About That Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quote You Posted Today…

“You don’t have to agree with everything someone says to agree with anything someone says” is wise advice. (Thanks, [De]constructionists.)

However, when we are reading someone who is challenging to our assumptions and world view, or with whom we will disagree, it is also important to not make their work do something they never intended it to do. In our efforts to glean from even those we don’t see eye to eye with, we must not strip that person of their voice and message.

I’ve seen this in few instances as clearly as I see it every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

We pause as a society and look back at the life and legacy of one of the many leaders within the Civil Rights Movement. A scholar, pastor, activist and prophet, it is good to remember Dr. King, but to what end?

My social media feeds were filled today with quotes and memes heralding bits of inspiration garnered from Dr. King’s prolific writings. In our zeal to remember, to reconcile, to “achieve” Dr. King’s dream, have we neglected the hard work that needs to be done? Have we been so proud as to believe that hundreds of years of oppression and enslavement were undone in a few decades? I suggest that we’re further away from a realization of Dr. King’s dream than we care to admit.

In the last few years, since Trayvon Martin was murdered, race relations in the U.S. have continually been thrust into the forefront of our national consciousness. As people have taken to the streets, and taken knees, a curious thing has happened: (white) people who disagree with the protests have taken to using Dr. King quotes to reprimand protestors.

People march in the streets, and someone says – “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Players kneel on the sidelines, and someone says – “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Multitudes band together under the rallying cry of “RESIST” as policies are proposed to ban refugees, defame and deport immigrants, oppress the poor, and (again) go against our word to Indigenous people, and someone says – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” 

Have we, in our attempts to remember and honor this man, completely forgotten that his work for justice and equality got him killed?  Have we forgotten that Dr. King’s actions were not so unlike those of Colin Kaepernick, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi?

It’s true, “you don’t have to agree with everything someone says to agree with anything someone says.” It is also disingenuous to overlay your own agenda on to the work of someone else. In this instance, it is disingenuous for (white) people, uncomfortable with protests and police brutality to use Dr. King’s quotes to silence or dismiss the very activities King himself engaged in, and arguably would be engaging in today.

So, about that Dr. King quote you posted today…

You don’t get to have “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Without also “Isn’t it true that we have often taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes? Isn’t it true that we have often in our democracy trampled over individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression? Isn’t it true that through our Western powers we have perpetuated colonialism and imperialism?” 
(both quotes from Dr. King’s “Loving your Enemies” sermon)

You don’t get to have: “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.” 

Without also: “as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”

You don’t get to have: “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Without also: “‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically.  And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.”
(all quotes from “Where Do We Go From Here?”)

You don’t get to have: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Without also: “One of the dangers we must always watch in our nation and in the system under which we live is known as capitalism…the danger point is that we will become so involved in the profit-making and profit-getting aspects of capitalism that we will forget certain ends of life.”
(both quotes from “Keep Moving from this Mountain” at Spelman College.)

You don’t get to have: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

Without also: “don’t despair if you are condemned and persecuted for righteousness’ sake Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail.”
(both quotes from “The Most Durable Power.”)

You don’t get to have: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Without also: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
(both quotes from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)

In other words, it is disingenuous and dishonors the life and legacy of Dr. King when we quote what we like, what encourages us and what upholds the illusion of peace, while neglecting the poignant and biting critiques he also issued, many of which still hold every bit as true today.

So go ahead, post your quote or meme, celebrate and remember, but do so honestly.

 

 

 

**Featured image on this post by WonderWoman0731

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About Evangelicals…

People have a lot to say these days about the Christian faith, specifically the iteration of Christianity labeled “evangelical.” What does it mean to be evangelical? Should people continue to use the term because of historical or theological significance? Has the current political climate rendered the term void? The takes are countless.

