kyndallrae

creating me [using words]

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Grow

Is confidence the hardest
thing to grow in the soul?
And is that why we settle
for arrogance?

Presumption easier
than humble strength.
Those who wrestle truth
walk with a limp
(Jacob knew)

Maybe only the lame
Know how to carry
the weight
of the world,

how to make dark notes
sing,
how to speak truth
with grace.

Is confidence
hidden deep?
Is that why we freeze
in fear?

False humility easier
than courage.
Those who wrestle by night
see the day with different eyes
(and are oft’ misunderstood)

Maybe only the night-wrestlers
learn how to live the day
how to honor light
and choose the right, so:

Water your confidence.
Its roots must grow
and grow and grow,
unseen

fighting rocks,
finding nutrients,
before the sprout will rise
one inch.

That inch might crack
the hardened plates
of earth,
for all you know.

Your only job:
to grow.

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Finding the Christ in Christmas

“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” asks the Christmas song.

It is hard to say what Mary knew, though if her song tells us anything, before our Lord was any bigger than an acorn inside her womb, Mary knew things. There are some things I wish I knew, such as:

Was Mary always a poet?
Was she startled by the song
as it burst into the open,
Or had the song been stirring within,
unsung, all her life?

Was the melody as haunting,
beautiful and unsettling
as the words?
Did heaven stand still
and bend its ear to listen in?

Scholars often presume these words we find in Scripture were assigned to Mary after the fact, added by the author for effect, as it hardly seems likely a poor, uneducated, teenage girl could suddenly erupt in lyric and melody, as if on Broadway. Unlikely? Yes. It was also unlikely for a woman to conceive by the Holy Spirit. Call me superstitious but I’m inclined to believe Mary could sing spontaneously and prophetically at the prompt of her cousin’s exuberant greeting and a baby’s intrauterine leaping, if she wanted to. She seemed to have a knack for generating the improbable.

Unlikely indeed this girl from Nazareth would be the mother of our Lord. Unlikely but fitting that she would be prophet/preacher/poet/proclaimer of the Good News of the in-breaking of God into the world. She was, after all, already the vessel. How appropriate she also serve as the mouthpiece. Spokeswoman was a role she shared with her cousin Elizabeth (see v.43), who passed the prophetic gift to her son, John (poor Dad was mute), and it was these three—a post-menopause pregnant woman, an unwed soon-to-be mother, and a leaping fetus—these three who together formed a trio of proclaimers, putting Christmas into words and movement for the very first time in history.

Was anyone even there to hear them? Or were they alone, singing and leaping in the privacy of Elizabeth’s home? No matter if anyone heard. No one would have believed those outspoken, hormonal women, patting their bellies and laughing through tears. They were saying the most true thing the world would ever need to hear . . . but who would have believed them?

Even if there had been a more believable speaker, with stronger credentials, who would want to listen to such news as this? It was a complete upsetting of the natural order, this talk of scattering the proud, bringing down rulers, lifting up the humble, and sending the rich away empty.

It is challenging for us, some two thousand years removed and so nestled in to the comfort of privilege ourselves, to appreciate the shock of what this baby meant, to hear the passion of Mary’s song, to experience anew the toppling of the settled order. But every year, Advent and Christmas reintroduce us to the absurdity of the Gospel. God is coming to turn the world upside down, but God is coming, not in power and might, but in human flesh, as a tiny, helpless baby of humble origin.

To recapture this upheaval, in medieval times people observed the Feast of Fools—a comic festival where popes and bishops were “elected” for the day from among the common people and officials were expected to act like servants. Everything was flipped, and with laughter and parody and gaiety, the people dressed in costume and re-enacted the glorious and troubling reversal of Mary’s Magnificat. As you can probably imagine, sometimes the church embraced the Feast of Fools into the liturgy, and sometimes the church tried to ban the Feast of Fools as having pagan origins. Inside the church, the oddity of the incarnation magnified by topsy-turvy carnival was perhaps spot-on, and yet, could get to be too much for the tight-laced clergy.

Can you imagine what such a celebration might look like in our world today? What sort of hilarity might startle us back into awe of the incarnation?

If you’re like me, you may have received an email forward or two or perhaps a whole slew warning you about the demise of Christmas. It’s become so un-Christian, this holiday, and Christians have started warning one another, “Watch out. Don’t be fooled. Stand firm. Keep Christ in Christmas.” Now, while I don’t particularly appreciate the extra emails in my inbox, I resonate with the recognition that we really don’t get a good sense of who Jesus is when we walk into the shopping mall this time of year. Despite the holiday décor, the music, the lights, the beaming faces, and the generous, generous sales, I get this eerie sense that all of it is aimed at my pocketbook rather than my heart. It doesn’t feel worshipful to me inside the mall, unless, of course, the god is money.

So it seems sensible for Christians to ask and to want to know, “How do we put Jesus back at the heart of the season?” This thing started with him, and now he’s barely an after-thought, if he’s thought of at all. Surely, as Christians, we need to do something.

There are two basic approaches, in my view, to keeping Christmas sacred. One approach is to take all the cultural Christmas-y things: the shopping and the baking and the eating and the snowman making and the light-seeing and the movie-watching, to take all those things and insert the name of Jesus in and over them. Open presents in Jesus’ name. Make gingerbread in Jesus’ name. Shop ‘til we drop in Jesus’ name. