Sunday, January 1, 2017

Sex, Politics & Religion in (My) 2016

2016, it’s been wild. I’ve got way too many thoughts to write anything coherent, so I’m going to share some of the highlights. I’ll keep it light by touching on sex, politics, and religion.



Sex: This year I got pregnant for the first time. And I was a little scared. I theoretically wanted children, but honestly was a bit hesitant about following through. God in His great wisdom gave me the gift I was not yet asking for, and it has changed my life. Now when I hold my son I think, what was I so scared of? Losing sleep? Losing freedom? Getting fat? Falling behind in my career? Well, in a way, all of those fears have come to fruition. And yet on the other side of them, it seems that they were all like smoke-screens: illusions designed to keep me from seeing the truth that human life is the greatest treasure imaginable. The infinite worth of my child and the joy I experience in knowing him has brought my fears to nothing. To give my life to and for another is the reason I was put on this earth.



Politics: It is impossible to say anything on this subject without making someone uncomfortable or upset, and yet this dovetails with what I’ve learned in the past year about politics: It is good to disagree. It is good to have real dialogue and to really try to hear and understand the perspective of the other. It is a good and humbling discipline to move toward my perceived opponent instead of ranting in my echo chamber. Michael and I have said on multiple occasions this year that we feel fortunate to have real friends on both sides of the political spectrum. We respect and admire people who voted differently from each other, and who voted differently from us. One of my new year’s resolutions is to keep listening to people of various perspectives and to seek to be a person who can stand in the gap between increasingly polarized communities. Because the truth is, I see Jesus in both of them. And he Himself stood in the gap to tear down the dividing wall of hostility between brothers.



Religion: One word I’ve repeatedly spoken this year is, “why?” Why did my friend have to bury her mother? Why did another lose her baby? Why are some countries ripped to sheds while others enjoy decades of prosperity? It seems that in the here and now, there are no straight lines. The healthiest people get cancer and die. The holiest mothers remain infertile. Innocent families watch their neighborhoods get blown to bits. It is an illusion to think that if I play by the rules that I will somehow be immune to the effects of evil. It is an illusion to think that I can make sense of what happens to me or to the people I love. There are no straight lines. 



This year perhaps more than any other, I’ve realized that my hope cannot be not found in a religious system or a spiritual formula that promises certain outcomes if I behave the right way. This year I’ve realized that my hope—and the hope of the world—is in the person of Jesus. And Jesus doesn’t hand out a chart which can be used to dispassionately analyze or explain away suffering; instead, He gives Himself. To the point of death. God entered into the chaos of our pain— He knows what it is to ask “why (have you forsaken me?)”—and by His Cross He has redeemed the world.  

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What about you? What are some of your big takeaways from 2016? Anything I've said here you disagree with? Let's talk about it over coffee! 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

All I want for Christmas

I have not blogged regularly in like, years. Maybe my "blogger's block" will be cured or maybe not, but in the meantime here is something I wrote for my church last week. I share it here because my own life has been so deeply impacted by people who engaged in the ministry I describe below: people who took notice of me when I felt I was "on the outside looking in" and who named me as their own. If you are one of those people, thank you. Don't underestimate the significance of your hospitality.
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I was amazed to discover last year that the UK’s number one “Christmas hit” of the decade is a pop song called, All I want for Christmas is You. It’s a contemporary rejection of materialism—“I don’t care about the presents underneath the Christmas tree”—in favor of intimacy with another (“all I want for Christmas is you”). It seems that holiday seasons, despite the commercial fanfare and the noise, remind us that the real gift we all long for is love.

This gift of love seems to come naturally and abundantly to many of us, making Advent and Christmas a magical time to hold those loved ones a little closer. But for others, this season can be one in which the pain of loss—not the celebration of love—is heightened. Many of our coworkers, neighbors, friends, fellow parishioners, and extended family members often feel as though they watch the magic of the holiday season from the outside in.  

