“F*ck this” and Farandolae – 2016 in Review

I started 2016 off the way I start every January – full of drive and optimism with a carefully color-coded planner and a pile of books to read. I know I’m not unique in this, almost everyone I know becomes more ambitious, dedicated and idealistic as January 1 draws near.

 

I went to Florida last January for a training retreat with a direct sales company I was working for at the time. I was only working the business on the side with no intentions to try to grow it to a full-time income, but I live in Wisconsin and it was an opportunity to go to Florida in January. Reason enough for me.

There were lots of encouraging and empowering talks, mostly about how to grow your business and be more intentional with structuring your time. My biggest takeaway though was finally feeling determined and confident enough to finish filling out my applications for seminary – which I had been halfway kicking around in a Word document for about three years. Being away for the weekend also meant I had time to devote my undivided attention to completing the essay portion of the applications.

My fingers trembled as I wrote.  Once again, I felt myself get swept up in that all to familiar wave of self-doubt and uncertainty. Who am I to think I can do this anyway? 

Lots of people talk about following your dreams; some will even tell you about how much work it takes to achieve them, but I’ve found it’s rare for people to talk about how pursuing your dreams can unleash all kinds of ghosts from your past and skeletons long since buried in your closet.

In A Wrinkle in Time (which I read for the first time in June of 2016, I know.) Madeleine L’Engle compares our lives to sonnets: “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

I know myself well enough to know the general form my life has always bent toward, but I struggle sometimes to pick up the pen and write it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I often operate in such a way that it’s as if the things which are supposed to happen in my life just will – without any effort or alignment on my part at all.

It’s silly to think this, of course, but opening yourself up and actually working to shape your life the way you want it – “writing your sonnet” – requires some level of vulnerability.
If I never actually say what I want out of life; if I never spend the time and energy and work for my dream, then I can’t be broken if (when) I fail.

Again, from A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle writes: “To love is to be vulnerable; and it is only in vulnerability and risk—not safety and security—that we overcome darkness.” I have long approached life with a degree of care to not open myself up to too much unknown (or at least, to make sure that God and the universe understands that I am very displeased when my “unknown” quota has been breached).

What if loving yourself and loving this life you’ve been given comes about only through living life with authenticity and vulnerability?

What if self-preservation and image management isn’t the answer, and – in fact – is actually the biggest threat to you living a fulfilled and happy life?

My fear of failure, or of things just turning out differently or less than I imagine them to be will always be present, but that fear doesn’t get to drive my life – or write my sonnet. In 2016 I learned to put fear in the backseat (to borrow from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic), and to embrace the unknowing of opening yourself up.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to practice this openness to unknowing again, when both of my paternal grandparents passed away. I grew up next door to them, and their presence is almost as much a backdrop for my childhood as that of my parents.

Losing my grandparents opened up all kinds of questions about who I am and what kind of legacy I want to leave. If my fear of failure pushed me to answer “what kind of sonnet am I writing?” the loss of my grandparents pushed me to ask “am I writing my sonnet fast enough?” and “is it worth writing at all?”

Grief is often the gateway to the parts of ourselves we had otherwise forgotten. Like a child stumbling into a long-lost secret garden, what we do once we find ourselves thrust through the gateway of grief is crucial.

I chose to dig deep. I started seeing a therapist again. I started writing more, and writing things that it will be a long time before they ever grace the internet – if ever.  I learned that perhaps I hadn’t made as much progress as I’d hoped in my personal growth.

It has been a sobering journey to say the least.

I had been operating under the assumption that I as I worked toward self-knowledge and development, that as I grew spiritually and became more mature that life would somehow get easier and less confusing. The events of 2016 convinced me otherwise.

I found myself thinking over and over again of Farandolae. In L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door these fictitious creatures are beyond microscopic, and yet the fate of the universe rides on their survival. The Farandolae are distracted though, enchanted by the ease and fun of a life skimming above the surface. It is imperative, for the survival of all things, that the Farandolae settle down and “Deepen” but this is the more difficult choice for the tiny creatures. It requires stillness and time, and virtually everything that is not fun or sexy.

I’m coming to realize that growth is less like a flight plan with a determined place of arrival, and more like a Farandolae Deepening – a still, silent, slow journey downward and inward…then outward again.

