Fear vs. Doing

…anytime someone is getting hurt, they are not being loved as God wants, as Jesus lived and died for. And we, the followers of Christ, can do something about that.

I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.

Rosa Parks

Have you ever noticed how many different ways Jesus walked directly into the world’s struggles?

Contrary to what seems to have become a pop Christian cultural belief, the Christ spent his earthly life not on so-called spiritual matters, but elbow-deep in the many diverse and divisive issues facing the people he came to save. In this life. On this side of eternity.

If you think back, Jesus inherited this sense of communal urgency from the key woman in his life: his mother. Though she must have been afraid – an unwed, teenage mother, using an unthinkable defense – she nevertheless spoke fearlessly not only of her own vindication, but also of God’s mighty actions for God’s children in this world. As has always been the case with God’s greatest moments and prophets, everything began with a woman(en).

So, Jesus grows up with this audacious and vocal mother, who raises him within the ancient tradition to know the prophets’ values. The same ones that God has always held to. Is it really any surprise that Jesus then uses his ministry to dispense mercy and justice every chance he gets?

  • He feeds the hungry.
  • He brings good news to the poor and lifts those he can out of poverty.
  • He releases those he can from captivity.
  • He heals the blind and the sick.
  • He fights for the oppressed – not just the spiritually oppressed, the literally oppressed.
  • He welcomes the outcast and the sinner.
  • He raises the dead and touches them.
  • He teaches women and puts them in leadership.
  • He overcomes xenophobia.
  • He tells us to put our focus on children and the helpless, not the mighty.
  • He takes on the seat of power in their own house with a whip and flips their tables.

Though Jesus may have chosen to die in order to take the gravity of our sin for us, he also allowed us to take him down to show us the very worst of what we can be. As Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion – which is always a dangerous mix.”

We are still very capable of hurting one another in this and so many other ways. Ways that we have been doing since he was alive. Though the outcomes may have changed slightly, the heart of the matter has remained the same. Because hunger, poverty, sickness, oppression, outcasting, misogyny, racism, subjugation, and tyranny all still exist.

Which is why Rosa Parks’s words ring true now as much as ever. There are still so many fights worth fighting. So many ways that we can enter the fray. Ways that Jesus himself would do so.

If you’re unsure where to begin, you can always start with the one closest to home for you personally. Or perhaps with the one that sets your soul on fire. Just remember, anytime someone is getting hurt, they are not being loved as God wants, as Jesus lived and died for. And we, the followers of Christ, can do something about that – perhaps not without fear, but certainly setting it aside.

The Weight of Grief

Childhoods end early for a variety of reasons and at a variety of times. This was mine: my father dropped dead when I was eight years old…

Today is the day my world changed and I didn’t even know it yet.

Childhoods end early for a variety of reasons and at a variety of times. This was mine: my father dropped dead when I was eight years old.

The thirty years since that day have included a variety of other challenges, lots more deaths, a whole bunch of family illnesses, some very great joys, and some really terrible realities.

I’m not going to lie – Metallica was right when they said that the light at the end of the tunnel is just a freight train coming your way. (Not always, but often enough.) And a whole lot of days are just vile.

I think sometimes people expect to hear me say that I’ve always known it would all turn out alright in the end because God is in control and God just needed another angel and God would never give me more than I can handle and all of the other ridiculous things that people try to say to us when we are in the throes of grief and they aren’t sure what to say.

I’m a pastor after all – isn’t my faith all perfect and everything?

Well, no. In fact, it isn’t.

Of course my faith has been tested. I actually left the church when I was in grade school because of all the well-intentioned and honestly idiotic things teachers in Sunday school kept saying to me. My mom let me. And oh how grateful I am that she did.

Even though I left the church building, God never, ever left my side. In fact, long before I even entered that building God had been with me and God will be with me long after I leave this world – of this I am sure.

Contrary to popular, even biblical belief, there is a second strand of biblical understanding that suggests something different about when bad things happen to good people. It is true that parts of the Bible suggest that God controls every single thing that happens – including genocide (which is pretty darn evil). However, there is also a counter-narrative that purports that while God does not stop the bad things from happening, God would never cause them. God instead walks with God’s people through them.

I personally ascribe to a belief in a God who would never cause harm or evil to any of God’s children and who walks with us. So if you want to comfort me in the throes of my grief, please don’t suggest that God is in control. Instead say, you know that God is right here with us, holding you right now.

As to the extra angels and the never giving us more than we can handle, neither statement is actually biblical. Angels are a different type of being entirely. And again, I do not believe that God intentionally causes harm.

God is always walking with us, helping us to carry the load.

If you’ve ever wondered what a lifetime of pain has taught me – it is that. A trust that is deeper than any other in my life that God is here and working all things into remarkable wonders. Yes, good – but it may take a very long time to see it.

We need to remember that death is not automatically evil. It simply is. It is part of life – neither good, nor bad. Some forms of death are certainly traumatic and caused by evil things, to be sure. But my father’s death simply was. My mother’s death simply was. My dad’s, my mother-in-law’s, my husband’s deaths all simply were. They were part of life. Some far too early. Nevertheless, none were caused by terrible circumstances beyond our control.

And here is something, too: in every case but my father, all of those other deaths, every single one of them was suffering. Terribly. Now, they are at peace.

So here is what I would say after all these years and a lifetime (albeit a relatively short one) of dealing with so much grief: it is a weight that never fully lifts and it is perfectly okay for your faith to waiver. Because God’s faith in you has absolutely nothing to do with your faith in God. You are safe. You are held. You are loved more than you can possibly imagine. And you are never carrying that weight alone.

Shame & Jesus

Early on in my ministry, which is now past its first decade, I began to notice a certain pattern. A style of feedback that was so common that I realized it was more than even a mere archetype. It was in fact a culture that defined the way many people functioned. It was so frequent, in fact, many did not even realize how much it was affecting everyone and everything around them.

I have come to call this mindset “shame culture.” And it is quite simply defined: giving feedback for the purpose of tearing someone down. Making them feel bad. Smashing them under your boot. This is not constructive criticism that might actually bring useful change or learning. This is hurtful refuse meant to cause injury.Frankly, it is quite similar to, if not a synonym for, gaslighting, but I digress.

Many people seem to think that this type of verbal swill will somehow make themselves feel better. That they have avenged themselves of the barely significant slights that were hardly of any consequence except in their own minds. However, in their vengeance, they have taken what was something that might have been easily fixed or discussed, and made the offense entirely their own.

For causing shame is always, always the greater harm.

Shame culture is the bane of every profession, but especially pastors. And even I am sad to say I have experienced it in just about every church of which I have been a part. It is not healthy. It is not appropriate. It is not acceptable.

The only way to combat it is to choose the better way: healthy communication.

That means actively talking about what you need when you need it. If you have a problem, talk to the person who has caused it, face to face, and in a timely manner. Pick kindness and compassion over spite and malice as your main modus operandi. Remember that everyone has a battle they are fighting that you know nothing about.

And more than anything, especially if you are a part of the church, remember to test everything you say and do through this question: would Jesus want you to think, say or do this?

How do we do this?

Somehow, we humans seem to have lost our ability to simply care about one another. To realize that it is our responsibility to protect and aid others with whom we come into contact…

I’ve recently been rereading several of the audio book series that Brad introduced me to over the years. They are quite diverse. However, the ending of one particular book the other day brought me to tears with something that you might not expect: the wonder of human decency.

Somehow, we humans seem to have lost our ability to simply care about one another. To realize that it is our responsibility to protect and aid others with whom we come into contact (and sometimes people we may never even know). We have lost our honor – our compassion – our consideration. And with all these things, in many ways we have lost our hope.

Maybe the honest truth is that not nearly as many people truly had these things as I thought to begin with, but my prayer is that is not correct.

I am convinced that our only way forward is together. And Lord knows we need to find some way forward because our world is in a terrible mess.

But rather than to see the forest through the trees, or to even seek it, we tend to throw blame around as quickly as is possible. Then to hold it with white-knuckled force for as long as we can. Here is the thing: blame will not get us very far. It will, in fact, hold us solidly, stagnantly in place. In fear. In anger. In pain.

What our world needs is for us to move.

We were always meant to grow. To change. To evolve. We do those things best in love and in hope. When we take responsibility for who we are and how we can show compassion, consideration, caring, protection, aid, and honor to all of our human siblings. Finding enough humility to realize that the world does not revolve only around us as individuals and our needs. And using our freedom the way that God intends us to: not as a chance for self-indulgence, but as an opportunity to become servants to one another. (That one’s not me.That’s Galatians.)

How do we do this?

Well, it will look like many different things. What I can tell you for certain is this: if a choice leaves someone in danger, puts hatred center stage, protects things over people, intentionally prolongs ignorance, demeans, or subjugates anyone – then you or I are definitely making the wrong decision. Our God commands love in all things.

Now, go and do likewise.

Knowing

…when you are going through something difficult, it is important to have people around to support you and to listen to you who have been there. Even if not specifically there there, then at least through their own valley.

I was talking to some friends recently about the importance of knowing. 

In this case, I mean when you are going through something difficult, it is important to have people around to support you and to listen to you who have been there. Even if not specifically there there, then at least through their own valley.

Allow me to give an example: many years ago, when my mother lost my dad (stepdad, in this case – so her second husband to die), a pastor gave her a piece of quaint advice. Honestly, I cannot remember what it was. However, it hit my mom in an off way and after some conversation about it, what we realized is that this colleague of mine had never lost anyone. Not even a grandparent. They were repeating something from a textbook. And here is the thing: if you are facing the valley of the shadow of death, whatever that ravine might look like, you need someone walking with you who has tread through the muck and mire themselves.

There is no substitution for real experience. 

What is more, in this case, age does not automatically equal life experience. I know forty-somethings who have yet to lose their parents or grandparents and teenagers who have been to Hell and back already. 

Nevertheless, something that is also very true is that knowing is only part of the battle. You must have actually fought back up the slippery slope to get back out of the abyss. Or at least be actively working toward it. Otherwise, there will never be walking with anyone else through another canyon – for your open wounds will keep you too busy, or worse, harm someone else in the midst of their own struggles.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, There are moments that the words don’t reach. There is suffering too terrible to name you push away the unimaginable

There are many things many of us do not understand. Then again, though, there are many things that many of us do.

If you are facing a great divide of your own, remember that you are not alone. There are people who have been through deep valleys similar enough to your own that they can walk with you. It may not be me or the next person you meet, but I promise they are out there.

Because trust me, I have faced more valleys than any of you know. Far more and in greater variety than I write about. But I have also found my way, even as I walk through them, to find some pretty impressive rock formations in the midst of the canyons. 

You can too.

There is hope even in shadow. There is love even in despair. There is life even in death.

Losing Focus

…there is actually one central thing that really is missing at the heart of it all: the Gospel. Not the watered down, ego centric, self-righteous counterfeit that so often markets itself as the abomination loathing and diversity averting force so many seem to relish in God’s place.

Sometimes I think we’ve lost our focus a bit as of late.

Though many keep trying to put their finger on a variety of causes, problems, and even solutions, there is actually one central thing that really is missing at the heart of it all: the Gospel.

Not the watered down, ego centric, self-righteous counterfeit that so often markets itself as the abomination loathing and diversity averting force so many seem to relish in God’s place.

No, I mean the real Gospel. The one that is an extension of God’s own Self. We learn of it from the written gospels and throughout the rest of scripture. And it looks quite different than what many might think.

This Gospel is good news.

This good news is for the poor. It proclaims release to captives. It brings recovery of sight to the blind. It frees the oppressed. It proclaims the year of Jubilee, when all debts are forgiven.

This good news desires mercy over self-serving sacrifice.

This good news has stern words of warning to those in power: the prophecies say it will lift up those the world considers “low,” while casting the powerful from their thrones. It will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty. It will help God’s people and scatter those who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

This good news takes care of the major needs in this life: of food and drink. Caring for strangers with welcome. Giving clothes to the naked. Visiting the sick and imprisoned.

This good news commands love. Love that will give everything for another.

In other words, it is the precise opposite of what the world often thinks. It is other-centered, based on God’s righteousness and truth, rejoicing in the fearful and wonderful creations God has made and the wondrous variety within the family of God that is meant to be bound together. As ONE.

That is the Gospel. That is the real good news.

