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!
Church has been made safe, comfortable and non-threatening. We leave our messy and damaged selves outside freeing us up for Worship Aerobics. We greet, bow, kneel, sit, stand, sing, bow, kneel, recite, pray, hug, sit, stand, stare, judge, wiggle, squirm, and day-dream – then go home for a nap.
Rev. Gretta Vosper shared these thoughts with a reader who left her church and feels disconnected, “It is so hard to realize that you are no longer drawn to a community of faith by the faith of the community.” She then offered opportunities to consider for community and service outside the church:
There are so many places that need a helping hand from food banks to women’s shelters to garden centres and reading programs. Any one of them would lift your heart and connect you to that great power of love by which so many needs in the world are filled. In the process of finding that new ministry, be open to the new friends to whom it will introduce you. They may not look like what you’re used to, but your heart, next to theirs, will soon beat with a common rhythm.
For me, walking away from church was a formidable and uncertain experience. I thought I had everything figured out – I was wrong. Now, here I was, packing up a Master’s Degree that hadn’t even had time to collect dust.
Then came the guilt. My Graduate School education was completely paid for by a grant. When I was accepted into the program it was expected that I would return to my parish and begin work as a Pastoral Associate. What seemed to be forgotten, or missed all together, by those establishing the program, was the stubborn refusal of Priests to accept us…you know… women, as part of the leadership team. Apparently, the times they were not a changin’.
I spoke to some pastors, my own in particular, who flat-out told me they weren’t interested in what I had to offer even though I said I would work as a volunteer. I was shown the door and given a man-sized boot.
I’m sure the discouragement and frustration I felt were palpable. I couldn’t fight that male-dominated, power-hungry, muscle flexing attitude. It exhausted me and made me cuss more frequently, so I gave up. It was a short walk from there to totally leaving church, but I left broken-hearted.
THE PROBLEM WITH DONUTS AND LATTES:
How about you?
If, as a youth, going to church was nothing more than an obligation and the only time you didn’t drag your feet and complain was Donut Sunday – that’s a problem.
If the only thing that set your heart on fire at Youth Group were the cute girls/boys – that’s a problem.
If you quit attending church the minute you came of age because it was never your “thing”, whose failure is that? The Churches’? Your parents? Yours? Or….
STUCK IN ORDINARY
In the Catholic tradition we have what is called “Ordinary Time” – basically the times before and after Easter and Christmas. I would imagine that resembles other traditions even if it isn’t named as such.
Perhaps the word “ordinary” is a problem. “Hey, I live ordinary, monotonous, boring every day of my life! Why on earth would I want to get up early, dress up, squeeze into a pew full of strangers and listen to irrelevant “stuff” that puts me back to sleep and causes me to snore and drool out the side of my mouth? Why?
Megachurches have tried to fill the gap with music and light shows that could rival “Jesus Christ Superstar”.
The problem is, while folks are swinging and swaying and belting out thirty minutes of music (albeit beautiful music), Jesus left the building and no one noticed.
TRANSCENDING ORDINARY IS RISKY:
Is it the Church’s responsibility to turn “ordinary” into extraordinary? And what exactly is “extraordinary? Can we even define “church” in the context of what we do know about God?
God is: Magnificent, gracious, merciful, and forgiving. His gratuitous love spills out into the heart and soul of every one of us. He cares deeply about the lost and forsaken. Is that what we experience in church? Is that what we hear from the pulpit? Is that what we base our actions and attitudes on? From the daily news of the violence and hatred emanating from many “Christians” today, it wouldn’t seem so.
How many of us would feel culpable if we stood by and watched but didn’t actively participate in that violence? How many of us hate in silence?
Mary Collins shares the words of the British writer Monica Furlong:
“It has been customary to talk as if the purpose of the Church has been to put people in touch with God, or to keep them in touch with God….although on the face of it the church seems to exist to help its adherents into relationship with God. It equally, and perhaps essentially, plays the opposite role of trying to filter out an experience of transcendence which might be overwhelming.”
Collins continues with a striking question, “What did she (Furlong) judge to be one of the church’s key filters for helping people avoid too great an intimacy with God? Liturgy. Liturgy as ‘keeping in touch’ without getting too close. Yet the bravest among us allow ourselves to wonder. Dare we agree that liturgical practice itself, in whatever form, conceals truth about God that we are unable to bear?”
In my own faith, which has grown from non-existent to something beyond my imagining, God-filled AHA moments did not happen while I was sitting in the pew on Sunday. Possibly because I was always on guard for lightening strikes against me or the guy next to me.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved certain aspects of being a part of a church community. What frustrated me was not seeing the most central expression of our faith – communion –forgotten the minute we (myself included) walk out the door.
When we share communion we are reminded of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Take this bread and never forget me. Never forget how much I love you! Never forget“. But, we do forget.
We stroll in late, then haul purses, coats, and kids through the communion line and straight out the door for the important stuff of the day: Soccer, brunch, bingo, whatever.
We forget there is more that must take place the other six days of the week. God’s call to take what we were just fed into a hurting world rings hollow in hearts that are not transformed.
We refuse to accept that the problem has anything to do with us and we certainly don’t want to get close enough to God to hear the truth. That’s too scary. It may expose us to the real God, and it’s that real God we go to great lengths to avoid.
Many come to faith in the same way we come to our day-to-day world. We bring our narcissistic attitude that the world revolves around us. The God we worship must meet our expectations and demands. The world is a mess – He must fix it. People are suffering – He must help them. I am a Christian – He must put me first. So our worship amounts to praise if things are going well and complaining if they’re not.
Those “bravest among us” Collins calls God-seekers who risk. She says:
Monica Furlong, speaking about liturgy as keeping in touch without getting too close to God, distinguished between ordinary churchgoers and “god-seekers”. She observed that god-seekers risk more than the ordinary. They risk their sanity – their healthy adjustment to conventional thinking – by opening themselves to powerful disclosures of the divine. The rest of us, less adventurous, go to church. But it is possible to be both.”
WOULD WE LAY DOWN OUR LIVES? (JOHN 15:13)
Saint Oscar Romero was a bishop in El Salvador. He was gunned down at the altar while celebrating Mass. He knew full well that was likely to happen when the night before he pleaded on the radio for the violence and murders to stop.
He called out the National Guard troops in particular. They had already killed six other priests, so he was certain he was also going to die at their hands. But, he spoke out anyway, and he celebrated Mass anyway. And the people came anyway! He passionately and fearless upheld the gospel mandates to care for his brothers and sisters in Christ – all of them!
The poor among him who suffered, as well as the soldiers, heard his plea:
“No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you! In the name of God: ‘Cease the repression!’”
