You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught


Last night I went to an Iftar celebration. It was sponsored by the Greater Boston Muslim Health Initiative – a group that periodically meets to focus on specific health needs of the Muslim community in the area. It was an eclectic group of people, each of us with strengths in different areas, community members and advocates.

And of course – Nabra’s death came up. You may not know the story. Nabra Hassanen was a 17 year-old who lived in Northern Virginia. Early on Sunday morning, Nabra prematurely lost her life to a man filled with rage and bent on destroying life. She was assaulted and beaten with a bat, her body left in a pond to be found by law enforcement a few hours later.

Nabra had celebrated a Ramadan meal with friends and was on her way to the mosque with the same group of friends when the incident occurred.

Seventeen. Muslim. A young woman. A person of color. Now dead.

A death like this makes no sense – indeed it is put into the album for the unexplainable. Is it road rage? Is it a hate crime? No matter what you call it, it won’t bring Nabra’s life back. She’s gone – gone way too soon.

A song in the old musical South Pacific unwillingly goes through my head:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Taught to be afraid. Taught to hate. Taught to kill. Taught to think of people as less than. Because when you are carefully taught these things, you can treat people as you like without conscience or remorse. 

What might our world look like if we were taught to see the image of God in each person? If we were aware of how bound together we are in our life journey? What might it look like if we saw people as God sees them – beloved and worthy? If we changed our worldview from glorifying the individual to humbly loving collective humanity.

My heart weeps for Nabra’s family and community. This assault must feel so big and so awful, so personal during the month of Ramadan.

My heart also weeps for the cancer of prejudice and racism in our society, that we are so carefully taught to despise and hate, without even being aware. 

And even as I write this, I know I am not innocent. For any time I ignore others, anytime I dismiss another as unworthy, I’m doing the same thing. The consequences are less, the action and heart attitude is the same. When we deem people as unworthy, we can do whatever we like to them. 

How can we change this societal narrative? How can we begin to see ourselves as integrally connected, bound together in this journey? Your grief is my grief, your sin is my sin, your joy my joy, your burdens, my burdens. 

How can we rid ourselves of what we have been carefully taught and soften our hearts? 

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, monasticism is alive and well. Contrary to what many believe, monks and nuns do not merely seclude themselves from the world. Instead, they align themselves with the world through prayer. They pray for the world. They are “intentional in living this mystery of our mystical unity and responsibility.”*

St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “and what is a merciful heart? It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of merciful men pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grubs his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear if or see any injury or slight suffering of anything in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually…” 

What more is there to say, but that God would “unteach” us that which we have been carefully taught; that he would give us hearts of mercy instead of stone. 

And that we would take seriously our mystical connection and our mutual responsibility and act upon it. 

*Scott Cairns in The End of Suffering

A Life Overseas – On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

Readers – Today I am at A Life Overseas talking with Jen Pollock Michel about her newly released book Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home. Will you join me there? I’ve given you a brief preview below!

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

You can read the rest of the piece here

That Holy Ache

Spring 2017

 

I awake with that Holy Ache.

If there is any time I feel this acutely it’s on Monday mornings, where I try to move between a resurrection Sunday and the real-world Monday. Where I move from the weekend rest and peace, to the week day chaos and problems.

We who are human know this Holy Ache. It is something that transcends cultures and generations, something that will be part of us until our life on this earth is complete.

It’s the one that reminds us that we are in between. We are in the not yet; the messy middle. That place where we know what we see is only a fraction of the real story, yet we ache for that real story to be revealed, to come to fruition. We are ‘between the lost and the desired’.

A Holy Ache.

That ache we feel when we read or hear the news and our hearts stop with the horror of it all, the longing to make all right, to gather up all the orphans, the widows, the sinners and show them the love of God. The holy ache that acknowledges we are capable of so little in comparison to the great need. That ache we feel when we are at a funeral of one we love, knowing we will never see their faces, hear their words, hug their bodies again. That ache we feel when the rich thrive and mock while the poor struggle to survive. That ache we feel of injustice and wrong and all those things that remind us we are in the between.

It used to be that the holy ache would direct me to despair. It’s all too much, I thought. It’s too hard. Seeing through a glass darkly is not enough. But lately I have embraced the holy ache as an integral part of my faith journey – a critical part that brings me to a greater love and desire for God.

Yesterday our priest said it well. We are caught, he said, between irrational joy and sorrow.

I have embraced the holy ache as an integral part of my faith journey

Irrational joy and indefinable sorrow.  Waking to the smell of spring, knowing we are alive, seeing new buds coming out on trees and bushes fills us with joy, even as we face the sorrow of a world that is not as it should be.

So welcome to today’s Holy Ache – may we walk in faith that aches will be redeemed and in the middle of Holy Aches we may know Holy Joy. 

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.”

Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

Lenten Journey: The Christ Candle

I wrote this years ago for a dark spring day. It seems appropriate again. Truth be told, my Christ candle has been burning every day since January 20. The candle has been a faithful reminder this Lenten season too. 

Advent is the season of waiting for the Christ. It’s typically celebrated during the month of December as the church collective waits, again, with eager expectation for the arrival of Jesus—joining in the ancient longing for His first coming and looking forward to His second arrival. Often a special wreathe with four candles encircling it is used to count down the weeks. Each week a different part of the narrative or a different virtue is commemorated. A pink or lavender candle is lit for joy or for hope or to remember the shepherds or the angel’s part in the Old, Old Story.

And normally there is a fifth white candle, the Christ Candle, which is lit in tremendous elation on Christmas morning. Christ has come. He is here. The waiting is over. He has arrived.

Obviously I put away the Christmas decorations months ago. But the past several years I’ve kept the Christ Candle out into the new year.

I light it when the worries are too consuming and I need to remember that Christ is here.

I light it when the world is in shambles—Egypt is volatile, Pakistan is again attacked, Syria is still unrested, political corruption spreads here and around the globe. I light it and I bring to mind that Christ is Ever Present.

I light it when my friends are hurting: someone’s roof is leaking, someone’s child is sick, someone is overworked, someone is facing a new job and is nervous, someone struggles at family reunions to remember she is truly loved. I light my precious white candle and I recall that Christ Himself attends to my friends. He cares deeply and personally for each one. He alone is the light in their dark night.

I light my Christ candle when I fear for my own children, when I see the anxieties of their souls creep out on to their faces, when I know by their eyes that they are weary and worn down, afraid or battling loneliness and longings beyond their ages. I light my candle then.

