Charlottesville

Charlottesville is where I grew up and went to college and grad school.  And it is where I moved this past April.  And it is on fire; I do not overstate things when I say that this past weekend, it was as if evil were released and multiplied.

This morning in praying with a friend of mine around gentleness and hard human emotions—anger, lust, fear, loneliness, etc—an image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane came to me.  Jesus took the reality of his own fear and loneliness (and who knows what else) to his Father.  There was no pretense.  His bloody sweating was his anguished human passion forcing itself out into the light.  And there Jesus was met and received in his complete humanity by his Father.

I wonder what it would have been like had he not done that?  If he’d showed up in that garden unwilling to offer God the totality of his heart?  If he’d avoided that garden all together?  What would have happened when Judas showed up and betrayed him with the kiss?  Would he have eviscerated Judas on the spot?   When Peter cut off the ear of the Roman guard?  Would Jesus have upped the stakes, using his power to call down heaven’s wrath on the Roman guards?  I don’t know.  It is a moot point—he did bring to his Father the center of his very passion, and having met Him, was empowered to move among the Roman oppressors and angry revolutionaries—and all the masses—with supernatural power, wisdom, and purpose.

Making sense of everything that is showing up in Charlottesville, let alone “fixing” it, feels impossible.  The Alt Right’s quest for racial supremacy is clearly evil.  Anything that seeks to divide (and/or suppress the honor of) the nations (ethné) is in direct contradiction to God’s plan which culminates in Revelation 21 with the nations all bringing their honor to the Lord.  Satan, using not just people but systems and institutions, is behind all efforts to distort and divide the ethné.  And in response, the fear, anger and resistance of so many flows strong, crying and screaming “No!” to racism.  Oh how I have heard and felt this pain in so many of my friends of color.  And as those voices are raised, so, too, many other burning issues seem to avalanche into the mix—issues of sexuality, gender, class, and seemingly gaping and bleeding personal wounds—churning and muddying the waters. 

Oh Jesus!  How did you do it?  How did you walk in a culture characterized by growing oppression and revolution, powerfully loving those held captive by sin’s effects—within and without—yet transcending the narrative offered by that same culture?  How did you say “No” to powerful and prevailing agendas, manifest in Judas’ kiss and Peter’s sword?  How did you find the power and wisdom to go forward in a way nobody would have imagined?  How did you know where to set your face and how to walk forward in the sea of angry and accusing voices?  And how did you do all of this with love still flowing freely from in your veins?  What was the joy that was set before you that made this possible?   Just Who is the Father you met in that garden?  How did you meet him so deeply? 

We must take seriously what has happened (and will most likely flare again in Charlottesville and elsewhere).  Where this will all lead is an unknown, but my sense is that it will not go backwards to what seemed a gentler time.  So my longing going forward is that we first and foremost can bring the totality of our hearts to our all-powerful, loving heavenly Father, and like Jesus, receive in response the freedom and power to walk wisely, boldly, and lovingly into the storms. It will cost, but may we be set free to walk with our hearts poured out to our good Father in heaven, that we like Jesus might discern and walk with faith, hope, and love towards his certain & eternal purposes in the gritty personal steps we take around blind curves even today,

Moral Indignation in a Culture of Non-Imposition

My brain—like that of many people—has been spinning in the last 6 months.  The anger in our country, centered around all things political, seems explosive.  The finger pointing is endless.  The in-your-face comments constant.  All of it seems poised to call down upon the opposition the wrath of some kind of god. 

This boggles my mind because since the 1980s, with some noticeable exceptions, almost every educational setting that I have been in, and most public conversations I’ve encountered, have centered (even hammered) on this premise:  there are no absolutes.  It sounds in short like this:  Who am I (or who are you) to say what’s right or wrong?  For 35 years, I’ve heard variations on this theme in virtually every thoughtful—and not so thoughtful—public space in which I’ve traveled.  Deconstruction of most moral lines, and the bigger story they reveal, has seemed the orienting end game. 

At least until now.

Now, it seems imprecations based on crossed moral lines are flying through the air with the sharp fury of arrows set sail from angry bowmen fighting for their king.  Non-imposition be damned! our indignant culture screams in news feeds, emails, or simply passing conversations.  You’ve done wrong and now it’s time to pay!  (Who the you is switches up depending on who is screaming.)

On one hand, this scares me because I can’t figure out what common ground we as a nation could hope to build on going forward.  Since the 19th c. we have seemingly let go of any shared deference to a revealed and universal source for meaning and/or moral grounding.  And in recent decades, acknowledgment of natural law, too, seems also to have fallen away.  A big nation with lots of anger and little shared moral ground on which to stand feels unstable.  It seems like all that’s left in common is the reliance on power plays.  Scary.

Yet, on the other hand, I cannot help but see and feel in all the eager indignation a glimmer of good news breaking out.  Nobody now is saying you have your truth, I have mine.  Who am I to judge?  To the contrary, the gray fog of deconstruction is, in spite of itself, parting, thinning just a bit.  The last six months bespeak an unabashed demand from all quarters for moral lines of some kind.  Humanity’s far deeper, if often unacknowledged, hunger for a just and loving world, ruled by a just and loving King, is screaming everywhere. 

Hearing, watching, and feeling the culture of non-imposition publicly prove itself ephemeral, I have been slapped out of a 35-year-old growing fog.  The screaming, tweeting voices of America have awakened me again to the reality that even if our fallenness says otherwise, we live inside a relentlessly moral universe.  Even as often unwitting image bearers, we ache for the consummate King to come and make things right (which no president can ever be or do).

Of course, for a Christian this should seem obvious.  But 35 years of accumulated “do not impose” messaging can start to sound self-evident.  So, pondering my response in this loudly indignant cultural moment, though my instinct is to go mute and hide, I’m asking for the wisdom to hear the true cries beneath the screams.  And as I do, I’m asking for the courage to unabashedly be and hold out the brightness of Jesus Christ, the loving and just, consummate King. 

