Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

Recently, I was reminded of a long-standing frustration I have as I gathered my thoughts on what church is supposed to be and what is actually happening.

I left the Catholic Church several years ago, and though I feel like I have landed in a church I’m growing to love, I still find myself searching for a true depth of faith I want to encounter, not just in others, but also in myself.

I want it to be like those guys on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:32). You know, when they were bellyaching about how their lives were upended and all of a sudden they realized their hearts “were on fire” as they walked with this guy who showed up out of nowhere? I had my own experience of that in Kentucky and it changed my life!

In the past, I was great at shaking my finger – at someone, anyone, to blame for the indifference to God’s call to Love that I witnessed almost daily:The clergy, bishops, the Pope, but not the faithful sitting unaware in the pews (if they’re sitting there at all). Never those poor innocent folks in the pews.

I assumed that for some reason beyond their consciousness – poor religious instruction or perhaps sucky sermons that can rival Ambien’s affect as a sleep medication – they have never encountered the “living” Christ. How is that supposed to happen when we’re either nodding off in the pew or thinking of that much anticipated Super Bowl in just a few hours (more on that later).

If liturgy is, as I learned from Catholic Church teaching, the “source and summit” of faith then it must give meaning to our lives. Right? Meaning that should cause us to sit in stunned silence in the presence of the Incarnate Word of God. Where, in awe and wonder, we remove our sandals on what is surely holy ground.

Gradually then, it would seem, Sunday after Sunday, we would fall in love with Love. Perhaps we would begin to squirm in the pew we once found comfortable as we realize that God is calling us to a responsibility to respond to that Love. It’s really not optional if we call ourselves “Christian” you know.

Liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, means “the work of the people”. That’s all of us, every single one! Let’s look back at the early church where it began – with Jesus himself. Think of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Think of John resting on Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus poured the wine, washed their feet, loved on them and said, Do this in memory of Me, always recall My love for you, prepare yourselves for the work I’m calling you to.  Sooooo, what are you waiting for? Get out there and love on people!” I can guarantee you that not once during that supper did Jesus or any of his apostles ruminate on the Super Bowl or long for hot wings while consuming dry bread. Not one of them!

But, we do. The significance and power of our worship seems to be all but lost today. It isn’t confined to the Pastor. There isn’t a list of formalities we can check off: Enter, bow, glare at the person who’s sitting in your spot, gaze out the stained glass windows past the tearful widow next to you, tune out the sermon, rush out the door. Repeat.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of Me. But, don’t stop there!” He gives us explicit instructions to respond in action, to go out to “love and serve the Lord”. Every part of our worship should lead us to that end.

Here’s what, I believe, a life of faith should look like. It’s what I strive for and so often fail miserably at. We go to church to be nurtured by God’s Word; to seek and know we are forgiven for our sins. We are challenged by the sermon, share the peace and love of God with others and then are sent out to be Christ to a hurting world. But if, instead, we sit as silent spectators simply waiting to get our card punched for the week, a broken world suffers the loss. What is missing? Many people today say they can be spiritual without the Church. Those who simply “show up” also miss the point.

Here’s a question for you: Who wants to watch the Super Bowl alone? We surround ourselves with friends and indulge in a feast made for a king. It’s a party! If we could only approach liturgy with that same excitement. We are called to prepare our hearts and minds at the banquet table where we celebrate the love of God.

Guys, the liturgy is a feast; a celebration of God’s extravagant Love. We relish the fires of hot wings while the fire of the Holy Spirit lies smoldering in our hearts. This realization always causes me to point my finger in the mirror again and again. Perhaps many believers have not encountered the living Christ, but I have. Yet, I too am often resistant to His deepest call to love.

Mary Collins speaks of “God-seekers” who “risk more than the ordinary. They risk their sanity….The rest of us go to church”. It’s too frightening. We don’t want the responsibility to love like that. We want that left to those “holy” people we often read about. But….

 What if we had an Emmaus encounter with Christ right in the midst of communion?

What if we actually saw Christ proclaiming God’s lavish, magnificent, and unending Love?

What if we turned to offer others the sign of peace and Christ took our hand?

What if in our “Amen” we meant it? “Amen” means, “Yep, I wholeheartedly agree!”  It doesn’t mean “let me think about that and get back to you.”

What if in sheer gratitude for God’s self-giving Love, Christ in our midst, we became that very Love emptied and spilled out into the world? Catherine Vincie calls this “the prophetic function of a dangerous memory”.

Then, how dangerous would this be – what if we saw Jesus Himself as the primary sacrament of grace.  Could we handle that? All forms of love, goodness, sacrifice, and resurrection are salvific. In this sense Jesus is the greatest sacrament of all. Why does that reality not trump football? Why does Jesus always have to be competing with a cheap imitation?

Passion, Purpose and Poopyheads

Life sometimes seems like a “Comedy of Errors” from our first breath. You probably expected something very different while you were being formed in that cozy little B&B. You’re all comfy in there, aren’t you? Floating around getting all your needs met. It’s pretty sweet.

