On Calling- Part One…It Is Not About You

Four days after my twenty-third birthday, fresh out of college, and the day before 9/11, I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, embarking on what I assumed would be a lifetime career in missions. In my vision of my future self, I would work tirelessly for the causes of the oppressed. All pictures of me would, of course, be exclusively in black and white, surrounded by village children as I drew water from a well. No doubt my future imaginings were heavily influenced by Amy Carmichael, whose biography I had read no less than half a dozen times in college. You can imagine my disorientation, when less than a year later, I was back in America, living with strangers in an apartment in Compton.

I realize now that my disorientation centered on my misunderstanding of what it meant to be called by God.  I thought it was something I had to search for and find, like a sand dollar on the beach. Similarly elusive and fragile, it was something I could lose, or break, or ruin. I’ve realized since then, that many other people feel the same way. So, I’ve decided to do a little series on the topic of calling. (Did she say a blog series?! Let’s have a moment of silence for progress.) (And while we are on the topic, did you notice that after 7 years of blogging I figured out how to upload a profile picture? Things are moving full steam ahead over here).

So. Week one, first things first. Let’s start with what calling is not.

Your calling is not your vocation (what you do), or our passion (what you desire). Your calling is not the same as your gifting. Your calling does not need to be seen by the world to be validated, appreciated or approved. No one else is responsible for your calling, no one else is on the hook to provide the needed tools, support, or (take the wheel, Jesus) finances. No one else is responsible to make room in their lives or yours for what God is calling you to. You are responsible to carve out time where time does not exist, meaning something else in your life will have to go, and it is on you to cut it.  No one is going to give you permission to pursue what God has called you to, which is lucky, since you don’t need it anyway.

I’ll do my best to tease out these ideas in the coming weeks, but I’ll camp out today on the first thing that calling is not: your calling is not about you. Overwhelmingly, the verses we use to discern God’s notion of calling are from the Epistles. The predominant writer, Paul, is using the term in many different scenarios, but they almost always have this in common: they are a corporate exhortation.  “For God has not called us to impurity, but holiness” (I Thess  4:7), “God has called us to peace” (1 Cor 7:15) The base of our understanding for what it means to be called by God exists in letters written to a whole group of people, as Paul addressed the Romans (1:7) “for all those in Rome, who are loved by God and called to be saints.” They are usually a corporate call to a corporate purpose to pursue the things of God: peace, holiness, work, perseverance, and love.

You may argue that the Old Testament prophets serve as an example of God calling people out singularly. God did have a purpose for them, separate and distinct from those around them, but the prophet always served to speak God’s word to the people. Even if their calling was distinct, their purpose was always for community. Once, when the prophet Jeremiah was bellyaching to God about something or other, God gave this reminder, “Have I not set you free for theirgood?” (15:11) Even for those who hear, see and experience a specific call from God Himself, they only exercise that call in relation to other people. Jeremiah highlights for us another thing calling is not: it often does not feel good or look good and if you’re doing it right, it just might get you killed.

We face a strong temptation in today’s culture to make everything about us. The Church, I fear, is not doing enough to divert us in a better direction.  We place notions of God’s calling like vellum over our cultural norms of valuing the individual and our desire to be unique, and those proclivities show right through the paper. As a trained therapist and a therapy devotee myself, my spirituality has benefitted from the self-examination I have done in therapy. But when understanding ourselves, scrutinizing the other, self-introspection and validation become the end goal, we have gotten off track. Thomas Merton writes about this in his book about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. On discussing the balance between contemplation and engagement he writes, “Isolation in the self, inability to go out of oneself to others, would mean incapacity for any form of self-transcendence. To be thus the prisoner of one’s own selfhood, is in fact, to be in hell” He conveys an important truth the earliest followers of Jesus understood and a truth we desperately need to re-learn: God’s calling is not designed to make you more special and distinct, but to focus you more on Him and unify you with other believers.

What confuses us, I think, is that calling is, in part, about identity. But as Christians, our identity is not about what we do, but about who we are. More specifically it is about who God says we are, who He is, and who He is making us out to be. Instead we say, this is who I am, this is God’s call on my life, when really, we are talking about a (possibly temporary) manifestation of that calling. When we take these manifestations of calling: parenting, mission work, starting nonprofits, scrubbing toilets, writing a sophisticated SERIES OF BLOGS, when we pluck them out, and tuck them into our pockets, we make them about us. When they become stagnant, they go stale.

I think that’s where I’ll start next week, on how calling involves change.  A message we desperately need when what God has called us to, seems to go off the rails. When the spouse leaves, or the business collapses, or the pregnancy test reads negative, month after painful month. I think I’ll write the message I wish that twenty-three -year-old failed missionary in me could have heard.

A Mother’s Credentials

When people hear that I am a trained marriage and family therapist, they usually corner me at dinner parties, asking my advice on fixing either their child or spouse. They suppose I am uniquely equipped because of my training. In some ways, they are correct: I teach marriage and parenting courses, I can devise a chore chart in my sleep or train a parent or spouse in active listening. But, in other ways they are far more equipped than I am, and just don’t know it yet. Heading into my 16thyear of marriage, that produced 5 wildly different children, I’ve come to realize, good parenting takes a different kind of expertise.

