Lent and a Fresh Start

Lent and a Fresh Start

Noah’s Ark is a difficult story. Because it has lots of animals, a boat, and a rainbow, we put it on nursery walls and tell it to children. But the real story isn’t cute or happy at all. The real story is hard and confusing.

God looks down at everything he has made, but unlike the goodness he saw at creation, now all he sees is corruption and violence. It’s a mess and God regrets the whole thing. So he decides to scrap it all and start over with just eight people and a handful of animals. He gives Noah instructions for building a giant boat, and once Noah’s family and the collection of animals are on board, God destroys the world with a giant flood. Every animal, every innocent child, every violent man or woman. Everyone dies.

And when Noah and his family and all of the animals finally crawl out of the ark for a fresh start, God promises them all – the animals and the people – that he will never do it again. He puts a rainbow in the sky to remind himself of his promise – never again will the rain mean everything dies. That’s not going to be God’s way to make things right.

Have you ever wanted a fresh start? Everything is a mess, it’s not working out, and you need to start over from scratch. Just burn it all down, as a friend of mine says.

God knows what that’s like. He understands that feeling, and he’s made a better way than destroying it all.

Because what we see in Noah’s story is that destroying it all didn’t work. Noah and his family brought themselves with them into their fresh start, and they start messing up almost immediately. Noah gets drunk, one of his sons does something obscene, and the whole project spirals from there.

The problem wasn’t in everything around them, it wasn’t all just in the violence and evil in other people’s hearts. They had their own regrets and resentments and fears and defenses. The flood didn’t destroy those, and the fresh start they needed was in themselves – in their own hearts and minds.

So God made a different kind of fresh start. God gave us baptism. Like those flood waters, the waters of baptism provide us with a fresh start, but unlike those flood waters, baptism doesn’t destroy to do it. Instead, baptism calls us to move forward in the world as it is and change the world by changing our own lives – changing how we think and what we do. Baptism is about changing the direction we’re going and what we are moving towards.

As the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer say, we turn away from evil, and towards God.

Away from the powers of this world that corrupt and destroy, and towards the Creator who nurtures and heals.

We turn away from the desires that keep us from loving and being loved, and turn to live in the grace and love Jesus freely offers to us and to all.

Every time we celebrate a baptism, the whole congregation renews those vows, and the water that has been blessed for baptism is flung out over us with the words, “Remember your baptism!” It’s one of my favorite moments of the liturgy, and it always makes me smile, because it reminds me that I have a fresh start to live those vows. But we don’t have to wait for those moments to remember our baptism! A shower in the morning as we get ready for a new day can remind us of our baptism. The water running over our hands as we wash them through the day can remind us. An unexpected spring rain we get caught in can remind us – especially if it comes with a rainbow.

In the gospel of John, Jesus explains it to Nicodemus as “being born again.” Parts of the church have turned being “born again” into not much more than an abstract idea, sort of a magic wand that changes where we go when we die, but Jesus is using it to describe a fresh start, a new way of living that starts now.

I think sometimes it’s hard for us to accept that we can really change and things really can be different – that we can actually have a fresh start. It can be hard to believe for myself, and it can be hard to believe for others. But that is the heart of our faith, and it’s what we are inviting others into when we offer them baptism. If the reality that change really is possible in ourselves and in the world isn’t what the gospel is about, I don’t know what is.

That change doesn’t come all at once, but like all new life, it starts in a moment we may not even recognize, and then grows one breath at a time, one step at a time. It’s a spiritual reality that happens here and now, in ways we can see and hear and feel. In the middle of life that is messy and confusing and full of things beyond our control.

The reality is that fresh starts are often not something we’ve gone looking for. Things fall apart or quit working or just come to an end, and we have to pick up the pieces and start over. There’s a flood. We lose a job. The partner we thought we’d spend the rest of our life with is gone. Children leave home. We just realize we’re not living the life we want, aren’t the person we want to be.

That’s why confession is part of traditional liturgies every week. It’s not just words we say. It’s an opportunity to stop and recognize what’s gone wrong – the things we did that make us wince, the things we didn’t do that make us defensive. Instead of burying them or shrugging them off, we bring them up, look at them squarely, and recognize something in us needs to change. And then we lift our souls up to the Lord, as the Psalmist says, and turn to the love of Jesus to receive his grace and love so that we can offer it to others with our lives. It’s a habit, a discipline, and if we enter into it each week fully and thoughtfully, we will find our lives become oriented to that direction we were pointed to in our baptism. The love of God becomes the true north in the compass of our hearts, always pointing us towards his love, both to receive and to give.

