was no exception to the rule everyone else had to follow. There would be no, “Hi honey how was your day?” conversations over tea. She was required to request an audience with him in advance, or risk death.
Everything was going well until one day Mordecai refused to bow to Haman who was elevated to the highest position under the king. Haman got a big head (men!) and required everyoneto bow to him (except the king I suppose). In his wrath he became hell-bent on wiping out the entire Jewish population. And the king, albeit unwittingly, signed a death warrant for all Jews and made it official. (An important note here: Esther and her cousin failed to mention to the king that she was Jewish – oops.)
Mordecai sent a message to Esther hoping she would go to the king to save her people. She reminded him of the king’s decree that no one was permitted to approach him without advanced authorization. Doing so would surely result in her death. To which Mordecai replied, “…who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this”? And her reply? (You gotta love it!) First, she asked everyone to fast and pray for three days. And then she said, matter-of-factly, “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish”! (4:15-16) Meek huh? Not so much!
Do you know what makes Esther’s story reallyincredible? There is no mention of God – anywhere! God came to Abraham in a vision, to Jacob in a dream, to Moses in a bush. There are countless “God sightings” in the Old Testament – but nothing for Esther, at least nothing visible. She had no idea if her story would end there. But that didn’t stop her. Do you know why? I would suggest to you that it is no different today for us. When was the last time you stood before a talking bush? I didn’t think so – me either.
I’m supposing Esther did, on a regular basis, what we should all be doing, she fasted and prayed. And from that simple devotion she had to know, deep down in her heart, that it was what she was “called” to do even though God remained mysteriously hidden.
I will tell you that God’s call to me to write my book was as clear as anythingspoken to me. I would never have dreamt thatup myself. Never! Most of the time His voice is not so audible though, but I still know. Deep down I know it is what I am supposed to be doing, and I know God is behind it.
And this is the point I am trying to get to. God has a plan for yourlife. A plan that goes far beyond what you could ever imagine. My book is full of God stories; of tentative “yeses” – waiting for more clarification “maybe’s” – and out-and-out Jonah sized, “No way’s”!
It’s those pesky “no’s” that stop God in His tracks. It’s too bad too because I often imagine I miss out on a lot of blessings and grace-filled moments when I sit on my fears. Then God says to me, “That’s fine Linda, I’ll get someone else to do it. But this is a gift I have given you since before you were born, and, guess what young lady? I am going ask you for an accounting when I see you.” Oops….
So, tell me…
Do you know what gifts God has given you?
Are you now using those gifts for Him?
If not, why not?
Have you ever even thought about it? If not, that’s the place to begin.
Keep in mind that “God does not call the equipped; he equips the called.”
If the world has told you that you are nothing special, I am telling you that’s a LIE! I don’t care what your life has been like. I don’t care how mundane your life is or how many times you have sinned and fallen short, God’s plan for you has not changed and never will! He will not take back your gifts, but he will be sorely disappointed if you waste them. Actually,more than disappointed, according to Gian Carlo Menotti:
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.
Let me give you one short version of an example (the full version is in the book). I graduated from high school and was nine credit hours short of an Associate’s Degree (major point) when God came calling. “Guess what Linda? I am giving you an opportunity to go to graduate school for theology! Are you SO excited?!” Excited wasn’t the word I chose. It was more like, “Have you lost your mind”?!Here’s where I leave you in suspense…
But, let me say this in conclusion. Fear has no teeth when we put our trust in God – and I don’t mean when we know the outcome. Yet we function so poorly on trust alone! Instead, we dig in our heels and refuse to budge. If we don’t know for sure what’s happening around the corner, we just stay put! Fear denies us the fullness of life that God has promised.
So what are you waiting for?…
First and foremost, get on your knees and face your fears, because it’s from that place where God can do his mighty work in and through you. Then, look for workshops, conferences, or presentations that focus on discovering your gifts. Go back to church if you have drifted away. Get a mentor or join a prayer group or Bible study group.
Jeremiah 29:11 says, “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.” As you lay this desire before God he will in turn give you what you need to fulfill His plans for your life.
But be forewarned…
Be prepared for awe and wonder like you could never have imagined! So, what the heck – if you perish, you perish! Come on, don’t let that stop you! Wouldn’t you rather go that way than be run over by a bus or dropped off a cliff?