Lent, Love, and the Rest of My Life

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

One of my pastors likes to say, “Lent is a time to do more joyfully what we should be doing all the time.” That challenges me, because I naturally want to think of Lent as some kind of crash diet, a time when you give something up that you really love and it’s a great test of your willpower. Then, when you’ve gotten to the end of the sprint, you can go back to living exactly like before. And that’s usually exactly what I do.

But Lent, a season of fasting, sheds light on the rest of my life. In my current circumstances, I lead a life of plenty. There’s no reason for me not to indulge, and in fact, I’m encouraged to treat myself all the time, like it’s a holiday every day. There’s a reason we call this a consumerist society.

And also, of course, I just love overindulging all the time. I’m still young and there are few consequences to my physical body. I love the feeling of being overfull, secure in my plenty. I love new delights on my tongue and familiar comforts slipping easily down my throat.

Fasting is a shock to my system in every way.

My body, my mind, my culture all tell me, You can’t go a whole day without eating anything. You have to eat.

But Lent asks, Do you really?

Can God alone be your bread today?

And it makes me wonder if I can ask myself that moment to moment. If I can live with less so others can have more.

I’ve given up all animal products for Lent, for more reasons than one, but mostly because I know my consumption of dairy contributes to global warming, which is devastating for God’s creation and the materially poor.

I know it makes sense to drastically reduce, if not completely eliminate, dairy as a part of my diet for the long term, not just forty days. But I also miss butter and cheese and ice cream so much already. Even as I think aloud about making sweeping changes, it’s often with a heavy heart and (I’ll admit it) a whiny tone of voice. I don’t wanna give up my favorite stuff.

I’m tempted to look forward to Easter as the time when my life will go back to normal.

But here’s the thing: maybe my normal and Jesus’s normal are two very different things.

The Bible says that Jesus “became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” I read that last night and I thought about how little I contemplate all that it meant for Jesus to become one of us.

Jesus was God, with all the power and glory that implies, but he became one of us. He humbled himself and became a being who existed in time, who was born and died. He endured every frustration in life that we do. He suffered sickness, exhaustion, and emotional pain. The closer he got to death, the more his suffering grew: betrayal, abandonment, misunderstanding, mockery, utter humiliation.

At times he wished there was another way to save us. But through it all, he wasn’t resentful. He was doing it for the love of poor people like us and through God’s love for him, and his loving heart shone through it all.

So that gives me a bit of perspective on my “sacrifices,” in and out of Lent. There’s nothing I can’t do with a loving heart, if I stay in the middle of Love and let it fill me.

Tearing Down the High Places (Why We Can’t Do Lent Alone)

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

I’m having a bit of a seasonal epiphany this Lent, kind of like the Grinch that Stole Christmas. I’ve been reading the same old stories and seeing new things.

A few weeks ago, I was reading 1 and 2 Kings. I’m sure it will shock you to know these have never been my favorite books of the Bible. Mostly the narrative is just a long list of the kings of Israel and Judah, good ones and (overwhelmingly) bad ones. (Again: corrupt heads of state? What a shocker.)

The whole thing is pretty repetitive and formulaic. Here’s the formula for your typical bad king:

In the eighteenth year of the reign of Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijah became king of Judah… He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.

1 Kings 15:1-3

And here’s that rare specimen, the good king:

In the seventh year of Jehu, Joash became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother’s name was Zibiah; she was from Beersheba. Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him. The high places, however, were not removed…

2 Kings 12:1-2

Good kings, bad kings, none of them were perfect, and almost none of them tore down those high places. They keep mentioning it again and again, “but he did not tear down the high places.”

I’ve always wondered why exactly that was so important. The high places were sacrificial altars from the surrounding cultures, but aside from not wanting Jews to assimilate, what was the point of destroying them? Wasn’t that a little harsh? Why would their very existence apparently break God’s heart?

A light bulb went on when I read the story of yet another bad king:

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign... Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.

2 Kings 16:1-3

Child sacrifice on these altars? Yeah, that would make God angry. That would be a good reason to want kings to tear them down.