With each child my husband and I welcomed, I became increasingly aware that I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. The little I think I know, I am ill-equipped to carry out. My children are so unique, so rapidly changing and growing; I spend much more time on my knees than I do skimming my psychology books. The more time I spend pleading with God, for insight, for wisdom and patience, the more I see He is much less interested in modifying my children’s behaviors, and much more interested in transforming their hearts, alongside mine.

Through these times of prayer, God has impressed upon me my unique gifting and calling as their mother. It is not my schooling that equips me for this task, but the great Helper, the Holy Spirit in me. Through the Spirit, I have a unique vantage point to see my children, to bless them and call out their giftings. God made these children for me and I for them.  The same is true for every mother reading this article: whether your children have come to you through adoption or birth, you have the right credentials, God hand-picked you for this job. You have insight into your child that was bestowed by God and is not accessible to their teachers or even grandparents. You may not know it yet, you may spend hours on your knees before you see it, but it is there.

God gives generously to all who ask for His wisdom and when you ask Him to show you your child’s strengths and weaknesses He will open your eyes to them. He will delight you with their fantastic quirks; He will show you their tender spots. He will readily show you the pitfalls, the weaknesses, the creativity and temptations. To all who seek, find.

In a day and age when we are assaulted from all sides to conform to social norms, the mother’s calling is as unique as it is pivotal. We delight in our child’s differences; we accept them as they come to us, not as we wish them to be. In addition to may daily prayers, I echo Numbers 6, Moses’ blessing, over my children nightly before they go to sleep. I don’t even fully know what I’m praying when I place my hand on their warm, soft heads, or the power and majesty of what I am claiming, of what I am calling down upon them. I don’t need to know. I only know that I am their mother, and that makes me the right woman for the job.

The Potential of a Temple Body

Growing up, I had a friend named Caleb* who lived down the street and on school days we would walk to the bus stop together.  We would often catch up with Sarah* and together they would bemoan what happened the day before in Catechism. While they mourned the loss of time it took from more worthy endeavors, they painted a picture for me of lavish ceremonies and girls in crisp white dresses. While they lamented, I was enchanted.  I didn’t know much about this secret Club, but I knew I wanted in.

I pull my memories like taffy and as far back as I can go, I remember an attraction to the mystery of God. As a young teenager, I visited my aunt and uncle in Wheaton, Illinois.  On my second day with them, I found myself on the campus of Wheaton College, open-mouthed as I walked through the maze of the Billy Graham Center.  I went room to room, reading every verse on plaques lit from within. The last room featured a giant, imposing, glass cross, glowing blue and white.  I stood at its feet, transfixed, strongly resisting the urge to reach out and touch its glossy edges.  The Halleluiah Chorus flowed from unseen speakers. I pushed through the exit door into the glaring sunlight and immediately started back at the beginning.

At home, we had a large, black Bible in the cabinet where we kept our photo albums, and some days as a pre-teen, I would sit on the tan shag carpet and slowly flip through its pages.  Far before I knew for certain there was an unseen Audience, I laid motionless in my quiet room whispering secret prayers into the dark. Back even farther still to Caleb, whose family had the real and bloodied Jesus on their walls, and who touched their foreheads and shoulders when they prayed.  Even though I only saw them do this the one time I ate dinner at his house, it lent legitimacy to his case. While they bowed their heads, I snuck glances at the half-naked Man, displayed on the most prominent wall in their home, blood in perfect droplets from His crown, from His hands. I was transfixed by His eyes, those steady, placid eyes, that calmly observed my deviation, in the midst of the slaughter scene around Him.

My parents exchanged glances at dinner one night when I asked if I could go to this catechism.  My father, a lapsed Catholic, gave an audible sigh, and looked at my mother pleadingly. My quest for faith was not overtly rejected.  It was more like my mother and father held two ends of a blank canvas for me when it came to figuring out God. They kept up this non-judgmental white space, while I mulled over paint choices and made haphazard strokes. They took me to weeklong Christian summer camps every year that I adored. In my teenage years, they dropped me off at Audio Adrenaline concerts and Wednesday Night Youth Group, elbowing my older sister to keep her eye rolls to a minimum. They bought me T-shirts with the Christian fish on it. They gave me the incalculable gift of grace and space to figure things out for myself, for which I am forever indebted to them. If they were dismayed, they suppressed it, while they obliged my every request, for there was no sin in my family as grave as the sin of closed-mindedness.

My father told me that it wasn’t until I got to college that it dawned on him that this phase might stick.  He was convinced that an Evangelical Para-church organization I was attending, was indeed a cult (“are they asking you for money??”), and my mother thought that raising funds to go on a summer missions trip with them was unseemly.  In fairness, some of it was.  And it was there that I learned there was a Code of Conduct For The Evangelical Christian Woman.  It was within this context that I first learned my body was a Temple of the Spirit of God.

Applying for a mission trip within this same organization meant signing an ‘Agreement’.  There were Rules. I was still on the outside looking into the Club but I was starting to understand the price of admission. One of the numbered lines said I was ‘submitting to a dress code of modesty, so as to not make someone of the opposite gender stumble into sin.’ At retreats in high school, I had heard similar themes presented to women: modesty, submission, gentleness, quietness.  Without having attended the men’s events, I suspected they ingested a different curriculum.  It seemed that the older we were getting, the more heavy-handed the topic became. I was becoming suspicious that the topics of modesty and submission were reserved for only half the Club, the half with boobs, the half with the duty to keep those boobs covered up. When I brought up these concerns it became clear to me that others had long ago received the pamphlet on the Code and that I was way, way behind.  And so, my introduction into what it meant to have a temple/body of God began and ended with what it was not to do, what it was not to wear, and where it was not to go.

