Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Advent in Aleppo

"Advent" by Eva Holm licensed under CC BY/ Cropped from original, filter applied

It's a cold, but beautiful, December day. Just past the Christmas tree with its motley collection of ornaments I can see blue sky and the bare skeletons of tree branches. The house is warm, I've got a cup of tea beside me, and the cat is curled into a ball of fur on the couch. If you don't mind a little clutter and some cleaning that really ought to be done sooner rather than later, it's a picture-perfect holiday scene.

I think that's why I'm struggling to write an Advent blog post. I just don't really 'get' Advent.

When was the last time I really, truly had to wait for something? The last time I needed rescue? The last time I lived in the land of the shadow of death? I've never had to sit with Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more. I am safe. I am comfortable. Even as we hover right at the median household income in the United States, we are still wealthier than 99% of the world. I am beginning to suspect that when Mary sang her Magnificat, I was not numbered among the lowly.

I wonder how many of us pause to consider that maybe we are the proud and the rich, the ones who get toppled from our positions of power and sent away empty in the upside-down kingdom being born. We (and by 'we' I mean other, more creative people) celebrate Advent with Jesse Trees and Advent candles and calendars and traditions that in a thousand ways illustrate just how much we have, because we DO have the resources for the lovely handcrafted wooden Advent spirals. Instead of wondering where our next meal is coming from, we're wondering how to make the season 'meaningful'.

The Jewish people knew waiting. They knew what it was like to lose their homeland, to see their families slaughtered in the power plays of dynasties and nations. They knew what it was to be the small nation, to live at the whim of other powers. We gloss over what it really meant for Mary and Joseph to be in that stable in Bethlehem; not because they wanted to, but because they HAD to go in order for Rome to count its conquered lands. They lived in a system where injustice was the rule of the land and the top 10% ruled over the 90%. They saw cities burned to the ground and thousands slaughtered because of the political resistance of a few. Rome spared no one in Caesar's efforts to prove his absolute rule, and there was no court in which they could plead for justice.

So they waited. They waited in darkness and oppression and death and uncertainty. They waited for the world to be made right.

And now, Aleppo waits. A city bombed to the ground, thousands slaughtered, disease and despair unleashed. Aleppo waits for the world to be made right.

South Sudan waits. Over two million people forced from their homes. Food shortages. Fifty percent of its children lacking critical nutrition, lacking education.

Ukraine waits. Basic services cut off. Fears of persecution for politics or ethnicity.

Iraq waits. Families fleeing violence with nothing but the clothes they wear.

Indigenous people groups wait. Marginalized. Systematically eradicated and now subject to the desires of the dominant culture inhabiting their lands.

They wait in darkness. In oppression. In death. In uncertainty.

They wait for the world to be made right.

No, I'm not numbered among the lowly.

I can light the Advent candles for a waiting world. I can speak of the hope, the love, the joy, and the peace offered in the central figure of God-made-flesh. But I don't think that I can really understand it until I am willing for my soul to be scraped raw by the pain of others,

Maybe this is Advent.

To light the candle of hope which calls us to fear not as we walk into the darkness, facing the worst of humanity in us and in others and believing that somehow God is turning all of this upside down.

To light the candle of love, willing to stand with the marginalized on behalf of the one who became marginalized for us.

To light the candle of joy, gladly climbing down off our thrones, casting aside our riches, our idols, our power for the sake of those who have none.

To light the candle of peace, singing strength into nights that are lonely, hands that are empty, lives that are storm-tossed.

Maybe this is Advent; to move our focus from our restless little wants, and to let God Incarnate do with us as he will, becoming incarnate again and again as we lower ourselves to lift others up.

Perhaps when we have gone low enough we will finally 'get' Advent.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Leaving Church

I've sat on this post for months now, waiting to get my heart in the right place, waiting to make sure I wasn't anger-blogging. (I made that term up, but I think it is a thing.) But words are what I do, and here's the thing I've found...sometimes we find community when we share the things that aren't pretty, the things that we think make us most alone. Words set us free. 

One Sunday morning I sat on my couch browsing Facebook when an unexpected question caught my eye. “What do you do when you don’t feel you can stay at your church any longer because the core beliefs have shifted?”