I want to consider this from a different angle though. The word “evangelical” is derived from a Greek word εὐαγγέλιον meaning “good news” or “gospel.” Those in favor of keeping the term in use are often quick to point this out. Evangelicals, in the historic sense, are about sharing the “good news” or “gospel” of Jesus Christ, which has come to be understood as a personal decision to follow Christ, or “invite Jesus into your heart.” Beyond this initial deterministic step, the further implications of this 21st century gospel are left largely to the discernment of local church congregations and, moreover, to the individuals who are claiming relationship with Jesus themselves.

What is the gospel? To many 21st century Americans, it’s that Jesus died for their sins, and that they can now have a personal relationship with Jesus, resulting in everlasting life.

Historic Christian tradition (as well as current Christian tradition in communities of color, and in countries outside of North America) would invite us into a deeper understanding of “gospel.”

During the Roman Empire religion and politics were completely enmeshed. The Caesar was referred to as the “son of the gods” and was venerated along with the other Roman deities in the temple. To gain access to the marketplace, a person would use money imprinted with the image of Caesar, they would sell meat that had been sacrificed to the gods, they would barter with crops they had grown after praying in the temple to the gods for rain.  Religious life was neither considered private nor something of personal determination, it was simply the order of public life.

As the Roman Empire spread, the Caesar would send out envoys with “good news” to the newly conquered towns and villages. “Good news! Caesar is lord! You are now part of the Roman Empire!”  The gospel of Rome was inherently political – in that it reorganized the way of life for the people in the newly conquered territory. It was also inherently religious – because Caesar was considered a god.  But the gospel of Rome had a cost to those who were forced to encounter it. Namely, pledge your allegiance to empire or die. The Romans called it the “Peace of Rome,” but this peace was only wrought by exterminating all opposition, often in violent, public displays serving to terrorize any others who may dare to defy the Empire.

Enter in to this time, a man of disputable birth from a town of no repute.  An ethnic and religious minority, who begins to gather followers around him and make proclamations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. As though Caesar were not god!

In a time when the proclamation of “good news” meant more authority for the empire, heavy taxation of the poor and the risk of execution if one dared to raise dissent, Jesus enters with this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What kind of Good News is this? Certainly not the kind Caesar’s messengers were carrying out.

Good News, you who are poor. You are blessed, you will be filled, and those who are rich? They’ll be sent away empty and cursed.

Good News, you who are in chains. You are released! You who have been called an enemy of the empire, a threat to our peace – go free!

Good News, you who are blind. Receive sight.

Good News, you who are oppressed. Your burden has been thrown off!

The time has come for God’s favor – the year of jubilee! All the scales will be balanced. All that has been taken from you will be returned. Those who are growing fat off their excess while you starve in the streets must give up their feasting so that all may live well.

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel he himself claims!

Yes, there is forgiveness of sin, and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are now caught up in the life of God. We are promised inheritance and renewed, full life as the children of God. We do a gross disservice to the Gospel of Jesus when we divorce our “spiritual” understanding of salvation from the implications this carries in the here and now. In the season of Christmas of all seasons we remember that God in Jesus Christ has taken on flesh and blood, and is shouting over the earth, our bodies and all of creation: “Yes and amen!” The birth of Christ is a witness that spiritual hope must be connected to physical hope; that the saving of our souls must also mean there is a redemption of our bodies; that the hope of the life to come is bound up with answering the groaning of creation. This hope is not a general, warm sentiment, Jesus’s proclamation of Isaiah’s words assures us that the Gospel Jesus offers is very specific: this is Good News for the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.

We cannot claim a life in Christ if our telling of the “good news” isn’t one and the same.

As so many weigh the implications and the usefulness of keeping “evangelical” as a label, I hope we consider well that there have been people proclaiming different versions of “good news” for thousands of years.

Good news! The empire is bigger. The wealthy and the ruling class will receive even more. Your crops, your land, your livelihood will be heavily taxed – but it’s for your own good. Really.

Good news! Caesar is lord, the son of the gods! Our political might and genius is beyond questioning or critique. You are so blessed to now be under this authority. Be grateful.