Pundits and prophets will say more than that needs to be done.  Of course they’re right.  Still, I’m increasingly convinced, nothing less will do.

A Tribute to My Father

As some of my readers know, about 3 weeks ago, my father (78) suddenly and shockingly passed away from one moment of heart arrhythmia as he stepped off the treadmill.  A few friends asked if I'd post the words that I shared at his service.  My words are below.  And just a note, "Jude" and "Tommy 4" are my nephews who died in equally shocking accidents in '07 and '11, respectively. However, even if you don't know anything about me, my family or my father, hopefully what's written will somehow help you know something more about Our Father in Heaven.

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 It is this past April, and I am driving back from Sea Island, GA where I’ve spent a few days with my two best childhood friends.  I decide to swing back by through Charlottesville because, frankly, though I’m so often pushing back on each of my parents in different ways (each of us is stubborn in our own sweet southern way), I adore them profoundly. 

We are sitting at a candle lit dinner just talking and laughing among ourselves. We all three finish up our meals and find ourselves talking about death.  We laugh at ourselves, “This is weird,” I say, “We are this family who talks so freely about death.  Who else does that?!”  We recount the strangely deep bond that has developed among the three of us having lived together through the deaths of Jude and Tommy 4.  “But somehow,” I say, “we are still able to laugh together.”  And we shake our heads in collective disbelief.  “It really is amazing,” says my mother with a wistful nod, which somehow still says a quiet “no” to the deaths that have come before, far too soon.

And then my dad gets quiet.  “I think,” he says, “we can laugh because we all know, our whole family knows, whose we are and where we’re headed.”  He says it not with quintessential Daddy humor, but with a settled knowledge whose peacefulness covers and penetrates my skin.  Perhaps this is something akin to the pleasure and goodness it is when, as the psalmist says, brothers (or mothers, fathers, and children) dwell together in unity.  “…like the precious oil on the head,/ running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron,/ running down on the collar of his robes!”  His words soak into us all, into my very skin, and somehow, I know he is right.   We know whose we are and where we are headed.

The next morning, before I take off, my parents suggest they pray for me before I go on yet another adventure, this time to Vancouver and then on to Colorado and eventually Oklahoma.  And so, at my mother’s prodding and with my dad’s wide-open arms, I go to sit on his lap to be prayed over.  Because of all his intestinal struggles, I’m now heavier than he is.  I laughingly say to him, “Dad, um, I might crush you.”  He quips, “Yes that’s an actual possibility, but for you, I’ll risk it!” 

And so I sit in his lap in the same yellow-cushioned kitchen chair he has sat in for seemingly a 100 years.  He wraps his arms around me and bends his head into my back, nuzzling his head back and forth a bit, almost like a large and happy Labrador.  And then he says so tenderly, “Oh, how I love you.  I love you so much.  I’m so proud of you.  You are the most amazing daughter I could ever have.  You mean the world to me.”

He wraps his arms tighter and begins to pray.  He tells the Lord “how much I love this girl,” and prays for all the work I have to do and for my safety.  There is something in his prayers in the moment that I note is holy, other, something where neither of us is being cute, making quips, or even playing—though that is the stuff we have done best and beautifully and with much joy for 51 years.   It is a moment of his pure, fatherly, self-giving love.  And I instantly know:  “If this is what my father’s love is, OH HOW GREAT must the Love of THE FATHER be.”  And with that thought it is as if that same oil of Aaron’s robe flows into me, filling me, flooding me, soothing me.  I exhale.  Busyness, fundraising, speaking, vision casting, a little fear of a future with aging parents, loneliness, and lots of friends and tons of laughter…. All these things that are in my life feel suddenly carried.  Soothed and carried.  Not just by my father but by the Father.  I exhale from the center of my toes up through my lungs, and my brow unfurrows.

My father has shown me Our Father deeply, tenderly, and as purely as I’ve ever experienced from another human being.  And I leave then, and still remain today, a grateful woman who knows she is loved by OUR FATHER in Heaven.

And so to my own earthly father, I say, thank you, I love you, and I shall miss you until I see you again.

Anger. Empathy. Race

Earlier this week I was praying with some friends, asking God to make me more attuned to feelings of anger and powerlessness in others and in myself.  The desire to tune in to anger has come from beginning to serve on this national Cultural Training team with the Navigators.  Anger is not the focus of the team—the ultimate goal is growing beyond our biases into genuine empathy and the capacity to relate across cultural lines for the sake of the Gospel.  But even my early work with this team has made me realize that being able to understand and negotiate anger (and the hurt often beneath it) is integral to the task of crossing cultures in the U.S.

And then I got a text this morning from a friend asking for prayer in a sense on her, but not just her, behalf.  She and I have been in very honest conversations about our hearts, race, and God for many years.  As a black woman, she has encountered a level of soul pain tied to race that I only know bits of.  She wrote:

Trying to pray but the words won't come. I would lift my eyes to the hills for my/our help but I cannot see them in the fog of hurt, rage, and disbelief that has swallowed me whole. I don't even know what general direction the hills lie from whence our help could come. Or what that help might even look like. Please pray in my stead for Dallas, for Alton, for Philando and everyone else lost in this madness. Thanks.

I didn’t even know what had happened in Dallas and found myself googling at 6:00 a.m.  My heart literally cried for my friend’s hurt, rage, and disbelief.  And for so many others.

Earlier this week, before New Orleans, Minneapolis or Dallas, I shared the following reflections with one of my teammates about being with my Goddaughters at a water park in Alexandria, VA:

Sitting there and feeling for the day what it was like to be with 1000 people, 850 of whom were black, and we were a part of a mish-mash of non-black people, and then imagining that being the case for 100s of years, and then trying to imagine the realities of 100s of years of active, governmentally sanctioned racism towards my people and then towards me as an individual (let's say, not from everyone--of course there would be genuinely kind individuals--but from some people directly and many people indirectly) and then also the latter, unofficial-oft denied, institutional kind of racism...I realized that a combination of fear, powerlessness and anger, rage really, would be boiling over me, spilling out in ways I wouldn't have words for.  Not that God couldn't work or being showing up in that context.  He could and would.  But still.

