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?

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How to Eat a Book

THE START

(Photo credit: whologwhy)

I was hungry for bread, but my mouth was full of wheat stalks and wild yeast.

That’s what it felt like when I tried to read the Bible all the way through the first time. I was home from college on vacation, with a view of miles of desert that invisibly morphed into Mexico. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read it Lone Ranger style: no rules, just me and my paperback NIV in my room. I started on page one with Genesis, those familiar Sunday-school favorites igniting my hope that I’d finally learn the whole story.

I made it as far as the book of Judges.

I couldn’t muddle on anymore through the darkness, the violence, the lists of names. I couldn’t see a big-picture Story in this; it seemed like a bunch of disconnected episodes for which I’d never figure out the context. The Jesus story I felt I understood (mostly), but what was all this about animal sacrifice and marriage taboos and census numbers? What did the one thing have to do with the other? Why were they part of the same Book?

I was hungry, and it wasn’t feeding me. So I gave up on it for years. I did enough reading for class, I reasoned. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started reading it regularly for the first time, finishing the entire text a year later. Since then I’ve reread it three times in full and just started again. I’ve found that each time, it gets better and more satisfying.

The problem was that trying to read the Bible alone, with no guidance or vision, was like trying to choke down wheat berries and yeast and call it a loaf of bread. All the nourishment I sought was there, but I couldn’t take it in until the text was properly “cooked.” For those whose reading experiences have been similarly unsatisfying, I have this hard-won advice to offer.

First, don’t go it alone. One thing that really helped me during my first read-through in 2010 was my partner’s unexpected and kind commitment to read along with me. Without her encouragement, I might never have made it through. We’d read out loud to each other sometimes, and each of us would remember connections the other forgot. Reading in a group, especially a faith community, is great if you can manage it. Don’t forget to lean on the scholarly community as well – a good study Bible has often been my best friend when figuring out context and narrative structure. And finally, when you feel like you just can’t make it through another genealogy, asking for understanding from God (as you understand God) can be truly invaluable.

Second, make it bite-size. As with any big goal, reading the entire Bible is easier for many of us if it’s broken down into relatively easy steps. Luckily, there are many plans out there that have done the work for you, breaking down the number of chapters you need to read daily to finish in a certain amount of time (most commonly a year or two years). Some, like those through Discipleship Journal, even factor in extra days so you can catch up if needed. Bible reading plans also make it easy to give yourself variety if you don’t want to go straight from beginning to end – some plans will give you a variety of readings from different parts of the Bible each day, while others have you read from a different “genre” of book each day of the week. Just in case you feel, as I did, like you’ll be stuck in Judges forever.

Third, keep the big picture in mind. Many folks find the New Testament far easier to read than the Old Testament. We Christians often don’t know what to do with the Hebrew Scriptures – what do they have to do with us, we ask ourselves, and when will we get to the good part? The fact is, the New Testament is intimately related to the Old. Both Jesus and Paul reference the Hebrew Scriptures constantly; the love story between the Israelites and God is their native tongue. So especially if you’re reading from beginning to end, keep your eye out for Old Testament symbols and promises that will form the backbone of the New Testament. One great resource that’s helped me practice seeing the big picture of Scripture is The Jesus Storybook Bible (written for children, but beloved by many adults).

Finally, don’t forget to savor and enjoy! Choose a translation that speaks to you, or even a modern paraphrase like The Message or The Voice. Create rituals for your Bible time that help you focus and enjoy, like reading outside on sunny days or curling up in your favorite chair with a cup of tea on rainy ones. Mark passages you love, things to which you want to return, words that spark questions in your heart, words that satisfy your hunger. Read out loud. Slow down, lectio divina style. Sing Psalms, dance prayers, retell the stories in your own words, feast your eyes on great religious art. Let it make you laugh, cry, hope, and dream.