Good news! The way of salvation is alignment with Caesar. Mostly because the way opposing Caesar leads to your death and the death of everyone you love, but try not to think of it that way. Caesar will take care of you!

That’s one version of the εὐαγγέλιον – the good news. It’s a version that has been in circulation for thousands of years, and that persists even today. If you listen closely, it is not that hard to spot imperial evangelicals. Their enthusiasm for the days ahead, the coins in their pockets. Their undying allegiance to the empire, void of any critique or concern of what may lie in the wake of the machine that serves them so well. Their insistence that their leader has been appointed by god – chosen! A savior! Thank goodness this one is leading us now, we are so blessed.

This is not the εὐαγγέλιον – the Good News – of Jesus though.

Good News! The poor are blessed, the captives are set free, the outcasts are restored, and the oppressed are liberated.

Good News! The days of this empire are numbered. There is a new Kingdom breaking through, where the first are last and the humiliated are exalted.

Good News! The way of salvation is sacrificial love of one another. The empires and authorities will lie and tell you to watch out for your own, they’ll tell you to be afraid, they may even kill you. But there’s nothing to fear, even death gets swallowed up by life now.

So, is “evangelical” still useful? Can “evangelicalism” survive, or be redeemed? My life doesn’t hang on the answers to those questions. There have always been multiple meanings, multiple messages when an εὐαγγέλιον is spread. But only that which is εὐαγγέλιον – Good News – for the poor is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any other εὐαγγέλιον is just the empire parading around it’s false peace and dying authority.

For me, I will live and die on the fullness of the Good News of Jesus Christ – which is the revelation of the God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Good News! The Child born in Bethlehem declares that all the dirt and sweat, mess and beauty of Creation is good and worthy.
Good News! The Man on the Cross ends the need for punishment and retribution forever.
Good News! The Risen One pronounces that the reign of death and destruction is over, and new life is always bursting out in unlikely places.
Good News! The Ascended Lord Jesus is the rightful King and Authority, and this rule and reign is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, or could dare to imagine:

The hungry are filled.
The lost are found.
The oppressed are liberated.
Those cast out are given the seat at the head of the table.

And it is all Good News for the poor.

Yeast

Over the summer my mom found a cookbook from the early 1900’s in one of the closets at my grandparent’s house.  The blue canvas cover is fraying at the edges, and multi-color threads in uneven stitches betray the loving hands which re-stitched the binding time and again.

About halfway through the book there is a recipe for yeast rolls written in my great-grandmother’s meticulous cursive handwriting, the pencil fading with time.
One cake of yeast. 
An egg-sized knob of lard.
Bake until golden. 

Measurements needing to be filled in with knowledge long since passed.
Oven temperatures and length of bake time rendered irrelevant in the absence of electric stoves.

With time and great care, my mom worked through the bits of the recipe she could discern, and filled in the gaps as she went.
6 3/4 tsp of yeast
2 TBSP of lard
Bake at 400 for 20 minutes. 

By Thanksgiving she had the recipe figured out, and we all sat down to a breadbasket containing rolls none of us had tasted the likes of in over 20 years.

I stood in the kitchen and watched my mom make the dough.
“Okay, show me how. I’m terrible at yeast breads. I need to know everything.”

I’ve baked my fair share of brick-like biscuits and cement loaves. I wasn’t going to mess up my great-grandmother’s recipe.

I stood like a child at the counter, soaking in the movement of my mother’s hands as she stirred and kneaded and turned and floured. I stuck my wrist beneath the running water to feel what “luke-warm” meant.  I waved my hand through the warm oven to feel the temperature needed for the yeast to rise.

It was a full sensory experience.

I took to my own kitchen on the first Saturday after returning home. Running the water from the tap till it felt just so, warming the oven then leaving the door ajar to let it cool to just the right level of “warm,” and praying the yeast would work.

