Abusing God’s Name

…what if in all our focusing on cursing we have missed the entire point? What if we dare not take God’s life, the life that God breathes into this world, in vain?

III. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.

Onto the Third Commandment – you shall not misuse the name of the Lord. It is, in many ways, a continuation of the first two commandments. For again, we are ensuring that we honor who God is. That we not abuse who God is meant to be in our lives. And just like the first two commandments, this one has often been misunderstood.

Why? Probably because the phrasing of the commandment is very, very difficult to translate. It is almost Presbyterian – there is a range of meaning that is acceptable. Here are a few ways the commandment can be translated:

  •                   Do not use the name as if it has no significance.
  •                   Do not use the name as with irreverence.
  •                   Do not take the name in vain.
  •                   Do not use the name thoughtlessly.
  •                   Do not misuse the name.

In other words, we should be extremely mindful of how we use God’s name. For the ancient people, they knew there were two key places this would play out. The first and main way was when they were taking oaths. And the second, the one we all think of, is being careful not to abuse the name in curses. 

In terms of oaths, God actually doubles down on this one a bit later on in the list with the commandment against bearing false witness. However, our commandment today is reminding us that when we swear by God’s name, we should hold ourselves to the highest level of veracity. Of truthfulness. Of faithfulness. 

Now, an interesting fact from the ancient world – in the days of Christ, there were men who would find a way around the gravity of oaths. They would take people for a ride down some path of vision of a better world and swear by anything and everything up to the very name of God. But never actually the name. And then they would break the oath because it was not actually made by God. However, Jesus was not fooled by these charlatans. What he taught us is that our God is everywhere. And our word should only be given, our oath, when we mean it. With truth behind it. It should not matter if we are holding a bible or if God’s name is uttered. And with God’s name’s meaning, that is doubly true.

But before we talk about that, let us look at the second part of what is prohibited in abusing God’s name. Many of us think that this is a prohibition of cursing. On some level, we would love that, wouldn’t we? It would give us an excuse to be holier than thou when people say things that we think are inappropriate. Now, it is suggesting we beware of using God’s name flippantly in our everyday speech – which does mean that certain curse words might be not the best idea in most contexts.

However, what is it that I always teach about sin? Sins are those things that break our relationships – with God, with each other and with ourselves. They are rarely so simply defined as this is consistently a sin and this is not. And our utterances are no different.

For what is protected in the midst of this commandment is our prayer and praise of the Lord our God. When we invoke the name of the Lord. When we call upon God. And when we cry out in times of trouble.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are moments in my life, when the name of God is the only thing that will do in my prayers when I receive devastating news. And it was my mother-in-law, one of the most faithful Christians I have ever known, who taught me that at times cursing is the only form of prayer that will do. Because there are moments when it hurts too much. When there is nothing else that can express our distress. And I am convinced that when we cry out in the agony of those times, our God will understand.

Which brings us back to the far more important part of our conversation this morning. Let’s talk about the actual name of God. For what is prohibited is that we not abuse the name of God, right? Perhaps we should consider what it is. So, go back to Exodus 3. God’s name is translated as “I am.” The root of the word is life. BeingExistence. One translation of the prohibition in this commandment is that we should not use God’s name for “unreality.” Which begs the question, what if in all our focusing on cursing we have missed the entire point? What if we dare not take God’s life, the life that God breathes into this world, in vain?

We hear the judgment coming at the end of the commandment – the only commandment with this statement. It brings to mind other moments in scripture when God sits in judgment over those who have not followed God’s commandments.

In my mind, I hear a very familiar story. When the Son of Man comes in glory to judge the living and the dead and separates them as sheep and goats. He tells them that he was hungry, and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. And in all these things, the people either cared for him or did not in the very least of the people around them. In those messy situations of life that require presence. That require courage. That require a willingness to live openly as those who are willing to give their lives in the service of their neighbors. For if God is life, and ours is a God of justice, then when we ignore places in life where life is in danger and justice is not present, we are taking God’s very name in vain.

Yesterday, on the newest of our national holidays, my house was filled with the smell of specially chosen cooking food and the sounds of movies and special children’s books. You see, though there are members of my family for whom Juneteenth was much more a cause for celebration, I very willingly acknowledge that it is not my holiday. Instead, it is an opportunity for a whole lot of learning and conversation. 

So my sons and I spent the day watching and listening to stories. Some of them easier and harder than others. They are four (five now), so they went in and out of paying attention, as I knew they would this year, which is a fine place to begin. 

At one point, when I had the movie Selma on, my son Lucien was paying attention right at the moment the little girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He asked me what had just happened. And I explained that a bomb had killed those little girls. He asked, “who would do that?” Yes, who would do that to four little girls. Little children?

You see, we are having these conversations now. Yes, even with children as young as mine. For if young children of color their age are old enough to experience racism, then mine are old enough to learn about it. And from my family members and friends who have children that young, yes, that is still a thing. Their lives are still disrupted because of the color of their skin. Maybe not and usually as openly as they were 150 or even sixty years ago. But there is still injustice in our midst. There are still stories to be told and fights that must be fought if we are ever to see a world where all of our children can truly have the freedom, justice, and life that God created us for.

So, what do we do with this commandment, then? We remember that if God’s name means “life,” then life is sacred. Then we are meant to feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger, even the strange ones and the outcast ones. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick and make sure they have what they need to be well. Visit and ensure the care of those in prison. Loose the bonds of injustice. Let the oppressed go free. Bring the homeless poor into housing. To satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Then our light shall rise through the shadows, making any gloom like the noonday. For our word is not merely what we say or the oaths we give. It is the very testimony we give with our lives to the God who loves us. And the right use we make of God’s name, the ways we make it known through all the earth, the reality of the kingdom of God we make visible, is far more important than any prohibition we get twisted in our minds. That is how we live out the third commandment this day and always. It is just that simple. And it is just that hard.

God in a Box

We are to open our eyes and minds and hearts to who God truly is: something far more vast and wonderful than we can possibly imagine. A love more powerful than any force on this earth. And a creative force that chose to manifest that love in its own image in us. All of us…

II. You shall not make for yourself an idol.

At my home church in St. Louis, they install paintings of the senior pastors within the church after they have retired from ministry there. However, while I was in college, the senior pastor at the time insisted that his painting be commissioned during his final five years, so that it could be placed in the beautiful building renovation he was helping to accomplish. Well, one morning a little girl was walking with her mother to worship through the gathering space where the painting was displayed. She looked up at the visage and said, “mommy, is that God?” Dumbfounded, I do not think her mother was sure how to respond. I think some of us fellow pastors, knowing ourselves, probably might have said, no, but sometimes we might fall into a trap of thinking so.

The second commandment of the ten is in fact, a continuation of the first commandment – you will have no other “little-g” gods before God. In reality, there are two forms of idolatry that are prohibited here. The first is obvious: we are not meant to make images of anything or anyone else in all of creation in order that we might worship it.

The second is a bit more daunting: we are not meant to make any images of God. In ancient times, this meant that artwork was, rather obviously, forbidden for fear of how it might lead us into unhealthy ways of life. However, if we unpack what is at the heart of this commandment, I think we will find that what God is asking has far more to do with our hearts than any piece of artistry that adds beauty to God’s creation.

Let’s take these two forms of idolatry in reverse. Starting first with images of God. The problem with creating images of God, especially if we consider them authoritative in any way, is that we are putting God into a box. We limit God. We prevent God from self-defining who God is going to be. And God has said from the very beginning that God is who God is. “I am who I am” is God’s name. What is more, what the ancient people of Israel understood, is that it is God’s own Word that defines who God is. The Word spoken at creation. The Word that came to Moses to save the people. And we know, the Word that became flesh.