The post in its entirety was an uncanny echo of my situation at the time, so much so that I almost double-checked to make sure I hadn't written it myself. I sat and watched as response after response rolled in. “I’ve been there too. It’s hard.” “I’m so sorry, I know what that hurt feels like.” “We were in leadership when this happened, we’re well past it now but it still hurts.” Suddenly there we were, a community of women with ash-smudged hands, not only acknowledging that church is hard, but that it can wound deeply, sometimes with a slow smoldering and sometimes with the ferocity of a wildfire.

Church is hard, if you are really going to give it your all. Sure, you can show up when you feel like it, step away from building close relationships, slip in late and leave early and never really give your heart away. But sometimes you settle in. You sit on couches together and you listen to the hearts that speak, you offer generous hugs and gather around the sacramental coffee table. These people become your people. Your children grow up together, new babies are born, jobs are celebrated, and losses are mourned. “These will always be my people,” you think. “This will always be my place.”

And then it happens. Sometimes it’s ‘easy’. A new job, a move, a spreading of wings as you fly away.
And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you see the flames creeping up over the top of the hill. You wait, thinking it will die down, but the smoke begins to choke and the fire grows hotter until all you can do is flee.

If we are really honest, the flames come more often than many people admit.

I try to be fair on my blog. There are always multiple sides to a story, and I get the benefit of telling mine in the public sphere. So I’ve kept mostly quiet while I sit by the embers of what used to be, because what we experience is subjective, formed out of our histories, our beliefs, our personalities. It would be unjust for us to expect everyone to share in our experience in exactly the same way, and the fire that rages and leaves us with the dusting of ash on our skin may be another person’s comfort, another person’s hope. Just because I don’t understand how doesn’t mean it can’t be so.

But this is the reality…church can wound us deeply, and what do you do when you love deeply but the flames are leaving scars? What do you do when the healthiest choice seems to be to leave?
If you have been a ‘good church girl (or guy)’ for any length of time you will no doubt hear all of the voices in your head telling you the same refrain. You may even hear them from the people you love.

“You just aren’t submitting to authority.”

“Church is a covenant, how dare you break it?”

“What about the greater good of the community?”

“It’s the consumeristic mind set, you just want a place that makes you feel good and meets all of your shopping list of requirements.”

Please hear me when I say this. It is okay to go. It really, truly is okay to leave a church.

How do you know when it’s time to go?

It may begin as that twitch in your eye, that nervous tic that begins jumping wildly every Sunday morning without fail. It may be the tense shoulders, the upset stomach, or the migraines that plague you whenever you are under stress. It might be the panic attack, the insomnia, the tightness in your chest. If you’ve lived long enough, you will have learned to recognize the signs that you are under stress; you will have learned to connect the dots. Eventually, as you assess your life and all of the stressors in it, you will follow the dots back to their origin. Somehow you will not be surprised when it all points back to church.

Then what?

Push into the discomfort. Ask hard questions. Speak up. You may find that things are easily resolved. Or you may hit a brick wall. You may be labeled, judged, dismissed. Still, if you are growing stronger in faith, if you are hungry to know Christ more, if you can sense a common goal beyond the disagreements on theology, then it may be that you need to stay, to work through the difficulties together.

Sometimes, though, we know that growth won’t happen if we stay. We've hit the point at which we are surviving, not thriving. Our focus begins to shift from living out the call of Christ’s beautiful Kingdom and towards the nagging questions, “Am I really saved? Am I saved enough? Is God looking at me with disapproval? What if I haven’t QUITE done everything right enough? What if I haven’t dotted all my theological ‘i’s and crossed all the theological ‘t’s?” Our passion for the Good News begins to dim, suffocating in the smoke. 

Leaving isn't easy, it shouldn't be easy, not if you've built community. You may be surprised at unexpected moments by how much it still hurts, even when you know to the depth of your soul that you made the right choice. There may be days when you are angry, days when you cry, days when the only reason you step through the door of a church again is because you still believe somewhere deep inside that the Church is good because God is good. You will slip in and slip out, uncertain about giving your heart away. You will be silent when you gather in small groups. You will bite your tongue to keep the questions in because you are afraid. The 'heretic' label hurts; you don't want to walk that road again. You will wonder if you can ever truly love the Church again. 

