Be Still.

IMG_20180512_211150_037“Be still, and know that I am God.”

When life is normal and I have my 2nd/3rd grade choir, JoySong, we often take a minute or two during rehearsal to practice sitting still. They hate it. I teach them that this isn’t a punishment, but a skill to master. “If you sit still,” I tell them, “Adults respect you more. They’ll want to do things with you instead of trying to manage you.”

And then I go home to watch TV while checking emails on my phone, absentmindedly tossing the ball for the dog, munching on something I don’t need. So much for sitting still. Do as I say, kids, not as I do.

This season continues to be worrying, unsettling, and just plain weird. There’s a whole new lexicon for it: social distancing, flattening curves, PUIs, transmission efficiencies. People who were fighting over toilet paper and hand sanitizer are now making homemade masks. I guess that’s better; at least it’s creative. Lots of hunkering down now. At first, it was oddly quiet. But slowly, the social media platforms became busy again. People commenting on politics, race, greed, fear, the economy. People trying to figure out how to keep any sort of income, to pay bills and rent. People trading stories about having their kids at home, managing a healthy chaos and hoping it stays healthy through the duration.  LOTS of parodies, clever memes and TikToks of people dancing with their dogs.  Nurses posting how to stay safe and begging us to stay home. And there are many, many generous-hearted people helping in more ways than I can count. Thank God especially for their kind spirits and dedicated hands. It was quiet, at first, when we were shocked at what was happening. Now, it’s getting chatty again.

But there is also behind all of this, a stillness. Lately, I can feel it. Stillness not exactly like holding your breath, or letting it go; more like in that moment between the two. Stillness that simply is, and yet, strangely enough, calls.

This isn’t a stillness calling about being more optimistic or helpful or germ free. It’s beyond words or concepts like that. It uses the language of the soft coolness of dusk, of trees dappled in every shade of green, in a blue sky above and the complicated weave of moss at my feet below. In the snoring of the dog. In the moment right after I finally shut off the phone, turn out the light, adjust the pillow and sigh. It’s not a remote stillness; on the contrary, it’s intimate, personal; its uncanny gentleness unnerving me, even as it draws me in.

This stillness doesn’t require my interpretation, effort or understanding, which is good because I don’t understand it. It’s not sentimental, nor rational. There’s no catch to it, no other shoe to fall. It’s elemental, part of my flesh and bone just as it is the essence of every other element of God’s good creation. It has an eerie deja vu about it, both mysterious and familiar. My soul remembers it somehow, even as the rest of me has forgotten.

To answer this stillness is to allow myself to lean into a bigger truth that I can’t control. To breathe into it, and feel it move through me without resisting. To surrender in a way that doesn’t dissolve me into nothingness, but somehow connects me into a completeness. Not thinking, or praying. To answer by simply being.

But is that enough in these troubled times, simply being? Maybe. Maybe just for today, anyway. Five minutes at a time.

When I read Psalm 46, it seems to me the psalmist is taking dictation for a very specific, very gentle, very powerful invitation. Engraved not on paper, but on Somebody’s hands.  “Be still and know that I am God’ can only be spoken by One, and it’s not David.

They are the whispered words from Someone who asks that we just be still a minute, calm down, take a breath, and simply know. I’ll accept that. Can you? There’s a quote from Yoda in Star Wars that I really like, “ Do or do not. There is no try..” So in these next few moments, I will not “try”; I will “do not.”  I will just be. Maybe you can, too.

Close your eyes. Wait for yourself to slow down a bit. Even if you can’t feel it. Even if you can’t understand it. Do not. Just be. Still. Know.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It’s worth a try.

Get a Grip

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A few summers ago, I went tubing on a river with my family. I’d never done it before, and each of us had a large tube and a life vest as we peacefully rolled along on a wide and quiet green watery highway, beers in hand. I was having the time of my life.

And because it was summer, and hot, and because I am stupid, I loosened the straps on my life vest, but because I am only stupid and not insane I did leave it buckled.

We gently drifted for miles, soaking in the sun as we listened to the companionable murmur of others floating nearby, trading stories and catching up with one another.

Suddenly, we heard some shouts a little further down river. Apparently there was a deeper section coming up with a few areas of swift moving water and a few boulders. No white-water stuff, just a few areas where it was a bit choppy. I had no fear; I was in a large buoyant tube, wearing a vest, and chubby enough so that neither one was likely necessary.

But then before I could blink, I lost my center of gravity, tumbling off the tube and into a raging surprise of green. Green all around me, and nothing else. No sense of up or down, left or right. And most surprising of all, no vest either.

It was a surreal moment. I knew I was underwater with no flotation device and no sense of direction. If I kicked my feet I could just as easily drive my head into the bottom of the river as pop to the surface. I flailed about, beginning to panic, and then something moved across my face and I grabbed it.

An arm.