But who is the Word? You know. We know. Because we follow that Word. And no, I do not mean the Bible. The bible is merely a written witness to the true Word of God. The true Word of God is Jesus Christ – the Word that was in the beginning and was with God and was God. The Word that brought all creation into being. The Word that defines who God is and who gives definition to all things. We must never give into the idolatry of thinking that Jesus is not our guide and guard in all things. It is the Christ – Jesus’s life, words, actions – through which we check everything in our life. Including scripture. Anything less, at least for us as followers of the Christ, will mean that we are not following the God we claim to serve.

And what has Jesus taught us about the God of all creation? That our God is expansive. Our God is bigger. Our God is more creative. More imaginative. More wondrous. Simply more than all generations had previously understood. Most importantly, Jesus taught us that our God is love. A love that does miraculous things that boggle the human mind. A love that seeks justice in all of human relationships. A love that will move mountains to ensure that every single person is welcomed back into the fold of God’s family. That is who Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, has taught us our God is.

The idolatry we tend to run into with God these days is trying to keep God in a box that is far too small. In a place we can control. Looking the way we want God to look. Acting like us. Sometimes it is artwork that does this, but far more often it is our hearts and minds that we keep closed around images of God that are not who our God really is.

Let’s talk about the other form of idolatry. It is true we tend not to make too many physical “little-g” gods out of wood and stone or clay these days. Although we do still have an affinity for bronze cows somewhere in the back of our minds I think. But again, this form of idolatry has far less to do with a love of artistry and far more to do with our hearts holding on to material things.

Remember what we learned last week? These days, our “little-g” gods still exist. They just tend not to be anthropomorphic. However we are often still choosing things we shouldn’t. Our possessions, our labels, our security, our status, our power, our beauty, our control. It is not that having some amount of security, of having a house and a car, of having some clothes, of having food security, and safety are bad things. Yet, we often grasp and grasp until we begin to choose those material things over the people we are meant to serve. To care for. To help. When we do that, those things become idols. They take the place where God is meant to be ruling in our lives.

Another form of idol worship we have in this world? When we look to anyone living on this earth as our Lord and Savior. There is an old joke that pastor nominating committees sometimes need to be reminded that the people they are looking at are not Superman and they are not Jesus – because we cannot save the church. That’s God’s job. But this applies to a far bigger picture than just individual pulpits. Anytime we place our faith in a human figure, especially one that has laid aside all that our God stands for, we are worshipping an idol. And ours is a jealous God – we should be mindful of our actions.

So what is meant to happen when we stop worshipping the idols that so tantalizingly tempt our focus? Who keep our minds in boxes? Who limit our viewpoints and sometimes have us wondering if we are seeing God in all the wrong places? 

Then we will start seeing the world through heaven’s eyes. We will start seeing the image of God that God’s own hands have wrought that is walking all around us.

As God asked us not to make graven images, God had already placed the image of the Triune God everywhere in our midst. In us. God’s own self had made us. Breathed life into us. Made us to love and be loved.

But we tend to forget that. We lose sight of that image in ourselves and in everyone around us. As we shrink the vision of who God is, we also shrink who God can make us to be, let alone anyone else. And then, people can become commodities instead of God’s beautiful, living incarnations meant to create love and life here on earth. 

Far too often in this life we forget what is most essential. We forget what it is that God wants us to remember. We are to have nothing else in our lives before God. Not “little-g” gods. No idols of wood or stone or clay. No boxes that keep God contained. We are to open our eyes and minds and hearts to who God truly is: something far more vast and wonderful than we can possibly imagine. A love more powerful than any force on this earth. And a creative force that chose to manifest that love in its own image in us. All of us. Every single other human on this earth. You will never look into the eyes of someone who God does not love. And the way that we truly worship our God, this immense and profligate God is by living as God’s love dictates, every moment and every breath of our lives. It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard.

No Other Gods

…it is our job, to work, with all that we have, to stop placing other gods where God should be in our lives. To start letting God’s Love rule.

As has been my tradition from years past, I am going to be posting my previous year’s #summersermonseries here. Slightly edited. Let’s see how it speaks to what is happening now…

I. You shall have no other gods before me.

My senior year of high school, I had the chance to travel to Europe with some of my schoolmates over spring break. We went several places, among them Heidelberg, the place where my great-grandfather, Lucien McElwee, my first son’s namesake, studied medicine in the nineteenth century. The big feature on that stop for us was the visit to Heidelberg castle. It was remarkable in many ways. But the thing I remember most was our visit to the basement. 

