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 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.