As for me, I’m still chewing on this book. On my plate today is a few chapters of Exodus with a side of Proverbs. After a few complete read-throughs, while some parts have always gone down like candy, others have become acquired tastes for me, like arugula or olives. Often, it’s only after reading something for the third or fourth time that I’ve been able to see the beauty of it and exclaim, “This was holy ground all along!” I’m so glad I stopped trying to jam the text down my throat to fill my hunger and learned to savor it, properly cooked, as the feast it is.

Reposted from July 2013 to celebrate my fourth complete read-through of the Bible. It really does get better every time!

Solidarity for Sheep

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

That funny word solidarity has come up in my life a lot lately – in my current spiritual reading, a random bookstore find, even a recent episode of Welcome to Night Vale. God speaks through paranormal humor podcasts now? I should have known.

And of course, the s-word comes up a lot at church. In my church we use it a lot, but sometimes it seems like we use it so much I forget what it’s all about.

So what is solidarity? This isn’t the dictionary definition, but I would say it’s being moved to action by your compassion. It’s joining with others in a common cause. For those of us who live lives of relative luxury in this world, it often involves taking up a cause that appears to not be your own – declaring that you stand with others just because they are human and therefore their interests are your interests after all.

And, you guys, I am so bad at it. I am the queen of minding my own business and staying out of trouble. I’m certainly not naturally prone to getting into trouble for other people. Are you kidding me?

But isn’t that the epitome of what Jesus did for us? God could have stayed in the heavenly realm, remote from our world of pain and suffering, and judged us from afar. But God is not like that, and Jesus proved it. In Jesus, God entered the world and became our family, made clear that he would do anything to help us. He would become ultimately vulnerable, even die.

Last week at church we read the story of the good shepherd, and it struck me that Jesus used this story to show his solidarity with us. Among other things, he was saying, “I’m not some hired hand, some stranger who doesn’t care about the sheep and will abandon them at the first sign of trouble. I am the good shepherd, the one who will protect his sheep to the point of laying down his life for them. That’s how much I care about you.”

The thing about solidarity is that it can seem so overwhelming. So much is wrong with the world. So many people are suffering. Who knows where to begin? We can’t take on every cause as our own, right? I usually end up doing nothing rather than trying to decide on one thing.

So I like this way of thinking about it, the story of the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd is close to his sheep and naturally loves them. He wants to protect them because he cares about them. So the question to ask myself is, Who am I growing to love more right now, and how does God want me to stand with them in solidarity? And if there’s no one I love so much I will take on a cause for them, why is that?

I know this is not something I can do alone. I need God to fill me with love by pouring the Spirit into me. Only in this way can I look at others with tenderness and compassion that moves me to help them as naturally as a devoted shepherd protecting his sheep.

 

Fear and Long-Term Memory Loss

I’ve heard that the most common phrase in the Old and New Testament is this: Don’t be afraid.

It makes sense to me, really. Sometimes repetition is the only way to get something into your head.

Remember who freed you from Egypt, says the Bible again and again. Remember the God who brought you out of slavery.

Sometimes I think that’s why God did that so spectacularly, supposedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart and made it extra impossible for the Israelites to ever get out of there: so we would all remember it forever.

And yet we forget. In fact, the people it was supposed to originally impress forgot almost immediately. You’d think that after being rescued from a lifetime of slavery by walking on dry land in the middle of the sea, people would realize God could do anything, would do anything for them.

But no: they gave in to fear. They missed the security of slavery, where at least they knew what the future held and where their next meal was coming from. The wilderness seemed so barren, empty, unpredictable. They forgot God’s power to help them through literally anything, power that was on full display before them not long ago. They let insecurity take over.

And I am the same way. Anxious about struggles and problems I see ahead, I forget the abundant grace that’s spilled out over my own life. I forget that God gave me the power to speak to my mother again after I’d ignored her calls out of fear and anger for over a year. I forget how lonely I once was, and now I have more love and friendship than I know what to do with sometimes. I forget that I used to be afraid to answer the phone, and now I do it for a living.

I forget that I used to be unable to believe, and now I do, and it’s changed the way I see the world forever.

