Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To be perfectly honest

This past Sunday we celebrated the Affirmands--and their "graduation" from the Affirmation program. It was quite a wonderful worship service which they helped plan and write and lead. What follows is the sermon I preached that day -- based on Mark 5:24-34.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine told me this story that she heard from her friend about these friends who were friends of her friend… So what’s that…like 5-6 degrees of separation? 3rd party information and a half…? But anyway… As I heard it, this young couple had a 5 year old daughter when the mom gave birth to their second child. This was kind of your typical American family, loving, caring, hard working, probably not that different from you, except that they didn’t really go to church, they weren’t religious people at all. But, almost as soon as they brought the new baby home from the hospital, the 5 year old started asking the parents if she could spend some time alone with the baby. The parents asked why and the little girl said she just wanted to talk. Well, of course these parents had read enough books about sibling jealousy when babies are born to be a little freaked out by this…so they gave her all kinds of excuses and kept trying to distract the 5 year old from this idea, but nothing worked. The little girl kept asking. Finally, the parents figured out how they could give the girl what she wanted without putting the baby in danger. They hooked up the baby monitor and let their 5 year old go into the room with the baby by herself while the baby lay in her crib. And then they listened in on the monitor from the other room, ready to run to the rescue if they needed to. And as the little girl went into the room and stood next to the crib this is what the parents head her say to the baby, “Please, tell me about God. I’m starting to forget.”

Who knows whether this story is true. And it may raise all kinds of red theological flags for you if you’re a person who is into those sorts of things. But there is a truth here that resonates with me all the same: our kids know a lot about God from the word “Go.” Our kids have wisdom that we in our years of life experience, in our culturally conditioned, well-coifed, well schooled, pulled together lives have sometimes lost. They have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen. If we’re willing to be taught.

So as much as anything, as I’ve led Alaina, Anna, Burnley, Megan, Hannah, Clarke, Lauren and McKenzee in Affirmation this year, I’ve tried to be attentive. I’ve tried to listen. Not just to the words they say. But to everything between the words. And to what God may be trying to show me through them.

Of course, one of the things I’ve noticed is they have the ability to play at the drop of a hat. To do things with abandon—if you have any doubt about that, just leave them alone with a can of whipped cream. They also care deeply. And ask questions. They question practically everything in fact. From why we’re sitting at a table for the discussion time to why there’s hell.

Another thing I’ve noticed about them and I’m learning from them is about being honest. These guys can be searingly honest.

Which brings me to our lectionary reading for today from Mark’s gospel. Mark tells us a story about Jesus encounter with an un-named woman who is ill and needs healing. It’s a little story stuck within another story—Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, a rich important man who came to Jesus begging for him to save his dying daughter, when he runs into this woman, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. She wasn’t someone rich and important--she was poor, at the very least, because—as the Bible tells us--she’d spent all her money on doctors. But the doctors hadn’t helped. Nothing had helped. And the thing is, she wasn’t only hurting physically. From what we know about the Jewish law she was living under, a woman who was bleeding was considered unclean. And was supposed to stay away from others so she wouldn’t make them unclean as well. So according to the good church-going people of her day, she was an outcast. She couldn’t go to the temple. She couldn’t meet friends for shopping at the market, or hang out with them for coffee, or go to parties or watch her kids plays sports. She was pretty much stuck at home alone, isolated, in hiding.

So for her to be out in a crowded public place was probably a rarity. And possibly quite brave. The consequences of making someone else unclean could have been quite harsh—some commentary I read said stoning might not have been out of the question. But this woman had heard about Jesus and because she still had a shred of hope for healing, because she was desperate to be let out of solitary confinement, she took a chance, took the risk to be seen. To be touched.

But she wasn’t crazy. She still tried to be a little unobtrusive, you know. She had way too much shame and too much fear, and too much of an instinct for self-preservation to approach Jesus directly. So what she does is blend in, she gets close enough, in the midst of the pushing shoving crowd to touch Jesus, to just, you know, happen to brush the fringe of his robe. Or more likely the fringe of his prayer shawl, the prayer shawl that all good Jewish men of the time wore.

And when she did, with that touch, her bleeding stopped. She felt it in her body. She knew it. Just like that, physically she was totally healed.

Which could have been the end of the story. The woman could have come in secret, been healed in secret, trotted off back to regular life, no one any the worse for the wear. And since Jesus sometimes told people he healed not to tell anyone else about it, you’ve got to wonder, why didn’t he do that this time? Why didn’t he just let it go? He was in a hurry, trying to save a little girl. Why stop and make a big deal of this?

But he did. He did make a big deal. He calls the woman out. He asks who touched him. He asks whoever touched him to step forward and be honest, he challenges the woman to be open about her shame and her need and her disease. And with fear and trembling the woman does come out of hiding, does step forward. Expecting who knows what? More shame? More humiliation? More isolation? Maybe a big huge rock thrown at her?

Of course that’s not what she gets is it? Jesus calls attention to her, yes, but he calls attention to her faith, calls attention to her willingness to risk everything, calls attention to her honesty…after all, she could easily have said, “Touched you? Who me?” and quietly walked home, cured. But she didn’t. She came out of hiding. And Jesus calls her “Daughter.” And he blesses her and tells her to go in peace.

Mostly when I’ve heard this story discussed or preached on, the emphasis is on this woman’s faith. Faith in Jesus power to heal her. And she certainly did have faith. A lot of faith. But not only did she have faith that Jesus could heal her. What I was struck with, reading the scripture this time, reading it after spending the better part of a year with this Affirmation group, was that she had faith that she could be honest with Jesus about who she really was and he wouldn’t shame her or reject her or stone her or send her away.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t always had that kind of faith. The faith that I could be honest, about who I really am, that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone a little more together, a little more knowledgeable, a little more spiritual, a little more perfect, a little more unquestioning. Sometimes in fact, I got the message that I shouldn’t be anywhere close to honest and to be perfectly honest, the place where it seemed like I heard that message the most was from the Church, from the lovely little body of Christ, from Jesus’ representatives here on earth.

Growing up going to a small Baptist Church, we had nothing like this Affirmation program. We were told to accept Christ as our personal savior, get baptized, go to Sunday School and worship services, read the Bible, pray and evangelize, but we weren't taught to think about faith. We did however have the Girl's Auxiliary. Or GAs for short. A program in which 14 and 15 year old girls would spend several months memorizing scriptures and learning about Southern Baptist missionaries and about how to be a good Christian girl and how to become a good Christian woman and at the conclusion of the program, there would be a special ceremony in which the girls recited some “Important Bible Verses” while wearing a long, white gown, and at the end of it all, would get crowned Queen, for their troubles. Mostly what I remember of that experience is that I did fine at the memorizing, it was like passing another test in school. You know…how you memorize stuff for the test and then forget it the day after? And I also remember that the burgeoning feminist in me was totally appalled by the whole "wearing a wedding dress and getting crowned Queen" ceremony. While another part of me was desperately unhappy because I looked so fat and ugly and stupid in the dress and everyone else looked so much prettier.

But nowhere throughout this process, were we encouraged or even allowed to be honest about our faith journey. To be truthful about our struggles. To be open about our thoughts and feelings. We were provided with a nice little mold we were supposed to fill—like those plaster casts of Jesus hands clasped in prayer we used to make in Vacation Bible School. We were taught what a Christian looked like and sounded like and prayed like and talked like, and we were taught that if we couldn’t conform to this picture, we had best go quietly on our way. Or risk getting big huge rocks thrown at us.

The Mentors and Affirmands (who I must admit, I started calling the Mentos) recently spent a full day together in our final retreat of the Affirmation program, talking about our spiritual journeys, talking about our year together and thinking about this worship service. On this day, the Mentos also shared the projects that they’ve been working on this year, as a way of reflecting on their faith journey so far. They wrote songs, they made art, they interviewed people, they made movies, one of them even made a ppt presentation. Not the kind you’re used to seeing at work with thousands of bullet points and unreadable charts and graphs. No this is ppt used for good and not evil. You’ve already heard one of the songs which was written for an Affirmation project. Another song is coming up along with that that ppt presentaion And you’ll also have a chance to see all of the projects during coffee hour today over in Room 100 of Cornerstone.