I felt about this Club, and perhaps the Church in general, since I had not yet parceled out the two, similar, maybe, to how an astronaut feels hovering outside the Earth in space. Their home, their belonging and belongings, everything they’ve strived for, everything they love is reduced to a tiny, suspended marble. The Church, and its rules and its codes and its crisp white dresses and suffering Savior with the gentle eyes was my beautiful marble and I rolled it between my fingers, deliberating. I ached for the beauty of it from the outside. I tried to make sense of the lines, discern their coming and going. I wanted to make myself small enough to jump into the ocean blue of the marble, to be swallowed up in belonging.  Some days I wanted that more than I have ever wanted anything else in the whole world.

Other days I wanted nothing to do with the misogynistic undertones, the contradictions and restrictions.  I couldn’t seem to make sense of what was learned and what was true.  I read a book that argued Christian women were equipped to teach in the nursery but not in the sanctuary.  This made absolutely zero sense to me. My mother, the first female litigator in her law firm’s history, showed me by example, her equality to a man. My father, a self-professed feminist, had looked me in the eye, more than once to promise me that in this life I could be anything I wanted to be. Were these just boosts to my self-esteem? This bolstering, ingested from infancy, were these made to keep up my magical thinking? Like how my parents took my gift tags to work and had their co-workers sign my Christmas gifts from Santa Claus? Or were they empirically true? Could these, my earthy parents think more highly of me, want more freedom for me than my Heavenly Father? My parents thought I was just as good as any man, but did God?

I saw that my parents had good reason to fear my increasing obsession with religion. They knew things I was just beginning to learn. But they also knew that forbidding my travels to these corners would only ignite my teenage rebellion to do the things they forbade. So, they let me keep painting. I was still painting on that blank canvas but I was no longer depositing indiscriminately.  And I was learning to be more careful where I procured my paints.

To be clear, my faith was shaped for the better by organizations, like these, that had things like rules and dress codes. They were the ones who invested most deeply in my spirituality and who taught me to read and understand God’s word. While I have found their container at times restricting, it was that container that gave me context and language to form the most crucial parts of my faith. Also, I want to do things like dress modestly and hold a loving awareness of how my choices affect the temptations of others. But what if the conversation didn’t begin and end there? What if when we talked about our temple bodies, we began with what it can do instead of what it cannot? Instead of starting with no’s: no sex, no drugs, no midriffs, what if we started with possibilities? I’m beginning to think that this is what actually matters: not only what shouldn’t we do with our temples but what our temples should do, what our temples can do.

For Lent this year, I went through the book of Exodus.  On January 1st, I began a ‘read through the bible in a year plan’ which I am historically terrible at completing. Because of my slowness in keeping up with it, the book of Exodus in this plan, coincided with my Lenten readings on it. For at least 2 full weeks they converged on the instructions regarding building God’s Tabernacle, His dwelling place. I was reading about the length of the wood pieces and the color of the fabric and the golden candlesticks and yada yada get on with it, Moses, until it thought I could take it no longer. I decided to give myself a break from the saturation of details, so one morning, instead, I opened my contemplative prayer app (‘Pray As You Go’-get it if you don’t have it). Wouldn’t you know it, that day’s prayer, too, was out of Exodus.

It was at this point that I realized God was trying to get my attention. God was giving an excruciating amount of detail to this one thing, and He was having me double-down on that specificity. Jesus in all His teachings, never touched on homosexuality, never talked about birth control, talked only a few times about sex and marriage and was surprisingly vague about a lot of details He knew we would contend with on a daily basis. The Epistles themselves leave quite a bit more grey than my black and white thinking would prefer. Yet here’s chapter after chapter, after nauseatingly detailed chapter, about how to build, decorate and engage with God’s dwelling place.

I got so tired of reading it that I decided to cover the days’ passage on audio. I put on my tennis shoes and started walking because, I figured if I had to do this, I might as well be productive. I got to the part (for the second time that week) about God’s spirit dwelling on the masonry workers and designers building the tabernacle. Years ago, I read a book about Christian creatives that said this was the first instance in Scripture where God’s Spirit is said to rest on a person, here, in a creative capacity. This time I heard it though, I stopped in my tracks.

It took hearing it/reading it/ ingesting it a number of times before I made the connection between the Tabernacle, the coming Temple and the human body. The tabernacle’s purpose was to contain the Ark of the covenant of God, the holy of holies, the place where God dwelled. This holy place was then transferred to the Temple where everyone came to worship, where a priest could only enter once a year to offer sacrifices to God. This is the same place where the dividing temple curtain was torn at the moment Jesus died giving access to God’s dwelling place, the holy of holies, to all people. At Pentecost that dwelling place split into a million tongues of fire and dwelled in the hearts of mankind as the prophets said it would. The tabernacle, the temple, the body: the dwelling places of God. Suddenly it became perfectly clear to me why the writers were taking this much time and giving this much detail.