I had no idea whose it was, but I knew in an instant that I would eventually be all right as long as I just didn’t let go. It wasn’t supplying me with air, or helping me get to the surface yet, but it was there to give me something tangible, solid and not green. All the panic I had just a moment before had vanished in an instant and I became utterly calm.

It must have been no more than 30 seconds or so before I sputtered my way to the surface to the laughter and relief of my family. It had been my stepdaughter’s arm I had clung to, and I apologized for the red marks my grip had left in her skin.

I learned an important lesson that day; well, re-learned it, really. And no, it wasn’t about loose life vests, (although that’s a biggie, too.)

I learned that when you are in trouble, get a grip. Latch onto something good and solid until you find your way right side up and get your breath again.  My stepdaughter gave me her arm, and now I will give you the sturdiest grip I know:

“…I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Get a good grip on this, and hang on. You may not know yet which end is up, but you will.

 

 

 

God loves a Goober

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Proverbs 17:22

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs is not always my “go-to” book of the Bible, but on this particular day, I found comfort in this one.

There are a thousand reasons to be concerned right now, and a million more that seem to be lurking offstage, just waiting for their grand entrance. And yet, for all the dire news and fearful developments, the internet is filling up with just as many silly memes, jokes and puppy videos. Is there something more here than just denial and distraction? Is there something inherently healthy, maybe even spiritual? I think so.

Raised Catholic, I was familiar with Baker’s “Lives of the Saints,”a book with hundreds of mini biographies of Christians whose lives each uniquely pointed to the goodness of Jesus. Interspersed with those bios were some truly weird and funny quotes. Lawrence, martyred in 258 AD by being burnt alive supposedly said, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” Thomas More, beheaded by Henry VIII is quoted saying to his executioner, “Assist me up. Coming down I will look after myself.” These guys take gallows humor to a whole new freaky level of mic drop.

I’m pretty sure that some of these quotes are purely apocryphal, but the message is clear; not only is there room for laughter in the most grim moments, it’s an essential tool for getting through them. Humor, not at the expense of others but at the expense of our own fears, gives courage. Humor that puts us all in the same boat reassures us that we’re not alone. Humor cuts away at the bindings of worry. It takes the long view. It flips the bord in the best possible way. You can’t obsess over your problems and make fun of them at the same time.

When Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” I suspect a few of them thought he was a little off his game. During this I’m supposed to rejoice? C’mon, Paul..that’s just silly. And then he goes on, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Well now that’s just ridiculous. Foolish. Dumb on a stick. Unless it’s…true. Unless it’s a radical way of taking a stand against fear and insisting on joy.

It’s worth a try. Got a red rubber nose somewhere? How about some wind-up chattering teeth? Or you could do like I do and dance in public – but at a safe distance, of course. Believe me, that always gets me a laugh, and it’s good for my waistline, too. Post a meme. Tell some dad jokes. Get up with a bedhead and stay that way.

March right out there and keep your bones from drying up – nyuk nyuk nyuk!

 

 

 

Singing into midnight

prison-doors-open-10-24-16“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on this blog. Depending on whether or not you like anything I write, I can either say, “I’m sorry,” or “You’re welcome.”

So. It’s Friday and we’re in a pandemic. Ok, then. THAT’S not what I was planning to spend my spring doing, but there you are. Suddenly I am on Facebook, Instagram and email now more than I have ever been before; not because I particularly love it, but because, as this Corona virus flows further into the world, there are fewer places to go if you want to stay connected at all. So I am here at my computer, surfing and typing and blogging away.

Without wanting to get overly dramatic, it feels a little bit like being in prison.

I know that I am greatly blessed; I don’t have the fears and challenges of so many others right now. I’m middle aged but healthy, my work allows me to work from home, I am not caring for people who are ill. My parents, who would have been in their late 90s now, are beyond suffering or pain. I am blessed beyond measure, and certainly more than I deserve. I have resources to help others and am grateful to be able to use them. And yet, even the most blessed among us are being confined. And there’s a lot of fear whispering around the cells of all us prisoners.

So I look to the Good Book for advice, or counsel or example. And, as usual, it’s there.

In the book of Acts, we find Paul and Silas in prison, not for having preached the Gospel, but for having driven out a demon from a slave who through the power of the demon, was foretelling futures and making money for her owner. When the owner lost his golden goose, he turned Silas and Paul in. Yep, it was about money. He threw them in prison where people curse and wail and rage and bang their heads against the bars. And what was Paul and Silas’ reaction? They started singing.

And the prisoners were listening to them.

Because who does that? Only the very weird or the very strong.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the parallels here and now. There are voices shouting dire words louder than those of the doctors and medical personnel who know better: “It’s a Chinese virus.” “Hoard those medical supplies.” “It’s a political hoax.” Fortune tellers making money for the few, power for the wicked, and influence for those who feed on our fear. Those doomsayers are slaves to dark masters, and calling out the falsehood of those voices puts the few, the wicked and the fear mongers at risk of loss. Make no mistake, they will not like it and they will turn on you. They will do everything they can to imprison you for spoiling their attempts at using this for their own gain.

