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Four-Lettered Name

As is often the case, the four-lettered word we choose will have remarkable ramifications. So choose wisely…

We are in the midst of full-on Vacation Bible School craziness at the church where I serve at the moment. That means a whole lot of different things. But I think my favorite parts are the wondrous moments of joy on the children’s faces and the incredible growth we see in them even over the course of just a few days.

Earlier this week, we were playing a game of giant scrabble and I asked them for a four-letter word for God. Probably not surprisingly, the word they came up with first was “Lord.” However, that was not the word I was thinking of. And it took a bit more prodding to get to my own selection.

You see mine also began with the letter “L.” It is also scriptural. Frankly it is the word I would exclusively use for God if I had the choice.

Guessed it yet?

It is “Love.” Because our “God is love.”

After our conversation that night, I began to think about it my thoroughly. The choice between these two words, as to which one will take the primary seat in our theological vocabulary, will have an immense impact on everything else about how we see not only God, but ourselves and the rest of the world.

The choice of Lord harkens back to a different age when we submitted to our “betters” as vassals. Not something that is considered a healthy model in any of our mindsets these days.

Whereas, the choice of Love offers multitudinous opportunities to grow in the ever-expanding relationship we are meant to have with God. In turn, that gives us space to mend the relationships we have broken here on earth and to seek new ones in the love that we were made for.

As is often the case, the four-lettered word we choose will have remarkable ramifications. So choose wisely.

Pivotal Roles

Parents have a rather pivotal role in our lives, don’t they?

For the truth is – good or bad, present or absent – our parents will have an immense impact on who we become in our lives. But how that comes about is, well, complicated.

Take me, for example. My father died when I was eight. I gained a dad (step-dad) when I was twelve, though I wasn’t ready to admit that until I was about seventeen. He died when I was thirty-one. But even from a young age there were countless other men who were in my life, guiding and shaping me. And there were plenty of women (including my mother) who were, at times, filling in on the “traditional male roles” along the way, too.

When my husband and I had children, after nearly a decade of marriage, I was the breadwinner and he was the stay-at-home parent. And now that he is gone, here I am, like my mother, partially filling in both sets of roles.

I bring all this up because looking ahead at this Sunday, I cringe for a few reasons.

First, I am dreading not having my beloved late husband here to celebrate on Sunday (no matter how big our party is on Saturday for that very different and exciting holiday).

Second, I have had issues with Father’s Day since I was nine years old and started not having a traditional father figure in-house. It is a holiday filled with complex and difficult emotions for me. And while I am so very grateful for all the wonderful men (and women) who fill so many of these roles in my life and my sons’ lives, I really, really kind of want to avoid it this year.

Third, I know how many other people have even worse issues with this holiday on Sunday because of far harder problems – be they abuse, neglect, or anything else that you can imagine. I know that a whole bunch of people think that we should hold up fatherhood as the pinnacle of being a man (much the way people think we should hold up motherhood as the pinnacle of being a woman), when there are plenty of people for whom that is a very hurtful concept on several levels. (I know my own husband hated those Father’s Days when we were trying to get pregnant and having trouble and during my miscarriage.) And I know that the church can be one of the worst offenders in not thinking through how to handle this holiday with kid gloves.

So, what am I saying other than that I am looking forward to a really difficult Sunday afternoon?

Being a parent is one of the most important jobs in the world. It is beautiful and terrifying from the moment your children enter your lives. And it is just downright difficult. Of course it deserves to be celebrated. As do all the people who help to shape us into the people we are – for no doubt there are countless individuals who come into our lives and fill the roles we need, whether they realize it or not. For all these and more, we do give thanks.

We also need to be mindful that remembering our parents is a messy business for many of us. And that remembering parents can also mean remembering lost spouses. Holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day both bring with them a sea of emotion that require us to show immense amounts of grace and love in all that we do. We should also be mindful and thoughtful about remembering that while some may be overjoyed, others may be facing the shadowed valley.

More than anything, we need to give thanks for those who guide us and shape us in good and healthy ways every day – be they our parents or someone who has filled a similar pivotal role in our lives. For all these are incredible gifts from God. Connections that grow our ability to love more deeply, which is certainly our purpose in life, to love and be loved.

Family

All of my parents had taught me that family are those who love you and who you love back. At the end of the day, the thing that truly makes a family a family is love. Period…

Growing up, one of my favorite movies was “Three Men and a Little Lady.” Of course, I had grown up watching its predecessor as well, “Three Men and a Baby,” however, the little girl was someone with whom I could far more easily relate.