The purpose of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We as Christians and the preachers who are called to lead, should hear and ACT ON Romero’s powerful words or our profession of faith is a lie:
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — what gospel is that? Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone, that’s the way many would like preaching to be. Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter so as not to be harassed, so as not to have conflicts and difficulties, do not light up the world they live in. … The gospel is courageous.”
God wants us to know that every bit of pain and suffering that we see or experience calls for our response. Without us nothing will change. Nothing!
Annie Dillard also presents a tough reality, “There is no one but us. There is no one to send but only us. There never has been.”
What is required of us but to do justly and to love mercy (Micha 6:8). We are called to be the instruments of justice and mercy in this world. There is no one but us. If we can ever come to a place where we “get it” our worship will become the action that will resound into a world that suffers.
We will sing through our hurting, rejoice through our suffering, and be a beacon to a world that is yet to “get it”.
JUST WHO ARE YOU, GOD?
Can we ever be brave enough to accept the reality of a God we can’t imagine?
Even though every theological method of putting a label on God has been tested through the ages, one fact remains, and it’s one we as human beings refuse to accept: We will never figure God out! And I am certain (metaphorically) he rolls his eyes at our feeble attempts at it.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL?!
We can affect change in the world if we become bold enough. God is in search of people hot after his own heart, like David. Yes, that David, the adulterer and murderer. He was a screw-up who hobbled through life, often missing the mark. But, when he got it right, when he was on fire for God, there was no stopping him! And people took notice! They smelled something burning and came to check it out.
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.
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…
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 beforeGod caught my attention. And when that did happen it wasn’t a sudden thrust into a world I knew nothing about…
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.
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
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.
The messiness of life has called us often to question what God is up to, if there even is a God. If you believe that God is up in the sky doling out rewards or punishments and you never received that promotion, perfect partner, or winning lottery ticket you begged him for, you may be very confused. If your words of wisdom for a friend who just received a terminal diagnosis are, “This must be God’s plan for you so suck it up buttercup”, then your understanding of God is likely skewed a bit a LOT!
I believe many of us may be experiencing a significant crisis of faith and our understanding of just who this God is that we worship. At the core of the confusion may be the age-old question of where God is in the midst of all the tragedies and disasters we are witnessing. All of us have been affected, some more personally than others.
So many are still impervious to human suffering because it normally happens far away in third world countries, so we can keep it from affecting us; from reaching down into our very being and ripping our hearts out. But, we can’t avoid it when it’s up close and personal.
So, we continue to question why God isn’t fixing all of this when we diligently pray for him to intervene? What kind of God would just sit back and ignore all the pain and suffering? Do I even believe in him? Is it possible to step back, take a deep breath, and start admitting that there are no words for, no answers for, the suffering or the possibility of branding God? And can that be okay?
You will not receive “answers” or certitudes from me because I gave up trying to figure him out a long time ago. I can now live with the possibility that life is just a crap-shoot. I wake up in the morning not knowing what the day will bring. Will I get cancer or a call from a long-lost friend? Will I win a new car or get run over by one? Will the cop who catches me speeding be cheerful and forgiving or a poopyhead? Is today my last day here? I have no idea.
Now, let’s recap all the terrible things that have happened just in the past year and then revisit the “where is God” question.
DEVISTATING WINTER STORMS: The storms left extensive power outages, damage to homes, empty grocery shelves, massive electric bills, boil water advisories, deaths and vehicular accidents…in their wake.
COVID DESTROYS LIVES: Feb. 11, 2021: The U.S. case total is 28,542,904 with 505,795 deaths and 18,707,002 recoveries. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but more than 25% of its COVID-19 cases with minorities suffering the most.
RACIAL INJUSTICE: Being killed by police is the leading cause of death in the US for Black men and boys. They are 2.5-3 times more likely to die than white men and boys at the hands of police. Other people of color, including Latino men and boys, Black women and girls, and Native American men, women and children, also experience higher rates of death due to police violence than their white counterparts.
DEVASTATING WILD FIRES: The 2020 season was a record-setting one for the state of California and the United States as a whole. NIFC reported that as of Nov. 27 there were 52,113 wildfires that had burned 8,889,297 acres in 2020. This is approximately 2.3 million more acres burned than the 10-year average and almost double the acreage burned in the 2019 season. There were 10,488 structures damaged or destroyed and at least 31 fatalities.
ATLANTIC HURRICANE SEASON: At the conclusion of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season – damage assessments for many storms coming in at well over $1 billion. The total cost for the 2020 season was almost $47 billion. More than 430 people lost their lives.
SOUTHERN BORDER HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: As of December 2020, the Southern Border Communities Coalition reports that 118 people have died since 2010, including several who died while in Customs and Border Protection custody….problems of overcrowding, lack of hygiene facilities and health care access, as well as food shortages….extreme violence in border cities including kidnapping and rape. The conditions in camps for unaccompanied children have been reported as deplorable, lacking in food, health care, water, sanitation, hygiene and other services. Children have died or become severely ill in these camps. There are currently more than 500 children separated from their families at the border and those families cannot be found.
Of course, there’s more and getting into the details of the pain and suffering would surely add to the stress, anger, and fear that causes so many of us to shake a fist at “heaven”; at a void we once believed housed God. Some are asking, some demanding, that God show himself and answer for his lack of concern for us.
I want to introduce you to Kate Bowler. She wrote a book titled, “Everything Happens for a Reason; and other lies I believed” in 2018, when she was thirty-five-ish and diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. She was given two months to live. Know how she would respond to the question “where is God”?“When I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved.” She managed to get past stupid people saying stupid things and discovered God was revealed in the likes of all those who loved on her, quietly sat with her, and took care of day-to-day tasks in myriad ways.
Bowler speaks from her experience and from “great works of Christian theology”:
The sense of God’s presence will go. There will be no lasting proof that God exists. When the feelings recede…they will leave an imprint. I would somehow be marked by the presence of an unbidden God. It is not proof of anything….It was simply a gift. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
You may not recognize God because everywhere you turn he’s disguised as someone who looks like your grandmother or brother or that kid down the street who raked your leaves last year when you broke your leg and refused any money – remember? That was God.
He’s been right here all along:
From owners turning their stores into warming centers, to a mystery man handing out $20 bills to shoppers in Houston.
Texans have instinctively turned to helping others. One such figure is Raymond Garcia of Houston, Texas, who, upon realizing he had no power at home, decided to use his time helping others. He has been visiting people in his local community, helping with tasks such as fixing burst water pipes.