“The Kingdom of God is like yeast worked into dough…” 

These days this parable has taken on new meaning to me.

Yes the Kingdom starts small and yet has great impact, and yes the Kingdom is slow and works over a long course of time.

But I also think of my own ineptitude at working yeast through dough.

Diligently working, calling to mind every move of my mother’s hands, every sensation of water and heat and stickiness of dough.

Scrunching my eyes shut remembering faded letters from days gone by with measurements missing – instructions that would seem vital! Why not just fill those in for us, please?

All the while praying the yeast even works.

 

 

It’s okay to enjoy it

Summer was long, y’all.

And hard.

And good.

But mostly long and hard.

 

Ben started a new job in December this past year, which meant this was the first summer of our married life that we could spend holiday weekends – like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July – sleeping in and grilling and spending time with friends like normal people.

Ben determined that he was going to plan and attend as many cookouts as possible.
I planted flowers and determined to keep them alive this time.
We bought new chairs for the porch and a fire pit for the backyard.
We stocked our cabinets with bubbles and sidewalk chalk and jump ropes and even constructed a mud pie kitchen in the backyard for Cadence and her friends to play with.

Summer 2016 was upon us, the first summer we would spend without retail hours interrupting our weekends and pillaging the holidays.

We were so ready for it.

Cadence’s last day of school was June 10th. We woke up early and went to the fancy doughnut shop downtown for breakfast. I packed lunches and we went to the playground for her all-school end of the year picnic. I exchanged contact info with other moms and determined to keep Cadence in touch with friends, and make some new ones of my own.

Then that weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away.
I was shell-shocked and grieving, but this was Summer 2016! It was going to be epic!

Ben and I loaded up a van full of kids from church and took them to camp the day after I heard the news about my grandpa. A week later, we returned tired and smelly from camp. We dropped the kids off at the church building, picked Cadence up from our neighbors home and hopped on a plane to West Virginia for a whirlwind weekend trip to attend Papaw’s funeral.

We returned home late Sunday night, and early Monday morning I picked up the kids who were too young for week-long overnight camp, and drove them 45 minutes out of the city for day camp.

At some point in all the shuffle, a letter arrived letting me know I’d been selected for the prestigious fellowship I’d applied for at the seminary I attend. As the week of day camp wound down, I packed bags again for a four-day intensive in Chicago to kick off the fellowship.

On day three of class I found out my grandmother had passed away as well. 

It was truly the best and worst of times.
Charles Dickens had nothing on my life.

Another whirlwind weekend to West Virginia for another funeral, and I returned to find I was a mere week away from the biggest event under my direction for the year (Vacation Bible School)…and I was up to preach as well.

I’m a big believer in strong self-care boundaries, of laying things down when they are too much to bear, of big heaping spoonfuls of grace – or at least I believe in those things for other people.

As I recounted my frantic summer to my therapist, I paused and looked up into her patient eyes:

“I should have found something to say ‘no’ to, huh?”

She gave me a pained nod, but reframed my question to something more constructive than guilt-filled recollection.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

 

What I’m learning is this:
I can “should” myself to a miserable, pained, but very responsible death…
…or I can embrace the mess, the mistakes, the letting-others-down-sometimes, and actually enjoy my life.

I’m internally driven by a desire to be the best,
create the best,
host the best,
and when “the best” alludes me, to reform the shit out of whatever I find myself in.

Make it better, always better.

I find myself incapable from a simple enjoyment of life.
I don’t think of myself as greedy, but whatever is happening is never enough.

This dinner is nice, but it would be better if my linens weren’t stained and our chairs matched.

This date is fun, but it would be better if we’d made reservations and hadn’t waited for thirty minutes to get a table. 

The house is clean, but we really need to wash the curtains and deep-clean the carpets, too.
Always room to improve.

It took juggling all the pieces this summer –
work,
family,
seminary,
self-care (ha) –
at a feverish pace to help me to see that perfectly maintaining my life doesn’t yield happiness – for me or anyone else. 