I’m learning that to grow roots mean that sometimes you have to dig up the hard ground in which you’ve been planted, and that sometimes that process is painful.

I’m learning that leaning in to the wholeness and healing God offers also means becoming acutely aware of where all the missing and wounded pieces are in your life – and that part sucks.

I’m learning that Jesus wasn’t kidding about the denial of self, the carrying of a cross, the losing of life to find it.

It’s all so much less “up and to the right” than I expected grown-up life to be, but somehow that’s still okay.

2016 had many moments that left me swearing under my breath (or not so much under my breath) but it also had so many moments that took my breath away, and pulled me deeper spiritually, mentally, intellectually, emotionally and relationally than I’ve ever been before.

So here’s to both:
The “f*ck its” and the Farandolae,
The discouragement and the Deepening,
and the life that is present in all these things.

Thank you, 2016.

Finding God in the Waves: A Book Review

I hated listening to people talk on the radio or recordings for a very long time.
I blame my Mother’s love of listening to talk radio when I was a child.
(Can’t we just listen to music please???)

My husband, Ben, on the other hand, puts on a podcast whenever he’s doing any sort of menial task. Dishes, folding laundry, driving home from work, waiting for the microwave popcorn to pop.

About a year ago he finally convinced me that podcasts were a great way to learn things or be entertained, that they really weren’t all about sports or economics and that I could definitely find some that focused on theology or art or storytelling.

It didn’t take very long before I had a steady rotation of 6-10 podcasts I would listen to each morning while running.

One of the podcasts that quickly made its way into my rotation was The Liturgists. 

I had followed Michael Gungor’s work as a musician for years, but the other co-host – Science Mike – was new to me.

Like Science Mike, I also grew up in the south and the lions share of my church experience had been spent in the Southern Baptist Convention. I too had undergone a sizable shift in my faith in recent years.

Unlike Science Mike I have never considered myself an atheist and I can’t talk about quantum physics in casual conversation.

I was intrigued by the way science seemed to make Mike’s faith richer and more nuanced, and soon his other podcast Ask Science Mike was in steady rotation during my morning runs as well.

I’ve always enjoyed science, even though it didn’t fit with my conservative, evangelical upbringing. I never bothered to try to reconcile faith and science though. For a long time, I just accepted that science made fact claims that contradicted what the Bible said, and I was okay living with the knowledge of the mystery and tension. It was the elephant in the room of my consciousness, but I just moved a big armoire in front of the tension and called it a day.  Science Mike helped me unpack some of those unreconciled pieces of faith and science and  bring a whole new level of richness to my faith.

I’d believed in a Creator God for most of my life, but learning to see the science of life not as a contradiction but the means in which God was at work took my vision of Creator from one who colored-by-number to one more along the lines of Picasso.

“The heavens declare the glory of God”
….and the neuroscience proclaims God’s handiwork.

So when Mike announced he was writing a book, I knew it would be at the top of my never-ending list.  As expected, Finding God in the Waves combines vivid, compelling narrative with deep-dives into scientific facts in a way only Science Mike could combine them.

It’s irresistibly fresh and comfortingly familiar, kind of like when salted caramel burst on to the flavor scene. Your pallet for ways we talk about the spiritual will never be the same again.

For those unfamiliar with Mike and his podcast, the first half of the book is memoir. Mike recounts his story of growing up in the church, coming to faith, and then of losing his faith in God and becoming an “undercover atheist” while still attending (and teaching Sunday School) at his Southern Baptist church.

In the second half of the book, Mike dives deep and unpacks the science behind what he calls his “Axioms About Christian Faith.”

Science Mike borrow the term “axiom” from philosophy. In brief, his axioms are “ideas that can be accepted without further inquiry” about the Christian faith. He has axioms for major tenants of the Christian such as  God, prayer, Jesus, sin, the Church, and the Bible – among others.

During the last five chapters of the book, Science Mike walks the reader through the question and the science behind the formation of each of these axioms.  The result is a whirlwind trip through the basics of cosmology, neuroscience, and anthropology with splashes of fine art tossed in for good measure.