Houston resident Max Bozeman II, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic, knew first-hand the importance of asking for help in difficult times. After posting to Instagram saying he would give out $100 to ten people who needed the money for groceries, he received a deluge of messages. He ended up handing out 70 gifts of $100 each and says he’s prepared to part with as much as $10,000.
In Elgin, Texas, Monica Nava, owner of the Chemn Cafe, put in a big order just before the storm hit. Rather than see perishable items go to waste, she boxed them up with shelf-stable goods into care packages. She gave the packages to in-need members of the community.
In San Antonio, one Good Samaritan at the Martini Ranch bar put on a free grill complete with lobster bisque for anyone in need of a meal. “Just grilling away out front to provide some people with a free hot plate,” he said.
Another Houston hero is Jim McIngvale, better known locally as Mattress Mack. McIngvale opened two of his furniture stores to be used as warming centers. “Anybody who needs it—whether they’re homeless, whether they lost power, whether it’s just wanting to come in and get something to eat—anybody wants to come in, we’re here for them….during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he turned over some of his stores to be used as evacuation centers.
Texas Nurse and Mom Stays Behind to Help Neighbors: I Had to ‘Make Sure They Were Still Alive’ “It made me very aware that we had to stay to help,” she added. “There were opportunities for us to leave and it just wasn’t an option anymore.” Grigsby and her family have done what they can since then, such as bringing three meals a day to a neighbor who uses a wheelchair. “I needed to go check and make sure that our neighbors were okay and do pulse checks every morning.
More God spottings:
Adolfo Melendez, owner of Tex-Mex restaurant El Mezcal in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, has bought more than $2,000 in gift cards to restaurants in his community to raffle off to his customers. Winners received $20 gift cards to a local restaurant.
The daughter of Rafael Palomino, who owns Sonora said she always loved baking. “My dad would take care of dinner and I’d take care of the sweets,” said the 27-year-old self-taught chef.
Now, she’s launched her own company: Batter that Matters, an online bakery focused on cookies, which donates a portion of its profits to various charities.
Haley Bridges, 17, of Appleton, Wisconsin, knew her friend and fellow Chick-fil-A employee, Hokule’a Taniguchi, 19, was commuting to work in the Wisconsin winter by bicycle. So when she learned she had won a car at a company Christmas party raffle in December, she knew exactly who she wanted to gift it to. (Got that?! A 17 year-old gave a car away!)
A rival “tip war” that’s been escalating for nearly a month has now generated over $34,000 for Cincinnati restaurant workers struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. It all started on Jan. 9, when an Xavier University alum left a $1,000 tip on a $54.59 bill and a note on a napkin that said: “Please share this tip with all of your employees as they work so hard and are dealing with COVID.”
A 10-year-old boy decided to thank the front-line heroes battling the relentless coronavirus pandemic by clearing snow off their cars outside a Rhode Island hospital this week. “I was thinking they’ve been helping us a lot through this whole pandemic, and I figured why don’t we help them, you know?” Christian Stone told a local news station.
Eight-year-old Cavanaugh Bell lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I spread positivity to inspire others to change the world. Because the pandemic left so many in need, I decided to make care packs to help elderly people in my community. And now, I’m able to gather supplies to give to families across the country,” he said. Cavanaugh initially created his care packages for elderly people in his neighborhood using his own savings from birthday and Christmas money. As word spread and donations grew, he and his mom opened a food pantry called Love is Greater than COVID-19.
Two Bismarck families are determined to focus on the good and to spread kindness. This moment was the best part of 11-year-old Eva Brooke’s Christmas vacation. Eva and her family collected money from friends and family, “It was $280” They gave it all to their server at Rockin’ 50s. “We called it ‘Project Kindness.’” Heather Frey’s family did the same thing in December. They raised more than $1,600. “It was from all over United States.”
Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso and HOPE Border Institute Announce ‘Border Refugee Assistance Fund’ to Aid Migrants at the US-Mexico Border. Thousands of migrants, mostly from Central America, are currently stranded in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Grants from the fund will be used to support the initiatives and shelters providing for the immediate humanitarian needs of migrants in Ciudad Juárez, the majority of which have been organized by faith communities. Bishop Seitz said, “The need in Juarez is tremendous. Churches and community-led initiatives there are doing everything possible to feed, clothe and offer shelter to thousands of migrant families fleeing desperate conditions and looking for safety and refuge. Here we have a real opportunity to serve Christ in the migrant.” Faith communities and individuals across the country have asked how they can help at the border.
Pope Francis asks: “Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it.”
Remember the story of the stupidly rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel? (Luke 16:19-31) We often think the story is about how the rich man refused to help Lazarus and was likely annoyed by Lazarus’ presence in his front yard. But, it is more likely he didn’t even notice Lazarus. His life’s obsessions were himself and his “stuff”. Jesus warned us about our attitude toward the poor in Matthew’s gospel: When we found ourselves having to ask, “But, when did we do that? I don’t remember doing that!” Jesus said, “Whatever you did or didn’t do for the least of these – you did or didn’t do for me”.
So, where is God? He’s as close as your mirror. You will only “see” where God is when you are doing something to relieve the suffering of others, when you are his hands and feet.
Lord, help me to be more like you and “Less like me”!
Have you ever regifted something your Aunt Ethel gave you for Christmas that you have absolutely no use for, which she probably got last year from her tasteless brother? Come on, you know you have. We probably all have. It’s okay. Regifting is in scripture you know. John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I have a new appreciation for those words this year.
For the last three weeks we have been decorating for Christmas and we’re not finished. Not even sure what Christmas is going to look like, but my anticipation this year has taken on a deeper meaning. It’s not the expectation of the sweet, non-threatening, “baby” Jesus arriving. It’s about the Jesus who seems to have gotten lost among us, especially during this year.
We have all been witnessing our world collapse into chaos: the anger and violence and hatred brought about by Covid, the Black Lives Matter movement, economic collapse, natural disasters, and the elections. That’s a LOT to deal with in such a short time. And watching the steady stream of sucky news isn’t helping. Some may wonder if Christmas is even worth the hassle, or anticipate more violence, or obsessively shop and decorate just to dull the senses. But, as I prepare for this season, I have been imagining a different, better scenario.
As one who has fallen away from the “Institutional” church with all its trappings of dogma and rules and birthday cake for baby Jesus I seem to be left with the stripped down version of the meaning of Christmas. Perhaps I can see much better, like the blind man Jesus healed. I’m not sure if Jesus would have “physically” healed his blindness. He certainly could have. But, more importantly, I think of it as compassion revealing itself. I believe it was the tender touch of Jesus that changed that man others rejected and cast aside. Maybe for the first time in his life, he felt his worth and innate dignity. If you have ever “experienced” Jesus’ tender touch you know what I’m talking about. But, there’s more – and this is where it gets uncomfortable. Jesus expected him, as he does us, to not cling to that love he was shown, but to reach out to others and share it. It’s not a commodity to horde like the last roll of toilet paper on the shelf; it’s a gift to be given away. I have come to see this Christmas as an opportunity like no other to do just that.