As I’ve been thinking through the care and specifics of the tabernacle and temple, I’ve been thinking about the implications on my personal life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of proximity. What does it mean that my body is now the temple, now the dwelling place of God? What does it mean when I, in my body, am in proximity to the poor? What does my presence alone, mean, if anything, when I engage with the pain and suffering and brokenness in the world around me? What does it mean to purposely bring the temple near to other people instead of demanding that they make their way to a temple?

And what does it mean if I refuse to be in proximity to the poor? (I’m referring here to materially poor as well as spiritually, emotionally and mentally). What does it mean if I settle for writing checks in lieu of interaction? Does it matter? Does my engagement or disengagement matter? To what extent am I neglecting God’s call on my life if I insist on keeping my temple to myself?

These questions have surfaced as I’ve become more engaged volunteering with a local non-profit whose tagline is ‘mentoring families out of homelessness.’** This organization, backed with some really interesting new scientific data on the topic, is figuring out that relationship building is the most solid way out of addiction, homelessness and crime. Imagine that: Jesus, who told us loving God and neighbor was paramount, was right all along.

We forget that this is the thing He told us to do. We can get easily sidetracked, we wring our hands over what a woman can and cannot do in the church. Can they stand on the altar or only on a stage? Is what they’re doing ‘teaching’ or ‘preaching’? We get tied up in knots over this, making sure everything is fair, making sure our theology is on the right side. But in the meantime, there are places and people desperate for temples that don’t have them.

What if instead we started here: every single person, male or female, gay or straight, whatever the shade, whatever the denominational banner over their heads, any and every person that confesses Jesus as Lord and believes that God raised Him from the grave, has a body that is a holy, amazing, unique, intricately designed, precious, irreplaceable temple. Let’s talk about what that means, the extravagance and the responsibility. Let’s start with the potential over the problematic. Let us repent for where we have failed to go, for surely the Owner of the temple expects a yield on His purchase. Let us have the courage to take it out of its comfortable inertia and bring it near those who need it most, trusting this kind of temple was made mobile for a reason.

*names changed

**For more information on Imagine Whittier go to www.thewholechild.info or www.imaginela.org

French Fry Eucharist

Yesterday was Dress Like Friend Day at my kids’ school, part of a week-long ‘Spirit Week’ effort to erode the parent’s will to live. Maybe I’m the only downer in the group; everyone else seems to have fun with it. The playground was full of nothing but smiling faces and I will say, I don’t mind evaluating my parenting based on how well my kids can independently put together a ‘decades’ outfit without my involvement. They can work their way around a hot glue gun, so, essentially, my work here is done.

However. When I saw the notice, I immediately thought about a boy my son had conflict with the year before. In an effort to place the boy, I had asked who this kid’s friends were.  My son said, “Oh, no one wants to be friends with him.  He makes weird noises and gets mad a lot. Plus, he uses bad words.”  Already, in third grade, this child was classified.  He is weird.  He is other.  My neck tingles at the thought of this child, this same time last year, alone on the vast open black top at recess, in a non-matching shirt, his aloneness amplified and exposed.

At the time, I asked my son who the child’s mother was in an effort to place his invisible face in my mental Rolodex.  I silently wondered if I should invite her for coffee or for a play date.  But because it is the nemesis of kindness, apathy interrupts me. The reality of engagement reminds me that I am busy and sleep deprived. I just want to relax for the few and precious minutes of down time between changing diapers and cleaning up messes with friends, not strangers.  I don’t really want to take the chance of my kid being poorly influenced, or picking up bad language.  I don’t want to step outside my comfort zone. I’m usually so overwhelmed at the needs of my own family, what makes me think I can I take on the needs of others?

I find myself often at this crossroad: my goal to raise a child who shuns apathy, who goes forth kind and brave and bold into this world yet I myself clutch kindness to my chest like it is hard to come by. This death to self, other’s first, God’s kind of kindness is costly and I am frugal. In the end, the decision was made for me. Once I worked up the courage to get her details for that coffee date, I found the family had left our school.

My daughter announced that this year she was dressing up with a friend she had never mentioned before. Without my prompting or bribing, she had picked a girl who had no one to dress up with. I felt undone; ashamed at my amnesia. This is the same child who came home last week genuinely stressed out because too many kids wanted to play with her at recess. “I’m trying to make time for all of them” she lamented, without a hint of arrogance. I find notes from first graders in my son’s backpack, love notes from his groupies for landing a lead role in the school play.  My children do not struggle to make friends, and that is precisely why, as their mother, I’m beginning to see this as my problem.  Maybe this is what thoughtful people have been trying to say about race relations in America. It is the person with privilege, the person with power, the person with too many friends to play with that is responsible for the people without friends, without power, and without privilege. It is their voices, withheld from the conversation, that cause it to stall.

I’m beginning to see this is my problem and my work and I cannot outsource it. And this is not my side hustle. This is the job. It is unfortunate, since I am perhaps the least equipped person to deal with our cultures problems: brokenness, alienation, loneliness, anger, anger so explosive it takes on the form of a gun to express it. But the children yanking on my pants while I chop peppers, and sit around my table, the people whose toes I scrub in-between are the very people who, tomorrow, will take their place in boardrooms, in classrooms, and behind guns. Our home, which more often resembles a Chuck E. Cheese than a sanctuary is still, unfortunately, the first and best place to form a soul. Like it or not today’s cranky, coffee-stained and sleep deprived parents are on the frontlines of tomorrow’s, most likely worsening, problems. It is unfortunate, but here we are.

