Thursday, January 31, 2013

My name is Jenny, and I'm a hypocrite

I hear the story time and time again about how many people are leaving the church these days because they feel it is outdated, irrelevant, and hypocritical.  I have been sympathetic, as I have my own church baggage that has weighed me down over the years.  But I've keep pursuing the church like a bad relationship that you can't quite let go of.  Fortunately, it's been worth the fight and I've found a place of health and welcome.  I guess I've become a little too comfortable, as sometimes the negative talk about church makes me sigh as I think the excuses are just a cop-out (it's easy to brush concerns aside when they aren't personally damaging you at the moment.  How quickly we forget).

But there are times when the truth slaps us in the face and we're confronted with the lies we tell ourselves and the guilt we carry.  I had just sat through a workshop where we heard (yet again) how church attendance is declining and we ministers were challenged with the task of changing the way we do church before it dies completely.  Sometimes the problems seem so insurmountable that the only thing we are capable of is shrugging in apathy and hope that a savior comes along.  As I sat in my stupor surveying the room full of ministers, I went into my default mode when I'm feeling shame (thanks, Brene Brown)--I started judging others.  I scoffed at the young guys in their trendy glasses and gotees, and the older guys trying to stay relevant with their iPads.  I glared at the older women that were surely out of touch and thought that none of them would be able to save the church.  I looked at the music minister and guessed he was just like the others, putting on a good show to drum up an emotional response.  What a bunch of hypocrites.

Friends, I think that sitting down and judging a room full of ministers is a new personal low.

But the shame didn't hit me until we began singing the next song, David Crowder's version of "Oh How He Loves Us":

And He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a treeBending beneath the weight of His wind and mercyWhen all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictionsEclipsed by glory and I realize just how beautiful You areAnd how great Your affections are for me

And oh, how He loves us, ohOh, how He loves us, how He loves us all

I began choking up on the words "how He loves us", and realized, without a doubt that I am loved unconditionally by God, and so was everyone else in that room.  No matter how rotten and hypocritical my thoughts, and how my insecurity and fears drive me to unfairly judge others, I am accepted completely. But God loves me too much to leave me in my sad state, so I know that I must accept the challenge to grow and be accountable for my thoughts and actions.  I cannot put the responsibility for others but must address my past church hurts and step up to do my part in making the church a more welcoming and engaging body for Christ.

The truth is I have such a hope for the church.  Yes, it is broken, but so was Christ's body, which became our salvation.  Yes, it seems hopeless, but sometimes the old ways have to die so that something new can be born.  Looking around the room again, I could see God's handiwork in our motley group.  It's true that we are all messy and imperfect, but we are all called by God, perhaps for that very reason.  Just like the prophets, we were not called for who we are or what we can do, but for how God can work through us (sometimes in spite of us).  There is beauty in our fumbling attempts at worship, there is a spark of rebirth in each of our creative attempts to share God's mysterious Word.  

The sun comes up
It's a new day dawning
It's time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes
Bless the Lord O my soul
O my soul
Worship His holy name
Sing like never before
O my soul
I'll worship Your holy name

(from Matt Redman's "10000 Reasons")


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The secret of happiness (is inside you)

I've been reading a lot about happiness lately, which seems like a singularly American pursuit (who else has the time and money to devote to such a task?).  First there was Ariel Gore's Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness , then Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, followed by positive psychology guru Martin Seligman's Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.  Most recently I finished The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky.  All of these offered practical exercises to help you increase your potential for happiness.  These were simple things like practicing gratitude and performing random acts of kindness.  Most strategies focused on living in the present moment and appreciating what you already have instead of looking for outside things (or people) for fulfillment.

It's odd to me how you can know something in your heart (and even your head), and yet live in a way that contradicts it.  My life is absolutely beautiful, and yet how often do I complain and think "If only I had this..." or "If only this were different I would be so much happier..."  We may profess that money doesn't buy happiness, yet spend our time working to buy more of the things we so desperately want.  We look to other people to "complete" us, knowing that this is impossible.  Ultimately, the key to happiness is inside ourselves...we already possess the tools we need.