Thankfully, the good news of Jesus is no less than inviting the outsiders in: giving them a place at the table, a permanent sense of belonging, a share in the Family name. In Christ, we who once were far off have now been brought near (Eph. 2:13), and in Christ we are empowered to share in his ministry of love. 

How can you make this Advent not just about enjoying the love you already have, but sharing the Love that God longs to give? Who around you is lonely, longing to be invited to the family dinner? Who might be blessed by an invitation to help decorate the Christmas tree? This isn’t about doing something “extra,” but about doing what you already do with an open door and an open heart— not just to our own loved ones, but to all of God’s far off sons and daughters.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Made for Love

Another arbitrary return from my blogging hiatus here, with a post I actually wrote for my church a few months back-- right before giving birth. I've thought of it multiple times since then, and may emerge with a postpartum version one of these days (depending on how much sleep, caffeine, and free hands are in my immediate future). Until then, know here is my experience of motherhood so far, in a nutshell: 

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When I first began “showing” in my pregnancy, I struggled to adjust to the fact that my body was undeniably expanding. Looking in the mirror at times I felt that I did not recognize myself; that my body was being taken over by someone else (of course, it was!). Now as I approach childbirth, similar anxieties about what will happen to my body have surfaced. It surely is a great privilege to partner with God in bringing life into the world, but it is not one without pain.
 
Bringing these thoughts and feelings to church week after week, I’ve been invited to gaze upon the Cross of Christ which hangs high in our sanctuary. There I have been reminded that He, too, experienced the pain of self-giving as He bled for us. He, too, gave his body for love. Jesus was not a mother, but He has become my example: “this is my body, broken for you.”
 
In becoming flesh, Jesus Christ dignified the human body beyond comprehension.  And then, through simple acts—touching lepers, blessing children, washing feet, carrying a cross— He showed us exactly what the human body is for. It is not for maintaining perfection or for self-promotion, but rather for giving. The body is made for love.
 
If you happen to find yourself in a church sometime soon, gaze upon the Cross and remember the One who gave His body for you. He did not turn away from the pain that it required to bring you life. And whether you are a mother, a father, a friend, a spouse, a child, a brother or sister, ask of Him, our great example, what it means for you to follow in His footsteps. How is He calling you to give yourself, body and soul, for the sake of love? It might be uncomfortable or even painful at times. But it is what you were created for.
   

Thursday, December 24, 2015

My Two Kinds of Christmas

Christmas, like most major holidays I suppose, is a weird time. It’s weird because it accentuates the joy of some and the pain of others. Some of our newsfeeds are overflowing with cuteness, images and announcements of the love and meaning that fills our lives. Others of us hide from all the public displays of merriment because they only serve to highlight the pain we feel about the loss or lack of those things in our own.  

I feel this awkward tension of truth perhaps because I have belonged to both categories of people. As a child when my father was terminally ill and eventually lost, the warmth and seeming wholeness of the Christmas season felt like salt in a wound.  And tonight, as I look at the tiny stocking hanging between mine and my husband’s, I thank God for his abundance but also am reminded of the countless men, women, and children whose own families have been taken from them.

Sometimes I wonder, “Which experience is more true? More in touch with reality, able to connect me more fully to the riches of Christmas?” Tonight I realized that the answer is both. Both our seasons of abundance and fullness—and our seasons of pain and isolation—belong to and are crucial in understanding the depth of the Christmas story: Jesus did enter the world in a loving family. His parents embraced him from the moment of his birth. Their reality was one of togetherness, love, and community. So when we experience glimpses of that ourselves, it’s a reminder of how things ought to be.

And yet, Jesus entered this loving family so that others could be brought in. His whole purpose in taking on flesh wasn’t to live his own version of the American (Israeli?) dream, but to seek out those who’d been abandoned, betrayed, who’d run away, who can’t find their way Home. He became a son for the sake of the orphan. 