Mike describes his axioms as “woefully short” of Christian orthodoxy, but he’s okay with that. Instead of seeking to home in on or prove orthodoxy, he says his axioms are “a life raft for people who can’t get on board with the supernatural claims about God yet still want to be close to God.”

I’ve never been quite in need of a life raft personally, but there have been significant seasons in which I’ve felt as though my boat were dead in the water. Science Mike’s axioms are more like fresh wind in my sails, pushing the bounds on the ways I think about, talk about and view God.

___

If you grew up with a faith in God that now seems too small or out of touch with the world you find yourself in now – this book is for you.

If you believed in God at one point, but have long since stopped believing – this book is for you.

If you’ve never believed, but you’re curious about why someone would believe in God – this book is for you.

…Or if you’d just like to know the neuroscience behind why prayer makes you feel more at peace.

I cannot recommend Finding God in the Waves highly enough.

You can find a copy of your own on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, or wherever books are sold.

 

Deconstruct:Reconstruct – The Summum Bonum

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When Ben and I first drove up to Milwaukee from West Virginia six years ago, we missed one tiny split on the highway around Chicago –  it was one small lane change. Unfamiliar with the landscape of the midwest, we drove for an hour before we realized we were getting deeper and deeper into rural Illinois and were nowhere near Wisconsin.

We’ve all gotten off track before, right? A little lost when we’re trying to go somewhere new?

As Christians, our whole tradition is the practice of striking out in a new direction:
God called Abraham to leave his home and family to go to a new land.

God led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt to a new land.

John the Baptist took his rabbinical teachings out of the Temple where his father served and into the desert.

Jesus took his teachings to the outcasts of society – the tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and Samaritans – breaking with the tradition and the holiness laws.

Paul took his teachings to the gentiles and to the people whom he would have long assumed completely outside of God’s capacity to work in and through.

And so on and so forth.

Our tradition is to set out for the unknown, going to the “ends of the earth,” so as we’re on this journey it’s prudent to stop and ask ourselves honestly, in our own lives and contexts:
Are we on track?

And perhaps we exercise the discipline of looking within ourselves, rather than taking the much-frequented route of pointing fingers and plucking splinters out of others. Let us look deeply into the mirror and search for the planks in our own eyes which blind us.

I, for one, lost the plot somewhere along the line. You know, the plot we read and study and preach and meditate on and honor in art pieces and such?

God creates the world and humanity.
Humanity chooses a path that tears apart and destroys the world and other humans.
God patiently and painstakingly draws humanity to Godself, and to a love for God and other humans.
Humanity doesn’t get it, so God becomes human to help us understand.
And when God-in-flesh is asked what is most essential rule of #alltherules,
he says this:

“Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love God.
Love others.
Love yourself.

Could it really be that simple?

A couple weeks ago my friend Tim was talking about the philosophical concept of summum bonum – or “the greatest good.”

Tim explained it this way: the summum bonum defines the whole system for a given philosophy. It is the goal, but it also defines the means by which you get to the goal. It is the most essential thing, and if at any point you lose the summum bonum the whole system is for naught.

Different philosophers throughout the ages have identified different summum bonum.  For some the greatest good is beauty, for others law and order. Utilitarians would say the summum bonum is productivity, and rational deontologists would say it is duty.

For those of us who identify a Christians, our summum bonum seems to be love.

We look to the accounts of Jesus’ life to inform our definition of what love is:

Love goes to the outskirts, to those discredited for their lack of social capital and to those despised for their unjust gain in the system.

Love goes to weep with and heal broken and the sick, and love interrupts the life as usual of those who are well and at the top of their game.

Love feeds the masses in the field, and love accepts the invitation to the exclusive dinner with the elite.

The thing I find most beautiful (and annoying) about the love demonstrated by Christ is that it was a spacious, generous love. A love that insisted on and instead of either.

When the community in Corinth was wrestling with how to live a life of love, Paul described it like this:

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.  

(1 Corinthians 13, The Message)

But when I look at my life, can I say those things about myself?

Is the defining characteristic of my life and practice of the things I say I believe on target?