I find myself sometimes wanting to just close the door to my room, watch TV, take a nap, or generally ignore it. It starts to feel like too much. The worry starts humming in the back of my mind as the news rolls on, the number of cases rises, the politicians argue and pontificate and it all seems so completely insane.

Yet like Paul and Silas, we don’t need to fear them. When we use our voices to call out what is right and true, when we refuse to trade our caring for fear or our reason for prejudice, we do the extraordinary – we stay free ourselves even as we set those slaves free. That is the power of Jesus – no chains are strong enough to hold up to his voice or the song he gives us to sing.

The right voice is all it takes to quiet the noise down for a while. It won’t melt iron bars or turn stone to dust, or sanitize a room. It’s not wishful thinking, or magic. It’s not foolish optimism. It’s deeper and more long lasting. It gives us another song to hear other than the one of despair. A song that lights up a dark space. A song that keeps hope going strong so it’s there to rely on. A song that keeps us going when we wash our hands yet again, wipe down the counters, pray for our family, call our neighbors, email our friends, and clean the windows until we can open them wide and leave this time to history.

Each one of us has a song. Each song has a message, and we get to choose which message we will give. Like the fortune teller, we can be enslaved parroting the words of those who would separate us in spirit. We can wail and rage, point fingers or shout in righteous indignation. Or we can sing the gospel of hope and resilience, like Paul and Silas, unifying each other even through the walls.

I have to remind myself of this, because sometimes my song seems too small to matter. But it does. And so does yours.

Your song matters. We do not know how close we are to a midnight of this pandemic. But the power of your voice does not diminish, especially if you are willing to give it to prayers of faith and songs of joy. Decide what you will do with your voice, and I’ll do it too. It’s dark out there.

There are prisoners listening.

 

 

 

Christmas…again?!?!?

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This is my husband Jon, last year, after having just stuffed our 20′ U-cut Christmas tree into the back of our truck, to be schlepped home, heaved out, lugged over, stuffed into, and winched up into the middle of our living room. We promised ourselves that this year, 2018, we will most certainly purchase a smaller tree. And like every year since we have been married, we will likely break that promise. I will no doubt complain about it as I do every year. And yet….

I am profoundly grateful to him for this.

It’s not that I am exactly a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas; it’s just that with the work I do, and the limited time there is to do it in December, and the gloom of Western Washington at this time of year, when it’s often dark more hours than it is light, and the fifty-thousand versions of “Here Comes Santa Claus” that seem to follow me wherever I go, and the clock ticking off the seconds until it’s all supposed to be over and done, well, I get a little….. Scroogey. And God bless Jon, he does not.

When I hear Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” floating over the speakers at the local QFC and the local RiteAids have dancing Santa figurines next to the 75% off plastic Halloween jack o lanterns, I start to get a teeny bit cranky. When Hallmark starts running ads for its whole new generation of cheesy movies with country western singers in their first acting roles ever, I tend to roll my eyes. When I start seeing red Starbucks cups in the trash cans, I heave a sigh.

Ok, I admit it. Christmas is NOT my favorite holiday. Humbug.

I could go into the usual rant about over commercialization of the holiday, or how we should rethink the ‘reason for the season’. I could point out all the terrible things that are happening all over the world, and how trivial it is to celebrate Christmas when the Earth and everyone in it appears to be on the brink of self destruction. I could condemn the inequalities of our capitalist system.  I could reflect upon the inaccuracies of celebrating Jesus’ birth in December when historical record would suggest it was actually in the spring. I could talk about the anthropological meaning of the Magi, and suggest that the whole story is just a metaphor for, I don’t know, puberty, or the existential crisis of the human soul. I could just pull the “things aren’t as good as they USED to be when I was young” card. But most of that would just be me flailing around for no good reason but the aerobic exercise of working up a good tantrum.

The simple fact is this: I resent Christmas’ tight-fisted hold on wonder. It’s so friggin cheap.

Let me explain.

If it’s Christmas, and you are over-decorating an evergreen, then you are in the spirit of things. If it’s March and you are doing the same thing, you are hopelessly weird. If it’s December and you are secretly leaving small presents on your coworkers desk, you are a secret Santa. If it’s June, you’ll probably hear from HR. If it’s Christmas and you are an adult catching snowflakes on your tongue, you’re being festive. If it’s January, someone is going to tell you to up your meds.

I get grumpy knowing that we seem collectively as a people to meter out our joy in such small doses and for such a short season of time. Is childlike delight only seasonal? Is a grateful heart only a winter thing? Is the spirit of generosity only supposed to overcome us once a year? Why only Christmas? Why only December? And I have to ask, what’s with the incredibly campy Hallmark movies, all of which are exactly the same plot and the same corny ending? Where are the homely people for God’s sake? Why is everyone in these movies 28 years old and gorgeous? I want to see the old ugly guy and the older ugly lady have a lovefest like you’ve never SEEN. (Ok, that’s just me being a film critic. I really do hate those movies. Sorry about that.)