It is love for a world in desperate need. It is justice for a world focused on division, vengeance, and hatred. It is life for a world that thrives on death.

This is the Gospel, the Good News, the very Life and Love of the God we serve.

Though we may have lost sight of it, it has never lost sight of us. God continues to move everywhere around us.

What is more, we need to also make sure that we are shifting our focus back to where it should be: how are we loving others the way that God has called us to? Are we ensuring others are cared for? Are we ready to give greatly of ourselves for love’s sake?

That is what the Gospel calls us to. For Christ has taught us that we cannot love God if we are not loving others. And that is where our focus should be.

Advice from a Liminality Expert

Big word. I know. Liminality is that space between. When something is in the midst of change or transition. When the crazy is happening but hasn’t quite finished yet…

Have you ever noticed that we hate liminality?

Big word. I know. Liminality is that space between. When something is in the midst of change or transition. When the crazy is happening but hasn’t quite finished yet.

A pandemic is a period of liminality. And finding out that it is not finished with us yet, well, a lot of us are having a really difficult time with that.

I’ve seen lots of eye rolls. Noticed a bunch more grumbling resuming of late. And heard far greater amounts of “you can’t make me”s than I have heard in months.

We really don’t like liminality.

Now, I happen to be an expert on living in liminality.

Long before this global plague swept across the world, I had been living in a state of perpetual liminality for well over a decade. My late husband’s health has meant that we have been consistently waiting and watching for years. He was almost always stuck at home. And in the midst of that, my mother developed alzheimer’s, then died. We were doing three rounds of IVF, one of which ended in spontaneous miscarriage. Before my mother died, my dad developed dementia. Before that, my little brother caused a bad car wreck and has been a quadriplegic and on a vent for fifteen years. Then, before Brad nearly died the first time last year, his mom developed a rare form of ALS and ended up beating him to glory by three weeks. And we have managed three professional moves for me in the midst of all of this.

So yeah, my life has been in some state or form of permanent unusual change, transition, or crazy for a very long time.

What have I learned from all this liminality?

First and foremost, life is what happens in the midst of this wild crazy. Not at the end. If you keep waiting for everything to get back to normal for life to begin again – you’ll be waiting forever.

Second, you need to identify what is most important in the midst of everything that is happening. If you look closely at my list, you’ll notice there was a whole lot of death. So I would generally argue that preventing death and protecting life, especially if it is scientifically and easily accomplishable, would be the top priority. (Which means that, especially in the midst of the plague, there is a whole lot of getting over ourselves that needs to continue to happen and remembering the science is always gaining more answers, never having them to begin with. It’s a study of current knowledge, which is always changing.)

Third, make the most of life while you have it. Even if life is hard. That’s why we celebrate so many holidays in my house. That’s why we travel when we can afford it. That’s why we gather with our family and friends as we can. That’s why we seek to ensure everyone else in this world has what they need to do this – because it is not just about us.

The truth is that life is honestly all one big liminal period. But if that’s one big revelation too many, then start with this: take this rough plague period for what it is – a chance to learn to be better at being human.

Find life on the journey, not the destination. Do what you can to protect others’ lives as well as your own. And live life to the fullest every chance you can (and make sure others can as well).

That’s how you live in liminality – and one day, you might just forget the struggle and realize that you’ve finally remembered to live!

Quitting

There has been a lot of talk over these last few days about what it means to quit. Especially when it comes to those who are expected to exceed normal human expectations…

There has been a lot of talk over these last few days about what it means to quit. Especially when it comes to those who are expected to exceed normal human expectations.

Now, I will admit that I have little athletic ability whatsoever. Haven’t since college, possibly high school. And I have never been even close to being a world class athlete. The ways they push themselves is beyond belief – both mentally and physically.

However, I do get what it means to be put in a fishbowl and on a pedestal thanks to my profession. And thanks to some centuries-old notions, pastors are still expected to be superhuman at times. Or at least, we are not allowed to show weakness. Pretty much ever. Especially as a woman.

But here is the thing: all of us are human. We do break. We do have struggles. We do face real challenges – some of them made doubly if not triply hard by the position we are in.

Saying no is not quitting. Stepping back is not quitting. Refusing to kill ourselves for others is not quitting.