God wants my excitement and anticipation to result in action. He is telling me; all of us really, “That’s great you’re excited. Now go do something about it!” Offer kindness and compassion to those who suffer: the elderly who are alone, millions of children in America that go to bed hungry, the neglected and abused. Check on your neighbor. Offer a smile and kind word to everyone you meet. Quit hating and judging others. Quit whining and complaining about what you don’t have, feel gratitude for what you do have, and then find a way to share it.
When we are called to “give till it hurts” that’s not referring to outlandish presents under the tree that are often not even appreciated. It’s about offering love back to God and others with all your heart and soul. (Matt. 22:37) That’s how we can more meaningfully celebrate Christ in our midst!
For the year of 2005, my husband and I had the incredible opportunity to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland and work for Habitat for Humanity. During that year we learned about a sectarian conflict there known as The Troubles. After thirty years of hatred and violence some were able to forgive and love neighbors once considered their enemy. But, there was also ongoing refusal of others to let go of their hatred. Annual Orange Day parades continued to fuel division year after year since the Peace Accords of 1998. Many parents passed that hatred on to their children. Today, the divisiveness and conflict may be played out differently, but it is still a reality, often manifested in rival gangs.
Ten years later, we were in Rhonda and learned about the horrendous massacre of 800,000 men, women, and children, slaughtered by their own neighbors. It took only ninety days – NINETY DAYS! Most of the perpetrators of those atrocities were never brought to justice. They scattered into the mountains or other countries and regrouped. They’re still out there causing mayhem and promoting hatred.
Now, here we are, reliving hatred and strife in America that is pitting us against each other. Extremists groups fueled by years of hatred going back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow are more and more embolden today to act out that hatred encouraged by a wink and a nod from the President. Some White Evangelical churches advocating their claim of being “Christian” – cling to power presumed given them by God.
What is going on? Did Jesus lose his way? Or have we reinvented him and relegated him to a dashboard Buddy Jesus bobblehead?
Let’s listen in on a few guys trying to figure it all out for themselves – perhaps you can relate:
One night a few friends gathered in a neighborhood bar. Their conversation quickly turned to questions of how to overcome fear (they won’t admit to) and frustration over the current crisis playing out over their backyard fences, at family dinners, and in the news. The violence and anger coming from all sides was hard for all of them to reconcile with their beliefs. They were a varied group: two Catholic brothers – one “devoted” (as in a follower of all the “rules”) and the other lukewarm (as in “rules suck”), a Presbyterian, and a Baptist. After several beers they found it difficult to come to any consensus on what part they played as Christians. They were even struggling to agree on what a “Christian” was.
Before departing they jokingly decided to invite Jesus to their whinefest the following week so they could drill him to see if he could help them come to some agreement on the most basic fundamentals of their Christian faith. They really weren’t looking for clarity on what was true and noble and right as much as fodder for their own arguments. Something they could use to counter those they did not agree with. But, none of them would admit to that either. Considering the stark differences they held on who was right and who was totally on the path to hell they were at an impasse. They would let Jesus decide.
So, on the allotted day they all showed up for a second installment of “My God can beat up your God”. And who shows up? – Jesus (through the front door, not the wall). “Hey, guys, what’s up?” Still in shock that he actually came, they offered him a chair and a beer…or…uh…wine. He took a seat and declined the alcohol, “I’m driving, but you go ahead.”
Then right out of the gate, one guy at the table explained what had happened the prior week and why they invited him (as if he didn’t know…duh!). Anyway, the argument conversation begins but immediately deteriorates into the same dispute as before. Each of them chimes in with their “beliefs”. Then someone has the foresight to ask the “Expert” sitting right in their midst, “Jesus, how would you resolve this?” Jesus sits quietly for a moment and then the men observe his eyes welling up with tears. They are shocked and don’t know how to react. Why isn’t he angry and pounding his fist like we do? Why isn’t he pointing out people to blame? There are plenty of them: the media, politicians, white supremacists, other so-called Christians.
Jesus’ weeping felt akin to the times their wives would cry about something they could not get their heads around – like the broccoli soufflé that fell right before Christmas dinner with the in-laws. And, buddy, you learned very quickly that your response better not be some lame man-up comment because you just want that awkward moment to be over! How’d that work for you? Exactly.
This Jesus moment was like that. Sure, he was known to throw a few tables around when he got mad, but we only see that once in all of scripture. So, why don’t we put that angry, show em’ who’s boss, can’t-control-his-temper-just-like-me Jesus to rest? This is not the no-more-mister-nice-guy Jesus you were hoping for. Sorry.
So, the world is falling apart and Jesus weeps. That’s it? That’s all he can offer us? What are we supposed todo with that? Well, let’s see:
Joan Chittister says of weeping:
Indeed, few of us see our weeping as a spiritual gift or a matter of divine design. But we are wrong. Weeping is a very holy and life-giving thing. It sounds alarms for a society and wizens the soul of the individual. If we do not weep on the personal level, we shall never understand humanity around us. If we do not weep on the public level, we are less than human ourselves.
The Rabbi Hanoch of Alexander offers:
There are…some things that ought not to be endured. There are some things worth weeping about lest we lose our sense of self. We must always cope with evil, of course, but we must never adjust to it. We must stay eternally restless for justice, for joy. Restless enough to cry out in pain when the world loses them.
If we do not allow ourselves to face and feel pain…our lies about life shrink our hearts and limit our vision. It is not healthy, for instance, to say that massive poverty is sad but “normal.” It is not right to say that sexism is unfortunate but “necessary.” It is not human to say that war is miserable but “inevitable”. To weep tears of frustration about them may be to take our first real steps toward honesty, toward mental health, toward a life that is worth living.
Now, we know Jesus did not just sit around weeping all day long. As with Jesus, so with us, God took that pain, that compassion Jesus felt in the deepest part of his being and turned it into action. “Now go”, God would tell him and “do something for those you weep for”.
He longs to tell us the same thing if we can just get over ourselves; if we are able to see clearly the suffering all around us that breaks God’s heart. The next hurdle is being accountable. It’s way too easy to shirk our responsibility to bring Christ into this battle for the soul of America with whatever excuse happens to work in the moment. Lately, we seem to be so overwhelmed by the reality of the pain and suffering right in our midst that we have either become numb to it or shake our fists in anger. We don’t feel like we have the power to address the massive needs of others even if we wanted to. And truth-be-told we don’t. Not my problem. So, we shrug our shoulders, retreat into our little bubbles, and utter some feeble justification for not “getting involved”.
