The One Gift We Really Need

Shiny!

Shiny! (Photo credit: jazzijava)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Well, it’s that Schroedinger’s cat time of the year: simultaneously the Christmas season and not. Advent doesn’t officially start until Sunday, but you’d never know from the ubiquitous carols, commercials, and gift guides.

Me? I’ve had Christmas on the brain since September. In my extended family, gifts tend to be lovingly homemade. This is good because handmade gifts are beautiful, personal, and require zero time standing in line on Black Friday, but it can be a little intimidating to those of us who are less craftily gifted. Sometimes I worry about my gifts being good enough. When someone spends hours if not days of their life hand making you a quilt, a pair of socks, or 1,000 paper cranes (yes, these are real examples), you want to make sure they won’t receive something lame in return.

The only thing is, even if I started the previous January, there would be a limit to the kind of gifts I could give. Not to say that the gifts we exchange are worthless, but they won’t last forever. At best, they are mere tokens of our love, physical symbols of something much deeper.

What I really wish I could give my friends and family is, simply, peace. Not peace as in the absence of conflict (although in some cases that would be a great first step), but true security, hope, and freedom. This isn’t something I can make with my hands, but it’s the only thing worth having. So on behalf of those I love, I’m going to ask for the real gift.

For my friends who endure physical suffering, sickness, and disability, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are the primary source of unconditional love and support for children and others who need care, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends whose holidays are defined by painful memories or loneliness, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are nearing retirement age and are worried about the security of their future, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are struggling with finding their life’s calling or starting a family as their hearts desire, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are bearing financial burdens this holiday season, as well as those who feel burdened by their own and other people’s expectations, I pray for peace from above.

And I pray for myself, that God would make me willing, able, and ready at any moment to be present for my friends with a compassionate heart. That he would give me eyes to see and ears to hear those who find themselves in need this season. Most of all, that my prayers would not be empty words, but that God would give me a spirit of powerful love and self-discipline to help make peace happen.

What are your needs and wishes this holiday season? Could you use some peace? I know I could…

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Good News for People Who Like Terrible Movies

Before I decided to follow Jesus, a lot of folks tried to convince me. Maybe you can relate.  I got handed a lot of pieces of paper on sidewalks, paperbacks that tried to explain it all, and even a tiny orange New Testament through the passenger side window as my mom pulled out of my middle school’s parking lot. I also, of course, went to church semi-regularly for much of my childhood and listened to a lot of sermons, only one or two of which remain in memory now. Even in those days before the Internet and smartphones, I was surrounded with an absolute glut of information about Christianity, much of which seemed contradictory or unintelligible to me. The Living Word all but drowned out in words, words, words.

Who would have thought that, out of that sea of stuff, a low-budget and frankly terrible straight-to-video release would be the thing that actually taught me something about the love of Christ?

The movie to which I refer is The Buttercream Gang, a 1992 production of Feature Films for Families. Now, my sister and I got to choose our own movies generally, and our parents didn’t pressure us to watch this one at all. It was my grade school horseback riding teacher who lent it to my family, buried in a stack of other terrible movies about little girls having adventures with their horses. I don’t think my mom even knew it was there. You can watch parts of The Buttercream Gang on YouTube, although in all honesty I would not recommend it. The acting is awful, the plot is contrived, the dialogue is stilted, and the overall cheesiness level exceeds even my own admittedly high tolerance. As a child, though, most of the movies I watched were very nearly that bad, so I saw nothing unusual in its lack of quality.

The formulaic plot of the film goes thusly: the Buttercream Gang is a “gang” (quotation marks heavily emphasized) of young boys who go around doing good deeds for people in their small town. Their leader, Pete, moves away to the big city and joins an actual gang (probably also of the quotation mark-worthy variety, but we’ll let that pass). He moves back and everyone is shocked to find out he’s apparently a bad boy now, complete with an ever-present bandana on his head. The Buttercream Gang members want him to rejoin the flock, but the more they try to bring the old Pete back, the more he resists them. You get the idea. Most of it is completely forgettable, like thousands of other children’s movies but even less in touch with the youth of the day. And yet the climactic scene, I remember over fifteen years later. Maybe not the exact details, but definitely the heart.

In this scene, Pete is holding up the tiny town’s tiny corner store. It’s so tiny, in fact, that the store’s owner is at the cash register. Pete threatens the owner, screaming that he wants all the money in the till.

The old man, obviously shaken, manages to stammer out, “Okay, I’ll give you some money. How much do you need?”

Pete looks confused for a split second, then snarls, “How can you not get it, you idiot? I want all of it! I’m robbing you!”

The store owner opens the drawer of the cash register, pulls out the entire contents, holds it out to Pete, and says quietly but firmly, “You’re not robbing me. I am giving it to you.”