One black friend said she was just glad that I could admit it.

In the midst of this mix, my friend, Ralph, who has studied intercultural communication his whole life and picked up his Master’s degree in this in his 50s, reminded me that all people are so brilliantly and beautifully made in the image of God and so terribly fallen.  If Jesus is right, that murder in one’s heart and murder in practice really are the same, Ralph says—not tongue in cheek but seriously—he and Hitler really need the same amount of God’s mercy.   

Making peace with the depth of both realities is integral, Ralph was saying, for navigating these racial tensions.  For when I can accept the reality of man’s fallenness*, his profound inhumanity, I can accept—as in acknowledge and not back away from—the reality of man’s inhumanity to man.  And when I can accept that, spawned by the 2nd commandment, instead of trying to dodge the resulting pain, I then can move a bit closer in empathy towards any who have suffered at the hands of another (even my hands).   

I know my thoughts are a like a small icepick in the face of the seething iceberg on which our culture appears to be crashing.  But conversations about God’s anger and human depravity have basically been out of style much of my life, and I wasn’t raised in a realm where human anger was talked too much about, either, so I’m weak on this (and therefore bend towards deflecting most anger (people's or God's), with “Oh, it’s not that bad…”).  But more often than not, that is not empathy (or even reality); that is gloss. 

This weekend, I am going away to an abbey for 48 hours of silence with Jesus. I love wandering and just being with him.  I’ve also printed out scads of Biblical references to anger, God’s and ours.  This might seem counter-intuitive, but pondering these passages is part of my attempt to become a woman who can wade into the deepening anger around (and frankly, often within) her with the mind, and empathy, of Jesus Christ.  There’s something about the brutal seriousness of the cross and the reality of God so loving the world that tie together anger and empathy.  And I ache to discover, far deeper down in my bones, the links among these things that I might become a woman who ever more deeply lives and serves—including in the areas of racial violence and pain—in the way of Jesus Christ.

I’d love your prayers for my baby steps, and perhaps your own, in this journey.  And truly, your insights on this would be welcomed.

 

*I'm using the word "man" but meaning humanity.  I have kept "man" simply because of the phrase "man's inhumanity to man."

Turbulence

En route to Vancouver, turbulence tosses me, jiggling my legs, lifting my stomach, shaking my hands.  The flight attendants strap into jump seats. The pilot nose dives the plane, searching for smoother air.  Closing my eyes, I imagine.  

In my fantasy life I live in a big old farmhouse, ten miles outside of Charlottesville, VA.  Sizable oak trees, a gurgling creek, chirping crickets, and a lush, deer-and-slug-free garden frame generations of beloved people coming and going in steady and whimsical rhythms alike.  Meals are often eaten outside at dusk, mosquito-free, with fireflies twinkling and breezes lilting.

My reality life, however, looks and feels a lot more like this plane ride.  Today there's known purpose in my journey, I'm buckled in, enjoying snacks, and not airsick, but the cultural turbulence is real, and I feel it in the day in and out--in my own life and my friends' and family's lives.  In the big picture, the sexual craziness doesn't seem to stop; last night I read an article about how only 48% of teens identify as "exclusively heterosexual," even as another article spoke of an increase in "genetic sexual attraction" (GSA).  Add pornography into the mix, and my heart sinks for friends struggling to parent.  Mercy.  Then I'd read an update from my family in the Middle East about the Syrian beggar women among whom they minister; their pain stories fry my circuits.  Even my buoyant, ever emotionally present sister-in-law can only take so much.  Meanwhile, as a backdrop, the election process rumbles on, threatening like a pending deep sea earthquake to send a tsunami.  Sexuality, suffering, and politics are just the obvious storms.  But taken together, with their gritty and personal implications, such turbulence can leave me running to my Angry Birds Bubble Breaker game.

Yet, at this moment, up in the clouds where the pilot has again found smooth air, I recognize that I am somehow grateful if not for the turbulence, at least for some of the effects of it.  The shaking in our culture and my own life (particularly the shocking deaths of my two nephews in the last 8 years, or in a different vein, still being single at 51 in spite of multiple predictions and prayers to the contrary) has forced me to a level of dependence on Jesus Christ that I never knew I wanted.  The turbulence has opened my eyes to the ripping reality of death, the power of an ever-deepening hope in heaven, and the discovery of the surprisingly satisfying fruit one's life can bear, even spouse-less.  Mostly, extending the metaphor to its over-used and sometimes cheesy state, the turbulence has sent me clinging to the Pilot.

But I mean this with the pathos of a woman who has found herself knocking metaphorical Air Marshals out of the way, banging down locked doors, prying and praying her--my--way into the cock-pit/Holy of Holies where I've needed above all else to sit at His feet.  It turns out He is not nearly so worried as I (smiling, He quietly mentions that the door was actually unlocked).  Mostly, He is glad that I've come. His presence settles me.  Eventually, I stand, grin at the wary flight attendants, and retake my seat.

Given the choice, I'd probably still choose my fantasy life--it's woven with a longing for a new heavens and earth.  But right now, this terrestial pilot is once again asking for seat belts.  And as my plastic cup of water sloshes on my jeans, I realize how deeply grateful I am for where, and with Whom, this turbulent journey is headed.

Reminded by The Messiah

Right before Christmas, I went with a group to see Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  I went tired—a Friday night after a week of trying to get my personal, vocational, and Christmas act together during the previous week.  Then there was an overpriced uber ride because the guy seemed to be taking all the long-cuts.  Plus, I was now sitting on the end of our group’s row.  When I go with a group somewhere, I feel most snuggly sitting in the middle third somewhere.  End equals outlier equals bad feeling.  But there I was; I had paid for my ticket, and this was a Christmassy thing to do.