If your Christmas experience this year is laced with pain, know that Jesus came for you. He came to heal what is broken, to fill what is empty, to restore what has been taken. He came so that you might no longer feel like an outsider, but be brought into the Family. And if your Christmas experience this year is full of warmth and togetherness and wholeness, know that Jesus calls you to do as He did, and give it all away. Open the doors of your home and invite others in. Share what you have been given rather than hoard it for yourself. Incarnate the love of the One whose Family is constituted not by biology or law, but by Love.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Seasons of Love


I interrupt this blog hiatus (Temporarily? Permanently? Time will tell) with an important announcement: I am pregnant.

We were surprised in late August to discover this fact since we had not been “trying.” In fact, full disclosure here, it took a while for me to adjust to the news. What would this mean for our work, which we were just starting to figure out? What would this mean for our finances, our time together as a couple, our ability to sleep at night for the next two years? What was this going to do to my body? All the things I claimed to hold loosely were suddenly being revealed as more precious to me than the very life of another human being.

Why do I share this? Because it is the real context in which God has begun to teach me more about love. Not as an idea that sounds nice on paper, or a recreational activity that I can fit into my calendar, but as the primary call He has placed on my life. God calls me to welcome and love each person He puts in my path, whether or not it’s convenient, whether or not I feel “ready” to sign up for it, whether or not it will change everything. 

What I am learning is that is not just about children. This is the basic call of the Christian life—a pattern of self-giving that is modeled not after a family full of kids but a celibate man who hung on a Cross.  The man Jesus who, on the night He was handed over to suffering and death, took bread and broke it and said, “this is my body, given for you.”

For whatever reason in this season, God has chosen to teach me about this Love through the gift of a child. It is one way that He is helping me to understand more fully what it meant for Him to give Himself for my life and what it means for me to follow in His footsteps and give of myself for the life of others—whether that be a child in my womb or a neighbor across the street or a nameless refugee on the other side of the world.

How is God is calling you to love in this season? Whatever it is, don’t be afraid. Receive it as a gift and let Him expand your heart accordingly. It will hurt. It will change everything. And it will be worth it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

For the Life of the World

I'm about ten pages away from finishing a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's the story of a German pastor who opposed Nazism during the Second World War and lost his life for the sake of defending the gospel-- which to him, included defending the dignity of the Jewish people.

There are a number of posts I could write about my reaction to this story, but the one that has turned around in my mind over and over has to do with the way Bonhoeffer understood ethics, or the moral call of every Christian. Essentially, he said that Christians aren't called to be nice, "moral" people in the sense of abstaining from sinful activities or association with bad people. Rather, he saw the Christian life as one of dangerous action for the sake of good-- even if it meant making a mistake, being wrong, or getting killed in the process:

"It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith," he wrote, "and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture." The biographer summarizes this sentiment by saying that for Bonhoeffer, "The Christian life had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets...it did not merely require a mind, but a body too." 

I think a lot of us who grew up in the church missed this somehow. We learned the "rules," the do's and don'ts of "moral living," and somehow internalized the notion that to "be good" is to avoid anything and everything "bad." So we became sterile, hiding in our enclaves of purity to avoid the stain of the world. And we became self-obsessed, so focused on our own sin and how much of it there was that we forgot to look around at those in need.

Bonhoeffer said, "Such people neither steal, nor murder, nor commit adultery, but do good according to their abilities. But...they must close their eyes and ears to the injustice around them. Only at the cost of self-deception can they keep their private blamelessness clean from the stain of responsible action in the world."

It's not that having a consciousness of sin is wrong. We should be concerned with personal purity. But when the main symbol of our ethics is a fence-- a boundary which exists to keep something out-- we are focusing on the wrong thing. Rather, our symbol for ethics should be a vector-- a God-directed arrow that moves us to 'responsible action' out of love for the world, whatever the cost may be. 

This is what enraged Bonhoeffer in his day. Many "good church people" disagreed with Hitler and thought Nazism and its genocide were wrong, but didn't want to get their hands dirty about it one way or another. So they just stood by while millions were murdered. But "mere waiting and looking on," Bonhoeffer said, "is not Christian behavior." 