The kings that failed to do it, failed to notice or care about the suffering of the most vulnerable, basically got this written on their tombstone: He did his best to live a good life, but he didn’t challenge society’s greatest injustices.

It got me thinking about our own society. It’s easy to demonize the people of the past and say we’ve evolved beyond such cruelty, but we haven’t. We still sacrifice our most vulnerable on altars of our own, altars we just won’t tear down.

In my culture, we sacrifice poor people, children, animals, and the environment on an altar called consumerism. Slaves produce our coffee and chocolate and sugar and cellphones and clothing, and we don’t care – or not enough to stop it. Our decadent lifestyles wreck God’s precious gift of creation and harm those whose livelihoods are most tenuous, and yet so often we crave even more.

During my Ash Wednesday fast, I reflected on this passage, realizing viscerally how many cravings torture my heart. Fasting makes it obvious: I think of food constantly. All too often, I’m one of those people Paul talked about when he said, “Their God is their stomach” (Philippians 3:19). This is not about Those Other People and how bad they are; I am guilty, daily, of letting my appetites rule me.

I pondered how to choose a meaningful Lenten fast this year, how to use it as an opportunity to shift toward a simpler lifestyle. And yet, the more I reflected the more I realized that fasting comes with its own temptations. It’s easy to turn fasting and simplicity from humility into egotism. So easily, my mind can twist this spiritual discipline into a kind of purity cult mentality Jesus would hate. No unclean food shall pass my lips! No unsustainable or unethical thing can be part of my life, for I am HOLY.

Believing that my efforts alone are So Important and that fasting justifies feeling high and mighty just means I’m trading one vice for another. I can give up a million things and set no limits on my appetite for attention, approval, and pride.

At the Ash Wednesday service, I heard these words as if for the first time:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:5-7

In other words, “Is fasting (and by extension, Lent) some kind of private pity party, a time for you to feel great about your relationship to God because you gave something up, a way to justify being prideful and unkind? Or is it time to join together with your brothers and sisters and make a better world, because you can’t do it alone?”

Some of these things you could do on your own, at least in a small way. But “break every yoke”? Yokes are huge and heavy, designed for draft animals – you would definitely need help to break one. And the “yokes” that burden our society, spiritual poverty and material poverty, are way too big to conquer alone.

So join with me, friends. Let’s make this Lent not just a season of personal repentance, but a time to bring the kingdom of God to earth.

God’s Will for Your Life: It May Not Mean What You Think

listen

Image credit: Tom Woodward

Moses tried to weasel out of being God’s chosen prophet because “I’m bad at public speaking!” Samuel somehow mixed up God’s voice with his teacher Eli’s. (And Eli wasn’t much help figuring out what had gone wrong.) Jonah got called to Nineveh and ran in the opposite direction.

At least I’m in good company. Over the last ten years of following Jesus, I have done a lot of hand-wringing about wanting to know God’s will for my life when really, God’s will is not that complicated.

Okay, so actually it is kind of complicated. Because while the basic instructions are the same for everyone (love God with whole self, love neighbors as self, check and check), we all have to figure out how to live them out in our real lives, as the real people that we are.

Even Jesus didn’t call everyone to do the exact same thing. Some people he called to follow him; others he sent home to share their story of encountering him. Some people he sent out into the world without guarantee of food or shelter; others he let feed and shelter him.

Back before I actually read the Bible, I used to be rather confused about this and thence, I think, the cause of much of my angst. I knew my life wasn’t like other people’s lives, and sometimes I didn’t feel equipped to do the things they did, so I thought something must be wrong with me.

In college, with many opportunities and no shortage of enthusiasm, I tried out a lot of different kinds of service, but most of them didn’t seem like “my thing.” In fact, I sucked at most of them. I worried that the fact that I couldn’t seem to figure out “where my deep joy met the world’s deep need” meant I was somehow constitutionally unfit to follow God’s will.

I figured I probably had too much baggage from my childhood traumas. None of my awesome servant-hearted friends seemed to have relatives with addiction or mental illness. At least, they never talked about it. And good Christians didn’t seem to let such things stop them, so I kept my mouth shut about my emotional struggles.

