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The Wisdom of Vulnerability

22 Dec
Photo via Flickr user Waiting For The Word

Photo via Flickr user Waiting For The Word

The Christmas story is full of vulnerability– God becoming a human baby, Mary saying yes to a child that will change her life, Joseph agreeing to raise a child that is not his. Even the Magi show great vulnerability in their star gazing and quest to find and worship Jesus.

Part of an Epiphany prayer in Women’s Uncommon Prayers reads:

If there had been three wise women…they would have asked for directions, arrived early, delivered the baby, cleaned the stable, cooked the dinner, and brought practical gifts.

The Magi’s visit may have lacked practicality, yet the visitors still earned their descriptor of wise. If we take a close look at their journey, their wisdom lives in their vulnerability and faith.

They leave the comfort of their homes and lives. They travel on a whim without assurance. Instead of giving into the darkness all around them, they look up to the heavens to see the light of a star. They show up. They come prepared with gifts. They understand that the child is not just king, but holy and divine, deserving of worship. And they are in tune enough with their dreams to take an alternative route home instead of reporting back to King Herod. Through the entire story, the Magi are open to God’s leading, humble enough to go where they are called.

How many of us, when given the chance, stay warm in our homes instead of venturing out to see God out in the world with our own eyes? When nights are filled with darkness, we often forget to look up at the stars for a sign, for light. We are so filled with cynicism and importance that our hearts can become closed off to the adoration and homage required of us to worship. How many of us fall asleep with a brain too busy to hear God in our dreams?

The Christmas season brings us back to the wisdom of vulnerability. We can choose to be like Herod, who wants to know about Jesus, is worried how his power might interfere, but is not willing to leave home to find out more. Or we can choose to be like the wise men, who are vulnerable enough to venture out into the darkness on God’s provision of a savior, not quite sure how it will all work out, but hoping the path will lead us to the one worthy of our adoration and worship. May this Christmas season fill your hearts and homes with the wisdom of vulnerability!

Merry Christmas!

Practicing Advent, Free of Fear

16 Dec
Photo via Flickr user Joathina

Photo via Flickr user Joathina

A dear friend of mine is a pediatrician who specializes in palliative care. That means, essentially, she helps children die well. It’s vocational work that is demanding of her body, mind and spirit. Because of the grueling hours and the deep sadness, she needed to find a hobby that would encourage her to sit still and rest in her time off. She started knitting. Specifically, she started knitting warm, beautiful sweaters for all the babies being born in her life. My son has one of these sweaters, and another will come soon once my second is born. At first she saw her knitting as a way to trick her body into being still and resting while still feeling productive. Creating something tangible also soothed her mind. Now, she realizes that, maybe most importantly, it is a spiritual practice. When she is not at work with children who are dying, she needs to be celebrating the children in her life who are healthy and thriving, welcoming them into the world. The knitting brings her balance and hope, one stitch at a time. It keeps her from slipping into fear and becoming paralyzed. It helps her show back up at work to sit with people in their sorrow.

Many people are speaking to the palpable fear washing over our society. Fear separates us from God and has the toxic ability to paralyze us. When I hear talk of this fear, I think of my friend, quietly knitting, creating, claiming hope, subversively choosing light over fear while continuing to work in the center of sorrow. She is practicing Advent.

We read in our Advent Scriptures the angels saying over and over again, “Fear not!” As I marvel at my friend’s courage and strength, we marvel at Mary’s ability to nod and courageously let go of fear and accept light and life.

Fear not, for a child is coming. Babies are precious and sacred in their ability to offer love and beauty, hope and life without asking for anything in return. They are fresh and new, full of possibilities we don’t even know. They help us dream, they invite us to wonder. Who are you little baby? The world is better because you are here!

