Holding On

The weight of life and death
Feels heavy on my neck
Grief brands my heart
And sears my soul
Days and nights stretch out
Long before me
Passing all too quickly
Light spills across the sky
And fades to inky darkness
As I blink and yawn
Mustering the courage
To face another day
I’m caught in moments
That seem to last forever
Pain always clouding
The sky of my consciousness
Rains down
Sharp
Icy
Hot
Wet
Flooding my face
Falling unimpeded
From my eyes

Comfort
Relief
Redemption
Look a long way off
As I struggle to believe
Perhaps my tears
In some way serve
To water this arid landscape
I’ve tried to make
Look like home

Wandering through the night
As I lie in my bed
Aching
Broken
Discomfited
My eyes see little beyond
The black
Hours before dawn
While I wonder
I doubt
I fear
I find
A flicker
A tiny kernel
A seed that promises
One day
To blossom into hope

In an instant
Or an hour
Or a hundred years
Today
As light breaks over the horizon
I know
I can hold on
Just a while longer
Waiting for hope to flourish
For joy to be in season
Because
Love
Still
Holds
Me

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Church Is Hard, but God Is Good

A friend posed an interesting question recently.

Where is this thing headed and how do we get out in front of the wave instead of being swept under it?

The “thing” is North American Christian congregations. The “wave” is the massive cultural shift of even serious “Jesus & Bible people” away from institutional, “professional” Christian congregations.

I began writing my thoughts in a comment on his post, but quickly realized I had much more to say than one comment’s worth on Facebook. I am not a theologian, a clergy member, or a trend analyst, but I have a few ideas to share from my own experiences.

Church is a hard place to connect with others. Building community with a bunch of people whose stories you don’t know that come from all over town, who you sit next to for an hour on Sunday, then probably don’t see again for a week or two is virtually impossible. As a church family, we lead very separate lives. Most people don’t want to get more involved in the day-to-day experiences of the other people they sit with on Sundays. Official small groups tend to be based around a book study or video series and provide little opportunity to actually learn and grow in deep relationship with one another.

Church is frequently a place where programs seem to get more attention than people. It’s so much easier and more immediately gratifying to collect facts and figures to illustrate the success of a program than trying to evaluate actual encounters with God and resulting life changes. The numbers of attendees, hours of volunteer service, percentages of church members involved, and so forth are all much simpler to plot on a graph than what relationships deepened, how people matured in their faith, or when the light of Christ shined brightly through members of the congregation into the hearts of individuals they interacted with each day.

Church is, all too often, a place that encourages unhealthy behaviors. Because most people within the congregation don’t really know one another well, conflicts that arise are often not dealt with between the individuals who are engaged, but immediately escalate to involve church leadership. Any minor friction, then, may escalate into a full-blown battle that divides the leaders and the congregants into warring camps who can’t seem to remember the unity of Christ amidst these points of disagreement. And, of course, as has been coming to light more and more over the last several years, outright criminal behavior is sometimes denied and covered up in the name of protecting the so-called Christian witness of church leaders.

Church is a place that rewards giving and can discourage receiving. Every church I’ve ever stepped foot in has a lengthy list of service opportunities open for volunteers. As long as people are giving of their time, talents, and tithes, they are welcomed with open arms. But, suddenly or eventually, the seasons of life may turn and they find themselves in a place of need. When they can’t reach out, have no energy to volunteer, no money to give, nothing more to offer, how many simply slip through the proverbial cracks? Too many times, when someone is struggling, they find themselves alone, overlooked by a church family is too busy or too out of touch with the needs of others to even consider reaching out.

Maybe I sound a little bitter. As I said above, these examples come from my own experiences, most within the last two years. For most of my life, I have heard occasional stories from people who were hurt by the church. I knew it happened, sometimes, but it had never been something I knew firsthand. Frankly, I was probably less than fully kind and sympathetic to those in my circle who had been burned by the church and were shy to risk making themselves vulnerable to such experiences again. I get it now. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I’m afraid it will hurt more, when I’m already hurting so much. I’m afraid to be told I’m not doing enough, when what I am already doing leaves me exhausted.