One of my disappointments has been that I have not traveled as much as I expected to as an adult.  I am perfectly settled in a cozy home with my sweet family, but I dream of a day when we will be able to explore new places.  Thanks to my husband, I had the opportunity to do just that this week.  I'm currently at a creativity conference for ministers in Winter Park, Florida.  Tomorrow we will spend a magical day in one of the happiest places on earth, Disney World, to study their culture and the way they use creativity to draw visitors into their story (much as we ministers aim to draw our congregations into the larger Story of God).  I'm here by myself for five glorious days, in a quiet hotel room, escaping the snow in Virginia for lovely 80 degree sunny days.  I've met and talked with leaders whose books I've devoured, and savored rare time to eat fine meals, reflect, and be challenged.  Sounds perfect, right?  Well, I'm learning that perfection, like happiness, is all a matter of perspective.  It is a wonderful gift, and I'm so grateful for this opportunity.  But running through the airport, dealing with the ups and downs (literally) of airplane travel, and missing my family has exhausted me to the point of realizing that perhaps the traveling life is not for me.  Absence does make the heart grow fonder, it seems, and gives me a greater appreciation for what I have waiting for me at home.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A new kind of feminism?

I grew up in a family of women.  When I was a child, my great-grandmother was still alive, feisty, and living alone in her own home after outliving multiple husbands (and looking for her next mister up until her death at age 93).  She had six daughters and a son, who was the baby of the family.  My grandmother had only my mother, after losing stillborn twins.  My father died when I was five, and my mother's father died when I was in high school, so family get-togethers were a hen house of clucking and cooking and bossing each other around.  Women wore the pants in this matriarchal system, and I didn't realize it could work any other way.

I think I was born a feminist.  I always knew I wanted to work and have a family, and assumed I would have an equal partnership in my marriage (although I figured I would get more of a was, after all, my model).  My mom, the more traditional one in the family, even more so than her elders, tried to teach me about what it meant to be a submissive woman, to let the man be the "head" of the family and to "be sweet" and not always speak what was on my mind.  God bless her heart, she really tried.

We lived in a small town where "traditional" values reigned.  Women did the cooking and stayed home to raise the children, while men did the "hard work" and brought home the bacon (for their women to fry up).  I never felt at home, even though I was born there, and was always pushing at the boundaries that seemed too restrictive.  Perhaps that's why I landed myself in a job that is still the source of contention, an ordained minister in a tradition that still struggles over whether women can be called to pastoral leadership.

But now, I feel torn and uncertain.  Personally, I feel blessed to have found my calling as well as a place that accepts my gifts for ministry and celebrates who I am.  My greatest gift is a husband that is an equal partner (and yes, he does let me get more of a say, probably more than I deserve most times).  I am passionate about raising our children without restrictive gender stereotypes although it is more difficult than I imagined and more worrisome now that my son is in school and begins to learn the lesson of "conform or be ridiculed."  But I worry, too, about a new generation that struggles with a view of feminism that seems to me to be restrictive and impossibly unhealthy.

As a chaplain at an all-girls university, I see these wonderfully bright and strong young women exercising the freedoms that were hard-won by the generations before us.  They are able to freely speak their minds, to debate and protest, and to dream of "having it all"...whatever that means.  They work relentlessly as they have learned from the culture that models the necessity of doing it all.  To be a success, you must be smart, busy, involved, a leader, outspoken, friendly, fierce, competitive, funny, thoughtful, creative, hard-working, reserved, bold, political, current, trustworthy, and a beautiful size zero.  You must work hard to reach the top, even if it means stepping on people to get there.

It seems to me that feminism's greatest gift should be the freedom to choose which path one wants to follow. It should level the playing field so that gender is not an issue that excludes one from following a dream.  Each woman, then, should be able to determine what her dream is and to follow that without criticism.  And yet, we have the "mommy wars" and competitive blogs and Pinterest that make all of us feel inadequate in some way. If we're not doing it all, we're failing. And yet, ironically, we learn that to be successful in one area often means letting go in another.

How my grandmother would have loved to go to college, and she always dreamed of being a teacher.  My mom, however, worked her fingers to the bone at multiple jobs as a single mother with a high school education and a family to raise.  Her greatest unrealized dream was to be able to stay at home to raise her family.  After having the freedom to make my choice (thanks to the sacrifices of my family and the work of many women before me), I feel that everyone should be able to make her own decision.

Let us dream the dreams inside of us, and not the ones the world tries to hand us.  If you aim for success in the workforce, go for it, and may the sisterhood of women support you on your way up.  If you long to be a stay at home mother, you have my respect.  May you find your way to peace and have pride in your work.  Listen to the voice inside, and the voices of your family and know that you are enough and don't have to "measure up" to any standard that someone else has set.  If you aim to find a way to balance both, you should be entitled to do so.  With courage, strength, and flexibility, it is possible, although sometimes it means altering your expectations.