But on that Saturday retreat, as the kids presented their projects to the whole Affirmation group I have to admit, I was practically in tears after each one. OK, that’s not really true. I was actually in tears. Because the projects these guys created each had so much heart in them, they each had put so much of themselves in them… They were all so different. And they were each so truthful. In these projects the kids were open about their questions. They were truthful about their difficulties understanding what it means to follow Jesus. Truthful about their ambivalence. About not liking church so much all the time, even. They were also honest about their passions, about what moves them. What gets them up in the morning. And they were honest about where they are experiencing God’s grace and presence in their lives.

And when we talked that day about this service, that’s what the Affirmands said they wanted to make sure came through, loud and clear—that’s one of the things they wanted to affirm today: their belief that God wants them to be honest on this journey of faith—honest about their joys and their struggles, honest about what they believe and about their doubts, honest about what they know and honest about their questions, honest about who they really are.

Rght about now, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good Lenora—honesty, who isn’t for honesty. But how much honesty is too much? As we all know, and parents especially know, people can sometimes be too honest. Especially kids, right. Haven’t we all been with young children when they’ve said something that made you cringe. Like you’re in the check out line in the grocery store and they say Mommy why does that man have such a big nose? Or Daddy, why does that lady draw her eyebrows on? Little kids are not hardwired to be good at keeping secrets either. Once when I had a birthday coming up when Hannah was 5 or 6, I was joking with Hannah and asking if they had gotten me a present. And she said Yes. Then she was quick to add, “But it’s not a grill.” Surprise, surprise I did get a grill that birthday—one of those George Foreman electric grills, which Gary had strictly instructed Hannah not to tell me about.

So yes, too much honesty CAN be a dangerous thing. It can be rude. It can keep your from being liked by your peers, it can keep you from fitting in. It can keep people from being surprised on their birthdays. So we try to teach our children to be Mostly honest. To sort of be who they are. And to say what they think and what they feel, sure, but at the right time, in the right situations, with the right people. We teach them to be careful about being too honest.

But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, as adults, our honesty meters are a little too tightly wound, a little too sensitively tuned. They are set too close to the Reveal Nothing end of the scale versus the Say Anything end. With the result that we keep things nice and polite and surfacey with most people and end up in a kind of solitary confinement of our own. We don’t talk too loudly about our sorrows, or our fears, we don’t tell how much money we make, or don’t make, we don’t talk about what we’re doing with our sexuality or admit to our feelings of inadequacy at work or in our marriages or in our child rearing. We don’t talk about our addictions, we remain quiet about our losses, our deep pain. We also sometimes keep quiet about our faith or lack thereof—with people who aren’t so religious we sometimes have a hard time admitting to the depth of our belief. With our friends in the church we sometimes have trouble being open about the depth of our doubts, the amount of our questions.

And we hold back the truth about ourselves because we’re scared, like the woman in Mark’s story, we’re scared of being shamed and humiliated, of being treated as even more of an outcast, or maybe even getting stones thrown at us. We hold back because we want to fit in or if we can’t fit in, we at least would like to blend in. We hold back revealing who we really are because we want to keep everyone happy, and keep conflict at a minimum. We hold back because we believe we will only be loved if we do what’s expected of us, if we look a certain way, act a certain way, believe a certain way, smell a certain way.

When Anne Lamott’s novel Crooked Little Heart came out 12 or more years ago she was touring and I went to a reading at the Women and Children First bookstore to hear her. I was sitting right up near the front and the place was packed. The time came for her to come out to start reading, and it passed and we all waited restlessly. And we waited. And waited. Finally, after about 20 minutes, Anne walked out and sat on a stool in the front. She sat down with her book in hand, but she didn’t open it. She just sat there and cried. She mumbled something about being tired and missing her son and she kept crying. She cried a lot. For a long time. While all of us in this packed bookstore sat watching her.

I had always been a person who was ashamed of crying in public. And yet, here Anne Lamott was, not just crying in public, but crying on stage in public in front of a room full of people. And the funny thing was, instead of being a weird, embarrassing, awkward, just let me out of here moment, it was beautiful, it was holy, it was like this parachute of grace had descended gently over all of us in the room. And instead of looking on her with contempt for her tears, all I felt was warmth and compassion and I felt so privileged to be let in, to get to share in this intimate, human moment with her.

This changed how I felt about crying in public forever. At that time I was a smoker, trying desperately to quit. Some of you who have been to the Recovery Worship services we have at LaSalle once a month have heard me talk about this a little. And one of the things I had figured out in therapy was that one of the functions of smoking for me figuratively (and sometimes literally) was to suck back in all my real feelings, all my sadness and shame and fear. And I was afraid that if I stopped smoking, I’d just fall apart. I’d be a weepy, blubbering basket case. When I did stop smoking soon after this incident, everything I feared turned out to be true. I stopped smoking and I started crying. I mean really crying. At the drop of a hat. For seemingly no good reason at all. I had at least one “blubbering idiot incident” pretty much every day.

I cried into my therapists answering machine. I cried with my husband. I cried with my friends. I cried in church. I cried in recovery groups. I cried in the ladies room at work with whoever happened to be in there at the moment.
And it was OK. Because every time I started crying and started feeling huge amounts of shame about it I would remember Anne Lamott crying in front of all of us, and I would remember how I felt about her that night, remember how much love I felt for her. And I would tell myself, maybe, just maybe that’s what these people witnessing my tears are feeling for me. At the very least, I understood that it was what God was feeling for me.

One of the things we did together in our Affirmation group this year was read and discuss this book by Rob Bell called The Velvet Elvis. It’s an interesting book, a book that talks about the Christian faith in a fresh way, and it provoked some lively discussions. A favorite quote from this book for many of us was this one: “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. Everything else is sin.”

The relentless pursuit of who God made YOU to be. Back in Jesus day the religious folks thought they knew what God was looking for. They thought they knew how that was supposed to look for everyone. And this woman who was bleeding for 12 years, she didn’t fit their vision. But Jesus wasn’t having any of that. He called that woman Daughter. He asked her to be honest, to come out of hiding, and then He loved her just as she was and helped her become even more of who she was meant to be.

And as Christ’s body, Jesus representatives here on earth, this is I believe, what the church is called to as well. We are called to be a place where we love each other as we are and help each other become even more of who we are meant to be. A place where we can be honest with each other about our doubts and our questions. Honest about our failures and struggles. A place where we can let our inner blubbering idiot come out. A place where we can also be honest about our passions and dreams. Not downplaying our strengths or gifts to be humble and to keep from standing out.

A place where we can be honest about who we really are. No holding back. No sanitizing ourselves for someone’s protection.

I am coming to believe that God isn’t looking for robots. Or the stuff that comes out of plaster molds. God is looking for people courageous enough to be all of who they are. People like that woman who are willing to risk their lives to get their real lives back.

I think one of the perhaps unwritten reasons that churches have confirmation classes or Affirmation programs or Girl’s Auxiliary groups at this age in kids’ lives—13, 14 years old—is because we’re all afraid of losing them. We’re all afraid that as teenagers and young adults—basically as soon as they are old enough to walk out and not come back, they will. It happens. I think back to all the kids I went to church with, the kids I was in youth group with and by the time we had all graduated from college there were very few of us who still even occasionally darkened the church’s door. But I don’t think that happens because teens and young adults stop believing in God. I think it happens because they stop believing us. Their BS meters go off. They are looking for honesty, they are looking for truth in the people around them, they are looking for a place where they can be honest, where they don’t have to hide their questions or doubts or their struggles with relationships or their confusion or their brokenness or their true joy. They are looking for people, like Jesus who will take them as they are, and love them as they are, who won’t expect them to hide or pretend to be someone else.

That's what these kids need from you today--the commitment they need from you, along with your blessing. They need you, the honest you, the real you. And it’s also the commitment they make to you. To be searingly honest. Even when it’s scary and risky. To speak the truth in love. And to speak it loud and clear. That’s the kind of church they want to be a part of. The kind of church they sense God calling all of us to be. Not a church that builds walls but a church that follows Jesus, that follows Love.