The fact is, it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s not supposed to be like this. We were made to live life in communion, both with God and with one another. We were created by love, in love, for love, to love in return. We can do better than this. We must do better than this. And I see and hear and know as people of faith are earnestly seeking to love more, to grow deeper, to reach higher, we will do better.

LOVE-s

Returning to the original query, how do we, as the Church in North America, as people who are invested in the traditional, congregational institution we call “church,” paddle forward to ride this wave, rather than being knocked off the board and swept under the water? (Side note: this would have been a way cooler sentence had I thrown in some authentic surfing terminology, but never having surfed, I lack the proper vocabulary for such radical coolness.)

My proposal is this: Simplify.

Okay, I suppose I need to unpack that just a little bit. Life is complicated. The older I get, the more complicated I realize most of life is. As a kid I just wanted to grow up and be able to make all my own choices. Now I’m grown up and I know that those choices are bound by many more factors than I’d ever taken into account. There are bills to pay and clothes to wash and appointments to keep and meals to make. We have to keep track of expirations and renewals and schedules and rotations. And as I’ve had to dive more deeply into all of these things, I’ve discovered whole worlds I never knew about hidden under the surface of the water.

I’ve referred before to the “upside down Kingdom,” a phrase my former pastor used frequently in his sermons. Here is yet another example of how God’s ways are different than my ways. The deeper I dive into relationship with God, the simpler I realize it is. Just be, and God is with us. It’s startlingly uncomplicated, yet incredibly challenging.

Shortly before His life on earth ended, Jesus told His disciples to love each other, to follow His example and love so well that people would know their devotion to God by their great love for one another (see John 13:34-35).

Love exists in communion. Being with Christ, spending time simply being present and enjoying His presence, allows love to flourish.

“Come before Me,” invites the Creator of the universe. “Be with Me. Breathe and walk and rest and eat and speak in Me. I am here. Everything you do, I am here. All that you feel, I am here. Whatever happens to your kids or your spouse or your friends or anyone and everyone you know and love, I am here. I am with you and with them, no matter how many miles may separate you. In life, in death, in everything, I am here. And I am Love. You are loved.”

The only way we can live is loved, because we always are. It’s just a matter of whether you or I wish to acknowledge the presence of Love in our lives.

And I believe that is where we need to focus. There will always be disagreements about styles and colors and when is the right time to be baptized and at least a million and a half other things. But if our first priority is to be with Jesus, to let ourselves be loved until we are bubbling over with more love than we know what to do with, loving other people will start to seem like second nature. People will become more important than programs. Our congregations will begin to invite deep relationships and encourage growth, not just as individuals, but in community.

It’s not a clean, precise plan. It doesn’t make a nice three-points-and-an-illustration sermon (although maybe if I learned more surfing terms?). But love is real. Love is honest. Love transforms us. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, if we open our hearts to one another in genuine communion, if we seek first and foremost the Kingdom of God, we will be changed from the inside out. We will move away from doing church and we will be the Church.

Surrender (Again)

Honesty seems kind of ugly sometimes. All my feelings sit there in stark black and white, yet, the whole mess jiggles like an underset molded salad.

I wrote those sentences two years ago. I can’t remember now whether it was part of a journal entry or a letter to my husband, but either way, I had shared something that left me less than proud of myself.

We have a tendency to offer others only the highlights of life. These good images seem like much better fodder for our social media feeds than the not-so-pretty parts of our experience. “Pinterest perfect” became a thing because we all long to be better, to have our whole lives look just like the pictures. But those pictures don’t show us the rest of what’s really there, just outside the frame.