Except for those damn hiccups and people poking at you and trying to converse with you right in the middle of your nap. But then the party’s over. Without any warning, whoosh outcha’ go there little feller. You get flipped on your head and slapped silly by a stranger with a mask (that’s not scary!). All the while, you’re thinking this is not what the brochures promised!

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

And then life happens.

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

Then, it all went sideways.

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

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

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

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

Well, crap!

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

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

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

Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”

You nod.

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

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

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

Jesus, unrelenting, “Feed my lambs.”

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

There he goes again, “Simon Peter, tell me again. Are you sure you love me?” Now, in all fairness, it’s understandable why Jesus keeps asking you that since you did run and hide when it all got too scary for you. But you’re about to lose it anyway, “Why do you keep asking me that same question? Yes, yes, yes, I love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we were set up too when the Church decided to take control by creating lots of rules to keep us in line. It worked for a while, actually a very long while. But then, people tired of “rules” that couldn’t fill the void. Years of studies by Pew Research can attest to that fact, even if the Churches have decided to ignore it. The studies show the number of people fleeing from churches, particularly millennials, is growing.

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

Then, as if that isn’t enough, we have the “stories” in the Bible. I know we could debate all day long about whether or not the “stories” are factual or myths. I know how I see them. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

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

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

adam-and-eve-hiding-1

GOD: “I can see you, Adam.”

ADAM: “No, you can’t.”

GOD: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can.”

Then, there’s that whole burning bush thing. Do you think for one minute that wasn’t a setup for Moses? “Come on out God. We know you’re hiding there, waiting to pounce on our slightest indiscretion. That’s sneaky.” Sorry, I just can’t believe in that kind of god.

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

And don’t think for a moment that it’s just you. People who seem to have everything are hungry for that something “more”. Deep within every one of us is a longing for purpose. But, we can spend a lifetime whacking away at it in our foolish efforts to figure it out.

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

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

The fact remains, we have all been given a purpose in this life, the passion to fulfill it, and lots of poopyheads along the way intent on screwing it all up! The truth of our essence has been stifled, stuffed away, and rendered irrelevant, along with God and all that matters for humankind.

I believe “religion” has become something God never intended. For so long, if we stuck with it, we learned to stay within our comfortable unquestioned faith because to do otherwise was just too daunting. So religion became empty and void of meaning. And when young people came along who were not afraid to ask the hard questions and were not content with the canned answers the Church offered, they left in droves, and they’re still leaving.

“So what is my purpose?” – you ask. Why am I here? Good question. Our struggle is embedded in worldly pursuits that ultimately bring us to a dead-end. We want life on our terms. We don’t want to struggle, we don’t want to suffer, and we damn sure don’t want to encounter anyone else’s suffering. We have enough to deal with trying to stand out in this dog-eat-dog world. The point is that none of it offers fulfillment that lasts. Striving for more, paradoxically, leaves us emptier and hungrier.

Consider this: What would you be willing to die for if someone approached you and demanded everything you have accumulated and cling to, or they will kill you right where you stand? Any of it? Or would you quickly, without hesitating, hand over all the “things” you value? I’m guessing you would. I would!

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

There it is.

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

We too want absolute certitude that what we are after is real. Faith is a calculated risk, but we don’t like risk even if there is a high degree of probability. It’s too iffy. No thanks.

A shaky questioning faith might be less cut and dry than mindlessly following a set of rules. It may be more uncontrollable and mysterious than you have ever experienced, but that will bring you into the presence of Love and your true worth as his beloved.

You may not have been told this, but you’re allowed to wrestle with God, to question the reason for the suffering and heartache in the world. You can tackle the very struggles and heartache within yourself that you have never thought you could bring to him—God’s tough. Trust me. He can take it.

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

No church “rules” or dogmas will ever bring us into that deep-abiding relationship with him. It is what we call “experiencing” God. Until we can let go of our need to “know” that God is real, we will never allow ourselves to open our hearts to experience him.  It’s that simple and that critical.

That is Good News!

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

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

YOU MATTER!

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

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

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

Or….

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

Prepare the Way…for…the Easter Bunny?

(Originally posted March of 2012)

Today is Ash Wednesday. We are called to contemplate more deeply the life, death, and wondrous Resurrection of Christ.

Knowing what must occur before that glorious day should cause us to tremble – but we’re too busy.

The soon-to-be-revealed and unimaginable love of God for us should bring us to our knees – but we’re too afraid.

The reality of the cross should cause us to beg forgiveness for our sinfulness – but we’ve become desensitized to sin.

We don’t cry out to God because we’re afraid he’ll answer!

And so, for many of us, Easter comes and goes with little more fanfare than any other Sunday.

Consider this:

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

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

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

When did you quit believing in the Easter Bunny?

When did you quit believing the message of the cross and the empty tomb?

One is life-altering; the other is not.