“You Call Yourself a Christian?”

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

He lobbed the question at me and it hit like a gym class dodgeball to the face. I never was too good at ducking things.

I worry sometimes that I build myself up too much on this blog, make myself seem too spiritual. I pray. I try. That’s true enough. And also I fail, a lot, at the two most important things: loving God and loving my neighbors.

I let fear strangle me into silence. I let tension strain me until I snap and snarl. I give in to apathy, close my ears to God’s voice, say it without saying it: My comfort is more important than your suffering.

I could go on.

Getting smacked with the question, right out loud, made me realize it more than ever before: I don’t deserve Jesus. I don’t deserve to call myself a Christian.

Nobody does. That’s the Good News.

Jesus doesn’t save people because they deserve it. He saves people because he just wants to – because that’s what he does. Even people like Peter, who denied ever knowing him when he was about to be killed. Even people like Paul, who at one time hunted down his followers to kill them.

Deserving it doesn’t enter the equation.

And that’s why, since I became a Christian, I can finally see my flaws without being paralyzed by them. I don’t have to be some kind of shiny, perfect person. I just have to admit that I’m broken, ask for forgiveness, get back on the horse of loving God and loving people.

I do call myself a Christian. And I will keep calling myself that, boldly, scandalously. Because Jesus died so we could be forgiven all our flaws and failures, so we no longer have to be slaves to sin, so we can live in love instead. Yes, even me. Hallelujah.

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Looking for Help in All the Right Places

Image credit: Simon Law

Image credit: Simon Law

My friend, my mentor, the man sharing a meal with me, looks across the table and asks me, “What are you praying for right now?”

I just shared with him the whole ugly, tragic story of my family member’s deep journey into mental illness. I look down at my burrito and make some discouraged gesture. “Just to get through the day, I guess.” I look up and catch his gaze. “It feels so weird to be going about my normal life, going to work, eating lunch, when someone I love so much is on the edge of catastrophe all the time. I really want to be able to help – but I just don’t think I can, not in any real way.”

He’s looking at me intently, compassionately. “Yeah. I think you’re right. He needs help – but it can’t come from you. Not this time.”

As with so many times when we talk, I find myself relaxing because he gets it – gets why I’m struggling with this. A lot of people have been counseling me to just put this person’s problems out of my mind. They’re not my problems – he can and will make his own decisions, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And they’re right, but there’s also more to it than that. There’s the ache of not-rightness, of just missing him, and there’s also something more: the injustice of a world where someone in the depths of mental illness seems to have nowhere to turn.

We talk about the poor a lot at the church where my mentor and I both worship. The need to stand in solidarity with the poor; God’s preferential option for the poor. Now the poor suddenly, vividly, means someone in my family, and I don’t know how to care for him, and I don’t know who will. On a profound level, this is my problem, because it’s God’s problem.

My mentor suggests I pray about this tension. Put this whole mystery into God’s hands. Pray for God to bridge that chasm between this person and the help he needs to survive. And pray that I will find some way to help, even if it’s not what anyone would have expected.

As always, I come away from our meeting feeling fed in more ways than one. I feel my burden lightened because I’ve been reminded that I’m not carrying it alone – that God does care and will stand with the one I love. And maybe I can too, in some way I can’t yet see at all.

A few Sundays later at our church, the homily is about the practice of meditative prayer. This is odd, because our wonderful priest rarely talks about personal spirituality. He almost always talks about the societal dimensions of the Gospel: nonviolently resisting empire, building God’s kingdom and living there instead. But today the Scripture speaks about Elijah hearing the still small voice, and Father Bob speaks about how beautiful, how essential it is to silently sit in God’s presence.

Suddenly I sit up and take notice. There it is: an answer to my prayer. That is something I can do for my loved one: I can sit in God’s presence and let God rub off on me, little by little.

I can’t love this person properly when all I can see is his illness, my own hopeless inadequacies, overwhelming darkness. But I can ask for God’s perspective on the situation, God’s ability to love through anything. Sitting in silence, I can learn to listen for that still, small voice eclipsing all the drama of fire and winds and earthquakes.

