Waking Up Earley

Thoughts, Ideas and Inspiration by Melissa Earley

Category: faith (page 1 of 2)

I wish Jesus hadn’t told us to love our enemies

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.

God’s Ego Needs

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.

 

 

 

A Misfit’s Heart Strangely Warmed

I was surprised that I wanted to go to church. I was in the middle of a six-week renewal leave from local church ministry and had purposefully avoided anything to do with church the first few weeks. I ended up in a small church in a small town on a high mountain of Colorado.   I had been invited by a friend who couldn’t go with me. When I walked into the sanctuary almost half way through the worship service the entire congregation turned to look at me – all seventeen of them. There was the guy with unwashed, shoulder length hair who had his own oxygen tank. The woman in mismatched shoes. The family with the two children who ran around the edges of the sanctuary. The boy, about 10, pulled his arms into his sleeves and fluttered his hands like wings while he made wet motor sounds with his lips. I wanted someone to sit on him. There was one woman who looked like someone who could be my friend. “What an island of misfit toys,” I thought.

And then something happened. The prayer of confession’s words were familiar, “Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we left undone…” The difference was that in this church we knelt to pray. We knelt on the floor. We knelt on the worn carpet and muttered our prayers together, “We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Tears pricked my eyes. They weren’t tears of guilt or shame. The prayer of confession became a moment of unexpected grace. Something snuck in.

And then the pastor sat on a pew facing the congregation and led us in a conversation about the scripture passage, Jesus’ story about a man whose harvest was so plentiful he decided to tear down his barn and build a bigger one but dies that night. The conversation touched on the congregation’s successful badgering of a local supermarket chain to provide food for the free community meals that they host several times a week. Among these folks, many of whom looked like at one time or another they had trouble paying their rent, or an electricity bill or buying groceries, I thought about how my own anxiety about money traps me. And how it traps my church.  I thought of how we want to be the “cool kids.” And in that moment I wanted to be one of the misfit toys.

As I worshipped with this strange little congregation I let down my defenses. This congregation couldn’t worry about slick church growth strategies or programs attractive to young couples with attractive children and baby boomers with money to give. One day they may not be able to fix the roof or pay their pastor. But for now they’ll follow Jesus in their little church in their little mountain town.  And my heart was strangely warmed.

One True Thing

As we sat on my back patio listening to the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire and eating peach pie, a friend told me the story of the February night he nearly drowned in Lake Michigan. He had jumped in to save his dog. Good Samaritans were able to pull the dog to safety but they had to leave my friend in the water while they went for help. He tried to pull himself onto the ice, but it broke beneath him. He couldn’t climb the ten-foot retaining wall. With his fingertips he clung to a narrow gap in the concrete, only his head above water. He doesn’t know how much time went by, but he lost his grip on the crevice when his hands froze with the palms flat. His head dipped again and again under the water. With each dunk, he could feel the heat whoosh off his head. He thought three things. One, if this were how he died his ex would be totally vindicated. Two, his mother deserved better. Three, life, what the hell was that supposed to be? And then he thought, if these were the last moments of his life he should say something out loud that was absolutely true.

That’s where he paused in his story and looked me in the eye and asked, “What would you have said?”   My thoughts froze in the icy water. The only words that came to mind were “Help!” and “Fuck.” I could not think of a single, absolutely true thing to say.

As we sat on my back patio, hearing the crack of fireworks, sipping Fat Tire, and eating peach pie I was so relieved that he there was to tell me this story. And so angry that he was such an idiot that we almost weren’t.

He looked at me, waiting for an answer. I felt my hands sliding down the slick, icy concrete. Nothing. I shook my head. “What did you say?” I asked. “There is only love,” he responded. “Love in relationships is life giving. Love in neighborhoods is community. Love in systems is justice.” Until I have an answer of my own, I’ll borrow his: “There is only love.”

 

It’s Time to Create a Brave Space

These are the words I wrote for the Interfaith Vigil in Support of the LGBTQ community that was held last night in our community.

I am so glad you are here tonight. What you are doing here matters.

There are a lot of voices out there telling us to be afraid. Be afraid of the transgender person. Be afraid of the gay person. Be afraid of the poor woman and the Black man. Be afraid of the Mexican immigrant, the Guatemalan immigrant, the Syrian refugee. Be afraid of the Muslim. Be afraid.

I won’t presume to speak for other faith traditions, but I know that the Christian community has given the LGBTQ community cause to be afraid. We have painted our bigotry with the patina of piety. We have taken the words given to us so that we might know and share the heart of God and we have turned them into weapons that we have used against our LGBTQ neighbors. We have done harm. And I am truly sorry.

I want to find ways to counter the voices that tell us to be afraid. How do we silence the voices of fear? We replace them. We replace the voices of fear with a voice that whispers hope, a voice that sings courage, a voice that lets out battle cry of love.

