In the Wake of the Election

Dearly Beloved,

Like many of you, I am still reeling from last's week election results.  Still welling up with tears at tender moments, often unfortunately in public.  Still having fiery outbursts of rage and indignation.  Still waking in the middle of the night and each morning with a feeling of dread and anxiety.  Still asking, How could this happen? with lots of mostly unsatisfactory answers.

In years past, I have been disappointed when elections did not go the way I hoped. But nothing like this.  Nothing so visceral or so overwhelming.  No, this feels more like the grief I felt after my house burned down.  A place I had called home, that had been a refuge, a safe haven, a sanctuary, was violently taken away, and suddenly I felt so unsafe, vulnerable, and afraid.

Then and now, I believe God is so close.  In fact, it is precisely when my heart splits wide open, when I feel my vulnerable flesh-and-blood so acutely, that God seems most near.  God's is not the shaming voice that says, Get over it.  Stop your crying.  Be strong.  God's is the tender voice that says, I know. I know. This is so painful. I am right here with you, right in the thick of your pain. Holding you and bearing the pain in you and with you.

I wish we could all be so tender and gentle and present with one another, even when we do not share or understand another's pain. The failure of empathy, of even trying to understand where others are coming from, feels like what my pastor called an "unholy fruit" of this bitter election season.  If you are one who is grieving, and have been further wounded by others' lack of compassion toward you, I am so sorry.  I honestly don't know what's worse sometimes - the pain itself, or feeling so invisible in it, like people don't see you, or see you and don't care.  I hope you are finding places and people that are safe, who can see you and hold your pain without trying to diminish or explain it, without trying to cheer you up or fix you.  God made us of tender flesh, and our capacity to feel our own pain and to suffer with others is what ultimately has the power to heal us, individually and in our relationships.  

I know many people are already moving on to the What now?, What's next? questions.  I too have wondered what is mine and ours to do in the days ahead as we live into this new reality.  Those questions need to be asked and answered with lots of prayer and soul-searching.  But I hear some wise voice in me cautioning me and perhaps others from moving forward too quickly.  I wonder if we might resist the urge to try to think ourselves out of our pain.  I wonder if we're being invited to tend our hearts a bit more, linger with our grief, make sure we find healthy and healing expression of all we are feeling, whether that be in our conversation with trusted others or in prayer and ritual or some other form of self-expression.  I know from my experience with other griefs, there is no way around it, only through.  And I'm reminded that each person's process and timetable will be as different as we are.

I am well aware that not everyone reading this is grieving or broken-hearted over the election.  If this is you, I hope then it means you have extra emotional resources to offer others.  If you're not feeling heavy burdened, you can help carry another's load. If you're not wounded, you can tend those who are.  But please be gentle and kind.  If you don't understand or know what to say, I'm so sorry you're hurting might go a long way.  Or a loving silence might be the very best thing you can offer.  We are in this together.  And I don't see a healing way forward toward unity without addressing all the pain heaped up in and between and among us.

I hope and pray in the days to come, we can all open our eyes to really see the pain and fear and suffering around us and in us. After all, we in the Christian tradition believe in a God who does not stand far off, but enters intimately into the flesh-and-blood experience of being human.  May we join God, enter in, bear in Christ and with Christ and for Christ, the suffering of our present times, our fellow human beings and the creation itself, for the redemption of this whole world God so loves.

Only Us

I am convinced most [humans] hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don't know each other. They don't know each other because they don't communicate with each other. And they don't communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.               Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.                    

     As a child, I had a penchant for dividing things into boxes.  I remember standing in the grocery check out line frantically putting misplaced candy back in its proper box, long after my mom had exited the store.  My mom's hairdresser paid me to sort through her big box of curlers and retrieve anything that did not belong - spare change (my payment!), bobby pins, bottle caps, combs and the like.  I craved that sense of order, everything in its right place, nothing that did not belong.

     I have to confess, I did the same with people.  With the naivete of a child, I sorted people into good guys and bad guys, us and them.  My religious education largely supported me in this; I was taught to believe God sorted people - wheat from chaff, children of light vs children of darkness, sheep from goats.   Those who believed the right things, prayed the right prayers, did the right things, did not do the wrong things, we were in God's box.  And everyone else was outside the box; we'd pity you and pray for you, but hey, you chose to be out there.  It was a neat and orderly system.  And how convenient that I was always in the right box!