Being honest demands courage. It requires trust. It requires the kind of faith that woman in the crowd had, faith in Jesus willingness to love us where we are, as we are.

God’s love is there—all we need to do is reach out, brush our hands along the fringe of it, and take it in.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Losing my religion

Why do we stick with Christianity? And with the church? I was reading a thing on Beliefnet this morning about celebrities who've changed religions. And the majority of them had changed from some Christian denomination--Baptist, Methodist, Anglican--to something else...Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Scientology.

This is the question the Affirmation Group spent most of our time discussing on Sunday. Why do we stick with the whole Christian thing? And why do we think about chucking the whole thing? What might make you "lose your religion?" I asked everyone to write their reasons for staying with it and reasons for leaving it on sticky notes and we put them up on the wall. On two separate walls. Then another woman and I read the notes out loud for the whole group, one at a time, a reason to stay, a reason to go. The reasons to leave were things like: "Wondering if I'm believing a fairy tale," "God not answering my prayers," "It's boring and pointless to me." "Ministers who abuse children, emotionally, physically, sexually, spiritually." "Missionaries who care only for the soul and not for the whole person." "Christians who picket funerals, bomb clinics and hate those that are different." "Sometimes my parents push it on me." "Some Christians frown upon homosexuality and someone I love is bisexual." "Children are hungry, abused and dying. God and the church doesn't intervene." "It's messy."

The majority of what people listed as their reasons to stay were some variation on the theme of community and "The beauty of people caring for each other." There were a couple who admitted they were staying now because of "my family" or because of "tradition--it's all I know." Other reasons were "The idea of someone greater out there." "I really believe that God has to exist." "God is good, all the time." "Something positive, something there, all the time." "Selflessness." "The Church, when it gives up its power, in situations of race, class and money." "People who make significant sacrifices for their beliefs and to help others." One person wrote something I really liked, and really want to believe is true: "God is bigger than all the crap." "Hope" was a reason to stay someone else said. "Music" was also listed. I certainly resonated with that one--sometimes singing together in church on a Sunday morning makes life feel worth living to me.

One of my favorites was something someone wrote to be funny (maybe) but it also was honest I think, and maybe also more profound a reason than it seems at first glance. They wrote: "I like the bread." And isn't it sometimes as simple as that? I like the bread too. Not only the taste of it and that we stand there in a line and are fed together, but because we are fed bread and fed the idea that our spirits and our bodies matter, this world matters to God, we are reminded that we are all in this together and that God is encountered in the daily stuff of life, in the standing shoulder to shoulder, in the eating and drinking, in the hungers of our lives, in our need and our loneliness and our hope and longing.

And yes, I agree, most of the time, the whole Christian thing seems too messy. We've been doing this for thousands of years and we can't seem to get it right very often. But I keep coming back. For hope. For community. For the music. Because God does, amazingly enough, feel bigger than all the crap. And I come for the bread. Bread broken and shared. It tastes good.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The words of life

I was talking to one of the mentors last week about the experience she's been having with her "mentee" (or "Mento" as I like to call them). Her Mentee has had a hard time with the reading material and the homework and she's struggling to do her final project for Affirmation. And I'm the first to admit, the reading isn't easy. It's not a lot to read, but it's MORE--these kids lives are so busy and overscheduled that I know it's like ONE MORE THING TO DO. And the reading isn't light and breezy stuff either. It wasn't written for 14 year olds, so it's not always easy to grasp without paying a lot of attention and thinking about it. So I understand it could be difficult. And then the Affirmation project: I've asked each of the kids to do a project that expresses where they are in their spiritual journey--what questions are they asking, what kinds of things are they thinking about. The assignment is fairly open-ended and the final product could be just about anything. Some kids are doing videos, a couple are writing songs or making artwork. But this is a hard assignment, I know, because not only does the Affirmand have to figure out what he/she is thinking about in terms of faith, they need to come up with an interesting way of showing that. And then they actually have to produce it. Make something to demonstrate that. And the mentors have to help--they aren't responsible for doing the project but they need to help the Mentee figure out what shape the project might take, and help motivate and support them as they do it.

When this Mentor and I spoke last week I was trying to reassure her that what her Affirmand does or does not do in this program is not ultimately all that important. It's important that the Affirmand shows up. It's important that she, the Mentor, shows up and walks through this with them. I have no illusions that the kids will remember much of what they read or discussed during this program. I think they will remember we met together once a month and shared a meal and that it meant something. I think they will remember their mentor and that there was someone in the church, an adult not in their family, who was willing to take time away from their own families and work and lives to spend time with them. That there was an adult who wasn't obligated to, who actually cared about them.

Though there was much that was wrong and harmful to me about the ideology of the church I grew up going to, there were a few adults in that church who cared about me and let me know it. Adults who invited us teens into their house for pizza parties and guitar parties, who went with us on retreats as chaperones and made us laugh and laughed with us, who tolerated the nicknames we gave them and the personal questions we asked them. I remember my teenage years as being quite often a dark time. I called suicide hotlines a couple times. I almost ran away from home a couple times. I was depressed a lot and felt so horrible about myself that I thought I wouldn't survive at times. Of course, I'm not sure you would have known this if you were just giving me a passing glance. If most people could tell that this was my reality, they didn't let on. But I do remember one time in particular being at a church picnic. I was in a bad place that day, a bleak, sad, I'm nothing, what's the point, kind of place. Except of course, on the surface I was just humming along, playing the part of a good church kid at a nice summer church picnic. But out of the blue, one of the adults who hung out with the youth sometimes, came over to me, and stopped me in my tracks. I was playing with some of the little kids, trying to help keep them out of trouble and amused, and this woman came up to me and said, "I really like you, Lenora." And I said, "What? What was I doing?" And she said, "It wasn't something you were doing. I just wanted you to know that I really like you." And then she walked away. And that was that. Except I've never forgotten it. It happened about 40 years ago and I remember it as if it was yesterday. And I certainly wouldn't say that's why I'm a person who is still in the church today, who still tries in her own stumbling fumbling way to follow Jesus, someone who despite her best efforts at times, still feels like God is there and God cares...but those words at that moment in my life made a huge difference. And even if they aren't the only reason I'm still here plugging away at this whole faith thing, they are a big part of the reason.

So that's what I told that Mentor on the phone last week: The fact that you care about this girl, the fact that you spend time with her, that you enjoy her, that you "like" her, that's all that matters. Not the reading, not the project, not the homework, not the discussion. Just saying with your life and occasionally with actual words, "I really like you," that's all that matters. That's all I really needed in my heart of hearts when I was 14. That's all I suspect these kids really need from any of us today.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Just scratches.

It's getting near the end of the school year and the stress level is rising. There are projects due and tests coming, big tests, tests that count for a third of your grade. And there are spring sports going on, practices to attend, games to win, and for these 8th graders in my group, graduation from middle school is not far away, along with the graduation dance (which may be the most stressful event of all). And then there's high school next year. And all the fears about that: will you get in classes with good teachers and with some people who are your friends? Will you be able to get good grades, keep up with homework, find your way around--literally not get lost and end up crying like a blubbering idiot as you wander some back hallway somewhere, and also not get lost as in having no friends, having no idea who you are or what you're doing or where you fit in--in that new place.

I get so caught up in my own stress--will I have a job tomorrow, will I have enough money to put my kids through college, will I be able to not embarrass myself totally in that meeting, am I being a good mother, wife, friend, human being, oh yeah and "Christian," will I get sick and die young, am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, what does it all mean, what does it all matter, why is my house never clean, what am I doing with my life--that sometimes it's hard to see past that, to see that these kids are ready to explode with all the anxiety and it's very real and very scary for them.