Traveling with us on that adventure were two young men named Ryan and in the basement of the castle they found something that changed their lives forever. After walking down a long hallway, we entered a room, about the size of the church parlor, that was filled, floor to ceiling with a wine barrel. And the Ryans had found their new god. Then we went through a door at the far end of the room and entered a bigger room, about the size of the chapel and the kitchen. Again, it was filled, floor to ceiling with an even larger wine barrel. And the Ryans had found another new god. That is, until, we went through the final door at the end of that room and entered an even larger room, about a third the size of our sanctuary. Again, filled with the biggest wine barrel of all. I am still amazed that the Ryans didn’t fall on the floor. 

Today we start a journey that will take us further into the depths of the covenant that our God made with the children of Israel all those millennia ago. A covenant written in stone, but also that was first etched out onto the hearts of those who had been drawn up out of slavery in Egypt. Saved from the oppression that had bound them. From the task masters that had bent their backs with impossible feats of work. It is that “I am” who delivered them and brought them out. Whatever other shared history God and these people may have together – with Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even with Joseph the great – God is basing this covenant on this one mighty act.

Why? Because this is the moment that will define who they are. Their years in Egypt and their deliverance from them will shape and mold these people and their way of life forever after.

With only a few exceptions, it is not the lives or the stories of the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs that create the established practices of the people. For though they were of one blood, and marked themselves as such, it was still easy enough to forget the primordial stories. To forget who God was in the days gone by. Remember, even Pharaoh forgot who Joseph was when the people grew too numerous.

Yet, they knew that their God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had acted before. Maybe God would act again.

And act God did. God brought the people out of bondage and led them to Horeb, the mountain of God. 

There, in spite of what the people did, God still chose to make covenant with them. And it is the first ten commandments, the foundation of the law that Moses is repeating again to the people here, before they enter into the promised land.

And the foundation of all ten is this: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Remember who I am. 

Then… you shall have no other gods before me.

In fact, the Hebrew here is a bit more complicated than it looks. Hebrew almost always is (which is part of the reason I usually preferred Greek, but I digress). The word translated as “before me,” could actually be translated one of four ways: “before me,” “beside me,” “besides me,” or “over against me.” In other words, there are a lot of places we can keep these other gods. And frankly, the scholars can’t quite decide which translation is best. Though for our understanding, the two that will help us most are either the one used in our translation or “besides me,” which really means that we would put another god in God’s place. Because quite honestly, that is what we are most in danger of doing, isn’t it?

Now, another key thing we need to remember when we look at this text: our God was not the only god on the block. We are talking about ancient times when gods were a dime a dozen and ours was simply the God of the Israelites. Monotheism was not really a concept on the horizon yet. And the Bible as we know it, even the first five books of it where this passage comes from, hadn’t been written down and wouldn’t be for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So God is quite serious when saying this. The people will be surrounded by a plethora of choices. God wants them to stay true.

Why? Because this is the God who saved them. Brought them up out of slavery. This is the God that loves them more than anything.

Times have certainly changed. We have come to know that ours is the God of the universe. The God of the people of Israel has revealed God’s self to be far bigger and far more loving than any could have possibly imagined in the very beginning. A God who would still have us have no other gods before God. And you might say, well, that’s easy. We don’t have other gods in this culture, right? Hmmm.

Let’s consider that for a minute. Of all the ancient gods available to the children of Israel, the two that would be most readily accessible when they came into the promised land were Baal and Mammon. You may have heard of them, but I bet that you probably do not know what they represent. The reason they were so dangerous is because of the lure they offered. Baal was the god of plentiful providence and fertility. Good crops, big family, prosperity in this life – you know who to thank. And Mammon, well, Mammon represented wealth, money, and possessions. But we do not have any kind of hang ups on prosperity, wealth or protecting our possessions in this life, right?

