January 31, 2013

Too Much and Not Enough

A quick scan of the day's headlines generates a laundry list of things I know next-to-nothing about:  Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings.  The end of 30 Rock.  The upcoming Super Bowl and attendant NFL controversy about players and brain damaging head injuries.  Ongoing debate about gun control alongside a story about a shooting at an office building in Arizona.  Reactions to the speech the president gave on immigration reform to which I did not listen.  And that's just the domestic news.

There are uprisings in Mali, which, I am chagrined to admit, I could not immediately locate on a map.  An explosion in Mexico.  Israeli airstrikes on Syria.  China's hacking of the New York Times.

The world is such a big place, and nowadays, we can know what's happening in most places, most of the time.  A ten second Google search can bring Washington, D.C., the Middle East, central Africa, Hollywood, Wall Street, or my own Lakewood, Colorado to my computer screen.  I can know who's doing what to whom.  I can attend to the big stories or the obscure.  I can know about people I'll never know, places I'll never visit.

It's completely overwhelming.

I wonder about earlier times, most of human history, really.  People knew only what they heard and saw.  They could access only the parts of the earth within the scope of their ability to travel on foot, maybe horseback or wagon or camel or boat.  Not far.

The people you knew were your family, the people of your tribe, and the people you knew, you knew.  You knew their histories, their habits, their graces, their failings.  You all did the same things, believed the same things.  You lived together and worked together, worshipped together, married each other and buried each other.  That was it.

I imagine that what people knew was manageable in a way that I can only dream of.  Questions, decisions, ideas were delimited by circumstances.  Novelty must have been rare.  People did what their parents did, who did what their parents did.  They did them in the same villages and homes with other people who shared their history and experiences.

I don't mean to idealize the past.  I love the internet, and I would not trade modern medicine, indoor plumbing, central heating and air conditioning, or air travel for the imagined idyll of an earlier time.  Without corrective lenses, I'd long since have walked off a cliff or in front of a speeding chariot.  I would be hard-pressed to outrun, or even outwit, a lion or tiger or bear.  I'm better equipped for the information age than the Stone or Bronze or Iron Age.

Still, I wonder how it would feel to live by candlelight and starlight; to learn by stories remembered and told and retold aloud; to know a few people and things deeply and well; to know who sowed the wheat, wove the cloth, tanned the leather, felled the trees, milled the flour, forged the nails, grew the grapes to press for wine.

As big and small as the world is now, it can be a strangely lonely planet.  Each of us on our own screen, in our own little world, connected with everyone and still alone.  I do what I do; you do what you do.  We live together, but our living is fragmented.  We do not know where we came from, where we belong, where we are.  Poet and Jesuit Gerard Manly Hopkins, in "God's Grandeur" names our condition:  "...the soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."

We have so much, and so little too.  I have the world at my fingertips and long for a corner in which to belong and to know as my own.  I have shoes, but can no longer feel the earth beneath my feet.

January 30, 2013

Life Is a Highway

"Mom!  Why can't you drive me to school?"

Because it's less than a mile to walk.

Because you'll get a little fresh air and exercise.

Because it's a beautiful, sunny morning.

Why do you want to be driven?

Sometimes I want to sit in the passenger seat.  Doesn't it seem easier?  No pack to carry; throw it in the back.  No looking both ways.  No cracks in the sidewalk to avoid.  Just lie back, put your feet up, play with the knobs on the radio.

The charm lasts longer than you might expect.  I could get used to this.  Someone else is in the driver's seat.  Where are we going?  As long as I don't have to decide.  Let me know when we get there.  Here's a couple of bucks to fill up the tank.  You do the rest.

Eventually, though, it wears a little.  I need a rest stop.  What do you mean we passed the last one for a hundred miles?  No, I wasn't paying attention.

Now I'm restless.  Why don't I drive?  You must be getting tired.  But we're hurtling down the highway at 75 miles per hour, and there's no place to pull over.

It was one thing when I was younger, and couldn't drive anyway.  There was no choice.  Sit in the back.  Look out the window.  The ballgame played on the radio for hundreds of miles.  It's how it was, and I didn't know any different.

Now, when I turn over the keys, it's something else.  I have choices, but I don't want to make them, so I make one and give the rest over to whoever happens to be sitting behind the wheel.

I could be the one in the driver's seat, but what if the car won't start?  What if the weather is bad?  What if there's traffic, and we get caught up in it and can't go anywhere?  What if I end up in a ditch?  What if I run out of gas before we get there?  I may have mapped the course, but that doesn't always keep me from getting lost.

There's somewhere I need to be, and there's no one to take the keys.  It's only me.  And maybe the car will start and there's plenty of gas and the weather's fine and the traffic is light.  The windows are down and the wind's in my hair and the radio's on and the volume's up and they're playing my favorite song.

The truth is, I don't know what I'll get when I take the keys and fasten my seat belt -- a straight shot or a detour or a dead end.  But I've got places to go.

January 29, 2013

To Do Hard Things

And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  - Micah 6:8
There are goals I want to accomplish in my life, and to achieve them, I need to exercise discipline and work hard.  Day after day, year after year, those things go undone -- from getting fit or finishing my novel to cleaning out the garage or learning to grow my own vegetables.

The pattern that describes my failure is consistent.  First, I get motivated, either by hope or by despair:  You can do it!  Or, will you ever do it?  Then I dive in.  My desk is soon piled with books on weight training or character development or getting organized or composting.  Before too long I become bored with it, or tired. It's new, so it's hard.  I want the destination without the trials of the journey.

The way I discipline -- or fail to discipline -- myself is exactly the same as the way I discipline -- or fail to discipline -- my kids.  I cannot teach what I do not know.

Every word of advice on disciplining children begins with the admonition to be consistent.  I am not, not with my kids, not with myself.  I vacillate between extremes of justice and mercy.

There is a dynamic between them, justice and mercy -- the angry, jealous God and the God of forgiveness and loving-kindness.  Mercy softens justice.  Justice keeps mercy honest.  Justice provides boundaries, which keep me and others safe.  Mercy keeps the bounds of justice from becoming a prison.

Justice looks like anger.  It strives to be righteous anger, but -- careful! -- or it will spill over into judgment and condemnation.  Mercy looks like love, but, untempered, it becomes coddling pity.

Too much mercy or too much justice, and I turn you or myself into an object.  Mercy can make me an object of pity; justice, of condemnation.  I condemn myself and feel sorry for myself, and those movements become a self-perpetuating cycle.  It's a way of keeping me stuck, spinning my wheels.  I can't move forward toward a goal.  I can't do hard things if judgment is the goad and pity the balm for the wound it inflicts.

But justice and mercy, rightly balanced, could become the drive-train for accomplishing the goals I want to achieve.

I wonder if the fulcrum of balance is in walking "humbly with your God."  Is it not pride that unsteadies the wheel and drives me into the ground instead of forward?  I want to be or to do right, and I want you to, not because it's right, but because it looks good.  My kids will have better grades.  I'll be a size 8.  The driver, the one who wields the goad, isn't setting the goal out of a love of righteousness, but out of pride.

And what about mercy?  Pity is the reaction to the goad.  Overreaction begets overreaction.  Now on the other side, I show you excessive mercy as a way of elevating myself.  If I am your judge, I am lording over you.  Likewise, if I have the power to pardon you, to remove your natural burden of responsibility, I must be superior to you.  I am the subject, and you are the object.  In some sense, I'm playing god.

Justice and mercy held in creative tension, respects "you" as subject.  You retain your autonomy.  I trust you to act, even as I hold you accountable and hold you in love.  Even when "you" are me.

I am ready to become the subject of my own life, not the author-god, not the audience, but the protagonist, the actor.  I want to do the hard things.