            As the choir and orchestra came out, I found myself looking at the variations of black and white in which they were clad.  One woman in a tux-like thing; no men in dresses as far as I could tell.  That sounds cynical, but I think that’s how my tired self defaults.  And then, they began.

            Comfort ye, Comfort ye My people, saith your God…  They instantly had me!  I needed comfort, and I was going to listen.  It was as if the whole three hours of music flowed out to remind me of—literally, to remake my mind with—reality.   Of course there were the classic melodies and lines—and the glory the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (and there was a lot of flesh in that crowded concert hall)—but what struck me most were lines I’d never paid attention to.

            He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.  The powerful, National Symphony Orchestra was playing and the singers were singing about hairs plucked off cheeks.  Amazement at a our God who attends so closely—even to the detail of hairs on cheeks—and offers himself, at such a pointedly, painfully granular level, that we might know him, grabbed me and shook me.   And later as I heard Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?  I found myself, saying, “Yes, why?!”  Handle doesn’t directly answer the questions of why ISIS is doing what it’s doing (or any of the myriad of other tough ones) but all the evil referenced in Part II of this work is answered with the most famous words of all, Hallelujah:  for the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth.  Evil will be fully conquered.  As I watched all but perhaps 10 of the 2400 people in that hall stand in honor of those words, I realized that this was just a glimpse of where the whole big story is actually headed:  towards the unmitigated honor of the Lord God who reigns.

            Perhaps, though, it was in Part 3—a part I’ve never paid that much attention to—that I found encouragement, heart comfort, pouring into me.  The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  I sat there recognizing that this isn’t yet fully true.  But I also knew once again, deep in my knower that this is coming.

            Overpriced uber rides, lonely feelings, long weeks are not the final story.  For now is Christ raised from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  Really, all things being made fully right is just a matter of time.  The music was like a powerful infusion of this hope-filled picture deep into my bones:  Blessings and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.  Amen.  

            So from deep down inside of me I jumped up with 2400 other people, and I clapped.  I clapped.  I clapped.  And I clapped.  Over and over and over again.

 

 

 

Gratitude that Us Keeps Riding

How weird it must have been to watch him start to weep.  At the seeming height of his career, celebrated by people hankering to get close to him, he starts to weep.  It must have seemed strange, surreal.  Tears of joy?  I might have wondered.  Or perhaps he was an old soul, like an elderly man enjoying a festive family gathering, remembering sweet past times with those long gone.  But this was different.  He was not a grandfather.  He was closer to the Homecoming King or President elect.  His were not gentle tears spilling from reflective, watery eyes. Rather, with hawk-like clarity he was looking ahead, through the crowds, seeing something.

I cannot help but wonder what it was like for those in the path of Jesus' triumphal entry from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem--flinging colorful cloaks down before him as he made his way to his beloved city, now within eyeshot.  To be in that moveable party, that quasi-religious-political parade with the candidate on the move...and to look up and see him, to see Jesus, weeping?  To hear him speak, once again obscurely, of the things that make for peace now being hidden from sight?  To watch him gaze into some mysterious distance, speaking of children dashed to the ground and stones tumbling, all because we could not see the "time of God's coming"?  

There is much they missed, but I know there is so much we cannot see either.  So much dances (and wars) before all of our eyes.  I was talking to my brother yesterday about Russia's recent, quasi-conscription--just for a few days, come on!--of Beirut's airport.  I was reading today's Washington Post about a Londoner, with a house arrest ankle bracelet, who says he envisions a black flag of the Islamic State flown over the White House.  Closer to home (though, um, the White House is fairly close to home), there are the events of Mizzou and Yale, or one dear African American friend's recent articulation that she lives with two interior tracks: one, as a peacemaker for Jesus Christ and his kingdom purposes; another as an angry black woman with wounds upon wounds to her soul.  The flood of input can be blinding.

Oops, this doesn't sound like a Thanksgiving blog.  

But actually, I am so grateful.   So grateful that in the swirling kaleidoscope of global, local, and often painful data, Jesus Christ sees beneath the surface of the good and bad alike, to what IS and what WILL BE.  Amazing.  So grateful that Jesus Christ is not a stoic machine but one who in his seeing, weeps with responsive empathy while riding on for the Joy set before him. Phenomenal.  And I am so grateful that because of Jesus' colt ride to Golgatha, you and I, fuzzy sighted and all, get to be deeply and solidly attached to him.  We oft-unseeing ones get to attach to the One who keeps mysteriously seeing, weeping, and riding forward among us, today, for the Joy now set before him... the time of his coming again, of his making all things holy and wholly new.  Bring it on!

So while it's easy to lose perspective amid world-wide jostling crowds and personal aches alike, might we still declare our gratitude to Jesus Christ for riding that colt?  Might we declare our gratitude to the one who latches on to his followers, tightly and tenderly?  Gratitude to the one who offers a gut-grasping gift of the promised future parade, chocked full of people from around this globe? With gratitude buttressing our hearts of anticipation, might we ask him for his eyes to see what children he wants us to heal and what stones he wants us to stack today, so to speak?

And then, knowing that somehow we get to ride with him and one another on his colt, might we, perhaps sometimes with tears, find today's joy in following him forward?

A Longing for Gender*

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend about the pace and intensity of life in DC, especially for parents who are trying to balance high-powered careers and raise children. That discussion isn't new, but my friend and I both realized we've recently met women who seem to wish they could be men. The general sense is that men are somehow freer from the deeper levels of the heart-wrenching choices about career, family and life in an urban context. And the common response to that reality is to push for life to be split more evenly on both the home front and the career front. And yet this can lead to a strange place where the goal almost seems to be gender interchangeability...a place where parents bring the same things to the table, and gender is almost a moot point. 

Ironically, though, the morning before my friend shared this story, I’d journaled

With the exception of George [my housemate’s husband] who could not be interchanged with a woman in [my housemate’s] bed, there is virtually nothing in my daily life that gives visual, differentiating meaning to the sexes, nothing where male and female are not interchangeable.  Sometimes I long for such concepts to be embodied in structures or external symbols of some kind.  Like I long to see gender in some way, to find symbols that can carry some message of differentiation, lifting the burden from my body alone.  Even public bathrooms would do.