But we’re definitely not weepers – that’s a weakness we are not willing to put out there. If suffering humanity is lucky, Jesus just blew that myth to shreds for you! Fine. He doesn’t blow things up. But, you get it. Right?
And don’t worry I’m not going to spew some moral edict to try to guilt anyone out of being a self-serving, self-absorbed jerk. This isn’t about taking on a rule-following, righteous, high and mighty stance. That would amount to the lowest common denominator required for entry into “heaven” at some later date. Is that what you want out of life?
If your faith subsists within the rigid and narrow parameters of acceptable and unacceptable “Christian” behavior you may want to ask yourself: is that what Jesus’ life was about? Is that what got him killed? Would anyone have even bothered with him if he was just another face in the crowd? Or is that the metric you use to justify yourself and “judge” others?
So, let’s reconsider the gift of weeping that Jesus modeled, now seemingly lost as a Christian response to hatred and suffering. Not only should we weep for the state of our nation and the wrongs done to others, but we also need to realize that Jesus isn’t your personal fixer of all things that suck. That is not his job.
I believe the question is not “what are you going to do about this, Jesus”? The real question should be “what am I going to do about this in so much as I have the power to effect change in myself and the world around me?” Should my response be couched in adherence to the “rules” of morality or compassion born of an inherent desire to be Christ-like?
Let’s revisit Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) which magnifies Jesus’ longing to reveal her sacredness to her. She had several strikes against her. She was a Samaritan which made her the lowest of the low. She was married and divorced five times and was now living with a sixth man.
Most of the women enjoyed gathering at the well early in the morning for their daily gossip-fest and no doubt she was often the topic of their natter. So, she went alone in the heat of the day to avoid them. And who shows up at the well? – Jesus, the Jew, asking her, the outcast, for water. She could not believe what was happening. Here is a guy who’s clearly a prophet speaking life into her. She quizzed him relentlessly, certain she had to be dreaming. And Jesus’ reply? “Did I stutter? You are loved now go act like it.”
And how did she respond to that love? She danced all the way back to town. She couldn’t wait to announce to everyone who would listen, “You’re not gonna believe what just happened!” Because of her witness many other Samaritans became believers. And don’t think those nasty women weren’t pissed when they heard her! The next day they followed her to the well and hid in the bushes in an attempt to catch her in a lie.
Anyway, did all that happen because she was now on some moral high-ground or because Jesus sparked within her a hunger that surprised her? For so long she had learned to endure the rejection of others. She accepted that she was unworthy of love or acceptance or dignity, and lived accordingly, having no understanding of her intrinsic worth.
I think Rami Shapiro in his powerful book, “Holy Rascals”, gives us the most powerful definition of people of true faith that I have ever read:
Holy Rascals have only one aim: to pull the curtain back on parochial religion in order to liberate people from the Great and Terrible Wizards who use religion to frighten them in to submission and to manipulate them into doing evil under the banner of good.
We are not anti-religion: we are anti-unhealthy religion: religion that promotes a world of “us against them” and sanctions the exploitation, oppression, and even murder of “them” in this world and the torture of “them” in the next.
We are not anti-belief; we are anti-irrational belief: belief that substitutes ancient fiction for modern science.
We are not anti-God; we are anti-mad Gods: Gods who sanction the lust for power that rules those who invented them.”
What saddens me more than anything today is the fact that there is such contention and visceral hatred among those who profess to be “Christians”. But, the louder they are the less like Jesus they are, which is clearly an oxymoron: “Christians” who hate, “Christians” who seek power and prestige, “Christians” who have no empathy or compassion for others. Jesus was the Suffering Servant not the King of the elitists.
“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” That’s it.
We are so far removed from the Jesus known to his disciples. When the Church turned him into “Jesus Christ Superstar”he got lost in the power struggle for whose faith was the true faith. I would say many Christians probably have no idea that it was the Church struggling for power that created the Jesus so many “worship” today. And there’s the rub I think. Jesus never told us to worship him. He said, “Follow me”. When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross kid and follow me.” What do you think he meant? Pick up your bucket and shovel we’re headed to the beach?
Jesus lived and moved and had his being on the fringes of society. He was a revolutionary, a rebel, an outsider among the powerful leaders of his time. Why? Because he loved without regard for position or status or how it looked to others. He loved “the least of these” with abandon. He touched and healed and served the broken and the outcast. And they responded in love; a love that blurred distinctions between us and them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, saint and sinner. Does that sound anything like what is preached on street corners and in some churches today? Or the hatred spewed by “White Supremacists”? They have tried to remake Jesus into someone who would be unrecognizable to his followers and they have been given a thumbs-up by a president who, at the same time, secretly makes fun of them. It is frightening to watch.
Trillia Newbell, an author and Christian commentator, says, “I want to hear that we’re mourning and weeping, that we are active in our community, that we are going to work to love our neighbor as ourselves, that racism and any kind of hate is evil.”
I would like to share one final, uncomfortable, not proud of this, Linda-you-suck-at-caring-but-it-will-get-easier, story about two women I met in Belfast in 2005. Both taught me about what compassion looks like up close and personal.
Not long after we got there, I was walking to the post office before work and I was in a hurry. Several blocks ahead of me, I saw a woman lying on the sidewalk. I watched people walk right past her without giving her a thought. Here’s the awful truth, I did the same thing. I was thinking of the fact that I needed to get to work, I wasn’t from there and wouldn’t know what to do, and…and…and. I didn’t get far when I heard that “still small (annoying) voice” – “Go back”. Just two words that felt like a gut punch. So, I turned around. Fearful now that she might be dead and then how would I feel? “Okay, Lord, this was your big idea please tell me what to do.”
I set my things down and sat next to her. It was clear she was drunk. I had to nudge her several times before she responded. She looked irritated at me, but sat up. I tried to find out her name and where she lived, but all she said was, “Leave me alone. I’m not worth it.” To this day, I can hear her say those words that pierced my heart. I held her dirty; make-up streaked face, and told her she was worth it because she was a child of God. She said again, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m not worth it!” I said to her, “I am looking at you and what I see is someone God loves deeply!” Through tears I tried to get her up so I could put her in a cab and take her to get something to eat. Just then a mission van pulled up. A guy got out and addressed her by name. He gently helped her up and walked her to the van. I never saw her again.