And I guess the question for them and me is do we believe God cares and God takes care of us? That is one of the hardest things for me to believe, frankly. It's not that hard for me to believe that there is a Higher Power out there, a God who cares about the course of history, who stands with the poor and oppressed, who wants justice and mercy and kindness to permeate our world. What's hard to believe is that God cares about ME, my little problems, the things that keep me awake at night. And why would God take the time and energy to care for me when there are so many people who need so much more at the moment--who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who are dying of AIDs, alone in a hut in Africa, when there are kids being bombed, and girls being raped and sold into prostitution, when there are homeless people and people with cancer and soldiers on front lines, and presidents who are responsible for millions of lives. I am such small potatoes. My stresses and these kids' stresses, while real to us, are like scratches on someone with a giant open wound on their body. The scratches aren't where you start. The scratches pretty much can heal by themselves.

So I don't know how much God notices me. Or notices these "basically everything is all right" teenagers under my care. When I am at my best, I notice the kids, and I care, and maybe that's the way it works. God puts people like me and like these kids' mentors and parents in their lives to pay attention, to see them and walk with them, and hold their hands when they are afraid, to rub their back when they strike out in softball, to take them dress shopping for the big dance and call the dean at the high school to make sure they are going to be in the right classes, to tell them everything is gong to be all right, somehow, someway, to tell them we're not in charge, but God is, even though it doesn't seem like it all the time. And they will survive this time in their lives, this stress. And no matter what, we say, we'll be there for them. And we make sure that it's true.

Maybe that's the way it works. And maybe that's enough.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Necessity of Yes

In our Affirmation group meeting this Sunday we were discussing a couple of the chapters in The Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell's book that I'm having the Affirmands read as a key part of the program. I like this book because Bell uses fresh language to talk about some of the basics of faith. And he talks a lot about Jesus as a Jew and places him firmly within that tradition, which provides a lot of clarity and new insight into things Jesus said and did.

We were discussing how Jesus chose his disciples, and talking about the fact that we are all loved and chosen too. I was really hit with that fact when I was reading this chapter and preparing to discuss it with the kids. And I said that to them. I said, "God chose me and chose each of you in this room, just as surely as he chose Peter, James and John. You were chosen." I said this with passion, I think, with a little fervor even. It just seemed so important and momentous.

And they all just stared back at me. Blankly. Or perhaps slightly quizzically as if the old lady had finally lost it. A couple of them kind of cocked their heads like a dog will do when you're speaking at length to him but he doesn't really get what you're saying, and it doesn't really matter to him much anyway, unless he missed something...did he miss something, did you say bone or walkies or treat?

I plunged ahead. Talked about how we are chosen but we also then need to decide how we're going to respond to that. Like getting chosen for the team. Just because you're chosen doesn't mean you have to play. You have to decide that.

More relatively blank stares.

These kids have pretty much grown up going to church and their parents bring them even when they don't want to come at times, and though they didn't have to do this Affirmation program, and maybe no parents "forced them," per se, there was probably some sense of expectation that they would. And maybe a little pressure. Or a lot, who knows? So I worry sometimes that they may not feel like they have a choice they can make or that they're really allowed to make an honest choice, so they're just biding their time, until they get out on their own, out from under their parents' rule, out from under this lovely little all-eyes-are-on-me-so-I-have-to-look-good churchy wing. And then I also worry sometimes, with some of them, that they may feel like they have made a choice just because they are here every Sunday, and their parents are here and their friends are here. And they really haven't. They're like a flea, going along for the ride, until they fall off, and then they'll find a new ride. A different ride.

This whole "you need to make a choice" thing feels very Baptist of me. It seems like this is a way in which my Baptist roots are showing and I feel a little embarrassed by myself. It's like I heard "I have decided to follow Jesus," sung a few too many times when I was growing up and I can't shake it, I can't get that song, or that idea out of my head. The idea that you need to make a choice, a real choice to follow or not, and you've got to know it on some deep level. And I certainly don't think it's a matter of saying the "right" words and asking Jesus to come into your heart and be your personal Savior...or that saying those words is some magic formula. I just believe at some point you need to get that you have been called or invited or loved and chosen and some sort of response is required. That you need to say Yes, somehow, someway. And it may not be a one big Yes, it may be a series of many small yes's, but it needs to be said, one way or another. And we say it for ourselves I think. Like we say, "I do," or "I will," when we're getting married. So on those days when none of it makes sense or when everything looks as good as everything else...we can look back and remember there was a choice made one day. A decision. And that decision set you on a path, not always clear, definitely not smooth, but a path nonetheless.

And on those days when faith is far away, you have a marker, you remember there was a day when you joined this team, trusting there was something here for you, hoping against hope that more would be revealed but knowing that one day you heard a Voice that said "You are loved. You are chosen," and you said "Great. Hurray. Ok. Let's play. Yes."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Don't give away the ending

I had an encounter with some of the kids from the Affirmation Group right after the Good Friday service at our church. This service was very dark and quiet. Four readers read the scripture for each of the stations of the cross. The choir sang the song "Calvary," throughout, which is a mournful lament. A soloist gave us "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," -- gave it to us from some deep place of hurt inside of her. At the end everyone there walked around the sanctuary and in silence contemplated the artwork that people from the church had created for each of the 12 stations. Some photography, some oil paintings, mixed media, each of them powerful statements made on a 12x12 inch canvas.

Down in the fellowship hall below the sanctuary after the service I ran into some of the Affirmation kids. There was something about this service--its simple telling of the story--the power of the story itself--something that had definitely gotten their attention, captured their imagination. I knew this because they were talking about it, asking questions about it. Why did the crowd turn on Jesus and want him crucified? Why would they have them release a murderer like Barrabas instead of Jesus? Is it Cavalry or Calvary? One of the kids said, "I kept wondering what the Cavalry had to do with it. Did they even have a Cavalry back then?" Once I straightened out the whole Cavalry vs. Calvary question they asked, "So what was Golgotha? Sounds like the name of a goth band..."

As we were leaving, Hannah, my 14 year old said to me, "It would be better if there wasn't an Easter."

"What do you mean," I asked.

"It would be better if we didn’t know the ending. If we didn’t know he was going to come back to life," she told me. The story would be more powerful for us all, she explained, if we didn't know there was going to be a happy ending. She cited examples from some of her favorite novels. It's better, she told me, if you have to sit with the feeling that it's all over, that all hope is lost. It's more true to life. And it makes the surprise ending even better.

Good Friday is the night darkness wins. Shame wins. All that is broken and falling apart doesn’t get put back together. The wounds are not healed. Death wins. That feeling, that all is lost, that nothing is going to work out, that it's all over and hope is gone, that's a feeling we're all too familiar with. And that's where we sit, without knowing for sure that Easter is coming, much of our lives. We don't get to race past that to the happy ending. Perhaps recognizing that Jesus and the disciples didn't get to do that either, that they thought on Friday night that it was all over, that their dreams had died, their possibilities of a different sort of life had been crucified...perhaps knowing that can help us. We are not alone in our Good Friday lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Maundy, Maundy

The Maundy Thursday service at our church involves a simple meal of soup and bread, some quiet songs and scripture, sharing of the bread and cup and then foot or hand washing. The washing part is kind of the culmination of the service.

It's interesting that in John's gospel, the foot washing is the centerpiece of the story--not the meal or the bread and wine. Making it the fulcrum is John's way, I suppose, of making the point about Jesus love for the disciples. That was the big news, the headline news for John. Jesus loves us and invites us in.

There were two 12 year old boys sitting at our table on Maundy Thursday. Gabe and Nick. Gabe and Nick were not shy about going back for seconds and thirds on the soup that night. They ate the bread leftover at our table from communion too. When it came time for the hand and foot washing part of the service, we were all directed that we could go to either one of the hand washing stations (there were 3 of those) or the foot washing station (just one--assuming that it wouldn't be the most popular destination of the night, I suppose). Gabe and Nick were the first out of their seats, making a beeline for the foot washing. As expected there wasn't much of a line behind them. So I watched as they luxuriated in the bathing of their feet--considering that these were 12 year old boys' feet I imagined they might have real dirt on them, they might even have that stinky athletic sour-milk smell. However, the woman washing feet washed theirs gently, lovingly...thoroughly...channelling Jesus as best any of us could.