January 28, 2013

Letter to a Dissatisfied Child

My Dear One,

You want what you cannot have.  You want what everyone wants -- all the freedom and none of the responsibility.  You blame me because you cannot have it, but it is an unchanging rule of life.  Wisdom says it would be neither kind nor loving to allow you to have everything you want.

You wish that I would capitulate to the standards and values of this world.  More stuff.  More popularity.  In those desires you are being drawn by the oldest of temptations.  I don't blame you, but I cannot simply bless your being overcome.  I cannot stand by and say, Yes.

I cannot stand by and say, yes, to the lure of material goods and fame and glory, which profess themselves to be the highest goods and beckon you -- and everyone -- to worship at their altars.  My no is a lonely stand. I make it in the desert.  It is what marks the space between us and the darkness.

I know it doesn't seem that way to you.  I know that, to you, it is me standing between you and what would make you truly happy.  What I know is that the happiness you seek is false.  It will betray you.  It will never really satisfy.  You will get the thing that you want and that thing will be replaced by a new thing for you to want.  It will never end.  You will always want, but you will never have.  Your hair and skin could become perfect according to your desire, but there will still be someone who is taller...or with a better this...or a more desirable that.  You will never be satisfied.  You will never feel good enough.

The only way to be freed for happiness with regard to material goods is to relinquish the want.  The only way to feel good enough is to accept the person in the mirror as she is today.  I know that is the last thing you want to hear.  You prefer the pretty lies that the world uses to seduce you.  I can only offer you the truth.

On first glance, the truth just cannot compete.  It is small and meek, where the lies are big and bold.  It is homely while the lies are glamorous.  It is quiet; the lies are loud.  It appears to offer only noes while the lies cry, Yes! Yes! Yes!

Look closer, my precious child, and you may yet see that you have been deceived.  The lies are bottle-blonde, pancake make-up and glitter.

Now see the truth.  It is homespun, but flawless.  It is rough, but warm.  Pick it up.  You may be surprised at how weighty it is.  It looks frail, but it is sturdy, substantial.  It will bear the weight of your need.

I know words will never convince you.  You can only taste and see.  You can do it yourself, hand to mouth,  or the trials of the world will force you to partake.  Either way, the truth, and only the truth, will finally satisfy.

One last word:  In your resistance or your acceptance, in your fight or your surrender, in your flight or your rest, in your wallowing in the darkness or your standing in the light, I am there beside you.

With all my heart,

Your Loving Parent

January 27, 2013

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep."  For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved."  And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.  - Nehemiah 8:9-12
Sometime in the second half of the second century before the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people were permitted by their Persian overlords to return to Jerusalem.  The Persians had conquered the Babylonians, who had sent the Jews into exile.  As a result of the Babylonian seizure and occupation of Jerusalem, the temple was destroyed and the city walls knocked down.  Under the Persian king and his governor, Nehemiah, the people were permitted to restore the structures and the worship they housed.

In the 8th chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, the people are gathered, "the men, women, and those children old enough to understand" (v. 2, New American Bible, Revised Edition).  The Priest-scribe Ezra reads from the book of the law, and the people weep.

They've been away for a long time, exiles in a foreign land.  Many of them, the children in particular, may have never before heard God's law (which includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy -- along with their narrative stories, in addition to the Ten Commandments and other legal prescriptions).  It is their history, their legacy, their founding documents.  It would be something like Americans exiled to a foreign land regathered in Washington, D.C., to hear proclaimed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

That comparison, however, fails to do justice to the import of this gathering.  The Jewish people are a nation not only tied to a parcel of land and a set of beliefs, but to a particular God who has called them and set them apart from all other peoples and nations and whose hand appeared to have been set against them.  Remember, this is a time when every nation had its gods, and success in war seemed to ratify the power of that nation's deities.  Israel was unusual, bordering on unique, in its worship of a single God -- a God who was, over time, not only seen as the top God, but the only God.

For Israel, that meant that no misfortune that befell them could be attributed to the superiority or favor of another god over his or her people.  It could only mean that Israel's God, the one and only, wanted to punish them.  The words of Israel's prophets are filled with invective against Israel's failure to do the one essential thing that God required -- remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God and God alone, abiding by the law and eschewing the worship of any other so-called god.  The exile in Babylon was seen as the ultimate  expression of God's displeasure with Israel.

Now the people have been returned to the land God promised to them.  Do they not hear, in the midst of this grand assembly, Ezra reading the story of this promise?  Are they stirred because they hear God's word to Abraham and to Issac, to Jacob and Joseph and Moses?  The promise is made to those forefathers and mothers, and, consequently, to the people there gathered.  Their very presence in Jerusalem is a sign that God has not forsaken them, but desires to renew his covenant with them.

Do they weep with regret for what has come before?  With relief?

Ezra and the Levites insist they cease to weep and commence rejoicing.  Prepare the feast!  Leave no one out!  This day that the Lord has made holy calls for a joyful celebration.

Many of us gather on Sunday to hear the proclamation of the promise.  We do so, because it is our Sabbath  the holy day, set apart for the Lord.  We gather from our own exile.  We can call our separation from the promised land sin, but it has many names.  It is the alienation I feel from a friend who I have hurt by provoking a careless misunderstanding.  It is the guilt I feel over choices I knew were wrong, but which felt easier in the moment than what I knew was right.  It is the sinking feeling in my heart that I'm a disappointment to my parents or my spouse or my kids or my God.  It is the anger and resentment over hurts unhealed.  It is the ways in which I immerse myself in the temptations of the world -- possessions, power, glory.

I come to church from Babylon.

What is the word I hear proclaimed?  Here's what Jesus says to us out of Luke's gospel today:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." - Luke 4:18-19
I have heard any number of sermons calling me to go out and do likewise -- to proclaim the good news to the poor, release to the oppressed, and the like.  That is, of course, right; we are the body of Christ, called to do as he did.  But I cannot proclaim what I have not heard and taken into my own soul.

I am the poor who need to hear this good news.  I am the captive that needs to be released, the blind one who needs to have my eyes opened, the oppressed who needs to be set free.  I need to know that this is the year of the Lord's favor.  This is the day for rejoicing.

Do we leave church rejoicing?  Do we go forth to feast and share and celebrate?  Do we know that we are called, today, to live in a holy city restored?  That the temple has been rebuilt, and his name is Jesus, the Risen Christ?  That, as a member of his body (1 Corinthians 12), I too am rebuilt, restored, reborn, raised from death to life?

Do you understand the words that are declared to you?  How will you go forth eating, drinking, and rejoicing?

January 25, 2013

If I But Touch the Hem of His Garment

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her.  She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.  Then Jesus asked, "Who touched me?"  When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you."  But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me." (Luke 8:43-45; cf. also Matthew 9 and Mark 5)
She was out of options.  According to Mark's gospel (5:26), "She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse."  She had nothing left to lose.

Surely it is her suffering that made her ready.  She would have been isolated.  She wasn't allowed to touch anyone; bleeding women were ritually unclean.  She must have thought about that.  She could not ask him to touch her, because then he would become unclean, according to the law.  

Did she have a plan when she ventured out in the crowd?  "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well," she says to herself (Mark 5:28).  Luke calls what she touches "fringe."  Jesus would have worn phylacteries, a Jewish ritual garment trimmed in long fringe.  Can you imagine?  She cannot touch the man, but will touch his clothes, and not just his clothes, but the very last edge of what is his.

He was on his way somewhere else.  Someone had asked for his help.  It was urgent; a little girl was dying.

