Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Easter message

It's a few days after Easter, and my kids are just now enjoying their Easter baskets.  It's been an untraditional kind of Easter, but I'm hoping it will become the norm.  Being a minister, Holy Week for me is a time of chaos in preparing for extra services and leading others into a time of reflection and worship.  I don't have the ability to stop and reflect for myself during the most busy moments.  It's hard for me to even guide my own family through the meaning of the holy-days.  My most meaningful time of connection is in the days afterwards when hopefully I take take a bit of Sabbath rest and think about the journey through Lent.  Spring is also hectic for our family as our kids celebrate birthdays three weeks apart in April and May, my birthday and Mother's Day is in May (along with commencement and other major events at work), and John celebrates his birthday in June along with Father's Day and our anniversary.  This year Maryn's birthday fell on the day after Easter, and we had already had a joint birthday party for the kids, an Easter egg hunt at church, and lots of extra celebrations and gifts from family.  It all seemed like a bit much, especially as the kids began fighting relentlessly over their gifts and their behavior started making their parents very grumpy.  Something had to give.

I had already broken the news about the (un)truth of the Easter Bunny to Maryn after she began having bad dreams that he was in our house trying to get to her.  She is frightened of costumed creatures and had seen the creepy looking bunny at the mall.  I let her know that that's not what Easter is about.  The bunny we saw was a person dressed up.  I promised that no bunny would come to our house delivering baskets.  Instead, Mommy and Daddy get the baskets and hide eggs, and we celebrate the holiday to remember how Jesus died for us, but then came back to life again.  She was reassured, and we moved on (with me hoping she wouldn't spoil the Easter Bunny myth for other kids).  I was bemused to hear Brady later telling friends at church that "The Easter Bunny doesn't come to our house."

I didn't feel good about giving them another basket of things to argue over, particularly as they had been unkind to one another as we had ended the previous day.  So I had an insight and prayed it would go over well.  I left them a note and a challenge with an Easter basket full of eggs.  For each empty egg, they would be responsible for doing something helpful, kind, or thoughtful for someone else.  Instead of the "put-downs" they had been using, they would need to find nice words ("put-ups").  They would need to accomplish 35 tasks to earn their gifts and celebrate the many gifts that Jesus gave to us.

I'm happy to say it was a success.  Brady woke up early (as usual) and read the note.  He took it matter-of-factly, and then explained it to Maryn when she stumbled downstairs.  There was no arguing or complaining; in fact, there was peace for the first time in days.  They actually worked together to find ways to help our family and others, and were actively involved in our church service that day.  It took two days for them to get their baskets, but it made them stop and reflect on the words they were using.  I hope they were as inspired by the peace that it brought to our house as I was, and I hope this becomes a habit.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

For my girl, who is now six

They say we'll miss these days, and although I argue that there are many days I won't miss, I do recognize the bittersweet twist of these moments as they pass.  It will never be quite like this again.  I have already forgotten the feel of the baby days that went by in a blur of exhaustion, and when I see her toddler pictures, it's like looking at a stranger.  It's hard to remember a time when she wasn't fully who she is now...clever, funny, articulate, demanding, feisty, and thoughtful.  How did we ever relate before she could tell me the stories of her day as we snuggle together in her bed? 

She is six now, and it seems so big and momentous.  We are out of the infant, toddler, preschool stages into the real essence of childhood.  She can read and write on her own and has chores for which she's responsible.  It's odd as I can distinctly remember being six and what it felt like to be navigating a world that was ever-expanding.  She loves for me to share my memories, and she laughs, because my life is different from hers, although we are more similar than she realizes.

We have already begun the dance of clinging and letting go.  She takes a step away, testing her independence, refuses to hold my hand in parking lots, and yet she won't let me leave her side at bedtime.  She argues relentlessly with me over insignificant details, pushes me away in anger, and then begs for time together, just the two of us.  I look into her eyes and it's disorienting.  They are my eyes, and yet behind them is a spark that is purely her own.  We are alike in temperament but I'm reminded each day that she is her own unique creation.  We are connected, but not the same.  She is learning that, and is teaching me, too.

The days are long, but the years are short, and these are the moments I want to remember forever:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Keep Hope Alive

There was once a tree in a garden full of life.  The bright greens, greens, and purples of spring growth were all around, and the birds sang from tree to tree.  There was one exception, though.  In the far corner a tree stood by itself.  Dead leaves from the fall still clung stubbornly to the branches, and its starkness compared to the vibrancy of the surrounding trees seemed to point to death.   A bronze marker at the base of the tree revealed the sad irony that this tree had been planted in someone's memory, and its seeming decline was another cruel twist of grief.  