I got out of college and I really, really wanted a job where I could serve others. I applied to so many postings from Idealist, you have no idea. But because of my earlier lack of focus, I wasn’t skilled enough at any type of service to get a job doing it, especially not in a tough market. Eventually I ended up working in customer service, which pretty much convinced me God had a cruel sense of humor.

I worked my dumb, glory-less, seemingly totally meaningless job. I asked, “How can I help you?” a million times a day.

I cleaned the apartment I shared with the love of my life, and I cooked her dinner.

I did the jobs at church no one else wanted to do, so they didn’t care if I sucked at them. Like fundraising calls. No one seems to like those.

I struggled with my conscience during this time because I wasn’t doing anything glorious and world-changing.

And yet, the whole time, God was changing me. God was teaching me the meaning of true service. I learned it might not look like I thought. I learned there had been calls to serve others all along, but I hadn’t heard them because I was expecting them to come with praise or a warm fuzzy feeling or a paycheck.

I started to realize there were unmet needs in my own family that I was, by definition, uniquely fit to address. There was material, emotional, spiritual poverty in my own family. I started to realize that by calling my mother on the phone every week, I had the power to change her world.

Up until that moment, my past had been a burning building I tried to flee. But now that God had healed me some, I found I had the strength to go back in there and try to help other people get out.

And now, God is starting to open my eyes to the real truth: all this means much more than I originally thought.

I finally have eyes to see that the very family experiences that broke my heart can also be opportunities to empathize with and help others. I finally have eyes to see that, in a country where suicide and mental illness and addiction of many kinds are seemingly everywhere, no one should have to feel like the only one whose life is shadowed by these things.

So what will God call me to do next? I know I’m just getting started with really learning how to love God and my neighbor.

I’m going to have to learn to love people enough to fight alongside them for the things they need to survive.

I’m going to have to learn how to speak my story even when I’m terrified, because stories heal both the teller and the listener.

And I’m going to have to learn, as I’ve learned so many times, to stop listening for what I think the call is and just listen. On all frequencies. Because you just never know how the message is going to finally, finally, finally get through to you.

This Is the Day the Lord Has Made: Learning to Stay Present

Sunset

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

I’ve been thinking about that Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

A scary thought, considering how many of my days I spend in a gray, windowless building answering the phone for eight hours.

Here’s an even scarier thought: I don’t really mind it. Many people recoil at the mere thought of taking a corporate cubicle job. Not me! Even when I don’t love my work, I do what I need to do to get through it. I have at least a brown belt in dissociation, distancing myself from my surroundings.

I’m another prodigy whose skill, it’s revealed, is just thousands of hours of childhood practice. A spiritual Houdini, again and again I threw off the chains of family dysfunction and my own complete lack of social skills, only to have to perform again the next day. I lifted my soul out of reality and into books and daydreams and self-deceptions.

Is it any wonder I have trouble with mindfulness? With prayer? My mind has been so conditioned to flee the scene that I find myself disconnecting even from the necessary and good: bolting my food, sabotaging my productivity with another glance at Facebook, obsessing over what I should have said while sunsets melt away in my unseeing eyes.

I don’t want to spend my days, my life, running away from what’s right in front of me. I want to believe, to live like I believe, that my whole life is God’s gift to me. The food, the friends, even the cubicle job are reflections of God’s goodness to me, but I have to stay in the moment to truly understand that.

They say do what you love, but whose life isn’t made up, by necessity, of many things they don’t love? Even my dream job would involve doing my taxes or cleaning my desk. Can I learn to love these things too? Can I train my mind, like a loyal dog, to stay close to the Master through all kinds of nasty weather and difficult terrain, happy just for a sight of that beloved face?

I realized another meaning to the Annie Dillard quote: I can see today as a microcosm of my life. When the day is over, when my life is over, what choices do I want to have made? Eight hours at a job I don’t love seems like a long time, but if I escape, the day is over and I wonder where it went.  My dreams dissipate and I’m left with nothing lasting.

If I can’t make it through eight hours of mild unpleasantness by looking forward to the end of the day when I can come home to my beloved family, how can I look forward to the end of my life with confidence that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing”?