My second experience wasn’t quite so involved, but was equally as dramatic. Again, I was walking down the street and saw a woman with a little boy about five or six walking toward me. He said something that angered her and she slapped him, which shocked me. Again, I summoned that annoying voice within, a bit more willing to cooperate. “Okay, Lord, what do I do here?” When I got to her I simply asked if she wanted to talk. She slapped me too, walked around me and kept going. The little boy turned around and stuck his tongue out at me. Alrighty then. Yeah me!
Encountering those two women for just one moment in time literally changed the trajectory of my life and gave me purpose! Seeing the humanity of others teaches us compassion. Allowing ourselves to see Jesus in everyone we encounter we will grow in love for those we usually disregard, or worse, reject outright. Seeing beyond the degenerate, the depraved, the lost and broken takes courage, humility and trust in a God who shows us the beauty in others – and BONUS – in ourselves.
So, there you have it you macho-guys guzzling your beer and feeling a bit queasy watching Jesus weep for those who suffer. How do you respond to that? The first thing you need to do is offer a resounding, “YES” to whatever Jesus has in mind for you. That’s it. Easy enough. Right?
Then fasten your seatbelt brother, this is when the rubber meets the road because God has a plan for you (Jeremiah 29:11) and this probably won’t be an “I’ll get back to you next week” moment either. There’s much to do and you’re running out of time because you sat on your duff in that bar so long trying to get out of it. Just pray and stay open to your calling. You’ll know it. Then, brave heart, this is your moment! GO!
Wait…maybe lose the war paint. You don’t want to scare the crap out of people. They have enough to deal with.
We are in the midst of a battle. Anger and violence are played out in the media daily. It’s deafening and there are activists on both sides of the conflict. Both have dug in their heels and refuse to budge. How many times have we seen in-your-face confrontations?
So, the question then becomes: How many of those times have we seen adversaries turn into allies who decided to work together with the determination to change things for the greater good of our country? How many?
What we’re seeing is a win-lose struggle and when there is a winner that necessarily means there is a loser. So, what’s the answer? How do we get beyond this impasse that is adding so much suffering to an already disintegrating situation? Well, how about this novel idea? How about if we just go home and work on our own issues first (and if you don’t think you have any…well…that’s an issue)? Crazy huh?
No matter what I believe,
no matter how passionate I am about changing the world;
I am really the only person I have the power to change.
I would like to share with you my course correction after years of being a selfish, stubborn, know-it-all believer in the power of God to send all heathens to hell if they don’t straighten up! I was certain that was my assigned duty here on earth and I was really good at it! My buddy Paul and I both got knocked on our butts – in a loving way of course. God knew I was used to getting knocked on my butt and would then come out fighting! So, after He got my attention, He gently went after my heart instead. Sneaky.
I want to touch on three areas in the past fourteen years that have had a profound impact on my life. What’s amazing is that I have no bruises to prove it, but, that’s because hatred, not Love, bruises.
The changes I am referring to are: My faith, politics, and my self-centeredness vs. other-centeredness:
MY FAITH: – back in the day, I could quote lots of scripture verses that would prove that anyone I disagreed with was destined for hell. Have a nice trip! I could justify my superior attitude and what was clearly my god-given responsibility to save lost souls. That is until I got to graduate school in 2006.
It did not take me long to see the error of my ways and the folly of my “beliefs”. But, and here’s the point I want to make in all of this: The Professors I was so blessed to know in that three years were powerful influences in my life. And yet, not one of them shook an angry fist at me to announce that I was an idiot, which they could have. I saw something in them that helped me to see, really see, the error of my thinking. They were loving, compassionate, grace-filled teachers of God’s unconditional love for all of His creation. They taught me, not just through studies like reading the works of Thomas Aquinas (geeeezzzz that was painful!), but more importantly, through their own example; their own lives. It wasn’t because of a need to be right, or to make demands, but because they simply loved. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to grow in a faith like theirs that imitated Christ. They helped change my attitude about so many things. But, at the end of the day, all they had the power to do was encourage my willingness to change from the inside-out. It was really up to me.
MY POLITICS: I will simply say that what I learned about myself at Aquinas carried over to a more nuanced understanding of the part I play just in the act of voting. Prior to this, I was a one-party voter. Admittedly, it was so much easier back then: Walk into the polling place, pull the lever for my party of choice, get my “I Voted” sticker, and go home. Never mind that I usually didn’t know who or what I was pulling that lever for. It didn’t matter though. I was confident in the knowledge that I did my duty. I think today many people who were like me, now know how critical it is to be informed and to choose for everyone in this country, especially those who have been kicked to the curb and feel they have no voice. And, again, my movement away from “don’t really care” did not come about by brute-force. What woke me up to my responsibility and privilege to do my part for the sake of others came from an enlarged heart-space, not from someone yelling in my face.
SELF-CENTEREDNESS THAT MORPHES INTO OTHER-CENTEREDNESS: Giving instead of taking. Seeing, really seeing, the worth, dignity, and humanity of those the world rejects. And not only seeing them, but loving what we see because if you look closely enough you will see Christ. And I just can’t get enough of that.
I would challenge you to just sit for a moment and think of recent stories you have seen on TV or the Internet that either enraged you or spoke into the depth of your heart so powerfully that you cried. Then, ask yourself, which of those scenarios comes from God and which is motivated by an ego-driven, self-serving purpose?
I was recently involved in a conversation with someone who is very passionate about their beliefs concerning what we are experiencing. This person wanted to do battle until the other person involved caved and cried uncle. But, hey both stood their ground. In the aftermath of that train wreck, I made the comment that everyone who does not agree with you is not your adversary. When you view every discussion with someone who feels differently as an opportunity to bully them into your way of thinking, the conversation shuts down and you both lose. Then I get the equivalent of a Bible-lashing on Matthew 21:12-13 to remind me that Jesus got angry and threw s*#t.
Okay, first of all, there are many “stories” in Scripture that are meant to offer a teaching. Does that Scripture verse mean that Jesus was actually this angry-bird who couldn’t control His temper? We could take this to a discussion of “righteous” anger, but that’s not really the point. Do you think that table tossing anger changed ANYONE? We don’t know of course, but, I’m guessing not.
Now, how many of Jesus’ acts and teachings call us to love? How many people followed Him in spite of the danger, especially women, because He offered what their hearts longed for. It is what He came and eventually died for, and so many others after Him were martyred for. So it must be a big deal!
What was one of the last things Jesus said to His disciples? Come on, you know: “Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy! I’m outta here now, so it’s up to you to carry on. Go on out there and beat into compliance everyone who refuses to follow Me. Got it?”
Hmmm. Yep, sign me up!
We know, of course, that Jesus was very passionate. However, He showed us that passion is not the end of the story. It’s when that passion is turned into service to others that everyone wins and God does His happy dance!