Sometime a fresh start is something we know we need, but we’re not sure what it looks like or how to find it. That’s one of the reasons we fast during Lent – to make space in our hearts and in our daily lives for God to do something new.

The first time I tried fasting for Lent, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still a Baptist, and I was living in North Carolina where even at the Bible college where I worked, few people even knew what Lent was. But I was searching to connect with God in new ways, and thought I’d see what Lent might be like. So I gave up sweets for Lent – desserts, the Krispy Kreme doughnuts my office neighbor brought every Tuesday, the bowl of chocolates in our office. All of them. I put a Post-it note on my computer to remind me, and it wasn’t long at all before I started to realize how quickly I reached for those chocolates when I started to get stressed. I’d never noticed how much I used sweets to cope with life, and now that I wasn’t I had to face that stress, sit with it, and work through it. Over the weeks, I started using a guided prayer website in those moments, and gradually that became my instinct when I felt stressed.

There was space for another bit of God’s love to take root and blossom into something new, something God’s love does again and again and again. As we hear at the Ash Wednesday service, we are dust, and we have a Creator who delights in making good things out of dust.

Like Noah, we bring ourselves into the fresh start God gives us at baptism and every day after, and it is the love of God that can make us into something new, that can give us a new way to live, again and again and again. Baptism is not just a beginning, it’s a way forward. A life of continual conversion and transformation of our hearts and lives into the way of Jesus, the path of the love of God.

That is the fresh start we receive at baptism and every time we come to God in prayer, confession, and the table. It’s the fresh start God has for us every moment of every day.

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Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

Here, Part 3 – A Conversation Cont.

“You’re here.”

      -“I am.”

“In the middle of the night, with the snow falling so softly and steadily.”

     -“Yes.”

“I still haven’t figured that out.”

     -“Don’t worry, you won’t.”

“Really. Do you like playing hard to get?”

     -“It’s actually not about me.”

“It’s not?”

     -“It’s not.”

“But…isn’t everything supposed to be about you?”

     -“Why would you think that?”

“‘All things have been created through him and for him’?”

     -“Who is ‘him’?”

“You, I thought?”

     -“Okay, if that’s the case, who am I?”

“Huh? How am I supposed to be able to answer that???”

      -“I’m not trying to play existential games with you. You know me. So who do you know me to be?”

<pause>

<pause.>

“Love.”

     -“So, ‘All things have been created through Love and for Love.'”

“I like that, but I’m lost.”

     -“Stick with me. I’ll get you there. And what’s love “all about”? What does love care about?”

“The one loved.”

     -“Exactly! And I’m Love. It’s all about everything but me.”

“What about your ‘glory’?”

     -“What’s the glory of Love?”

“Ha! I know that one…’You’ve got to give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love!'”

     -“I love your jokes, but close enough. Does Love play hard to get?”

“No. That’s not what love is about.”

     -“So who is ‘playing hard to get’ in this?”

“Oh!…Oh.”

     -“Your words, not mine.”

“Why is it so hard for me?”

     -“Because you make the wrong things all about you. You have a hard time just being loved.”

“I do?”

    -“Yes. And when you stop making the wrong things all about you, you know you have a hard time just being loved.”

“What do you mean?”

     -“You don’t want responsibility for the things that are about you, like loving. And you want to take credit for the things that aren’t about you, like being loved.”

“Ouch.”

     -“I know. Being loved makes you vulnerable.”

“I’ve always thought it’s loving that makes you vulnerable.”

     -“It does, but not as much.”

“Really?”

     -“Loving leaves you in control.” 

“Huh???”

     -“Yes, your love can be rejected or betrayed, but you can still choose to love or not. You can even make yourself a martyr to love. But being loved? There’s nothing you can control about that. Accepting it makes you deeply vulnerable.”

“And that’s why I have such a hard time figuring you out?”

     -“Yes. It’s hard for you to really accept love. It’s hard for you to trust love.”

“Wow. It is, isn’t it.”

     -“And I am Love.”

<awkwardly long pause>

“I’m in pretty bad shape then.”

     -“No. Remember, I am Love. It’s not all about you either.”

“Will I ever get this figured out?”

     -“You’re further along than you think.”

“I am?…How?”