I light it for myself too. Sometimes the sorrow is too great. Sometimes the sadness threatens to steal all joy. Sometimes my own weaknesses, my own sins, my own selfishness consume me. Sometimes I worry, I fret, I fear. Anxiety and panic dance on the edges of my sanity. I light it then. I deliberately recollect that Jesus is very near, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The waiting is over. I can breathe. I can trust. I can rest. The flickering flame repeats these seemingly fragile truths back to my knowingly fragile soul and I am comforted.

 

During Lent we also are in waiting. We wait with the seeds sleeping in the soil. We wait with the dead resting in the grave. We wait with Friday for the news of Sunday. We wait for Resurrection! We wait for new life!

                                    ~St Patrick’s Prayer~

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

**********************

Lenten Journey: A Lenten Vent

Over my personal church history, I wasn’t really exposed to Lent as a practice. As a young girl we attended a Baptist church, and later I went to an interdenominational boarding school and a Bible college of the same variety. There was a brief season at St John’s Shaughnessy, an Anglican church in Vancouver, before I met Lowell and we headed to India. There we attended an international fellowship made up of a wonderful blend of countries and cultures. Now Lowell and I go to an Evangelical Free church of Scandinavian descent.

I suppose it was in India at the international fellowship where I was first really introduced to the idea of Lent. I remember my friend, Ellen, who had grown up Methodist, deeply contemplating what she would take up for Lent. That intrigued me. She seemed to really examine herself, she took her propensities and weaknesses seriously. Motivated by nothing but true longing that Christ be more fully formed in her she chose carefully a self-imposed discipline or a fast to serve as her trainer.

I had never really entertained the idea before but here was a close friend modelling what it might be like to intentionally choose a path of preparation for Holy Week. Since then Lent is something I anticipate. I look forward to the lean long days of discipline. I think and pray about abstinences and observances. I consider areas of my life where I seem to have given over control to calories, or indulgences, or sloth. I search out my sore spots, my weak places, my gluttonies, my greed and I seek out the Great Physician and his suggested treatment. Some years I’ve given up social media, other years sugar in my coffee or sweets. I’ve given up certain television shows. I’ve given up bread. I’ve written a daily thank you note. This year I’m going for a daily walk.

Last year just as Ash Wednesday was dawning and friends on Facebook were saying goodbye-announcing their intentions to be absent from that digital social space for the duration of their Lenten journey—another well-meaning friend, boldly posted that Lent is unnecessary and unuseful. He flouted his freedom to not participate. He proclaimed that he’s always aware of the death and resurrection of Christ, that no preparation is necessary for him, since Christ himself made all the preparations necessary for our redemption. His Facebook post stirred something up in me. To be honest, it made me more than a little angry. It seemed to me that he had missed the entire point.

I don’t have to observe Lent. There is nothing in scripture that commands that I do so. I do not assume that it impresses God, that my denial of self accumulates any heavenly points. I don’t fast during Lent because I have to, rather I observe Lent because I get to.

I think many Christ followers are so committed to grace and to the freedom they’ve experienced as a result of the deeply freeing knowledge that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s favour that they’ve thrown out many of the spiritual disciplines we can choose to engage for the purpose of deepening our faith. It’s as if, in a visceral response against legalism, they’ve actually legalized grace. Any ancient spiritual practice that hints at a rule or an imposition has been abandoned. They no longer want to think about obedience, or confession, or fasting.

But there’s great benefit in practicing Lent that I don’t want to miss out on. There is a sense that in observing Lent, we participate in the sufferings of Christ. We identify with the great sacrifices he made on our behalf. It’s a way to cultivate empathy with our Saviour. It’s a way to pause and remember all that he did for our great benefit, our great blessing.

Lent also humbles me if I let it. It’s big and long and beyond my normal capacity for self-deprivation. In order to do it well I must throw myself on the mercy of Jesus. I need his help in giving up myself: my cravings, my self-obsessions, my fickle wants. And when I fail I get to experience the humiliating reality that I have simply done that: fail. Nothing changes in the spiritual realm. I’m still deeply beloved. I’m still invited to continue to pursue, even as I am completely pursued. I can experience the profound God of A Million Second Chances. I can come back, soak in his undeserving grace and start again.

Lent also affirms the reality that our bodies and our spirits are braided together. We are wholly one—our bodies providing the container, the temple, the vessel– for our souls. How I live in my body matters. Our emotions, our faith, our food, our sleep habits, our exercise routines, the prayers we pray, our splinters and bruises are all inextricably linked. As I drag my body out the door for my morning Lenten journey/morning walk I know this full well.

In participating in Lent I’m joining together with my brothers and sisters worldwide who are also observing Lent. The communion of saints from yesteryear who’ve given something up to better remember the death and resurrection of Christ—I’m part of that circle. Those that have yet to be born, yet to choose to live leanly during their Lenten expression—I’m part of that circle too.  Lent connects me to a larger reality outside my own self. It allows me to join with others on a pilgrimage journey that winds around the wide world, picking up people from the far away gatherings of scattered believers, to the cross of Christ. From where I stand I can see people from every tongue, tribe and nation.

I, for sure, do not have to sacrifice for Lent but it’s what I get to do. It’s a privilege that I’m pleased to practice.

The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, doing penancerepentance of sins, almsgivingatonement, and self-denial….In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ’s carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics. (Wikipedia)

 

“Pardon Our Dust”

We invite you to follow along with Marilyn and Robynn, both grace-desperate Christ followers– one a newly welcomed Orthodox the other a patchwork Protestant– on their Lenten journey. This is the first in this honestly human series.

 

Lowell and I, together with some friends, attended the evening Lenten Service at St Paul’s Episcopal church on Ash Wednesday. The nave is under construction and we met in the basement of the annex. Father Patrick took that inconvenient and unfortunate circumstance and skillfully wove it into the homily. He recalled another renovation experience he had when he was in grade six. At that time the Kansas City airport was under a significant renovation process. To his boyhood mind it seemed to be in disrepair for years. What stands out in his memory is the sign that was posted all over the airport for the duration of the project, “Pardon our Dust.” He went on to use the same disclaimer in connection with the church’s current construction project, pardon our dust.

During the homily Father Patrick said something I’m not likely to forget, “Ash Wednesday is the most honest day of the Christian calendar.” And it’s true, isn’t it? Ash Wednesday is a day we intentionally declare our brokenness, our need of rescue, our deep understanding that there is nothing we can do in our own strength or ingenuity to bring about the transformation we all need. We are marked with the sign of the cross, “Remember that you are dust and it is to dust you shall return.” We are reminded of our fragility and our brevity. Wearing the ashes on our forehead we announce to ourselves and to the world that we stand in need of grace and perpetual mercy.

Pardon our dust.