Here’s the thing, we may not think of them in anthropomorphic terms, human-like bodies, the way the ancients did, but we still have plenty of little-g gods we worship in our world. Wealth and prosperity are only two. Beauty. Power. Intoxication. Strength. Superiority. Fear. Lust. Hatred. And here’s the one we really don’t want to admit: ourselves. 

There are plenty of ways were put other gods before or in place of where God should be in our life. Most often and most insidiously our own selves and we forget that we are not meant to control almost anything. We forget whose we are and in whose image we are made. What we are made for. And that makes all the difference.

So here is the heart of the matter, the very beginning of the commandments that will center all of the work we will do together this summer: our God is one. Our God is the one who saves. Who seeks us always. Who brought us out of bondage – not only the bondage to an Egyptian king long ago, but even the bondage to our own fallen selves. The ways we break ourselves, each other and the world. Because God loves us, no matter what. So it is our job, to work, with all that we have, to stop placing other gods where God should be in our lives. To start letting God’s Love rule. It is just that simple. And it is just that hard. 

Wrapping them in T-P

There are a lot of questions everyone keeps asking. All good questions. Excellent ones, even. Here’s the one I will throw on the pile: what would Jesus say?

You know, I try to avoid directly addressing certain topics. I actively and intentionally do not go after individual politicians – even if Jesus and his cousin did. And I am always wary of certain subjects because I worry they might cross an arbitrary line somewhere. Maybe. Sure – I’m going to pretend that’s the excuse I was going with.

Both personally, as a mother, and vocationally, as a minister of Jesus Christ – I can no longer remain silent on this particular issue. The tipping point probably should have been hundreds of people ago. Yet somehow the second-deadliest school shooting on record, also being the third shooting in less than a week, finally did it. Oh, and it was at an elementary school. And the shooter was just eighteen, which means though the media keeps referring to him as an adult, which I get he legally was, he was also just a baby himself.

I have watched my newsfeed these last twenty-four hours in horror, like all of you. And I can feel myself in shock. Not surprise. But in the kind of shock that I feel when one of my close relatives dies. That numbness and calm that takes over so that you can function, while inside your body, mind, and soul are screaming and thrashing in utter agony at what is happening.

There are a lot of questions everyone keeps asking. All good questions. Excellent ones, even. Here’s the one I will throw on the pile: what would Jesus say?

That’s what my brain has been turning over and over these long hours. I mean after he caught the families and the wounded and those caring for others in the aftermath. I mean, once the smoke had cleared. What would Jesus say to offer any sort of balm in this circumstance?

They’re in a better place doesn’t even begin to cut it.

I will wipe away all your tears… eventually? Yeah, might be a helpful statement to make in like a decade.

Vengeance, not really a healthy thing. And it belongs to God, which is Jesus, too sure. But that wasn’t his M.O.

Does anyone remember what actually happened the night before he died? Well, little refresher course here: the armed guards come to arrest Jesus in the garden and one of his followers picked up a sword to defend him. In the midst of a fight, they cut off a guard’s ear. Rather than joining his followers, Jesus stops the fight, heals the guard, and says this: those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And then gives himself over to be killed in one of the worst ways imaginable without a fight.

On top of Jesus’s direct direction, throughout the scriptures, especially in the prophets, we hear God’s reaction to what happens when we put our own desires, our own possessions, our own wares above the needs of or just above people. God continues to detail how much our hands are covered in the blood of the innocent and how Rachel is weeping for her children.

So here is my take: Jesus would likely look at us with disappointment. That of all the “least of these” and “little ones” we could choose to ignore, our children are by far the most innocent and in need of our protection. Remind us that adding more weapons into this fight will help nothing, as God has been trying to tell us for a very long time. He would probably tell us that it is ours to do everything we can to safeguard and preserve their safety in an open and healthy environment. That should be our number one priority. They do not need more walls or gates. They need a world where they are not necessary. And last, he would likely ask us if his cross has really taught us nothing in two thousand years?