You see, my family was not a “normal” one. I had lost my father by the time I was nine. So my mom was officially a single mom. But, I also had at least two grandparents heavily involved, plus a bunch of aunts and uncles constantly checking in. And then my mom got remarried, which took my singleton life of being an only child and threw it out the window. I ended up with seven siblings and a slew of nieces and nephews already on board. Plus my siblings’ moms were still living so I got to know them, too. And a bunch of new cousins, on top of the twenty-one I grew up with. Not to mention that we kept adding to our group of friends who were family at the same time.

So, yeah… family was never a “normal” concept for me. It never fit this perfect mold that some part of society told me about. What was even more interesting is that many of the families around me didn’t either. And I always wondered, why was everyone so incredibly harsh to those who were different?

All of my parents, and yes, I had three of them, had taught me that family are those who love you and who you love back. Sometimes they are made up of blood. Sometimes by legal adoption. Sometimes by marriage. And sometimes by adoption of the heart. But at the end of the day, the thing that truly makes a family a family is love. Period.

Some have accused us of “picking up strays” over the years, because they never understood. And many in this world really do not understand – that is likely why the world at large continues to be so hard on families that do not fit the typical mold.

Yet, here I find myself, once again in an untypical family. I am a single mom with sons of my own blood and daughters of my heart. And we are creating a stable, loving environment for one another to grow and thrive. Because that is what family does.

Now here’s the real secret: God’s family is not “normal” either. Scripture teaches us that there is no one specific model of what family looks like – whether we are talking about unusual examples like Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi or Jesus being raised by a step-dad. The Bible is full of families that do not fit what our culture has taught us is the “normal” model.

Far more importantly, however, is that the church, God’s family on earth, is meant to look like the body of misfits that my family loves to gather together. Where all are welcome. It does not matter where someone came from. It only matters that they want to be here because they are loved. And they will be loved, just as they are. And because of that, they can love others and live fully with profound courage.

That is who we are meant to be as the family of faith. A family built on love.

And the rest of our families should mirror the same.

Real, Reckless, Relentless, Remarkable

When we begin to see others through the eyes of the God who fearfully and wonderfully made us in love, it slowly but surely alters our way of interacting with one another…

This past Sunday we marked the annual consideration of the Trinity in the liturgical calendar. It is a holy day that is often misunderstood both inside and outside the Christian tradition. For, quite frankly, the Trinity is called a holy mystery for a reason.

Nevertheless, it remains one of my all-time favorite parts of who we are as a people. And here is why: the Trinity is our bedrock belief, as Christians, that our God is perfect community. Communion. Relationship. That our God chooses to never be alone. To love and be loved, by God’s own self. That is who and what the Trinity is.

And as wonderful as that is, that is not the best part. The best part is that we are made in their image. The image of the three-in-one, to love and be loved. To live in community. Communion. Relationship. To never be alone.

Now, ours is far from perfect. For ours is human. Fallible. Fallen. We mess it up – all the time.

We judge one another about everything.

We hold onto a past that we wish we could go back to, one that will never return.

We expect each other to fit some mold of impeccable flawlessness that we ourselves have concocted and then berate one another when we fall short.

***And make no mistake, these things happen as a society, as well as individually.

Nevertheless, God has set the true mold we are meant to seek. The way we do that is by remembering in whose image we are made. Not only you or me. But all of us. Every single person. When we begin to see others through the eyes of the God who fearfully and wonderfully made us in love, it slowly but surely alters our way of interacting with one another. Eventually, love becomes our way of life. And that kind of love will change the world.

So remember the Trinity. Or if that is to much, remember that you were made for love. Real, reckless, relentless, remarkable Love.

The rest, well, the rest will begin to fall into place when we start there.

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t force its own way, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never faiths.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, CEB

Yesterday

This week I have been gathering photos for my mother-in-law’s funeral this weekend. These pictures come from around a decade and a half worth of digital files and a few from the previous half decade prior. Nearly twenty years worth of memories – of the life I have lived. Of the life she lived. The life my husband lived. Of the ways those lives entwined together.

It is a fascinating thing to watch the physical changes over the years. To see hair colors shift. Clothing styles evolve. Smile and worry lines appear.

The stories came back, too. Especially the ones that bring smiles and laughs. The adventures. The journeys taken. Even the great escapes on occasion.

And as I worked I found that my eyes were consistently filled with tears. They were filled to the brim, but the tension somehow held most of the way through.

Because that is really the way life works isn’t it?

Most of life we walk with our emotions just below or just barely holding tension on the surface – yet we rarely let our true feelings shine brightly for the world to see.

There are countless reasons for this. The world may find us weak for showing our soft underside. Many people do not want to deal with the difficult realities we face in this life, especially their own emotions surrounding them, and so they seemingly order us to keep our own feelings under wraps. Still other times the emotions are so great, that to let ourselves truly feel them all the time would mean a constant state of pain that is unbearable.