In high school, my two best friends came from Evangelical Christian families. I remember riding in their cars, their mothers took us everywhere: voice lessons, musical rehearsals, The Mall. Sometimes they would take us to their own homes where we would raid the pantry, breaking and passing and giggling in warm, sunny kitchens.  Jamey used to pick us up in her brown, beat up AstroVan, Amy Grant playing softly through the speakers. We would all cram into the seats in the far back, making her our chauffeur. Teenagers are the absolute worst. Another mom, Susan, would sometimes pick us up for voice lessons with fast food French fries in bags. After a rough day of navigating 10th grade dramatics I remember feeling like I’d entered a shelter from a storm climbing into that familiar, warm, van that smelled of salt and grease.

I don’t know why these little moments stand out in my mind, now, like buoys in an ocean, as if my own wonderful parents didn’t buy me French fries hundreds of times. Maybe it was precisely that I was not her child. It was something in the way she would casually toss her waxy paper bag offering to the back seat, like I deserved it, like I belonged there. In hindsight, I see this was my first Communion, my first pieces of Jesus incarnate. I think I was beginning to see God for who He was in vans with faded fabric seats with 90’s worship music playing, and a French fry Eucharist. I want to ask these women now, Were you tired? Were you annoyed at the inconvenience of carting me around, another place to go, another mouth to feed? Were you scared of me, unchurched ragamuffin that I was? Did you know how important you were? Did you know that I loved you?

I think they would say no.  I think they would say they were just doing the next right thing God put in front of them to do.  I think they simply said yes to taking me from point A to point B with their kids.  I think they made coffee dates I was too scared to make. I think they were just themselves, puttering around their kitchens, listening with one ear to boy drama while we emptied their refrigerators.  I think they did the small, needed, seemingly-insignificant, sometimes-inconvenient thing, not knowing at the time that it looked a lot like God to me.  It looked a lot like God waiting for me, every day by the curb at school in a big, brown van, smelling like French fries.

Lenten Reflections

My father-in-law, who also happens to be my church’s pastor, asked me to share some of my Lenten reflections at our Maundy Thursday Service. This is similar to a Good Friday service but we do it on Thursday because we like to get a jump start on the activity, or perhaps we are simply extra spiritual. Now that I think about it, in hindsight, he didn’t actually ask me, I think he said, “I’m going to have you share some thoughts”. It feels good to be known. Me? Thoughts? Well, I wouldn’t know where to begi- Pass me that microphone.

I think I’ll start with the first time I became aware of Good Friday. I was maybe 2 years past my cancer diagnosis and still going into the oncologist’s office every three months for lung x-rays and brain MRIs. The melanoma was deep enough to get labeled stage 3, and they suspected that since it had already travelled to my lymph nodes, its next resting place would be my lungs or brain. I was, perhaps, 22 at the time.

I had been in to the office a few days before for all of my exams and they found a mole ‘suspicious’ just below my neck. Because it was such a prominent location on my body, and since it would require a stitch or two, they asked me to come back Friday, when the surgeon was in to biopsy it.  I returned, dutifully, and sat in the chair in the office I had dubbed ‘my chair’. It was nearest the exit. I was easily the youngest person, by a good 30 years, in any of the waiting rooms, but this one, more than the x-ray one or the lab one or the MRI one, made me the most uneasy. This was the waiting room filled with hairless, genderless, sunken faces. This was the waiting room with Cancer Support Group laminated cards dusting the coffee tables. This was the waiting room where I could hear labored breathing and feel eyes boring into my spine as I got up at the sound of my name. Maybe they assumed I was here waiting for someone else.

What I hated most about that waiting room, though, was that it put me face-to-face with my life’s two possible outcomes: either this was the place of people whose fates I had narrowly, and gratefully, escaped or, this was the face of my future. My 22-year-old brain handled this philosophical trauma by spending as much time as possible at the nurses’ station checking in before taking my seat. “Are you sure you got my insurance card?” “Oh, hey Wanda, how’s the grandkids?” Eventually the nurses tired of my inane jabber and went about their actual jobs, trying to save the lives of cancer patients, and the like.

On the large whiteboard near their station, instead of the usual general welcome, were the words, “Happy Good Friday.” I thought about those words when my name was called and my spine was set ablaze with stares. I thought about it as I settled myself on the crinkly, papered table. I thought about it when they injected my skin with anesthetic and when they did the quick slice. I thought about it when they stitched me up and told me they would call me in 3-5 business days. When they left the room, I sat for a long time in silence, in my gown, alone. This is a good day to get cut, I thought. I guess that was the thought I’d been waiting for since it got me off the table and back into my clothes.

And that is all Good Friday has meant to me since, only in ever increasing layers. It is a good day to get cut, a good day to get a scar. It’s a good day, a good a day as any, to experience pain, brokenness, loneliness, disappointment and loss. In a culture, even a church culture, that prioritizes health and wealth and safety and happiness, it is good to have one solid day set apart to prioritize suffering. All of Lent, actually, has come to symbolize lamenting for me. In a world where everyone seems shiny and successful and put together, Lent gives me a container for my suffering. It gives me language for sadness, and loneliness, making it normative, holy and expected. In a day and time where we can stuff our brokenness and ailments and aging and raging mental illness safely behind closed doors, Lent invites us to open them up and give them some air.