One of the greatest strongholds preventing women from advancing is, sadly, the church.  It was born out of a patriarchal system that has not evolved to meet the changing times (likely due to the lack of women in leadership positions).  Although Jesus had female disciples, spoke to women from the cross, and appeared to them first with the good news of his resurrection, women have been told that we have to stand behind, be silent, and be involved, but not lead.  Women have been trapped in abusive relationships under the commandment to be submissive to the men in their lives.  I can't believe that the God of love, the God who created man and woman side by side to be helpers for one another, intended this.  I can't doubt the voice of God that called me, yes me, to be a minister, and who brought me together with such a kind, supportive, loving man to be my husband and partner.

I look forward to hearing more as this conversation and movement begins, as we explore and redefine what it means to be a feminist today, and what roles we carry as women.  One of my favorite writers, Sarah Bessey, is working on a book entitled Jesus Feminist.  For some, the title sounds like an oxymoron, but I have hope that we can all grow as we begin to explore and redefine women's roles and contributions in this new age.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What not to say

"You're going to hurt yourself!" she yelled as I ran to the playground.  I stopped, considering, and after years of hearing the words, I stopped entirely.  I avoided risks, and took on her fear as my own.  As I am a parent now, I can understand where she was coming from: a single mother, working constantly, her only joy found in her baby girl.  In a world where so much had been taken from her--her husband, her security, her love, she had to hold on so tightly.  I felt her fear that stemmed from her love, and I couldn't bear to be the source of more pain for her.

Flash forward thirty years, and now I'm that mom, watching the reckless, fearless abandon of my own children, wanting to hold on, wanting to be their safety net of protection.  But I know that I do them a disservice by planting my fears within them.  I want my love to be security for them so that they can reach out and discover new things, always knowing that they have a "home base" to return to.  I love to witness wonder and pride in their eyes when they attempt something new, so I fight myself to not hold them back.  Every instinct leads me to cling on tightly for my own sake, as they seem impossibly big these days and grow more overnight. Still I know the goal of this parenting gig is to teach them independence, to give them roots so that they have connection, but also to give them wings, empowering them to find their own freedom to fly.  I struggle to not let them be the center of my world (as much as I cherish them), because I don't want them living for me.  One day, God willing, I will send them off to discover their own callings and dreams with pride (and many tears).

In today's world, it seems like a much more vulnerable act of courage to send them out into a world filled with terror and violence, where even school is no longer a sanctuary.  I feel like putting them in a bubble, a safe and warm little incubator of protection.  But I remember when Brady was born, so very tiny, and had to stay in his warming isolette, hooked up to tubes fighting for his life.  He was so weak, and feeding him became a battle.  The head nurse jokingly diagnosed him with "wimpy white boy syndrome", pointing out that some babies seem lazier in the beginning.  He had to find the will to fight, and his body had to learn to work on its own before he could be released from the hospital.  How would I ever choose to go back to that?  It was safe and protected, but it was not the full life we dreamed for him.

"You're going to hurt yourself" still plays on an endless loop in my mind.  But I bite my tongue, smile, and say, "Go ahead, you can do it!" and pray, pray, pray that one day I'll be as strong and fearless as they are.

This song was an inspiration as I was pregnant with Brady, and continues to remind me of roots and wings:

Mark Harris - Find Your Wings
It's only for a moment you are mine to hold
The plans that heaven has for you
Will all too soon unfold
So many different prayers I'll pray

For all that you might do
But most of all I'll want to know
You're walking in the truth
And if I never told you, I want you to know
As I watch you grow

I pray that God would fill your heart with dreams
And that faith gives you the courage
To dare to do great things

I'm here for you whatever this life brings
So let my love give you roots
And help you find your wings

May passion be the wind
That leads you through your days
And may conviction keep you strong
Guide you on your way

May there be many moments
That make your life so sweet
Oh, but more than memories

I pray that God would fill your heart with dreams
And that faith gives you the courage
To dare to do great things

I'm here for you whatever this life brings
So let my love give you roots
And help you find your wings

It's not living if you don't reach for the sky
I'll have tears as you take off
But I'll cheer as you fly

I pray that God would fill your heart with dreams
And that faith gives you the courage
To dare to do great things

I'm here for you whatever this life brings
So let my love give you roots
And help you find your wings

Friday, January 18, 2013

Snow Day

Fat, puffy, blowy snow,
gently drifting down below,
swirling, twirling, dancing goes
all around and to the ground.