I need to remember the grace of getting out from my own personal Egypts, even though there are other things I haven’t yet escaped. When I feel empty, I need to remember that – thank goodness! – there’s a Love out there big enough to fill me, and all the gaps my not-enoughness leaves.

Addiction and Living Water

My dad and I once talked about the moral implications of legalizing drugs as we waited in line at the post office. That probably tells you all you really need to know about our relationship.

Me: I just don’t think drugs are good for people.

Dad: Yeah, well, that bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream you have every night isn’t so great for you either.

Me: That’s different. I’m not addicted to eating ice cream.

Woman in line behind us: I am!

That conversation took place back when I was a teenager and knew everything. But the medical definition of addiction is “the persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful.” So, yeah, in that case, I am addicted to ice cream. And a lot of other things. Considering what I know about the harmful aspects of ice cream (the fat, the sugar, the non-fair trade ingredients, the mood swings and blood sugar crashes it causes), I should realize it’s potentially physically, psychologically, and socially harmful, but I love it and don’t want to give it up. So much for that argument.

The medical world also defines addiction as characterized by increasing tolerance, so whatever you’re addicted to, it leaves you wanting more. To me, that seems like the worst part of all, the fact that you’re always chasing some elusive horizon of enough, always seeking just a little more.

So much of my life is like that, if I’m honest. I’m addicted to so many things. They’re not illegal; most of them are even socially acceptable (my bouts of compulsive people pleasing come to mind). But I ignore the harm they do because they make me feel so good – I ignore their true nature because of their momentary appearance.

In a way, my addictive personality is perfectly natural, because I live in an addictive society. All around me, people overeat, overwork, overanalyze. We chase all kinds of things that, deep down, we know have nothing to do with true happiness. We spend our lives yearning to get rich quick, stay young forever, or some other impossible thing. Our society positively encourages addictions to money, power, violence. It’s hard to see another way, much less live it.

God does not want this for us. I love that that’s right there in Scripture. God does not want us to be endlessly, fruitlessly chasing something that doesn’t love us back.

God calls to us sadly through Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

The book of Jeremiah echoes, “My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

These words jump off the page for me, because I have lived them. I keep on living them. I feed my soul with junk food and let life-giving water slip through my fingers. And the whole time, there is a source of true happiness out there. The Bread of Life, the Water of Life are there, if I’ll reach out my hand and take them.

Jesus once sat with a woman at a well. She was an ordinary woman, just like me. She was out to get water and schlep it back home, the same old chore she did day after day. And she’d been trapped in an addictive cycle her whole life – wanting another person to complete her, protect her, satisfy her – but none of her five husbands, nor the man she was living with, had really ever helped her longings and loneliness become less.

She heard Jesus say the words living water. Right away, she asked where she could get it. How to get something to combat this raging thirst for more, something she wouldn’t have to chase after, pure joy with no side of pain?

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And then, gently, he brought her addiction to light. As they talked, she realized that he could set her free, that he was the truth that would set her free. No more need to spend her life running after food that just made her hungrier and water that was never quite enough. She was so happy, she told everyone she knew that she had finally found the source of living water, joy welling up inside her and overflowing.

I want that kind of joy. I mean, who wouldn’t? But the question is, do I want it more than ice cream, or people’s praise, or a sense of accomplishment? Can I stand turning my darkest deeds over to the light of truth? Can I empty myself of ego so there’s room in there for the good stuff, the water of life, life to the full?

Perfect Love Casts Out Fear: First Thoughts on Therapy

So six months after realizing I want to be healed, I finally visited a therapist. I climbed the stairs to her office on the upper floor of an old blue house. I drank the tea she offered me and filled out paperwork. She asked me why I was there, and I admitted it: I don’t know how to live the simplest commandments. How can I love God and my neighbor when my ideas about love have flourished misshapen, like a tree cramped and dwarfed by structures around it? She nodded, asked for details, took notes unobtrusively, while I struggled to articulate the things that seem to be holding me back from loving with my whole heart.