I was envious of these boys--their lack of foot shame. There's a lot of foot shame in our society. A lot of it among women, but maybe men have it to some degree too. There's a popular video on youtube all about Katie Couric having ugly feet. And recently, I ran across a blistering article about celebrity Lara Flynn Boyle who walked the red carpet barefoot, and her feet were declared horribly ugly, one toe way longer than the others, "sticking out there like it belonged to a whole other person’s foot." And Boyle was admonished by the blogger that she desperately needed a pedicure. Pedicures are on the rise—up over 20%, rising in popularity even among men.

I can only speak for myself, but sometimes I think the way I feel about my feet, my shame about exposing them in all their calloused, mis-shapened, cracked skin, blistered ugliness, is actually how I feel about the rest of me on some deep level. I'm mis-shapen, cracked, calloused and ugly underneath it all and not sure I want anyone to get close enough to see that.

So footwashing seems to be the perfect way for God to get right to the heart of the matter. It isn’t about getting you cleaned up and presentable, it’s about being included, loved for who you are.

Ok so I didn't go for the footwashing that night--just the hands. But Gabe and Nick, they went for all the gusto. After they finished with their feet, they headed over to one of the hand washing stations. I think if they'd been offered full body scrubs they would have been the first (and possibly the only) ones in line for that too. They would have said with Peter, "Not just my feet Lord, wash my hands and head too."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Paddling across the divide

I recently read a post on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog site by a young Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. She lives in Denver and is developing a new “emerging church” (and you can read her blog at http://www.sarcasticlutheran.typepad.com/). One of the things she said that really struck me was “… people in my scene would have to culturally commute {italics mine} from who they are to who the traditional church is.” I think that’s often very true of the kids in my affirmation group as well. In their “real” lives in school and online they walk and talk and joke and sing and IM a certain way that is often so far removed from the language and culture of the church to be laughable. And our church wouldn't even be considered a "traditional church." It's progressive in orientation and its worship services are a melange of old and new rituals and world influence and creativity and imagination. But I think if you asked the kids in my group—all of whom have been going to this church since they were very young—to explain phrases like “washed in the blood of the Lamb” or “justification by faith” or “let angels prostrate fall” (which a number of the older folks in the church are very familiar with) they would be not only at a loss, they would be annoyed. And these are kids who “get it”—kids who basically want to be in church (more or less, depending on the day and their mood, of course). My daughter Hannah is always quick to point out songs that we sing during worship which she finds obscure and confusing or music that seems too dull or dry or boring (“that music sucks,” in other words...)and given the fact that her dad is in charge of the music, there’s not a lot of that kind of stuff in our worship services, but enough to bother her now and then.

I’ve been thinking about language and cultural divides a lot this week since my family and I have been enjoying our spring break down in Mexico in a place where there is sunshine and warmth and ocean and a breeze so fresh and gentle you can imagine it is the actual breath of God. Part of the reason we come to Mexico, other than the whole sunshine and breath of God thing, is because our kids have been learning Spanish ever since they were three years old when we put them into a language immersion preschool. Even though the full immersion school only lasted until they went into first grade, they were in partial immersion through elementary school and have continued in the top-level Spanish classes offered by their middle school and high school. So visiting here is a way for them to be in a culture where Spanish is the primary language and they can hear it being spoken everywhere they go and are given “opportunities” (read “forced”) to speak the language themselves quite frequently. Gary and I don’t speak Spanish nearly as well as they do—we’ve been trying to learn it some over the last several years (we both took French in college, but can’t speak that either…), but we’re old and way too busy to make it a huge priority, so as a result we have what amounts to passable restaurant and taxi Spanish.

Visiting another country in which you don’t speak their language very much or very well and only some people speak yours can be exhausting, I must admit. Gary and the girls and I went out on a river rafting excursion yesterday and at the beginning our guide spoke to us only in Spanish. He explained all the life-saving instructions we would need to follow in his native language and Zoe translated for us, just to make sure we got it. But I was trying to understand on my own, as he spoke, listening in a very focused way, trying to pick out words and phrases I was familiar with, watching his body language for clues to the meaning. I got a lot of it but I missed some important things as well. And I have to admit, I was really grateful for the instruction time to end so we could get in the boat and start paddling—the physical exertion seemed preferable to me to the mental exertion of translating.

It was funny, but once we got going down the river, Gabrielle, our guide, started speaking to us in English quite a lot. His English was very good. We wondered later why he’s given us all the instructions up front in Spanish… Of course he did make a joke at one point: Do you know what a person who speaks three languages is called? Trilingual. And a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And a person who only speaks one language? American. So maybe underneath his smiles and jokes and very charming guide-like patter there was a little anger and resentment about the lack of effort most Americans put forth to learn other languages, to step outside a culture and language that is familiar and comfortable for them, that feels “right” to them.

So all this brings me back to where I started. Walking into the church for most teenagers is like walking into a different country. But frankly, it’s like that for many adults as well. I think about the people I work with, mostly young hip urban web designer types, and the world of the church is like, not just Mexico—more like outer Mongolia for them. There’s a part of me, though, that thinks the church should feel like a different culture and should loudly and clearly speak a different language. We should be about speaking the language of hope versus despair, of love versus hate, of caring versus apathy; we should be a culture where people are willing to go the extra mile versus throw you under the bus.

But we also need to be able to be gracious enough to meet those from another culture halfway. Like Gabrielle was with us. We need to encourage bilingual communication it seems. Where we learn and try to speak each other’s languages. As exhausting as it might be, I have to believe, we would all be better off for the effort.

Status Updates of the Divine

When I was in seventh grade one of my best friends was a boy named Marc. We both lived in Michigan but Marc’s family also had a house in Boulder, Colorado where they spent a couple months every summer. While he was in Boulder, Marc and I wrote letters to each other (this was way before the days of email or IMing) and I’ll never forget what Marc said in one of them. ““Whenever I get lonely, I just look at all the names in my address book and I feel better.”

I started thinking about Marc because of something my husband Gary said to me the other day. I have one of those smart phones and I was perusing emails and checking my Facebook updates while we were driving together down the highway. And Gary said, “I don’t really get the whole Facebook status updates thing. Why do you do that?”

If you’re one of the people who have never been on Facebook—and if you are, where have you been living? At the bottom of a well?—at the top of the page of this online social media site, you are given a question and a blank to fill in…totally optional, of course. The question, up until a couple months ago was simply “What are you doing?” It’s recently been changed to “What’s on your mind?”(which is really making tons of Facebook devotees quite annoyed). This is the status update Gary was referring to -- I receive a feed of status updates from all my Facebook friends directly to my smart phone, so I can check on them anywhere and anytime. I can also update my status right from my phone as well.

“I don’t know,” I said. And then I remembered the story about Marc and his address book, which I told Gary about, then added, “I think Facebook is like that for a lot of people. It’s how we stay in touch, how we keep from feeling so alone, how we express our need for each other. And whenever we feel lonely or disconnected we can just check out our friends online, and like Marc, it makes us feel better.”

“But isn’t it hard to think of something to say all the time?” he asked.

“In a way it’s not so much what you say that matters,” I explained. “It’s just that you say something. It’s the act of trying to put yourself out there that matters.”

“It’s kind of a ritual then,” Gary said, beginning to get it. Gary, who works at a seminary and is the pastor of worship and the arts at a downtown Chicago church, understands the importance of rituals. “Kind of like confession or passing the peace.”

“Yeah, sort of. It’s like how you can laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep these days,” I said, paraphrasing Romans 12.

After this conversation I went back and re-read Romans 12. I’ve always been a big fan of the portrait of the church this passages paints. But truth be told, I’ve also sort of resented it at the same time. I’ve never felt like the reality of the way we live our lives in 2009 makes it possible to be a part of this sort of body of Christ. Look at the first thing we’re “urged” to do in Romans 12:1: “God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” I don’t know if you’ve ever really tried to do that…be present and aware of the moments of your everyday, ordinary life—and placing those moments into the hands of God…but I have found it to be extraordinarily hard. My life is BUSY (with not only a capital B, but with all caps and italics)—and I feel like I am always rushing to the next thing—all good things, certainly, but racing around like a crazy person most of the time, nonetheless. I have a full time job in advertising, I sing in the choir at church and lead this affirmation/confirmation program. I have two teenage daughters who have lots of interests and a great need for parents to take an interest in their interests, as well as to provide them with transportation in the pursuit of those interests. I have a husband who has two part time jobs that add up to one long stream of work that never seems to end, and for us to have quality time together, which we both really want to have, requires creativity, stamina and an ability to wedge intimacy into the tiniest of cracks. And somehow, in the midst of all that, I’m supposed to stop and reflect enough to offer up my life to God? Yeah, right.