When we lived in North India we rented an ancient old stone house on the banks of the Ganges river. When we first moved in there were walls down and thick weeds growing up over some of the debris. The room that would later be transformed into a guest room had a hole in the roof and bird nests in the rafters. Mold grew up the walls of the courtyard. There were rocks piled up in front of the house. Termites had eaten door frames and window ledges. Another building that would later be changed into a retreat center was completely over run with branches and buried in its own brokenness.  Slowly we began to clear things out. Working together with friends we hired a contractor who rebuilt the guest room, added a bathroom and toilet and a sitting room. Over time we reclaimed corners in the courtyard and we planted flowers. We cut back the mango tree to allow in some sunshine. A kitchen was built, windows were screened, doors were repaired. Rocks were eventually cleared out, grass was grown, more flowers planted. Friends moved in after we left and more space was sanctified. It became this beautiful sacred place.

The thing that used to irk me the most, was when visitors would come, and like us, they would see the potential in the property. They had, of course, no idea how much work had already been done. All they could see was what could be done. They saw implicit promise and they’d remark on it.

Wow… this property is amazing!

Think about what you could do with the place!

The possibilities are limitless.  

Have you ever thought about planting a garden?

How did you find this place? It has so much potential.

Perhaps we should have posted signs, Pardon our dust. Acknowledging the potential seemed to deny the ongoing agonies of transformation we had already embarked on. It didn’t honour the work, the tears, the frustrations, the sweat, the struggle, the effort we had already expended. What we needed was for our guests to Pardon our Dust. We longed for them to admit the work of transformation, to see our desperate need for grace in the ongoing work of redemption. To sit with us in the place of brokenness. To have eyes to see the beauty in all of it–the broken bits, the cleaned up corners, the salvageable spaces. To clearly imagine what yet might happen, what glory might yet be shed across the yard, what visions of continued growth might be just around the corner.

Pardon our Dust also serves to remind us that these are temporary times. There is an end in sight. It’s true we’re limping along now, accommodations are being made, we’re making the appropriate changes. Like any renovation or construction project there is a beginning, a middle and an end. We will get through this. We will be made over. Transformation will happen.

Lent gives us this profound opportunity to admit our great need for a savior. For a season we’re honest about our propensity to sin and selfishness. We acknowledge our need. As a community we readily admit we need each other. We journey toward the cross. We travel together, human and humbled, knowing we’re on the way to reformation, all the while aware we are dust and our terrible need for pardon.

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a

season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning
of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now
kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(from The Book of Common Prayer)

When Your Fear Goes Through the Roof–A Repost

I’ve worked for hours on a piece that isn’t ready yet…. I’m trying to wrangle some of my heart’s response to the past couple of weeks into words. It hasn’t gone smoothly. So until I get it done I give you this piece I wrote in November 2015. The situations have changed. Perhaps the fear hasn’t. 

Many people are sincerely afraid when they think on the events of the last few weeks: the twin attacks in Lebanon, suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the plane crash in Egypt, protests for justice and equal treatment on campuses across the US, the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris. Terrorism and the threat of violence have paralyzed people. What once only happened far away creeps closer with every news broadcast. Our world seems hazardous and our safety in great jeopardy. Fear has taken root and has quickly converted to a deep paranoia that colours every opinion, every conviction, every decision.

Consequently there is a growing number of American States that have emphatically decided to close their doors to Syrian refugees. Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback, in a recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle wrote with words wreaking of worry, “My first priority as governor is the safety of all Kansans, and in this dangerous environment, we must take prudent and responsible actions to protect our citizens. That is why I signed an executive order directing that no state agency, or organization receiving grant money from the state, will participate in or assist in any way in the relocation of Syrian refugees in Kansas.” (www.kansas.com/opinion)

Fear is universally understood. When I hear fear in another person’s words empathy for them rises up in me. I have felt afraid many times and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Even this past weekend I spent a nearly sleepless night battling my own set of freak-outs. Friday late afternoon, along with thousands of others, I learned of the Paris attacks for the first time. Lowell is scheduled to fly to Paris on November 25th. He along with thousands of delegates and participants is descending on Paris for the COP 21 International Climate Summit. By Saturday night fear had stirred up my soul into an intolerable frenzy. I turned and tossed all night. I’d fall off to sleep only to be awakened by dreams with bad guys and chases and dark corners and Lowell. I lied there and tried to speak reason to my tortured thoughts. But reason was weak when the lights were off. My imaginings wrecked havoc on all rational thought. I was afraid.

When faced with fear we have choices. We can give into it and let it control our behavior—which is what I did Saturday night with less than restful results. We can ignore it, silence it, stuff it down. Or we can bravely name it and bring it to the only place of hope for healing. The antidote for fear is always faith. The only analgesic for anxiety is peace.

Something happened on Sunday. Whereas Saturday night I was convinced that Lowell should cancel his planned travel to Paris, by Sunday afternoon I knew he should go. I had found a place to put my fear. This may seem overly simple. To the unafraid or to the petrified this might sound shallow and silly, perhaps even trivial or trite. But trust me. I have found a safe place to store my fear and you can too.

I’ve written before about the story in the gospels where the four men—hopeless to do anything to solve their lame friend’s problem—load him up on a makeshift stretcher (essentially an old bed) and they bring him to Jesus. Out of complete desperation, and in full awareness of their own weaknesses and limitations, they actually dig a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus is staying. There in plain view of a large crowd, the same crowd that kept them from going through the door, they lowered their friend down on his stretcher right in front of Jesus.

In the past I’ve done that for my friends and family members that have suffered. I’ve done that for whole countries. I’ve lowered all of Pakistan down on a large charpai (rope bed) at the feet of Jesus. I’ve prayed “dragging, lugging, lowering, pleading prayers” for whole regions. And now, maybe because I’ve had so much experience in doing this for others, I’m doing this for myself. I’m taking my fear through the roof–from up where it’s crescendoed down to Jesus where he ministers. My fears, my anxieties, my perpetual little panics, my worries, my what-ifs, my worst-case-scenarios—they are all laid out on a bed with a tear stained pillow case and turmoiled linens…and I’m laying them out at the feet of Jesus.

Yesterday a young friend asked me what that looks like to, “lay our worries at the foot of the cross,” or to “give our fears to Jesus”. Author Tim Keller says the imagination connects what we know to be true in our heads with what we long to experience in our hearts. There is great power in our imaginations. I imagine bundling up all my fears and bringing them to Jesus. I imagine his expression as he sees me approach. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I throw all my worries at him…as if he’s somehow to blame for it all. He just gently catches it. Sometimes I picture myself pitching my panic at him. He doesn’t even flinch. I cast my cares on him knowing full well he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

Playing Whack-a-Mole with our emotions doesn’t work. We cannot bop these things away. We cannot stuff them down forever. Far better is to recognize what’s going on inside us. Allow our fears to surface—acknowledge their presence. Identify them. Name them. Be gentle with your worries. There is no shame in being afraid. And then lead your fears to the bed, to the stretcher. Help them climb on. Look around inside. “Search me, O God, and know my heart? See if there are any other anxious ways within me.” (Psalm 139:21) Trap the little fear foxes and tie them down on your makeshift stretcher.

I understand the fear that drives a person to curl up into the fetal position. I resonate with the temptation to shut down, to self protect, to hold on to those I love closer, tighter, with shorter reigns. But we are called to external living. We are called to step outside, to love others generously, to welcome strangers warmly. We are called to exit the constricting circle of our fears and to enter into the wide space of faith and grace. This will not happen unless we invite our fears out of the shadows and out into the light. When we openly admit we too are afraid, bravely carrying our strapped down fears to Jesus, even that is an act of trust and surrender. This is where the work of resisting the power of paranoia begins. The Spirit of God softens our souls and leads us courageously into the risky place of love.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears (Psalm 34:4).

Giving our fears to Jesus is not magical. Anxieties aren’t immediately silenced. Fear isn’t –poof!—instantly gone. In fact nothing fundamentally changes. And yet, something noticeable does happen. Jesus does not ignore the cries of those who suffer. With his love, he calms your fears, he separates you from them, he releases you from their power. Remarkably he intentionally stays close to your broken heart. He has a special love and affinity for those who call out to him when they’re hurting. With a tangible presence he surrounds you with unfailing love and comforts you in your troubles. It’s of great consolation to me that there is nothing that can separate us from that love—not even our frenzied fears for today nor our worst-case-scenarios for tomorrow, as hellish as they may seem.

(Psalm 9:12, Zeph 3:17, Psalm 34:4 & 18, Psalm 145:18, Psalm 32:10, 2 Cor 1:3-4, Romans 8:38)

Traveling Mercies

When I was a kid there was a prayer we prayed every time we set out on a trip, which was often. My childhood was marked by travel and transition so you can know that we prayed this prayer frequently. Every trip was prefaced with a prayer that included a little request for “traveling mercies”.

Two weeks ago I was on my way to Thailand. As I buckled my seatbelt, and ensured my seat back was in its upright position and my tray table was closed and locked, my carry-on stowed under the seat in front of me, this prayer came to me. The words, “traveling mercies”, surfaced in my prayer. I smiled at the habituated prayer that had come to me from the faraway places of my mind but then I began to muse about its meaning.

Certainly this is a prayer for safety. It’s a prayer for protection. Travel has its risks. I think it might also be a plea for ease. Heaven knows travel can be rigorous and exhausting.

In the Dallas airport, on my first brief lay over, I met three Bangladeshis in the magazine kiosk who spoke Hindi. I sat next to a Pakistani woman explaining to her husband, left behind and suddenly hungry, how to make chicken curry in the pressure cooker. I watched two little girls playing with each other, in and out and around their daddy’s legs. In Houston across the darkened departure lounge I caught sight of a little girl’s mime show for her parents when she thought no one else was watching. Sitting just across from me two bedraggled parents kept trying to hide their toddler’s pacifier. The dad, with a wink at me, slid it behind his back to his wife, and then quietly explained that they didn’t want him to fall asleep until they were on board. I smiled understandably. The little person was agitated and outspoken about it! He fussed and fretted. He wanted his pacifier. When the dad left to use the restroom, the mom sheepishly smiled at me, pulled it out from her bag and I got another conspiratorial wink. That time I burst out laughing.

A well-wishing text message from a friend, a kind word from a fellow passenger as we went through security, a timely bus to take me to the next terminal, a good cup of coffee, a bird flying through the terminal to the delight of passengers old and young, a pleasant seatmate, earplugs, a kind flight attendant these are all mercies. When a connection is made, luggage is found, your debit card works; when you happen upon mango sticky rice in the airport food court, when you find the bus that promises to take you south to Dolphin Bay, when you manage to sleep some, when there’s someone to meet you with a taxi at the other end—these are all undeserved delights. This is the stuff of traveling mercies.

Today we are embarking on a collective journey. The destination is unknown. We’re being told that we’re heading in one direction, but I for one, don’t trust the man in the cockpit. There aren’t enough seat belts to go around. I’m nervous and more than a little anxious. Not all the passengers understand the situation. There is bickering and battling in the economy seats. Business class and First Class have seemingly inserted their earplugs and put on their eye patches. Those seated in emergency exit rows don’t know what they’re doing, some of them have admitted such but they’re still being asked to sit there. Already I’m feeling nauseous from motion sickness and really we haven’t started moving yet. Turbulence is ahead. It’s going to be a long flight.

I woke up this morning in a dense fog. It was dark outside and I wondered if the sun would shine today. Knowing the trip ahead, I breathed in and out, and prayed for traveling mercies.

Lord, protect us, deliver us, bring us safely to the other side. We ask humbly for traveling mercies. Let us see you at work. Give us eyes to recognize the little gifts.

Help us to bravely stand up for those whose travel documents are in question.

Give us grace to serve our fellow passengers. Help us to be nice to each other. Grant us strength to do all the good we can en route.

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breath. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination.

But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.

Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Persecution of Christians: Real and Stable


I speak up for refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on this blog. It’s right that I do so. I see, read, and hear fear about all of these groups from a variety of people. 

But today, I am speaking up for those from my own faith tradition who face persecution: Christians

An organization called Open Doors releases an annual list that examines religious freedoms for Christians worldwide in five areas. The five areas are private, family, community, national and church. 

Open Doors has been monitoring persecution for 25 years and claim that this past year, 2016, was the worst year yet for Christians. Indeed Islamic extremism, often a primary cause of persecution now has a rival: Ethnic nationalism. 

“Persecution” is defined as hostility experienced as a result of identifying with Christ.

Here is the list of the top ten countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: 

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen
  10. Eritrea

It is critical to remember that this list is not about people being made fun of for their beliefs, or people feeling like they are not allowed to express political leanings. Many in the west erroneously believe that social media attacks on newsfeeds are “persecution.” Reading the report on persecution is both important and sobering. It also reveals those newsfeed attacks to be exactly what they are: petty, childish demonstrations of anger and dislike of opinions, NOT persecution. 

The persecution that these Christians face is real and it has been going on for many years. In fact, it shows no signs of stopping and is concerningly stable. I have highlighted a few significant findings. 

  1. A total of 27 Christian leaders in Mexico and Colombia (23 in Mexico and four in Colombia) were killed for speaking out against drug lords. 
  2. Pakistan rose to number four on the list, with great concern over the increase in violence. 
  3. Ethnic nationalism is deeply concerning as a growing cause of persecution 
  4. The most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea. For 14 years, this country has topped the list. 

There are many more important findings and you can access the full list here. 

But all is not lost! The end of the article gives a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern Christians reclaiming their place. 

1. Christians looking forward to going back to historic homes in northern Iraq 

The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages, such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80,000 Christians fled their homes in 2014 and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil. “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.”
2. ‘Exodus’ of Middle East Christians slows 

Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but the majority have not yet left the region as a whole. The number of Christians exiting the region has slowed. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.*

I will be honest. I am writing this while in complete comfort. I am at home in my living room and I’m slowly drinking a cup of coffee. I am far removed from the persecution and stress of so many who share my faith.  How do I reconcile my reality with what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve occasionally seen?

I think the first thing I need to do is be honest about my own circumstances and have a clear view of what persecution is, honoring those who struggle and not seeing persecution when it’s not there. The second thing I need to do is not shy away from the difficult. If it’s a story that is difficult for me to read, how much more difficult must it be for those who go through it? 

Next, I need to identify with those who are suffering through prayer and giving when and where I can. If that means giving of time and finances, then I need to move forward and give in those areas. 

But lastly, perhaps the biggest thing I can do is seek to love God and my neighbor, to remain faithful where God has placed me, to seek to be worthy of identifying with those who lose all that this world offers, deciding that their faith was worth it all. Amen and Amen.  

[Source:https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/news/4812440/4812457/4837468%5D

Loneliness and the Jesus Prayer 

community

I lay on my back in a sterile room, a fancy xray machine above and around me. I am with complete strangers, entrusting myself to their care and expertise. The burgundy hospital gown I wear is a shapeless piece of cloth, fashioned not for beauty but for practicality.

I am alone and I feel vulnerable. While I trust the strangers in the work they do, they know nothing about me other than my name, my age, and my insurance carrier. Other than that, I am an anonymous body in a big system.

They don’t know that I woke up this morning thinking about my beautiful grandson and the daughter who is his mom; they don’t know that I am thinking about my parents and how aging is not for the weak, not for cowards. They have no idea that I have five children whom I would give my life for; that not a day goes by without me thinking about them and praying for their hearts and souls.

They know nothing about me beyond this procedure.

These strangers are kind, they try and make me as comfortable as possible. They explain every step of what they will do and try and buoy me with their confidence.

In the big scheme of things, this whole procedure is small. The pain is nothing in comparison to other pain that I’ve felt. It’s just that the feelings it evokes are big.

Somehow, it feels like this pain represents the pain of my world, the pain that so many I know are experiencing. It represents physical and emotional pain. It represents the deep loneliness that many live in every day. It represents the isolation within which so many live and die.

Sociologists claim that social isolation is now endemic in American society. The number of adults who claim they are lonely is double what it was in the 1980s. This affects the overall health and wellbeing of millions of people. Both physical and emotional pain are intensified by loneliness. We are hard-wired for human connection and when that is missing, we suffer.

All this I think about as I lay, watching a stranger busily prepare for a medical procedure.

I’m alone in the room now. They say they will be back soon. The Jesus Prayer is on my lips: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

There is something about this prayer, something that reminds me that all this loneliness and pain I am feeling for the world is not my burden to bear. It is too big and it would quite literally kill me. I slowly release it, offering it up to the unseen but fully present God that I trust.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me. And so it is.

2017 – Making All Things New

abandoned house

A couple of years ago, there was a show on television called Rehab Addict. It’s not what you may think from the title. It’s about a woman who takes old, dilapidated houses and rehabilitates them, makes them fresh and beautiful, ready to be lived in again. In her words, she is “addicted to rehab,” the kind of rehab that houses need.

The show is inspiring. She rarely uses anything new. She finds old cabinets and strips them, creating charm and style. She finds an antique door knob that isn’t working, takes it apart and fixes it. After she is through with it, it’s not only workable but catches the light from the shine of its polish. She makes all things new.

And that’s what I think about today as I get ready to face 2017. I am desperate for rehab, desperate for the old and dilapidated to emerge as bright, fresh, and new.

In the book of Revelation, we are given a glimpse of a new Heaven and a new Earth. We are given a glimpse of a place with no more pain, no more suffering, no more fractured relationships and tired broken promises. We are given a picture that is better than we can possibly imagine. 

“.…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

Our world is weary. So many of us are desperate for rescue, desperate to see justice roll down, desperate for light to shine in the dark places. We are desperate for healing, waiting for our tears to be wiped away.

Into this mix come the promises in Revelation. Irrational? Perhaps. Improbable? Maybe. Do I believe them? With all my heart. A virgin birth, a baby saviour, a life lived without sin, death on a cross, and a resurrection. Those things are the foundation for the promises that come years later in Revelation through John, the Beloved Disciple.

None of that makes sense to the rational mind, but it sure makes sense to those of us desperate for rehabilitation. It makes sense to those of us who know that we are not capable of living life without a Savior. 

He will make all things new. It is God who will take those of us tired in body and soul and rehabilitate us for his purpose, for his glory. It may not be rational, but this is the beauty of an irrational season.

“And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And He said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true.’ Then He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.'”

May we face 2017 with the joy of a people who hope; a people who long for God’s kingdom to come on earth, just as it is in Heaven. And may we look with anticipation for all things to be made new. 

[Source: Revelation 21: 4-6 NIV]

A Psalm for 2016


A Psalm for 2016 by Robynn (Based on Psalm 136 and written at Sister Irene Nowell’s suggestion) 

2016 has been a difficult year. The entire globe can testify to this. War, terrorist attacks, the zika virus, political chaos, hacking and doping. Social contracts, that we’ve assumed to be universal, have been shredded. Nothing feels safe or reliable any more. We stand on shaky ground. 

A couple of months ago I attended a workshop on the Psalms led by Sister Irene Nowell OSB. Sister Irene is an Old Testament scholar. She has written no less than nine commentaries on Old Testament books including one on the Psalms. At one point during the seminar she led us through a spiritual exercise. We read through the first part and the last part of Psalm 136. In the middle of the psalm we diverged into our own stories. We recited to one another the highlights and heartbreaks of the year. And then we remembered the refrain: His faithful love endures forever. Whatever plot twists your story has taken this year, whatever losses you’ve suffered, whatever rejections, disappointments, humiliations, agonies you’ve encountered: His faithful love endures forever. 

The juxtaposition of the harsh realities of life on the planet with the faithful love of God are impossible to wrap my brain around. It seems almost trite and silly to think about God’s love in the face of world suffering. But it also feels completely impossible to face the suffering of the world without reference to the mysteries of God’s faithful love. 

I’ve followed Sister Irene’s advice again. I’ve reworked 2016 into Psalm 136. 

Psalm 136

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who placed the earth among the waters.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Give thanks to him who made the heavenly lights—

His faithful love endures forever.

the sun to rule the day,

His faithful love endures forever.

and the moon and stars to rule the night.

His faithful love endures forever.

 Paris Climate Agreement ratified and went into effect.

        His faithful love endures forever. 

 The Brexit vote left Britain, Europe and the world reeling.

        His faithful love endures forever.

An inspiring All Refugee team competes at the Summer Olympics.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The situation in Syria continues to decline. Aleppo is nearly obliterated.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Fifty were tragically killed in a nightclub in Orlando.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The brightest and boldest super moon in over 70 years broke through the November night’s sky.

        His faithful love endures forever.

The Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series!

        His faithful love endures forever.

In an unprecedentedly ugly election cycle, Donald Trump, wins the Elections in the United States.

        His faithful love endures forever.

Mother Theresa was made a saint.

       His faithful love endures forever.

India, without warning, banned the 500 rupee and the 1000 rupee note.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox church met for the first time since 1054.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Harriet Tubman is going to grace the front of the American twenty dollar bill.

            His faithful love endures forever.

This morning’s sunrise was radiant in broad stripes of bright colours across the dark horizon.

            His faithful love endures forever.

When the world news was too much to bear fake news sites did what they could to make it worse.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Too many black men were killed by too many white police officers.

            His faithful love endures forever.

Former dictator Hissene Habre of Chad was convicted of crimes against humanity and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

            His faithful love endures forever.

India unveils the world’s largest solar panel plant!

            His faithful love endures forever.

Five young students in Manhattan, Kansas: Isaac, Adelaide, Lilly, Kathy and Bronwynn, stood up against the status quo for the 57 Native American students who have been personally hurt by the Indian mascot.

            His faithful love endures forever.

 He remembered us in our weakness.

His faithful love endures forever.

He saved us from our enemies.

His faithful love endures forever.

He gives food to every living thing.

His faithful love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven.

His faithful love endures forever.

[Picture Source: https://goo.gl/images/tjg0LQ%5D

Isolation or Exposure?

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Is God’s protection realized, not through isolation, but through exposure? 

We had been in Cairo only 2 weeks when our son Joel slipped and hit his head on the sharp edge of a bed.  He sustained an open cut right above his eye. With Joel screaming and bleeding profusely, we somehow made our way to the emergency room in a hospital on the banks of the Nile. A kind doctor took care of the wound, sewing it up with tiny, precise stitches. And as I looked at those beautiful blue eyes of my son, his fear and pain so evident, I just kept on whispering “I’m here Joel. Mommy’s here.”

I went over the scene in my mind many times. If only I had realized how sharp the edge of the bed was; if only I had made a ‘no jumping on the bed rule.’ If only I had been there. If only…..

At heart was the underlying realization that I wasn’t there to protect my son. I couldn’t protect my son from the fall.

When I look back at parenting small children, that is not the only time when I couldn’t protect. I sometimes take in a sharp breath at the memories.Not because anything tragic happened, but because tragedies could have happened, and many times over. From croup that sounded like a wounded puppy in an isolated area with no medical help, to high fevers and salmonella, you cannot parent five children without several ‘catch your breath’ moments.

I think about protection; about how much we want it and need it and pray for it. Protection. Preservation. Safety. Shelter. Refuge. Strength. So many words associated with protection. From the minute our babies are born we are endowed with a fierce need to protect. Our babies are the gap in our armor, the place where an enemy can send a sword and pierce us, sometimes fatally.

Protection. Protect — “[pruhtekt] to defend or guard from attack, invasion, loss, annoyance, insult,etc.; cover or shield from injury or danger.”

But babies grow up and as they grow, our ability to protect diminishes by thousands. No longer are we with them night and day. We let these babies out of our sight. We share them with people, some worthy and others unworthy. We know that this is what makes a healthy adult, but it is not without fear that we release them.

If we are honest, we know that even when they are small a certain amount of danger in the form of germs is a good thing. A healthy immune system is not born of protection but of exposure.

Is the same principle true for life in general? Is a certain amount of danger a good thing? Is a bit of risk necessary? Is God’s protection realized, not through isolation, but through exposure? Do we develop a healthier spirituality through struggle, not through calm? 

Just as we cannot protect our children from everything, we cannot protect ourselves as we go into the unknown of the year. We don’t know the paths where we will trip, the places where we will shudder under the weight of fear.And fear is bad currency. When we make decisions based on fear, we go bankrupt.

Last year my oldest daughter gave me a book by Eula Biss titled On Immunity: An Innoculation. The book comes from the personal experience of researching vaccinations when pregnant with her son. In the first few pages of the book, Biss recounts the familiar story of Achilles. So badly did Achilles mother, Thetis, want to protect him, that she took him by the heel and immersed his body into a river to make him invulnerable to injury. Achilles becomes a famous warrior, but as fate would have it, an arrow finds the one place where he is vulnerable and he is killed.

The point is clear. There is no way we can shield our kids or ourselves from all the danger, sadness, and hurt that comes our way in life; no way we can protect ourselves from the same in this new year.

Instead, I must hold my arms opened in surrender and humility.  The year will come, just as last year did, with joy and with sorrow. It will hold things I will love and things I will hate. There will be times where I feel completely exposed and vulnerable to all that can harm me. But despite the exposure, the potential or probable danger I encounter, I will never be without the presence of God. There is no place that will be hidden from his presence or from his love.

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”*

Those many years ago, as I looked at those beautiful blue eyes of my son, his fear and pain so evident while the doctor stitched up his wound, I just kept on whispering “I’m here Joel. Mommy’s here.”

I couldn’t protect him, but I could be present. Maybe my presence was enough. 

[Note – This post was revised from one posted one year ago.]

The Eclectic Nativity Set

I’ve been a little lazy about Christmas this year. I did most of my shopping on the Internet (something I’ve sworn off of in the past). I delegated all the wrapping to our oldest daughter who seemed to actually enjoy it. I let the girls do most of the decorating this year too. We’re leaving for Ontario to celebrate with my family and it just seemed like too much work to put up a tree, let alone, to ‘deck the halls’. I’ve been rather ambivalent about the whole thing. (That’s the gentle way of saying I’ve really been a party-pooper and a grouchy Grinch.)

And so in a spirit of half-heartedness and efficiency (‘let’s just get this over with!’) I decided not to set out all the nativity sets I have. Rather I grabbed bits and pieces from each of them and put them together. I set out the wise men from our Ethiopian set, the shepherds from India. There was another lone shepherd with his sheep that I swiped from the Playmobile Nativity, I suspect he was from Europe. Mary and Joseph came from a Bolivian Nativity I’ve had since I was in college and the baby Jesus was hand made by our youngest daughter Bronwynn when she was 6 or 7.

Something happened in my heart as I set out this motley crew of international delegates to the Holy Nativity. I felt a worshipful shift in my spirit. Slowly I lowered the handmade angel off to thimg_5211e side. Balding and heavy bottomed this angel is full of joy. I think I felt a little of the “radiance of the Lord’s glory surround” me. As frightening and disturbing as this year has been I knew the reassurance of the angel’s message: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior, the Rescuer, the Lord is here!”

With tears in my eyes I stood back from the scene. I shook my head at how silly a Nativity set really is. In no way does the plastic, or clay, or wood capture the chaos of that long ago holy night. It was earthy and bloody and noisy and messy. God became flesh. Grace and Light and Life were embodied and Mary, “wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger.”

It brought me such joy to see representatives from three or four countries and continents surround the manger at this commemoration of the first Advent. The Ethiopians tall and proud, the Indians colourful and exuberant, the Bolivian couple sincere, the lone European shepherd stiffly holding his lantern.

I imagined the glories of the second Advent where people will gather from every corner of the globe. Picture it! Every language will be buzzing, every tribe will have someone there, even the remote places will be represented. Some from every nation and every race will come. People from every background will gather. It will be a huge crazy crowd! And Christ, having long since outgrown his manger bed will be seated on a throne, our crowned and glorious King. We will fall on our faces before him and worship,

Oh, Yes!
The blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
The honor and power and strength,
Belong to our God forever and ever and ever!
Oh, Yes!

I pulled the clay figurine of Mary closer to the manger. I scooted the plastic sheep back a little. Maybe it was the light from the tiny plastic lantern, but as I stepped away from my Nativity, things seemed a little brighter and hope seemed a little clearer.

(Scriptures referenced from Luke 2:8-14 and Rev 7:9-12).

Just be Faithful – a Repost

Rain

Readers – today is a repost. I’ll be going off the blog through the weekend. I am so grateful that you come by and read, comment, encourage, and help me grow. Thank you. 

*****

“I’m so tired” I think as I’m walking to the subway. Rain is falling and my feet hurt. I’m dragging at six thirty in the morning. I want to cry in this world of cold and rain.

Just be faithful – It’s not like I see the Heavens open and hear the voice of God reverberate across the skies and through my head. It’s just a still, quiet, persistent thought.

Just be faithful.

I’m just back from a refugee camp where 1500 people are displaced — men, women, and children. A place where you beg God to have mercy, where you weep for those who have lost everything. Where you wish you had millions of dollars and a heart that could love harder.

I want to do so much more.

I send a message to my friend miles away in Djibouti, in a place as dry and hot as my world is cold and rainy. “It feels so small” I say. She replies in words that capture a life of being faithful “Know what? It is small. And you are just one person. But a mustard seed is small. That’s the way of the Kingdom. May we always delight in being part of small things.”

Just be faithful.

Those words again. They are so persistent. I must pay attention. Faithful – having or showing constant support or loyalty. Steadfast. Dedicated. Constant. Loyal. True. What does this mean right now? What does it mean in crowds and tiredness? I know well what it means in the quiet with my candle burning and my hot drink by my side. Oh I know faithful then and it is easy. But what is faithful in a refugee camp? What is faithful now – on a rainy morning? 

Just be faithful.

So I think about what being faithful to God means in this moment. In this moment it’s as simple as not taking the handicapped seat. But I want it, oh how I want it. And it’s there and it’s empty and what if some young 20-year-old takes that seat? It’s not for them! It’s for the handicapped and I feel handicapped at the moment. Just be faithful. Don’t take the seat. I sigh and move on down the squished train. Faithful – it means I won’t push my way through, it means I’ll give up self and make sure others are okay, it means I’ll notice the person that needs help. That is all I am called to, nothing more — but nothing less.

Just be faithful.

It means I’ll give a nod and a smile when I don’t feel like it, that I’ll stop and communicate with the marginalized when I see them on the street, that I won’t gossip about co-workers when they make me angry, that I won’t get outraged about what doesn’t matter, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  Just be faithful.

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” There is now a heavy rain falling and those of us on our way to work are leaving the subway. There is a puddle three inches deep on the platform right before the stairs, just deep enough to seep into shoes before going up to dark clouds and rain. I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

Just be faithful. The words are lyrical now, they speak through the mist and rain, redemptive and life-giving.

The (Political) Work of Forgiveness

Here at Communicating Across Boundaries we’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding the massive elephant (and the donkey) in the room. Both Marilyn and I, although this was not planned or discussed, have largely avoided politics in our writing this election season. I’m not sure what Marilyn’s reasons are but mine have been deep and wide: I don’t think either candidate needs any more free press, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to formulate an objective sentence, I’m too angry to write coherently. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband Lowell, in his blog, The Liberator Today, quoted conservative commentator Erick Erickson who wrote “A Clinton administration may see the church besieged from the outside, but a Trump administration will see the church poisoned from within.”   Erickson went on to say, “I think Hillary Clinton will do lasting damage to the country. I cannot vote for her.  Having fully weighed my opposition to Trump, I think Donald Trump will do lasting damage to the witness of the Church in America and I therefore cannot vote for him. I am without a candidate. I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”

You may or may not agree with Erickson’s opinion on Clinton or Trump—I’m not sure I completely do– but surely one thing we can all agree on is that this presidential race has been more ugly and more divisive than most. Trump and Clinton have joined up to divide more families, more groups of friends, more religious communities than anyone would have thought possible. Things have been said, opinions have been discussed, names have been called. Together, Clinton and Trump have successfully arrived at a new type of bipartisanship — both parties are divided and realigned, they’ve been shuffled and dealt out in surprising ways.

An American president will be voted for on November 8th,. One candidate will be chosen by the people. The other candidate will have to join the rest of us in coming to grips with the outcomes. Once the president is elected the real work will begin–and I don’t actually mean the work of the presidency. Each of us will have to get to work. We have some serious forgiving to do.

It’s folly to trivialize or minimize how difficult forgiveness can be. When we’re hurt there are a hundred physical and physiological mechanisms responding in us. Biologically we are wired with a fight or flight reaction to pain: our blood pressure rises, our heart rate accelerates, pupils dilate, our muscles tense up. These reactions were given to us to defend our bodies. There’s a reason we call them “defense mechanisms.” That response transfers into how we respond to emotional pain too. We clam up, shut down, freeze over, self-protect or we scream out in anger, rage or protest. Reacting is hardwired into us at our creation.

Forgiveness works against how we’re naturally determined to be. Part of the work of forgiveness is working against our natural selves. Up hill, up stream, against the current. We cannot will or make forgiveness happen. Poet Alexander Pope once said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” It is virtually impossible to do the work of forgiveness without a measure of supernatural grace.

My husband Lowell went on to write:

We each bring our hearts to God with the humble prayer of examen, and ask him to reveal what each of us brought (or failed to bring) to our current state of affairs. God is generous …  Surely, he will examine our hearts with gentleness and woo us to the Cross. If we have said a harsh word to another person in the heat of 2016, did not speak the truth in love, or knowingly perpetrated a lie for argumentative advantage, then we should seek out that person or persons and ask for forgiveness. … Reform will also lead us to forgiving others, and I do believe God will not nurture reform without it involving forgiveness one to another.**

Collectively we’ve been through a rather traumatic election cycle. We’ll need to be kind to ourselves and to each other. It’s going to take time to recover. Foundations that we have presumed to be firm have suddenly revealed their fragility. Indisputables have been disputed. Unquestionables have been questioned. Presumptions have been poked and prodded. We’ve felt fear and dread. We’ve been incredulous and angry. Panic has poked through our patriotism. The spirit of the Trump campaign has given us permission to be rude and unkind, to not censor our commentary on those that are different than we are. The demons of our demagogues have been dark and destructive. Democracy is not the safe space we thought it was.

In a spirit of reconciliation we need to roll up our sleeves and engage our broken communities with acceptance and hope and work towards healing. We need to grieve our losses, own our despairs and our disappointments. Now is the time to begin the work of forgiveness. It won’t be easy. Forgiveness never is. But it’s important work for the sake of our souls. For the past two years we’ve bitched about political polarization. Unity can only be realized on the holy ground of forgiveness. It’s the start line, a place for both sides to meet, in the ongoing political race. Forgiveness alone provides the freedom to move forward for the forgiven and for the forgiver. It gives us a vision for hope. Slowly our focus shifts away from the ugliness of the past to a glimmer of hope for the future.

Ronald Rolheiser in his book, Sacred Fire, writes, “As we age, we can begin to trim down our spiritual vocabulary, and eventually we can get it down to three words: Forgive, forgive, forgive! To die with a forgiving heart is the ultimate moral and religious imperative. We should not delude ourselves on this. All the dogmatic and moral purity in the world does little for us if our hearts are bitter and incapable of forgiveness.” (p256)

**(http://www.theliberator.today/blog/2016/10/12/naamans-voters-guide-for-2016-4how-quickly)

*Photo credit: johnlund.com

 

The Welcome Prayer

I have to admit I’m really struggling this week. I’m angry at some recent news from an organization close to my heart. I’m disgusted by the political situation in the country where I live. I’m horrified by the people that excuse sexual indecency and the language of predatory sexual assault. I’m embarrassed by those Christians in leadership that refuse to remove their blinders and truly see what’s happening.

Meanwhile racial imbalance continues to effect communities across this country. More Syrians fleeing their ravaged homeland have died this week in trying to escape. Much of Haiti’s infrastructure has been erased by fierce winds and waters. Over 800 people died in the wreckage. Thailand’s beloved King has died leaving thousands mourning and in uncertain transition. Yemen is still reeling from the double bomb attack at a funeral last week which left 140 people dead and over 500 injured. The situation in Kashmir is heated and precarious. The Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, once again on trail for blasphemy, has had her case adjourned for the time being with the threat of false accusation still hanging over her.

It’s too much. Never before have I been so tempted to cancel everything, stay in my pajamas, and curl up in my bed for a few days. I’m heart sick and worn out from it all. I want to make friends with denial and ignorance. I’m done.

I was awake early this morning working on a different blog post. It was an angry rant full of passion and fury. As I was madly pounding at my keyboard I realized that the piece had taken on a life of it’s own. The words were nearly typing themselves. Anger was colouring in ugly shades outside the lines of reason and wisdom. I pushed my chair away from my desk, poured myself another cup of coffee and paused.

Leanna Tankersley tucks into her very insightful book, Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding, a chapter entitled, Welcoming It All. In it she includes the Welcome Prayer as written by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk:

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions. I let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

Tankersley goes on to say, “I love these lines, this concept, this practice. The Welcoming Prayer takes us out of our heads and into a space where we stop, even for a very few minutes, our analyzing and figuring. We relinquish our strategies and allow God to work within us, in the place where we are far more malleable than our mind. We are opening ourselves up to a divine encounter which is never a bad idea.” (Leanna Tankersley, Brazen, 2016. pg 200).

Admittedly it’s a hard prayer to pray today. I don’t want to “let go of my desire for power or control.” I don’t want to “let go of my desire to change any situation.” I’m rattling at my chain for change and decency and solutions and justice. But, if I’m honest, the rattling isn’t doing my soul any good. I’m worked up and out of shape. I’m a mess. I’d love to escape and avoid and hide.

Even as I sip my now lukewarm coffee, I think there might be a meaningful way to separate myself from the mess of it all. It strikes me that there’s a profound difference between burying my head in the sand and lifting my eyes up to see above the muck. Both refuse to focus on the crud and horror of what’s happening. But one gives me permission to welcome what God is doing. Looking up allows me to make eye contact with a broader perspective and with Hope itself! If I look up I see above the landscape, I see the horizon, wide and eternal, stretching beyond what I now know, making way for what’s to come.

Perhaps today is a day to breath deeply: in and out. I need to remember what is true. I need to be faithful to what I cannot see. I need to call to mind the presence of Christ and the Living Hope that dwells in me. I need to make space inside to choose to welcome what God wants to do in me.

My husband Lowell often quotes from the novel, Brothers K, by David James Duncan. There’s a scene in the novel where an old baseball coach is advising a young batter, “He said there are two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said—which sounds almost the same, but is really very different—is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that’s going to strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”

Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today—even the pitch that’s going to strike me out, even the one that’s going to hit me in the head and knock me out— because I know weirdly enough it’s for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions—including trying to sort out the world’s wounds. It’s not easy but I’m going to try to let go of my desire for power and control. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself and the anger and angst I feel when I can’t. Oh God please help me open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.