Furthermore, YES. There will always be room to improve, recipes to tweak, chores to do, systems to reform, but it’s also okay to just enjoy what’s happening right now, as it is. 

Instead of hopping into every new and improved, latest model idea that pops into my mind, I’m constructing a mental parking lot for them.

There’s a time to reform and perfect, and a time to shut down the “should’s” and enjoy.

My grandparents were hospitable, warm people. They were the kind of folks who encouraged lingering.

Sunday afternoon lunches lazily dragged into reheated Sunday evening dinners.
Both of them, in different ways, taught me that there is no such thing as “wasted time” – so long as you spend it with those whom you love.

I lose sight of those whom I love in favor of tying to make the meal, the experience, the home, the service, the anything and everything better.

Most often though, people don’t want better.
They want present.
They want you here.
They want what they’ve brought to be enough.

And nothing feels present and here and enough when you’re drowning in “should’s.”

I’m learning that it’s okay to enjoy your life.
And just enjoy it.

Grief and loss seems like a funny path to find that lesson on, but who am I to say how something (ahem) should happen.

Just enjoy it.
Even the messy parts.
Even the parts that need polishing.
Even when you know something could be improved.

There will be time for that.
Remember to take the time to enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

Mandatory Labeling

 

IMG_5407

“Mom, what is wonder?” my daughter asks one morning, jumping off of the song lyrics playing on our way to school.

I’m distracted. Traffic is bad, we’re running late. I’ve only drank half of my cup of coffee.

Wonder. 

I start tossing words around to craft a definition within the reach of her ever concrete four-year-old mind.

“Wonder is when you’re excited and curious and nervous and happy all at the same time…sort of…”

I wanted to say, You, child, you are wonder. She peppers our days with questions:

How does the electricity work?
Why do our ears make earwax?

Where do we go when we die?
What does God look like?
What does ‘reality’ mean?

And for every time I get annoyed at yet another question, I try to allow her questions to instruct me, to remind me how extraordinary the world is.

Electricity and earwax and other people in other places.
Magic is everywhere.  

Wonder.

She wholly embodies a word she doesn’t even understand.

***

We are people who live by the label. Ever concerned about efficiency and productivity, labels help us make the most of each moment and interaction.

We label packages to show what’s inside, how it works, how it could hurt us, where it came from and how to dispose of it.

We label people by their gender, class, ethnicity, political affiliation, job status, and education level for many of the same reasons: how do you work? How could you hurt me? Where did you come from? Are you worth my time?

It’s as if all of life were a cosmic high school cafeteria. We need to know who sits where, which people belong at which table and who we need to exclude to keep those sitting with us safe.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a huge crowd in this iconic message known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Toward the end of this message, Jesus instructs the crowd:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”
(Matthew 7:1-4)

Jesus says we are judged by the same measure we judge others by, which may have less to do with how God views us and more to do with how we view ourselves. I believe God is far more benevolent and gracious and loving than our brains can begin to comprehend, and that God’s nature is not so easily influenced to be shifted by whether or not I think kind things of my neighbors and friends. Rather, when I look on others with harshness or condemnation I often find myself using those lenses to examine my own life as well. On another occasion Jesus puts it this way: “The inner self overflows with words that are spoken” (Luke 6:45).

When we judge we take matters of value and dignity into our own hands – both the dignity or others and of ourselves. For some this judgement is a generous one:  “worthy” or “valuable” or “beautiful” or “good. “  For others, our judgements are miserly and rooted in fear and exclusion: “broken”  or “weird”  or “toxic” or “false.” 

Life is a series of conflicts (both internal and external), and what determines success is not your ability to live in a way that is free of conflict (because that’s impossible) but that you live in such a way the conflicts are healthy and ultimately beneficial.  Often what happens when we’re at odds with ourselves or with another is we dismiss that which we do not like or agree with as invalid, and try to “kill off” the viewpoint or behavior. This style of judgement is unproductive at best, and damaging at worst.