     -“You love.”

“I do. But I’m pretty bad at it a lot of the time.”

     -‘You do your best. That’s love. It’s not all about you.”

“Oh! Right. Okay.”

     -“Don’t worry. Stick with me – I’ll get you there.”

“The snow is still coming down.”

     -“It is. Isn’t it beautiful? I love it!”

 

(The Conversations, part 1 and part 2.)

The Luxury of Time

The Luxury of Time

“People need time to adjust.”

Time to change. Time to learn. Time to get used to new ideas, new things.

I’ve heard it over and over again, especially in the church, and especially from people who are concerned with community – with the connections we have across difference and disagreement.

I’ve heard it when we talk about trans folks having the freedom to use the bathroom that best fits their identity (instead of being harassed or attacked if they try to use the one that matches their birth certificate). I’ve heard it when we talk about gay marriage. I’ve heard it when we talk about white privilege and the systemic discrimination people of color face in churches and society.

And it’s true. Change does take time. None of us leapfrog to new things. We get there one step at a time.

The problem is that when we appeal for time for people to adjust to something new, we’re privileging those for whom the status quo is not a problem. People who didn’t (don’t) see the need for change on their own are already privileged, even if they rarely recognize that reality. Those of us with power and privilege can rarely see what they we have. It feels normal to us, and we naturally assume that what is normal to us is also normal for others. It’s just “how the world works.”

But the world may work radically different for someone else, and it is radically different for people who are different from me.

I began to realize that in my late twenties when I lived in North Carolina. It was a time of dramatic change as North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population in the country. Immigrants from Mexico were flowing into the state, and some smaller communities were reeling as their Spanish-speaking population increased from near zero to 20% or more in only a few years. That’s radical change.

In the area where I lived, the impacts were focused in a few neighborhoods, one of them already the most struggling neighborhood in town. It had quickly shifted to being roughly a third Hispanic, a third black, and a third white (mostly aging folks in homes they’d owned for decades). Friends of mine from church bought a home in there and enrolled their daughter in the local school. Several of us met in their home weekly and started to get involved in the community and the schools there.

It didn’t take long at all for my illusions about equality of opportunity and access to get blown out of the water. Black and Hispanic neighbors both, for somewhat different reasons, faced discrimination and barriers beyond what I’d imagined. I knew poverty – our family had struggled to make ends meet when I was growing up. But this was beyond poverty. These folks’ lives were so very different than mine.

The change they are waiting for is us.

The world works pretty well for us already, and we don’t want that to change. So we’re content for it not too until they can convince us there’s a problem, and that it’s not a problem of their own making, to the standards of our assumptions about how things are.

Because we can afford to take the time.

Even if they can’t.

Learning takes time. Changing takes time. Journeys happen one step at a time. I took the time; I walked – and sometimes ran – each step; and I’m still learning.

But when we make our learning and our comfort the criteria for change desperately needed by those who are vulnerable? That is the epitome of perpetuating and protecting our privilege.

A friend of mine who is a pastor recently related the words of a parent whose teenager had come out to them: “I suppose I should have cared enough when it was other people’s children.”

When we take our time, it always costs someone who can’t afford it.

The Worst Resolution

The Worst Resolution

“Never change. Never, never change.”

I heard it all the time growing up from my pastor, a respected leader who preached the same message – if a different sermon – three times a week, and wore a navy blue, double-breasted suit every single day for decades.

He was resolved, and it was the worst resolution.

It seemed to suit his personality not to change, as it suited his theology and philosophy. For Dr. R., truth was an objective absolute, a straightforward proposition. Once you found it, that was that. It was settled. So find it, base your life on it, and “never change.”

If you grant the premise, it makes all the sense in the world. It would be the safest way to live well if reality worked that way.

But it never made much sense to me.

There’s no learning, no growth, no life without change. Change defines healthy life in every context. And when change stops…well, that’s death.

The turn of the year, 2017 to 2018, has me remembering his words. I had lunch on New Year’s Eve with old friends who knew him as well, and the question came up, “What happened? What went wrong in the mega church and extensive ministry he built and led?” It’s all gone now.

“Never change.”

Change isn’t always good. “Change for change’s sake” is not a good idea (except when it is). But to reject change for its own sake is a path to certain stagnation and death.