Why not have a Christmas heart in October? Or June? On a Tuesday? At the dentist’s?

I’m not advocating year-round tree decimation. I’m not suggesting 12 months of overspending. I’m not recommending hot toddies on the 4th of July. It won’t be necessary to have garland on your banister on August 27th. I’m not even advocating twinkle lights 365 days a year, although if they’re LEDs then why the hell not?

I’m just wondering when we will give ourselves permission to be as ridiculously festive all our days as we are on Dec 25th?

I want reminders to be too generous of spirit all year round. I want to be encouraged to think the best of people every day of the year.  I want to be free to cavort in the rain just as much as in the snow, or make grass angels in the 80 degree summer just as much as snow angels when it’s below 30. I want to donate more money than I should even when nobody is standing outside the grocery store with a bell and a red bucket. I want to sing songs on people’s porches for no good reason. I want to decorate a tree with lights; even better if it’s the neighbor’s tree and I did it when they didn’t see me. I want to smile at strangers and not worry about them getting nervous or crossing the street.

I want all those people who only come to church once a year to know that if they came on any other day they’d still be welcome. And I really really want that to be true.

I guess it’s the conundrum of the holidays; for such a short predetermined time we all give ourselves permission to be more open, more accepting, more generous, more vulnerable, more approachable, more willing to believe. For a moment, we care more about the poor, or those in prison, or the marginalized who have so little. We open our wallets and our hearts. We look beyond our own lives. We dream. For one day. Or two if we’re really trying. We seek beauty, and we give it away. We sing for each other. We hope. For a little while we can laugh and cry and be sentimental and ridiculous. For a short time we can be children again.

I’m tired of that being limited to Dec 25th. I’m sick of it. It’s not enough. I want more. We need to break that chain. We need to say “Dammit, it’s Monday and it’s 12:42pm and I’m going to be generous NOW and you can’t stop me.” We need a revolution of the heart.

I’m ready to revolt.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independence Day

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So it’s July 4th, 2018 and the nation is celebrating its independence again, but this year, it feels to me pretty hollow. I remember as a child that I was amazed when the year 1970 rolled around. Between the duck-and-cover drills and the Vietnam war and the Watts riots I was pretty sure at the age of 9 that I’d never make it to 10. Because adults were crazy and the world was too. I remember the Iran contra crisis. Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The morning of 911. The morning after, when the flags started waving from front porches. I remember a lot.

But I don’t remember the nation being quite so overflowing with hate speech and public derision and shame as it seems to be right now. It’s so much louder now, I think. Perhaps my memory is flawed. Perhaps not.

I pray a lot these days, asking for extra guidance, more wisdom. I weigh my words very  carefully now, because I have heard “the truth in love” from people who are a lot like me, spoken in words that are anything but loving. I keep silent, because I now understand that there is so much I still don’t understand.  I don’t need to add to the empty rhetorical noise. Yet I worry that my silence is complicity, is me just wanting to be nice, safe. I worry about what’s going to happen to kids who are taken away from their parents here because their parents brought them to protect them from being taken away back where they came from. I watch the world spin until I can’t anymore and I close my eyes. I watch puppy videos and feel relieved and ashamed.

That does not feel like something to be celebrated.

There is a dangerous prayer I hear from time to time, from people who I think are a bit crazy: Lord, break our hearts for what breaks Yours. This scares me down to my toes. People of God, if we pray this, are we really ready to accept the pain of it? Broken hearts HURT. Are we ready to embrace the sheer confusion, chaos, anger and division we’ll face? I want to be, but I’m not sure I am. A prayer like this is a prayer for death. Death to self, death of our rosy dreams, death of blissful ignorance, death of privilege, death of any plans based on what we built for ourselves. And for those few who are called, death of body too. Oh man. I like being alive, and I like it on my terms. With brownies and ice cream.

And yet.

Death to self IS independence. Paul writes in Philippians 3:8: Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.

So if I dare to pray the prayer of broken hearts, along with those crazy people, I start to wade chest-deep through the garbage of this world on the way to gaining Paul’s independence. Yuck. If I pray this prayer I will probably lose my comfort in what I believe is the right culture, the right answers, the right side of the fence, the right interpretation of gospel, maaaaybe to gain the independence of someone who relies solely and completely on Jesus. If I have the cahones for it, which I presently do not. Which, if you read the passage carefully, is exactly the point. Paul hasn’t actually gained Christ completely. He has thrown it all away so that he could gain Christ, sometime soon. Paul is still seeing through a glass, darkly, and he knows it. The past is gone, the future is not here yet, and Paul is right in the middle, looking into a black glass of almost knowing, with a goofy smile on his face.