If there's one thing that has revolutionized my own understanding of the Christian message, it is this. Jesus didn't come primarily to rescue people out of the world with its evil, its genocide, its racism, its brokenness. He came to redeem that world and everything in it. He got his own hands dirty doing it-- so much so that he was accused of blasphemy and crucified. And as His followers, our job is not to retreat from the mess in the interest of keeping ourselves clean, but to be on the front lines of the gore in the interest of those who are suffering. Even if it means we get our hands dirty. Even if it means we get crucified. 

Lord Jesus Christ, who in your perfect purity didn't avoid sin but who raged headfirst into it for our sake, would you so remake us in your image that we  take up our crosses and do the same, for the life of the world. Amen.    


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Student-Teaching

About a month ago, a priest from our church and I went to a nursing home to share Communion and prayer with the residents there. It started with a worship service, which was smaller than usual on this day because many of the residents had come down with an infection and were quarantined on their floors. Those who did join us for worship were quiet.

During the service I spoke from Ezekiel 37-- a crazy story about a valley full of dry bones that the prophet sees God raise to a veritable army of new life. I talked about how reading this story again during the season of Easter makes sense of it, because Easter shows us how the story ends: 

"This story from Ezekiel is about God bringing the dead to life. At this point in their history, Israel felt hopeless. v. 11 says, “our bones are dried up, our hope is lost. We are cut off.” So God demonstrates his power and his love by giving Ezekiel a prophetic vision of these dry bones, being put back together again and restored to living, breathing creatures. It’s as if God is saying to Israel, no matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how dead you feel, God can breathe new life in you. He can do the impossible. 

Easter, too, is a story about God bringing the dead to life, is it not? It is the fulfillment of Ezekiel's vision; the historical resurrection of the man Jesus Christ-- Jesus who willingly went to the Cross to pay for our sins, who gave Himself over to death for our sake. And after three days in the tomb, God did the impossible; He raised Jesus to new life. And we celebrate Easter b/c this new life isn’t just for Jesus, but it’s for all who trust in Him. When we put our hope in the risen Messiah, we become united with Him in such a way that we too partake in this new creation, this resurrection life that He won. In Christ, we become the resurrected bones Ezekiel foresaw.

As I spoke these words, I looked at my fellow worshipers and wondered what this means for us, a collection of broken bodies gathered around a tiny Communion Table in a nursing home lobby. 

"Now what does that look like for us here today? First of all it means we can expect to experience new life now. Jesus is raised and we’ve been united with Him, which means we can enjoy renewal today. So I ask you, where in your life do you feel like the Israelites here? “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost. We are cut off.” Jesus wants to bring healing to those very places. He wants to breathe new life into you, body and soul. So Easter gives us hope for today. 

And yet, we all know that healing in the here and now is incomplete, it’s temporary. We do experience emotional and spiritual renewal as we turn to Christ, we do taste physical healing as He pours out His mercy, but we won’t experience the fullness of it until we see Him face to face. And so today, our Easter hope also points us forward, to the day when Jesus Christ returns. On that day, new creation will be complete and our very bodies will be raised to perfection just as Christ Himself. The New Testament says that He is the first fruit of the Resurrection, which means we’re next. Us and all those who have gone before us, who are now asleep in Christ. On that day, the pain of our separation from them will be a distant memory and the whole creation will be caught up in this new life, breathed out by the power and love of God."

Easter is a story about God bringing the dead to life. It’s a true story, it applies to you and me, and it gives us hope for today and hope for eternity." 

I looked out at my fellow worshipers and was humbled to speak to them of truths they know far better than I do. They who have been walking with the Lord for longer than I've been on this earth know well the reality of new life; their stories of His faithfulness spans decades and generations. And they whose bodies are now frail and failing, who've seen not just one or two but many loved ones taken by death, know far more about the longing for resurrection that awaits.  

About a month ago, I was humbled to be the teacher who is being taught. Today I pray that this will always be so.