By grace, I know it’s not too late to learn to stay in the moment, to keep my eyes and ears open to God’s voice. May I look and listen for signs of God’s love and places where love is needed in the world – because in the end, that’s what my life should be about every day.

Some Tenth Anniversary Gifts: Reflections on 2014

me and dadOnce I heard this Francis Chan sermon where he said something like, “Let’s say you have a choice about next year. You can choose to have a year that’s easy and fun, where everything pretty much goes your way and you’re constantly having a great time, but you don’t really get any closer to God. Or you can choose a year with grief and pain, a year that challenges you, a year where you learn to love and depend on God much more. Which one do you choose?”

I really don’t remember picking one. And of course it’s not always a choice between those two things. And yet, I know which one I got.

I remember one time in the thick of it, back in August when my dad was in deep depression and threatening suicide almost constantly, when he wasn’t speaking to me, when the last words he said to me were words that condemned me and I wasn’t sure those wouldn’t be his last words to me ever. I found it hard to make it through the day, to go about my normal life, to talk about what was weighing me down.

On one particular day, I cried the whole mile-plus walk home from work. I cried as I grieved the Dad I remembered, who I wasn’t sure would ever be back. And I cried because dying to myself hurt. I wanted to believe I was such a good person who was kind to everyone and loved The Poor and other people who were Jesus in disguise, and I’d just been smacked upside the head with my own apathy and complacency and brokenness.

I picked up the ten-thousand-pound phone, to steal yet another bit of truth from Anne Lamott, and I called my friend Joel from church. I hate calling people when I know I’m going to ugly cry on the other end. I’d rather be fake as hell but presentable, at least. But I called him, and I ugly cried out the whole story, ending with how I was pretty sure I was a goat, not a sheep, to Jesus after all. Forget Jesus, how could I even face our Super Social Justice Loving Church when a homeless man, my father, had outright cursed me for not caring enough?

Joel listened and made appropriate noises (he is in the field of psychology and everything). And then from the other end of the phone poured the most beautiful Scriptural wisdom, words that saved me all over again.

He reminded me of a few little things, like Jesus didn’t come to condemn us. Satan is called the Accuser. And feeling pain, horror, guilt over how wrong the world is and how you’re a part of it doesn’t mean You’re Doing It Wrong. We’re called to weep with those who weep. And we shouldn’t be surprised when people seem to reject us. Suffering is part of the deal. We are guaranteed trouble – but we are also guaranteed that Jesus will be there with us helping us overcome.

By the end of the call, I was laughing through my tears and joking that all this was God’s gift to me on the ten-year anniversary of my conversion. Surprise!

In the darkness, a flash of light, a glimpse of God’s glory. My friends, it’s been that kind of year.

This year, I started therapy as part of my slow but sure realization that I need to be healed from a lot of stuff: anger, fear, sinful and cruel ways of treating myself and others in moments of stress. I’m a broken part of a broken world. But through the patience and kindness of my therapist, I saw an echo of the great love of my ultimate Healer, who will stop at nothing to help me.

This year, I lamented losing some of my first love for God after ten years as a Christian, and I made a conscious effort to remember the story of how God relentlessly chased me, won me over completely, and continues to cherish me.

I wrote about what the Cross and dying to myself means to me, and then I learned that it’s just empty talk unless I cling to that cross when things get hard.

I tried to help people, and ultimately my efforts failed. And I learned a little more that, as my friend Joel likes to say, “There’s a Savior, but He’s not me.” Jesus died seemingly a total failure, but the story wasn’t over yet.

Neither was the story with my dad. He and I are reconciled, and he is no longer in such a dark place. I visited him last month in Arizona, a crazy wonderful story I’ll tell some other time. We hugged (pictured above) and talked for hours and he served me fruit salad, and it seemed like the biggest miracle of all.

But there’s one more big fat glorious thing that happened in 2014.

Several people in my life got closer to Jesus themselves. Some of them gave their lives to him, others just leaned on him for the first time. But everyone in my immediate biological and step-family called on the name of Jesus this year. In the midst of all the collective pain, everyone tasted a little of that joy and that peace with which nothing in the world can compare.