This may be the most scarily personal thing I have ever put out there. I’m afraid you will read it and think less of me. Truly, though, the weight of everyone else’s expectations is too heavy a burden to bear. No matter what I release for public consumption, I will always be all of me. And this stuff is important. There isn’t enough discussion of the not-pretty parts of our lives, which leaves too many people believing they are the only ones who don’t have it all together. I know, because for a really long time, I was one of those people. But I know better now, and I’ve realized I need to be one of the authentic people. It’s my job to take the camera and focuses square on the mess I’d really rather crop out.

So, here goes. I wrote this in my journal last summer, shortly before the world fell apart. Again.

Letting go of the pain can’t hurt me nearly as much as holding onto it has. I think. My fear is that’s not true and letting go will hurt more.

I’m not even sure what the pain is right now. Why am I hurting so much? What am I so afraid of?

God, what is it? Do I need to step back to gratitude first? To reconnect with joy?

I’m struggling with that. I’m not sure what I’m truly thankful for right now. Help, please?

Thank You that we, somehow, have just enough to make it through the week. Thank You that even though our budget is significantly limited this week, we can eat three healthy meals a day. Even what doesn’t feel like enough is actually enough.

My beautiful, beloved child, I am enough. I will always be enough. You worry that you will run short, but you can never run out of My love for you. You have a difficult day and your patience runs out, but I am ever patient. Your father lost his temper and raged at you, you lose your temper and rage at your children, but I am never caught beyond My limits because I am limitless. You can never surprise Me with your behavior. You can’t manipulate Me. You can’t push My buttons–I don’t have any buttons. I am totally present, fully at peace, complete within Myself, utterly attentive, and always desiring you. I want you. Not sometimes, not occasionally, not when I’m in the right mood, I want you always. I want to love you with all that I am, and I am love.

God, I want that. I want You! I want to know Your peace and Your rest and Your love. I feel like something, someone is keeping me from You and it’s me.

How do I let go of my own fearful attempts at control? How can I loosen my cramped fingers from the seeming need to make everything work out fairly? I think I have to fight to get my share of the pie, but what I’m fighting over is so much less than what You are gently and quietly offering me.

 

rather fight you-s

One of my all-time favorite songwriters is the late Rich Mullins. He set to music so many things I’ve felt so deeply inside, I didn’t even know they had words.  His song “Hold Me Jesus” has always held a special place in my heart: I’d rather fight you for something I don’t really want than take what you give that I need.

So how do I let go?

I think You’re saying, “Just let go,” but I don’t know how! I don’t know how to release this burden of fear, to open my arms and reach for You. God, please, can You help me? I’m afraid to let go. I’m afraid that if I do, I’m saying everything I’ve lived for up until now is a lie. All the struggle and striving to do what’s “right” for my own best interest was wrong. And I’m afraid that makes me a terrible, horrible person. If I admit who and what I really am, You won’t want me at all.

My darling daughter, I want you more than you can even imagine. I know exactly who you are. I know you better than you know yourself. And I love you, deeper than the oceans, higher than the clouds, longer than the farthest distances scientists can measure. You need to let go of your fear, My beloved, because it’s blocking My love for you. You need to allow Me to crack open Your heart and let My light expose your idols for what they really are: childish attempts to recreate the reality of Me. I am true Peace. I am true Justice. I am true Love.

The fear and the pain and the anger are not protecting you. They are poisoning you and they only grow more toxic as you allow them to fester in the dark.

Let My light shine into your soul, My child. Open your clenched fingers and release the fear, let go of the anger you think makes you strong, reach out and let Me hold your hand in the tender grip of grace. I can heal your pain, but only if you let Me.

God, I want You to heal me. I’m still afraid, but I know I can’t keep going on like this. My bootstraps aren’t strong enough. Please, forgive me for thinking I could do it on my own, for treating Your grace like a side dish to accompany my own selfishness. It’s so easy to see when other people are trying to make You fit their own ends, yet I shaded my eyes to my own attempts to do the same.