            Do such words resonate with you at all?  Does anyone else feel some kind of ineffable longing to see the beauty of gender? 

            I know that there has been much devaluing of women by men (I’ve experienced it), and I get that giving a big heave-ho to male dominance by jettisoning differentiation is our cultural solution.  And admittedly, part of my longing for some external, broader social signifier—i.e. a longing to somehow be part of a larger, more corporate, male/female dance—might come because I’m not dancing with any one male in my own life.  Could be.  I have to own that.

            Still, I think the longing to see some good and life-giving gender distinction fleshed out around me—some world beyond myself where male and female are not totally interchangeable—is a good longing.  I remember when my brother and his wife got married in the Maronite church (essentially Lebanese Catholic).  The Maronites have a ceremony crowning the groom and bride as king and queen, reflecting the “mystical wedding that eternally unifies Jesus and the Church,” even as the couple will be king and queen of their own family, “the domestic church.”  For a flash in that wedding, I glimpsed something more than an exchange of human love—I saw the beauty of a seemingly divine diversity in unity, even as I saw something of a glimmer of the eternal beauty of Christ and his church. 

            I’m still your basic 21st. century, urban Protestant Evangelical woman, living in a world where gender is melting down.  None of that is changing anytime soon.  I don’t have a simple solution; I can’t envision “bring the sexes back” buttons or a  “Maronite Marriages for All” campaign.  But today, I shall begin with simply owning out loud that which I know I have glimpsed as good.  And once again, I’m praying my longings. 

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*A friend rightly pointed out that in fact "gender" is a "disembodied notion of recent invention" and that I should have used the word "sex" or "sexedness."  He's right, but as you can imagine, I felt a little hesitant to retitle my blog, "Longing for Sex."

Vocation and . . . ?

For the past few years in my circles, “vocation” talk has been omnipresent.  The Navigators has a foundation grant to attend to the topic.  Our church's retreat has focused on it.  Many quote theologian N.T. Wright's words about it.  Regent College has produced a video series related to it.  And this winter I’ll be on a panel where “vocation” will be central to the discussion.   Bottom line:  vocation talk is everywhere, giving much good and needed meaning to our daily labor. 

Sometimes, though, I've struggled, sensing that vocation is not the whole story, aching but unable to name what's missing.

About this time last year, however, I sat down to chat with J.I. Packer about the classic book by Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, The Saints' Everlasting Rest.  Now Dr. Packer is pushing 90 and still has a serious twinkle in his eye.  Just contemplating him makes me smile.  He thinks in straight lines; I think in Impressionist paint blobs—so our (albeit infrequent) conversations have always had a delightful bit of push and pull.

Sitting down to talk about Baxter’s view of heaven—and its implications for earthly life—I suddenly blurt out, “But sometimes in all our talk about our earthly vocations, something feels like it’s missing.  I can’t quite put my finger on it…but…!”  (When I am with Dr. Packer, in spite of—or perhaps because of—his measured reasoning, I tend to become a little more dramatic.)

“Ah, yes, Connally,” he replies, head nodding and eyes dancing, “We do talk much about vocation.  Tom has led the way in this.”  (Tom is how Jim refers to N.T. Wright.)  “And Tom does love to work!  But as happens among limited mortals, we can oftentimes emphasize one aspect of faith at the expense of another.”

With more head shaking and pointing to my guts, I groan, “But what is it?!  I know something’s missing, but I can’t quite name it.”

He pauses and tilts his head. 

“It is, my dear, adoration.  The abandonment of self to something--or Someone--far greater than self.  We get tastes of such abandon in this life, but there is also a joy as we anticipate being fully abandoned to and in our Lord’s presence.  It's an imperfect analogy, but it's almost like when I was a boy.  Though I wasn't much good at it, there was a joy in playing cricket.  But anticipating attending a match of those greater than I--that was a breathless joy in and of itself.”  At this point his entire face lights up, and we both begin to chuckle, like he has let me in on the punch line to a wonderful, cosmic riddle.

“Sometimes,” he continues, “I do worry that this generation has lost sight of this joy—the joy of being lost in that which is infinitely more grand than oneself and one’s impact.”  He says the word impact not with disdain, but with a measured distance, as if he understands the concept but has not fully given himself to it. 

Then nodding, he repeats:  “Yes, abandoning one’s self to He who is greater than oneself is a great joy indeed!  It is a gift of the Lord himself."

His eyes glance at the clock.  His wife is expecting him for lunch.

But I leave that conversation contemplating what it is, in this busy, busy world of much (good and meaningful) work to lose myself in adoration of the One who is greater than I.  And as my gut settles, I begin to smile, latching on to that which has felt like a missing piece in the story.

 

Needing the Other?

I have been reading book after book on questions of race, racialization, and racism, as well as on mutli-ethnic churches.  Eventually, some of my thoughts will show up in one 60 page paper as I complete my MA.  Simultaneously, though, I have been spearheading a workshop for this fall, Messy, Diverse and One in Christ, which will be led by four of us representing different ethnic streams:  African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Caucasian. 

Recently, my reading and my workshop planning overlapped on a conference call.   This team and I have spent hours on the phone comparing experiences around race and faith.  But that day I asked this question:  what have been experiences of genuinely beautiful cross-cultural unity in your life? 

You could hear a pin drop.

An hour earlier I’d just read United by Faith:  the Multiracial Congregation as an answer to the Problem of Race.  Looking for congregations reflecting “a hybrid of the distinct cultures that have joined together in one church,” the authors admit they “are hard pressed to cite definitive examples of such congregations from [their] study…” (168).  I quickly relayed this information on the phone:  We are not alone in our limited experiences! 