I imagine that she does not know where he is going.  In any event, she does not expect to interrupt.  The crowd presses in and she reaches out.  She does not really know what will happen.  Maybe nothing.  But it's not nothing.  Power goes out from him.  She draws it from him into herself.

And she is healed, because she trusts in that power.

In twelve step theology, the fundamental principle behind the first three steps is entrusting a "power greater than ourselves" with our lives.  How does that look?  What can it mean?

I wonder if I make it too hard. 

In this story, as Peter insists, everybody is touching Jesus.  The crowds following him jostle.  They press in.  But power goes out only to her.

Could not any person in that crowd have reached out and touched him and been healed?

Why didn't they do it?  Why don't we?  

Maybe I haven't exhausted my options:   One more doctor.  One more dollar.  One more book.  One more conversation.  One more diet.  One more plan.  One more prayer.  One more try.

Maybe I'm afraid because I'm unclean.  I'm not worthy, I tell myself.

Maybe it's too much work to fight against the pressing crowds.

Maybe I'm just not willing to risk being disappointed; maybe the power is not for me.

How long will we suffer?  Twelve years?  Twenty?  A lifetime?

He is passing by, today, this hour, this moment.  Maybe you find him at church.  Maybe in the loving kindness of a friend.  Maybe in the deep recesses of your own heart.

When he feels the power drawn from him by her trust, he stops.  Nothing is more urgent than this.  He calls her from her anonymity and solitude.  He calls her into fullness of life and community.

What might we be willing to risk to receive restoration?  Will we only reach out and touch his clothes?  Can we hear his assurance to us?  Go in peace and be healed.

January 24, 2013


Yesterday we talked about change, about its coming, bidden or unbidden, from the inside or the outside, and about how we are left to respond with resistance or welcome.

The sort of change that arises from within might better be called transformation -- that is, a crossing (trans-) from one way of being to something new.  It's a truism in the world of personal growth that whatever pain within us is not transformed, we are bound to transmit.  We'll leave it behind in the world when we die, in our children or our other loved ones.  In God-language, it is the wood and the straw that eventually will be burned away, rather than becoming the fine and refined precious metal God uses to build his kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

It's one thing to say that I am willing to be transformed, but what do I do?  Here's what I know from experience:  I can't wish it so.  I can do all the wanting and hoping -- and praying -- in the world, and I often keep on being the same old me, living in and transmitting the same old pain.  I might wish away the judgments that rattle on in my head or the behaviors that keep me stuck, but I find myself still listening, still doing what I say I don't want to do (see Romans 7:15).

What's more, my first reaction, I just need to try harder, is another way of keeping me stuck.  Here's how I think it works, by way of a metaphor:  At our science museum, there is a spot where you can pretend to cross a raging river on a little bridge.  The trick is in not looking down.  My temptation is to look at the bridge and watch where my feet are treading, but then I see the water below -- and I fall.

You probably know another version of this story.  It's about a Jewish fisherman on a wild sea at night, trying to follow his rabbi by walking on the water.  You know when Peter falters?  When he notices the wind (Matthew 14:28ff).

Here's what it means:   My eyes lead my whole body.  It's a scientific truth, like the experiment at the museum, and it's a spiritual truth too.  Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 6, vv 22-23:
The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
I've got to look to the light to be filled with the light.

When I'm trying harder, I'm looking at the darkness, so I can fix it.  But I can't see.  It's dark.

So the first thing is to let the light in, but how?  A wise friend of mine recently reminded me of the three A's, which are, in my experience, the singular path to allowing my own transformation.  They are:

  1. Awareness - Now that the light has come in, what do I see?  I don't have to do anything about it, just see if for what it is -- see me, you, my situation, the world, as it is, not as I wish it were.
  2. Acceptance - I may not like what I see, but can I acknowledge that it is what it is?  I can ask myself, what if this were as good as it's ever going to get?  Then what?
  3. Action - Only now, that the light is shining and my eyes are seeing, am I equipped to do anything at all.    And there's still a question:  Not only, what action might I take, but should I take any action at all?
The rest is up to God.  

January 23, 2013

The Only Constant

Change is inevitable.  They say it doesn't come easy, but I've always been a fan.  I remember in college, when I'd get to feeling restless I'd suddenly rearrange the furniture in my residence hall room -- much to the surprise of my unsuspecting but preternaturally easy-going and patient roommate.  I used to get my hair cut in the same way.  I'd wake up one morning and decide, "I'm ready for a change!"  Sometimes, my impetuousness led to regret, but the furniture can be moved back.  Hair grows.

As I've grown older, I don't feel any more afraid of change than I ever was, but I'm considerably slower to initiate it.  I've become, perhaps, more wary of the potential for regret. Unlike my younger years, I have people who depend on me -- kids and a husband who expect the furniture to stay put, whose security such changes on my personal whim would disrupt.

Still, change comes.  Sometimes I invite it.  Sometimes it comes to find me.  Either way, once it's here, I have to adapt.

It's then that I notice attachments of which I may have been unaware, because when change arrives, the something new is often pushing out something old.  Sometimes it's all to the good.  Occasionally it's all bad.  But most often it's mixed, good and bad:  My husband's new job has meant new opportunities pushing out some of the old pressures -- but also less money.  My kids going to school has meant new friends and wider horizons pushing out some of the time we used to spend together -- but also some of the bickering we used to do.

Changes that happen on the inside can feel like the same mixed bag.  Maybe it's growth I've been hoping and praying for, healing an old wound or breaking a bad habit.  Even so, I may not like the new me either, at least not at first.  I don't recognize her right off.  I'm not used to her.  The old labels suddenly fit like I've been rummaging in someone else's closet.  There's a pull here, a bagginess there.  I wonder where the old, comfortable, familiar me has gone.

I may be tempted to put the furniture back the way it was.

Eventually, I adapt.  I may have to slow down to remember there's a new order to things.  Then, before long, I don't need so carefully to watch my step so as not to bump into things.  In time I find that I can make my way around this new arrangement, even with my eyes closed.

But I keep my eyes open.  I know from experience that I need to be on the look-out.  Change tends to beget change.  Once I've said yes to the possibility of something new and different coming into my life, it will keep coming.  Because when we are open, God uses our openness to keep stripping away the old and bringing in the new, until we become like him, "until all of us come...to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).

Such change, finally, is not like my youthful reaction to restlessness, nor even my more measured wariness of regret.  It starts with me, with my willing heart, but after that, I'm the roommate, coming home to myself, and God is doing the rearranging.  It is I who am invited to welcome the surprise with patience and trust.

January 21, 2013

Safety in Numbers

"[Our social safety programs] do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great." - President Obama in his Second Inaugural Address
Life is risky.  All kinds of things can go wrong.

I'm a textbook oldest child, so I work over time in prevention.  I'm Responsible.  I eat my vegetables.  I stay out of debt.  I floss.

I like to think that I can head off every bad thing, if I just do everything Right.

I can't.

I know, because I know a lot of really good people, people who want to do it all right, to whom bad things have happened.  Abuse.  Accidents.  Adultery.  We could make our way through the alphabet:  Betrayal.  Cancer.  Deaths.  I know, because my own mother died of cancer when she was 53.

We can do all the right things, and still end up on the receiving end of troubles.

I know that's true, and sometimes I react accordingly.  Forget it, I say.  What's the use?  Why not eat, drink, and be merry?  Why not lock the doors, crawl under the covers, and spend the day watching T.V.?

I don't always feel safe.

Which brings us back to the president.  We might differ in our politics and how -- or whether -- we think the government ought to provide for retirement or medical security, but I think the president is on to something when he talks about safety nets and risk.