Here’s the thing, though. Facebook, strangely enough, is helping me do just that. Taking a moment or two to answer that little question it poses for me everyday, “What are you doing?” or “What’s on your mind?” draws me into a brief period of self-reflection. My answers aren’t always deep and profound, but I at least try to make sure they are honest. Many of them are incredibly mundane, like: “…it's snowing again??? Come on...” Or infused with boredom…and maybe even a tad of frustration: “…waiting for a meeting to start, staring at a speaker phone which sits like a idol to be worshipped in the middle of a fake wood table.” Some of them are more intimate and confessional and I end up saying something, out in the very public sphere of Facebook, which I might have a hard time saying out loud to a friend standing in front of me: “Lenora Rand is feeling jealous. Which she was trying to give up for Lent. Ah well.” Some of them are only thinly veiled admissions of pain or need: “Lenora Rand is having this weird eye twitch going on. Please try not to stare or if you stare at least say something humorous in a supportive kind of way.”

Others are recordings of simple moments of grace – moments, that without the prompting from Facebook, I might have just let slip by, unnoticed and unmarked. “Someone once said, ‘We are here to learn to bear the beams of love.’ Today with the family, it's almost more than anyone can bear.”

Micro-blogging these little snippets has had an effect I never anticipated—I’m more awake and aware now, more alert to “what’s on my mind” and what I’m doing in the moment. It has become for me a form of meditation, at times a kind of prayer, and always a way of connecting with my spirit, if only for a few seconds, in the whirlwind of my day.

But that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned before, not only do I put my status updates out into the world of Facebook, I get updates from all my FB Friends. Like a FB friend of mine from church, who has recently started using a dating service, wrote this one day: “Torri 's date last night turned out to be a convicted felon embroiled in a 5 year long custody battle w an ex he described as 'certifiably nuts.' go kiss ur spouses.”A FB friend from my workplace (someone I see only rarely in person) confessed that she: “…is ready to trade in her teenager for something nice, like a massage.”.”

When I read messages like this I often write a supportive comment back. And in the process I end up experiencing what I think the apostle Paul was writing about later in that Romans 12 passage: “Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down… discover beauty in everyone.” (The Message)

I’m sure when Paul was writing this letter to the Romans he never envisioned people following his instructions to offer up their daily lives, their eating and sleeping and working and dealing with bad dates and teenagers and boredom by typing a status update in a little box on a website. Neither did he, I suspect, envision people writing comments in response, feeling each other’s pain and sharing each other’s joys through a few brief words tossed into cyber space. Frankly, it isn’t something I envisioned happening when I signed up for Facebook a couple years ago, either. And I strongly doubt it was something Mark Zukerberg, the creator of Facebook, had in mind when he introduced it. But that’s what seems to be happening, perhaps because it’s what, in the midst of our way-too-busy, overbooked and speed-racing lives, it’s what we all so desperately need, In a way, it’s our version of what my friend Marc used to do by looking at the names in his address book. We do it because it makes us feel better.

I am also coming to believe, as Gary suggested, that this act of updating your status and reading others’ status updates can be, for many of us, an important ritual, a ritual of reflection, confession, assurance and passing of the peace. And for the thousands of people like me who participate in it each day on Facebook, it is very powerful. And even at times, quite holy. It’s how we have begun to see our lives more clearly and feel the grace in our lives more acutely. It’s how we’ve begun to feel closer to people we used to just whiz by. It’s how we’ve begun to feel less alone, and more known and cared for by others, and ultimately, for me, at least, even more known and cared for by God.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A thousand lunatics waving

This week at my work everyone in the agency was asked to help out with a new business pitch by going on a little excursion. We received an email telling us to meet in the lobby of our building and that more would be revealed. So we all gathered and then at 3 pm the surge of people went outside. There were probably about a thousand of us, and we all started walking, just following the people walking in front of us. If there were clear instructions given at some point, I missed them. And frankly I'm not sure there were. All I knew is that we were walking toward Ontario street and that was it. I found someone I knew in line and we walked together, mostly just chatting, catching up, occasionally wondering and questioning those around us on what they knew, if they knew more than us, if they had any idea what we were doing. When we arrived at our destination--and the only way I knew it was our destination was because everyone stopped, we stood there for a long time, waiting, not knowing what we were waiting for. Waiting for further instructions, I guess. After about 20 minutes, at some sign that I wasn't privy to, those around me started waving and cheering, looking up toward the sky, toward the windows of this office building we were standing near, just waving and cheering. I joined in, all the while trying to figure out why, and who we might be waving at or cheering for. I never did--and ultimately I ended up just having to trust that I was doing the right thing at the right time, and there was someone out there somewhere watching, someone who cared that we were standing on a street corner, a thousand lunatics waving.

After a minute or two of this waving and cheering, at some other signal I missed, we stopped, and some people across the street held up signs that said, "Thanks and have a beer on us." and gave the address of a nearby bar.

This whole silly event seemed to me a perfect representation of the life of faith.

We follow some obscure instructions and follow other people following those same obscure instructions, hoping against hope that we're going in the right direction. Not totally clear on our purpose, our destination. Asking others along the way what they know, what they've seen and heard. Looking for reassurance in their presence. We are stared at by strangers. We are at times annoying to passersby, sometimes amusing, intriguing, sometimes even slightly inviting. We try to enjoy the journey by chatting with people we're walking with. And then we stop sometimes and perform strange rituals, waving wildly toward the heavens, hoping that an unseen face at the window sees us and what we're doing means something to them, matters in some way.

That's how it's been for me, at least. I heard some obscure instructions one day a long long time ago. And I've been walking ever since, walking among this great cloud of witnesses, trying at times to keep up, sometimes veering off on my own, sometimes happily following along, thinking it's all a great, crazy, ridiculous, funny adventure, and sometimes totally pissed off about the lack of concrete information, about what a foolish waste of time it all seems to be. I heard a voice and I started following, and I shade my eyes and look up to the sky for a sign that I'm in the right place, that my being here makes a difference, that my actions are communicating something to Someone, and that at some point all will be revealed. In the meantime, I am one of a thousand lunatics waving. Like Abraham and Sarah. Like David. Like Ruth and Rahab. Peter and Paul. Looking up and praying and hoping and believing we're all on the right road and as stupid as it feels and looks and as strange and absurd as it may be, this is what we were made for, this is why we were put here, this is what will ultimately make all the difference in the world.

Oh yeah and afterwards...whenever afterwards is...Free Beer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Required reading

I give my affirmation group homework each month, which usually involves reading a chapter from The Velvet Elvis and then sometimes there’s some short supplementary reading and a worksheet I make up—a few thought questions to answer. When we meet together as a group once a month, we discuss the chapter from the book and perhaps some of the other readings. And I ask them to turn in the worksheets.

I heard through the grapevine last week about one of the Affirmands telling another that she hadn't been reading the book. The advice she got back was: don't worry...just find something you can relate to in the discussion time and start talking about that and no one will be able to tell. "That's what I do," the advice-giver said. "And no one knows the difference."

Now, keep in mind, I'm not keeping score in Affirmation; no one is getting graded on a 4 point scale. It's not even Pass/Fail. It's just Pass and Pass. And whatever. So why the need to fake it? To pretend to do the reading? To act like the perfect student when you really aren't? To try to give the impression you're really into it, when you're really not?

There's a TV show on these days called "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" and though I've only watched an episode or two, my kids watch it some. There's a lot going on in these TV American Teenagers' lives. Mostly involving sex it seems. (Surprise, surprise.) Who's kissing someone they shouldn't? Who's sleeping with who? Who's pregnant? Is the pregnant girl's boyfriend going to come through for her, etc. etc. Of course when I was growing up it was "sex, drugs and rock n roll." The holy trinity of our disaffection and teenage rebellion. But, the point is, teenagers always rebel. Experiment. Push the boundaries. Test the limits. That's what it means to be a teenager, after all. It's a time for separation from parents and authority figures. A time to thumb your nose and see just how much you can get away with. And if you're not doing all the wild things, you're watching others do them, live and in person, or on stupid TV shows.