Whatever the reason is, the hard emotions are not always easy to get out. But they are necessary. They are important. And when they do finally escape, they often bring at least some measure of healing.

When my husband died seven months ago, he left me with the gift of Disturbed’s song, Hold Onto Memories. Its lyrics have helped me to cope both as he was dying and in the months since.

The most important lesson is this: yesterday they were here. Today they are not. However, the way we keep them alive is by remembering them. Telling their stories. And then bringing the fight to the world and living as well as we can for as long as we can.

That is how we keep yesterday with us today, even as we have to face the daunting prospect of tomorrow. And find the strength to breathe again.

The Light

That light gives us strength. It reminds us why we keep going. It warms us when the storm waters threaten to swallow us whole…

Sarah McLachlan once sang, “I feel just like I’m sinking and I claw for solid ground…”

In many ways I think that is what the world feels like these days, isn’t it? Whether we are looking at the political spectrum or straining to get rid of the mitigation measures that have ruled our waking days these many months, or if, like me, you are in the throes of your own personal battle – in many ways it feels as though we are sinking down with no land in sight.

And our limbs are tired from treading.

The fight has been long-going these many months, or years, or decades, or centuries (depending on the battle of which we speak). Putting even one more foot forward may feel like pushing a mountain of earth. Pulling in a single breath may require our last bit of effort to lift the elephant sitting squarely upon our chest. Doing anything at all, even opening our eyes, may seem just…

But then somehow, the sun blinks through. Even on days when it does not shine. Something, someone maybe, turns our head and makes just a hint of a smile creep back onto our lips. With no effort required. The crack grows and bubbles and sparkles until the effervescent sound of laughter erupts from our mouths and shakes us to our very core. Our eyes overflow, our stomachs ache, and we probably cannot even remember what began our smile. Yet, somehow, that light has found a way.

That light gives us strength. It reminds us why we keep going. It warms us when the storm waters threaten to swallow us whole. That flicker beyond us reignites the embers within so that we can put one foot in front of the other and keep on fighting and striving and living for as long as we can.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then on some level I am happy for you that you have not yet had to experience the messy and difficult parts of life. But for everyone else, my encouragement to you is that remember the poem scrawled by the hand of our sibling in the German concentration camp:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when God is silent.

Keep swimming. The light is there. The love is there. God is there.

No matter what.

Here Without You

…as we drive ever closer to home, I can feel my lungs beginning to seize a bit and the pain in the pit of my stomach begin to come back.

This weekend will be the first major family event for my husband’s family without both my husband and my mother-in-law. In this case, it is a wedding for one of Brad’s sisters. A joyful occasion, to be sure.

And we are ensuring that both of them are with us, not only in spirit, but also through small touches in all we are doing that will keep them close. From specific beverage choices to the bride wearing her some of her late mother’s jewelry to pink belts to my daughters and I all wearing necklaces given to me by my late husband, neither of them will be far away.

These days, most of the time, life is easier for me. I can breathe again. And move again. And smile. And laugh. And even acknowledge the wonder of life that Brad would have enjoyed without a knife stabbing through my heart.

But as we drive ever closer to home, I can feel my lungs beginning to seize a bit and the pain in the pit of my stomach begin to come back. (It probably isn’t helping that we haven’t been home to my in-laws since my husband’s funeral.) This weekend will be beautiful and wonderful and probably terribly difficult.

All of the preparations also take me back fourteen years to Brad’s and my wedding and all the craziness that went with that. Like all weddings, especially those first, big ones that some of us were unhinged enough to pursue, it was all the insanity you can probably imagine. Yet the beautiful details do remain captured forever in my mind.

And one in particular that sticks was Brad’s dance with his mother, or should I say, the song that they danced to. It is a country song that was relatively popular in the years around then entitled, I Hope You Dance. These days, it hits me harder than any of Brad’s supposed “songs,” because it is Barbara (my mother-in-law’s) song. It is all she ever wished for any of us who are her children. Some of those dreams were fulfilled. Some not.

The best part, though?

Both Mimi and Brad couldn’t walk at the end of their earthly lives. And this weekend, I know they will be dancing up in heaven, joining all of us as we celebrate Brad’s big sister’s new marriage here on earth.

So yes, life always finds a way. It’s just that sometimes it doesn’t look the way we expect. Sometimes, we find ourselves without the ones we hoped to have forever. Somehow, though, we are still surrounded by those loved ones God always intended to put into our lives. And then we dance. And then we begin to dream again.

Home

They are looking for a place where they can be themselves. Where they matter. Where the fearful and wonderful creation – the person God made them to be – is full loved and affirmed and empowered.