This all sounds ridiculous, overly-religious, self-important in itself. “Hi, I’m Karen, I’m working on gaining Christ, nice to meet you.” (Well, aren’t I SPECIAL.) I will most certainly fail to have complete reliance at the most critical moments, too, since my timing is problematic at best. And then I will be in the midst of spiritual garbage with nothing but a half-ass mirror.

Crap.

So, on this Independence Day, I hold this thorny passage from the annoying Paul and turn it over and over in my hands. It’s a diamond. It’s a piece of coal. It smells funny and it gleams. I think about it and I wonder. I turn it over and see a fuse. Like a bomb. Like a firework.

Fireworks are dangerous. They can scar you if you’re not careful. They’re loud, scary, not to be trifled with. They can blow up in your face. And they only reveal their astounding beauty once they’ve been literally burned to the ground.

I think about independence, what it means, not in a patriotic sense, or in a self-actualizing sense, but in a wholly different sense. In a holy, vertiginous sense. In Paul’s sense. Ir makes me dizzy.

And I stand, wobbling, on the edge of that precipitous prayer.

 

 

The Watermelon

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Every family has its stories. Tragedies, comedies, mysteries – each family has its share of stories of people on their best and worst behavior.

My family has a story about a watermelon.

My grandfather was widowed in his 50s and married a woman shortly after the death of his first wife. The woman’s name was Hazel. Hazel hadn’t had the happiest of childhoods and as a result, often felt left out, neglected or affronted by other people’s behavior. It was easy to wound her. Her default setting was self-negating, so it was difficult to truly connect.

One day, her stepson, my uncle, brought home a watermelon to share with the family. While I was not yet born, and can’t confirm the actual events of the day, the story has been told that for some reason, he did not specifically offer Hazel her own piece of watermelon. Maybe he was thoughtless. Being forgetful. Being spiteful? Maybe. Maybe he was simply assuming she’d take one for herself. Who knows? Her response was to stop speaking to him. And his response was to resent her silence, eat his fury, and write her off. For the rest of their lives, there was a tension whenever his name came up, or hers. Don’t mention that one! Completely unreasonable! Even after we had moved to the west coast and my uncle remained on the east coast, resentment’s ghost sat gloomily in the corner of the room. After all, there had been an affront, and you know what that means. Some things can’t be forgiven.

Now from the outside, this seems silly and small. One afternoon and a large piece of fruit should not steer the course of an entire life’s relationship. Yet it did.

I suppose the deepest wound really had nothing to do with the watermelon, but what it represented. Sharing food is elemental; we share with those we love and trust, we withhold from those we see as strangers. Somehow, that watermelon became a symbol of filial love, or lack of it; somehow, that watermelon got as big as the world and stretched both backwards and forwards in time, and drew a shadow over all of it. And neither my uncle nor my grandmother could ever find a way to step out from under the shadow.

I see this happen a lot, and it’s always desperately sad. I saw it a few weeks ago when a man decided to sit out in the lobby of the church and miss the entire service because he could not comes to terms with the woman sitting in the pew in front of him, holding a go-cup of coffee. She didn’t know him. He didn’t know her. He knew somehow that the woman in front of him wasn’t doing anything intentionally wrong, nor was she in any other way being distracting. She was singing the hymns, reading the prayers, responding in the same way as himself. But there it was, in her hand. He knew he had a choice – to reprimand her, or to ignore it and continue to worship. He knew that a reprimand would only bring embarrassment to both of them; to her, for being so thoughtless as to have a beverage in a cup, and to him for being the cranky old man who had to point out her obvious flaw.  He knew he didn’t want to do that. That would be awkward for both of them. Yet he found he also could not ignore the coffee, which represented to him a profound lack of awareness or grace.

And here’s where it gets interesting. At some level his discomfort grew to such a level that he left. He did not simply move to another pew, although there were many open and available. He didn’t choose to stand in the back. He left the sanctuary entirely. He exiled himself to the lobby. While his wife continued to worship inside. He left the service, the prayers, and his wife.

Why?

I think I understand. It was the shadow of the watermelon, looming overhead like a bloated zeppelin, threatening the skies.

Hazel already believed that she would never gain the love of her stepson after the death of his mother. She believed it so much that there was nothing he could do to reassure her, and everything he could do to reaffirm the chasm. Small imagined slights became fights. Small moments became epic battles of the will, retold and retold again. For the rest of their lives, she and he forgot any of the simple kindnesses that they might have done for one another. “You don’t care,” they said to one another, in every look, in every silence, in every missed opportunity. They blocked each other out, made it impossible to give or receive. And when 3000 miles finally separated them, they took that resentment and carved it hard and deep into stone.

