Thursday, March 10, 2016

Learning grace

**First published on the Ministry and Motherhood blog on 3/9/16**

As a preacher, I often write the sermons I most need to hear.  But as a mom, I rarely practice what I preach.  My toughest "congregants" are my children, who have the misfortune of having two ordained ministers for parents.  I can joke about the stereotypes of PKs (preachers' kids) and their misbehavior, but I worry that story of the cobbler's children having no shoes might one day apply to us.  

Is it possible that two parents who have devoted their hearts and lives to following Christ may raise children who don't value religion?

In the evangelical church of my childhood, we held tightly to the King James Version promise of Proverbs 22:6-- "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it."  But we are living in a time where church commitment is shifting.  More and more of the college students I serve, even those who profess an active faith, see no need in belonging to a church community or don't make it a priority to find one.  Others have left the church with scars or have been excluded for their sexual identity or beliefs.  As former church employees, my husband and I bear our own bruises and we have left broken churches feeling more broken ourselves.

As we find healing in a different church and tradition, I watch my kids to see how faith is taking root in their lives, how they are growing through worship.  How much do they understand about why we go to church?  How much do they remember about why we left?  Are they even listening?

One of this past Sunday's lectionary passages was on the prodigal son, and it happened to be a week I was scheduled to teach my son's Sunday School class.  The third through fifth graders had a great time acting out the story, particularly relishing the killing of the fatted calf.  They empathized with the older son's anger at the “unfair” treatment his brother received in being rewarded for his foolish behavior, and shared plenty of personal anecdotes of their own. 

Then we shifted to talking about grace.  In this story, the father is gracious to his wasteful son, accepting and loving him, mistakes and all.  He warmly welcomes him back home even though the son had left his father without a second thought. He shows unconditional love and forgiveness, celebrating his beloved child.

As a parent, I long to offer that grace to my children and to myself.  I don't want to hang on to the frustrations and disappointments of our daily battles.  I don't want to judge them for not being who I expect them to be and miss the goodness of who they truly are.  

Instead of measuring out things in terms of what is fair, I want to love them as God loves us, extravagantly and without measure.  I want to embrace them fully as they are, while also encouraging the potential I see in them.  

I was not in this graceful frame of mind when we returned home from church, however.  In my haste to get the kids in bed, I was frustrated and short with them.  My son was quick to reprimand me for not showing the grace I had just been teaching.  It was a powerful lesson that he had heard, but even more, he was learning through my actions.  Likewise, I learned from him and realized how often he shows me grace in my failures.  I see it in his trust that each day is a new beginning. 

“God’s mercies are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.”

Part of this journey of grace for me is trusting the work of God in their lives, seen and unseen.  It is having faith in God’s presence that is always with us, wherever we may roam.  Grace shows up in forgiving past hurts and starting each day with a new hope.  Grace is teaching through our words and actions, but ultimately trusting in the power of God’s truth and love to transform all our lives.

I know that it must begin with me.  I pray for God’s grace to transform my anxious heart.  I seek God’s grace in my failings and in helping me to forgive myself and others as I have been forgiven.  May my children see God’s grace in me.

I pray that one day, when we send them out to make their own way in the world, that grace will always guide them back home to find God's love.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How we are marked

I'm never quite sure how to greet people on Ash Wednesday.  It seems disingenuous to wish someone a “Happy Ash Wednesday” because it’s not a time of joyous celebration.  Instead, Ash Wednesday, and Lent, the season that follows, are solemn periods when we reflect upon our mortality and sin.  It’s incongruous that we choose to subject ourselves to these reminders of weakness and failure that we spend most of our lives trying to forget. 
During Lent, we acknowledge pain and brokenness in ourselves and in our world, when we typically pretend that everything is fine. We admit the sin that stands in the way of our relationship with God and our fellow humans, when we’d rather assume that we are not to blame.  We realize how we are connected, when it’s easier to operate as detached individuals.  We are reminded of our mortality, when we’d prefer to think we are invincible and immortal.

There is a profound gift in this journey of Lent that leads us through the rejection, betrayal, and suffering of Jesus as he faced death on the cross.  It teaches us that the only way to get out of pain and darkness is to journey through it, and we don’t do this alone. 

I believe that darkness is a necessary part of our spiritual journey.  So many encounters with God happen in the darkness…the Israelites wandering through the wilderness led by a pillar of fire…a man wrestling God for a blessing in the night…a dream of a child that would save us all…
…and those times in our own lives that we don’t know how we will make it through the darkness, until we somehow find ourselves standing in the light with God right by our side.

Theologians and poets talk of the “dark night of the soul” and I think many of us understand at a spiritual level what this is all about.  We wrestle with doubts and uncertainty and we feel that we are the only ones.  But the similar mark of the ashes on our forehead show that we all have known darkness and we are all seeking the light.  Our forehead crosses are a testimony: “I believe…help my unbelief.”
Some know a darkness even deeper, the downward pull of mental illness and depression.  The darkness whispers to those sufferers that they are alone, and the stigma of the disease may silence their cries.  But in our ashes, we see that we are in this journey together.  We have all known our own form of darkness, and we all have our scars.  We are marked to remind us that we belong, to God and to one another. 
This is easy to forget, though, in our culture that is focused on individual achievement and competition.  Even our typical Lenten fasts are more about our own benefit (such as cutting chocolate to lose weight) than about turning our attention to serving God and others. 

Pope Francis suggested a different kind of fast, though, in a Time magazine article from last year.  Instead of fasting that affects our body, he called Christians to fast in a way that will change our hearts.  He said that we should consider giving up our “indifference to our neighbor and to God” because “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.  We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

Reaching outside of ourselves is the way we allow God to change our heart.  When we fast from our indifference to others, God will fill us so that we can feast on love that can set us free from our walls and prejudice.

This is not easy work, though, and the ashes are an appropriate symbol.  They remind us of our mortality and the smaller deaths we suffer along the way.  They remind us of how we must die to ourselves to follow God, surrendering our selfish desires in order to consider the needs of those around us.  It can be a painful process, but it is transformative as we are fashioned and formed into a new creation.  The ashes provide a small glimmer of hope, the reminder of what survives the burning.  As Jan Richardson says in “Blessing the Dust”,

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

We may be only dust, and to dust we’ll one day return, but there is much hope in this as well. 

When we were fashioned out of dust, we were created in the image of God, and inspired by the Spirit.  In our ashes, we are marked as a community.  We have come from the same place, and we journey together in a common mission of following Christ.  We all carry a bit of God-likeness within us, so in sharing our similarities and our differences, we can gain new images and understandings of God.  We see this in the ashes that mark us as sisters and brothers in Christ, and in the call to serve all of God's people in love.  We are all dust, and we share a common humanity.

We are dust, and to dust we will return, and yet, my favorite line in Jan Richardson’s blessing is this:
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

The cross is our reminder that death and grief do not get the final word, but we are promised new life in Christ.  Though we may walk through the darkness for a while, we hold on to faith that God is with us and will save and restore us.  After all, we worship a God that breathes life into dust, that renews dry bones, that resurrects hope when all seems lost.

In Ash Wednesday and Lent, we be reminded that we are not alone in the journey, but we have been marked as a community, as children of God.  Let us seek to care for all of God’s creation, sharing the hope of Christ with all we encounter.

Make a good Lent.  Happy Ash Wednesday.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Graceful 2016

*This was originally posted on the A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood blog on January 4, 2016*

‘Tis the season…
to survey (and contemplate cleaning up) all the mess generated by holiday festivities,

to think about getting back to healthier habits (thanks to the holiday festivities),

to remind the kids to be grateful for all the gifts they have received,

and in reality…
to give up on all chores and resolutions and instead binge on Netflix while the kids fight over their gifts.

According to Target, tis the season to prepare for Valentine’s Day and Easter.  As I write this, we are still in Christmastide (following the church calendar), but when I went to the store two days after Christmas in search of a good deal on a tree for next year, the Christmas merchandise had been wiped clean with just a single aisle of reduced price wrapping paper and two shopping carts full of assorted goods.  In the place where the trees once stood were racks of candy for Valentine’s Day and Easter. 
We are nothing if not forward-looking (at least when it comes to consumerism).

I don’t want to rush to February 14th, though, and overlook the New Year’s holiday as I always appreciate the chance for introspection and reflection.  The problem comes, though, when I’m quick to remember all the negative things and forget about all the good. 
I’m a recovering perfectionist, and the visions of how things “should” be play on an endless loop in my mind.  Advent and Christmas are the “perfect” times for me to confront my obsessive tendencies with how things “ought” to be, but I usually pursue my unrealistic expectations, which more often than not, end in bitterness and disappointment. 
And I wonder why my kids can’t learn to be more grateful.

I preached about grace this Sunday as I tend to speak on what I most need to hear.  In case I wasn’t getting the message, an unfortunate series of events on Saturday night resulted in my computer’s blue screen of death, losing all of my files (including my sermon), and the complete removal of Microsoft Word. 
It was tragic, and yet also a lesson in what is not within my control.  I went back to my text and felt anew the hope of John chapter one:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (vv. 1-5)

It is both humbling and a relief that God is the Word.  It is not my words that make a difference, but I have the privilege to point to the Word, the Logos.  Just as John was a witness to the light, my job is to testify to what I have seen and received.  That takes me to my favorite line:

“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  (v. 16)

Grace.  I can’t think of anything I need more in my life. 
My head is full of the deafening noise of judgments, rules, and guilt about what I could have done better as a person, mom, and minister.  And God whispers into the chaos, “Grace”. 
And not just simple grace, but an abundance--grace upon grace.  Surely I have fully received that again and again, and this gift of God is a promise that I can count on receiving forever.

Grace will be my word for 2016
I want to share it in my ministry, my speaking, and my writing.  I long to show it more to my family: to my aging mother and grandmother, to my devoted husband, and to the two kids that demand it the most (and yet share it freely with me). 
But first I must receive grace myself.  As I accept my failures and am still able to see myself as God’s beloved, may I be less critical and judgmental with those I love. 
May 2016 be the year of grace and graciousness for all of us.