Our present situation requires concrete action. Supporting organizations working for change. Voting to make that change. Working to bring change where you personally can.

Because wrapping our children in thoughts and prayers is about as useful as wrapping them in toilet paper.

The Stories We Tell

It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard. But the truth is this: it’s just that important…

When I was a little girl, I grew up watching Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Then eventually Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. But before the age of 10, all the princesses looked like me and came from Europe, like my ancestors. Come to think of it, even She-ra, Jem, and Barbie looked like me. They were the stories I grew up with (in addition to Looney Toons and Mickey Mouse, of course).

Then, somehow, when Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Esmerelda, Mulan, Emperor’s New Groove, and the other next generation movies began to come out, it never occurred to me that something might have been wrong with people of other cultures being at the center of attention (as an adult I’m extremely aware of the historical and other issues in a lot of these movies, but that’s not my point here). I just saw other humans with other cool stories from other parts of the world. New princesses and princes to imitate. Let’s roll, right?

Something tells me that there were a lot more conversations happening around me than I realized. Very likely not at my house. My mom would have killed them quickly since she was raised by a father, born in the 1910s, who had somehow understood that racism is both taught and ingrained – and that both are inherently wrong. However, in the world at large, I would bet that there was some backlash to Disney Co. suddenly branching out into the world of people of color. Telling stories beyond the European narrative that began their fortune.

I don’t want to debate Disney itself here. What I do want to say is this: the stories we place in front of our children matter. The backgrounds and nationalities of the heroines and heroes. The skin-tones and genders. The ways they love and the families in which they live. All of these things matter. Immensely. The more diverse and inclusive the grouping, the better. Think big picture. Remember that God loves wondrous variety and great adventures. For some reason that seems to be something everyone is forgetting these days.

And here is something I want everyone who has children who look like mine to think about: my little giants are currently in the most privileged group of people that exist – white boys. That could change in the future depending on a few factors, but some of it won’t.

So, in the meantime, we make sure that the majority of the movies they watch have heroines and heroes who are people of color. We ensure they see families in their movies and books that do not look like the “perfect” dream family – because guess what? Ours certainly doesn’t, and that is perfectly okay. We have books that break gender roles, encourage consent, and take on rape culture directly (and no, that does not mean we talk about sex – they’re five, thank you very much). We have storybooks with love stories that look different than traditional fairy tales. We have books about God that are so expansive some church’s heads would probably explode.

In our house, like my own family growing up, we do our best to call out hard truths when we see them. We don’t hide what’s actually happening in the world from our kids. We just figure out how to explain them in ways they might understand. Most importantly, we teach our children that every voice, every body, every human and their story matters. No matter who they are. That we are loved. And are made to love others.

It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard. But the truth is this: it’s just that important.

End the Stigma

…it is okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help.

Someone once wrote, “The strongest people are those who win battles we know nothing about.” For so long we have kept mental health hidden in the shadows, refusing to admit that its toll is as great, if not far greater than the struggles of physical health. Thankfully, however, in recent years, we have begun to bring these problems into the light so that we can end the stigma and ensure everyone has the help that they need.

What most people do not know about my family is that long before the Alzheimer’s took her out, my mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed anxiety, not to mention acute, situational depression. The anxiety was genetic. The depression came from the things that happened in her life, like say losing both of her husbands before she died. Losing her own mother to Alzheimer’s. Just to name a few of the things from over the years.

Guess what? I inherited a lot of the same struggles.

Starting with that anxiety. But since mine is diagnosed, it is also treated and does not control me. And I definitely have acute, situational depression from the things that have happened in my life. That list is long. A whole lot longer than my mom’s. Yet, as Elton John sings, I’m still standing, because I get help. I have an excellent therapist and doctors who keep an eye on me regularly.

You know what, though? There are still days and weeks and months when I’m not okay. Some I can predict. Some I can’t.

But it is okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help.

Because life is hard. It’s really, really difficult. A lot more of us know that then not.

And those of us who believe and trust in God, the smart ones of us realize that God gave us modern medicine and techniques and therapies as a gift. They are there for us to take advantage of so that we can be the very best versions of ourselves.