I believe this man in the lobby might be tempted to do the same. If at some level he already believes that the woman, or others like her, will never understand or respect God the way he does, he begins to draw the line. If she can’t understand and pray to  God in the same way he does, then she probably can’t understand him, either. Maybe his wife can tolerate it, but he can’t. There are limits, after all. Day after day, in small ways, he relives the smell of  her coffee, watches the steam rise up from the cup in his mind, and begins to assign it a mythical symbolism. That coffee cup is disrespect. Next time, someone who looks like her will come by, and he will wonder if she drinks coffee in front of Jesus, too. If she even goes to church at all. He will remember that he had no choice but to leave. She made him leave. No choice but to sit outside, and stew, and resent. What else could he do? And pretty soon, regardless of what his wife says, he will stop coming to that church entirely.  Just like the last one he left. The last one was too full of unfamiliar hymns. This one, too full of coffee.

So – should the woman have left her coffee outside? Should my uncle have given Hazel a watermelon slice? Maybe yes. Maybe no. I don’t know. But was the reaction to these small grievances in balance to the perceived fault?

Should we expect the people around us to be acceptable to us at all times in order to be in relationship with them? Do we need to retreat from the risk? Or if we stay, what happens when they inevitably fail us, as we in turn fail them? Do we move then to another seat? Another pew? Another coast?

God does not exile us over watermelons and cups of coffee. God does not insist that we read each other’s minds and always respond proactively to each other’s unspoken desire. God does not even ask us to correct each other, except when there is first a framework of love and relationship, and then only sparingly. God draws no lines, expects us to live outside the lines entirely, and that makes us crazy. Crazy enough to walk away.

But God does not want us to walk away. Because when we do, we lose so much more than just a moment of prayer time, or a bite of refreshment. We lose the opportunity to know and to be known, to trust and to be trusted, to forgive and to be forgiven.

We lose more than a piece of watermelon.

We lose a piece of ourselves.

 

 

Which Hand?

There’s an old trick that kids play with each other, in which one kid has a penny in his hand, then waves his hands back and forth, then puts both of them behind his back and says, “Which hand?” If the other kid guesses correctly which hand the penny is being held in, he wins. But often, the first kid has time to swap out the penny to the OTHER hand just before the reveal, so HE wins. If the second kid never catches on, the first one can win this every single time.

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My father passed away a little more than two weeks ago. I have not yet cried over this; in fact, with the exception of a vague, achy and persistent weariness, I have not felt much at all. Yet every night in my dreams, I am losing something, Sometimes I have lost my car in a giant parking lot; in other dreams, I have lost my locker combination, or my dog, or my wallet, or, in one peculiar dream, a vial of T-Rex DNA.

At first glance, these two paragraphs have nothing to do with each other, and neither one seems to have anything at all to do with church. And yet, they do.

I believe my heart is playing “Which Hand” with itself, by switching up my grief with weird dreams of losing random things of great importance. Especially the DNA. My dad was 95, and while that does not qualify him for having lived through the Jurassic period, it does seem to suggest that he was part of a past we’re not getting back.

And so it is with church. When I come across an older person who is standing aside, watching with forlorn amazement at the torn jeans and crop tops walking by, I begin to get it. When I hear a middle aged man talking about how it used to be quiet in church when HE was a kid, I begin to get it. And when I see a teenager sullenly ignoring the group of adults who have dragged him into their cheery post-church conversation, I begin to get that, too.

We can’t choose what hurts us, but we can choose how we mourn it. And often we do it without even realizing it. It’s called transference, but you could just call it the penny trick on steroids.

A mother begins to fear that her opinion matters less to her adult daughter these days, and so she sees the torn jeans and feels an odd resentment and loss. An older man worries that he’s not as strong as he used to be, and so the sound of boisterous energy and laughter begins to feel like a taunt. A teenager who suddenly finds himself less adorable and more prone to adult mistakes certainly doesn’t want to stand around with adults who are pretending they all know exactly what they’re doing about everything.

Which hand is the penny in?

It takes courage to lay out your wounds on the table like a deck of cards and take stock. They’re not pretty. Some of them ooze. It takes a strong stomach. And it’s not just a one-time deal. It requires daily, sometimes hourly dedication. It can be depressing. It can be daunting. It can give your hands a cramp, keeping that penny behind your back and switching it back and forth, back and forth, between your closed fists. Don’t be surprised if you fail, and often.

But the good news is, once you see the cards, and once you feel the sting of the pain, other things start to hurt less. The holey jeans become mysterious, but not insulting. The conversation may still be weird, but it’s not boring a hole in your chest. The laughter might actually make YOU laugh, too. It helps to know that we all have that deck of cards, we all are holding pennies. Nobody gets off free.

I have no advice for this process. I certainly can’t say I’ve mastered it, as I continue to dream about fossil DNA. But I can say, on the rare occasion when I kept the penny in the same hand and let my friend win, it wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was a relief.

Are you flammable?