Getting off the phone, I began thinking.  My brother and his wife’s house church in the Middle East includes men and women who are Arab, Phoenician, African-American, and Caucasian, from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish backgrounds.  This group, with has a unified vision for fellowship, worship, and outreach, desperately needs one another for encouragement and strength (for many, their faith is life-jeopardizing).  Likewise, I began reflecting on an upcoming global gathering of single women leaders in the Navigators:  the 25 or so women will hail from Africa, Europe, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and North America.  We will come together expressly to encourage one another to keep moving forward in God’s kingdom purposes. 

Continuing to reflect, I realized that in my every experience of cross-racial unity, not only has there been an organizing, shared purpose, but there has also been a genuine sense of needing one another to accomplish that purpose.  Could it be that the beauty of unity in the body of Christ has the best chance of emerging across historically difficult lines when we actually recognize our need of one another in a shared purpose?  And could it be that God has equipped different cultures (the ethnos) with different strengths because we, His global people, actually need those strengths to walk in God's big kingdom purposes?  Maybe there's something this diverse group of women leaders needs to learn from one another as we all face questions about faithfulness to Jesus Christ in a globalizing culture?  Maybe that house church gains strength to realize God's purposes in the Middle East because of the members’ respective cultural insights?

Race-related issues in the US alone are so complex they can silence many of us. The more I've ventured relationally and studied personally, the more convinced I am that there are--particularly in black/white questions--profound mine fields.  But maybe a small starting place might be in discovering places where we genuinely need one another.  So, to that end, perhaps you might ponder.... 

Do you share a purpose in common with a person from any other race or ethnic group?  If so, what do you genuinely need from that person in your life?  What about that person’s background, experience or perspective has enabled him/her to teach or give to you?   What might you offer back in return?

I hope you’ll share your answers with someone, potentially, even, that person or people who came to mind.  And I’d love to hear what you learn.

Around Blind Curves

In the past year been I have been in a conversation with a young woman who has been moving towards a lesbian relationship.  I’ve been pondering what she has seen as her only two choices:  go deeper into this relationship for seeming oneness/life-giving intimacy or live a single, celibate, lonely life, hardly worth the labor. 

The problem is, I don't think I have a marketable vision of a third alternative.  Third ways are real (I’ve explained to her that though sometimes it aches, I have not grown shrunken and isolated being unmarried), but when surveying typical church life, appealing third way visions are scant.

And yet, I really do believe that God can create paths through the wilderness, Red Seas can part, empty oil containers can be surprisingly refilled, dead bodies can rise.  I do so believe that steps in the direction of obedience and surrender (not appealing words, I know) can open doors which--before such steps are taken--appear tightly shut.  I imagine Paul choosing to sing in the jail not knowing the door would come open, or I picture the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader when the children must step through the blackened doorway knowing only that Aslan has beckoned.  All this is to say, with God, the visible options are not always the only options.  

I was reading Genesis 3 a few days ago and thinking about the tree.  It's strange, right, because what Eve saw in that tree—pleasure for the eyes, good food, a wisdom source—were real.  She wasn't making that up.  And her desire for those things was not wrong.  It's just that there was a bigger story she couldn't see as she contemplated that forbidden fruit.

Reading Genesis 3, I couldn't help but be reminded of all the different people, encounters, longings, etc. which have made me want to reach out and take something to which God has said, “No.”  I'm a woman replete with hungry (and I think fundamentally good) desire for connection.  My urge to merge speaks, I think, of something relational and fruitful in God's nature.

But for what it's worth, I've seen in my 50 years that such an urge finds its only fit outlet in a commitment to love.  And love which is fruitful and life-giving (for others and for me) is that which flows in ever greater alignment with our trinitarian God's desires, known through his Word (the revelation of Scripture) and Spirit (making the eternal Jesus internally real).  And I do believe his Word, in revealing how best to love, gives parameters for sexual/relational connectedness--for the sake of Life. 

So, I’ve encouraged my friend to risk believing that there is a bigger story, one we live into by faith, and that saying “no” to seemingly eye-pleasing, wisdom-giving, nourishment-laden fruit, if for no other reason than ‘God says so,’ could actually be saying "yes" to a bigger and more beautiful story whose contours are not visible in advance.  In essence, I've encouraged her to consider trusting in the goodness of the father-heart of God in his capacity to lovingly lead us in ways beyond that which we can ask or imagine. 

I don’t know where, if chosen, such a path could lead in my friend’s life; I do know it will include suffering, even with good friends in the journey.  But I am convinced that as she risks travelling around blind curves of daily following our Father’s lead, hers will be a path into a beautiful and deeply good story.

Shoeless and on Tiptoes

One week ago today, a friend of so many, Maria (53), transitioned from this life into the next.  Last night, Maria’s sister and our Care Team, part of a larger village of lovers of Maria, met to recount stories of the past six months since her pancreatic cancer diagnosis.  The living room tales were tender and funny alike, and I left pondering how the last two weeks had revealed, amid the voice-snatching pain of Maria’s suffering and the unsung service of so many, the gritty beauty of holy ground—ground where one senses the veil between this life and the next begin to thin.

I remember the memorial services for my nephews who died, 3 ½ years apart, in shocking accidents (Jude (2); Tommy (19)).  In each service, as my family stood singing, though grief was rippling through us, there was a simultaneous knowledge that we were praising a God whose presence was palpable.  I longed to live forever in that moment, with all of those people, worshipping the God who gives and takes away, even as I knew that when we did stop, which we would, God’s presence would remain but sadness would rush in to fill the silence.  Still, for one strangely timeless moment, in each service, I recognized that our abandoned worship was itself a foretaste of what one-day would come.  

In the hours I got to spend with Maria, particularly in the last 10 days of her life, I realized I’d stumbled into a strangely familiar place—a “take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground” kind of place.  To sing with one of Maria’s long time friends, “It is well with my soul,” and feel Maria’s hands squeeze ours—that is holy ground.  To ask Jesus to make the sight of his welcoming face within more vivid than all the chaos without—and to see her subtle nod—that is holy ground.  To place my hand on the heart of my friend whose pain-induced anxiety is starting to kick in and to pray the peace of Jesus—and to watch her calm—that is holy ground. 