I'd like to say that it all works out in the end, that you'll find your place, that you will laugh and mourn and drink coffee and gather together and it will be good. I can't guarantee that. I hope for that. I can tell you that sometimes the place you find will be unexpected. I can tell you that trying to find that exact replica of your church 'before' can be a recipe for disappointment. The Church is a living, breathing body, each one different from the next, and just as we love our friends in all their beauty and imperfection, so too we need to love the Church for what it is, and not what we wish it would be.

But I can tell you this much: with time, you will find your passion again. Good News will be good news, and you will find new ways to fall in love with Jesus. I can also tell you that when you find your voice again it will be freer, bolder, and hopefully wiser. You may carry the memory of the scent of smoke with you for years, but you also carry embers, flickers of hope in a darkened world.

(It should probably go without saying that if a church is spiritually abusive, you need to leave. That is far beyond the scope of this post, and there are many books and websites out there which can help you to recognize abuse and leave it behind. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson is a good place to start.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

I believe

I believe in God, the Father who speaks the spark of Life in to the world.

I believe in Christ his Son, the exact representation of the Father, fully human, fully divine.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, God's active Presence in the world.

I believe that when everything else falls apart, this one thing I know: God looks like Jesus.

I believe that Jesus came to fling open doors and to break down walls, to provide a way to God that we could never make for ourselves.

I believe that the offense of Jesus is his radical love, a love that simply won't conform to the boxes we want to put him in, the stained glass windows and the heavy doors we want to close him behind.

I believe that radical love is worth running after, worth speaking up for, worth losing all for.

I believe in a God who invites questions, a God who would rather we wrestled and in faith never, ever let go instead of trying to wrap the Living Word in layers of dead certainty.

I believe in the community of the church, wrestling together over thousands of years, breaking bread with our questions, passing the holy cup of faith to everyone who needs to drink.

I believe that God enters in to our lives, day after day, year after year, century after century; a working in this world which is beyond our comprehension.

I believe that he restores the broken, the battered, the lost, and the weary.

I believe that his table is big, and his table is rich, and that it will not be filled with gatekeepers, but with those who long to crash the party of his mercy.

Maybe my theology is a mess, but I believe that mercy is a stumbling dance at best, that often we will get steps wrong, but the One who leads can turn each stuttered step to a note of grace.

I believe that God looks like Jesus, and that Jesus looks like love.

Always love.


Even to the end of the age.


Friday, April 29, 2016

For When It's Time to Go

"Gate" by James Newbery licensed under CC BY/ Cropped from original, filter applied

When it’s time to go,
You’ll know.
Because the burning in your heart
Will rise up a holy flame,
And you will find the strength
To melt through bars
Of fear, of doubt,
Of shackled status quo.

When it’s time to go,
Lord help the ones
Who try to hold you back
With doubt and accusations.
Say what they will,
You know the truth
That sets you free
From labels, whispers, machinations.

When it’s time to go,
Set out boldly
Take faith, take heart
Take Love and freedom with you
Into the places they were
Always meant to be,
To desert, wilderness,
War-torn wild places.

Oh, dear one,
The world is bigger than you know,
With living rivers always
Flowing towards the sea.
Remember who you are,
The one who trusts, the one who hopes.

Go out and live.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A song for the weary

"Fa├ža" by Jeronimo Sanz licensed under CC BY/ Cropped from original

"Sing to me,” I said,
“Because my soul is tired from the battlegrounds.
From voices shouting over broken bodies
Of wave-washed children,
And I’m drowning in seas of apathy and fear.
My heart is spent from weeping for a people
Whose children lie on cold and unjust streets,
And as we argue over words
Their names scroll out indictments we ignore.”

“Sing to us,” I pled.
“Because this world is sick from stench
Of war and hatred, greed and pride,
And the songs it sings are voices that declaim,
With wrath-dipped poison in each word.
We need to hear the quiet voice
The servant song that breaks with tears of grace,
That binds the wounds and heals the hearts
And pegs the circle wide for all to sing.”

“Sing to us,” I begged,
“Of a world born new and a kingdom coming,
One even now already on its way.
Sing to us the songs of hope,
Of setting our boats out against the tides,
With God-flung stars to lay our course
Our chain of voices grows and swells
To sail in darkness, lights aglow
Bearing strands of mercy towards the night.”

