December 30, 2015

My One Word

Have you done that thing on Facebook where you type in your name and the universe tells you your special word for the coming new year? There is also this website where you can choose your own word. I don't need a website. I've chosen my word.


Joy is tough for me, which feels oddly embarrassing to admit. Why should joy be hard? But for me, it's the very hardest thing. I do other things better, things that look harder, but, for me, aren't.

Suffering, failure, and disappointment are bound to turn up, and when they do, I'm ready. I feel safe expecting them. I've proved that I'm pretty good at suffering. Consolation, success, and the fulfillment of my wishes and dreams? I don't trust that they will manifest. So I've been ready for anything except joy.

I imagine that I was receptive to joy as a child. Aren't all children? We enter the world open to delight, expectant for wonder. Then at a juncture, earlier for some than for others, life hurts us in a way that changes us. We come to understand that we are not so safe, not so good, not so welcome.

So discovering joy must be a return. Perhaps it's what the ancient Hebrews understood when they wrote about the Garden in which the first man and the first woman were created. There they were one with God and with their own innate goodness. Until they weren't.

A couple of weeks ago, at an Advent retreat, I was led to re-read in Genesis, from the third chapter, where God encounters Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit. How many times have I read that passage or heard it read? Yet this time I noticed something that I had not seen before.

First, there was one and only one rule in the Garden, Don't eat from this tree. Why? Why place temptation in such easy reach? Well, I'd asked myself that question before, but what if the point is simply to signify the relationship between Creator and creature. Our good is circumscribed within the confines of our obedience to the Creator. That is the very nature of things.

The tree is said to confer knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. I always imagined that meant  that once man ate from the tree, he or she could differentiate good from evil outside of one's self. But what I noticed that I had never seen before is that Adam and Eve, after eating from the tree -- that is, after disobeying in the one and only way that disobedience was possible -- brought evil into the Garden. The evil they now knew was their own. That's why they hid. They could not heretofore know good from evil, because there had been nothing to know. All that was, was of God, created by God. Now there was something else, something that was not-God. Good and evil. Paradise lost.

For Eve and Adam, joy and peace are replaced by toil -- thorns and thistles and death. And so for us.

I cannot return to the innocence of my childhood Eden. I am long past the point of denial; sin and evil, suffering and woe are real for me and for everyone I love. The cloud of death hangs over us all. But I am a Christian, and we are people of resurrection life. I know that my witness is compromised because joy eludes me. The question that cries out to me from my own life is, How might I live in joy?

In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Philippians, Paul says in no uncertain terms, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!" I don't know how to do that, but I'm ready to learn.

December 4, 2015


Shannon. Bennetta. Aurora. Isaac. Larry. Harry. Yvette. Sierra. Robert. Nicholas. Tin. Juan. Damian. Michael. Just 14 of the 12,255 Americans dead this year from gun violence. I don't know all their names. No one knows all their names, but a lot of people know one name.

Pick one. She had a family, friends. He had work he cared about or tolerated or hated. She had a toothbrush and too many pairs of shoes. He had sheets and a pillow that still smell like him. She had worries and questions. He had plans and dreams.

Just like me, just like you, each and every one.

She leaves behind something. A purse someone will have to empty. Cancel the driver's license. Keep the bag or give it to Goodwill? What will help us to remember her? What would we rather forget?

He leaves behind something. The chair he always sat in, formed to his body, which is now, already, beginning to decay. When the game comes on on Sunday, the chair will be empty. No beer bottle wearing a ring in the side table. Nothing but quiet.

Fragments, remnants, remembrances, regrets.

Every one has a story. Every story is full of little details -- her favorite dessert, his favorite novel. The leftovers from the last meal he cooked. Her unwashed clothes.

We turn the story into politics. That matters, don't misunderstand me. I want us to debate what this country should do about guns, though I doubt we have the will to do anything new. If we weren't willing to do something when, almost exactly three years ago, Kindergartners were shot in their classrooms while their Christmas presents lay wrapped under the tree, I doubt we're willing to do anything now. Is there a critical mass of dead children? 

I think the number must be one. One dead child who lived and might have lived to outgrow that jacket, those boots. Who would have played with that Barbie or truck until it was worn and then forgotten in the back of the closet, but would have kept the stuffed rabbit long past the age when he wanted his friends to know, so he would hide it when they came over, under the bed, but pulled it out at night when he needed it most.

Our hope lies not in remembering the big numbers: 309 mass shootings, 3,068 dead children, 48,428 total incidents of gun-related violence. Those numbers numb us. Our hearts are stirred by one. One woman. One man. One child.

God shows up in just that way, in the particular of the one. One young mother bearing one child. She had her quirks. Maybe it was a turn of phrase, or how she baked the bread or spun the wool. He could recognize her from behind, the way she walked. And she him. She knew what his breathing sounded like when he slept, when he was having a bad dream. She made his favorite foods and wove clothes to fit him as he grew. He felt comforted by the sound of her laugh and worried when he heard her cry.

The Son of God and the Mother of the Son, one and one. Just like you, just like me. 

God wants us to recognize Him in the One and in the one. Theologians call it the scandal of the particular. We can't love and care about humanity. We can love and care about another human, the one, our one. And when we can remember to do that, to love our one, maybe we can also remember that he's somebody's one, she's somebody's one. You are. I am.

December 3, 2015

The Sufferings of This Present Time

Facebook has been serving this headline up to me all day. God Isn't Fixing This, it says. It's talking about gun violence, and politicians -- politicians who use God-talk to sell their brand (something else God doesn't seem interested in fixing, but that's a conversation for another day). As I've seen that headline over and over, these words from 1 Peter 3 have started ringing in my ears: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..."