I needed Lent this year more than I ever have before. My mother-in-law is dying and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It feels really good to say that out loud. I think I’ve been spending all of my energy since her diagnosis trying to stay on the Easter side of things. I tell myself I have less faith if I say she is dying, we never know what God will do! Also, I am one of those Kooky Kristians who believes in real life miracles. They’ve happened right under my nose. I was told by two doctors, before the cancer diagnosis, that I would never have children. We all know how that story ended.

I know God can. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. But I don’t know that He will. And although I’ve seen miracles with my own two eyes, those same eyes are currently watching one of my favorite people on Earth get eaten up from the inside.

The only thing I knew for sure was to let myself stay on the Good Friday side of things this Lent. I’ve sat for these 46 days and let myself be sad, let myself sit in the unknowing and the fear. This does not come naturally for me, I don’t like to get too close to the edge of that cliff, or like the Israelites, the edge of the mountain. The Israelites spoke to me this Lent season, as I read their story in Exodus. I needed to travel with these people who were called out of bondage, released and freed from slavery just as I am, but at the slightest bend in the road, beg for that slavery back if it means a steak dinner. The same people that ran and hid from suffering and who in fear ‘stood far off, while Moses drew near, to the thick darkness where God was.” Lent was my invitation to draw near, even if it is cloudy and dark and scary because it is where God is.

It was Thomas Keating that said, “silence is God’s first language, everything else is a poor translation” and that made me think that maybe darkness was God’s first dwelling place. God created light, God separated the light from the darkness, but it never says He created the darkness. Darkness was already there, presumably with God in it, working, breathing, plotting, loving. That is why His rod and staff comfort me when the valleys He created out of darkness become dark once again, shadowed by grief and death. I’m reminded He not only dwells in the darkness, He is in charge of the darkness.

I think that’s what happened to me that day when I sat on the crunchy, paper table. I let God be in charge of the darkness and I began to let suffering do its work in me. I stopped running so fast, I stopped pushing it away. I saw with fresh eyes that Jesus navigated a way by going before me, taking on all suffering as His own. No suffering is uncharted territory. I’m more thankful this year than I have ever been that Jesus came to us not as a shiny, polished, mega-preacher, all crisp and packaged and put together, but as a wounded, suffering Savior. I’m thankful that He showed us how to suffer, and showed that it is ok that we do.  For we are surely an Easter people, but we live in a Friday world.

If God Were Siri

I called my friend last week and after 3 rings she answered breathless, “Everything OK??” We see each other several times a week, sometimes text dozens of times a day, but rarely talk on the phone. By calling her, I broke code. I indicated an emergency. This phenomenon is not unique to us. There is a whole meme market revolving around our cultural disdain for phone conversations. Texting is in vogue for more than introverts: it is fast, clean, and efficient. It puts us in the driver’s seat of our communications with other people. We are no longer dependent on them to take a long time to formulate their thoughts, we don’t have to pause while they shush their kids. We don’t even have to wait for a polite break in conversation to insert our own thoughts (or emojis) in return- we can interject them at will, rapid fire, like a gun. Then, we wait, dopamine flooding our brains, knowing those anticipatory three little dots could become anything.

Our approval, en masse, of this type of communication highlights hidden desires. Our prayers follow closely behind, reflecting our desire for God’s answers to our life’s problems. Throughout history, humans have sought out God’s will for their futures. Only now we want it with a texter’s speed, efficiency, and clarity. Just text me the address where you want me to go God, I’ve got GPS, I can find it. Just tell me what spouse, what job, what house, just give me the answers to what I need for this crisis, this relationship, this trial, and could you snap it up? Please and thank you. We can take it from here.

The problem is, of course, what it has always been: God moves neither succinctly, nor quickly, and often not at all what we would define as clearly. He does things His way and in His time which is His right as inventor and maintainer of all creation. Scripture reveals a God who refuses to work on other people’s timelines, as He led the Israelites in circles on a 40-year journey that should have taken about 2 weeks. Let’s go here, the pillar said, ok, now over here. Now let’s go back over here again. I once sat through a sermon where the pastor put a map of the Israelite’s desert wanderings into his PowerPoint presentation. It looked like a plate of cooked spaghetti noodles.

Yahweh said, ‘Lets go, Abram, start walking and I’ll show you the way when I feel like it. I’m taking you to a place I will show you.’ One can picture Jesus abruptly standing up mid-conversation and walking off into the forest for days on end of solitude. He was not concerned with other people’s schedules. He did not consult their temple bulletin. He did not ask their permission. He went where God told Him to go, did what God told Him to do, when He told Him to do it.

The desert wandering and the prophets calling shows us that God has been and always will be less concerned with information and much more concerned with transformation. The Israelites were not on a nature hike. God was using their surroundings and experience to re-form the damage done to their souls under a brutal and systematized Egyptian regime. The human soul is molded and shaped in real time and in a real culture, and unfortunately, God is not the only forming agent out there. The normal human tendency to want a plan, to want answers, is exacerbated in a culture like ours that says to one another with our thumbs: I care more about the content of what you have to say than how you wish to say it.