I can’t guarantee that tonight will be a safe space. No one can make that promise. Not any more. But together we can create a brave space. A space where we show up. We show up with strong backs and confident grips, and knocking knees and sweaty palms. We show up with clarity of purpose and wobbly beliefs. We show up as people who know they are loved and as those who are desperately lonely. And we bravely claim and proclaim that all people are beloved children of God. Something happens when we create a brave space like that – we experience love – we experience giving it and receiving it. Friends, perfect love drives out all fear.

 

Thank you for being brave with me tonight.

John Wesley’s Nightcap

I got to see John Wesley’s nightcap. Also his glasses and his writing desk. For most people seeing the personal effects of the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement that was the precursor to many Christian denominations would be what you do in London if it’s pouring outside, and you’ve been to Madame Tussauds twice and all the pubs are closed. For me it was a highlight.

John Wesley was an Anglican priest who, with his brother Charles, started a renewal movement in the Church of England. He insisted that the personal piety of prayers and Bible study be linked to acts of mercy and social justice. Under John Wesley’s leadership early Methodists took on prison reform, created schools for the children of factory workers, built hospitals, and worked for the abolition of slavery. During his lifetime Wesley road 250,000 miles on horseback, delivered 40,000 sermons and, though not a wealthy man, gave away £30,000 (about £1,680,900.00 according to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency). When Wesley died in 1791 the Methodist movement had over 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers.

John Wesley was a force of nature. I count it a major accomplishment if I write a sermon and do my laundry on the same day. But when I saw Wesley’s nightcap and eyeglasses I didn’t remember his success, but his failures.

John’s stint as a missionary to Savannah, Georgia ended with him fleeing in the middle of the night to avoid civil charges, brought on when he denied communion to a former girlfriend. He returned to England in a spiritual crisis, uncertain if he could continue to preach. His personal life wasn’t an unmitigated success. John didn’t marry until he 48 years old and it wasn’t a happy union. After they finally separated Wesley wrote in his journal, “I did not quit her. I did not dismiss her. I will not call her back.”

I love reading Wesley’s sermons on grace (God’s free gift of love that we cannot earn). If Wesley, who worked so hard to earn God’s favor and failed so miserably, could experience God’s grace, then maybe there’s hope for me.

These days I find myself encouraged by Peter Boehler’s advice to Wesley upon Wesley’s return from the American colonies: “Preach faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Wesley went on to have a “heart warming experience” in which he became absolutely assured of God’s love for him. I wonder if he would have had that experience without first feeling God’s crushing absence.

 

 

Did the candles make a difference?

Christmas eve candles

Is it time for us to stop lighting the candles and singing Silent Night on Christmas Eve?  Most people love this tradition. Some people come to church only on Christmas Eve just for this moment.   Many love the memories it brings and the warm feeling.

That’s not enough for me.

I admit, some of it is the Christmas cranks. In 47 years I’ve probably lit the candles 61 times. Usually by the time we get to the Silent Night point in the worship service I’m tired, my feet hurt and I’m ready to go home. But my dissatisfaction is more than bah humbug.

Just before Christmas I heard an interview with Jose Miguel Sokoloff on NPR’s This American Life. (click here to listen to the interview or here for the Ted Talk) Sokoloff is an advertising executive whose firm was hired by the Colombian government to produce propaganda that would convince FARC soldiers to demobilize. One of their campaigns was to bring Christmas lights to the jungle. They put 75 foot trees wrapped in blue and white lights along key paths in the jungle. When a guerrilla walked by he or she would trigger a motion sensor that would light up a sign, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home.  Demobilize.  It’s Christmas.  Everything is possible.”

Sokoloff says the campaign worked because of beauty and surprise. It awakened a longing, but didn’t satisfy, for Christmas with family and friends. The lights led the FARC soldiers to risk leaving the jungle to find what they sought.

Do the candles on Christmas Eve lead us somewhere new? If they awaken a longing for a deeper relationship with God and a closer connection to our neighbor, then let’s keep doing it. But if they just give us a momentary feel good feeling, point us only to the past and not to a new future, then maybe it’s time to blow them out.

I’m at least half way through my life and I need more than Christmas card Christianity. I need more than sentimentality. My faith has become grittier in the last few years. Following Jesus needs to make a real difference or it’s just a waste of time.

The Gift of Regret

I recently had a conversation with someone who says that she doesn’t regret anything. Everything that she has done and everything that has happened to her have helped make her who she is now.  She is  grateful. I appreciated her acceptance of her decisions and envied her ability to not look back.

I look back a lot.

I do have regrets. I regret not taking a writing class in college. I regret not going to prom my senior year of high school (long story). I regret not keeping up with my exercise in recent months. I regret purchasing a yellow couch.

I wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I had made different choices. If I had majored in Spanish or stuck with the creative writing I did as a child? I don’t regret the life I have now, but I can imagine how my life could be different. I don’t regret the path I took so much as wish I could take more than one path at the same time.