Pete is utterly shocked by this response. He freaks out, trashes the store a bit, and runs away. When we hear from him again, he’s turned his life around.

Now, I realize that a story very similar in theme to this one was told earlier and more compellingly by a fellow by the name of Victor Hugo, but hey, I was ten, and I had no idea what to make of this scene. I had never seen such a plot twist. In all the strange, corny children’s films I’d seen, no one had ever offered to save someone from the penalty of a crime by erasing any offense from the action, sacrificed so much for a person so blatantly and unashamedly out to get them. Who does that? I wondered. I instantly knew that there was something different, something troubling and yet thrilling about this scene.

At the time, I didn’t know what that “something different” was. Now I know it was an example of what Christians call grace, or the Gospel. Good news for people who like good news. Who does that? Who forgives offenses without waiting for an apology and at great cost to himself? Jesus, that’s who.

Given all the sermons, maybe I should have known. I didn’t realize The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was a parable at first either. Call me slow on the uptake.

But maybe what made this scene so unsettling and challenging for me in a wonderful way was the fact that it relied on actions rather than words, a story rather than a textbook-style explanation. Maybe the very thing that made it hard for me to understand is exactly what eventually helped me to understand: I had to do the math for myself. As so many students and teachers know, those are the lessons that stay with you.

Jesus was always telling stories, using metaphors, answering a question with a question. This very quality of showing instead of telling is what made his teachings so brilliant and made us remember them; it’s also what has allowed his Church to screw lots of things up for the last two thousand years. But he wants to give us that freedom. He knows it’s a big risk and a big potential payoff.

He told his early followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples, meaning students. That is to say thinkers, not parrots. Perhaps you thought following Jesus was all about never questioning anything? Then why did he react so positively to people who asked him questions in the flesh? Okay, some people asked him questions with an ulterior motive, as a trap, and he wasn’t so much into that. But the ones who really wanted to know, he never turned away, and often he would often respond with a story, which in turn led to even more questions.

Jesus also said his students should be like children. Among children’s many other qualities, some endearing and some maddening, they are mostly excruciatingly aware that they know almost nothing about the world. With humility and trust, they turn their face upward toward their parents and ask endlessly, “Why?”

So perhaps it’s not surprising after all that, among all the little pieces of paper with textual and logical proofs for faith, I learned more about God from a scandalous story that made me ask, “Why? Why on earth would someone do that?”

This, more than anything else, is why I write. I try to make it the motivation behind everything I do. I want to leave people with questions, to lay out the mystery and get them hooked on trying to figure out what happened. When others write a textbook, I want to write a story. When others shout, I want to whisper. When others strive for perfection in their art, I’ll be content with my deeply flawed work, provided that it sparks good questions.

If The Buttercream Gang can do it, there’s hope for the rest of us yet.

Hi, I’m Your Friendly Neighborhood Samaritan

The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and ...

The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Giacomo Franceschini, 17-18th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’m joining in the Synchroblog for Sanity hosted by Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network. He’s invited all of us to write about how to bring understanding, compassion, and sanity to the discussion of homosexuality and Christianity. I really admire Justin’s commitment to peacemaking and bridge-building, and I’m sure his new book will be well worth the read.

This true story features Tonia, who blogs at study in brown. Thank you for everything, Tonia.

* * * * *

We’re both playing hooky from church to meet each other for breakfast. She’s missing worship evangelical style in a gorgeous, imposing stained-glass tower whose parking lot always overflows. I’m missing Mass at my small parish church, the wooden building old and wearing thin but alive with Velveteen Rabbit love. The buildings are just blocks away from each other, which makes us, in a sense, neighbors. She orders eggs and bacon, apologizing for her body’s requirement of a paleo diet as though she knows I’m vegetarian. I wave the apology away and opt for cottage cheese and fruit. As we wait for the food, we start talking.

I asked her here in radiant hope that we can understand each other and maybe be friends. E-mailing her the invitation made my heart pound. She’s a lifelong Christian good girl, married to a wonderful man, a mother several times over by birth and adoption. I’m also in love with Jesus, and I’m a lesbian who lives in a tiny apartment with my partner of five-plus years and my cat. She hasn’t had much contact with gay folks in her life and isn’t sure whether or not to be concerned about our souls, but she’s prepared to ask respectful questions and get to know our stories better. A few weeks ago, I read something to this effect on her blog, realized we lived not far from each other, and decided to take a chance on a real live conversation with this stranger.

Ann Voskamp, a popular Christian author and my table companion’s close friend, once counseled her young adult son to “always have one friend that feels on the fringe… that makes the neighbors scratch their heads.”

“Maybe I could be that friend for you,” I say.

What I don’t say, but she probably knows, is that some of my church family would be as shocked at our friendship as some of her church family. Some of us can’t see past the label of “evangelical,” just as some of us can’t see past the label of “gay.” You invited someone from that church to talk to you about this? Are you crazy? they would say (maybe not in so many words).