They say mother eagles, when their babies are learning to fly, fly under them, to catch them if they fall.  We think nothing less of circus performers who execute their dazzling twists and turns on the high wire or trapeze over a wide-slung net.  When we first learn to drive we practice with an instructor who has access to a brake from her seat on the passenger side.

That's not to say there's not risk:  The baby eagle is pushed out of the nest.  The circus acrobat climbs the pole and swings through the air.  The teen driver buckles up and takes the wheel.  But the risk is tempered.

So it is with us.  If I'm going to grow into the Self I am created to be and live out my mission in God's kingdom, I need to take some risks.  I also need to know I'm safe enough to make mistakes, to fail.  For me, that happens in community.  I have family and friends who are ready to catch me, or even grab the wheel if I look like I'm running off the road.  I sometimes need those same people to give me a push up the pole or out of the nest.

Sometimes we think of courage as not-being-afraid, but that's not true.  The virtue of courage is acting in the face of fear.  Standing up to the challenges of this life takes courage, whether it's facing my personal trials or demons -- unemployment or illness or addiction or just getting out of bed some mornings -- or the devils of the wider world.

Even Martin Luther King, Jr., whose courageous work we remember today, did not risk confrontation with injustice alone.  He did so as a community of people, black and white, men and women, young and old, who stood, literally, arm in arm, forming a human barrier against encroaching evil.

It is God's own story that invites us to recognize that we are made to act in community.  God first calls the nation of Israel and then the family of disciples of Jesus (who we call the Church).  God invites us into the web of support that will bring about God's kingdom.  As Paul exhorts us in 1 Corinthians 12:26, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

I don't know what that means about funding Social Security or Medicaid, but I know it means that, one way or another, we need to take care of each other.

January 20, 2013

Water into Wine

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. - John 2:1-11
When the mother of Jesus tells the servants at the wedding feast,  "Do whatever he tells you," I wonder what she expected Jesus would do.  I wonder what she hoped he would do.

We can understand this story literally, as a party with a problem.  It seems like there's always a problem at a wedding.  There are so many details that can go awry.  At my wedding the air conditioner in the reception hall was on the fritz and it was 100 degrees.  At my sister's wedding, the pillars on the wedding cake slid, making the otherwise beautiful confection look a bit like the leaning tower of Pisa.  This ancient wedding in Cana would have gone on for several days, during which time the wine would have kept flowing to entertain the guests.  No wine?  Problem.

We can understand the story like that -- Jesus saved the party! -- but I don't think we're meant to.  I cannot imagine that the mother of Jesus, under any circumstances, was coming to her son to say, "Since you are the incarnate Son of God, please perform your first miracle by turning water into wine."

The problem, as John hints, is not one of ancient hospitality, but of prophetic expectation and fulfillment.

The Christian church, since the earliest days has seen the Messiah (Christ) as the bridegroom and the church as his bride (cf. especially Revelations 19:5 and 21:2).  Jesus himself uses the metaphor in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).  Wedding feasts are one of those biblical motifs that should cause us to prick up our ears and wonder:  Is something more going on here?

Another hint is those big jars which Jesus orders to be filled with water.  They're not just jars.  They are, John tells us, "for the Jewish rites of purification."  They were filled with water to be used for ritual washing, washing prescribed  by God's law, which made someone who was ritually unclean, clean again.  That's the sort of water Jesus is turning into wine.

Finally, there is this clue that something more than a failed party is at stake:  "My hour has not yet come," says Jesus, at first.  What does his "hour" portend?  Here we need to look backward, from later in John's gospel.  In John 17:1, Jesus declares, before his arrest, "‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you..'"

Although Jesus' hour has not yet come, his prophetic action at Cana points ahead toward the Son's glorification of the Father, the saving act of Jesus death and resurrection that fulfills the law (cf. Matthew 5:17).  His turning the water of purification into wine for the wedding feast is a prophetic sign of fulfillment.  We no longer need the ritual purification (and sacrifice) prescribed by the law.  The fulfillment anticipated by the law has come.  It's time for the wedding.

The mother of Jesus in John is not the personal "Mary" of Luke, but, perhaps, the symbol of all of Israel and its fervent expectation of salvation from exile with the coming of God as king.  See this excerpt from Isaiah 62 which is paired with today's gospel:
2 The nations shall see your vindication,   and all the kings your glory;and you shall be called by a new name   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,   and your land Married;for the Lord delights in you,   and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman,   so shall your builder marry you,and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,   so shall your God rejoice over you.
Israel is the bride whose restoration and redemption are likened to being joined to the bridegroom in a great wedding feast.

When the mother of Jesus calls upon her son to act and tells the stewards to "Do whatever he tells you," is she not anticipating this restoration that is symbolized by the wedding feast?  She is pointing to Jesus -- which is what prophets do, point to what God is doing or about to do.

"Do whatever he tells you."  It doesn't matter what it might be.  Whatever it is, he will cause the wine to flow.  Then we can join in the feast.

January 19, 2013

I Can No Longer Afford My Ego

For the past several years I have increasingly become an Environmentally Conscious Consumer.  I joined a CSA.  I looked for the "Certified Organic" label at the supermarket.  I bought eggs from happy chickens and beef from cows who ate nothing but grass.

As you know if you are following the continuing saga of how my budget stubbornly refuses to balance and my various rich girl problems, our new financial planner is demanding we adopt an austerity program -- by which I mean he has invited us to add up our income and our expenses and has suggested that we might want the former to exceed the latter.  The nerve.

We've always aspired to live by our values.  We've always fallen short.  But in this small way, I felt like we were making progress.  My husband has always had strong feelings about protecting the environment.  I worry about the human costs of industrialized food production.  So together we could say, "Damn the pesticides!  Protect the farm worker!  Support the small family farm and the local economy!  Eat closer to the earth!"

Problem is, it's expensive.  Organic milk costs twice as much as the cheap stuff, eggs from pastured chickens three times as much.  CSA (community supported agriculture) shares come with more kale and kohlrabi than my family is willing to eat, so there's waste.  We eat a lot of vegetarian meals, but I'm not willing to endure the domestic revolt I'd face if I cut out meat altogether.

I believe there's a lot of good to buying local and organic, and I will continue to do so as much as I possibly can, but, to be honest there's more that's bothering me than loading up my shopping cart with hormone-laden dairy.  I was starting to see myself as the Organic Shopper.

It's remarkable how many ways my ego can find to inflate itself with an Identity.  Organic Shopper.  Home Schooler.  Mother of Three.  Wife of Almost Twenty Years.  Good Citizen.  Anything that allows me to feel Important or, let's be honest, Better Than Somebody Else.

That's not who I want to be.  In my more grounded and grace-filled moments I can notice that the identity that matters is my identity in Christ:  I'm a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a child of the light and the day (1 Thessalonians 5:5), a branch of the vine (John 15:5), and an heir of God (Romans 8:17).

When I get attached my image, whether I maintain it by what I can buy or what I wear or do or my relationships, I am building on sand (Matthew 7:26ff).  All of that is going to pass away.

And what will be left of me?  Not my money, that's for sure.  It's good to want to protect farm workers or care for the environment.  We may need to find some new ways to do that, to put our time or talent where our treasure may not reach in this season.  Money's been able to buy me a sense of self-satisfaction, but the cost is too high.

I Hate It When You're Mad at Me

Once, when I was about twelve, I went to a birthday party.  The birthday girl got a scarf.  It was knitted, red, with tassels on each end.  For some reason the other girls had gone into another room.  Alone, I sat down on the couch, on the scarf.  Somehow, in the act of sitting, I pulled off one of the tassels.  I was mortified.  What should I do?  I didn't know what to say, so I said nothing.  Later in the evening, when the damaged scarf was discovered, the girl scolded the dog.  I was saved from confessing.  I felt guilty, but I  said nothing, even as the dog got an undeserved rap on the nose.