Falling flakes erase our place,
coating us in newfound grace,
like silent prayers upon our face,
the still small voice resounds.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An open letter to my children

Dear sweet little ones,

I hope you know how very loved you are.  Daddy and I dreamed of you before you were even created, and loved you before you were born.  We are just amazed at the creative, caring, intelligent people you are growing into.  That being said, there are a few (hundred) things we'd still like to teach you.  Here are the top five of the moment:

1. Yep, you're right.  "It just isn't fair."  Although when you scream it, it's usually because you're not getting your way.  See photo evidence below:

Yes, my dears, it is NOT fair that some children suffer with hunger and don't have the opportunity to go to school.  You, however, are throwing fits on a DISNEY CRUISE, while eating pizza, fries, and cookies with the BAHAMAS in the background.  Let's find a little gratitude.

2. "I'm not your best friend anymore."  This is what you throw at me when you're mad at me.  The truth is, though, being a best friend isn't about the other person always doing what you want them to do.  Friendship, like any relationship (parent-child included), is about looking out for what is best for one another and encouraging each other to be our best.  I really hope that we are best friends one day and have a relationship built on mutual respect and interests.  Until then, I hope to teach you about caring for others' feelings as much as you do your own.

3.  We have routines that we do EVERY DAY.  It should not come as a surprise that you must wake up/go to bed, brush teeth, eat, clean up take medicine, and get dressed/undressed.  I know you hate us reminding you multiple times (but trust me, not as much as we hate saying it repeatedly).  The quicker you do it on your own, the more time we'll have for the fun stuff.

 I know you get frustrated.  It is so hard to learn new things, and you are confronted with so many needs and demands.  It's easy to just want to give up.  But even though life is sometimes hard, it is also beautiful and full of wonder.  Those things that we struggle with end up making us stronger, more capable, and hopefully more empathetic to others who are having difficulties.

5.  We'll love you forever, no matter what.  As we sing in the song from that book we've read far too many times to count, 

"I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living, my baby you'll be."

When we get angry or disappointed, you may worry that our feelings have changed.  But love is more than a feeling.  It is a way of being that only grows and deepens.  We loved you before we knew you, and it's only more real and eternal now that we know incredible you.  That love will never go away and we will be forever connected through our bond of family.  We will all disappoint one another, but our love means that we find our way to forgiveness and reconnection.  You can do nothing to break or lose our love, just as you did nothing to create it.  It is God-given, just as God gave us the gift of you.

With love,

Monday, January 14, 2013

Yoga wisdom

(Statue on the lawn of the Winnetu Resort in Martha's Vineyard, my very favorite place to do yoga)

I'm a reluctant exerciser.  Left to my own devices, I'd be content to while away my spare hours in bed reading wonderful books.  But aging is not always a kind process and I feel myself slowing down and aching in places I've never noticed before.  I get tense and the stress builds up until I can barely handle myself (and neither can anyone else).  I've learned that I feel better when those endorphins kick in after a hike with the kids, a long prayer walk, or a short jog.  I love the bliss after an hour of yoga, a time when I feel tall for once, open, strong, flexible, and able to breathe deeply.  It's a shame that I forget those good feelings in between my workout sessions and so easily convince myself that I don't have the time or energy to hit the gym.  And we all pay the price.

I'm lucky that there's a twice-weekly yoga class at work this month that I can attend for free.  It's a sanctuary in my week, a bit of "otium sanctum" (when I take advantage of it).  I'm always a little envious of yoga instructors, always so toned and fit and impossibly flexible.  They are disciplined and yet they have an aura of peace and calm that points to a more free-spirited nature.  And their voices are always the most soothing, making instructions sound like poetry, and movements like mantras.  Today as I moved my body, the words flowed over me like epiphanies, reminders of what I need to carry with me in daily life.  Here's just a sample of what stuck today--

"Breathe.  Breathe like it's important."  (Isn't it strange that we have to be reminded to do this most natural, most automatic thing?  But once you breathe deeply and intentionally, you realize how infrequent this is.)

"Just be.  We are human beings, not human doings."  (Be still, and know that I am God...)

"Be present here, in this moment, for as long as it is.  We are not living in the past or the future, but in the now."  (How hard it is to be in the moment!  In the peacefulness of yoga I catch myself making to-do lists in my head and plans for after class.  Yet all we have is this moment.  Embracing now is a big component of happiness according to many studies.)

"Listen to your body."  (My body has been speaking loud and clear...thus the yoga.  The body is now happy.)

"Stop before it hurts."  (No pain, no gain does not apply.  If only this one was easily applicable to life in general.)

"Your thoughts set your intention, and this is where your energy goes.  Be conscious of your thoughts and send your energy where you need it."  (My energy is often wasted in fruitless worries and tangents.)

"We have to still the outside to appreciate the chaos on the inside."  (If it were as easy to still the inner self...)