God decided to become a baby. We often think of God as big and powerful and strong. God saw that more than big power we needed simple love. We need hope and light. God wants us to dream and wonder and sit in awe of things that are beautiful and precious. God came as baby Jesus, a little, cute, fragile baby that needed people to take care of him, nurture him, and love him to keep him alive. He is a light that starts out as small as a newborn baby and gets as big as we can dream it to be. We celebrate a how clever God is, to come as a baby, so that we know that God wants our attention, adoration and love.

That is what is so tragic about my friend’s work in pediatric palliative care. That is what is so hopeful about her knitting. She lives in the thin space where she experiences both God’s saving power that brings heaven to this place and God’s saving power that offers us life in the place to come. Creating as a knitter and working as a doctor helps her let go of fear and live in the light of Jesus, now and in the time to come. She is practicing Advent, and inviting me to do the same.

Fear not. A child is coming.

Birthing God

9 Dec

The days are getting shorter still. The nights are dark and the days are gray. We bundle up, hunker down, light candles, and wait. Advent is upon us, yet again.

Our bodies signal to us to slow down, turn inward, and hibernate. Yet Rumi, in his poem “The Body is Like Mary,” invites us to resist the urge to shut down altogether. He asks us to acknowledge that we, along with Mary, are in holy labor. There is work to be done. There is beauty to share. There is life and love to offer. There is a God within who needs to be born:

The body is like Mary, and each of us has a Jesus inside…

God is really there within, so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe–infinite existence…

though also needing to be born. Yes, God also needs to be born!

I will have a child in the next few weeks. I will, once again, go through the painful and sacred process of labor to bring life into this world. Yet even while I wait, there is other birthing to be done in the twilight of Advent. In the quiet darkness, we can tap into the desire to create beauty through a loving touch, a simple gift, a safe space of active listening, or a piece of art.

Christ is in all of us. We are co-creators, offering God’s light to the world around us. In these moments of Advent, when quiet reflection leads to a gentle birthing, sprinkling love and light, we know that yes, Jesus is coming and yet yes, Jesus dwells within.

Spices from Heaven

2 Dec
Photo via Flicker user Mark Skrobola

Photo via Flicker user Mark Skrobola

Invisible spices are falling from heaven all the time. If your eye is not holding its hand out, or your mouth or heart not open, how will you ever get a full taste of something that will cure you of many things? –Rumi

Advent is a time when invisible spices fall from heaven. It is a mistake, then, to simply wait passively for Christ to come. Advent is a season of actively waiting, of intentional preparation. As we open our Advent calendars, hang our stockings, bake our cookies, light our candles, we are asking the Lord to come near. If our eyes hold their hands out, if we keep our mouths and hearts open, we will get a taste of what is to come.

Advent is an invitation to change our outlook and posturing, to get quiet but also get moving. To acknowledge that things are going fine, life is predictable and familiar, but deep down we yearn for God to show up. If our eyes, mouths and hearts are open, we can choose to see things like the wisdom of small children, snow days, unexpected invitations, or a needed connection with a friend as divine intrusion.

We need God to intrude into the ordinary, to become one of us. We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t know we needed it, until he came. And we need him to come again. Please, Lord, intrude again with your divinity. There are so many hurting, mourning, captive, broken-hearted. Jesus is coming to bring comfort and freedom. There is much we can do to prepare the way.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. -Ish 61:1-3

We are preparing for Jesus, God with us, to come. Jesus comes as a baby, but we know what is at the end of the line for him. He is coming to die. Christ the king is not about power, but love. How do you make room for more love during Advent? How do you wait actively, to prepare? How do you hold the hand of your eyes open to catch spices from heaven?

Come Lord Jesus. We need you now.

Giving Thanks

23 Nov
Photo via Flickr user Tyler Neyens

Photo via Flickr user Tyler Neyens

 

O give thanks to the Lord, for he
is good,
for his steadfast love endures
forever.
-Psalm 136:1

When I was little, my mom required us to make homemade thank you cards for everything. It became second nature, habit. As an adult, it is still part of my spiritual practice. I don’t use construction paper and markers as much anymore, but I do enjoy the task of sitting down to write a detailed, personalized thank you. I like to think about my gratitude and put words to it. Specificity helps awaken, deepen and broaden my gratitude.