God, bring Your healing to the deep-down caverns of my soul, those places that haven’t seen sunlight in years. Let pass the season of always winter but never Christmas as the heat of Your loving embrace thaws the ice and snow. Breathe Your warm breath over me and bring me back to life. Let me grow and flourish as I reach toward the Light.

The churches I grew up in left me with the impression that a Christian was someone who had to asked Jesus into their heart once. That one-time prayer sealed the deal. It wasn’t until years later, I heard a sermon that showed me another view. Coming to Jesus and asking for forgiveness and letting go of all the things we are holding on to instead of Him isn’t just how we “get saved,” but it is the very essence of Christianity, a process to be repeated over and over again for the rest of our lives. In the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God, the way to victory comes through surrender, every single time.

I feel different. The raging inferno of desperation has burned itself out. There is a happy glow inside instead. I feel fresh and clean, like a sheet washed out and hung to dry in the sunshine.

I don’t expect I’ll always feel like this. Tomorrow will dawn and the kids will fight and the frustrations of the day will come rushing out to greet me. But I can know I don’t have to fight those battles. I have laid down my weapon and surrendered to the One who fights for me.

And maybe tomorrow, I’ll have to surrender again because I’m likely to pick it back up, thinking I need it after all. Still, when I do, He’s right here waiting until I’m ready to lay it back down and hold His hand instead.

About Fear and Love

I got slapped upside the head this morning. Oh, not literally. It was more of a metaphorical wake-up call letting me know I needed to reconsider the way I do some things.

Let me start back a step, though. I’ve talked about fear in this space before. Actually, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about fear and anxiety, mostly trying to deal with my own. This morning it struck me that fear is the root of an awful lot of the evil we experience and participate in every day.

Consider

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Homophobia
  • Religious discrimination
  • Political mudslinging

All of these are rooted in a deep fear of people who aren’t like me. None of us are immune. I want to be. I find myself taking pride in thinking, “I’m not like them. You know, the ones who are always . . . . ”

Oh. Wait. That’s me, distancing myself from people who are different from me, who disagree with me, fearing someone might think I have something in common with them. Crap.

Fear is stingy. Fear lies to us that there won’t be enough. We’re in danger of missing out, fear tells us, and we need to hold tight to what we have and not let anyone else get any. It’s the scarcity model on a grand scale.

But, the Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. The Kingdom of God has a law of love and an economy of grace. Love creates more love. Grace opens up space for more grace. The more we love, the more we show grace, the more there is for all of us. As long as we allow ourselves to receive from God, we can’t ever run out of love and grace, because that is His very being.

So, I prayed this morning, “I don’t know how to combat this fear. It seems as old as time. Wars have long been fought over land and wealth and access. What on earth can I do to make any sort of change to the level of fear that runs the world?”

Here is what followed.

Love.

That’s it?

Love more. Love stronger. Love better. Love with My Spirit pouring through you, instead of just trying to muster up love from within yourself. Genuinely love individuals in your specific, real-life community, rather than just feeling loving toward some composite sketch of humanity.

Ouch. But, yes. But, ouch.

We need to love as God loves. We need to get involved. We need to see people the world seems to look right past. To ask people what they need, what they want. To reach out and meet those needs that we can. To work together with other people in our communities to find ways to solve systematic inequities that have fostered a nation where all are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

But before we can do any of that, we need to let God love us.

We need to come to a place where we truly and unreservedly believe that God loves us and He has already given us everything we need in giving us Himself. Until I can say that and mean it with my whole heart, all the hard work I’m trying to do just wears me out. I know, because I keep trying. And I keep realizing that there’s more fear inside. Fear that I’m not good enough. Fear that I can’t do enough. Fear that God doesn’t really love me because I’m somehow not living up to His expectations.

The thing about love and fear, though? They can’t coexist. When we open ourselves up to perfect, complete, full-grown love, Love that is a Being, not merely a feeling, there is no more room for fear (1 John 4:18a).

