Saturday, June 21, 2014

Who Is Important?

I was recently at a large church gathering, where a designated group of volunteers were in charge of shuttling us to the campus where we would gather. When I went forward they greeted me cheerfully, checked off my name, and then said they would try to get me on the next shuttle and showed me where I could wait. After a few minutes, they came back and pointed out that there might be some people who needed to go ahead of me because “they were important.” It turned out the important people were all men and one of the women explained to me “they are pastors.” I don’t know why she assumed I wasn’t, but I can only guess it’s because I’m female. I ended up waiting two and a half hours. The next time a different person came by and asked me “Are you important?” I answered, “Well, I’m important to Jesus,” only to be met with a blank and slightly confused look. There were people who pushed to the front of the line. There were people who did not know there was a line. And the volunteers, to be fair, were doing the best they could.

It would be easy to make this about the ways that the church (perhaps unintentionally) makes people feel less. Or about the ways that women are still devalued in places of leadership. But what happened in those 2 plus hours is I ended up reconnecting with an old friend and having a heartfelt conversation for which I wouldn’t trade all the “importance” in the world. Leave me here all night, I almost said, and I’ll have a better time than if I had gotten on that first shuttle as I had planned.

But a few days later, it leaves me wondering: do we understand what it means to be less? Some of us do. And those are the ones whose names we don’t know, who show up to their children or their congregations, who show up at their jobs even when they are unappreciated and undervalued, who begin their days with a prayer even when their hearts have turned to stone because they can’t imagine a world where there is not more love than they have seen. They are the ones who have felt less their whole lives because of things other people have said or not said.  They are the ones who, whether they would have chosen it or not, have the mind of Christ.

I wish we could find ways to listen to those people. The ones who aren’t important, the ones whose names almost nobody but their families know. The ones who have something to teach all those who are so convinced of their own power and importance. The ones God loves. The ones we need if we are ever to find a way to get over the power and the fighting long enough to cross boundaries and risk loving with the kind of love that is our calling. Because, my nameless friends, you are important to Jesus. And we need your quiet faithfulness and your humility to survive.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Stay in the Stream

For Pastor Ross in Australia, who missed this blog and was kind enough to write and tell me so even though we have never met in person . . .

And for Natalie Hart, who models for me what faithfulness to the vocation of writing looks like.

As a type-A worrywart and general control freak, I am very good at doing things. I make lists, I organize responsibilities and check them off and nearly always get things done on time. I like to think I am dependable.

But there are some problems that don’t get better based on the number of actions I take to try and solve them—no matter how many nights I am awake thinking about different angles, no matter how many prayers trying to clear the path for a word from God, no matter how many lists, the problem not only does NOT go away, it may actually become worse. And then it’s all a confusing muddled mess with no obvious path forward and even more fear and anxiety than I started off with.

In the last year, I’ve started to go monthly for spiritual direction—possibly one more thing on my list to try and find some answers, but it’s turned into an exercise in receiving over and over again these two most basic bits of wisdom: I am not in control, and I have no idea how much God loves me.

Last time, my director talked to me about the value of fallow time—stopping, doing nothing to try and solve the questions but simply (as the Rilke quote goes), “living into the questions.” The other thing she told me was to “stay in the stream” this Holy Week from Good Friday to Easter and beyond and let it carry me.

That sounds nice on paper, but it drives a control freak like me crazy. And perhaps the difficulty of that suggestion is one reason that I need it so much. To recognize that of course I can’t solve anything, of course my life isn’t in my own hands, of course I am held in a story of love beyond my understanding. And all I have to do is stay in the stream; nothing more or less is required of me than that. I don’t have to churn endlessly to try and solve anything; I just have to let go and surrender to the ride. Because no matter how long I feel stuck in the suffering of Good Friday and no matter how much some part of me desires to stay there until I understand what it means, what is absolutely certain is this:  somewhere, someday, in a gift far beyond my grasp, Easter morning is waiting.