The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.”

-2 Chronicles 5:13

Every Thanksgiving, my spouse and I make twenty pies the day before and serve them to our friends for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. It is probably the most decadent thing we do all year. People love it, taking a moment of abundance to indulge in the bounty. Giving thanks to God and each other is so important on Thanksgiving and beyond. It changes are hearts and eyes. It invites us to focus on what we have instead of what we don’t have. It reminds me to approach people and things I can take for granted with renewed reverence, curiosity, respect and love.

You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

-2 Corinthians 9:11

A well placed, heartfelt, specific thank you changes the energy in the air in a way that is contagious. Its spirit can grow exponentially. It is a practice that can change our worldview, posturing, outlook and energy individually and collectively. This Thanksgiving, I’m deeply grateful for my spouse, son, and baby growing inside of me. I am thankful for my co-workers and a fulfilling job. I am blessed with family, shelter, food, safety and community. I’m thankful for warm coffee, clean water, laughter, soft blankets, engaging books, beautiful music, a healthy body, and pie. In an age of cynicism, polarization, fear and scarcity, when the reach and strength of oppression can take our breath away, let us continue to give thanks and allow that gratitude to bring more beauty into a hurting world.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
-Philippians 4:6-7

The Role of Women

18 Nov
Photo via Flickr user Anders Adermark

Photo via Flickr user Anders Adermark

On his recent flight from Sweden to Rome, Pope Francis told reporters, “Concerning the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, St. Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands.” He added that it is not likely to ever change. The clarity of the statement surprised some in part because Pope Francis has been so supportive of the ministry of women in the church. He said, in fact, that “women can do many other things better than men.”

Are there fundamental differences in men and women that require such different roles in ministry? Making a gender role distinction by restricting women from overseeing word and sacrament, limits women, but also may limit men in the congregation. In a recent interview with Salt and Light, for example, Stephen Colbert shared a story about witnessing a female priest oversee Eucharist:

When I heard a woman say ‘This is my body,’ the freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it always should have — and I’m not saying it doesn’t coming out of a male priest — but it opened my ears to the possibility that it is also my body. That in my participation in the Eucharist, I participate in the gift that Christ gives me …

Saying women are better than men at many things also limits men. When he says women are better than men at some things, is it really because men are less capable of these things or is it because of society’s role restrictions? Take Glennon Doyle Melton passage from her latest book, Love Warrior, as an example:

God created woman as a Warrior. I think about the tragedies the women in my life have faced. How every time a child gets sick or a man leaves or a parent dies or a community crumbles, the women are the ones who carry on, who do what must be done for their people in the midst of their own pain. While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope. They keep showing up for their lives and their people with the odds stacked against them and the weight of the world on their shoulders. They never stop singing songs of truth, love and redemption in the face of hopelessness. They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless cocreators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing.

It is a beautiful passage that made me nod my head and smile. It’s true. Women are amazing at this kind of love. I see it all around me. I think she is getting at what the Pope means when he talks about the essential ministry of women in the church. I have to wonder, however, aren’t these actions human actions, not feminine ones? Society calls on and expects women to hold families together, but that is not to say that men can’t.

Pope Francis’ statement about female ordination seems to carry some finality. Yet, in our love of God and neighbor, in our love of Christ and the Church, and in light of our recent presidential election, I believe it is essential now more than ever to continue to ask critical questions about how gender roles in our church and our world limit us all so that all of God’s children can flourish.

Dying Well

11 Nov
Bruce Kramer

Bruce Kramer

I know Bruce Kramer only through his blog Dis Ease Diary about living with and dying from ALS. A profoundly wise man, Bruce died of ALS in 2015. In his writing, he wanted to ask questions in a way that united people. What a worthy endeavor. When I heard Cathy Wurzer was speaking about her relationship with Bruce and their book project, We Know How This Ends on All Saints’ Day, I knew I had to go. His spirit filled the sanctuary as Wurzer projected pictures and played audio of Bruce.