It makes me pause.  Much of the conversation in my broader faith community is around questions of faith shaping vocation or faith’s relationship to the broader culture.  Are we agents of transformation?  Exiles?  Both?  This makes sense.  Death and dying aren’t on the forefront of most people’s minds.  Questions about work, community and culture press on us all and perhaps particularly on DC’s many gifted, young adults beginning to build their lives.

But in the privilege of walking with Maria and this amazing Care Team (those volunteering nursing skills, taking her to medical appointments, doing art with her, coordinating meals and visits, opening their homes to Maria, or just “being” with her), I’ve been reminded that the decay of flesh, the often slow and painful return to dust, remains the path along which the Son of God, mysteriously, ushers his beloved followers into eternity.  I know that this reality is core to the Christian faith—that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, the One by whom we come to the Father—but in practice, I forget it. 

So, thank you, Maria.  Thank you for inviting so many of us to accompany you, shoeless, onto this gritty and beautiful holy ground.   In your vulnerability, you’ve left many of us, decidedly including me, standing on our tiptoes, with salty smiling eyes, longing more deeply for Him to haste the day when our faith shall be sight.

So, Sherry...Charleston?

In the last few days, my friend, Sherry Jones, Academic Dean of the Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS) in Philadelphia, and I have been talking.  Sherry and I have spoken together in public a number of times on the topic of race, faith, and identity in Christ (click here).  She’s black, and, obviously, I’m white.  “So Sherry," I ask, "Charleston?”  Her words slowly emerge.  “Unspeakable sadness,” “seemingly irrepressible disdain for black skin,”  “escalating hatred” bound up with phrases about pain “slicing deep into the place where Jesus Christ lives and calls me His.”  She acknowledges that as one cut so deep (so many times), she does not “bleed His forgiving blood as quickly as those Charleston church members.”  “I’ll get there,” she said.  “Like Corrie Tin Boom when confronted with the Nazi guard instrumental in her sister’s death…”

I am grateful for Sherry’s willingness to tell me the truth.  Sigh.  That doesn’t, of course, undo her pain or answer the larger cultural questions.  Her speaking and my listening aren’t the instant path forward for the body of Christ.  Nor do we pretend to suddenly cease being women of particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds.  But we know that we are created by the same Father, redeemed by the same Son, and  indwelt by the same Spirit.  The blood of Jesus runs in her veins and mine.  When she is cut that deeply and bleeds, in some sense—particularly because I love her—I bleed too.  It makes me want to reach for something to stop the bleeding.  I wish Jesus’ blood would stop the blood letting in this life.  It makes me long for His return, and I pray for this.

Then I ask Sherry, “So…think of my white Christian friends whom you’ve met.  What would you hope we could know down in our bones?”  She gives three answers:

1)  “Please educate yourself; don’t leave it up to people of color to teach you.  And,” she added, “commit to remain teachable as you read, to hold another’s perspective and pain without instant defense.”  (Sherry says this is a rich reading list (click here).  Additionally, Mark Noll’s book:  God and Race in American Politics gives a helpful historical overview not just of politics but of the place of evangelical theology and the white and black church in this history. )

2)  “Read your Bible.  Believe what you read.  There are such things as strongholds, demonic presences, the influence of the sin nature.  Believe it and fight against the world, the flesh and the devil.  White supremacy didn’t die when Obama became President.”  (For a solid and accessible Bible study on oppression, generational sin, and bridge building, click here.) 

3)  “If you do the above two things, make it your responsibility to tell the people in your life what you've learned, what's going on in your heart, and what God is saying to you.”

            So, reading the Bible (prophets like Amos), history, and my own heart, and being in ongoing relationship with friends like Sherry, over the years I've learned that generational sin and strongholds around power and ethnicity are real.  And as this precious friend of mine has asked—for the sake of God’s big eternal purposes, starting on earth as it is in heaven—let's commit to reading history, our Bibles, and our hearts, with teachable spirits, willing to do what He says.   And let's ask for more friendships where we can “go there” around pain and anger, believing that Jesus' blood does open the way to forgiveness, transformation and active expressions of His will, on earth as it will be in heaven.

SOLID ROCKNESS

Every day I read the front pages of the main, Style and Metro sections of the "Washington Post."  I'm updated on who is rearranging which body parts how; what it means to find one's identity in the object of one's desire; the state of bathrooms in Fairfax County public schools; the scary, international workings of what I call (forgive the 1970s Saturday morning TV reference) the "Shazam! ISIS Hour;" and a host of unsavory issues--my pre-breakfast nibble as I wait for my coffee.  No wonder my stomach churns.

But after two recent get aways with different sets of folks (some dear, long time, annual fellow "Summer Campers" in NC and then this past weekend with my parents at the beach), I've realized that I have become a problematically skilled, cultural decay commentator.  Now, part of this is good--one needs to know what's happening in the world, and it really helps to talk about it with friends.  It helps knowing that the churning in my guts is shared by others whose minds also swirl with the lightning speed of cultural shift.  

But a steady diet of this is neither good for the cortisol in my body nor for the state of my heart.  This morning I awoke pondering the Scripture verse which years ago I'd repeat daily while driving to teach some very crazy public high school kids:  "You will keep in perfect peace, him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in You; trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal" (Is. 26:3,4).  Lying in bed, I kept picturing myself hugging a big rock--and it felt wonderful.  Waters can swirl, tides can come in and out (I pictured my feet falling and rising with the tides)...and the Rock is there.  In the center.  Cool.  Solid.

So the question emerges:  what really does it take to hold on to The Solid Rockness?  At the oppressively hot beach with my parents (even the nicest southern family can only pretend for so long that burning sands and sauna like non-breezes are relaxing), we decided one evening to can the news and play a "game" to get our minds momentarily off of candidate announcements, jail-busted murderers, and scorching heat.  