"What intention do you bring to this practice?" (peace)

(So what is your intention for today?)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holy leisure

How happy are you?  How busy are you?  Could the two be correlated?

On her blog, The Blue Room, MaryAnn McKibben Dana reported on a study that showed that the happiest people manage to be busy without feeling rushed, and conversely, the unhappiest people are those who report having an excess of free time.  Part of me wants to reject these results as I often bemoan the pressure and stress of our hectic lives that, I speculate, zaps our happiness and contentment.  But on the other hand, I have experienced the results myself.  After a very busy academic year, I longed for the freedom and time of summer to relax and dream.  It was wonderful...for about two weeks.  Then I found myself bored and unmotivated, unable to do any productive work even though I had unlimited time for once.  Then I was disappointed in myself and felt unfulfilled.  There is something about balance, taking rest when it is needed, but also having the slight push of deadlines to motivate actual effort.

So how does this fit into my idea of sanctuary?  As I've mentioned, life will not slow down, and demands and needs are relentless.  How can we be busy, and yet not feel rushed?  Part of it, I believe is to follow the Buddhist koan of "simultaneous inclusion", the ability to be both busy and not busy at the same time.  I wrote about it after reading the book One Who Is Not Busy, The: Connecting with Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way .  It's being totally engaged in a task, so focused we lose track of time.  We are not rushed, but live in the moment, totally connected to our activity (be it work or play).  It's the opposite of how I usually function, always thinking about what's ahead and what is left to do.

So this is my goal for finding sanctuary this year--not necessarily to retreat to a monastery (although that would be nice), but to fully engage in each moment, and trying to find balance in my needs for rest and play.  My spirituality professor in seminary introduced us to the concept of "otium sanctum", Latin for "holy leisure", and gave us a weekly assignment to find these times to nourish our spirit.  It's different for each person as we have different needs and passions.  Here are some of my favorite ideas for holy leisure:

1. lots of reading

2. writing and reflecting

3. gentle exercise like walking and yoga

4. time alone

5. time with my family

6. a walking conversation with a friend

7. going for a drive at night

8. coloring

9. cleaning (yes, I'm strange)

10. organizing (see above)

11. exploring a new part of my town

12. watching a movie with my husband

13. watching a documentary or TED video

14. running

15. prayer walks/labyrinth

16. listening to old music

17. being by the water

18. taking a nap (I think I'll end with my favorite)

So what's your favorite holy leisure activity?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What looks like sanctuary in a busy life

Sanctuary is my one word for 2013, but what does that look like in real life?  Life is busy, chaotic, and often harsh.  My life as a chaplain is full of demands and if I don't stop to care for myself, I allow the burdens of those to whom I minister to weigh me down.  At the end of the year I was feeling pretty heavy, limping from too many hours at work and away from my family, and saddened by several tragedies and deaths.  Ministry is beautiful and sacred and inspiring...and it is painful and uncertain and hard.  There have been articles lately about the minister who checked himself into the hospital for depression, and I applaud his bravery in the midst of serious pressures.  You would think that shepherds who care for others would know how to care for themselves, and I guess we do, but we often don't practice what we preach.  Sometimes it's because we are expected by congregations to work 60 hours a week and attend to every need, and sometimes we get a little misguided about our own needs and (self) importance.  There's also the rush of ministry that feels GOOD to be serving and helping and doing important, holy things.  It feels great...until it doesn't anymore.  Burnout is a hard and painful reality for many, and so is depression.

We learned about Henri Nouwen's concept of the "wounded healer" in seminary--how we can be more empathetic in ministering to others due to the pain we've experienced.  It may explain the number of people with mental and emotional illnesses that are drawn into the field.  We know how it feels and want to reach out to help others become whole and healthy.  Sometimes we forget about our own brokenness until it's too late, though.  My husband's first experience in full-time ministry was as an associate pastor.  He had been hired and had scarcely even been in the church when the word came that the senior minister had committed suicide, leaving a wife, two young children, and a grieving church behind.  His struggle with depression was known to some, but the word I heard spoken most often in the church hall following his funeral was the ironic praise, "He just did everything for everybody.  He was such a great pastor, he was always here."

There is a high price for living such a life.  There is a cost to sacrificing our own needs, spirituality, time, and family for the good of others.  That cost is too high for me.  I'm committed to living more simply and intentionally, grounded in my faith and my commitment to my family.  My relationship with God must come first so that I can be healthy and connected and so that I can really be present to those I love and serve.  I'm seeking God to be my sanctuary, my hiding place, my refuge, my holy place, in order that I may become that safe place for others to seek God's love and truth.