Living with regret, without being bound by it, keeps me from being paralyzed in the face of decisions. I can survive making the wrong choice.

I have felt remorse – deep regret. For things I’ve done or left undone. For things I’ve said or left unsaid. I regret pain I caused others and chaos I created for myself.

Remorse opens the path to admission of wrongdoing – my spiritual tradition calls this confession – and that makes it possible for me to seek and receive forgiveness, one piece of the  gift of undeserved, unearned love – grace. Even when it’s not possible to fix what I’ve broken, divine forgiveness frees me to live unfettered by the past.

The experience of blowing it and starting again – resurrection — has shaped me in profound ways. It softens the edges of my judgment toward others. I am less brittle and better able to extend grace to others.

I do have regrets. I don’t regret the regret.

 

 

 

Wonder Fully Made

 

Photo by Greg Metzler

Photo by Greg Metzler

I used to think it was the answers that mattered. I’m discovering it’s the questions. Answers are about getting the good grade, earning approval, meeting the expectation.

Questions are where the power is – and the risk. Questions can disrupt and unsettle. Questions take us into unknown territory. They create intimacy; reveal truth. Questions reflect the truth that every soul is a mystery and that God can never be boxed.

We religious types get it wrong when we think our faith is about answers and not questions. I am grateful to a former pastor of the church I serve who assured a now faithful member that figuring out exactly what she believed was not a prerequisite to being part of a church. “A community of faith,” he said, “is full of people asking the same questions you are. You will be in good company.”

I regret unasked questions. Not because my curiosity wasn’t satiated but because I missed the chance to bridge the gulf between I and Thou. I squandered the opportunity to stand with another on the sacred ground of their story.

Asking questions requires a promise. If I overstep, I will back out as gracefully as I can. If my asking makes something spill out I promise to find a mop and put up a caution sign on the floor. I promise to sit beside you on the shore of the lake that your soul pours out.

I regret not asking the questions that would have unmasked me in the asking. What do you see when you gaze at me? Why aren’t we friends anymore? Declarations of love and statements of hurt are questions in disguise: Do you feel the same way? Are you sorry?

I make up stories to finish unfinished conversations.  I write these tales in my head as I walk my dog and they are masterpieces. But they are not true. Accepting that some questions will forever be unasked and unanswered is part of letting go and moving on.

I am grateful to those who have asked me questions that helped my real self show up. What is stirring in your soul? Can you imagine being in love again? How are you…really?

Questions tell us that we are wondrously made because we are worth wondering about.

 

 

 

Skunked

My dog Mandy got skunked last night. I was enjoying a late dinner with a good friend on my patio on a just right summer night. The cicadas had finally quieted down and she and I could hear each other. I was beginning to think, “I should get the leash so Mandy doesn’t run into a …” when she squealed and came running up from the back of the yard.

The first time Mandy met a skunk I didn’t immediately realize what had happened. The odor was so much more intense than the skunk smell on the highway that I didn’t recognize it. It smelled like burning chemicals. I thought someone had committed a terrorist attack against my dog. In my panic I let her into the house and she ran into every room, rubbing her face on the floor trying to get the smell out. She ran into her kennel, her safe space, and ran right out again. For weeks the skunk smell lingered in the house. I swore I could see a haze of stink, like in a commercial for breath freshener.

Once I realized what happened, I found a skunk-off recipe on the Internet. It helped. But for weeks the only part of her that smelled like her was her feet. I would lie beside her on the floor and hold her foot up to my nose to take in her unique combination of dog sweat, grass and dirt that smells a lot like warm Doritos.

My dog’s been skunked and I have too.  I’ve tasted the shame of betrayal and felt the sting of being misinterpreted. I’ve been made into a handy scapegoat and been the object of gossip.

I’ve been skunked and I confess I’ve been a skunk. I’ve let my own hurt feelings, damaged pride and pent up anger spew onto others. Sometimes my absence has caused more hurt than any words would have.

I’ve learned through experience that once the spray has been released the smell lingers in the air and clings to those it touches.

There’s a story about Jesus in which he washes his disciples’ feet. It was customary for a host to provide a way for his guests to freshen up and wash off the road. What’s remarkable is that Jesus takes on the role of a servant and serves those who will soon skunk him. They’ll run away and pretend like they never knew him. And they will be skunked too when one of their own betrays them and their teacher is executed.

I am supposed to say that when Jesus washes their feet he washes the skunk juice off, a lesson for us that Jesus’ love can leave us fresh and sweet smelling. That hasn’t been my experience. Jesus’ love doesn’t take away the stink of skunking or being skunked. The odor clings and rises off of us so people cross to the other side of the street.

What is true is that Jesus doesn’t need us to smell good. He can acknowledge the stink without heaping on shame. He cradles our vulnerability like he held the feet of his beloved friends and he breathes in our most true selves.

Mandy

Mandy

 

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