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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.

 

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Taking up Space

I’ve spent the last several years of my life purging closets and emptying drawers.

Minimizing.

Trying to use less water, less energy, less resources.
Produce less garbage, and compost and recycle more.

Just this past weekend, a bookshelf and two full bags of random old things were evicted from my home.

Smaller impact.
A simpler life.

These are good things.

A more long-standing practice in my life, though, has been learning to reign in my larger-than-life, bombastic feelings and reactions to the world around me.

Smaller impact.
More managed, more acceptable, more polished.
I resonate with our family’s omnipresent Disney princess, Elsa, on this:
Conceal don’t feel, put on a show.

That’s not such a good thing.

I remember my Dad looking me in the eyes when I was twelve and he was beginning a new chapter of life by going to medical school:

“You have to be strong.” 

I’ve always been a determined, disciplined person so being told to be “strong” (even as a twelve-year-old) didn’t feel like too great of a burden.

I’m sure I had more than my fair share of outbursts and sulky attitudes as a teenager (in fact, I know I did), but I did try to follow through on my Dad’s instruction. I tried to be strong – both for my family and for my own sense of identity.

I’ve never been a particularly “girly” girl. I opted out of ballet in favor of martial arts. I hated sewing and cross stitch and knitting and all the things requiring being very still and meticulous for long periods of time. I played more with mud and rocks and sticks than I did my dolls – and when I did play with them, my Barbies were going on secret rescue missions to save orphans and lost puppies, instead of going to the mall.

Being “strong” was a way to differentiate myself. Especially in the conservative Christian community I grew up in, where girls – especially as we broached adolescence – were quite concerned with honing their homemaking skills and cultivating “gentle, quiet spirits” so they would make excellent wives one day.

“Gentle and quiet” were illusive, and I possessed none of the typical skills associated with homemaking at the time, so I sought out “strong” instead. In part at my Dad’s request, and in larger part because if I couldn’t conform to the norm, at least I could rock at being an outlier.

Somewhere along the line of trying to either conform to “gentle and quiet” or be the most bad-ass strong, solid woman ever, I found my way to “small.”

Maybe because if I shrank my feelings, my fears and my self it was easier to manage, to bind into a polished and strong exterior.

Maybe because if I shrank my strength, it was less intimidating and brazen.  It seemed more “gentle and quiet” if I bound it up and kept it for just my own purposes.

Don’t get me wrong, I can seem as big as I  want to be.
I can laugh loud and light up rooms and set more places at bigger tables and fill platters with more food. I hug tight and give obnoxious amounts of high fives. Obnoxious.
When a room is dead, I can be the helium which lifts it up.

But did you know that helium is one of the smallest elements that exists?
Helium floats because it takes up so little space of it’s own.

And I stand with my arms folded tight across my chest.
I sit with my hands tucked beneath or between my legs.
My fists are closed more often than my hands are open.

Even though my words would never betray me, my body – when I’m not conscious of it – screams “smaller, smaller, SMALLER!”

If I truly engage my feelings, then I’m emotional and weak.
If I truly display my strength, then I’m too bold and intimidating (if not downright bitchy).

So I go through life, conscious of every gesture and smile; every glance and expression.
Even when I seem to be over-the-top excited, I know exactly where I am and what I’m doing. Just ask me, at any given moment, and I can give you a detailed rationale as to why.

I don’t think I’m the only person who does this.
I know other people (especially other women) know what this feels like.
To be bound up tightly on the inside as if a corset were holding all of your reactions and feelings and emotions into the figure and form society has deemed acceptable, even though you’re actually crushing yourself to a slow death.

I don’t want to live like that anymore.

I think we’re supposed to take up space.
Which means we’re going to have to be big enough that we can’t be everything to everyone all the time.

I am going to have to big enough to be someone who isn’t always only helium, filling up ever-more balloons for non-stop parties.

I want to live life with arms wide open, instead of scrunched and tight across my chest.
Legs crossed, fists clenched.
Smaller and smaller.

I want to be open and aware and present and completely here in the moments of my life.

One time, a woman was confronted about being caught up in the moment, listening at the feet of Christ, rather than hosting and rushing and serving and being concerned with ALL THE THINGS.

To those upset with her for being there, Jesus said:

“This will not be taken away from her.” 

We are given an opportunity to be enchanted and caught up in the movement of Christ at every turn, because we carry the Image of God within us. 

Every day is an opportunity to bear witness to the Divine at work.

I’m planting myself here. Taking up my space. Fully engrossed in the whispers and words and subtle movements of God all around me.

And it feels scary to sit here with my arms open and my heart exposed, but if I listen closely I hear the assurance from the One who drew me here in the first place:

“This will not be taken away from you.”

*Image credit: Herb Real via Flickr. 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Mandatory Labeling

 

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“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.

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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.