Changing one’s mind is rarely easy. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of beliefs and assumptions that have defined the world for you. The things that have given us the bearings we need to make good decisions with confidence, to live and feel secure about our lives. Those beliefs are often entwined with so much of our lives and pulling them is messy work that can leave us feeling unmoored and unsure of what our new reality will be grounded in.

But learning requires changing our minds, and learning also requires an openness to change. It nearly always involves being able to let go of something I believed, something I imagined to be true, in order to embrace newly discovered truth.

And that’s a moving target. Because if there is something, anything, that could in any way be accurately described as absolute and unchanging truth, it is so unknowably vast that our meanderings through it will feel ever changing. We can’t grasp the whole, and so we’re always unlearning and learning. Always learning to see anew. Always changing in response to what we’ve seen.

The “immutability” (unchangeableness) of God never made a lot of sense to me either. It’s an idea of perfection from Greek philosophy that was imported into and imposed upon the Jewish thinking of the biblical writers. The Bible shows us a God fully engaged, arguing with his people and changing his mind. A Jesus who learned and grew. That God engages people in real ways, relates as a person who thinks and feels and whose thoughts and feelings change. The God who “does not change” in the Bible has a consistent character that does not change but is progressively revealed and understood more clearly.

We’re still at that – understanding the character of God more clearly. It has the power to transform our lives and our hearts if we are open to it – the change that each new year, each new day holds out. Ever learning and growing and expanding our hearts.

Ever changing.

A Dream Denied

A Dream Denied

There is a particular pain in chances never given – a grief for the untried. For some of us, it can be harder than the pain of failure or the grief of loss.

“I never even got to try.”

It’s particularly galling when you deserved the the opportunity, but it was others less deserving who got the chance. Life, it turns out, rarely metes out opportunities based on the wherewithal to do something with them. It just doesn’t work that way.

And so the chance you long for is denied, and you never even get to try, to see if what you’re capable of doing can live up to all you know you can do deep in your heart.

The thing you’re made for passes by without stopping for you.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps different sorts of dreams may do all of these things. Maybe some more than one.

A chance never given, this is what’s hardest for me. It clings to me. It will not let me go.

My question is different from Langston Hughes’: what do you do with a dream deferred? With the chance never given? The one that clings like a pleading child to my legs, hungry with persistent passion for this thing that every fiber of my being recognizes. And I have no power to give it to her.

What do you do with a dream denied? The one that will not stop speaking, singing to me from behind that door which is closed and barred to me? (Such a beautiful song. Such a painful song.)

What do you do with a dream denied?

Unmake it? Unmask?
Dissect
and from component parts
piece together another creature?
Will it live again?
Breathe? Move?
What about the beating heart?
Can it be another thing?
Itself take another shape?

Or will it die
and part of me with it?

Advent and the World Turned Upside Down

Advent and the World Turned Upside Down

Mary was a girl, a young woman, from a working class family in a small Jewish town in the backwater of the Roman Empire.  As an unmarried girl in a country under military occupation, she was the most vulnerable of people, but she was no shrinking violet.

When the Angel Gabriel tells her she will have a child – the Messiah and promised leader of his people, she asks questions first: “How exactly is that going to work?” When she says yes, her assent is not merely submissive obedience. She is a full participant, agreeing to put her body and life on the line for the freedom of her people.

Mary has never known a world at peace. Revolution has been brewing longer than she can remember as the Jews grow increasingly discontent under the power of Rome and her representatives. And Mary knows she has been asked to be the mother of their deliverer.

Like many a young unwed mother, Mary travels to spend time with relatives out of town. Maybe she was trying to get away from gossiping neighbors, or her family’s disappointment and struggles to believe her story – “So an angel told you God was going to make you pregnant????” Whatever she faced at home, it couldn’t have been easy.

But when she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s, she doesn’t even have to tell them her story. The miracle baby Elizabeth herself is carrying after decades of barrenness leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth knows: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

And Mary responded with a song of relief and rejoicing. Her song of praise – her “Magnificat” – expresses far more than her sense of honor at being chosen by God:

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she sings,

“and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary is singing a song of revolution, a song of reversals, of God turning the way things are on their head!

The powerful will be cast down, and those without power raised up. The hungry will be satisfied, and the wealthy will go hungry. As John, “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” will proclaim, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low.” The prophet Isaiah provided those words, and these:

God will “provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

In Mary’s song and John’s prophetic work, God’s kingdom is proclaimed as a kingdom that turns the way things are upside down!