And when I soak up God’s love, it can’t help but spill over from me into the lives of all my family and friends.

So please, friends, pray for me that I’ll have the courage and self-discipline to continue seeking God’s face in prayer. It’s so tempting for me to seek distractions instead. Those have their place, but ultimately they don’t provide me with the real joy I need to counterbalance the pain of my current reality. I need to honor this answered prayer, turning my heart to the One who is my help.

One Small Step Out of Egypt

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Last week, I shared that I need the hope my faith gives me more than ever due to some circumstances in my life that have been making me feel hopeless.

This week, I got to taste a tiny bit of freedom, the sweet fruit of God’s patient faithfulness with us humans. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

But first, we have to go back to last year, when I saw my mother in person for the first time since 2007. It was a huge deal for both of us, a huge statement that despite all the bad memories, I felt strong enough to hope that our relationship could be better in the future. Jesus alone gave me that strength as well as the willingness to reach out in love again after all these years. We ended up having a great time together.

There was one thing, though, I wasn’t prepared to see. I knew my mom lived in a group home and had for years. She’d often complained to me about it on the phone, said it was no place for anyone to live, but I’d thought she was exaggerating, her prideful nature unable to accept how much help she really needed these days.  Surely they took good enough care of her, right?

I’ll never forget my first sight of the place: the broken furniture, the threadbare institutional carpet, the limp colorless food being served up for lunch, the smell of cigarette smoke and decay that pervaded everything. I saw one of the numerous overworked staff members sweeping the carpeted floor with a broom, presumably because there was no working vacuum cleaner or even carpet sweeper.

My mom was right. It was no place for anyone to live.

I came back from my visit rejoicing at how well things had gone between Mom and me, thanking God for the courage that had helped me reopen this relationship. But as I settled back into my life, I felt again like Jesus was tapping on my shoulder: Hey. The work of Love isn’t done here. You know you wouldn’t want to see Me treated like that.

After much further bothering from Jesus and much prayer, because I am really slow about these things, I decided I wanted to help my mom find a better place to live, if I could. An intrepid church friend of mine joined me on this mission, since he’d had a job years ago evaluating group homes and he knew how to scout out the good ones. We made a list of possibilities in Mom’s area, and I started calling them.

The first thing I found was that most of the possibilities… were not actually possibilities. Many of the homes were private-pay only. This meant they would not accept my mom, who lives on disability, because they couldn’t charge her more than a certain amount by law. I found out that only very few places in the area were not private-pay only. Of these, I’d heard good things about one particular place. I called her, hoping against hope it would seem like a good situation. It did, over the phone at least, and the owner told me she had a current opening.

End of story? Not by a long shot. Even after my mom had met the owner and ended up hitting it off with her. There were so many logistics involved in moving: money, medical matters complicating Mom’s care, not to mention her own fear of change.

Also, the new place wasn’t perfect, and there were real cons to be weighed against the pros of moving there. I still felt strongly it would be much better than the old place, but for awhile I feared my mom would rather stay with the evil she knew. I started to lose hope, especially as I watched my other family member go into a downward spiral. Like the Israelites, I doubted whether all this was going anywhere, whether God really was leading my journey.

Slowly, almost without my noticing, the obstacles fell one by one. As of yesterday, Mom is moved into her new place. Like I said, it’s not perfect either, but she will be in a place with much more caring staff, a homey atmosphere, and greater dignity. And I rejoice at that.

It’s just one small step toward freedom for one woman. There are so many others still stuck in the old group home, a place that keeps their bodies alive but undermines their souls with an atmosphere of hopelessness. And all over the country, there are overworked and underpaid caregivers whose dignity is also stolen by such working environments. I know God wants true freedom for them all.

And yet, I rejoice in this one step, this one victory that once seemed impossible. Now I can see God clearly leading again, like a flame that can light our way through the night.