So in the major scheme of things, not doing the reading for Affirmation, seems like pretty small potatoes. And if that's the way some of the kids in this program want to rebel (versus staying out all night and smoking crack) hallelujah, bring it on.

On the other hand...I did feel a little sad when I heard about the deception -- the "pretend to do the reading, fake everyone out, seem like we're 'good' when we really aren't" thing going on in the group. Not sure why exactly. Maybe because I think that's what church can become for people for all their lives, not just as teenagers. The place we go with our "my life is all together" disguises on. It can become the place where no one is telling the truth, everyone is pretending to be happy and healthy or at least working on things that need fixing. It isn't often a place where people go and say, I don't want to love my neighbor, I'm no good at loving myself, I think God is a major SOB for saddling me with this or that, and expecting me to thank Him for it. I feel selfish and angry and unhappy and not at all "Christlike" thank you very much and I'm not sure I want to feel anything different. And NO I didn't do the required reading.

During Lent my family and I decided to give up sweets--sugary desserts, candy, ice cream, that sort of thing. And I'm not doing well with it. As soon as we decided this, I started craving sugary stuff more than ever. What I've said to people about it is that I wanted to give up sugar because I know I use sugar to medicate my feelings and help me feel like I can take care of things on my own. Being without sugar I thought would take me to this vulnerable place where I would be more aware of my needs and fears and sadness and loneliness and without my sugar crutch, I would turn to God, become closer to God.

What's happened though is that I've gotten into my secret American teenager life. I've started having sugar when my family isn't around, when no one is looking. I've been pretending to be good, and feeling bad because I'm not. I've been faking it, pretending to go along with the family, while at the same time plotting my next opportunity to sneak a Snickers bar or a Pop Tart. And why am I doing this--what do I get out of this? It's definitely a way to express anger. It's a secret way to express anger and disappointment with my life and with God. And the secretiveness of it seems to be a part of its charm. The thrill of it, I guess. We don't just lie, I suspect, because we are afraid of what would happen if we told the truth. Because frankly, not that much would happen to me if I told the truth to my family about the sugar. And nothing would happen if the kids in my Affirmation group who aren't doing the reading came out and said, I'm not doing the required reading. (It might actually be a good thing if they said that.) But we don't tell the truth I think because lying is exciting. Lying is fun. Lying gets our adrenaline rushing, and our heart racing and it gives us a secret smile, some sweet thing to hold onto that separates us and makes us feel special. Or maybe even more alive.

Are the secrets short lived jolts of "aliveness"? Sure. They are sugar highs. Only good for a little while, then you need another one. But sometimes the alternative, real honesty, feels too hard, too exhausting, too time-consuming and like too much work.

I've been thinking about writing a note to my Affirmand group this week. Just to tell them once again that the required reading in our program isn't really that required. To tell them again that this program is just for them, for their growth, to give them a time and space and a forum to talk about the big questions. A time to separate their faith from their parents' faith, to decide who they want to be in relationship to God, to see what they believe if no one is telling them what to believe. I don't know if it will matter, if anyone will open up and tell the truth about the fact that they aren't doing all the reading so we could talk openly about that.

I've also been thinking about what I'm learning this Lent is that I love to keep secrets. I thrive on secret rebellion. On looking good, on keeping the surface shiny and polished, while hiding what's just underneath that surface. And that maybe that's something I need to confess to my lovely little sugar-deprived family.

I might need to eat a Hershey bar first, though.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Remind me...why do we go to church, again?

Why do you go to church? I asked the Affirmands and their mentors that question on Sunday. Of course I told the Affirmands that I know many of them may feel like they don't have much of a choice in the matter because their parents bring them, so I suggested they answer as if they did feel like they had a choice...as if they could imagine having a choice.

It turned into one of those sacred moments as we went around the table, one of those times in which the air feels electric with Presence, when people are reaching inside themselves and bringing out something raw and tender that they don't often expose to the light of day. It was a godly moment, as my 14 year old Hannah might say. "Godly" is one of her new favorite words. It's one of her "bits," she uses. ("Bits" being her word for her ongoing schticks.) For example, we have a table in our house that is covered with crosses we've collected from travels in Mexico. There's one Zoe brought back from Ecuador too. And Hannah calls this our "godly table." It sounds funny the way she says it, as it's meant to. I know on some level she loves this table of crosses. And on another she is embarrassed to love it, embarrassed to be a person who goes to church, who has a mother who collects crosses. She loves our family and at the same time feels weird and different from her friends to be a part of a family that believes in God and prays and sings songs about Jesus and goes to church regularly. All of that is encapsulated in the way she calls this our "godly" table.

So we had one of Hannah's "Godly" moments on Sunday. Beautiful and truthful and spirit-filled, and also slightly awkward and embarrassing. Stripping away our cool facades for a moment or two to say what we are hungry for at God's feast.

The community. The music. To be reminded of God's values. To pray with other people. To participate in an alternate reality. To get a little taste of heaven. For beauty. For love. Out of longing. These are the reasons we show up on a Sunday morning. It almost hurt to say it out loud...to admit to ourselves and each other the deep need that brings us together, the need and the love and the hope.

As I was planning for our Affirmation meeting this past week I thought perhaps we'd do a recipe poem about church with the group. The discussion went long so we never got to it, but on Saturday night, as I was preparing I wrote a recipe poem about church, just to see where it might take us. I liked what it brought out of me. It's kind of a godly poem, I think.

Recipe for Church

Take two or more people stirred by something.
Or Someone.
Mix them together with a pinch of mystery.
Ladle in their stories, their particular sorrows,
Their thinly sliced joy,
And sweet sprinkles of hope.
Fold their hands in prayer.
Then bring their hands together, layer them gently.
Cut through the false pretenses, all the lies they tell themselves and each other, all the ways they pretend to have it together, peel away the layers they use to keep each other at bay.
Add heat.
Don’t be afraid to burn this.
It’s not your job to control this.
When it’s done…

Wait, how will you tell when it’s done?

Things will rise.
The aroma will fill the room.
You may suddenly hear the dusting of music, music so beautiful it makes you want to crylaughcry.
Go with it.
You may also notice angels, swirling, cresting like meringue.

When it’s done, place in the bowl of heaven.
Serve immediately to the world.
They’re waiting for a taste of this.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Strangely smudged.

Ash Wednesday. It's a jarring day to me. A few random people show up in the morning at work with black smudges on their foreheads and when I first see them it takes a second to register, to recognize the sign of the cross, the thumbprint of ashes. Yesterday one of the administrative assistants at my work, a hard-working recently divorced young Mom, slipped back into her chair after lunch with an ashy cross on her face and a slightly guilty look. Like she was sorry to admit it, in and among her group of "too cool for God" co-workers, that she believes in this whole crazy Jesus/redemption/Lent thing, even though she may not know why. Or maybe that's just me. Maybe she was just feeling guilty about taking a little longer for lunch.

Last night I went to the Ash Wednesday service at our church and I was struck by the reading of Isaiah 58 how much people wanted to be connected with God but couldn't quite get it right. They were doing what they knew how to do--fasting, prayer, sackcloth and ashes--but it wasn't really getting them anywhere. But they wanted it to. Like those people at my work with strange markings on their foreheads, they were looking for some kind of relationship with God, and some kind of insight into why we're here and what the hell we're supposed to do with ourselves while we're here. And they weren't afraid to admit it.

I was sitting at the front so I was one of the last to go forward for my ashes. Which meant I had a ringside seat for the line of people walking up, kneeling, receiving their cross, turning to go back to their seats, a newly marked man or woman. Everyone was quiet and orderly and serious...even the single 5 year old angelic-faced blonde girl who walked up to the front with her Mom, but went alone to the pastor at the railing for her ashes. When she came back she was smiling, like she'd just gotten away with something.