Labels and judgements are helpful, and necessary at times, but labels and judgements also fall terribly short.

It’s like when you meet someone for the first time, and you don’t know anything about them but there’s this thing that radiates off of them.  It’s almost as though they were a fish swimming in the water of that thing, inescapably bound to that reality in such a way that the thing is true of them regardless of their station in life or career path.

That thing, that essence defies the labels of society – and it is also more true than the label.

Perhaps this is why Jesus warned us against judging and labeling. There are things about all of us that transcend and defy and run deeper than the labels we thrust on one another or that we hide behind. The labels can help us organize ourselves and our thoughts, but the labels can also blind and limit us if we ascribe ultimate truth to them.

There are things that are true about ourselves (and about everyone else) that are beyond what we can think of or label. Like my daughter – who is “wonder” but doesn’t understand what that word means.  Maybe this is another way in which humans are imprinted with the Image of God, we are what we are – but we’re more than those things as well.

The more I let my snap judgements and water-resistant, dishwasher safe labels fade away, the more I’m learning to see that while – yes – we all are those things we are known for we also exist beyond the boxes. In fact, the best parts often lie outside the boxes – and that’s okay.

I’ve spent so much of my life bemoaning the fact that I don’t fit the boxes super well, but the truth is none of us do. We’re all beyond and deeper and wider and more true than even the most meticulously crafted label. I can tell my daughter she is a child of wonder till I’m blue in the face, but the words will never be as true as she is. Likewise, whatever label I’ve chosen for myself or whatever label has been cast upon me; whatever judgements you pass on yourself and whatever judgements others heap upon you – they will never be as true as you are. 

Live today aware of both the box you built from the pieces you were handed, and equally aware that there is so much more that will never be contained by the box…and that both are good and both belong.

Deconstruct:Reconstruct -Reach Inside

Few things make me feel as confident, comfortable and relaxed as a well laid plan.
I crave structure. I do everything within my power to achieve control over my circumstances and environment –  and I consume more post-it notes than one human being reasonably should.

Inevitably though, it doesn’t always work.

When things spiral off of my carefully crafted course – and it can be anything from shifting what I had planned to cook for dinner to shifting a ontological/theological/philosophical belief – I immediately get super stressed. Stress is followed in quick succession by either angry tears or the most fantastic version of “Resting Bitch Face” you can imagine.

I love the art of a well crafted plan. Experience tells me, though, that the good stuff is often hidden in the diversions…and even (especially?) in the train wrecks.

I think back to my first few years out of college.

I found myself unexplainably and undeniably drawn to, “called” to pastoral ministry – which is not something I had planned to do on a vocational level at any point in my life.

I took a job at a church in WISCONSIN of all places – which is about 400 miles further north (and 75 degrees COLDER) than I ever planned to live.

About a year in to this job-I-never-planned-to-have in this place-I-never-planned-to-live, Ben and I found out we were expecting a baby-we-hadn’t-planned-to-have (or at least hadn’t planned to have for about four more years).

And if I’m honest, those few years rocked me to the core. You know, when you’re shook up so much you don’t even actually know that you’re out of sorts because not only are you in limbo, but all of your reference points are as well?

It was months and months of small (and a few big) decisions, daily interactions, and unexpected circumstances that culminated in a moment when I didn’t know who I was or what to think any more.

Very few things made sense during those years, and even the things that did were warped and muddled as though I was observing them through a fun house mirror.

I asked questions I’d never asked before.

I dug through memories I’d chosen to bury.

I allowed myself to wonder “what if?” about things I’d once decided were open and shut cases.

“The Almighty Plan” fell through and it stressed me out and broke me down, and “The  Almighty Plan” fell through and in doing so I was set free.

For many of us, faith and spirituality were presented as the ultimate plan:
Say this prayer.
Do these things.
Don’t do these other things.
Follow these rules.
And you will go to heaven when you die.