But I, too, want to seek out friends that make others scratch their heads. After all, Jesus did. Why are you eating with those people, Jesus? asked his critics over and over. In those days, sharing a meal was an affirmation of deep friendship, kinship really, and the people he chose to bless and to claim at the table worried them deeply. So when people ask similar questions of me, I figure I must be doing something right.

I tell her a little of my story, how I see the love story I read in the Bible, God’s love of his children, echoed by my love for my partner and her love for me. The woman across the table from me smiles, overflowing with grace as she listens. She starts to speak in a gentle voice. She shares some of her upbringing, her unwavering devotion to Jesus and her simultaneous questioning of some of the things she was taught growing up.

Our conversation ranges to other things, too, the things we have in common as well as those that are different. We are both hungry readers and share book recommendations (hers turns out to be just as excellent as she said). We both love to walk in the city, though she lives in the country now. She confides in me that she loves the introspective, restorative rituals of the Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. I confess that I love the exuberance and passion of the evangelical church, including waving my arms around to a good worship song. Then we get back into the thick of things, hard questions about How to Live Like Jesus and Where Do You Draw the Line. Her questions aren’t thinly veiled attempts to wrangle me into agreement. She really wants to hear what I have to say, to reason together.

Church is over. Her husband comes in to see if she’s ready to go. She glances at me and says, “Not quite.”

“No problem,” he says, and offers to treat the kids to coffee at another café so we can keep talking.

We try to wrap things up. The hours have passed quickly while we were laying out the contents of our hearts. But I know she has many things to do, children to guide through this life moment by moment, and a home to keep as a beautiful haven for them. I, too, have to go home and clean house, cook dinner, show love to my own, less traditional, family. It’s been a gift, truly, to sit across from each other at the table, sharing our different meals and our often different ways of looking at the world.

I’m reminded of the way Jesus treated Samaritans, the outcasts of his own day, widely considered half-breeds and heretics, worshiping on the wrong mountain. He saw them with grace, tenderness, and compassion. While Jesus didn’t consider Samaritan theology flawless, he wasn’t afraid to see them as his neighbors – and point out that they, too, could embody the law of love, to the shock of others who had never been able to see past the label.

She picks up the tab, despite my protests that I was the one who invited her. I’ve been given a gift in more ways than one. It feels so good just to be listened to and heard. That goes for all of us, I think, in this crazy culture of drawing a line in the sand and shouting at each other. It feeds my hope that the two of us can be tablemates, feast together on the promises of God, affirm each other as pilgrims on the Way, imperfect as our paths may be. We hug and say thank you and goodbye and she gets into her family car and I point my boots toward my own home. And today, I claim her, as she does me: we are neighbors.

Why a Glimpse in the Glass?

For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

Most days, I look at the world through dirty glasses, gazing at stuff through a layer of God-knows-what. I just forget to keep them clean, forget there’s anything between me and reality, forget that I’ll never again see the details of anything except through little windows. They’re good ones, my glasses. They define the lines between one thing and another, help me articulate the leaves on trees, see the color of people’s eyes instead of shadow-circles in their heads. They’re not perfect, though, you know? The prescription’s probably a little old now, and at the best of times they distort things a little. Objects are closer than they appear, and the whole world doesn’t fit in my field of vision.

All this to say: that goes for other kinds of seeing, too. Are we able to see the whole picture of who we are, who other people are, what the world is, crystal clear and unmediated? No, I don’t think so. Not in this lifetime. Science shifts. Texts take interpreting. Leaders disagree. We become friends with the enemy. And even our minds can play tricks on us.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe the truth is out there. I know from experience there’s a truth that can be trusted, that we can build our lives on if we’re careful, step by step. Yes, even Truth with a capital T, that is to say like a proper noun, something you can come to know personally and not just factually. But I feel the need to start by admitting the brokenness of my own telescope. I will probably always be one with more questions than answers, and that is okay; it is normal.

This blog will be a place for me to speak about my attempts to follow the Way of Jesus. I’ve only been on it for about eight years, which in the grand scheme is nothing. But to be honest with you, Jesus is the only thing that has made life make sense to me, ever. So this journey is important, and I want to share it with friends old and new, family blood and extended. If for no other reason than because if you don’t know what my faith means to me, then you don’t truly know who I am nor who I’m trying to become.

But I want to know who you are, too. This will also be a place for me to listen and to learn. So feel free to point out (respectfully, please) the dirt on my glasses, the crack in my telescope. Bedevil me with questions. Look through my lenses and lend me yours. We were never promised perfect understanding in the here and now. But through our dirty glasses, let’s not stop looking for the beauty, for signs of life, for glimpses of the truth. Then when we’re no longer constrained by our current limitations, when we no longer need these panes of glass, we’ll be ready, at last, to see face to face.