In choosing to die well, Bruce continues to teach us so much about how to live well. Bruce claimed that ALS was the greatest teacher of his life. It helped him become the man he was meant to be. He invited those around him to be vulnerable, to stay present in the day, and to cut straight through to love. In so doing, he got to know people on a different level and at a different depth, which changed his life.

Through adaptive yoga, he learned how to breathe and ground himself even at the very end. He was able to forgive his body for dying like it was supposed to do, just faster than he would’ve liked. One son stayed connected to Bruce through yoga, another came three times a week to shave his face with a straight blade, an intimate interaction. Bruce recorded himself reading children’s books so his grandchildren could hear his voice after he was gone. He took full advantage of the time he was given at the end. He allowed death to focus his life. The title of Bruce Kramer’s book comes from a line he repeated a lot after his diagnosis: “We’re all headed to the same place.” Indeed. Death opened his eyes to how precious life is, and he never stopped growing.

Wurzer grew close to Kramer over the years of interviews. He required it, actually. When they started working together he asked her, “Will you be here in the end, when I die?” She kept her word and got her buddies at NPR to play one of his favorite pieces on classical radio as he was taking his last breaths. When her colleague asked her in the aftermath, “What do you make it all?” She answered, “I think I gave grace a microphone.”

As the poignant evening came to a close, Wurzer projected a Peanuts cartoon with two characters sitting on a dock. One says, “Some day we will all die.” The other says, “True, but on all the other days we will not.” This is the gift of All Saints’ Day. There is grieving, loss and sorrow, but also great joy. I am alive today and living better in part because Bruce Kramer, faced with a horrible fate, committed to dying well.

 

Reconciliation Among Christians

4 Nov
Photo via Flickr user Chris-Håvard Berge

Photo via Flickr user
Chris-Håvard Berge

On October 31, Pope Francis joined leaders from the Lutheran World Federation in Sweden to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The event also celebrates the ecumenical work accomplished by Catholics and Lutherans over the last fifty years.

Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517 by nailing his 95 thesis to a church door. He was excommunicated, and Catholics and Lutherans have been persecuting each other ever since. The focus of the event in Sweden is to name and ask forgiveness for this schism between the Lutheran and Catholic churches while committing to move forward, praying together.

“There was corruption in the church, worldliness, attachment to money and power,” Francis told reporters this summer. They are the same abuses Francis has criticized in the 21st-century Catholic Church he now leads. —Associated Press

I, for one, see the reconciliation event as both refreshing and necessary. I went to Catholic grade school and high school. I then attended a Lutheran college and graduate school. I have taught theology at a Catholic high school and a Lutheran church. Both Catholics and Lutherans have fed and nurtured me greatly. Both churches still hold serious misconceptions and reservations about the other. In all of these settings, Jesus is at the core of the mission, and Jesus did not spend time on the particulars of dogma or focus on the specific religious affiliation of people. Yet our human need to draw lines and remember the past holds us back from true ecumenical communion and dialogue.

Movement within institutions keep those institutions alive. The Reformation, pushing a Counter-Reformation, made the Catholic Church better and stronger. The Pope’s acknowledgement of that is hopeful. In a time of great national and global polarization and conflict, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches coming together shows communion and reconciliation we are hungry for.

Bodies Broken Open to Love

28 Oct
Photo via Flickr user Ian Britton

Photo via Flickr user Ian Britton

I am in my last two months of pregnancy. My body no longer belongs to me. The baby who has taken up residence in my womb the past months is making him or herself known in a whole new way. I will be perpetually uncomfortable, absorbing internal blows, adjusting to weight gain, rubbing sore feet, hips and shoulder blades. I will only sleep, I will be only as active as the baby allows. Someone else is calling the shots. All I can do is wait.