I am. I can’t think of anyone who isn’t. When I watch the news and see the injustice in the world, I get hot around the collar. When I hear about the bullying that goes on in schools, and the racist comments that get bandied about on the internet, I get mad. When someone says something disparaging about children, or the elderly, or the disabled, I get righteously indignant. Actually, I take that back – better people than me get righteously indignant. I just get royally pissed. I create brilliant soliloquies inside my mind that are so compelling that the people I am angry at literally fall at my feet in wonder and penitence and sin no more. And when that doesn’t work, inside my head, I put them in fast cars so I can shoot out their tires and send them skidding into giant piles of manure. The worst of the worst die in a massive pile of poo. And then there’s a laugh track. Yeah, I am that arrogant inside my own head, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of legitimately horrible things in this world to get angry about, and I hope that I never get so cynical or so tired that I stop caring about those things. War. Social injustice. Poverty. The abuse of the natural world. These are things that deserve wrath, to move us forward and towards what is right. If I were to become too jaded to react anymore, it would be a loss of my humanity, to be mourned over just as much as if I lost my intellect, or my joy, or my health. I didn’t reach the age I am now just to become someone who is, God help us all, uselessly NICE.

And yet.

It’s much too easy for me to cherish those righteous, furious, punishing thoughts in my mind. They multiply like rabbits, and sometimes I cuddle them like rabbits. They are also pretty trinkets that make large booming sounds that thrill me like fireworks. They wrap around the inside of my head to insulate me from the discomfort of compassion. I almost love them. They give me a false sense of strength, of being a justice-seeker. They steer me dangerously close to Pharisee territory.  When I wander through the landscape of those thoughts, I am always the good guy, and I always correctly identify and vanquish the bad guys. I know this, because in that landscape, all the bad guys look and act nothing like me. Those thoughts are hypnotic, and even when I don’t act on them, they live behind my eyes.

Which brings me to their wicked little offspring – the glare.

Throughout the years, I have liked and loved people who at one time or another told me that they could never enter a church because – and here’s the weird similarity of their statement – “it would go up in flames.” Now you and I both know that the likelihood of someone stepping across the threshold of a church and it spontaneously bursting into flames is remote at best, unless the place is ancient and someone has just thrown a bale of hay on the devotional candle rack.

But upon closer inspection, there could still be a fearsome fire to walk through. Something like this:

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I’m not saying that the Queen of England is going to show up at your church anytime soon and lay one of these on the parishioners. But there IS this face in the congregation somewhere, especially if you are differently dressed, or older, or younger, or darker, or fatter, or skinnier, or Other than the rest of the folks sitting there in their seats, self-assigned for the past 10 years. And if I were on the receiving end of it, I would definitely feel a little crispy around the edges.

My guess is that my friends who joke about the conflagration of hell at the church doors are really trying to be tactful for my delicate Christian-skinned sake. They’re not worried about flames, they’re worried about the queenly glare.  Because they’ve already been on the receiving end of it. And it ain’t pretty.

That’s what scares me. That these kind people are sparing me the embarrassment of calling it out. Not that the Queen of England can make that face. But that I can. And have. This look has shown up on MY face. It makes me wonder how many people’s hair I have singed just with a glance, and then, thinking nothing of it, moving on. After all, it was just a glance, right?

I am flammable. Rats. The thought of it makes me burn, but not with anger. With regret.

Is it really such a big deal?  I mean, I’m not robbing a bank here. I haven’t killed anyone. Maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe it is. Look at that expression and imagine it directed at you after you have just lost a job. Or a relationship. Or your idea of who you used to be. Or something you loved more than yourself. Or your self respect. And you walk into a church thinking maybe, just maybe, there’s something there for you this one time.

And you get this.

It’s going to take me the rest of my life to wean myself off of the pleasures of secretly righteous thoughts, and I have to be honest – I probably will never completely succeed. They are so damn seductive. It takes a lot of maturity to be able to tell the difference between the right kind of anger over what is damaging and evil in this world, and the wrong kind of anger when someone doesn’t live up to my expectations and invades my personal space with their vulnerable humanity. It’s too easy to have flamethrower in hand.

But I’ve got to try. I owe it to – well, myself, and you and God. So I ask of those around me – first of all, please know that my failings are not reflective of the God I am supposed to be serving. I may be Judgey McJudgersons, but He’s not. And secondly, please accept my heartfelt apologies for the heat of the glares that I and others have let loose over the years. Especially the bitter ones I reflected at myself in the mirror and then shot back at the rest of the world. Those are by far the worst. Nobody deserves them. Not even me. Certainly not you.

Yes, I am flammable. You might not want to put your asbestos suit away just yet. But on the journey towards being a real human being and not just a facsimile of one, I promise to not shoot out your tires with my mind.

 

Easter Parade

In the spring of 1971, when I was nine years old,  my mind was occupied with visions of large plastic baskets filled with shiny cellophane grass and, hopefully, all the milk chocolate and jelly beans in the entire world. Easter was just around the corner, and life was about to get delicious.