That worked for some of us for months or years or even decades of our lives. Then, for whatever reason, it stopped working.
The prayers felt hollow.
We kept doing the things, but couldn’t remember why we did them, or why we shouldn’t do the other things.
The black and white rules became more like a coloring book, and we couldn’t ignore the vibrancy breaking out between our well crafted lines.
And while we waited for heaven, life felt like hell. 

What I’m learning is that the tradition we were handed is much bigger than the box we received it in. At first, asking the questions (that we’ve all had, the whole time) may feel like opening Pandora’s Box, but actually asking the questions is more like opening Hermione’s purse (or Mary Poppins’ bag, if you prefer.)

The questions open us up, and the vacuum created can suck you in and swallow you up, or it can be the space you reach inside to find exactly what you need in that moment.

I’m learning that the questions, the dark places,  and the unknown are often the places in which I find God in new ways. The places I least want to go end up being the greatest sources of life in the long run.  Richard Rohr (Franciscan Friar, writer and teacher) says it this way:

“We all remain who we are. But on the way to healing or liberation we have to do what the Romans called agere contra: we have to act against the grain of our natural compulsions. This requires clear decisions. Because it does not happen by itself, it is in a way ‘unnatural’ or ‘supernatural’ . . . (we) simply have to cut loose now and then, and in the process . . . make mistakes.”

It goes against everything within me – things I was taught to believe and things which are the core of who I am myself – to embrace ambiguity and wondering. I hate making mistakes. I hate not knowing. Yet, the most confident thing I can say on many days is “I don’t know”

I don’t know how to explain suffering…
I don’t know how we move forward through intense violence and hatred…
I don’t know how we reconcile in light of such division…
I don’t know why things happen this way…

But I know there is a God; that God is Love. I know that God is the Ground of all of this, even my questions, and that if I feel like I’m asking a question that God can’t handle, then chances are that god isn’t real anyway.

I know that I am on a journey, that it’s okay that I don’t have it all together, and that I do have this moment and this day. I know that these moments matter in some way – even if it’s only that I’m patient with my daughter, loving toward my husband, friendly with my neighbors and gracious to the coffee shop barista.

And somehow just those simple and few things feels more true and tangible than so many well-crafted answers and rules I held fiercely for years.

 

 

Of Protest and Praise

I am a child of the early 2000’s worship boom.

In big arenas and tricked-out sanctuaries we sang loud, hands lifted and eyes closed softly:
“Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me, blessed be your name…”
“Savior He can move the mountains, my God is mighty to save…”
“I could sing of Your love forever…”
(And we did sing for a very, very long time.)

Somewhere along the line though, those songs got harder to sing, the words stopped making sense with what I was experiencing in the world outside the arena and the sanctuary.

How do I sing, “blessed be your name” when so much violence and injustice and oppression exist?

How do I declare “God is mighty to save” when God so clearly has not completed that work? (And what the hell is God waiting for, anyway?)

As the questions mounted, I dove deep into the book of Lamentations, into the practice of lament and into songs which were more reflective and wrestling in nature.  I traded a posture of lifted hands and upward gaze for a downturned face, and knees pressing into the earth.

There were still moments, of course, when I would need a song which expressed boundless joy and gratitude, but the big-arena songs often fell short of what I was trying to express. Like last year, when I found out last year my daughter’s name had come up on the wait list to get into our first choice of school. Hillsong’s “Oceans” just wasn’t going to cut it that day.  I got in my car that day, rolled down the windows and turned up Hezekiah Walker:

“Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord, sing hallelujah…”
“Faithful, faithful, faithful is our God. I’m reaping the harvest God promised me…”
“I’ve come through the fire I’ve come through the rain, but God he never left my side…”

There was just something about the music that connected with me, and reached into the depths of my gratitude and awe and pulled them out in song.