While I was waiting I was thinking about the words the pastors say when they draw the cross on your forehead. You come from dust and to dust you will return. In years past those words have annoyed me, troubled me. I get the whole Lent as a time for penitence and personal reflection thing, but why must we start it with those words that seem to be just a reminder that death is going to come at some point, as if we'd forgotten. Couldn't we start things off with something more positive and affirming? Couldn't the cross on our foreheads symbolize that we were loved by God, claimed by God, that we belong to God. To me, that always seemed like a "nicer" way to kick off Lent--with a message of God's love, with the symbol of God's touch on our lives.

But last night those words finally made some kind of sense to me. You come from dust and to dust you will return. You are not God. You are simply a human being. You can't fix things. You can't do things perfectly. You don't know everything. You can't DO everything. You don't have all the time in the world.

So I want to start there with Lent this year. Reminding myself that I am human, not God. Too often I think I should be God, or at least powerful and perfect and all knowing. Rather than simply flesh and blood, finding my way through every day like a blind person touching an elephant--what is this whole thing?

Ashes on the forehead to remember that I am a mere mortal. And I'm not afraid to admit it. To admit that I can't do everything. I can't do everything perfectly, I can't control any of this. I can only live honestly and openly and lovingly in the midst of all I can't fix or manage or control. This strange smudge on the forehead to remind me that life is short.

I just have today. What will I do with today?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Neediness and its discontents

I'm not a great singer, but I love to sing, and I love music. So I sing in the choir at church. And several days ago I was practicing my alto part by trying to sing along with the CD, with the music blasting out of my car stereo as I drove at 65 mph down the expressway. One of the songs I was attempting to sing along with was the gospel song, "I need you to survive." This song, made famous by Kirk Franklin, is about being the church, and kind of rare in its approach because the words are directed towards other people rather than addressing God, which most gospel songs (and most of our church songs) are.
And as I was driving down the highway singing along, I almost became a danger to myself and others because I just started crying, tears billowing out of my eyes, choking back great gulping sobs as I sang:

"I need you, you need me.
We're all a part of God's body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We're all a part of God's body.

It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.

I pray for you, You pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won't harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive."

Why does this song get to me so much? Is it because it feels so vulnerable to admit that I need someone to survive?

We're going to be talking about what it means to be the church in our next Affirmation group meeting coming up, and I've been thinking about this--about how this song, these words, tap into some reservoir of shame and fear and desire and hope in me. How much I want to be a part of this kind of body and how much I'm afraid of it. How much I hate to admit my need of anyone and yet how needy I am. I think about how we all look on a Sunday morning, for the most part, fairly well put together, cleaned up, all the crap that doubles us over in tears, keeps us awake all night, fairly well camouflaged by decent clothes, good eye makeup, years of practice. You can't tell by just looking quickly how close to the edge we might be, how close to not surviving.

And yet...maybe by just showing up it's an admission of sorts. It's a little flag we're all subtly waving. It's us saying I don't know how to do this whole living thing by myself, and I don't even know how to say this out loud but I need you to survive.

My daughter Hannah just had her 14th birthday and had some friends over to celebrate. The girls did a sleepover then the next morning some boys joined them and they went out to play Laser Tag together. I know how cruel teens can be, how mean and gossipy and territorial, but I didn't really see much of that with these kids. I saw them looking out for each other, offering support to one girl who has been doing a raw food diet, helping Hannah fix her hair--Hannah who doesn't much go for the girlygirl thing, allowed a couple of her friends to do a little more styling of her hair than usual. And when they were looking at their Laser Tag results they were actually apologizing for accidently shooting each other! Then last night I helped backstage at Hannah's junior high production of the Music Man. I was supposed to help with the girls' costumes--there's a lot of costume changes in this show and lots of zippers and bows that need doing. But the truth is, I wasn't really that necessary. The girls were taking care of each other, looking out for each other, adjusting collars and curling hair and straightening ribbons. They weren't afraid to need each other and they were happy to help each other.

And I realized, my Affirmation group probably knows more about being the church than many of us older people do. They haven't developed so many defenses against needing each other. They aren't so afraid of it. They understand that we need each other to survive.

And clearly I need them to survive--they have a lot to teach me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I was thinking about my merry band of Affirmands this morning and about all the things I wish I could just tell them, convince them of, now when they're only 13 or 14. About God and life and faith. So they wouldn't have to figure it out on their own through trial and error. So they don't start wandering around and lose their way and get hurt and do stupid things and maybe never find their way back.

Sitting at our church's newcomer's dinner the other night there were about 15 young adults in the room, people in their late 20s, early 30s, each of them telling a little about what had brought them to LaSalle and so many of them had stories about giving up on God, being burned by the church, losing faith sometime in their teens, and now finally taking some tentative steps back, starting with walking in the door of our church a few times.

Of course, I told my story that night too. It's not all that different than theirs. Except that I'm older. And I've walked into and out of a lot more churches along the way. Lost and found my way a few more times. Keep losing it. And finding it.

And I guess it hit me again this morning, that my job isn't to inoculate these kids against doubt, it isn't to find a subtle way of chaining them to the church so they won't leave, it isn't even to create some sort of protective bubble around them so they don't get bruised along the way. It's simply to let them see where I've been, the ups and downs of my stumbling, fumbling path toward the holy. And that's enough.

I started out thinking I needed to give them advice and I realize I can only really give myself advice. So here's the advice I wrote to myself this morning.

Advice to myself:

Let it go.
All of it.

This is yours.
This day.
The heat coming in through the vent in the dining room, warming your legs, your hips, your hands.
This time.
These words.
What you do with the day.
All yours.
Things will be all right.
It may take a little time, but you’ll get there.
Laugh more.
Don’t worry about doing things perfectly.
Just do things as well as you can.
Know that you’re all right.
Sometimes you have to just shake your head and realize
You’re not God.
Nor would you want to be.
At least all the time.
Give yourself a break.
Take plenty of hot baths.
Keep a heating pad handy and warm blankets.
Let someone who loves you caress you back, run his hands gently up and down your back, like they would a fretting baby who can’t sleep.

Let someone love you.

When you’re sad, ask to be held even if it makes you cry.
Don’t be afraid to cry. Tears are the smooth stones you find next to a riverbed as you’re walking through the woods, the ones that tell the best stories, the ones you keep in your pocket then place at the foot of the candle you light when you pray, the ones that feel just right in your hand, the shape of them, the weight of them.

The scars that are them and how they ache with beauty.

Grasp the beauty.
Your own.
Everyone else’s.
The beauty of objects. Like paperclips. And popcorn.
The beauty of moments. Like before. And after.
Even the beauty of a bunch of people sitting around a conference table having a meeting. Each of them trying to do something right. Do something good. Say something worthwhile. Be of worth. Be loved. Not lose their job today.
Oh Jerusalem
How often I wanted to gather you under my wings.

Forgive yourself for not being perfect.
Laugh at yourself.
Laugh at how hard you try to get everything right.
Laugh at how much it matters.
And how little it really matters.

Be silly.
Silly silly silly
Insanely silly.
Life is too short not to be silly.
Whoop it up.
Speak in your British accent.
Laugh until you pee your pants.
Life will not end if you pee your pants.
Tell funny stories about yourself.
Stories that show how silly you really are.
Tell about the time you thought that guy was coming over to hug you.
His arms opening, you fell into them, like it was the most natural thing in the world, embracing this stranger, embracing him and all of the strangers of the world.
And then he told you he was actually just coming over to get his coat.
You were standing in front of the coat rack.
Bless your heart.

Bless your heart.
Remember how beautiful human beings are.
You are.
When they aren’t holding on too tight.
When the blood is flowing.
When they are leading with their hearts.

When they stop pushing away.

Pull everyone to you.
Tell them you love them.
Tell them they love you.
Tell them you need them.
Know that they need you.

Like air. And water. And blood.

Oh yeah.

And trust me on this. You might want to forgive some people. For all their bad advice.
And yourself for following it for far too long.

Touch the places where it hurts. Push hard on those tender places until the knots loosen.



Be happy.
It’s OK to be happy.

Let God love you.