     Thankfully, God is merciful and kind, and started working in me.  I came to see quite painfully that I was not all that.  I could believe and pray and do the "right" things, but I knew my heart held both light and darkness, love and judgment, wheat and chaff.  Some days, I could be very sheep-like, but other days, I was pure goat.  I didn't live out a tenth of what Jesus taught.  I had far more in common with the Pharisees, whom Jesus regularly criticized, than those with whom Jesus usually hung out, the ones who knew they were not all that.  And my little proclivity for dividing people into insiders and outsiders had no place in Jesus' life.  He was always breaking down those divisions, hanging out with those considered "other," the marginalized, the "unclean."  His was a radical ministry of inclusion.  If anyone was left out, it was the self-righteous ones who looked down upon others.

     God also started orchestrating encounters with the "others."  Having grown up in segregated Savannah and gone to an all-white Christian school, I was paired with a black roommate in a summer honors program.  On a college foreign study trip to the Middle East and Africa, I had my first real conversations with Jews and Muslims, and with people in the "third world."  When I went to seminary, I was hired as a youth minister along with an openly gay Christian classmate.  Before I was ever hired as a pastor at Saint Mark, I had my first exchange with a transgendered woman.  I won't lie to you; I sometimes thought and prayed God would use me to change them.  I humbly learned I was the one in need of conversion.  God was out to liberate me from my dividing, labeling, judging mind, to slowly but surely expand the capacity of my heart for love, to wash my eyes clean so that I would come to see everyone, everyone, everyone as a beautiful, beloved child of God.  There is only Us.  We're all in the same box together.  And being Christian is not about being right, but about being in right relationship.

      In our current socio-political climate, much of the discourse is bent on exploiting our fear, if not inciting hatred, of the "other", dividing us into good guys and bad guys, scapegoating the "Them."  I pray we don't fall prey to this fear mongering and divisiveness.  I pray we seek leaders who come closer to embodying Jesus' mercy and radical inclusivity.  And I pray we open ourselves to the lives of those who are "other" than us.  We may just be surprised who God wants to convert. 

Words as Weapons

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of words to give life or to deal death.   About the ways we speak with, or unfortunately often AT or ABOUT, one another.   Along with many of us, I’m deeply concerned about our public discourse these days.   If you want to be any more troubled about the state of our dis-union, just read the comments section after any article you find sensible.  I don’t know why I do it; it’s like passing a pile-up on the highway, and you can’t look away from the carnage.

It seems like we argue way more than we dialogue.  We try to change each other’s minds, more than we try to understand another’s perspective.  We tear down, and speak AGAINST, rather than building up and speaking FOR.  Turns out maybe we’re all wielding the weapons we have in our possession --our tongues, and in our digital age, our fingers, which we use to fire off inflammatory texts, emails, FB posts, tweets and the like.

I get it.  I find myself “triggered” every day by the false or frightening, the myopic or maddening, the hateful or hellacious things people are saying and doing.  I want to react, and sometimes I do, with my own ambush of words.  But to what end?  It’s like we’re all wearing those ear muffs and rapid firing, and is anyone left standing unwounded? 

We’re at war.  Every day, we wake up to more bloodshed.  Every which way, we are mowing one another down with our hate and ignorance, our fear and greed.  And whether we choose to really see it or not, we are all wounded and suffering.

Those among us who call ourselves Christians, who say we are trying to live like Jesus,--the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the one who commanded us to “put down our swords, for all who take the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52), the one who bore the depravity and violence of humanity in his crucified body and breathed forgiveness until the end rather than resorting to violence himself--we are called to nonviolence.   In our actions.  In our words, spoken and written.  In our hearts and thoughts even.

I keep hearing these verses cautioning and convicting me . . .

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.  (Matthew 5:21-22, The Message)

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  (Eph 4:29, NRSV)

No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  (James 3:8-10)

What are we doing with our anger?  How are we wielding our words?  Are we blessing and building up and giving grace to those who hear?  How is God inviting us, even now, especially now, into the school of love and nonviolence?

I don’t know about you, but I have a next-to-impossible time staying true to Jesus during an election season.  No angry dismissal of others?  No retaliation?  Love my enemies?  Pray for perpetrators? Speak truth in love? These are the difficult teachings of Jesus, which we often prefer to ignore, when they don’t align with our political inclinations or even our “rights.” I want to retort, and sometimes do, “Come on, Jesus!  There’s got to be another way.”

He says, Follow me, and sets his face toward Washington DC.