Mary knew, and we know, that doesn’t happen peacefully. The powerful are rather attached to their thrones and not inclined to give them up without a fight. And the rich protect their wealth and security. We don’t want to give up the power, influence, and resources we have. We fight to protect them. But…

The valleys will be lifted up and the mountains laid low.

The powerful will be cast down and the powerless raised up.

The poor will be filled and the rich will go hungry.

When you hear those things, does your heart flinch a little in fear? Mine does. As much as I want to think I’m on Jesus and Mary’s side in this, I’m afraid of all I have to lose when the world turns upside down.

The Holy Spirit’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I heard that a lot growing up in church. The thing is, I don’t think anybody neatly fits into either category most of the time.

I was talking to a friend recently who, after being well-off most of his life, really struggles to make ends meet these days. He works at Trader Joe’s, and told me recently about a young couple who came through his check-out line. They were clearly wealthy – he recognized designer clothes and tastefully expensive jewelry. But they were quietly arguing and she was trying to hide tears. “Sure, they have money,” he said, “but they’re suffering in ways I know nothing about, and I’ve never known anyone who isn’t.”

I think he’s right. Most of the time, each of us are comfortable in ways and truly afflicted in other ways. We have a good job, but our marriage is struggling. Our kids are doing great, but our parents are suffering. And if we have a season when everything is going well, an illness comes, or an unexpected death, and suddenly our lives are turned upside down.

We’re all going to need comforting – and Jesus came for that. He brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, gives the oil of gladness instead of mourning.

But that flinch of fear in my heart, that clinch in my stomach, when I hear that God is in the business of turning the way things are on their head. That feeling? That tells us where we’re comfortable. Where we feel threatened by God’s work in the world.

Don’t shuffle that feeling off to the side. Don’t try to silence it with justifications. Sit with it this Advent and Christmas. Listen to it. Let it make us uncomfortable. Let it show us how we can best join in God’s business of turning the way the world works on its head.

Recognize the power you have and use it on behalf of those who don’t have; or better yet, share it with them. Share the wealth and resources you have with those who don’t have much. Choose to let the heart of God turn your world upside down.

In agreeing to be the mother of Jesus, Mary put her heart and body on the front lines of her people’s fight to overthrow the power of the Roman Empire and turn their world upside down, and God had even more in mind for her son than she knew. Mary had a choice – she could’ve turned away. She could have protected her reputation and the possibility of a normal, uneventful life.

But Mary said yes to God and his plan to turn the way the world is on its head, whatever it cost her. What will we say?

Advent in the Dark

Advent in the Dark

It’s dark.

The days keep getting shorter, and what daylight we have in Chicago is often cloudy and gray.

Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas – is always that way (at least in the northern hemisphere). The nights creep ever earlier, dawn ever later, and we live more and more in the dark.

“In the dark” – it means we don’t know what’s happening or what happens next. It’s a lot like the centuries before Jesus came in Israel, and even after he came. They were in the dark. A people struggling to live under empires that could’ve cared less about them. Promised something more, they had no idea where it would come from, what it would look like. Their heroes kept failing them, and for the most part, their hopes got it wrong.

The world seems pretty dark to a lot of people these days, too. Full of fear and uncertainty and instability and failed heroes.

We celebrate Advent with the beautiful words: hope, peace, love, joy. We celebrate Advent like we know what comes next. But the kicker is, they didn’t. And beyond the words of the Christmas story, neither do we.

Advent is about confusion. Living in the dark. Finding enough light to keep living, nonetheless.

The pregnant teenager with no good explanation. The kid hiding their reality in a closet, terrified of how their family and community would respond if they knew. The un- and under-employed, stuck in a system that seems determined to keep them there. The persistently single, longing for a chance to get excited about someone. The refugee longing for a peaceful life when the world has crumbled out from under them.

We live most of our lives in the dark, and it rarely feels safe. So much haunts us there – fears of the past, fears of the future, fears for tonight.

So we light candles of longing, candles of coping, sometimes candles of change. Candles that defy the dark with kindness, generosity, solidarity, risk.

We tell ourselves and each other stories – stories we can’t be sure will be true, but we offer them in hope anyway. We create paths of flickering light with our words, like luminaries in the night that may lead to a bonfire on the beach with something warm to drink, a sweet bread to savor, and others with stories to share.

We look for those flickering lights to lead us to each other, and maybe that’s the only hope we really have in the dark.