So this Holy Week, that is all I am asking: to stay in the stream that carries me (as the song says) “beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.” What a ride that will be if God helps me let go.

Friday, February 10, 2012

It's Not Working for Me

Recently I heard the modern-day prophet and poet Walter Brueggemann speak about the Psalms. He said before we can receive the counter-world offered us in the Psalms, we have to speak the truth about the world we live in. And that is a world characterized by, among other things, greed, anxiety, amnesia, and despair. We have to tell the truth, Brueggemann suggests, to be willing to say it straight up: “It’s not working for me.”

This strikes a deep chord with me. Brueggemann named something I’ve been struggling to articulate as I look around me at so many people I know facing uncertain finances, exhaustion, vocational upheaval, and nearly debilitating anxiety. While a generation past could count on stable jobs for decades, it feels lucky now to have one that lasts more than five years. Even for hard-working middle-class folks, it’s becoming a less-achievable dream to own a home or put kids through college. And yet every day we wake up again, go to jobs, run around busy as anything, trying to deny these truths or ignore them because what choice do we have? No wonder despair is the end of it all.

It’s not working for me. I am tired of pretending it is.

When I reach out to that most ancient prayer book for comfort, I struggle to believe, as Brueggemann told us, we need not inhabit this world we are given, that every time we do so much as read a psalm we are engaging in a subversive action, holding on to the hope of a world of abundance where a table is spread and all are welcome, where Yahweh is every faithful in spite of change everywhere, where all the world is not on its way to hopelessness and despair but to renewal and shalom and newness of life. I reach out for that world with eagerness, with desperation; sometimes I can believe in that world, but sometimes I cannot.

It’s been a week or so since I heard Brueggemann and as I sit with his words, the thing I remember most is the palpable relief I felt deep in my soul at hearing someone say, “It’s not working. Of course it’s not. You’re not crazy for wishing it were otherwise. It’s not working.” Wherever we want to go next, I'm certain that is the point to begin.

Maybe it is truth-telling itself that holds the key. Maybe not until the truth is told does the door begin to open to the counter-world that all our hearts are longing for.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Reading Genesis again I am struck by how often the Lord God says to Abram “Rise up and move your tent” or “Go.” And he goes. Later he even says “take your only son and offer him as a sacrifice.”

I can run through this in my mind several different ways, including thinking of the Hebrew scriptures as training a wayward people how to be faithful to God’s leading, or even all of it as a metaphor or allegory. But mostly it reads like God’s just messing with Abram.

A friend said to me recently that she had “transition fatigue.” There’s the sense that after a time you will have landed someplace, be doing some work that fulfills your vocation, your purpose. To be in mid-life and not have found that may be approximately the same as how Abram felt when God was forever telling him to pull up his stakes and “go” somewhere else. Again? Really? It’s exhausting and there is an emotional cost to constantly applying for new jobs, moving to a new place, starting again.

What comfort can be found in all this? Maybe that I think it’s a new story in my life but really it’s an old, old story. Uprooting and sacrifice and uncertainty. And in all of it, God going with you from place to place to place. I wonder what it takes, if it’s possible to see it in the midst of the confusion or only years afterward, to be able to see the angels going up and down, to proclaim with surprise like Jacob: “God was in this place and I did not know it”?

Saturday, December 31, 2011


“The first noel, the angel did say, was to certain poor shepherds …”

The shepherds always seem to be on the edges of the nativity scene. Off to one side or another standing watch over the sheep or the donkey or maybe even the camel if the three kings aren’t up to the job. I’ve always had a soft spot for the shepherds, and I always try to edge them as close to the manger as I can in our little set. Those poor old shepherds know something. I’m sure of it.

For years when I was a kid, I misunderstood the use of the word “certain” the traditional carol “The First Noel.” I thought it was the verb. The carol wasn’t telling us which shepherds; it was telling us that the first noel happened to “certain” them—to make them sure of something. I love that. Even now, I hear it this way.