A sight like that could make you sigh in hopelessness.  It could make you want to cut the tree down in surrender, another reminder of our mortality.  But if you stopped for a minute to look up, to look past the dried and twisted leaves, you might be surprised by something.  Could those be the buds of tiny new growth?  Are the bits of green new leaves emerging among the dying one?  It seems that some trees hold on to their dead leaves all through the fall and winter until the new spring growth pushes them out.

There are signs of life all around.  Although we may feel withered and dry, we are called to remember the cycle of life.  Yes, death will come for us all, but there is so much more.  Life calls us now, and it calls us again and again from our darkness, from our hiding places, from our refusal to let go of all that holds us back.

This is the message of Good Friday.  Though things seem hopeless, there is light to guide us through, and lessons to be learned in the dark.  Though we grieve, we also rejoice that we could love so deeply.  Though we are confused and feel abandoned, we keep walking through the uncertainty and find that there is meaning and purpose in the journey.  What can we know of light without the dark?

As you carrying your own cross this week, may you hold on to the Easter hope thought weeping may last for the night, joy comes in the morning.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When a sanctuary becomes a battleground

In this moment, I don't know which is more painful--the grief of walking away, or the continued pain of staying.  It's like a bad relationship where you continue to hang on, hoping you can change the situation or the person, but knowing in your heart that things seldom change in the ways you want them to.  It's hard not to look back as we contemplate walking away, afraid that we might return, or that I might just turn to a pillar of salt on the spot.  Although I believe in resurrection, sometimes things just have to die in order for something new to be born.

As much as I've fought to stay, to heal, the place that once was a sanctuary is now a place of accusation and suspicion.  I'm tired of pointing fingers and I'm tired of the blame game.  I'm tired of my own responsibility in it and how it is provoking the bitterness that I thought I had buried forever.

When I dream now, it is of gathering with friends, and the laughter and deep reflection that comes from authentic and unplanned times of sharing.  It's about finding connection again, with God and others, without submitting to the rituals of "this is how we've always done it."  I want to be moved by the power of relationships and the vulnerability of uniting in our struggles.  I long to dig deep and find meaning without drawn out discussions over policy and meetings about programs.  I want to shed this exhaustion and frustration and get back to the love that first drew me in.

I catch glimpses of how it used to be, back in the honeymoon stage where everyone was on their best behavior.  There are moments now when we can remember and share, and the defenses come down, and the urge to fight or leave is exchanged for a desire to have a seat and stick it out.  We can acknowledge that we are all hurting, that we have been both victims and accomplices, and that we want to make something beautiful out of this mess.  It seems only appropriate as we walk through Holy Week and admit that we are broken, grieving sinners in need of salvation.  We can simultaneously hold the very real threat of death with the hope of the resurrection.

I want to believe in resurrection.  After all, isn't that the gospel my faith is built upon?  I long to understand what Jesus was talking about when he told of the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in three days.  What does his death have to teach us about the many deaths we experience?  Shouldn't church be the primary place we practice the art of creating new life out of what appears to be dying?

I my unbelief.

I don't know where we will end up on this journey, but I know it look different than where we started.  We'll keep walking, one step at a time, and put our trust in a God who became human in all its messiness and pain.  Jesus lived as an example of divine love and grace, was put to death, and then rose again to make a new way for us all.  When we reach the empty tomb on Easter, may what we find be a joyful sign that love has won out over death once again.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why I Believe in the Resurrection

As I plan for Easter, resurrection has been on my mind, particularly after reading NPR's piece on Bart Ehrman's new book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.  Ehrman is a historian who has a religious background but is now agnostic.  He is interested in the parts of religion that can be evaluated from a historical perspective.  He discredits resurrection, along with other miracles, as they cannot by proven.  He is not alone.  Along with many scholars, some progressive Christians question the validity of the resurrection story.  But there is something powerful in this gospel that keeps us hanging on, as it is the essential crux of our faith.  What is the point of Jesus' death if we can't look beyond it to the victory of "O Death, where is thy sting?"  And how do we make sense of the many deaths in our own lives without holding on to the hope of something beyond it?  After all, we see resurrection all the time, in the changing of seasons and the life cycle of a butterfly.  We see it in the way life reorganizes itself, and in the dawn that always follows the darkness.  Diana Butler Bass tells a story of visiting a liberal Episcopal church one Easter and hearing a parishoner ask the bishop, “Bishop Corrigan, do you believe in the resurrection?”, with the assumption being that surely he could not.  The bishop responded firmly and without pause, “Yes, I believe in the resurrection. I’ve seen it too many times not to.”