Sitting at the dinner table, we decided to focus our attention on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (the contents of Philippians 4:8).  Glasses of wine in hand, around the table we went:  "Dad, what's something that's true about this cultural moment in which we live?  Mom, what's something that's right about it?  Hey, self, what's actually pure about this era?"  You get the idea.  Another round reviewed our childhoods (so revealing!).  We did a third round asking where we'd seen such things in Scripture stories.

In the end, it was a strangely encouraging, mind-re-maker--which makes sense.  When Paul was writing the Philippians and admonishing these anxious people to "think about such things," he knew about a crazy world.  He was under house arrest in Rome.  His beloved Philippians congregation was having theological, lifestyle, and relational issues.  And in the midst of all the stress, he turns their attention to developing muscles not just for critique but for discovery of the daily and present goodness of God.

So, in whatever swirls you are encountering, consider grabbing on to Philippians 4:8 soon--alone or with a few friends over a glass of wine--and thinking on such things.  It is one small way to hold to the cool, Solid Rock even when the heat is hot and the cultural waters seems to swirl with an unprecedented speed.

Mastery?

In addition to believing that I must—to gain a solid sense of identity—have some kind of “thing” that I can point to (think:  marriage or career contribution), I have also believed that I should exhibit a fundamental mastery of this elusive “thing.” I got my first Master’s degree at 25, and I’m looking at my 2nd at 50.  In some coaches training I’ve had, they’ve spoken about being a “Master Coach.”  When I taught public high school, we aspired to be “Master Teachers.”  And a friend of mine who plays the violin has more than once spoken of the Maestro, simply an Italian word for “master.”  Mastery is desirable and possible right? 

            The problem is, I’ve secretly thought I’ve needed to master more than this elusive thing.  I’ve believed that I must master life itself.  I’m laughing as I write this:  seriously, am I that performance oriented?  Yep.  One professor friend of mine has spoken of our culture’s twisted (my word) cultivation of an “audience based subjective sense of self.”  Put differently—if a whole bunch of people see me and clap, I am.   So it’s simple:  master life, people will see and clap, and then I am.  Simple except that it has proven impossible.

            New challenges pour in daily:  loving well my visiting 19 year old nephew whose music choices, technology preoccupation, and affinity for movies where things blow up are not natural connects for me.  Trying to get to know an online dating guy who lives 300 miles away and may or may not call again.  Waiting on my employer for a potential job redefinition.  Having yet another conversation about navigating sexuality in our culture.  Walking with a friend who has incurable cancer.

            The list on non-mastery is endless.

            But what I do have in Jesus Christ is access to the Master.  A friend of mine often begins his prayers like this:  “Dear Master….”  Such an address can sound foreign or even threatening (I think of 12 Years a Slave).  But, if possible, setting aside possible connotations from the concept’s abuse, think with me for a moment of the Master into whose joy we get to enter, the one who is forgiving and merciful, the one who will return for us, the only one before whom any of us falls or stands.  Can you, like me, get any sense of comfort from knowing that He is the Master?  Any peace from encountering this Maestro who in loving omniscience can lead with nephews and online men and work and sexuality and cancer?   Does it bring you any courage to recognize that He is the “I am,” and that it is in following, before mastering, that you and I begin to find some sense of solid self?

            If this holds any allure, it might be worth asking yourself:  What area(s) of life have I assumed I should have mastered by now?  Or what mastery might I be seeking that I have secretly believed will somehow make me more real, more solid, more safe, more valuable, more …?  And then pause to consider:  what it might it look like for me to invite the One with consummate, eternal mastery into my current challenges, asking him to lead, seeking to listen, and then willingly following?

            This is not a recipe for perfect peace or instant identity.   Peace and identity also elude perfect mastery.  But it is a way I’m learning to walk forward, increasingly solid and secure with the Master who before time began has been, is, and will always be the I am. 

beloved.daughter.loving

“You are ridiculously difficult to market,” sighs my patient friend, Amy, with a marketer’s exasperation.  “People want to know what your shtick is, what your niche is.   They’ll spend six seconds on your website, and they want to leave knowing your ‘thing’.”  She’s right, and we both know it.  I’m so thankful for her honest help.  So “mentor.speaker.writer” comes closest we agree, but even that truthful trifecta has its limits.

As we’ve been swimming in this world of updating websites, I’ve longed for one clear-cut handle by which the world--or at least the few interested people--could reach out and grab me.  But as that solitary handle has repeatedly slipped my reach, I’ve begun to wonder:  could my longing and frustration point, at least in part, to a deeper problem?   You see, I think I’ve drunk the cultural Kool-aid with its poisonous presupposition that life is mechanistic at heart.  Somehow, I’ve come to believe that our existence is simply one of parsing the plethora of products that need producing, picking one, and then finding the gear one gets to be, nailing down a niche-like slot in the org chart of existence.

Ugh.  I apologize, God.  Truly.

So, I’m pouring out that Kool-aid and putting the empty pitcher at His feet, receptively requesting, Flood me, please, with living understanding. 

Trickling in come images of eyes making contact, hearts at rest, conversations meandering back and forth.  Holy Words about being present to the Presence, being persons made for deep communion with a living, triune God and with one another start to fill my pitcher.  

Yes, but, um, is that all You got, God?  That might be true but it doesn’t sell too well.

But, what if what sells well is not necessarily what’s core?  And what if at core we really are, through Jesus, beloved children of our eternal, heavenly Father?  And what if holding on to that reality is actually a work so basic that we can overlook it in a nano-second or six?  I’m wondering if the best cover page for this website should in truth read something like:  “beloved.daughter.loving.”  It wouldn’t be a unique market niche (millions of others could claim it); it wouldn’t be a thing; and it’s not actually much help to anyone who wants to know what I do professionally or hire me as a speaker.  But it might be an act of defiance against all forces (real or imagined) that would want to reduce me, or you, to something less.  It might not say it all, but “beloved.(daughters and sons).loving” is the core-level hope that I­—a woman sitting at His feet—long to see spill out from me, in one hundred ways and places.