I love those shepherds in their certainty. As for me, most often I am not certain. I find myself waffling the instant I say something: “Well, I this is how I see it, but I can also see the other side.” In a postmodern age, it’s not unusual to do this, to be aware of options, to stand in the gray haze of infinite possibility rather than to stick your neck out and stand solid on one thing that makes you certain.

This isn’t all bad. I think it’s important to be aware of how power structures influence narratives, how we are necessarily limited when we speak by our own points of view. I also think it’s a very good thing that the church is growing in its acceptance of doubt, becoming more honest about the mysteries and paradoxes of the life of faith. We need to hear those things.

But we also need to hear that sometimes, on the edges of the action, are people who might have had an experience—as fleeting or inexplicable as it may be—when they were sure of something, when God’s love was real to them, when it all made sense. This coming year, those are the stories I want to hear—starting with the shepherds, and coming back to you. Because in those stories is life. I’m certain of it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Advent: Finding the Way Home

There is a stretch of country I drive on my way to work where the sky blends so seamlessly into the land that it’s hard to tell where the horizon is. When the sky is overcast, it’s even more difficult.

I wonder how I’d find my way if I were out in one of those fields in a snowstorm, blinded by the monotony of white. What anchors would I search out to help me find my way? a bit of fence or some dried brown grass on the crest of a hill? The fewer things there are in a landscape, the more desperately each one matters to show you where you are.

During times of tragedy we are stripped to essentials. The familiar anchors of belief seem far away and we are left numb, lost, with few signs to help us find our way home. We wander in the far country of despair, unsure of anything solid we can hold on to.

And this is Advent: the world waiting in quiet blindness, familiar anchors fading into white. It’s the moment before. What happens next changes the story forever, when into that nothingness, something solid, wrapped in flesh, is born. But for now, we wait. And the sky grows heavy with our longing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Holy Pause: Remembering 9/11

Ten years later and the news, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, is “too much with us.” Bombarded with images of burning towers, stories of heartbreak and recovery, and endless analysis, I find myself desperate for a little more quiet, a little more space to reflect and remember, to sit with nothing but the clear blue sky and images and memories that are already too vivid in my mind.

Ten years later and when I look at the familiar skyline of my childhood, I still see only absence: the place where the towers used to be. And instead of filling that space with anything else, I would like to sit in silence. There is a different way to do this than what we see in the news.

In his post-9/11 reflection, Writing in the Dust, Archbishop Rowan Williams tells the story from John 8 of the woman caught in adultery. The tragedy seemed to have only two movements: guilt and death. It was an overdetermined narrative—with one way the story could be told, one way it could end. She was guilty and she should die for it, and the teachers of the law were waiting because there was no way Jesus could get out of this one.

So much of the news around 9/11 has had the same feel for the last decade. There are sweeping words used, black-and-white analysis with “good guys” and “bad guys,” and seemingly only one way for the story to end. The political scene has grown increasingly polarized, and there is more rigidity than ever in our debate. Is there a different way to do this? Is there another way to talk about tragic events that leaves room for the presence of the word? We might take a cue from what happens next in John 8.

Instead of playing out that moment the way everyone expected it to go, Jesus bends down and writes in the dust. Williams writes, “He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently” (78). The story ends the way no one could have imagined: the accusers a little less self-righteous, the woman, freed in love, given the gift of a new life if she will take it.

This anniversary date, I wish for the same thing—for a moment of hesitation, a longish moment with space to tell this story differently, a holy pause to make our debate more compassionate, a chance to write in the dust of so many lives lost the promise of love arising still, new life out of ruins, hope from impossibility.

This 9/11 you won’t find me watching the special reports or reading the newspaper or listening to endless analysis on the radio. You will find me sitting outside someplace under a wide blue sky, taking a holy pause, letting the emptiness speak in sighs too deep for words.