Don't we witness resurrection every day?

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

We all long for resurrection:

-from the winter chill and darkness that still sneak in
-from the fear of change and the fear that things will remain the same
-from our relentless work ethic that pushes us to exhaustion; that makes busyness a status symbol and rest a tool of the lazy
-from our reluctance to accept accountability and our ease at pointing blame
-from the critics that overpower the small voice telling us that we are beloved, that we are enough.

But resurrection is possible.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

John 11:38–45

Many believed, but not all.  They were all witnesses to a something that defied explanation.  Some were moved, just as we are when we:

-see our connectedness through shared stories
-understand that hope is greater than fear, and love wins out over hate
-take a difficult step and the earth holds steady beneath us
-embrace our humanity, in all its strengths and weaknesses
-believe there is more than we can ever understand, and find that freeing

I believe in the resurrection.  I've seen it too many times not to.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Zen and the art of desk cleaning: My Messy Beautiful

I often feel the need to apologize for my desk.  It's not that it's messy; on the contrary, the orderly state of my office can a bit of a shock to others.  It's usually one of the first things people comment on, saying, "Oh, you're so organized," as if it's some sort of accusation. While it's standard to excuse messiness as evidence of a full and busy life or a sign of creativity (such as the signs that say, "Pardon the mess, the children and I are making memories"), an organized desk seems to signal a person has way too much time on her hands, or lives an empty kind of existence. I am quick to explain, "Really, I'm just neat on the outside, but on the inside I'm a mess!"  I laugh it off, even though it's my truth.  

For as long as I can remember, being neat and tidy has been my way of controlling my external environment when the chaos takes over within me.  I can sort piles of paper more easily than the thoughts and worries that plague me.  Cleaning and organizing is an acceptable way of procrastinating the looming deadlines.  Having clear surfaces makes me feel on top of things when life has often surprised me with how little I can actually control.  If it were only so easy to purge the bad feelings and attitudes as it is to toss out the trash.  If only life followed the "to do" lists I painstakingly (and uselessly) make each day.

I grew up being told I could be and do anything I wanted in life, and I worked hard to fulfill my dreams.  It worked for a while...until it didn't.  The truth is that life doesn't always turn out the way you plan.  The good news is that it can end up being even better if you stick it out, but there's often a messy pathway to get there.  My messy beautiful life has looked a lot neater on the outside than it's felt on the inside.  I learned early on to wear a mask, to carefully consider how I was portraying myself to others.  It's looked like having it all together while feeling like I was falling apart.  It meant being far more critical of myself than others could ever be.  I've spent way too much time perfecting my image in order to be accepted, only to be shunned when people judge me to be someone I'm not.

My turning point came when my well-intentioned plans started to fall apart after college.  The major that was supposed to lead to the big job led to failure, and in place of a destination, I was left in a place of uncertainty.  I questioned myself and I questioned God, but faith is easy to lose when it's built primarily on what you can do on your own.  I was without a plan for the first time and it all looked like one big ol' mess.  But when I let go, amazing things started to happen.  I had nothing else to hold onto but my faith in God, and help and support from those around me.  It didn't take long in the silence to be able to finally discern that still, small voice that was calling me into ministry.  This path would begin a roundabout journey of breaking apart my faith before rebuilding it again (and renovation is always a messy process).  It led me to find the love of my life, and our marriage and love has been the greatest beauty I have experienced.  Grace was found in the freedom to finally be the real me and to be accepted for who I am, with all of my faults and the messiness that goes with the real work of relationships.  Our love led to two miraculous babies, who gave me all new lessons on letting go of my plans and trusting that something more beautiful will come out of the mess.  It has, time and time again.  

Now those babies are six and eight, and they don't appreciate neatness or plans nearly as much as I do.  But they know me and love me enough to barrel into me when I get home, smothering me with sticky hugs before running off saying, "We have to clean up!  Mommy's home!"  I smile, knowing that there is beauty in the mess of a life unfolding as it will.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE. And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE.