You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to know the right answers. You don’t have to show up on time and well prepared. You just get to be you and God loves you. That’s what grace is. Trust grace.
For many, fall is an anxious season. The cooler days and crisp nights are a relief from the clingy heat of a humid summer, but they don’t give relief for the back to school, back to schedule pressure of September. We review all the summer projects that we didn’t finish and log our inadequacies. Even if we’re not going back to class, this time of year reminds us of all the ways we are evaluated and know we don’t measure up.
A friend shared with me, a particularly well-chosen moment, the poem that concludes this post. What good news, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”
Learn the right answer for math class. Show up on time and prepared for work. But don’t put on a false Facebook self for God. Don’t weave a list of “ought’s” and “should’s” into a lead blanket you wear in God’s presence. Just show up. Just show up with your incompletes, uncertainties, and unfinished tasks. Just show up. Don’t try to earn “extra credit” from God. God doesn’t hand out grades. That’s what grace is. The unearned gift of God’s love. Trust grace.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to “love our enemies.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” (Matthew 5:44) I suspect he really said it because it’s not something later followers would make up so that they could be popular. Loving enemies does not win friends or influence people.
Let me be the first to admit, I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to hate them. I want hate to fuel my momentum in working for change. But hate is not a fire in the belly but a weight around the ankles. Hate doesn’t help us get things done. It cramps our thinking, it stifles our creativity. Hate calcifies our spirits, making it harder for God to breathe through us. When I first divorced I thought hate could protect me from hurt. It didn’t. It just kept me from healing.
Love does not exclude holding people accountable, calling on them to be better than they’ve been, calling them out for what they’ve done wrong. Love does not mean we do not vote political leaders out of office, break up with a lover, or unfollow a friend on social media. Love does not mean we do not tell the truth and tell it boldly. It does not mean we do not continue to work for a just society and insist on being treated decently by the people in our lives. Love does not make us weak. Love makes us strong because it is God’s force in the world.
I’m still figuring out what loving our enemies includes. I know from what Jesus said it includes praying for them. Right now my prayer is that God would erode their hard hearts until cracks are formed where droplets of grace might enter and exand until their hearts are broken open by God’s love.
“Freedom isn’t free,” we’re reminded every 4th of July and other national holiday. Veterans are applauded at parades and honored at civic events. We rightfully remember the honored dead who fought for our country. Freedom isn’t free. But it’s not just soldiers who die for it and it’s not just military who fight for it.
November 10, 1917 was dubbed “The Night of Terror” by suffragettes. 33 women who were protesting outside the Whitehouse for the right to vote were arrested and then beaten, clubbed and tortured by the guards at the Occoquan Workhouse. (Read more about the Night of Terror)
“Rev. George Lee, one of the first black people registered to vote in Humphreys County, used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. White officials offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was murdered.” May 7, 1955, Belzoni, Mississippi (Taken directly from the Civil Rights Martyrs web page of the Southern Poverty Law Center where you can read more stories.)
Sylvia Rivera was a veteran of the Stonewall uprising and a tireless advocate for the rights of transgender and transvestite people, particularly as the gay rights movement became more main stream.
Freedom isn’t free. We all a debt to many who have tirelessly fought, struggled, suffered, and died so that our country would live up to its promises. Today we should also remember all those who worked and died for civil rights for African Americans, women and the LGBTQ community. We should tell these stories on national holidays and incorporate them into our country’s celebrations. These are the people who shaped our country as much as Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Let us honor them by working to ensure our country really is the “home of the free.”
If you want to follow Jesus it’s important to read the Bible and not just quote it. Romans 13 does encourage obedience to government authorities (though some think Paul wrote this knowing Roman authorities would read his letter and he wanted to take a bit of heat off of early Christians). It also encourages the paying of taxes, duties and other debts. What does Mr. Sessions make of President Trump’s violation of the Emolument Clause (foreign and domestic), obstruction of justice in the firing of James Comey, violating the Constitution by inciting white supremacy and bigotry, putting the Presidential seal on merchandise, not paying for contracted work, misuse of campaign funds, and admitting to sexual assault on the Access Hollywood tape?
There’s also these irritating scripture passages:
Deuteronomy 24: 17
Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan.
Matthew 25: 44 – 46
Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Isaiah 1: 17
learn to do good.
help the oppressed;[a]
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
Reading the Bible should confront and challenge us. Romans 13 goes on to say: “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is what fulfills the law.”
When I saw the play “Waiting for Godot” I kept waiting for something to happen. Something else to happen. Something besides waiting. While the two men wait they sing songs, tell stories, examine sore feet, encounter other travelers, muse. But mostly they wait. At the end of the first act a boy tells them that Godot will be there the next day. The two men leave to sleep. And then they come back the next day (next day for them, second act for us) and wait some more. They consider not waiting. But then they keep waiting. We aren’t told why they’re waiting. We aren’t told why Godot is worth the wait, or what they expect will happen after Godot arrives. The play was about what happened while they waited for Godot.
Life is what happens while we’re waiting to die. Thinking about the play later, I decided that’s what it’s about. Some might find that depressing. I find it freeing. There’s no pretending we’re more important than we are. Everything dies. Trees. Tigers. The black and coral striped centipede I saw on my walk today. My dog. Books get eaten by moths and music is forgotten. Great ideas are discovered and set aside and then discovered again.
If there is no Meaning or Purpose or Plan, if there is no need to Make it Matter or Point to Prove then there is nothing to lose. There are no missed opportunities or lost causes. If life is about what we do while we’re waiting to die, we might as well enjoy what we can. I am free to write or hike without worrying if it’s what I’m Supposed to do. I can tinker or toil. If I want to spend my time waiting watching West Wing and drinking whiskey I can. It’s entirely up to me.
One of the two men waiting for Godot is more dour than the other. One is more ready to laugh and sing and the other to grouse and complain. Might as well laugh and sing, it makes the waiting more enjoyable. We’re all waiting to die, so there’s no need to be an asshole. No one wins in the end, we might as well be kind.
It seemed so easy on Easter Sunday, didn’t it? I don’t mean the worship service. That took weeks of planning and practice by our chancel choir, musicians, contemporary music ensemble, the arts team, and a host of volunteers. I don’t mean my sermon. I worked hard to make it relevant, funny (but not like I was trying too hard to entertain), heart tugging (but not saccharine) and pithy. I don’t mean the packed-in crowd that made it feel like church was the cool thing to do and we don’t wrestle with how to provide ministry to busy people with volunteers who are also busy people.
What seemed easy was our certainty. We sang Christ the Lord is risen today! Al-le-lu-ia! Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!and Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes…I may have even fist pumped the air. Without a hint of doubt we responded to the proclamation, “Christ is risen!” with the exclamation, “Christ is risen indeed!” It was glorious.
But we aren’t always that certain, are we? In our heart of hearts we respond to “Christ is risen!” with a question mark, “Christ is risen? Indeed?” Part of our difficulty may be that we can’t quite reconcile the mechanics of the story with what we know about science. Faced with a miracle we do what we always do, try to find a rational explanation. But more troubling are the days when we don’t see any evidence that Christ is risen. We hear “Powerless love conquers loveless power” (William Sloane Coffin) on Sunday morning, and then watch the news Sunday night.
I want my faith to be bold and unabashed. More often I follow Jesus the way I enter the ocean – testing the water one toe at a time. I think God has room for lots of ways of following – tentative and reckless, full of exclamation marks and littered with question marks. I am grateful, though, for those glorious moments when a life of faith feels like when we’re all singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in a packed sanctuary.
God doesn’t need to brag about us to his golfing buddies. He doesn’t need to post pictures of us on Facebook or write about us in his Christmas letter. He doesn’t need us to do well on the SAT’s or get a promotion or have an important job or provide him fabulous grandchildren so that he has something to report at Rotary during “happy dollar”.
Of course, there is the story in the Bible about God pointing at one of his most loyal servants and bragging about him to the heavenly court. It went something like, “Look at Job. See how obedient he is. He does everything I ask and more.” That made Job a marked man and a playing piece in a game between God and Satan. And things went badly for Job, really badly. Job’s three friends show up with comforting words suggesting that Job must have done something to deserve his plight, he must have offended God in some way. This part of the story is merely a set up for the main point. In the final scenes, God makes a speech telling off Job’s friends for speaking about God in inaccurate ways and telling Job to stop his whining. He basically says, shit just happens. In a scene brimming with divine inspiration and worthy of Steven Spielberg special effects, God asks Job and his friends from the whirlwind, “Did you set the stars in heaven? Did you create the snow? Can you ride a sea monster?” Clearly, God does not need us to fulfill his ego needs.
What a relief. To be beheld without agenda. To be granted the freedom and space to just be. No need to defend yourself against expectation or dodge another’s definition. No pressure to squeeze yourself into a particular shape.