And knowing that brings me a kind of deep happiness no circumstance can take away.

Yes, my Jesus, the last ten years have been worth it. And no one gives gifts like you do. Here’s to following you for however many years I’ve got left.

That Book Punched Me in the Face!

Ride the Crazy Train

Image credit: Derek Giovanni, flickr

Ever had the words of the Bible leap off the page and throttle you?

In a good way, of course.

You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it’s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!

Galatians 3:1-4 MSG

I read those words and I realized I did it again. I believed the myth I was brainwashed with past memory ago: that I’m defined by what I do, how well I do, what other people think of what I do. Just like those crazy Galatians.

I’m exploring changing careers right now and it really scares me, honestly. I have to learn a lot of new things and in my mind I like learning, but let’s face it, actually I hate it. Because when you’re learning to balance, you fall over and skin your knees a bunch of times, and you feel like an idiot. I prefer already having learned things, being past the point where people point and laugh at me, thank you very much.

But in reality, who is really pointing and laughing? Isn’t it at least mostly in my head? And how did it get in there anyway? Why do I care so much, still, about what other people think?

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Galatians 1:10 NIV

If I piled up every worst-case scenario, every imagined insult I can reckon, would they outweigh the value Christ puts on me? If life made me down-in-the-dirt humble, wouldn’t he still see me as beautiful? Didn’t he spill his own blood for love of me? What am I thinking, cheapening that?

When I let Jesus into my heart, I said, “Yes! Break that yoke I’ve struggled against so long, this burden I’ve lugged around of never being good enough. You’re the good one. You said I could quit trying so hard and just follow you… so I will.”

What am I doing picking up that rock again, putting the yoke back on? Why did I let fear back in when the love of God should have cast it out? Did someone put a spell on me? Thank God I came back to my senses!

The Bible seems like a crazy book sometimes, but sometimes I need it to call me on my crazy. I need that slap in the face, that wake-up call to what really matters. And that’s why I keep reading, because sometimes the words cut me to the heart and I realize they’re alive, and they want me to really live too.

Fasting: Taming the Munchie Mind

My sister is starting to practice meditation, hoping to conquer what’s known as “monkey mind”: that anxious, restless, grasping nature simmering below most people’s civilized manners. But she told me, “I call mine ‘munchie mind,’ because when I’m distracted during meditation I’m usually thinking of food.”

Sister, I know the feeling.

I won’t say I’m always thinking about food, but I think about it with great regularity. I often get hungry and listless if I haven’t noshed in two hours. So when I first started fasting, back when I was reconnecting with my childhood Catholicism five or six years ago, I thought I’d be the worst at it.

And I kind of am. And that’s what’s so great about it.

Here are some of the reasons why, crazily enough, I’ve learned to love the practice of not putting food in my mouth every two hours.

1. It reminds me what I’m really hungry for.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Let’s face it – food feeds me temporarily. Then, as Jesus said, it passes through my body and is gone. But Jesus is the bread of life, food for my soul. In my day to day life, I need never feel hunger – but a little hunger is a good feeling sometimes, a reminder to long for a deeper fullness.

2. It helps me practice joy in difficult circumstances.

… when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:17-18

I try to follow Jesus’s directions here, to be on my best behavior while fasting. It’s an added incentive to focus on being kind, joyful, cheerful: they way I should always be and I often am not. The thing is, though I often start out faking it, the act of fasting often gives me real joy: the joy of sharing a secret with my Heavenly Father, the only other one who knows.

3. It helps me guard against hypocrisy.

Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?

Isaiah 58:5

Fasting with the wrong attitude is so, so easy. Like everything else about faith, actually. This passage often runs through my head while I’m fasting, reminding me that my religious actions shouldn’t be just empty symbols. They should move me to love, think, feel, and most of all act differently.

4. It helps me remember, and inspires me to serve, those who are suffering.

Is this not the fast which I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Isaiah 58:6-7

In this world of such huge suffering, the discomfort of my fasting is less than a drop in the bucket. And yet it makes me slow down and soberly consider those who go through so much more, something I honestly often forget to do on a full stomach. My very faint echo of their pain is not only a reminder to pray for them; it can be a powerful motivator to act with the justice and mercy God desires and do whatever I can to free others from oppression.