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “The church is God saying, ‘Im throwing a banquet, and all the mismatched, messed-up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”

Many years ago now, when I was younger, my parents gave me the chance to choose where I would go to church. I was never baptized as an infant (another entertaining story altogether), because my parents had wanted me to pick a faith of my own when I was old enough.

At the end of the day, there was only one thing that made the decision: the church that felt like home.

The truth is that what most people are searching for is not the glitz or the glam, or even the easy answers.

They are looking for a place where they can be themselves. Where they matter. Where the fearful and wonderful creation – the person God made them to be – is full loved and affirmed and empowered.

They are looking for Jesus.

Not the one who has been coopted by the hateful forces that humanity has laid upon him over these last two millennia.

They are looking for the welcoming teacher who broke the world’s rules and welcomed all who came to him, especially those that society and the powerful cast out. The one who offered hope to the hopeless. Power to the powerless. Food to the hungry. And lifted up the overlooked.

They are looking for home. Real home. Something many are not even blessed to find in the houses they grow up in.

So, if you want to follow Christ, then #lifegoals means not only to work on your church looking like this, but even more importantly to make yourself and your own family into a place of welcome like this.

That’s your job.

Where to go from here…

All around us there are far too many stories of other lives lost. Of what is missing. Of opportunities missed. Of chances now gone…

Where to begin?

This last week has been one of the most difficult in recent memory. First with the six month anniversary of my husband’s death last week. Followed by his thirty-ninth birthday this week. A profound sense of what is missing has surrounded my waking hours. Of opportunities missed. Of chances that are now gone.

And yet, mine is a tale of the conventional parts of life. Yes, my husband was taken from me at too young an age. However, it was from illness. A terrible part of life that all humans must face, which makes it no easier. Yet, it does put some perspective on what else I have to say.

All around us there are far too many stories of other lives lost. Of what is missing. Of opportunities missed. Of chances now gone.

Unlike my late husband, they were not taken by nature. They were taken by something far more insidious. They were struck down by the rotting, putrefying malice of white supremacy that continues to reside, alive and well, within not only the hearts and minds of so many, but also inside the very systems of livelihood and governance that we have built. Day by day, this cantankerous virus does far more damage than even the global pandemic taking the world by storm these many months. And what is worse, many millions continuously bury their heads in the sand and refuse to even admit that there is a problem.

I saw something last night that said we need to return to “Godly morals.” And yet, the poster is one whose head is in the sand along with the thousands and the millions.

For many have misunderstood that among the most defining qualities of our God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ, is that our God is one who creates justice. Justice that lifts up the orphan and the widow. Justice that sides always, always with the oppressed and never the oppressor. Justice that aids the immigrant, alien, and refugee. Justice that is the necessary to make Love real, for without it, love is merely lip-service. I myself needed reminding of that only just last week by a wise professor.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, first, if any of us have sand in our mouth, we need to start spitting and repenting (which is probably most people who look like me at some point, if we’re honest with ourselves). Second, if we want to follow God and Christ, we must acknowledge the reality of what is really happening all around us. Hear voices. Name realities. Acknowledge accountability when it barely occurs. Then continue to seek real justice.

And last, we should seek Godly morals – ones that uphold the justice our God and our Lord Jesus Christ have already shown us. They are not an easy list. But that is the business about which we are meant to live.

It’s a new day. So let’s get to it.

A day of resurrection

As beautiful and perfect as we desire our Easter Sunday services to be, with their glorious music and gorgeous flowers, they do not reflect the candid reality of what actually occurred that first resurrection morning…

Easter is a strange time in the life of the church. We begin with a single day, when our Lord disappeared from the cold, shadow-filled tomb and went on walk-about throughout the land of his birth. The women who saw him slowly began to tell the tale, or quickly, depending on which version you’re reading. And people began to believe.

It is not a very clean story. In fact, it is quite messy. It is honest. And real. And you can feel the tingles in your bones if you let yourself.

Perhaps there is a gift in there.

As beautiful and perfect as we desire our Easter Sunday services to be, with their glorious music and gorgeous flowers, they do not reflect the candid reality of what actually occurred that first resurrection morning.

But you know what does?

Real life.

Because everyday life, when we have trouble getting ourselves out of bed, or can barely bring ourselves to face a given situation, or are unsure that what we are seeing is true – that is far more akin to what the original disciples faced. That is the true reality of Easter.

I don’t know about you all, but I find that a very big comfort. And not only on a professional level when we realize that we haven’t put together enough Communion packets.

I am far more comforted by these messy and complicated and honest visions of human disciples when the day after Easter I can barely move because the weight of the world is too much. My grief is still pressing me to my bed. And I have trouble breathing because of all the ridiculous, hate-filled lies I hear in our midst.

Those are the moments when the angels words come back to me: he is going ahead of you… Those are the moments when resurrection actually takes on real meaning for me.