I pray for the strength and grace to stay with him, even when I’d prefer to deny and flee, or draw the sword of my tongue and strike.  Because at the end of the day I don’t see any other way but his beyond this chaos and carnage.

God Knocking

Knocking on the Door

We often describe God’s ongoing pursuit of us as “knocking on the door.”  The idea is that we are home in ourselves and God wants in.  But God is not forceful.  He won’t just barge on in without invitation.  She won’t climb through a window if we bar Her from the door.  So God stands at the door and knocks, waiting patiently for us to hear and open the door.

It’s a helpful image.  But I’ve begun to wonder which side of the door God is on.  After all, as Christians we believe in God incarnate, the God who dwells within us all.  We may think it is we who invite God in from the outside, but God is actually already present all along.  As the Latin inscription Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit reminds us, “Bidden or not bidden God is with us.”

So what if we were to imagine in ourselves an inner room, our own holy of holies?  It is the place of our deepest being and knowing.  And it is the place where God abides.  Unfortunately, it’s not the place where we abide most of the time.  We live in all the other rooms of our house, those we’ve carefully constructed and decorated ourselves.  They are full of all kinds of fancy furniture, inspiring artwork, nifty gadgets—things we think will make others, maybe even God, want to come in and stay a while.  We can spend our whole lives rearranging and redecorating these rooms, preparing for the holy visitation.

But in all our activity, we may miss the faint knocking at our door.  Or we may hear it, go to the front door and find no one there.  Ah, because it’s coming from some place deep inside.  That little room we pass by every day of our lives, only occasionally pausing to hear the knocking or to wonder what or Who might be on the other side.

Maybe it’s God.  In the deepest part of you, inviting you to come in and rest a while.  Inviting you to discover the naked and beautiful truth of who you are in the center of your being.  Inviting you to just be in the Divine presence, to bask in the love of the Beloved.

And if you want, God will swing that inner door wide open and let you in.

Whenever you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you.  Matt 6:6

Letting God Have It

I’m grateful I grew up knowing the importance of prayer.  Now granted, sometimes I was a little OCD about it.  My first prayer journal was a binder with color-coded tabs, one for each kind of prayer.  And I dutifully moved through them in order, listing prayers with bullet points.  I felt like I had to pray, and get it right, or else.  

Thankfully, as I grew in my understanding of and relationship with God, I could move beyond the binder.  I came to believe that what God most wanted, was not our carefully formulated words, or our perfectly orchestrated discipline, but us.  And not just our more attractive parts like our gratitude and our concerns for people in need, but also our struggles and questions and parts of ourselves we would prefer to ignore, and hope God does too.

It’s tempting to wait to come to God until we clean up our act, get ourselves put together, have something nice to present.  Who wouldn’t rather show up at God’s doorstep with a bunch of flowers than with a pile of mess?

But Jesus said it so clearly, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  

Of course, we all need God.  Some of us simply don’t think we do.  Or we forget.

But occasionally we are nudged into remembering:  God wants us, wants all of us.  Wants us when we’re skipping on sunshine, and when we’re pacing the halls or pinned to the bathroom floor.  When we’re so ecstatic we can’t contain ourselves, and when we’re so grief-stricken we can’t contain ourselves.  Maybe in those moments, we can hear a gentle voice saying, It’s okay.  I’ve got you. Here now, let me have that.  I can hold it.

Perhaps the sickness is not so much what we think or feel or do, but the trying to carry and manage and fix it all on our own.  

Prayer is letting God have it.  And the more of it the better, if you ask me.

Faith as Diving In

For many, January is a time to reflect on the year behind and set hopes and intentions for the year ahead.  For folks of an explicitly spiritual bent, this often includes remembering our longing for God and the gifts this relationship brings.  We may name these in different ways, but I imagine among our hopes, these top the list:  deeper peace and contentment, more presence and quality in our relationships, greater clarity about our gifts and purpose, an expanded capacity for love and mercy and grace.

My sense is that naming what we desire is often much easier than knowing how to receive it.

Unfortunately, sometimes our religious upbringing focuses more on what to believe than how to connect. We often learn creeds and confessions, but not ways for growing in a loving, transformative relationship with God.  Which sadly leaves many people worrying about what we believe, while missing the real gifts for which we long.  It’s like we’re all in our heads trying to figure out what is true about God; meanwhile, this God is closer than our very breath, pleading, I’m right here with you!  See me.  Listen to me.  Love me.  Let me love you.