So this #mentalhealthawareness month, take a moment to share your story if you feel comfortable. End the stigma. Or, if you need to, take your first step in getting the help you need. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

Use Your Voice

For millennia, women’s bodies and what happens with and within them have been a taboo subject, especially in the west…But that was never God’s intention. God formed us in God’s image, too.

Artwork: “They Stood (The Daughters of Zelophehad) by the Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman of A Sanctified Art, LLC

At the beginning of March, our church’s youth group met at my house to watch Disney’s latest animated feature: Turning Red. (I had volunteered as tribute since I was the one who failed to read the fine print that it wasn’t coming out in theaters, but instead streaming on Disney+). I had not seen it, nor had I read anything about the “controversies.” So, less than twenty minutes in and bam! “Did the ‘red peony’ bloom?” And we’re all falling on the floor laughing.

Luckily, it was all girls that night. In reflection, we were glad some of the sixth grade boys hadn’t made their first trip to youth group that night, because they might have been scarred for life. We also knew the older boys would have been fine. And after some further conversation we all realized how awesome it was to see something that is such a regular part of our lives included as part of regular life for one of the characters in this awesome movie. It was just normal.

Even more interesting, my five-year-old sons, in all the dozens of times they have seen that movie, have never even noticed that it was a thing.

Rewind to several years ago at a Montreat Youth Conference when the leadership chose to use the story of Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman from the gospel of Mark as one of the focuses for the day. That morning the keynote speaker explained her malady in this way: she had been having her period for over a decade. Every woman in the audience – young and old – gasped in horror. Can you imagine?

What I love about that story is not only that Jesus healed her so that she could finally return to life and be a part of society, but that Jesus didn’t shy away from what was happening to a woman’s body, like so many other men had. He saw her as human. As part of the family. And he wanted to return her to the community.

They touched – and the world didn’t end.

For millennia, women’s bodies and what happens with and within them have been a taboo subject, especially in the west. Let’s just cover them up and not talk about what really happens, partially because if we were honest in our conversations, we might just find out how incredibly powerful those bodies truly are. What is more, the less we normalize and understand what is going on, the easier it is to isolate women from one another and keep control over half the population. Make us feel dirty. Keep us underneath.

But that was never God’s intention. God formed us in God’s image, too. Gave us, women, the ability to take part in God’s creative process if we choose to. God has chosen women to do remarkable things throughout history, despite every roadblock that men have put in our way. God even sent women to preach, first.

My point is that we are God’s children. God’s authentic and wondrous creations. Made to rock this world like the powerhouses that we are. If we can survive all the ridiculous things our bodies put us through, not to mention all the ways that we are put down for daring to speak out of turn and refusing to be the quiet little ladies we were raised to be, then just imagine what else we can do.

God gave you a voice. Use it. Show this world the incredible queen that you really are and tell your story, too.

Muddy Puddles

You see, while all the world is trying to move forward and pretend that everything is getting back to “normal,” whatever unhealthy state that was, there are many of us caught in these puddles of standing water, seemingly unable to move…

Spring is here. And I think the warmer weather has us all so desperately wanting to forget the reality happening for so many around us.

You see, while all the world is trying to move forward and pretend that everything is getting back to “normal,” whatever unhealthy state that was, there are many of us caught in these puddles of standing water, seemingly unable to move.

Maybe it started with a single death, or a dozen. Or maybe a really bad breakup. Or a job that ended. Or perhaps it was an illness that has taken over every waking and non-waking hour. Or some people were just so much healthier in our alternate reality these last two years that now, being forced to return to a world of consistent and constant movement is physically draining them or worse. Or frankly it could be the realization that there is still so much communal grief in our midst that for some it has become too much.

Honestly, there are a myriad of small lakes in our midst where people are at various stages of treading water, floating, sinking, or drowning – usually depending on the day. Because the truth is that grief doesn’t ever go away. Some of us may get better at carrying it, but quite honestly it still hurts like hell on earth and there are still many days where it feels as though the water is winning and we can’t breathe. When waking up feels like drudging out of the mud from the bottom of the pool and getting out of bed takes every bit of strength you’ve got.