5. It trains me not to make my appetites a god.

 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

Philippians 3:18-19

Like all members of our highly commercialized culture, I have a running commentary in my head of the things I want and the reasons why I’m justified in wanting them. That was a traumatic phone conversation. I need chocolate. Okay, just one more piece; it’ll help me work better. And a donut – sure, I deserve it!

Fasting makes me deny myself just a little, reminds me that I don’t get everything I want and that’s actually a good thing. When I’m obsessed with satisfying my own appetites, I’m not focused loving others or God, and that means I’m not focused on the two most important things ever. I need more giving things up and giving things away so my heart can be truly full.

5. It reminds me I am weak – but God isn’t.

He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

When things get hard in my life, I’m tempted to forget about God, lose the ability to see the light in the pervasive darkness. And things will get hard in my life, probably harder than I can even imagine. Right now, I am young and healthy and nothing has gone too terribly wrong yet, but really living involves a lot of loss. I need to prepare for those times now, training myself to lean on God like I’m doing an earthquake drill. Although, again, the pain of fasting is relatively little, it’s one small way to do that,

6. It’s a reminder to me all day of God’s presence.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

I can’t forget that I’m hungry. It’s like an alarm clock ceaselessly going off in my tummy. But if only, if only I had an internal alarm clock that kept on waking me up to the amazing reality that, hey, I’m living in God’s kingdom right now! This is the beginning of an eternity of beauty! Time to celebrate God’s gifts to me and share them with whomever I can! Fasting does that for me, helps me pray constantly through an otherwise ordinary day.

So, surprising no one more than myself, I must highly recommend fasting as a spiritual discipline. It will leave you hungry for more, in the best way.

Do you fast as part of your spiritual practice? What does it mean to you?

Life in the Burning Bush

burning bushSometimes you sit on the other end of the phone line, saying nothing, just listening to someone else cry.

Sometimes you dial up voicemail and find yet another bad news message, with no idea how to move forward into good news.

Sometimes you try to gift someone, to bless someone, and your gift melts in the rain, dissolves into the night.

I’ve been in that place a lot lately. And somehow, I believe it’s exactly where God wants me to be.

I used to think the life of faith was triumph, a blaze of glory. I dreamed of doing Something Big for God. But the truth is, I just wanted to do Something Big, just wanted glory for myself. I’m learning again how little I can do, how empty are my supposed accomplishments.

My mom’s move, in which I was instrumental and which I thought would be such a good thing for her, has turned out to be a nightmare for everyone involved. Some of the dearest people in the world to me feel stuck and burdened in ways I can’t fix. The demons of mental illness and addiction prey on my loved ones, stealing whatever they can, and I can’t be bodyguard against it.

But God invites me every day, again, to offer my best with a smile and as open a heart as I can muster. To hold on, to ask for help. To realize that the fact that I can’t do much is meaningless, because my life is not what I do – it’s who I am.

Moses said to God, “Who are you?”

And God replied, “I AM WHO I AM.”

God’s beloved people were treated to signs of love: the escape from Egypt, a fiery cloud to lead them, even a suffering servant who would give everything to save them. And God claims those things, saying, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt.”

But the deepest nature of God is this riddle: “I AM WHO I AM.” Even when God seems not to be doing anything, not empowering us to do anything, God’s spirit is with us, transforming us in ways we can’t understand. We are the bush that is not burned up through all this fire – and why? Because God is with us in the fire.

And being together – my being and God’s being – is the most precious thing of all, something that can’t be burned up in fire. My best good deeds will pass away, maybe sooner than I think, but even so, the most precious thing of all is mine to keep.

I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?

Nothing Happened and It’s a Miracle

Apologies to Disney.

Apologies to Disney.

All of a sudden it’s sweater weather. Soup weather. Back to school. Just days ago we were enjoying sunbathing and ice cream. Is summer really gone already?