I place a pretty high value on telling the truth.  I like to think of myself as an honest person. But something much greater than the truth was at stake for me.  Someone might get mad at me.

In case you've never tried it, I'm here to attest that trying to please all the people all of the time is a fool's errand.  It can't be done.

That hasn't stopped me from trying.

The first step is to read everybody's mind.  Don't laugh.  I'm better at it than you might think.  What a useful tool!  I know what you want before you know it yourself.  And I'm going to prove I love you by giving it to you.  Except when I can't.

But by then you've come to expect it, because that's how I trained you.  Now you're disappointed.  And maybe angry.

So you know what I do?  I get angry back.  Or first.  I'm angry at you for being angry with me for promising to give you what you want, even when I have no way of doing that, because I'm afraid you'll be angry with me if I don't.  I was just trying to be helpful.

What I'm learning about helpfulness is that it often isn't all that helpful.  I'm not just selling what you might not want to buy.  I'm giving it away!  I'm insisting you take it.

But what if you don't want it?  What if my "help" is interfering with what you really need or want?  What if what I intuit you want is what you want, on the surface, but not what you really want, underneath.

On the surface, we all want the same thing, I think, most of the time.  We, I, want things to be easy.  I want to feel happy and not sad or angry or afraid.  I want peace and not conflict.  As I've attested, I'm willing to do almost anything to get that result.  That's why the dog got rapped with the newspaper.

It's bad enough I do it myself, but it's what I'm doing to you too, when I'm being so very helpful.  I'm encouraging us both to cut corners to keep the peace.

It's a lie and a cheat.

The hard path is not always the path of peace.  When Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 to turn the other cheek or give your cloak when asked for your tunic or walk the extra mile, we often hear that as a form of non-violent protest.  In fact, those acts were ways of stirring the pot.  (Wikipedia offers a nice summary of why.)

Sometimes keeping the peace is not the righteous thing to do.  We don't celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.  because he kept the peace.  While he didn't repay violence with violence, he wasn't afraid to stir the pot.  He made people mad -- mad enough to kill him.

No one is threatening my life, only my feelings or my ego.  When I tell the truth and allow people to feel their feelings, I lose control.  You might get mad at me for ruining the scarf or not telling you what I know you want to hear.  Then I might feel sad or scared or angry, and I have to live with that.

The truth might force us into the wilderness, where we don't control the journey and we don't know where the road might lead.  The music rises unpredictably, and we're not sure whether -- or if -- the resolution will ever come.  Maybe it won't.  And then what?

January 17, 2013

Making Allowances

I've written before about my philosophy concerning my kids and money.  Then, I was musing about the relative merits of encouraging my kids to be successful wage-earners first, relegating their passions to avocational status.  I came out on the side of passion, assuming the attendant risk of turning my basement into a flop-house for my would-be rock-star and/or librarian.  It's a chance I have to take.

That doesn't mean I don't want them to learn to be responsible stewards of their resources.  I've always known that I should be giving them allowances.  I've tried, I really have.  It always just seemed so complicated.

Do I tie the money to chores, or are chores just what we do, because we're part of a family?  How much money do I give them?  How much should I allow them to save?  To spend?  How much should they donate?

Suffice it to say that I have begun and then retreated from any system I have ever attempted to implement.  Now that I have teens, my surrender in the face of adversity is coming back to bite me in the butt.

For years I was able to protect my kids from some of the temptations in which our consumer society is drenched.  We live in a pretty eclectic neighborhood, at the lower end, just this side of the apartments and far from the million dollar mansions.  We don't watch a lot of T.V.  We home schooled for a long time.  They didn't know any better so we could get away with thrift-store clothes or whatever was on sale.  We could have the older versions of gaming systems and the like.  No longer.

Now it seems as though nothing we own is right.  At 27 inches, our television is too small.  Our Wii is not a Wii U.  Our drawers are bursting with clothes, all of which are the wrong style or the wrong brand, right on down to the socks.

I understand.  I really do.  I'm old, but not so old that I don't remember that I had to have such useful apparel as a satin jacket, collared shirts with little alligators on the breast, and rainbow suspenders.  Ah, the late 70's and early 80's!

I'd like to be able to accommodate my children's fashion preferences, at least a little.  Even as I curse a culture that tells them the "right" way to dress, I know it's hard to buck the crowd day after day.  I wish it didn't cost so much in social capital for a teen to ignore the current trend, however ridiculous it seems to me. And expensive.

So there's two parts:  the principle and the money.  And the principle of the money.  That Nike swoosh or American Eagle logo comes at quite a premium.  With only so many dollars to divide (see "My Budget Stubbornly Refuses to Balance"), it becomes difficult, verging on impossible, to justify deciding on the name-brand just so no one has to face the sneering court of public opinion in the high school halls.

My old allowance dodge suddenly seems ridiculous.  That's only math, and it will allow me to avoid this much more daunting consumer's gauntlet.  I won't have to decide.  They will.

I know that's not going to be easy either.  I'm not so good at saying, no, and there will come times when I will have to, especially at first.  They will want to see the movie and buy the jeans and get the new book or video game and the birthday present for a friend.  They won't be able to afford it all.  I will have to decide whether or not to save them from their own limited choices.  They will hate it, and I will too.

I don't want limits, for me or for them.  It seems to be a theme for me lately -- limited money, limited time.  It can feel like there's not enough.  Something's gotta go, and I want it all.

In The Holy Longing, author Ron Rolheiser offers this reminder:  "Medieval philosophy had a dictum that said:  Every choice is a renunciation.  Indeed.  Every choice is a thousand renunciations.  To choose one thing is to turn one's back on many others."

It's true for all of us, and it may be one of the most important lessons of our emerging adulthood.  I can choose to major in business, or I can choose to study art.  I can choose to buy a more reliable car, or I can choose to save for a house.  I can choose to fly to Italy, or I can choose to put away a little extra for retirement.

I can choose to go to the movies, or I can choose the Nike socks.  It's not easy.  We might as well start small.

January 16, 2013

We Need a Hero

For the next few days, until Oprah's two-part interview has aired and been hashed and re-hashed, we won't be able to turn on the computer or radio or television without hearing about Lance Armstrong.  I don't need to go over all the details of his story.  We already know them:  Cycling.  Cancer.  Winning many yellow shirts and giving away even more yellow plastic bracelets.  The foundation.  The accusations.  The drugs.  The lies.

Why do we care?  Sure, there will be a lot of talk about the Role of Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Professional Sports.  It will be a Topic.  But, honestly, how much do we, most of us, care about that?  Maybe we care about our kids.  I don't want mine to think that they need to take steroids to succeed as athletes, but that doesn't occupy much of my attention, or, probably, yours.  Certainly it's not enough to explain the wall-to-wall media coverage.

What do the commercial powers-that-be think we'll be tuning in to hear?

I guess there's nothing like a good fall-from-grace narrative.  He seemed to be such a great guy.  Maybe it's the scene-of-an-accident gawking that draws us in.  How the mighty have fallen!

But I don't think so.

I think, even in our cynical, is-nothing-sacred age of information overload, we want to be able to find and believe in something that is true.  Lance Armstrong told us a fairy tale, and we wanted to believe in it.  We wanted there to be a man who survived cancer and went on to continue his career as a world-class athlete.  We wanted him to start a successful foundation and raise a lot of money for good causes and help little kids and help us all to become better versions of ourselves.  We wanted to believe in him.

He gave us what we wanted for a while, but what are we left with?  Nothing more or less than another reason to be cynical.  Maybe there is nothing sacred.

