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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.

Bullies and the Crucified God

Make no mistake, our God is not on the side of bullies. Our God died at the hands of them. Let them take Jesus and beat, bloody, then break his body until he drew his last earthly breath. For crimes he did not commit…

Holy Week is only a week away at this point. And as we get closer and closer, one thought goes through my mind as I have watched the news of late: why are bullies still a thing?

There are so many reasons why Christ died. Key among them was to show us how incredibly terrible we can be to one another. Including how we bully, shame, degrade, harass, torment, and coerce one another. Christ’s death occurred, at least for one reason, so we would stop. So we would start to be better. To do better.

Wow have we missed that mark.

Even worse, we supposed followers of the Crucified God have tried to use him as an excuse to keep being bullies of others. To tyrannize them. To subjugate them. To persecute them. Even on occasion to literally crucify them (look back at the Middle Ages).

Just this last week we have witnessed abominations of bullying. Worse – most of those perpetrating the harm do not even realize they are taking on the role of the scourge. Or if they do, they do not even care.

Make no mistake, our God is not on the side of bullies. Our God died at the hands of them. Let them take Jesus and beat, bloody, then break his body until he drew his last earthly breath. For crimes he did not commit.

Our God is not, and has never been, on the side of belittling. Persecuting. Oppressing. Forcing. Tyranny. Torment. Subjugating. Coercion. Harassment. Intimidating. Crushing. Repressing. Hegemony. Suppression. Feel free to keep going with any other synonyms you can think of.

Lord knows we’ve been really good at using our God as an excuse for all of these things over the years. However, the cross of Jesus Christ stands in stark contradiction to all of it. In judgment of all of it. Stating that this is not who our God is. Nor is it the way our God’s Kingdom will be run.

So, bearing that in mind, it is worth considering our actions, and the actions of those we hold accountable, very carefully. Do they match the self-giving love of the Crucified God? Or are they bearing witness to the ways of the fallen bully powers of this world?

Golgotha lays all our accounts bare and asks: will we let the cross condemn what needs condemned in our lives? Even the bullies within ourselves at times? Will we let them die as they should have all those years ago?

Only then can the new life God offers finally begin to take root…

The Marks

More than anything, though, you will always recognize this Body by their love…

These past months I have been working with our Confirmands in preparation for Easter Sunday when they will join the church. Among the things they must do in order to become a full confessing member of the Body of Christ: they have to write their own faith statement. Sounds scary I know.

I keep trying to tell them not to panic. Not sure if that’s working or not. And that I am here to help. I have given them resources. I have even given them a list of topics they should probably cover (you know the basics like the members of the Trinity, how God relates to us, how we relate to one another, etc.).

Among those topics is one that is often over overlooked: the Church. We can easily underestimate just how central the Body of Christ on earth really is, can’t we?

Especially now, after two years of a pandemic that has forced us to rethink what it looks like, often required us to engage in worship from a far, we ask ourselves: what is the Church of Jesus Christ?

Is it a building of wood and stone?

Is it an organization that says this is what you must believe to belong?

Is it a place you show up every so often because you are supposed to?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Not really.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the body of believers that have been drawn together by God. Usually they are far more of a band of misfits than most would like to admit. Always they are covered in more grace and more forgiven than any of us can possibly imagine for every single thing we have ever done to break every relationship we have ever had – with God, with others, even with ourselves.

So, then how do we know that a body is Christ’s Body, rather than just a group of friends who happen to show up in random places together?

Well, they will intentionally listen for God’s voice through Scripture and conversation with Scripture. They will seek community together marked by God’s holy signs of water, bread, and wine. They will live life together in ways that will display God’s justice and preserve God’s truth among them.

More than anything, though, you will always recognize this Body by their love. A love that is radical and reckless. Giving of itself in every way. Open and welcoming. Profound and profligate. Deep and fathomless. Ready to lay down its life to see even one more person find the life they are meant to have in God’s kingdom.

That is the true mark of the Church, Christ’s Body in this world.

Your Storybook Story

…who we are as God’s disciples, Christ’s witnesses in this world, is meant to stem entirely from the story that we tell. The ways that God walking with us through this world has shaped us into who we are today.

This Lenten season has provided a very cool opportunity. We have been providing an email devotional for our members every day that includes artwork, prayers, scripture, and, most importantly, selections of readings from great spiritual writers. They have ranged from the early church to the Reformation period to the nineteenth-century to some of the twentieth-century’s best known theologians and writers.

So far we have heard from the great preacher Will Willimon, been reminded of our call to love God in others by Thomas Merton, heard one of Christina Rossetti’s famous poems (she wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter), and remembered just how dark Martin Luther’s writings really were. And the fun part is that Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Tolstoy, Lewis, and so many others are still ahead. (Yes, I basically found the best book of Lenten devotions ever about two decades ago.)

What is just as fascinating for me, however, when putting these devotions together is to write up short bios on each of the authors each day. For example, yesterday we were reading a selection from Jürgen Moltmann. Probably one of the top three most influential Reformed theologians of the twentieth-century, but what most people forget is that he actually fought in the German army in World War II. The author of The Crucified God did not, in fact, have his conversion to Christianity until after seeing the atrocities committed by his countrymen, in the midst of three years of being a prisoner of war. His writings are profound. Ardent. Wholeheartedly gut-wrenching. Coming from the deepest places of our soul where God resides. Something that can only happen after such a story.