Thursday, January 14, 2016

One Word - 2016

"Over the middle" by Matt   licensed under CC BY/ Cropped from original

On a January day, exactly one day after my thirtieth birthday, I splashed through icy puddles and a cold, relentless rain as I made my way from the campus parking lot to the orientation and registration building. I was thirty years old and I was shaking up my life to go back to school. I already had an English degree in my pocket, but degrees in English are fairly useless when you determine in your final semester that you were never meant to be a teacher. When you're still too unsure of your voice to think of yourself as a writer. For nearly ten years I'd been a clerical worker in a dental office, and the shine was gone. I knew that it was time to look forward at the rest of my life and make some changes.

At first I played with the idea of library science. It seemed a natural fit, was there anything in life I loved more than libraries and books? I researched library science programs, accumulated a folder of college brochures, studied for and took the Graduate Record Exam. There was only one big problem, the limited number of schools offering library science programs would require moving away from everything I held familiar with no guarantee I would return. Texas? Washington D.C.? Philadelphia? Kentucky? Where did I want to land? I looked at apartment costs. I considered city size. I thought about jumping into the unknown and being truly alone. I chickened out just short of actually submitting my application anywhere.

Still, doing nothing was not an option, at least not a viable one, so I looked at computer science programs at the local state university. This was safe. This was reasonable. This was risk with a safety net attached. I started off slowly, a few prerequisites at the community college. Trigonometry scared the hell out of me but somehow I survived it. (OK, I survived it thanks to the two aspiring engineers who formed a study group of sorts with me.)

One application process, one acceptance letter, and one financial aid form later led me to that dismal January day.

I learned a lot in the two and a half years I spent getting that degree. I learned to always, always, always arrive early to give myself enough time to find a parking space. I learned that I was good at accounting (and so I switched my major). I learned that technological advances could make registration a whole lot drier and faster, but possibly more frustrating, as long lines were replaced with phone systems that sometimes crashed. I learned that I was better at writing group papers than anyone else in my group, so I either needed to just write the thing myself or be prepared to edit a LOT. Mostly I learned that I was capable of more than I had imagined. I was, in fact, capable of being braver than I had imagined.

And yet, most of my life has been an exercise in taking the 'safe' route. Because truly, that's what the accounting degree was. Safe. Predictable. Boring. (Sometimes I refer to it as soul-sucking when I'm feeling dramatic.) It was a way for me to move on with my life while not really moving ON with my life, while still clinging to my little safety rafts. Sometimes I've kicked off from the raft, but panic always brings me back around. I'd rather cling to the safety of what is than strike out into the unknown of what could be.

And so we come to my One Word for 2016. Brave. From the moment I picked this word over a week ago I have seen it echoed again and again across the internet. It seems that 2016 really is the year to be brave.

I don't have any specific goals for 2016. (Except for 'drink more water and do more yoga' because I am reasonably certain I can handle that.) What I have, instead, is a desire to look for the areas where I need to be brave.

Sometimes for me that looks like just trying a new class at the gym. Doing something that I'm not good at and not worrying about what people will think. Not worrying that I might not belong.

It might look like calling someone up for a coffee date, or even inviting people over to our house for dinner. (Insert panic attack here.)

It's certain to look like being brave enough to pursue my passions, to risk rejection, to dream of what could be.

I want to live 2016 not clinging to my safety nets, not choosing the predictable, safe, boring route. I want to live it imagining what might happen if I stepped out of 'easy' and into 'brave'.

This morning my journaling prompt asked me to describe a journey and how the first step felt.

I think that the first step is often just giving voice to a thought, Setting it out where the light can shine on it, That first step is equally terrifying and freeing. Both a letting go of our safety rafts and a grabbing on to the hand of God. Trusting that the one who imbued us with our dreams, the very essence of our being, will not let us fall.

Yes, it might rain. There may be puddles to wade through and crazy parking lots to navigate. You may be cold and wet sometimes and wonder what exactly you are doing.

Be brave anyway,

Where do you need to be brave this year? What are the safety rafts that you are holding on to? What does letting go look like for you?