I was afraid, climbing the stairs to that room, afraid of a lot of things. I was afraid the therapist I’d chosen wouldn’t understand my faith. I was afraid she would understand it and would judge me. I was afraid she would decide it was the root of my problems. Most of all, I was afraid this would be a waste of time, or worse, that it would somehow cause me to be less loving, that what was meant to heal me would only make me worse. I feared that therapy would encourage me to be selfish, that instead of learning to love others better, I would stop at loving myself. All these fears had held me back from this moment: I’d shopped for the “perfect” therapist for months, delayed making an appointment, convinced myself I didn’t have the time or money to do this after all. But I made it: I fought through that naysaying crowd to say, “I need help.”

It all boiled down to this: I was afraid when I walked into that office, Jesus wouldn’t come with me. But even after just a few visits, I know that’s not true. Although my therapist doesn’t share my faith, she’s already started to shine the light of truth on my life. And the truth is, it’s been really dark in there for a long, long time.

For instance, already I’m starting to ask myself where all these fears came from, anyway. Not from Jesus, who says over and over in the Gospel not to worry about anything. I can hear Paul’s voice booming, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” but I let myself be shackled and ruled by anything I think will keep me safe from judgment, criticism, ridicule, disrespect, abandonment. I soften my opinions, hide my true self, the self that is my gift from God, because I fear rejection. But Jesus didn’t do that; Jesus knew exactly who he was, spoke bold words with love and without fear.

Perfect love casts out fear, so the Bible says. I have to not get caught up in the word perfect. I can never make my love perfect, and neither can my therapist, no matter how many hours we spend in her homey little office. The only perfect love comes from God, and it’s only God who can perfect me, make me complete. But I believe God can use this therapy thing, and I believe I need to go forward with it, with all the bravery I can muster. Once and for all I want to break that yoke of fear I’ve been living under for so long, the one I convinced myself I didn’t really mind. God wants me to be light on my feet, ready to help carry another’s burden without being crushed by the weight of what I’m already dragging along.

What do you think is holding you back from being healed? What is helping you move toward healing?

Do Whatever He Tells You

The five little words are printed on a card that leans against my computer monitor. We’re in our busiest season here at work, fielding call after call with mere seconds between, and this is the best way I can think of to get a good word into my day. My eyes rest on it in those tiny moments with nothing to do, and I try to burn it into my brain, let it remake my heart.

There are twelve cards in the series I printed out, twelve bite-sized bits of Scripture from the Gospel of John. Some of the early ones feature lofty language for a tiny piece of paper, talking about the Word that was God in the beginning, full of grace and truth. And then there’s today’s little offering: “Do whatever he tells you.”

That’s weird, I thought when I first flipped it over. Seems like such a mundane, everyday quote when stacked against the gorgeous language of John’s high theology. Just something Mary said when she and her son were at a wedding. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said to the servants who had just run out of wine to pour. Why memorize that line? Why not the actual facts of Jesus’s miracle, the glorious aftermath?

Still, my eyes kept returning to it throughout the day, my mind turning it over like a river spinning a rock. Do whatever he tells you. I like to think she said it with a smile, like, Come on in, the water’s fine. This woman hardly hesitated at the thought of having God’s baby. I mean, really, after that, what wouldn’t you say yes to?

It starts to dawn on me slowly, this meaning I’ve always missed before. Those nameless servants who listen to her simple words get to participate in a miracle. The very first, in fact. They didn’t know Jesus was special yet. They didn’t know Mary knew anything about anything. But they listened to her. They did what he said, and they ended up in the middle of a miracle.

They start to thrill me, these five words. They start to leap off the page. I answer the phone with a joy that goes beyond forced customer service cheer. I wonder what he’ll tell me to do today. I wonder at what moment I can take that plunge.