So, what happens when we attempt interaction with God? To be sure, we want to know the content of what God says. To the believer, Scripture is the authoritative voice of God; we test everything else by it. But the Bible is also a living word and a living document speaks with nuance, with purpose, with precision. It is crackling and sparking with personality, with character, with grace. I will read a verse today that will speak to me in an entirely different way than when I read it 2 yeas ago. It is alive, and when we submit to it, the Holy Spirit is free to speak to us through it. What happens to this sparking, crackling aliveness, when we read it like a text, only for downloadable content? Only reading it for how it can reinforce what we already think or help us win an argument or only to get clever quips, like my friend Chad says, ‘like an insight junkie’? Or worse, when we rely on other people to tell us what it says? What happens when we ignore Paul’s words and we stifle the Spirit that carries those words? What happens when we say to God, “I care more about what you have to say than how you wish to say it”?

We are beginning to see the corrosive effects of the internet age on human relationships. Likewise, the more we demand content over conversation from God we erode intimacy. Imagine a marriage without face-to-face interaction. Imagine sustaining any kind of intimacy solely through the transactions of written words; the passing of texts when one has the time.  I can send my husband an “I’m at Costco, what do we need” text without qualifiers, without sweetness, without tenderness because I rely on face-to-face time for that. But when we reduce God to a deity who is at Costco asking what we need we become interested in Him only for what He can give to us. We don’t care anymore what He sounds like, only what He has to say (and mostly about how that pertains to our current circumstances). He becomes more and more a vending machine god who we turn to only in crisis or need: here’s my dollar, god, gimme my snickers.

We have failed to wait on God to speak the way He wishes to. We don’t want to wait because waiting in our culture gets you run right over. In our vapid efficiency we have stopped lollygagging with Him. We no longer stroll along with nowhere to go. If we do gaze into His face it is to discern the answers to what we need, to seek His expression, His intent. We look into His face like we look in a mirror, to read what it says about us. We’ve stopped gazing at Him simply because He is beautiful. We need purpose, we’ve got places to go for the Kingdom; we are a driven people. I read recently that it is important that Scripture likens us to sheep and not cattle. Our souls were never meant to be driven; they were meant to be led.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Let’s look at the fruit of our texting culture to see if my argument sticks. Let’s look at the current flood in the literary market regarding hot button topics and how to interpret them through Scripture. They tell us: Here’s how to get the right answer scripturally to (fill in the blank) homosexuality, feminism, race. Here’s the Greek word, here’s the original intent, here’s what God meant to say.  We are supposed to be convinced by their intellectual arguments. But what about when both sides of the hot button topic claim superiority? They both claim to know what God says- who wins? The most charismatic interpreter? The smartest one? The one with the most degrees? The one who yells loudest? The one with the best publicist?

I called my friend that day because I wanted prayer. God was calling me in an uncomfortable direction and I needed reminding from her that the Voice was worth listening to. Our family’s finances were at rock bottom, and the Voice was calling us to give more of ourselves away and I was scared. There was no clear Scriptural example for the trial I was facing. There was no roadmap. There were no Greek words that I could translate enough to make it make sense.

But the tender voice of the Shepherd was clear to me, crystal. I know because it always stands in sharp contrast to how the world speaks to us: barking, snapping at our ankles, driving us relentlessly forward, shoving us along with the masses. The wolves of the world must use persuasion to coerce us. Or they use jealousy, telling us to grab and consume, shove in anything we can find to fill our desires. Fear and anxiety drive us onward: fear of being passed over and passed by.  This is where the tone and intonation of the Shepherd helps us see Him clearly; the way it lilts when something is important to Him. We begin to feel the cool of His breath on our faces, like a breeze in field of wildflowers. We feel our chest loosen when He speaks; the enticement of freedom. We feel ourselves beckoned forward in curiosity instead of driven frantically from behind.

From the world’s perspective, even the Christian world’s perspective, waiting on God looks like completely unproductive time. But it has been the most formative of spiritual practices for me. I’ve learned that even when there is no roadmap to whatever circumstance I’m facing, and there rarely is, there is still always the voice of the Shepherd leading on those quiet enough to listen. A field full of sheep would stand dumbfounded if Siri read aloud a text of their shepherd’s instructions, ‘Sheep. Go here. Sheep. Move this way. Graze that field’. They would not move an inch. They do not need a thorough scrutiny of the letters, they do not need a better translation. They need the familiarity of his speech. The sheep know when and how to move not only because of the wording of the command, but because they know their shepherd’s voice.



We Esteemed Him Not

Advent, my favorite time of year. I always get the tingles when the choir sings that first stanza from “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” Born to set Thy people free! I cry essentially non-stop from Thanksgiving onward. But this year’s tears feel different, they’re disappointed tears, dark and desperate. We are surrounded: racial divides, war, genocide, dumpster fire elections. No matter our efforts to evade suffering it has come for us. Favor has seemed to settle on the few but dissolve among the masses. I know one kindergartener who is winning a battle against cancer and one who is losing. Still, the weary world tries to rejoice.

Mary has come to me differently this advent season too. Familiar images of her seem fresh, she looks scared and unsure. I don’t see her tucked in by a cozy hay-filled cot. I see her wild eyes as unexpected birthing pains begin, I see Joseph’s shoulders to his ears. I see her frantically searching for something familiar, a relative, a midwife, a friend. I see her turn her face to the sky as she wills to mind the angels words, Mary! You are so favored by God!∗ She calms herself with the promise. God Himself is within her, surely every provision will come her way, every door will be thrown open in a royal welcome. The King of the Universe leads her waddling frame. I wonder how long until the tears pricked her eyes. Did she begin to doubt God’s call on her life when the 5th door was slammed in her face? The 10th? Did she question God’s favor while cold despair trickled down her fingertips? Did disappointment firmly settle into her gut when she saw the filthy floor where she would give birth? I once read a pillow in a Christian bookstore that said, ‘When God Closes a Door He Opens a Window’. But Mary might look at her world, our world, and deduce that sometimes God just closes the door.