If I were the one reading this, now is the point I’d be asking, “Great. I’m supposed to let myself be loved. How do I do that?” As the writer, I wish I could offer you a precise step-by-step tutorial. Except it doesn’t really work that way. Love meets each of us right where we are. I don’t know what your insecurities are. I don’t know the problems you face. I can’t offer a strategic game plan to break past your defenses and let Love in.

Here’s what I do have. I can share with you what I’ve been doing and have found helpful.

Gratitude. I have learned to ask myself (and I’m beginning to ask my children) What has brought me joy today? What can I thank God for bringing into my life right now? Sometimes, I can’t bring anything to mind. I may Google “things to be grateful for” or talk to a friend, but usually I just admit I can’t think of anything and pray for help. Once I’ve found at least one thing that prompts a “thank You” to the Giver of all good things, I say so. Usually I write it down.

Honesty. I have learned that the only way to build authentic relationships is to be honest, totally, completely, shamelessly honest. Whether I write it out, speak out loud, draw a picture, whisper in the depths of my heart, whatever way seems best, I present my fears in prayer. God is not offended by the truth of anything we think or feel. He’s big enough to receive every hateful, shameful, angry, grieving, fearful, disbelieving bit of them. We don’t have to dress them up and make them look pretty, just be honest.

Listening. This is the one that continues to give me the most trouble. Too many times, even though I know I want to hear, I also don’t want to hear what Love has to say to me. I also usually write this part out. How does God respond to me? I’m frequently surprised by the words and pictures that come. Words of love and peace and hope and challenge and delight and correction. It can be very helpful to share these words with someone trustworthy who can affirm the truth. One resource I have found to be quite useful as I’ve been learning to listen is Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel by E. James Wilder, Anna Kang, John Loppnow & Sungshim Loppnow.

Frankly, this all often seems like a lot of work. And all too often, I let days go by without having any truly meaningful interactions with God or anyone else. But when I do finally stop and rest, when I choose gratitude, when I am honest, and when I allow myself to listen expectantly, I am reminded why it truly is all worth it.

Questions and Answers

The other day in the car, Adam said, “I have a question.”

“Go ahead,” I told him, bracing myself for what unknown query might lurk.

“I’ve noticed it a couple times today, when people have asked, ‘How are you?’ You told them, ‘I’m fine,’ and left it at that, so I wondered if you really meant it. Are you truly feeling fine? Or did you merely not want to get into it all?”

“The latter, I guess, but not that exactly, more the fact that they were strangers. When most people say, ‘How are you,’ I’ve found, it generally isn’t a question. They’re not really asking how I am doing, but offering a simple greeting.”

Right here, right now, I want to share what’s behind that reflexive, offhanded “fine.” If you were to ask, and truly wish to know how I’m doing, here’s how I am.

Coping

Scared
Jealous
Angry
Amazed
Waiting
Wondering
Worried

Lost
Lonely
Tired
Bruised
Hopeful
Hurting
Spent

Distressed
Dejected
Anxious
Irate
Alarmed
Irritable
Depressed

Underestimating
Overwhelmed
Introspective
Sad
Hiding
Exposed
Vulnerable

Watchful
Restless
Curious
Confused
Needy
Grateful
Undone

Gathering

The Kemper Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin was alight with candles and music and bells last Saturday as I sat in the Easter Vigil service with Light of Christ Anglican Church. After the final reading, “The Gathering of God’s People,” (Zephaniah 3:12-20), we sang together.

We will feast in the house of Zion.
We will sing with our hearts restored.
He has done great things, we will say together.
We will feast and weep no more.

“We Will Feast in the House of Zion”
by Sandra McCracken and Joshua Moore

I closed my eyes and began to cry. I pictured myself alone in the midst of a broken stone building, crumbled all around me. I was sad and as broken as the rubble.

I looked to my left and my right; I knew it was time to rebuild. I began by lifting a stone and setting it back in place. I lifted another. Then I stopped.