I never give up.
I care more for others than I do for myself.
I don’t want what I don’t have.
I don’t strut.
I don’t have a swelled head.
I don’t force myself on others.
I don’t demand to be first.
I don’t fly off the handle.
I don’t keep score of the sins of others.
I don’t revel when others grovel.
I take pleasure when truth flowers.
I put up with anything.
I trust God always.
I always look for the best.
I never look back, but keep going till the end.

We live lives inspired by the God who became Flesh and Bone to demonstrate this love, and empowered by the Spirit of God – nothing is impossible – yet we settle for so much less.

We look for evidences of God at work in miraculous, unexpected healing; in large arenas with smoke and lights and loud music.

We look for God in the interruptions, the breaks from life as usual, all the while claiming to follow God Emmanuel – God Who is With Us.

Paul starts off his statement on love with this reflection:

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 

There must be love. Above and below and overarching everything else: love.

All of the law and the prophets are summed up in this- the summum bonum of our tradition. Love.

While we look for bigger crowds, brighter lights, and more astonishing signs, consider this:

In this fractured and hemorrhaging world, what could be more miraculous than love?

As much discipline and energy that we invest in studying the Word, pursuing justice, crafting apologetics, planning services, writing songs, baking casseroles and however we work out our faith – should we not also invest so much more in cultivating and experiencing the one thing that remains before and behind and beneath it all?

So the brilliant theologians will one day stop writing,
the inspiring preachers will fall silent,
the worship leaders with their lights and guitars will be stilled and this will remain:

Only Love.

 

 

 

You’re good.

The after school program at the church I serve at kicked off on Wednesday. I have the joy of teaching the K5-2nd grade class. On Wednesday afternoon eleven smiling little faces paraded their way into my classroom for some active learning, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sing-a-long songs.  It was great.

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Toward the end of the night, we got into our Bible story for the week – Creation.  I always, always, ALWAYS start with Creation at the beginning of a new school year because what we believe about how we came to be shapes our life and our beliefs so much. (You can hear more about that here.)

I was reading to the kids from The Jesus Storybook Bible.

They were chanting along “Hello sun! Hello moon!…You’re good!  You’re good!  You’re good!” As I read the Creation account.
The energy was off the charts, joy glowed from each little face.

As we broke up into small groups to discuss the story though the tone changed.

“How do you think God feels about you?”

“Bad,” said the little girl.  1st grade.

“Yeah, we do stuff God doesn’t like.” Added a 2nd grader.

“Well, yes, but God also made you.”

“Yeah.”

“So, do you think that has anything to do with how God thinks about you?”

I spent a decent amount of time in college working with a ministry whose starting point for evangelism was to tell people they were sinners.  While that’s certainly true, the older I get and the more I work with people, I don’t necessarily think people need to be told they’re broken.  We know we’re broken.  We know in the marrow of our bones something is not right.  Even our children understand, “I’m bad.”

But before we were broken, before all the bad, God said “you’re good! you’re very good!”

I think we forget that sometimes…or maybe that’s just me.

I remember the broken, the bad.

I’m keenly aware of my own propensity to self-destruction.

I forget, easily and frequently that I am a beloved person, made in the image of God to lovingly display who God is to those around me.

“You’re good.”

Believe that today.

No matter how far you feel, how messed up it is, how broken…

You were created good.

Listen to the voice that is calling out that name:

“good.”

“good.”

“good.”

Let the echo of those words shake the dust off your soul.

Let their rhythm move your feet to the melodies of a grace that redeems every blessed broken thing.

Dare your heart to believe in a Creator who not only formed you, but loves you still and no matter what.

“You’re good.”

Justice in Education for All

Evangelical Christians often champion the ‘sanctity of life.’ This phrase typically refers only to abortion. Many Evangelicals argue that a culture that allows legal abortion does not truly value human life. While many Evangelicals have fought against abortion for decades, we have yet to see a movement that expands the idea of ‘sanctity of life’ to fighting for the ‘quality of life.’ If we truly believe that all life is sacred, then the logical conclusion is that once a life is born we continue to fight for that life to have equal opportunities to live up to its potential.* – Nicole Baker Fulgham

When I think about the disparities in the education system, I don’t just think about how some schools succeed and others fail, I think about the ways that our perceptions skew which schools are capable of success or failure. How the way we perceive certain students or certain neighborhoods determines whether or not we ascribe value and sacredness to their lives…

Read the rest at A Sista’s Journey.