I stumbled in to Gospel music by chance in college. I was first introduced to it by coworkers at a nonprofit. They taught me “Faithful is Our God” and “I Need You To Survive” and that Mary Mary sang more than just “Shackles.” 

I started to learn that you don’t just memorize words and melodies and sing the songs. You live the music, you feel the music, you drag it up from your guts and pour it out, it moves you so deep that your whole body has to move with it, and it doesn’t matter what you’re going through or what you’ve been through – you lift up the praise.

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Image: The Howard Gospel Choir, US Embassy Sweden

This week I was listening to songs, choosing selections for church on Sunday when Israel Houghton’s “You Are Good” came on.

I smirked, and reached to skip the song. This week has not been a week that leaves me wanting to sing “You are good, all the time, all the time, you are good.” 

There has been too much paper work,
not enough money,
not enough resources,
too many questions
and not enough answers.

There have been too many cops and too many ambulances on my street – and summer isn’t even here yet.

My grandmother, who has been battling cancer for a year now, received a very sobering report, and I can’t be as present as I would like to be as she nears the end of her life.

Everything in me wants to fall into a heap of sack cloth and ashes and cry.
Give me Lamentations and The Goo Goo Dolls, black eyeliner, Ben & Jerry’s and flannel shirts.

Almost as quickly as the impulse to skip the song arose, came another feeling. Knocking the wind out of my chest:  This is how you fight against it. 

The stress, the sadness, the grief, the anger and anxiety.
There’s a time to lament, and a time to dance.

My mind wandered to the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, where the heroine of the story squares up against an unmatched and terrifying evil, and the only way to overcome the evil and save the day is to scream declarations of her love for her brother over and over into the very face of that evil.

You are good, all the time

Even in the face of cancer and death and mourning.

All the time, You are good

Even in the midst of crime and destruction in my neighborhood.

You are good and your mercy endures forever 

Even when I cannot see that mercy at work

We worship you, hallelujah

I’m learning that there is a defiant nature about worship that I missed altogether growing up white and largely insulated from a lot of the grievances in the world.
It’s something I’m slowly learning from my neighbors, from the community I am a part of.
When the Grandma down the street sings“Have you got good religion? Do you love everybody? Certainly Lord!”   it’s not because the wind is at her back and all her relationships and interactions with people are encouraging and helpful – it’s in spite of and in the face of challenges within her family and with her landlord and with so many others.
When she sings:  “Give me that old time religion, it’ll bring you out of bondage and it’s good enough for me” it’s not because she’s been delivered from the ailments in her body, she sings it in spite of and in the face of illness.

I grew up in church praising God when I was happy, and standing in silent indignation when I was angry or sad. Eventually the rubber meets the road, all the shit hits all the fans and those of us who grew up like I did (white, insulated and relatively easy) find ourselves in a place where worship doesn’t make sense any more.

So we stop.
We stand in the midst of our grief and our questions and shake our fists at the heavens instead of lifting our hands in praise.

I think there’s a place for those things, for taking time to grieve and lament, but I also think we miss something if we stay in that place.

It’s a mistake to deny the existance of pain and questioning in the face of God, but it’s equally mistaken set pain and questioning up as our gods.

I will likely never understand why God allows things to happen the way they do,
pain and suffering will always plague the conscience of humanity,
but perhaps our response should be less about performing great acts of philosophical or theological gymnastics to explain the “why” of suffering.
Perhaps evil and suffering are overcome first from within, crying out love in desperate defiance like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, or calling out like Kirk Franklin before his choir: “You can’t take my joy, devil!”

Defiance and protest may look like disruption, burning down, shutting down and tearing apart, there is a time for this.

Acknowleding grief may look like lament, ashes, black eyeliner and – yes- even The Goo Goo Dolls, there is a time for this.

But protest and grief may also sometimes look like standing in the face of suffering and pain and daring to declare:
Even still, there is Good.
Even still, there is Love.
Even still, there is Peace.

And those things can never be taken from us.