A few years ago I read the first five books of the Bible (the Books of Moses, Pentateuch, or Torah) end to end.  (If you choose to do this, be prepared to encounter a lot of blood and dead animals.)  One of the things I noticed was what it means for something to be holy in the terms set out in these books of the Law.  Things -- objects, sacrificial animals, people -- weren't holy because of anything particularly special about them, but because they were set apart for God.  Whatever it is, thing, beast, or person, it becomes holy when it is dedicated to God.

What does it even mean for us to set our things or ourselves apart for God?  To aid us in addressing the question, let's call God by one of God's other names, Love.  Not all of us relate to God as a personal Someone, but can we get our heads around what it might mean to direct our possessions, our pursuits, and our hearts toward Love?  And by Love I mean to evoke the classic sense of willing the good of the other.  

That is exactly what Lance Armstrong seemed to be doing, even as he collected more fame and adulation, prize money and endorsements.  Somehow, we felt, he was doing it for us.  For the sick kids.  For the betterment of the world.  For Love.

Instead we see that his work wasn't holy, but profane.  It wasn't Love, but manipulation or fear or greed or pride or vainglory or something.  Something other than Love.

I do it too.  I live profanely when I direct my life energy toward willing what I imagine will be good for me first and foremost.  How can I blame Lance Armstrong?  I get it.

Maybe the real reason it's hard to look away is that Lance Armstrong and other would-be heroes who publicly fall from grace are, in the end, holding up a mirror for us.  I want to find a hero, and I want to be a hero.  If he or she can do it, maybe I can too.

But I'm looking in the wrong place.  There is only one place where I can see a true reflection of true heroism, and I don't want to look there.  You know why.  It's because heroic love involves suffering, bleeding, dying.  It's not about big trophies and getting my picture in the newspaper and living in a mansion.  It's about hanging on a cross.

I want what Lance Armstrong wanted -- all the glory and none of the cost.  But it doesn't work that way.

January 15, 2013

Just Say No

Some time ago Bob Newhart did a sketch on a program called Mad TV which eventually made it's way, via the internet, to my consciousness.  In the bit, Newhart plays a psycho-therapist both like and unlike the character he played on his first eponymous weekly television show.  A woman (played by Mo Collins, in case anyone is interested) comes into the office.  Immediately Newhart, as the therapist, explains his billing policy -- "Five dollars for the first five minutes and nothing after that" -- after which he assures her that the session would likely not last even that long.  The woman explains various troubles -- phobias, disordered eating, and the like.  To each of the woman's revelations Newhart responds with just two words:  "Stop it!"

What if it worked that way?  Can you imagine?  It would be the best $5 we'd ever spent.

"Doctor, I keep smoking, even though my physician says it's going to kill me."

"Stop it!"

"Every time my mother calls, I hang up feeling guilty."

"Stop it!"

"I think about going for a run, but watch re-runs instead...I spend more money than I make...I eat Doritos instead of broccoli...I'm tempted to cheat on my taxes."

"Stop it!"

If I called that imaginary therapist today, here's what I'd say:  "I feel sad and powerless when I can't do everything someone else wants me to do for them."

"Stop it!"

Here are some things I'd stop doing:  Saving Christmas cards that I'm never going to answer. Worrying about the committees I'm not serving on.  Wondering if I should sponsor a child or give more to the Red Cross.  Thinking I ought to be writing to my congressional representative.

The list could go on and on, but here's the one that gets to me the most:  Feeling guilty when I say, no, to my children.  Sometimes it's when they ask for more stuff, even when I know they don't need it.  Even worse is when they ask me to save them from their own mistakes.  

The truth is, I want to say, yes.  It would be so much easier to say, yes, even if it would be wrong for them or for me.  Whenever it happens, when I say, no, whatever the reason, I tend to feel guilty.  I fret.  "Is my no valid?" I wonder.

Jesus says, "Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:37).  

The "more," for me, is the worrying and wondering and thinking and fretting.  Maybe my yes and my no are not enough.  Maybe my yes should be no or my no yes.  Maybe I don't have enough; I ought to have more to give.  

Maybe it is not just what I have but who I am that is not enough.  

That's not what God says.  In the gospel we heard on Sunday, the story of the baptism of Jesus, "a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Luke 3:22b).  As a wise friend pointed out to me, Jesus had not yet done anything.  His public ministry was only just on the verge of beginning.  The Father's affirmation was not for the Son's doing, but for his being.  He is loved and the Father is well pleased because of who he is.

And so it is with us.  I think I spend so much time worrying and wondering and the like because I believe that I am lovable for what I do, for my yeses.  If I can give you what you want, you will be pleased with me.  It stands to reason then, if I say no you will not love me.

To what do we, you and I, say, yes, when, perhaps, we ought to say, need to say, no?  

January 13, 2013

The Agony of Defeat

I am possibly the only person in greater Colorado -- or at least the Denver metropolitan area -- who did not watch the Bronco game yesterday, but I know they lost in double-overtime.

I imagine that there is plenty of Sunday-morning quarterbacking going on.  Even I know that they decided to run down the clock with 35 seconds to go and let the game go into overtime.  Maybe that will be the source of the second-guessing, or maybe it will be something else.  "If only they had..."  "If only they hadn't..."

I have done a lot of day-after second-guessing of my own life.  I give myself my own dour locker room shake-downs.  I'm both the head-shaking coach and the down-cast, uniformed lineman, my helmet in my hands.

In no part of my life am I harder on myself than in my parenting.

It seems like yesterday (Wasn't it?  Or maybe the day before...) that I had a tiny infant in my arms, full of promise.  Don't get me wrong -- my children are wonderful -- just not in quite the ways I had imagined they would be.

When I held those tiny babes, I thought I could have a kind of influence that I do not.  After almost 17 years as a parent, I am still surprised by my own expectations and the depth of my disappointment when they go unfulfilled.

I suspect all of us do it, whether as parents or in our work.  We -- I -- have a vision for how I want it to be, how it should be.  I used to believe that I could re-make the world by having a family.  I was going to hold out the bad, only let in the good.  As a result, my children would have all the things I wanted as a child and didn't get -- parents who stayed married to each other; piano lessons; all the time they needed to play and be kids before they had to grow up.  I knew how it would all turn out too.  We'd have a close-knit family.  We'd all want to do the same things and be together.  We'd all have exactly the same values.


Allow me to say it again:  I have wonderful children.  They have had all those things that I wanted for them and more, by the grace of God.  We are close and we do things together and spend time together and mostly share the same values.

But my children are not me.  I didn't think I wanted them to be, but I did.  I know, because, when they don't want what I want, or what I want for them, it bothers me.  It used to bother me a lot.  It used to make me mad.  Sometimes it still does, but, usually, it makes me sad.

I'm not sad for them.  I'm actually happy for them. They are becoming their own people, and I want that for them even more than I want them to think like I think and want what I want.

I'm sad for me.

I'm sad for my persistent inability to let go.  It's another layer of surrender I'm being called to, and I am still fighting it.  It feels like defeat -- and it is.  I've fought to be god in my children's lives, to control their worlds and create them in an image of my choosing, and I'm losing the battle, and thank goodness for their sakes.

It's still hard, and I still go down fighting.  Then I'm on the turf, dirtied, maybe even a bit bloodied.  The clock is running out.  I have a moment when I want to get back up and keep fighting, because there's a voice in my head that tells me I still need to win.  But that's the lie.  If I win, my kids lose.  I need to go down and stay down.  In fact, I need to take off the uniform altogether, empty my locker, and walk away.

And as I do, the game is over, and everybody else can quit too.  Then there's a chance for us to pick up the ball and play -- without playbooks and scoreboards and winners and losers.  We can all be on the same team.