Faith and belief in God is about so much more than intellectually assenting to certain statements about God.  If I tell my husband Michael, I believe in you, I don’t mean that I concur he exists or take others’ word for it that he’s a swell guy.  I don’t mean I believe it’s true that he was born in Cedar Falls or he has a brother and two sisters.  Believing in him is a relational trust, an inner knowing, a deep love and care, all born of a real, life-and-flesh daily experience of living life with him.

That, I believe, comes closer to what faith in God is intended to be—a living relationship with a loving Presence we come to know in ever deeper ways, and an intimate trust to which we can surrender more and more of ourselves.  This, of course, takes time, a whole lifetime really, to grow and develop.  It involves sustained commitment and practice.  And it transforms everything.

We can stand at the edge of God, as if at the shoreline of an ocean.  We can admire its beauty, make observations, give it lovely names and attributes, consult books and experts to learn more.  But the real adventure begins when we dive in.

 

Church as Boat

If God is like the Ocean, then churches, at their best, are like boats.  Their purpose is to carry folks from the shores of ordinary life into the waters of God.  They tell the great stories, from scripture and the Christian tradition, of those who have entered these waters before, what they’ve come to know about the love and goodness of God.  Through their rituals and sacraments, they offer folks an experience of the Sacred Sea.  And they equip folks with tools for exploration, teaching them how to swim and how to dive down deep.  In this way, folks not only go out on Sunday sailing expeditions, but they learn to spend more and more of their lives in and with God.  

The Church is a means to an end; that end is getting us into God.  Not just a toe in, and not just ankle-deep, but full-on, whole-life immersion into Mystery.

Unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of this central purpose, and confuse the means for the end.  Boats can try all manner of things to attract us on board in the first place and keep us there.  After all, the harbor is crowded with boats of various shapes and sizes and with different names and emblems emblazoned on their sides.  It can be tempting to turn things into a competition, and get overly focused on the numbers of folks who choose your boat or sailing company.

And then, debates and arguments break out on board about various things – what color to paint the sails, which way to arrange the deck furniture, who is welcome to board, how to fix the leak that’s sprung and who’s going to pay for it.  To tell you the truth, the sailing crew can spend so much time debating how to best maintain the boat and get folks on board, they rarely have time to get out to Sea.

But no matter what, every seven days or so, each boat pushes out a little from the shore.  A hush falls over the crowd on board.  In the silence, folks may peer out over the railings and take in the immense beauty and power of the Ocean.  We sing and listen to music about the Sea, some of it so moving, the hair on the back of our necks stands straight up.  A crew member, hopefully one who has not only sailing, but also diving experience, stands in the bow and shares some of those great stories about the Sea and exploring its depths.  We are reminded that we are part of Something so much bigger than ourselves.  Hopefully, we come to love and trust the Sea, even if we can’t always understand or control it.  And we are invited beyond our life on shore, and life on the boat, into the Sacred Deep.  

The question is, do we dive in?  Are we inspired enough, and do we find the faith and the guidance we need to plunge into the depths of God?  

It’s wonderful being on board, no doubt, but going overboard is what it’s all about.  And sometimes a little rocking of the boat may be in order. 

God as Ocean

One of my favorite images for God has been the Ocean.  Vast and mysterious, beautiful and powerful, it is not subject to our understanding or control, but invites our awe and exploration.  At times, I have felt the Ocean hold me up; I could just turn over and float over the gentle undulations, trusting it would take me where I needed to go.  At other times, I have felt it crash on me with such brute force and toss me every which way that I wasn’t sure if, when, or how I would resurface. Eventually it would spit me out again on the shore, exhausted and humbled, but oddly grateful.

I have always liked the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus, when calling his first disciples, tells Simon Peter to put out into the deep water to let down their nets for a catch.  I have interpreted that to mean there is more to be found in the depths than in the shallows.  And I hear it as a holy summons to dive in.  Don’t eddy out in small talk; wade into depth conversation.  Don’t settle for surface relationships; get to know yourself and others deeply.  Don’t just splash around in the shallows of life and God; plumb the depths.

You know how when you first walk into the ocean it can be hard to stay on your feet, not get splashed in the face or knocked around by the breaking waves?  Sometimes, a giant swell will take you down and you lose your bearings.  But then if you keep on walking, or better yet, you lean in and start to swim, you get to that place where you just float over the waves.  And if you sink down deep enough, the ocean will hold you in a quiet, gentle rocking rhythm, even if there’s tumult on the surface.  You just have to get out there far enough and sink deep enough.

I believe life with God is like that.  I hope you’re diving in.