Mary instructs me in this season of suffering advent-ing. In suffering, she didn’t wring her hands, she didn’t demand answers, she didn’t pass the buck. She made herself at home in it, tucked her questions like blankets all around her, and tucked the wonders given into the folds of her heart. In shame, Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock, just as it was with shame that Jesus hung naked, putrid and bleeding on the tree. We avert our eyes and hurry past since public suffering embarrasses us. What was true then is true now- we see it play out with those experiencing homelessness. We disengage on a grand scale, securing distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’; we encamp and isolate them. We shut door after door in their faces. We demand answers as we recoil from the unwanted. We need the separation of their choices, ‘What did they do to end up like this? What choices did they make that I can avoid?’ I know because I’m often the one asking the questions. We determine they are in some way inherently faulty in a way we are not. Even in advent, arguably the most charitable time of year we ‘love’ and we ‘serve’ carefully. We ladle soup into waiting bowls keeping a safe arms length from the stricken, for the lightning that has struck them can surely strike again.

I think the fear of getting struck is why the prophet Isaiah told us we would despise Jesus, we would keep our distance from Him∗∗. We are the crowds Isaiah predicted we would be. We found His sacrifice ineffectual, unproductive, and we esteemed it not. We stood at the cross slack jawed, the ways of Christ nonsensical to us. We demanded signs and miracles and smoke and rabbits pulled out of hats. We esteemed Him not because His priorities were all out of whack. He showed us He had the power to heal from afar but often chose not to. He instead stopped what He was doing to enter into the pain of irrelevant and disposable people: the dying girl, the bleeding woman, the dirty children. He esteemed their pain, He found it worth His time. When Satan tempted Jesus with pride He chose humiliation, or with power He chose meekness or with relevancy chose to be viewed as completely and utterly irrelevant. Satan told Jesus He didn’t have God’s favor and we nodded in agreement. We said that if God’s favor was truly upon Him He would have gotten off that cross, out of those dirty clothes, and into a nice house in the ‘burbs. We wanted Him to be the kind of savior we thought we needed, victorious and proud, valiant on a white horse. Instead He was ignored and rejected and homeless and invited us into a life of the same. We wanted to conquer the world and He offered us a job washing its dishes. He told us this is what it means to be favored by God: Get elbow deep in the suds with Me, loves.

I look at Mary and I wonder, if He allowed His own mother to be treated this way, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m not wondering if God allows suffering or if we must sometimes ‘suffer for doing good’. I’m wondering if favor and suffering are intertwined to the degree that there is no favor to be had apart from suffering. Jesus swimming within her did not secure Mary a VIP pass in the world, instead it invited rejection. Even in utero He was despised, even unseen He was excluded, even in the womb doors were slammed in His face. God’s favor over Mary did not make her life more comfortable and secure it made it less. To carry Jesus within us is to be shrouded in His character, the closer we are to Him the more humble our circumstances will be. I would guess that Mary probably birthed every subsequent child predictably and comfortably in her own home. All of Jesus’ siblings most likely entered our world in mundane safety. It’s not just that we ‘may’ suffer as Christians it is that indifference, rejection, disdain seem to be the very hallmark of the favored.

We have this constant dripping need to be seen, validated, liked, relevant. We saddle up to the most recognized among us, we follow and ‘like’ them. But suffering we reject, we bind, we shout against it. We are like the Israelites who never learned to esteem suffering as a worthy teacher. When they were gathered up by the Babylonians and taken off into captivity, Jeremiah sent them God’s message: You have been taken where you don’t want to go, the Land of Suffering and Disappointment, where everything is new and weird and smells bad. You will be nobodies there. You will be tempted to clench your eyes and fists until its over, but that’s a mistake. Build houses there, not tents. Settle in. God goes with you and this foreign landscape is where He will do His best work. Marry off your kids with the full treatment, not at City Hall. Open the good champagne. Suffering awaits you, but wait like people who have hope. Take lessons and learn to waltz on the dance floor of Disappointment.∗∗∗

When I had cancer, I didn’t mind that suffering made me wait on God. I knew He met me in my suffering; that He knew it as His own. I didn’t mind that connection point with Jesus, I just mind when it is my only connection point to Jesus. I’d like to hurry through and get over and get past. This advent season has shown me how lazy my waiting has become. Suffering forces us to advent differently, waiting less like someone at a bus stop, phone in face, and more like someone waiting in a hospital waiting room. The latter is waiting in anticipation and on purpose, like God is actually restoring and redeeming even when every possible indicator points otherwise. He draws us into these waiting rooms where He can do His best work and like Mary we are wisest when we take what is offered. There’s no room for Him in a life filled up with the comforts of ‘stuff’, so suffering remains the most useful tool in emptying us of our tired junk. The manger is dirty and disappointing but at least it is empty. There is room for Him there.

  • *      Luke 1:30
  • **    Isaiah 53:3
  • *** Imagery borrowed from Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Amanda Cook’s song, Heroes