How do I do this?  I'm not really sure; I'm figuring it out as I go.  I'm looking for what feeds my soul and doing more of that (especially when I must spend time in soul-draining pursuits).  I'm seeking time away, which my introverted self craves.  I'm praying to see the world through God's eyes so that I can see past the darkness and ugliness and see more of the hope and love.  I want to live from my heart with authenticity and vulnerability (even though it's hard and risky).  I'm looking to honor my time and that of my husband and children, keeping sacred time for my family.  I'm reminding myself that I need others, and reaching out for the support of community.

In my life, that looks like a lot of reading and regular writing.  It means trying to make it home for family dinners and tucking the kids into bed.  It means a weekly walk with a friend and a yoga class to de-stress.  I hope it will mean more dates with my handsome husband, and more time to dream.  But it also means living fully in whatever moment I find myself in, reengaging my ministry passion, counseling, teaching, preaching, comforting, and even attending lots of meetings and doing paperwork.  When I give of myself, I want to give fully, whether in work or in play.

Where and how are you seeking sanctuary?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Les Misérables, faith, and redemption

I've loved the story of Les Misérables since we were assigned to read it in my high school AP English class.  I was drawn quickly into Victor Hugo's (1500 page) epic story of grace and redemption (and also of tragedy and pain).  I read recently that Hugo was no fan of organized religion, and yet I'm struck by the religious themes that fill this work.

Shortly after graduation, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to do a whirlwind 20-day tour of Europe with the top students from my county, and the highlight for me was seeing the musical stage production of Les Mis in London.  I was in tears as the curtain came up, moved by the opening strains of the music, and was a sobbing mess by the finale.  The soundtrack was on repeat in my Walkman (yes, I graduated in the 90s) for months following the trip.  So this year's new movie adaption was highly anticipated, and I dragged my husband with me to see it as soon as we could find a sitter.

It did not disappoint (although I did wince a little through Russell Crowe's singing as Javert).  But perhaps it was best that his voice was not the most powerful.  It gave credence to the irony of his character.  Though Inspector Javert appeared strong and unbending, a black and white thinker bound to his unswerving loyalty to God and the law, he was weakened by the godly grace shown him by Jean Valjean.  Valjean was a paroled criminal that Javert had spent years tracking.  Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry family and was given additional time served for attempting to escape.  When he finally earned his release, he was unable to find a living anywhere due to his past.  As in the case of many trapped within the "system" today, he turned to crime once again to provide for himself.  And yet, this time, grace shone on him.  This man that had been made desperate by poverty and hardened by his punishment was given a gift by a man of God, a bishop that had taken in Valjean for the night.  Valjean stole silver from the kind man, and when the police captured him (yet again), the bishop said that he had given the silver to Valjean and gave him two silver candlesticks in addition, imploring him to use them to become a better man.

In song Valjean offers the following:

What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there's another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!

One word from him and I'd be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Thus begins Valjean's conversion.  He realizes through the gift of grace that he has a soul.  He is no longer the criminal number 24601, "but that another story must now begin".  As the bishop has claimed his life for God above, Valjean lets go of his hatred and searches for a new way to go, escaping from his past sin and identity.  He manages to recreate himself.

Yet Javert does not give up his pursuit of the former convict and one of the story's plot lines involves their cat and mouse chase.  Time and time again Valjean is caught and yet manages to escape.  Finally, Valjean gets the upper hand and has the opportunity to kill Javert and stop his running once and for all.  Instead, he offers him grace and sets him free.  Javert, however, cannot accept the gift.  In a song of the same tune and similar phrases as Valjean's conversion, Javert expresses his confusion, anger, and shame:

Who is this man? 
What sort of devil is he,
to have me caught in a trap,
and choose to let me go free.
It was his power at last
to put a seal on my fate,
wipe out the past,
and wash me clean off the slate.
All it would take
was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his,
and he gave me back my life.

Damned if I'll live in
the debt of a thief.
Damned if I'll yield
at the end of the chase.
I am the law 
and the law is not mocked.
I'll spit his pity
right back in his face.
There is nothing on earth that we share.
It is either Valjean or Javert.

How can I now allow this man
to hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted,
He gave me my life;
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand;
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well.
Instead, I live,
but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart.
Can this man be believed?
Shall his crimes be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
who never doubted all these years?
MY heart is stone
and still it trembles.
The world I have known
is lost in shadows.
Is he from heaven or from hell,
and does he know
that granting me my life today,
this man has killed me even so?