If we stopped breathing and gave into the overwhelming pain and struggle – that would be quitting.

What is more, willingly accepting responsibility for a struggle that has remarkable stigma attached to it and stepping into the breach for those who are not strong enough to do so – that is NOT quitting. That is the mark of a true hero.

So, here is my advice to everyone who is getting a bit mixed up these last few days: sort out your priorities and remember something – some of the people you put the most pressure on are the very ones who are in need of more grace than the rest.

The Wall

I share this experience because I know I am far from being alone in it…

Tonight I hit the wall.

Many of you know the one I mean. That wall that comes when everything around you seems to be falling apart and you really aren’t sure how you can keep putting one foot in front of the other.

It was only for a few minutes. Right after my older son managed to do one of his non-verbal screaming fits right through dinner and my younger son was practically in my lap because he can barely handle being away from me. Because, well, we are grieving. I am seriously grieving right now. And I am pretty sure they can feel it rolling off of me in waves, which is, in turn, affecting them.

Now, I share this not to get advice or wisdom or even a pat on the back. Believe it or not, I have an excellent team of people who are there to help, along with a wonderful support system of friends and family. Which is why this only lasted for a few minutes.

I share this experience because I know I am far from being alone in it.

I know that I am weary and worn from so very many things right now – parenting and grief only being two. And I know that there are plenty of you out there who are just as worn out as I am. Probably ready to burst into tears. Throw in the proverbial towel. Or better yet, run for the hills.

All are tempting options at times. And hitting the wall is inevitable. It’s honestly normal. And a-okay.

The problem is staying at the wall and sinking in the mud for longer than a short period. Because life needs you. It needs me. It needs all of us.

It needs us to trodge on (see A Knight’s Tale for definition). To fight on. If nothing else, to keep breathing long enough until we can do the first two.

My boys picked out a book from their shelf tonight entitled Sofia Valdez, Future Prez, by Andrea Beaty. It tells the enchanting story of a young woman, in second grade, who finds herself at the head of a movement to bring a new park to her community, replacing their current neighbor “Mt. Trashmore.” In the midst of her journey, Sofia realizes, “being brave means doing the thing you must do…”

And that, I think, is the message that I and all of us who are so very tired need hear right now. It may not be easy to face the months or days or hours or even minutes ahead. But we are brave enough to do it. We just need to remember that.

We are brave enough for lots of reasons, but key among them being that we are never, ever alone.

So remember, even if you find yourself at the wall tonight, with your waders on and the mud up to your eyeballs – tomorrow is a new day. Be brave. Get back up. Kick away from the wall’s hold on you.Take a deep breath. And start again.

Long Road Back

I know that my rather extensive family in heaven watches over and guards us in the same way. Forever in our hearts. No matter how long it has been…

I’ve been away traveling these last two weeks. This time not to foreign lands or to mouse-guarded castles, but to a place that will always hold a special piece of my heart.

I went home. For the first time in two years (thank you, COVID). And though I have many homes now because I have lived in many places, this time I went to where I grew up, where I spent most of my first two decades of life.

It is a strange thing to be back for me, for many reasons. Among them that not only are all of my grandparents and many aunts and uncles already in heaven. But so are all three of my parents. And my late husband and I were together for so many years that we had been everywhere I can think of in that town.

Everywhere held a memory. Everywhere a sensation of sadness.

We did all the “St. Louis” stuff that every child raised there does when we come back. We saw family member upon family member, ensuring that my children made connections to people who love them, though they may have a hard time remembering all the names. But even as I brought my sons and daughters to favorite museums and restaurants, laughing and smiling with them as they found joy at so many things – my heart was aching.

Now I’m headed back again tomorrow. This time to say goodbye to my fifth family member to die in these last ten months at her funeral. A woman who cared for me as a second mother, even helping me to get ready for my wedding when my own mom was tied up taking pictures. While there, I will get to put my arms around more family that I have not seen in quite some time. People who remain forever in my heart, no matter how long it has been.

And as I sit here on my back porch, watching my boys play on their swingset, I know that my rather extensive family in heaven watches over and guards us in the same way. Forever in our hearts. No matter how long it has been.

It is a long road back to the ache receding, but I know that one day the love and the joy we all felt together will win.