I can't speak for others who may have prayed or advocated praying for the victims of tragedy, whether gun violence, terrorism, natural disasters, or disease. What might they be praying for? Healing and recovery? Resources for rebuilding cities and lives? Wisdom from local and world leaders? Protection for first responders? Maybe even for conversion of heart for potential perpetrators. But as the next alert of a shooting springs to the top of the news feed, it should be no surprise to people of faith that the waiting world starts concluding, God Isn't Fixing This.

We, we who call ourselves Christians, have some explaining to do. The wondering, broken world is crying out, as it always has, since the dawn of Man, Where is God in this world of suffering and sin? It is not enough for us piously to explain that God made the world good and we humans brought the evil because we chose to make ourselves gods, true as that may be. People are crying out for a word of hope, not a sermon on Original Sin.

We want to believe that, if God isn't coming to the rescue, we can simply take matters into our own hands, as if the either-or is a god who instantaneously removes all the evil and rids the world of pain, or humans who bootstap our way out of our own mess. But the experience of humanity in every generation confirms that it simply does not work like that.

My friend Brigette Weier, a woman of God who is acquainted with suffering both as a woman and as a pastor, shared these wise words yesterday: "We're deeply broken and we keep trying to fix ourselves. We try and fix ourselves with laws. We try and fix ourselves with words. We try and fix ourselves with media. We try and fix ourselves with logic. We can't fix ourselves. We can't fix this. All we have are the promises of God to wipe every tear and gather us as one. On a day like today it's hard to believe that's true or enough. Or it sounds like a cop-out. But it's not. It's our true reality. It doesn't mean complacency but calls for radical action. Calls us to proclaim and point to God's kingdom coming. God's kingdom already here. Knowing that God is making all things new, even in the wake of violence and death, how will we respond?"

We say we want God to fix things, but in our various ways, when God offers to fix us, or to fix the world through us, we take a pass. While we don't all succumb to violent hatred, which of us can say we haven't succumbed to indifference or self-righteousness? I want God to fix it, but I want God to do it in some way that doesn't involve me. I don't want to make the effort or get my hands dirty. Most of all I don't want to notice that when I look closely at the ugliness in the world, some if it has my fingerprints on it. I don't want to change. We can't fix this broken world; we can't even fix ourselves.

I hear Brigette calling us out of our false dilemma. It's not either God or us. It's God-with-us, Emmanuel. God isn't outside this mess, choosing not to swoop in and fix it. God is inside: God the helpless newborn sleeping in a borrowed feed trough. God the helpless man hanging on a convict's cross. This God is in the woman ravaged by poverty or rape; in the refugee child dead on the sand; in the bloodied body of a University of Colorado police officer; and in the man sitting in a Colorado jail cell with the officer's blood on his hands. In our helpless and suffering flesh, yours and mine.

Like Mary, we may feel awed and confused by the idea that God becomes incarnate by putting on our flesh. Hope is conceived, gestates, and is born when we say yes to God-with-us. In hope I can allow my tears to be wiped away, and I can stand with others in their tears. And that hope itself conceives and bears love, suffering love that is not afraid to speak, to act, to believe that good is overcoming evil, that all things can be made new, if I can be made new.

February 18, 2015

How about now?

"For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." - 2 Corinthians 6:2
I love new beginnings. For me, the year still starts in September, right after Labor Day, because I remember the feeling of being seven and eight and ten and eighteen, and going back to school. Too often it was hot, too hot to wear my new clothes, but there were still new teachers and classrooms. Every year September offered a clean slate.

Then comes the beginning of Advent, the new church year to start fresh. Or January 1. Or Ash Wednesday.

I always need a fresh start. No sooner do I think, I've got this, in my life of prayer, in outgrowing my childhood wounds and bad behaviors, than I find myself replacing prayer time with television, forgetting the he's the teen and I'm the grown-up, and eating what's left of the bag of M&Ms. And so it goes. I need another new year.

Ash Wednesday may be my favorite new year's day. A smear of ashes on my forehead suits the feeling of need I feel, the need to admit that I am burnt, spent. I've heard too many Ash Wednesday sermons about making myself a better person, believed too many admonitions to try harder. Ashes say all I need to hear: "From dust you came, to dust you shall return." I got nothing.

Trying harder is a lie, a trap. Get back on the hamster wheel and run faster and then you'll get somewhere. It's an empty promise. The scenery stays the same and I fall off and find myself right where I started.

What is dust supposed to do? "In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you," says the Lord. This is not a call to some new do-it-yourself project. If God is listening to me, to me, what does He hear? I need help. I confess that I don't always know what that even means. I make messes I don't know how to clean up. I need help with that -- less making, help cleaning up. Some days I feel that I myself am the mess, squatting helplessly in a pile of ashes. I trusted and hoped yesterday, but today I doubt, and the future looks bleak. I need help simply to get through, to stand up and brush off the dust and walk a step in any direction.

I need a day of salvation. I need liberation from my own limited vision. Nobody sticks me on the hamster wheel; I climb right on. I scamper into the cage and lock the door behind me. I think I'll be safe there, spinning. I'm going nowhere on my own. Outside it's big and scary and the directional signs are few and obscure. But they are there when I'm willing to slow down and look and listen.

The day of salvation is not some day in an apocalyptic fairy-tale future. The day is now. Apocalypse literally means revelation or disclosure. I can receive that revelation today if I want it. Do I want it? We talk about repentance at Lent, turning around. If I turn around I'm going to see something new, maybe something I never saw before. The risk is that it will change me. Freedom demands risk.

The opportunity is here, today. 

What are we waiting for?