January 11, 2013

The Walking Dead

Zombie apocalypse scenarios are all the rage.  I'm not disposed to put The Walking Dead in my Netflix queue or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on my library hold list, but I'm not above thinking about the living dead.  They are all around us, are us.

I live in the suburbs.  I can't go anywhere without seeing people.  My community is small enough that I'm acquainted with the checkers at the grocery store, the parents at school pick-up, and lifeguards at the pool. It's small enough that I run into the same people at church, at the mall, and at the library.  We recognize each other by sight, if not by name, but few of us know each other.

We pretend to.  You know how many kids I have, and I know what you do for a living.  I know what car you drive, and you know when I walk my dog.  Maybe we know more:  I've had dinner at your home, or you at mine.  Our kids played together at the park and are now in the same math class.  Our husbands trade tools.  We keep each other's spare key.  We know all kinds of things, but not necessarily the things that keep us alive.  Or dead.

We don't wear those stories the way we wear Bronco colors or slap bumper-stickers on our cars; they're not the part of our identity that we want to advertise.  We may think of those parts as the dirty laundry our mothers and grandmothers warned us not to air.  Instead, truly, they are the prize inside our box of Cracker Jacks.

I mean it.  In my ministry work, I meet a lot of women.  Rarely in the beginning do I know the first thing about their every day lives.  I don't know where they live or if they are married.  I don't know their income, their level of education or whether they have children or grandchildren.  I don't know their lines of work or their hobbies.

Instead, I hear their stories of living and dying.  I hear about the things they have dreamed of and hoped for, and I hear a great deal about dreams dashed and hopes disappointed.

I have heard more stories than I could formerly imagine about harm done.  There are stories of abuse and neglect.  In some stories, the woman before me is the victim.  Occasionally, she is the perpetrator.  

These often begin as stories of the walking dead.  These women -- and the men I don't meet, but whom others do -- believe that these are stories of their ugliness, which need to be kept hidden.  They sometimes say, sometimes in these precise words, "If anyone knew, they could never love me."

But it's not true.

It's hard to love the people who shop beside me at the supermarket and sit across from me in the doctor's waiting room.  What I see when I see them is not real.  It is like looking at their reflection in a pool; it's easy to imagine that if I tried to touch it, it would disappear before my eyes.  There is nothing to hold onto, to embrace.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known," says Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12.  

If I desire to know fully, I must allow myself to be fully known.  I can't do that every time I go out in public.  The risk is too great.  There's no sense in expecting that kind of knowing to happen as we go about our day to day business.  But we need to be aware that what we see when we pass on the street, we see only dimly, as in a mirror.   

Seeing face to face is different.  What we see in our mirrors may strike us as ugly or shameful.  When that same something is reflected in my face looking back at yours or yours at mine, it can be revealed for what it is -- the real beauty of our authentic souls.

It is no accident that Paul's words are nestled within his great hymn to love.  Love requires that we risk being seen, so that we may be permitted to see the faces of our sisters and brothers and at last to see the face of God. 

Then we become another kind of futuristic army -- those who are raised not to walking death, but to resurrection life.

January 10, 2013


It's the end of the day.  The dad, tired from a long day at the office, pulls up into the driveway.  As he gets out of the car, he immediately notices the sprinkler running, flooding the grass.  His front door is hanging open, and the kids are sitting on the porch.  The toddler is in nothing but a saggy diaper.  All the kids' faces  are covered with sticky green stuff, and they're chewing on a popsicle sticks.  The children's happy smiles relieve the father's momentary panic, but do nothing to clear up his confusion.  Instead, he becomes more perplexed as he enters the house and hears the television blaring in the living room.  The sink is piled with dirty dishes.  The refrigerator is standing open and milk is pooled on the floor.  Now feeling a bit frantic again, he races through the house, calling for his wife, who is nowhere to be seen.  At last he finds her, to his astonishment, sitting in bed with a magazine.  "What is going on here?" he gasps.  She replies, "You know how you come home and ask what I did all day while you were working so hard?  Well, today I didn't do it."

I don't mean to pick on dads.  We all have our version of doing and doing and yet seeming to have nothing to show for it.  When my kids were babies, I would make my to do list at the end of the day, listing the things I'd done, however small.  ("Clipped the baby's nails" was an especially big achievement.)  That was the only way for me to feel as if I'd accomplished anything at all.

I supposed yesterday that if I didn't spend so much time dealing with my stuff, I'd have more of my 400,000 or so remaining hours to devote to God.  It's both obvious and unbelievable that each of us gets the same 24 hours a day in which to do whatever it is we do.  I know a man, a pastor, a father of twelve, half of whom are still living at home, who, in addition to the unimaginable range of responsibilities required of a man with a large family and a congregation to serve, spends considerable time in private devotions, devotions with his children, and a daily hour on the racquetball court.  I also happen to know that he spends three hours a week taking a night class.  "I don't sleep much," he says.

I think about an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci, or Mother Teresa or Mozart.  Think of all they accomplished with their lives, even though two of the four were cut down in their prime!

I, for example, spend hours on e-mail  -- three today, to be exact.  (In our current day and age, information is yet another kind of stuff we need to deal with.)  I have never written a great speech, invented anything useful, sat with the dying poor, or composed as much as a melody, let alone a symphony.

I have pondered my daily 24 hours.  I believe that, impossible as it some days seems, they are sufficient to do whatever it is that God wills for me.  Few are the days when I feel as though I have spent all of them wisely.

More often, I feel like I am engaged in a constant and dizzying series of trade-offs.  I can exercise, but then I won't have time to clean the bathrooms.  Or, I can get the shopping done, but then I won't have time to write.  Or, more dauntingly, I can read to the kids, but then I won't have time to pray.

How do we prioritize?  I have prided myself on putting relationships first.  Or so I have imagined.  Here's what I've been learning:  What I want to think of as love and self-sacrifice for others, all too often, is really a kind of manipulation.  If I do things for you, you'll know I love you.

And then you'll love me.

Won't you?

All too often I spend my precious allotment of time doing things for others that they can and need to do for themselves.  I want to believe I've done it for their good, but I'm afraid I've done it for mine.

It gets worse.  What I find is that I do and do and do and do and do and do and...  Phew!  Before I know it I'm overwhelmed.  Then my head kicks in with judgments that end up flying out of my mouth:  Don't you see how much I do for you?  I work so hard!  I wish you would appreciate it.   By which I mean appreciate me.

This year I have resolved to reserve my help for when people ask for it.  Even then I intend to weigh whether my help is really what's wanted or just my presence.  Sometimes my no is actually more helpful than my yes would be.

As I pay attention, I realize that scarcely a minute goes by when I'm not tempted to "help"; often I only realize what I'm doing when I'm already in the midst of doing it.  It's going to take practice to notice before I'm caught in the act.

My hope is that I can learn more appropriately to give my time away.  I suspect that with enough repetition, certain things that I do habitually will fall away; someone else will do them, the person to whom those jobs properly belong.  Good for them.  Good for me.

If that happens, I'll have more time.  I won't feel like I need more than the 24 hours we all have.  What I have will feel like enough.  What will I be able to accomplish then?  And still get enough sleep.

January 9, 2013

Too. Much. Stuff.

It's in drawers and cabinets, boxes, bins, closets, and laying around on shelves.  Papers, articles of clothing, cooking equipment, toys, cleaning supplies, linens, candles, knickknacks, and more books than I will ever have time to read.  It is piled, folded, stacked, dumped, sorted and unsorted, useful and useless.  Some things trigger sentimental memories; others I never remember having seen before in my life.  It's mine or my husband's from before we were married and since and the kids' and the cat's and the dog's and all of ours -- except for what we've borrowed and not returned.  It's what we've purchased, inherited, found, and received as gifts.  I don't believe any of it is stolen.  But I could be wrong.  I wash it, wipe it, pick it up, put it down, take inventory of it, move it from here to there or from there to here or one way and then back again. I sometimes lose it, which I particularly hate, because I don't always find it again.  However much I have, I always seem to be buying more.