I am reaching
but I fall.
And the stars are black and cold
as I stare into the void
of a world that cannot hold.
I'll escape now from that world,
from the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn,
There is no way to go on.

(final line said in fading as Javert jumps from a bridge to his death)

It is so powerful for me as I see this same struggle played out in the life of faith.  There are people who can freely accept the gift of God's grace, knowing they are unworthy, yet changing their lives so that share this love with others.  And then there are those who wear the Christian badge with pride, yet use it as a tool to exclude others with legalism, dogma, and rules of righteousness.  They become the "God police" like Javert, deciding who is unworthy and what their punishment should be.

Even the New Testament struggles with the Gospel that Jesus came to fulfill the law, add to it, or overthrow it?  Is it faith or works that saves us...or both?  Can people be redeemed, and what is truly unforgivable?  How does one live a life of faith in relation to God and others?  We work out these answers with fear and trembling, with self-righteousness and pride and humility.  We make mistakes, and sometimes we surrender and embrace the mystery that only God knows how it all plays out.  

I ponder the irony that both Peter and Judas were followers who betrayed Jesus.  I believe that both could have been forgiven, but only Peter was given the chance to once again prove his loyalty to Jesus.  Judas could not hold out hope for that gift, and like Javert, gave up his own life.

I don't have the answers, but this I know...I feel moved by a force greater than myself when I see true love, forgiveness, and grace extended.  I feel bigger when all are invited and welcomed into the family of God.  I feel closer to the Divine when I give and farther away when I withdraw.  I feel myself rooting for the Jean Valjeans of the world, who see the unexplainable beauty of God's love and use it to transform themselves.  

May we ever be reaching, and when we fall, may we fall into the forgiveness of God and the loving arms of our community of faith.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The things we keep

I'm a sentimental person.  I can tear up at a commercial and, in general, avoid movies featuring children and most country music because I just can't handle the emotion.  However, my emotional nature is stirred more by words triggering memories than by objects.  I don't hang onto much, don't do collections, and my kids have already learned to look through the recycling bin for their most recent artwork (I do have a heart and save special pieces, though).  There are few family photos on the walls, although I have entire galleries on my computer and a box of treasured prints to flip through.  I have saved all of my husband's sweet love notes, and we continue the tradition started when we were poor seminary students of writing a love letter to each other every Christmas.

Something is happening to me, though, and I blame it on the wrinkles that are joining the party started by the gray hairs several years ago. As I get older, I'm alarmed by how quickly entire periods of my life and identity have been wiped from my memory.  My husband and I often play the game, "What did we do before we had children?" because it truly is a mystery to us.  I remember snippets of our intense and brief time of dating which was the most beautiful time of my life up to then, but now it is almost reduced to fragments and a vague sense of how I felt at the time (oh to be young and in love). 

I was cleaning out our storage area the other day and came across all of our old albums and scrapbooks (ah, that must have been what we did before kids...make records of all the inconsequential things we did!).  Flipping through took me back to the births of our children, our honeymoon, our wedding, seminary, college, and high school, and magically reversed the aging process.  There were pictures of people I couldn't name and faded memories I couldn't place.  More than forgetting the events was the loss of forgetting who I was then, what I felt, what I had dreamed.  Have I yet realized those dreams?

I found a travel journal from a trip to Europe shortly after my high school graduation (oh, to have that opportunity again).  I recognized pieces of the snarky girl who mostly complained about all the wonders she was experiencing (I guess not everything has changed).  I found myself, for once, wanting to hang on to it all, to recapture some of the experiences, the feelings.  The power of nostalgia is strong...even though was so anxious to move on from those times that I seemingly banished them from memory, now I wonder what I'm missing.  I remembered that when we moved to this house from our old one, John convinced me to get rid of some trophies I had earned in high school.  He, in jest, told me to "lay my trophies down", just as some have said we are expected to lay our crowns at Jesus' feet in heaven.  I have joked since that I miss those awards as they are proof that I was once smart, that I was destined to succeed.  And here I am, right where I want to be, but still living in doubt.

What is it about age that makes us look back?  There is nothing that I had then that I miss, and nothing now that I lack.  Is it the fear of time running out, and longing to return to a time when we felt invincible and eternal?  Is it the hope and promise of youth (and realizing that we misspent so much of it?)

This time, I decided I needed something to keep.  A visual reminder of what has been.  Not because I long to return or desire to live in the past, but to remember the memories of the times that have made me who I am(or at least have symbols of some of what I've experienced and forgotten) .  I pulled out my high school letter (earned in band), and many of my academic and club medals and put them in a glass container in my office (where my husband can't find it and tease me...shh....).  It's on a low shelf, mostly out of sight, but is there for those days when I need to be reminded of who I have become.