That Broken, Beautiful Jesse Tree

Georges DelatourWe light a candle, turn on the twinkle lights, and open up the Bible. This isn’t a usual thing at my house; I’m the one obsessed with the Word, inclined to spill all these words about it. But during Advent, it’s somehow different. We have this tradition of the Jesse tree, Jesus’s family tree. We read about prophets and patriarchs and promises and wayward Gentile women and other weird relatives of the coming King of Kings. We remember that the Christmas story is actually part of a much bigger story.

Sometimes she asks questions that just floor me, like why God didn’t send Jesus before the flood. If Jesus was around in the beginning, was always part of the master plan, why the waiting? Why not send him right away and save all those people and animals from drowning?

Like lots of people, she wonders about Abraham and Isaac. Why would God ask a man to sacrifice his only son? And what man would try to do it? What in the world is such a story trying to tell us?

But the story that really sticks in her craw is Rahab. What is she doing on this Jesse tree? It seems she saved her family but doomed her town by cooperating with the Israelites. How could she sleep at night?

We talk it over, around and around. I argue that Rahab was doing the best she could, that she was positive the Israelites were going to sack the city anyway, that she was not a powerful player, couldn’t escape the game being played by the men around her.

Across the table, in the candlelight, my loved one shakes her head. My words do nothing to quench the fire of anger in her, anger at all this needless violence. And I have to say I respect that in her, her utter intolerance for all this war surrounding the newborn Prince of Peace. She raves about it like a prophet. I wish injustice shook me up that much.

Maybe I find it easier to reconcile all this ugly stuff in the Jesse tree because it’s a lot like my own family tree. People I love, people who did unspeakable things, people who suffered unspeakable things: they’re the same people. Even my little nuclear family was full of genuine love and twisted love, love that helped and love that hurt. My parents tried their best, but they weren’t good for each other. I can’t say I regret they’ve parted ways, but how could I wish they’d never met? Out of that twistedness and brokenness and yes, real love, I was born.

I’m almost comforted by it, actually, the fact that Jesus wasn’t born into perfection. He was born into a war-torn world, a people and a family that did crazy things to keep themselves from getting torn apart.

But I can’t find anything to censure about Jesus in these pages. Not a single thing. And the grace Jesus gave extends backward too, back to all the dubious ancestors who helped bring him into the world.

We read the story of Joseph back in Genesis every year, and there’s one phrase that sums it all up for me. At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers, who sold him as a slave and faked his death back at the beginning, are worried he’s going to take vengeance now that he’s in power and their father has died. They send him this nervous message, like Guess what? Before he died, Dad definitely said you should forgive us for all the stuff we did. Really.

Joseph starts crying when he hears this, which freaks them out even more. They throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. And then Joseph says this to them:

It’s okay. You tried to hurt me, but God meant it for good…

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. And I know, from what I’ve gone through with my own family, that you can get to this place. The place where you realize God can do anything with anything, can take the stupidest things you’ve ever done and the cruelest things people have ever done to you and work it all out for good. Just like with Jesus, out of the twisted stump of your past can sprout – of all things – a new life.

It takes a long time for the story to get there, of course. And I can’t explain why suddenly Jesus bursts on the scene after all that carnage and darkness, any more than I can tell you why one day I could call my mom after not speaking to her for over a year. But I need to wrestle with the why. I love when she asks me these questions, because I need to remember what the questions mean. When you can ask questions, it means you feel safe, you feel loved, you love enough to want to get to the bottom of things. Her questions remind me this is not some Sunday school story: it’s real and messy, just like mine.

So we keep reading in our tiny circle of light, unable to see the whole room, unable to see the whole story yet, our own or anyone else’s. But in the questions, in the long, dark shadows cast by the candle as it lights up our faces, there is beauty too.

This Is My Story

Reading list

(Photo credit: jakebouma)

Once I was reading Strega Nona to a five-year-old friend, and he expressed genuine anxiety about how it would turn out.

I was surprised. He really thought this book about a friendly witch and her magic pasta pot might end with the entire town being engulfed by pasta? He didn’t see the connection between this story and other stories he knew? I told him I knew it would be okay, and he let me keep reading to the end.