If you’ve been following along at home, you know this summer has been an intense one in my world. September me feels a world away from June me. This season tested my faith for sure. I’ve never woken up so many mornings in a row going, I cannot make it through this day without you, Jesus. Help me.

I’ll never look at a lot of things the same way again – most of all myself. This summer took me down a peg in a serious way. I’ve built a lot of my adult identity on being a do-gooder: giving blood, volunteering, going to church on Sundays. I’ve thought of myself as a friend of the poor and homeless, because isn’t that what Jesus wants from us? Duh.

This summer asked, “Yeah? What if one if your family members is homeless now? What if you can’t just give them five dollars and a hug and they’ll go away and you get to feel great about yourself? What if your prayers apparently mean nothing in the face of their problems and their pain? What’ll you do now, huh? Where are all your big ideas about Helping the Poor, mini Mother Theresa?”

This summer I saw the truth: I’m not that good. I am not doing much to help the world. Not at all.

I saw more clearly than ever before that really helping people is hard, not straightforward or feel-good at all sometimes. Now some of my past posts, like this one, seem at best super silly and at worst super callous in the extremity of their cluelessness.

Yet, as I wrote before, all of this has made me cling to the Gospel more strongly than ever. I truly do believe the grace of God is infinitely stronger than all my sin, all the ways I fail.

As everyone who knows me knows, I don’t deal with my own failure very well. My instinct is to beat myself up and decide I shouldn’t even try anymore. It was less tempting to do that this time than it’s ever been before, which is actually a pretty hopeful sign. Maybe God is finally allowing me to see more of the ugly truth about myself because finally, finally, I can handle a little more.

I didn’t give up on myself, on God, or on my loved ones this summer, but I was often tempted. These last few weeks especially, I’ve really had to fight the inner voices that urge me to just give up.

Why go to church today? You’ll just hear how important it is to take care of the poor, and then you’ll feel like the hypocrite you are.

Why pick up the Bible? You just read the comforting parts, the parts that make you feel good about yourself, like some kind of pill to get you through the day. Clearly you don’t care about following God’s commands, at least not when they’re actually hard for you.

Why pray? Won’t God just get angry with you because you honor him with your lips but your heart is far from him? Why don’t you do something for a change?

And then, paradoxically, Why try to do good? Who are you trying to fool? You can’t change the past. You’ll never be enough.

I told those voices to shut up over and over again, but I got really tired doing it. At times, going about my normal life seemed totally exhausting because I had to fight negative thoughts constantly. I was seriously tempted to stop doing things I knew were good for me and would help restore me because they brought on such internal resistance.

Yesterday, feeling yet again weighed down and defeated by all this soul struggle, I prayed Psalm 51.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12

Restore to me the joy of your salvation. I want to run toward you, God. I don’t want to shrink from you in shame anymore. I know you love me despite everything, but I want to believe it in my heart, not just my head.

And this morning – you guys, a miracle! – I woke up happy.

Here’s the thing. I never wake up happy and full of energy. Never ever. I am not a morning person. Usually my first thought is Ugh, already? Five more minutes. Certainly not Wow, I feel so incredibly lucky to be so so loved by God. Literally everything good in my life is a gift from God – how do I not see this all the time?

But that’s what I thought this morning. I woke up and I felt energetic, which also never happens but especially not lately, when a normal workday often feels exhausting. I felt like singing. It honestly shocked me.

Nothing changed in my life today. I’m still a sinner, and I will keep on sinning for the rest of my earthly life despite my best intentions. My family is super duper broken. I don’t understand how to help people. It’s still hard and complicated.

Plus, happy feelings aren’t everything. They’re certainly not proof that God loves me. I could go back to feeling sad tomorrow, and my redemption by grace would still be true as ever.

But today, a prayer of mine was answered. God restored to me the joy of salvation. I wasn’t even expecting joy in my life right now. I felt prepared to keep on slogging through. I figured I’d have to wait longer and learn some more patience and stuff. But God declared a holiday from those negative thoughts in my brain today. Today, I don’t just know God loves me – I really feel it.

What can you call that but a miracle? Just in time for fall, like God was buying me a new white wardrobe for Back to Discipleship.