And all of their stories, their writings, too, are a reminder that who we are as God’s disciples, Christ’s witnesses in this world, is meant to stem entirely from the story that we tell. The ways that God walking with us through this world has shaped us into who we are today. And where we go from here.

All of us have a story to tell. Unique. Honest. Sometimes heartrending. Nevertheless, the question is will there be another protagonist when your tale gets told? Do you see yet that you were never alone in that narrative that has twisted and turned from the moment you were born? Have you begun to perceive how you fit into the remarkable chronicle of God’s wondrous work in this world?

Piety

Our crosses are not a mark of piety. They are a reminder to us of whose we are, so we can show up for the world, no matter how messy or complicated or afraid we may be.

This is a copy of my Ash Wednesday sermon from March 2, 2022.

One of my professors from Divinity School noted this week on social media, the remarkable irony of having this passage be one of our readings for Ash Wednesday – as we are running around with a physical mark on our bodies. He was not condemning the practice or even questioning it. Merely noting that there is something rather funny about us hearing Jesus preach on practicing our piety before others and then marking our foreheads in a way that makes everyone either go – yeah, that guy knows Jesus or do you know you have something on your face?

Seriously though, have you ever seen someone truly “practice their piety” in front of you. I mean in a way that tells you they are wayyy too excited to show off how well they know the old JC? Sometimes it is because they are genuinely excited, and in those moments, we should all rejoice. However, oftentimes, it is because they are far more concerned about what others think of their religion, rather than about what God thinks of their faith. (I say their, but most likely all of us have done this at some point). 

For so many centuries piety has been about being the best at going through the motions correctly. Knowing how to show off the right way. Say the correct things. Doing all the best moves. In essence, precisely what Jesus was preaching against.

So, six years ago, Brad and I spent this week and the one following it in St. Louis, where my mom was in the midst of a mental breakdown and finally showing enough severe signs of Alzheimer’s that we were able to get her some help. A few months later, after having found out we were pregnant with twins on Easter Monday, we went to a regular sonagram appointment only to find that we could not find our babies’ heartbeats. At nine weeks of pregnancy, I became a walking tomb for my two little loves until they were ready to leave me. 

About a week after that, I found myself at a monastery on a prayer retreat with leaders from a Presbyterian seminary. I had planned to attend months before. And as I sat among colleagues, God put me in a small group of women who had been there in their own lives. Gave me leaders who made space for me to be whatever I needed to be in those moments. And God held me in the strange gaps that were so bizarrely shaped in ways I never could have imagined. That week I found that God showed up in my life just at the moment I needed.

You see, this year Ash Wednesday has got me thinking a lot about what faith really looks like. What it means to actually be pious, rather than simply to appear like it. And this morning the quote that kept running through my head was this: Be messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways. It’s by author Glennon Doyle Melton, famous for her work on MomasteryBe messy and complicated and afraid and show up anyways.

In so many ways, our world is in tatters right now. We do not know what will happen even tomorrow. What people need, more than anything, is for us to show up for them. To let them know they matter. To walk with them through the messy parts. To overcome our fear so they can overcome theirs. Because, whether we realize it or not, God has already shown up for us in far more ways than we can count. Every single day. And the best way we love God, the way we show our piety – is to love and show up for others the same way.

So, back to the crosses. When I picked up the boys from school this afternoon, I already had my cross on my face. And Luc looked up at my face and said, “what’s that Mommy?” I said, “It’s a sign to show that God loves us.”

You see, my friends, we may be made of dust, but our God has proven time and again to make beautiful things out of dust. Not to mention, there was that one time, on that hillside, when God really decided to show up for us with a love greater than no other.

Our crosses are not a mark of piety. They are a reminder to us of whose we are, so we can show up for the world, no matter how messy or complicated or afraid we may be.

Hope in a Time of Uncertainty

My friends, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. There is already so much death, destruction, and displacement occurring. What we can do is hold onto hope that, one day, the world will be set aright again…

Like so many generations before us, we find ourselves in a time of great uncertainty. The drums of war beat on the far horizon and for many of our young people, we are now in prayer that they do not strike for them. What is more, many of us find ourselves unsettled as our days continue to become more clouded by the murky waters of ill-timed power sparring.

It is a frightening time, to be sure. Disconcerting and daunting for all of us who must face the road that lies ahead. Worst of all is that we do not know what that road will be.

When my father died in 1991, roughly six months after the first Gulf War ended, he died on active duty in Washington. We had missed our final Christmas Eve with him because he had been writing wills for the young men and women going over to fight in that conflict. He had served our country in various ways through the Army JAG Corps for over twenty-five years by then.

But when we brought him home for his service, we used a very familiar hymn as we carried him out to lay him to rest. My mom later reflected that she had found him late at night in his final months memorizing the lyrics, holding the paper like a man lost in the desert craves water.

My friends, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. There is already so much death, destruction, and displacement occurring. What we can do is hold onto hope that, one day, the world will be set aright again. And I offer you pieces of my father’s favorite hymn today in that fervent hope:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come.
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.