I have a joyful little boy running around, reminding me exactly how worth it the third trimester of pregnancy is. This resident alien is a person who I will fall deeply in love with and be in constant awe of. It will be the deepest honor to the its mommy. I keep reminding myself. It helps. It also helps that I know the pain and discomfort are productive, the consequences of generating life. Suffering that is a part of life and love make us better people in the end.

The temporary powerlessness of late pregnancy brings with it great compassion. Knowing that the pain and discomfort are in the service of life, I welcome the opportunity to be broken. It is good, for a season, that I don’t get my way. It keeps me from aligning myself as the center of the universe. This world is not about me. It invites me to contemplate people whose bodies are broken and not their own due to illness, abuse, or poverty, things that don’t bring life and love.

To bear another life in my body is messy. It’s beautiful. It’s annoying. It, maybe more than anything, teaches me about love.

Last week I had a conversation with a 7th grade boy about how we turn images of an angry God into images of a loving God. “What stories can you think of that show God as a lover?”

After a long pause he said simply, profoundly, “The crucifixion.” I took a moment to let the unexpected wisdom of this young man sink in and then asked him to say more. “God became a person, and that person, God’s son, died so that we could live. That’s love.”

Yes. On the cross, Jesus takes our broken humanity into his very body and dies a human death with all the pain, suffering and abandonment that comes with that. In do doing, he offers us his divinity so that we may know life. God points to this act on the cross and declares Jesus Lord. The cross is mess, beautiful, and teaches us about love. Life wins. Love has the final word.

This simple reminder that the cross is the true sign of God’s love was a gift to me as I waddle through my remaining days of pregnancy. May my manageable, baby-growing discomfort break me open to love better and may it invite me to contemplate the mystery of God’s love through the cross.

 

The God Trump Card

21 Oct
Photo via Flickr user Dwight Stone

Photo via Flickr user Dwight Stone

In part because I was lucky enough to receive an excellent theological education from grade school through seminary, I wince when I hear someone start a sentence with, “God says…” or even, “The Bible says…” Quoting the Bible does not mean quoting God, and even quoting the Bible has to be done with great care and reflection. These phrases can stunt conversation and dialogue, two things I’m in the business of promoting. I call it playing the God card, or throwing Bible bullets. The God card and Bible bullets are difficult for many people to argue, even though they so often used inaccurately.

Inevitably, during election season, the Bible gets dusted off to do the work of promoting person and political agendas. My instinct, backed by my deep respect of the Bible and its power to be used or abused, is to tread very lightly here.

Years ago, I had one professor who had been studying the Hebrew Scripture his entire adult life. He seemed to know God through his studies in a way I only dared to hope. He started the course by sharing some guidelines, some things to consider when approaching the sacred biblical text. I found it exceedingly helpful, so I put them in my own words. Every time I teach the Bible, now, I start out by sharing them, too. Students always seem to find it a helpful place to start. I find it a helpful place to come back to and revisit. I hope you do, too:

Be mindful of how who you are changes how you read the Bible.

The text is not the same as the interpretation of the text.

We are reading a translation, and every translator carries a bias.

No passage has a single meaning.

Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. It was written in a time long ago, in a place far away.

Talking about the Bible with people who think and live differently than us will make the truth more complex, richer and more full.

The Bible contradicts itself and never attempts to be consistent. It interprets itself.

There is a difference between believing in the Bible and believing in the God of the Bible.

Reading the Bible literally is a fairly recent phenomenon.

There are several different genres in the Bible– poetry, myth, genealogy, law, parable– that deserve to be read with different lenses.

Not everything in the Bible happened, but that does not diminish the story’s truth.

Context is key. Taking a verse out of context limits the power of the passage. We must study the passage by looking at what comes before it and after it, by putting it into the context of the whole Bible, and considering the historical and political context the passage is set in. This takes work, challenging us to not just read the Bible, but study it.

Not every Bible passage is equal in its influence over our faith life.

The Bible does not have answers to all our modern-day questions.

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