 And I took a picture of myself today, with new wrinkles and scraggly gray hairs, for the me I'm becoming to look back on one day fondly, reminded of, if not quite remembering, the journey I took to get there.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

One Word for 2013: Sanctuary

art by Suzanne Vinson 
Sometimes God speaks through the miraculous--a burning bush, an unexplained healing, an unbelievable and well-timed opportunity.  I suppose to some, God's voice is loud and ominous like thunder.  But more often, I've heard God like a quiet thought in my head.  God kind of sounds like me...a little sarcastic, and yet clear with a wisdom that's obviously not from me.  It's always a moment followed by unspeakable peace and the surprise of "Why haven't I thought that before?"

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is of Elijah the prophet and how he experiences the presence of God during a time of great danger and stress in his life. Elijah's prophetic word of truth hit a little too close to home for Queen Jezebel, who threatens his life, and so, in fear, Elijah flees into the wilderness, and there he wishes to die.  Yet God intervenes and sends angels to nourish him twice, and Elijah, strengthened for a time, makes his way to the mountain of God.  God asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?", and the prophet shares the troubles he faces.  God tells Elijah that he will pass before him.  There is a great wind...but God is not in the wind.  And then a powerful earthquake...but God is not in the earthquake.  And then a fire...but God is not in the fire.  And then there was silence...and the still small voice of God.  "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

We live in a world that is so LOUD...from the constant noise of the television, music, people arguing, and the relentless advertisements, assaulting all our senses.  We are so very busy, rushing to attend to all who are shouting for our attention.  And yet the way of God is in stark contrast.  In the sanctuary of the cave where Elijah stood, he faced the weight of his fear and the immense power of God's creation, but greater still was the strength of God's silence and in the small voice that followed.  God's presence is our protection in the middle of our turbulent world and lives; his quiet call drowns out the noise and reminds us to focus on what we should be doing.  What are we doing here...and why?

Throughout the busyness of the past two years, a time of immense transition, I've heard that still small voice, whispering to me of "sanctuary" and rest.  I felt that my calling as chaplain at Hollins University was to be a minister of peace, even before I understood the setting.  Now that I have been there for a time, I understand why sanctuary has been placed on my heart.

When the word first came to me, I thought of a physical space...a sanctuary as the part of a church where we worship.  For me, having grown up in a church where I felt affirmed and welcomed, it has a positive connotation.  But for many, I know "church" has its baggage, and the word "sanctuary" may have little meaning in our secular culture.  Today, the term is more often used for an area designed for the protection of wildlife, such as a bird sanctuary.  The word should bring to mind a place of safety and rest, of protection and peace and holiness.

I named my weekly worship service "Sanctuary" in the hopes that students would find this place of rest and retreat away from the busyness and stress, a place and time where they could find renewal for their spirit and connection for their souls in community, service, and seeking and worshiping God.  For those that have come, I believe that it has offered that refuge.  But I've been often discouraged by how few have experienced it when the needs on campus are so great.

The voice whispering "Sanctuary" has not stopped or decreased its insistence.  In fact, it has grown louder as I have dismissed it with my own agenda of busyness and programs.  And yet, at the end of this year, worn and tired, uncertain, and low in budget, I can see no better or more worth emphasis for 2013.  As God has ordained, my word for 2013 will be "Sanctuary".
logo by Melanie at Only a Breath

Through the year, I plan to first of all seek God as my sanctuary, to rest in God's care and to seek renewal for my own soul.  I aim to take better care of myself (practicing what I preach) so that I can be more available for others.  As God works to heal my own heart and spirit, I pray that I can be a sanctuary for others, offering hope, a listening ear, and spiritual guidance.  I aim to find and offer sanctuary in my own home first, balancing my demands by being present for those who love and need me most.  I want to offer shelter for my children, so that they can come to me with anything and know they will find love.  I want to be present and supportive for my husband, showing him my unending love that has only grown and deepened over the years.  Although we often put our relationship last, I want to find sanctuary in one another, knowing that it gives us both strength for the challenges we face in raising two precocious and strong-willed children.  I want our home to be a sanctuary for us all, a place of rest and nurture, built on the foundation of our faith in God.

Thus strengthened by finding sanctuary in God and in my home, I pray that God may make me a sanctuary so that I can be present for those who are seeking, and that I might shelter them and point them to God's love, hope, and redemption.

Lord, prepare me to be a Sanctuary,
pure and holy,
tried and true.
And with thanksgiving,
I'll be a living
for you.