How much of my life is consumed with stuff?  If I live the average lifespan for a woman in the U.S., I will get roughly 708,000 hours.  A third of those I'll be sleeping.  That leaves approximately 472,000 hours, of which I have already lived more than half.  If I'm lucky, I'll be active for the other 400-odd thousand.  If today is in any way average, I will spend 399,000 of them dealing with stuff.

Does it have to be that way?  Certainly there must be some minimum threshold.  There are meals to shop for and make.  Clothes, towels, and linens need to be laundered.  Dirt needs to be cleaned away. 

There was a time when all my earthly possessions could fit in the hatch of my Ford Escort.  Now I live in a 2400 square foot house and there never seems to be enough room for everything I need to store.

Which raises the question:  What do I really need?

I fantasize sometimes about giving away everything I could live without:  Extra dishes.  My second bathrobe. The dishtowels I bought because I love their colors, but which are, alas, water repellent.  The empty scrapbooks.  The ugly sweaters.

It's not that I'm a hoarder.  I'm not.  I often give away bags full of things.  I have culled our book collection any number of times.

But, somehow, the overall glut of stuff never seems to vary.  Something goes out, but something else has already come in to replace it.

Here's what Jesus has to say about possessions, according to the 12th chapter of Luke (vv 16-21):
And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
It's funny, but when I've read "This very night your life is being demanded of you" in the past, I've always assumed that the rich man was about to die.  But what if he wasn't?  I think that my life is being demanded of me this night -- and every night -- by the God who wants me to stop storing up treasures for myself and become rich toward Him.

I don't think it's all about material possessions either.  I may not actually hoard stuff, but I hoard other things -- my time or my attention for instance.  Sometimes I hoard food.  I know people who hoard experiences or their affections.

Christianity, in its earliest expression, reflected the very opposite of hoarding.  In Acts (Luke's Part II), we read:  "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:44-45).  They shared.  And everyone had enough.  They didn't each need everything, like neighbors who have one snow blower for the block or twenty-somethings who car share.

How could my life -- or yours -- be different if I quit storing up so many treasures and shared more of them instead?  If I stopped spending so much time tending my stuff and spent more time tending my soul?

Think of the time I'd save.

January 8, 2013

Money, Money, Money

I am thrilled to share with you today the thoughts of my dear friend (not to be confused with my dear sister) Stacey.  I'd love to hear from YOU too.  Be a part of the conversation!

Your comments about your financial adviser struck a chord with me.  When my husband and I were about 30, we went to a financial planner whose message was that we were already fucked and our lives would have to be painful and full of financial sacrifice if we were to save enough to avoid our almost certain fate of dying destitute in the gutter.   We never went back to her.  We saw our next (and current) financial adviser before our son was born to discuss life insurance and our financial future.  He matches our approach to life and money much better (i.e. be responsible, live without debt and do the best you can).  That may not be great financial advice, but we are following his plan.

My parents never talked about money other than to share their freak out moments, which I would not recommend as a parenting strategy.  One of my earliest money memories is my dad sitting on my bed while my sister were about to fall asleep, breaking into tears and telling us that he didn't know how he was going to pay his bills.  I had never (and have not since) seen my dad cry.  Needless to say, I didn't sleep much that night.  I remember thinking that I could always eat at my mom's house and I probably would only have to miss two days of food before I was back at Mom's where there was food.

My parents ended up doing fine, but I think that was due to dumb luck.  I don't know that my mom ever had a money strategy.  She was lucky to get the house when my parents divorced which in that California real estate way of the 80s allowed her to have a good nest egg when she sold it.  She then moved, bought a house and again was able to cash in on the exploding real estate market there.  I don't think that plan is available to us or our kids any more.

My dad has had many careers and is doing fine now, mostly because the recent careers are working out.  He also was able to cash in on his parents’ financial choices; he bought the ranch my grandparents had and it is now worth a chunk (see California real estate reference above).

My point is that despite my parents’ financial solvency, I think they did a terrible job teaching, modeling and talking about money which has had a life-long influence on my approach to money.  We are trying not to make the same mistake.  We talk to the kids about our financial choices and why we buy or don't buy things.  For example, when the kids say they hate one of our cars, we explain that we could have a new car or we could take 10 trips to California.  Most importantly, I hope I am passing along the lesson that money is something that can be managed and controlled and It isn't a force that randomly grabs you by the balls and throws you against a wall.  I don't want them to worry about money because that gives up control.  I want them to know they are in control of their finances by the choices they make.  

So, your post made me think about my 

* Organic, local and healthy food
        I shudder to think about how much we could save if I shopped at Walmart, but I really want my kids to have a relationship with the places that grow food or the people that provide us food at the Farmer's Market.  I want them to know what foods grow in different seasons so they can appreciate the peaches, melons, strawberries, etc. when they are available for a limited time.  

* Kid activities and enrichment
        Again, this would be an easy one to cut and I could save a chunk of change but I think it is important the kids learn what they like to do for fun.  So, we spend money on fencing, Irish Dance, music, swimming etc.  I don't care if they are good at it but I want them to have hobbies – something I never developed when I was young.  My husband has hobbies and which offers us an opportunity for some financial negotiating / stress when he needs / wants a new item for his hobby.  

* Travel
        Ug.  This is a huge money suck but I look at this expense as the price of admission for living in a rural state.  If we don't travel with the kids they won't know there are people who are not white in the world.  Our town is a pretty fantastic place, but it lacks any worldly influence, and I think the kids need to get exposed to the big world so they don't get shocked back to our home state when they spread their wings.

* Good jackets
        I have decided that I would rather spend a little more on Patagonia items and have them last for 2 winters rather than buy 1.5 jackets a winter because the stupid zipper broke.  Plus, I get this Patagonia outlet email with super deals so I can buy winter coats when they are cheaper during the off season.  The items we buy are not super pretty, but damn it, we are warm.

* Fun traditions
        Birthday parties, the Easter party (not at all financially responsible but I can't let 75 people down), Christmas traditions, etc.

* Braces for the kids
        I didn't realize this was a negotiable until I talked to my boss who said he wouldn't get his kids braces if they needed them due to the cost.  Spoken by someone who has reasonable teeth I think.

Here are the things I could dump but I don't want to:

* Wireless - I am not sure that I could dump this actually.

* Having my hair cut and colored 3 times a year

* My husband and I going out sans kids 2-3 times a year whether we need it or not.

Here are the things 
we don't have:

* Nice, new cars
        Yep.  And I really don't care.  I hate spending money on cars.

* A house that is warmer than 68 degrees in the winter.

* New books

       The library is free.

* A 2-dimential TV
        We have a cube which is fine because we don't watch it much.

* Phone-thing-ys
        No iPhone, droid, whatever.  I have a cheap pay-as-you-go phone.  My husband has something nicer from work, but I am not even sure what it is.

* Cable 
        Don't miss or want it.

* A lot of clothes or shoes
        I do a lot of laundry so we don't need as much.  Plus, once I find a pair of shoes I like I wear them every day.  I am a creature of habit.

* Debt (other than the house and my husband's student loan which will be paid off in 3 months)

What are your non-negotiables?  What could you dump, but don't want to?  What do you choose to go without?

Many thanks, Stacey, for your story, and the rich (!) food for thought!