The more you read, the more you learn to make predictions about what may happen next in the narrative. It’s a necessary skill for a fluent reader and it’s a skill that can’t be taught. You just have to keep immersing yourself in the stories over and over until you learn what to expect.

This is why I dive into the Bible again and again. The more I read, the more connections I see between different parts of the story and between the story and my own life. Liturgy does this too; when I attend Mass, I rehearse how to truly live a life centered on Christ. When I recite creeds with other Christians, I’m narrating the common truths that enliven our individual existences. Together, we find the courage to affirm crazy things – that our story won’t end with our deaths, that the poor and those who mourn are blessed.

The culture I live in tells me a different kind of story – a story where death wins, where all suffering is frightening, where illness and imperfection are to be avoided at all costs. It’s this story that makes me wig out over my smallest failures or judge other people. I grew up in a world dominated by this narrative, and it disturbs me how quickly I forget any other. To truly believe in God, I have to insert myself into the great Story over and over again until I learn to see the patterns.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” My heart must beat with God’s story so the words that spill automatically from my mouth in times of stress will be words of peace. My heart must learn over and over again that my struggles in this life are momentary, are nothing compared to eternal glory. My heart must tell itself over and over to truly love God and neighbor. That’s the backbone of this story.

That’s my new year’s resolution in a nutshell. Read the story. Learn the story. Share the story. Remember that it’s a story about love.

My Plan for a Red Letter Year

Happy Advent, everyone! Hard to believe it’s here already. It’s the beginning of a new year for the Church, a new cycle through the liturgical seasons, and the perfect time to discern where Jesus is calling me to go this year.

So I’m listening, trying to figure out how to follow him more closely. Lately, it’s become clear to me that there are a lot of voices easier for me to hear than his. I’ve been conforming to the ways of the world instead of being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need to listen to the Spirit, a still small voice which is often so hard to hear, and not harden my heart to it.

I’m feeling called to do a few simple things intensely this year. I was just reading another wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. The book gives guidelines for building a spiritual life that can move you from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. The basic elements of spiritual life, according to Nouwen, are three:

1. Reading of the Word/Scripture

2. Silent prayer

3. Spiritual guidance/direction

Something clicked when I read Nouwen’s words. I’m being called to focus on all of these things right now, things that may seem basic but which I still struggle to embrace consistently and prayerfully. I want to form small, sustainable good habits this year (15 minutes of prayer, a psalm before bed, a letter written to a spiritual mentor) that can grow and invade my whole life like a mustard tree from a tiny seed, like swelling dough from invisible yeast.

I don’t want these guidelines to be burdensome for me. My New Year’s resolutions often are, often have a subtle tone of Be better this time! No, listening to Jesus in the Word, in silence, in the voices of respected teachers, should help me lay down my burdens and be healed.

Even as I work on basics, the small things, I’m also feeling called to stretch myself. Doing things that scare me is the true test of my faith, and I want to be engaged with the world, like Jesus was. So in addition to my more personal, internal efforts, I’m also going to try this year to engage issues of justice in a peaceful, respectful, caring way that embodies my Christian values.

To guide my thoughts and actions and writings about justice, I plan to use the lovely little book Common Prayer: Pocket Edition. Every month, this book gives a value of the New Monastic movement to focus on, to read about, and practical ways to put faith into action (as the book puts it, “becoming the answer to our prayers”). The value for December is “living in the abandoned places of empire” – a pretty appropriate meditation, I think, as we go deeper into that Empire-led season of consumerism.

Again, my aim in all this shouldn’t be political correctness or alleviated feelings of guilt, but rather a commitment to listen more closely to those red-letter words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and not just to listen, but also to act.

I hope you’ll enjoy the ride this year, and as always, thank you for journeying with me as I seek to fall ever more in love with Jesus.

As we enter the season of Advent, do you have any thoughts about how you want to grow spiritually in the coming year?