The writers of Anatomy of Peace say our hearts are at peace with another when we are able to see that person as a person, someone whose fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, inspirations are important as our own. Our hearts are at war when we see the other person as an object, as someone who is a vehicle or impediment to our goals and agenda. Our hearts are at war when our identity is wrapped up in someone else, when we need bask in their reflected glow or hide in their shadow.
God’s heart is at peace toward us. God doesn’t need us to be any particular way in order for God to still be God. That gives God the freedom to love us completely, without artifice, without condition, without defense. That is grace.
Is it time to call it quits on “us?” We’ve been on again off again for almost two years. Even from the beginning we were more than just a fun little fling, more than a mere distraction. Even before I met you I knew you. It seems that you’ve been a part of my life forever.
I thought we had real potential. I imagined what it would be like to reshape my life so that we could make a life together. I knew it was a risk. I knew not everyone would be supportive. I knew I would hear warnings and stories of others whose hearts you broke.
I’ve seen the warning signs. You’re intent on keeping your distance. I can’t always reach you when I want you. You have secrets you don’t share. We make plans and you don’t show up. I fool myself into believing I’ve accepted you as you are, that I’ve adapted to your inconsistency. Then you disappear for weeks at a time and I’m hurt all over again.
Monsters of insecurity lurk under my bed. They come out on sleepless nights and whisper what I fear is the ugly truth – that I’m just not good enough for you.
And yet, when we are together, really together, I come alive. That’s what brings me back to you, over and over again. With you I discover the world and myself.
Please, dear Novel, just tell me, do I keep writing or is it time to hit “delete?”
What does it say about me and about our society that I barely noticed when the news ticked off another shooting? This one was in a school in Northern California. But whether in a school, church or shopping mall, in California, Texas, or Virginia – the shootings are all starting to blend together. I met a colleague for coffee yesterday morning. Instead of discussing sermon series, outreach ideas, and best practices in supervision, we talked about responses to active shooters in the sanctuary. We sat in a Starbucks and discussed the limits of hiding and wondered if hurled hymnals take down a shooter over coffee and muffins. The news of deaths and injuries hadn’t made us loose our appetites.
I don’t want to be fearful. I don’t want to be on guard. But I also don’t want to be complacent or apathetic. I don’t want to forget or ignore that the four people who died have left gaps in the lives of those who loved them. Families, and churches, and communities will have to learn now to live without them. Those who are injured may face weeks and months of rehabilitation. Their bodies may heal but their spirits may remain wounded.
I don’t want to grow accustomed to a world where mass shootings happen and congregations and schools and libraries have active shooter drills. I don’t want to tell my nephews’ children someday about the world before everyone was afraid of going into public places, like I tell my nephews about the world before cell phones. I will continue to lament the deaths, the injuries, the fear.
I will turn my lament into action. I will work now so that future generations wonder aloud what it must have been like to live during these days. These days when assault weapons are easy to get and treatment for mental illness is hard to pay for. These days we spend more on incarceration than education. These days when politicians try to pull us apart to win elections instead of bring us together to do good. I will let news of another shooting embolden my commitment to bringing about God’s realm of peace and wholeness for all.
“Why is the outside door to the fellowship hall locked?” I asked, within a few weeks of arriving at the church I served a number of years ago. The response: “Because people we don’t know might come in.”
To many first time visitors the fellowship hall door looked like the front door of the building. It was a glass double door that faced the parking lot off of the main road. Insiders knew that the actual front door was on the other side of the building that faced the parking lot off the less trafficked street.
I asked the obvious question, “Why don’t you want people you don’t know coming into the building? I thought you wanted to grow?” Then I learned that the ladies who came before church to set up for coffee hour would leave their purses in the kitchen when they went to worship. One Sunday someone came into the building while the congregation was in the sanctuary and stole the ladies’ purses. After that they took what seemed to be a reasonable precaution and locked the fellowship hall door. I suggested they lock their purses in my office, in their cars, or take them into worship with them. We would leave the fellowship hall door unlocked, put up signs showing the way to the sanctuary, and even have a greeter there on Sundays we expected more visitors.
The shootings at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Texas make it tempting for churches to hunker down and be on the look out for folks who don’t quite belong. It’s important for churches to take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of those who enter our doors and participate in our ministries. But let’s not let vigilance replace hospitality, nor permit fear to thwart love.