Riding in on a donkey

“It just all seems so…divided.”
The descant rolls on and on from so many of my friends and peers; believers from all walks of life.
The words are paced with shocking consistency. They are set to a meter like a metronome, the rise and fall undifferentiated.

And it’s true, I can’t remember a time in my short life when things seemed this hotly debated and starkly contrasted in the “big C,” universal Church.  We can barely even break bread with one another any more, and you can just forget about even suggesting we discuss some topic of significance while we feast on the bread and wine.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus knew it was going to be like this all along.

Perhaps this is why He took the time to pray that we would be one and He and the Father are one.

Perhaps we need only to look to the coronation procession of our King to see what kind of march His kingdom would have.

Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey…”
Declares the prophet Zechariah as quoted in the book of Matthew.


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Photo: Sea Turtle via Flickr

Have you ever seen anyone try to ride a donkey?

Or just watched someone try to lead or direct a donkey to a certain location?

It’s comparable to herding cats or catching chickens or getting small children to stand in a straight line, only it’s slower, smellier, more awkward and you may get kicked.

Can you imagine how long it would have taken for Jesus to parade into Jerusalem?

Did the donkey balk at the crowds, stubbornly refusing to budge in any direction?

Was the animal braying loudly as the people cried “Hosanna!” nearly drowning their praise with its own contribution to the chorus?

I’ve heard people talk about the significance of the donkey multiple times, how the donkey was a sign that Jesus was coming in peace, not with the political, militaristic take over they expected the Messiah to have.  That the donkey shows us Christ’s humility.  And these things are true.

But as Christ marches into the city, a royal procession to ring in the new and yet coming kingdom, He chooses to ride in on the most awkward, misstepping, stubborn creature possible. (Which sounds incredibly liken to another creature I know of that has been commissioned to carry Christ to the masses.)

Maybe as He rides in on a donkey, Jesus isn’t just making a statement of peace or humility, maybe He is once more poetically, prophetically declaring “The Kingdom of God is like…”  as He did so many times before.

The Kingdom of God moves painfully slow…
Like a kingly procession mounted on donkeys.

The Kingdom of God is awkward and wayward…
Like a colt not yet ridden.

I imagine the entry into Jerusalem looked less triumphant and more gauche.
The Word that called the donkey into being now coaxing it one deliberate step forward at a time.

Isn’t this what the Kingdom of God is like?

That Jesus coaxes us forward, one step at a time?  Slowly, graciously, with heart wrenching patience.

This Kingdom does not come swiftly with domineering power and prestige, but slowly, with obstinance binding each move.  The King gently nudging us along.

As we step into a week of remembrance, I think back on the things I would rather forget in the history, and deny in the present, of the global Church.

The oppression and violence of the Inquisition.

The Crusades.

The Salem Witch Trials.

Culpability with slavery and genocide on several occasions.

Our affinity for segregation of many kinds.

Yet, even in remembering the seemingly irreconcilable mess of misguided worship and injurious evangelism of my Kingdom, I find hope.

Because the King is riding in on a donkey.

This slow, awkward, reluctant gait is how Jesus chose to usher in the Kingdom in the first place.

So we live in anticipation of the coming King and His beautiful, terrifying, upside-down Kingdom.

The lament of division and tension rolls on while we cut down our brothers and sisters as though they were palm branches to wave on high, creating a spectacle. But even now, in the midst of all this, we join in the ancient chorus “Hosanna! God save us! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We raise a ruckus and lay down the very clothes off our back because we can see in a distance the King is coming.

…But He is riding on a donkey.

#Justice: A Peek into Urban Violence w/ Megan Westra

“Do you feel safe?”

Well, not always.
I’m getting used to it now. The wide eyes and once-in-awhile gaping mouth. “Where do you live?”
I live in the inner city. On purpose. And I have no plans of leaving.

I have been robbed five times. I have witnessed a drug deal while sitting on my front porch. My block has been taped off with police line while the cops hunted down an armed assailant.

This is the inner city people think of when I talk about where I live, and they’re right. That is part of it.

There is violence and corruption in the inner city, but that’s not all there is…

Read the rest at A Sista’s Journey.