There were too many. They were too heavy. I sat back down in the middle of the ruins and began to cry.

not alone-s

As my tears fell, I became aware of people gathering beside me. They started picking up stones, rebuilding with me, doing for me what I couldn’t do on my own.

I cried for a while. I told God, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard!”

He did not say I didn’t have to, only, “You are not alone.”

Burning and Being Afraid

Though I hesitate to even write this down, much less post it in a public space, I believe there is something important in this meandering mess of soft-focus snapshots my brain is trying to express. While I may be coming at these ideas from a different perspective than most, I hope I don’t offend anyone so much that we can’t make it to the end of the rabbit trail together. Deep breath. Shameless honesty.

I have zero tears to shed right now over the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Let me assure you, somewhere, in a distant space inside my head, I can acknowledge the sadness other people have expressed over the destruction of such a beautiful old sacred space. At the same time, as I scroll past post after post in my Facebook feed and so many friends share their grief in status updates describing their tears, I feel a bit lost.

Though I believe I ought to know better than to actually ask why, a part of me still wonders. Am I completely out of touch with the collective reality of feeling connected to this historic landmark? Did I miss something?

Or maybe, perhaps, could it be that this is one of those touchstone events that opens up the doors to grief that would otherwise be shuttered away in the dark? Could some of those tears have been gathering force days, weeks, months, years inside a life, yet tacit community standards don’t allow for its public expression?

In the course of daily life, if we’re paying attention, don’t we come upon beautiful things burning down with some regularity? My son came to tell me he tried to make a new friend, but the other child didn’t want to play with him. One of our favorite local businesses wasn’t able to convert enough sales to keep their doors open. A friend is sporting bruises again from her ongoing battle with a seizure disorder. There was another school shooting, another racially motivated attack, another amazing being created in the image of God abused.

survive the drowning-s

Yet, somehow, we don’t or we can’t or we just feel we shouldn’t cry about all those things. Or maybe, we’re afraid. Maybe, so many times have we seen beauty going up in flames, we’ve begun to fear letting any tears fall will cause an unstoppable flood coursing down our faces, forming such great pools of sadness that none can survive the drowning.

I am afraid.

I’m afraid the pain will prove too much. I’m afraid, if I let go of this mask of composure I work so hard to hold up to my face, I’ll lose everything. I’m afraid if I ask the questions I really want to ask, I’ll discover I don’t actually like the answers very much.

Because, what if in all this grief, all this pain, all this heartrending sadness there is something I can do? What if I add my thimbleful of water to put out just one tongue of flame? What if, should I choose to reach out, to touch someone else, to reflect just one beam of light into the darkness, that you may be encouraged to do so as well?

What if Marianne Williamson was absolutely on to something when she said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”? Because, if I have the power to highlight beauty in just one situation in one person’s life, what happens if I chose not to shine?

Could it be the bravest act of all is simply to be yourself? To open your heart and your life to let someone else in? To stop pretending we have it all together and we don’t really need one another and we can do it all on our own?

There is something about tragedy that opens our eyes to the truth that we can’t do it all on our own. We do really need one another. Despite all our pretense, we don’t have it all together.

Please, don’t misunderstand me; I am not intending to lead a guided guilt trip. I pray that reading my disjointed thoughts and questions and concerns has not stirred up a shame storm that is even now beating down in stinging drops on your neck. Because while we all need one another, we also all need to recognize our own limitations.

I can’t put out the flames of a whole cathedral with the one bucket of water I carry. No matter how much I may want to solve all the problems and save all the children, I can’t do it. I don’t even know where all the problems lie or who all the children are. I have only a tiny little platform to offer my own questioning answers. I can’t claim the wisdom of the ages, only what I have seen and thought and felt myself and the truths of experiences others have been willing to share with me. What little I have, I’m sharing with you. I’ll leave you with a final question, one I want to ask myself more often.

Who stands before you waiting to catch a glimpse of the beauty you hide inside yourself?