Recently, I read this reflection, “Please show me is one of the most powerful prayers you can speak. You can avoid painful trials and errors by inviting Spirit to guide you at the outset of your decision making process. He will direct your efforts telling you exactly what to do.” Alan Cohen
I bulked at that, or more accurately, painful memories and an ego ever on high-alert, bulked, “It’s not that simple. Life is not that simple.” That partly comes from a place long ago when I learned not to trust anyone but myself (well…that’s a scary thought!). As a child, I needed to trust my mother so I could learn to trust the world around me, but she often lied and proved to be untrustworthy, which, in turn, meant the world was untrustworthy too. The World loves those who don’t know who to trust and empowers the ego to walk itself right off every unmarked cliff until we begin to doubt ourselves.
To this day, my ego-driven mind wants every aspect of my life to be certain and laid-out clearly and at the same time believes that the Spirit that I deal with doesn’t seem to be so concise about its guidance in my life, “You’re on your own kid. Good luck!” Old memories combine with my return again and again to my default setting dredges up my monumental failures to prove I’m right – hoping that Spirit-guy will finally see that I have good reason to question what I read.
The two major events that always come to mind are: (1) writing a book, and (2) attending Graduate School – the biggest, most profound, scariest, decisions of my life that did not turn out the way I planned. It seemed so obvious to me that the outcome of these events was confirmation that Spirit-guy could not be trusted either. And just to remind him we had a little review:
1) One day, out of nowhere you clearly told me to, “Write a book”. That was you – right? Admittedly, after laughing hysterically, I finally did believe you and wrote the damn thing. That led to me imagining myself becoming a famous and sought-after author. But, that’s not what happened is it? No.
2) Then, how about this? When offered the unbelievable opportunity to attend Graduate School, after much consternation, I did, even though I fully believed I would be discovered as a fraud and be tossed out on the street. When I finally realized I might actually accomplish such a crazy endeavor (which took nearly the entire three years I was there), I began to imagine myself becoming a beloved Pastoral Associate destined for sainthood, fulfilling my need to be somebody special. But, that’s right, that’s not what happened either.
Are you still with me Spirit-guy?
All of these “failures” were confirmation to me that what I read, “You can avoid painful errors and trials by letting the Spirit guide you”, did not apply to me. In a rare moment I sat quietly and prayed. The response came quickly. I suppose because it has been the same obsessive struggle I have had for years now and you were probably peeved weren’t you?
Spirit (eye roll here), “Sit down and take a deep breath, Linda. Ready? Here we go for the bizzilionth time.”
1) Yes, I did tell you to write a book. And, no, it did not catapult you into fame and fortune. BUT, it did develop into your blog postings and both have touched lives. How many? It really doesn’t matter because that’s not the point. Maybe a review of Luke 15:4-6 is in order here. It went something like this, “Jesus dropped everything and went after ONE lost sheep. ONE! And then he danced and sang all the way back to camp like he hit the lottery!!”
Purpose can never be driven by the world’s definition of success. But your ego is often too needy of praise to allow you to use this gift you have been given for others beyond yourself. So, stop putting expectations on the outcome and just write already!”
2) Sorry to be the one to inform you that you will not win the ‘Catholic Woman of the Year’ award. It’s actually funny that we’re still having this conversation since you seem to have pushed away from some aspects of your Catholic faith. But, that’s a conversation for another time.
So, admit it Linda, it took these experiences and growing pains to strip away enough of your own brokenness (not all, but enough for now) to open you to the love of God that resides deep in your heart. And, yes, I’m still going to be there, as always, to offer you guidance even if you pretend not to notice me: the elephant in the room!
Anyway, let’s think of the things that you have done just since graduation that you would probably never have considered being capable of before Aquinas wrested your shallow ‘faith’ from you and replaced it with a love for others.
Can you not see how much your faith grew and flourished when you cared for the dying as a Hospice volunteer? Working with the homeless you showed them love when they only knew rejection. We will soon be venturing into a new ministry together: some, maybe even just ONE (remember, numbers don’t matter), of the countless and nameless sex trafficked youth will also encounter the love of God through little ole you, Linda. This is what you have been preparing for; this is your calling. And no award, book contract, or flurry of accolades will come close to invoking those tears of love and compassion you reveal every time you think about those kids.
Now, come on, enough with the pitty-party already. We have lots of work to do and you aren’t getting any younger you know. Just sayin’.
Can you relate? Have you experienced your own come-to-Jesus moment but you’re not sure what that means for you?
Understand that when Jesus said, “Follow Me” it was a radical call not an invitation to tea. It wasn’t the Jesus version of Simon says, “Touch your toes. Wiggle your nose. Bend your knees”. Pat on the head. Here’s your prize.
You realize don’t you that Jesus never said, “Go to church”. Never. Church is where we so often hear the word of God, rejoice for a millisecond at its splendor, and then go home to cut the grass. Following Christ means living the Word; it means being Christ to others. He told us, “I have suffered the hatred of those in power to serve those at the bottom: the forgotten and rejected. If you follow me you will do even more and, yes, you will suffer for your efforts as well.” Our response to that call must be a resounding, “Yes”! But, it’s often, “I’ll get back to you.”
Remember that all the disciples ran for cover when Jesus was taken away. When they saw the empty tomb, in unison they proclaimed, “Bummer, this is not how we imagined it turning out.” When Jesus showed up unannounced at their pitty-party he was surely in the same place Spirit-guy has been with me so often, “Okay guys let’s try this again. First of all, let’s get this out of the way – none of you will be sitting on any throne. You’ll be sitting in the muck and mire with the least among you and, get this, you’re going to love it there because that’s what you were created for: selfless love and compassionate care for the lost and hurting.”
Over the past few months we have been inundated by images and news concerning Covid-19, our broken economy, hunger and homelessness, and the BLM protests that have shed an uncomfortable light on the inequities in this country. Every day, people are suffering and dying because they have been victims of Covid or hatred or both. How are you affected by these realities? What do you think of when you witness what is surely a most profound moment in our history? Do you turn off the TV, retreat to your safe place, and pray, or send a check to a food bank? I’m not discounting those things. Both are needed for sure. But, do you also feel guilty for not having to suffer what your brothers and sisters are suffering and don’t know what to do? Is there a tugging on your heart to not just “be” a kind, compassionate person, but to act on that reality?
I think this is a time of reckoning for all of us who consider ourselves decent human beings. Never mind any label you may attach to that: Christian, Jew, Atheist, none of the above, whatever – just decent human beings who know deep down we are now called to lift our “caring” to a whole new level.