But the world doesn’t like to talk about that. Or that it never ends. Or that even though God gave us one another to carry this load together, we are really, really bad at it. Usually because if we acknowledge the pain in someone else, then we have to admit what is happening within ourselves.

So yeah, spring is here. If you need to find me, I’ll be in my muddy puddle over here, trying to float on my good days. And if you’re in one of my neighboring lakes, I’m always willing to share my rubber duck.

Good Friday Violence

On the day we remember that death, all violence should give us pause. It should break our hearts – because we should know, that it is not just our hearts that are breaking.

It’s Good Friday.

And this morning… violence.

In shadow-filled corners of this world. In city streets on the other side of the ocean. In the Holy City itself.

Have we learned nothing in two-thousand years?

There are many within the Christian fold who believe that the cross stands as authorization to do harm to those who do not believe. To those who refuse to accept something we say. To those who are not following some arbitrary set of rules that we have set.

Obviously, they have never read the gospel accounts. For if they had, they would realize that Jesus never said believe – he said follow me. He taught consistently against the conformist “traditionalist” viewpoints of his day that caused people harm. He stood up to and eventually railed against draconian and oppressive laws set by men that brought violence into people’s lives, whether it was physical, social, economic, emotional, or any other form. And his cross, well, it stands in sound and sober judgement of the very worst of what we humans can do to one another.

Our God is one who chose to demonstrate the truth of what sovereignty, what power is meant to look like by taking up a cross, stretching out Christ’s arms, and pouring out a love that is stronger than even death.

On the day we remember that death, all violence should give us pause. It should break our hearts – because we should know, that it is not just our hearts that are breaking.

Unmet Expectations

Something we often forget when we approach the story of Holy Week is the reason for Judas’s betrayal. We are usually so busy focusing on why the leaders of the Temple and the Roman authorities wanted to kill Jesus that we lose sight of what is happening on the inside of Jesus’s closest group of friends. He was unjustly killed for blasphemy and sedition. Of course.

But he was betrayed for unmet expectations.

When Christ arrived on the scene, everyone was looking for David’s heir to be a wondrous military leader who would overturn Roman rule and lead the children of Israel to greatness once more. Like the old days. Or the people were at least looking for someone who would wield power and might with a veracity and perfection that would draw people to him in droves and he would become a mighty leader who would show the righteous how to transform the world into that shining city on the hill the children of Israel were always meant to be.

Yet here is their Messiah: born in a stable to a barely wed, teenage mother. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. Talks to prostitutes. He spends his time healing the sick and raising the dead. He tells people to love God and their neighbors. Then he goes a step further and says to love their enemies, those who hate them and persecute them. He keeps uttering these crazy parables, instead of easy by-lines that people can remember and uttering things about a kingdom that is not of this world. And then he has the audacity to say that he has to die – that the greatest love, the greatest thing anyone can ever do, is to lay down their lives for their friends?

What kind of Christ is this?

In a period of sheer frustration, Judas gives into temptation and betrays his best friend.

And here’s the thing: all of us have had moments like this. With our friends. With our families. Dealing with co-workers or when we have a beloved member of the community that we often go to for care.

There is something we expected and we didn’t get it. Perhaps it was within reason. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps we communicated what we were hoping for, but more than likely we didn’t. And in a moment of sheer frustration, we break. We lash out. We get mean and petty. And then, well, then we sin – because we break the very relationship that Christ has told us to build. That we were made to create and live in and mend.

But there is some good news: no bond is beyond redemption.

I am convinced that even Judas, in the very darkest pits of Hell, was not, is not beyond Christ’s reach. Several authors share such stories and they are worth considering. Because remember, at the end of the day, he was Jesus’s best friend. And yes, their relationship shattered with that kiss in the garden.

But our God, our God makes beautiful things out of dust. Smashed pieces. Broken hearts. Shattered souls. They often make the best mediums in the Creator’s loving hands.