I also knew in the back of my mind that the adults were preparing for something religious, something which experience had taught me was going to require me to be uncomfortably kneeling for large portions of the morning. No matter. Eventually, mass would be over, and I would be given free rein to search about the house until the coveted basket was discovered, and I could spend the rest of the afternoon happily raising my glucose levels. I had my Easter priorities, as the adults had theirs. And theirs, mysteriously, was expressed in fashion.

Easter, it seemed, was all about The Holy Outfit. Dad and my older brothers were grudgingly shoehorned into pinstriped suits with starched Oxford collars around clip on ties. Shoes had to be polished and shiny enough that you could see a reflection in the bulge where the little toe rubbed. Mom’s new floral dress was suitably modest and mid-calf, while I was given a starchy flouncy little number that itched the backs of my knees. My white hat with the daisy ribbon, made from the same woven plastic as the basket would be, was firmly bobby pinned to my head. Even the priest at the altar was dressed in shining white. Holiness glared off his stole like sun on a windshield.

Once at church, I could see that other families were in similar standing – festooned in taffeta and silk, rayon and polyester,  stealthily rubbing ankles, necks and wrists to relieve the itch of new clothes from Sears and JC Penney.  Men took their hats off, women ran a hand alongside their hair, checking that their hats would survive a cat 5 hurricane. The poor men and women with allergies took out new starched handkerchiefs to ward off the fragrance of lilies. Respect and decorum in every row. Yes, I thought, this is Easter.

And it was, for a long time. And then, it seems suddenly, it wasn’t.

As I watched the crowds shuffle in last Sunday, I saw very few Easter bonnets, but I did see baseball caps. Some suits, but an equal number of khakis and jeans. Some tee shirts, some sneakers, too. A scuffed pair of Birkenstocks and bare toes. Some kids with cell phones, texting in their seats. One impressive beige Stetson. And so many sleeveless dresses, some with visible bra straps! My parents, God bless them, would have been terribly confused. What Easter looks like this?

And then it occurred to me to ask the question more deeply. What, indeed, does Easter look like? And from whose perspective?

From the outside world, it looks like a Sunday with reservations for brunch. From the pew, it looks like a religious observance that faithful people try to bring all the family to at least once a year. From the kids, it looks like a waiting game for plastic eggs and candy. But what about from God’s perspective? Does it give him joy? Is he bored? Disappointed? Triumphant?

I’d like to think it gives him glory, but it’s more likely it just makes him chuckle. We are working so hard to earn his love, get some brownie points, do the right thing, be respectful, protect the sanctity of our worship, praise his name, get the notes right, remember the salient points of the sermon, clear the parking lot for the next hour, pick up the kids from Sunday school, be on time for brunch, and above all, check the “holy” box for the day.

“Let the little children come to me,” he said, “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

I’d like to think that I am more mature now than I was at age nine, but in fact, in God’s eyes, I probably haven’t changed all that much, and I suspect neither have any of us. Like a little kid, I still want to be known for being good, for having the correct answer, or attitude, or even the right Easter outfit. I want the holy pat on the head of approval. Like a little kid, I look around, not wanting to be stared at but desperately wanting to be noticed for somehow being RIGHT. I want everything to be fair, and familiar. I want it to look the same as it always did. I want it frozen in time. If I had to wear an itchy dress, well then, those little girls now should, too, right? And if my brother had to wear a suit and tie, why does your brother get to wear a baseball cap and jeans?

Hence, the chuckle of God. God is a father who knows his kids very well – and loves us anyway. We’re the little children, coming to him and bumping gracelessly into each other when we come into the church. We’re even thinking about lunch afterwards, which is not a far cry from my nine-year-oldish obsession with chocolate. We’re the ones looking backwards with nostalgia and forward with dread, and God is sitting right here in the middle of it, bemused by our confusion. “Kids, why be in the past, when its gone? Why hurry into a future you have no control over? Why not just be here, in the warm welcome of My presence?” And much as I hate to admit it, I’m pretty sure he also doesn’t really care what we’re wearing, anymore than he cared what the kids were wearing as the apostles tried to shoo them off his lap. He made it pretty clear from the beginning: nobody’s got it absolutely right, and everybody’s  welcome.

Easter, I think, looks like a family gathering of kids who are deeply loved and haven’t got a clue. And yet, he says of such as these is the kingdom of heaven.

So I tell myself, relax. Don’t bust your brain trying to understand. Settle in. Take a deep breath. Cut yourself some slack. Cut those folks some slack, too. The glory of the Lord surrounds us, even when taffeta and pinstripe does not. I didn’t wear my Easter hat this year, and somehow, he is still risen indeed. It’s not fair, but I am still welcome and so are you, and so are they. There’s plenty of room, so skootch in, we’ll all fit just fine.

After all, the Easter parade has many members, and all of them are beautiful.