I love the expression: “Bidden or not bidden, God is still present”. God still lives and moves and has his being in the very depth of your heart, whether you believe in him or not. And even if you don’t he just hangs out there hoping you will one day acknowledge who he is, and in turn, who and Whose you are. He’s like the heart whisperer, “I love you, you are mine, and your life has a purpose.”
If I ever sound like I have totally got my act together don’t think for a moment that’s true. We are all a work in progress. We have all sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23). I’m just thankful that God’s love and grace know no bounds. My weaknesses don’t anger him and my fears won’t push him away. He is merciful, forgiving, empowering and likely has a wicked sense of humor! Oh yeah, and he has never lied to me. Not once.
So, let’s do this. Yes, it’s important to sit quietly to discern how and where you are called to serve. But then, just like Jeremiah, get off your butt and get over your self-doubt because God will give you all you need to do what he calls you to do. That’s a promise we can all trust.
And know this: God is a constant, unfailing certainty beyond every struggle, every perceived failure, and every disappointment.
I will end with this wisdom from Anthony DeMello, SJ:
Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “Holy One, is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use” the disciple asked, “are all the spiritual exercises?”
“To make sure,” the elder said, “that you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
I offer this post right before what may be the most popular day of the year – Black Friday. It is my lame effort to curtail the insanity. You’re welcome!
Have you ever read about Janis Joplin’s life? I watched a documentary about her called, Janis: Little Girl Blue. I found it to be such a sad account of a desperate and broken life. Her song Mercades Benz was recorded on October 1, 1970, three days before she died, alone in her motel room, of a heroin overdose. The song was actually a slam against consumerism. As Performing Songwriter Magazine stated, “She was outspoken about the illusory happiness promised (but rarely delivered) by the pursuit of worldly goods, a hippie-era rejection of the consumerist ideals.” But then, in contrast to that, she was often seen wearing a mink coat given to her by Southern Comfort because she offered free advertizing for them. It seems to have been her drink of choice. Needless to say, she was complicated.
Joplin grew up in a town that was right in the heart of what her sister called redneck country. It had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. And weren’t they thrilled when she spoke out against racial segregation, which also made her a target for ridicule by the other kids in her school. According to her sister, they were relentless in their attacks on her.
Her fragile ego wasn’t spared when she went away to college either. In 1963, Joplin was cruelly voted “The Ugliest Man on Campus” at the University of Texas. “She was left with little more than the yawning chasm of a tortured loneliness,” her publicist and biographer, Myra Friedman, wrote after Joplin’s death. Her book was titled, “Buried Alive”. On the Dick Cavett Show, she once said, “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of the state.”
Even after she managed to get away from Texas she could never seem to escape the loneliness and rejection she experienced there. She just wanted to be happy, to be loved, but those longings always eluded her. The sex, the drugs, the fatalistic sense of being lost and alone tormented her to her death.
In 1968 she wrote to her family, “From all indications I’m going to become rich & famous. Incredible! All sorts of magazines are asking to do articles & pictures featuring me. I’m going to do every one. Wow, I’m so lucky – I just fumbled around being a mixed-up kid (& young adult) & then I fell into this. And finally, it looks like something is going to work for me. Incredible. Well, pin the review up so everyone can see – I’m so proud.”
On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died of a heroin overdose. When she heard of his death she told friends, “he beat me to it.” Two weeks later, on October 4th, she was found dead. In her will she left her friends and family $2,500 to throw a wake party which was held on Oct. 26. One partier remembered, “Everyone got drunk and messed around and nobody mentioned Janis at all.”
Ronald Rolheiser summed up her struggles this way, “She simply lost the things that glue a person together and broke apart under too much pressure. Janis Joplin could not will the one thing.” That “one thing” of course is our innate connection to God, not things of this world we aimlessly strive for to take His place.
If the current rates of depression and suicide are any indication, people of all ages continue today to struggle to fill a void left by our rejection of God and the great American obsession with self.
According to the CDC, in 2017, suicide was a Leading Cause of Death in the United States:
Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.
And what about those who have not become a suicide statistic? According to the American Psychological Association:
7% of the U.S. population over age 12 took antidepressant medication in the past month.
There has been a 64% increase in the percentage of people using antidepressants between 1999 and 2014. In 1999, 7.7 percent of the population took the medication.
Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, has studied people’s values and goals for over twenty years. He says:
The materialistic or “extrinsic” goals are the goals for money, image and status that are so encouraged by consumer capitalism. We contrast these with the “intrinsic” goals for…affiliation (e.g., having close relationships with family and friends) and community feeling (e.g., helping the broader world be a better place).
The take away of those studies?
We find that when people prioritize materialistic, extrinsic goals at a relatively high level compared to intrinsic goals the lower their personal well-being, lower happiness and life satisfaction, more depression and anxiety, and a variety of other personal ills….Materialistic goals are associated with being less empathic and cooperative, and more manipulative and competitive….They care about ecological sustainability and their lifestyles tend to have a damaging effect on the planet.
….People who strongly value helping the world and improving the lives of others are happier and better adjusted than individuals who care about other, more materialistic values. Individuals oriented towards community feeling and helpfulness report greater self-actualization and vitality, less depression and anxiety, fewer behavior disorders, and less narcissistic tendencies.
And the bottom line? Our hunger for love is insatiable outside of God, but there’s a catch. Marianne Williamson tells us that, “A love that hovers above the earth, however well intentioned, is not enough…. It is a willing heart and love embodied that carry with them miraculous authority to turn darkness into light.”
In my last post, I touched on our desire to keep God at a distance. How often we pray for God to do something for those who suffer, but fail to hear His reply in the depths of our hearts, “I did do something, I created you.” Matthew West expressed this beautifully in his song titled, “Do Something”.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_RjndG0IX8
Why do we seem to fail to remember that God sent Jesus here to live among us, to show us what that love looks like? And then…ready?…and then He called us to carry on that embodied love by giving fully of ourselves. By using the gifts He has given us for His glory. Just like God counted on Jesus, He now counts on us. Jesus says to each of us who continue to follow Him, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these”. John 14:12-14
I could give you pages and pages of examples of people who live that truth and many are kids who are having a huge impact in the ways they strive to make a difference in their communities.
Look at what Jon Bon Jovi and his wife are doing. This brought me to tears: https://jbjsoulkitchen.org“The way to feel good is to do good.” Jon Von Jovi. There you go. He just said in one sentence what it took me three pages!
I hope this sheds a whole new LIGHT on Black Friday for all of us. Maybe we should call it “ILLUMINATED Friday”. Yeah…I like it!
I pray that we may all stop in the midst of the usual holiday chaos and contemplate the true wonder and magic of Christmas and then share that magic with some part of this broken world.
May God richly bless you and yours this Christmas season,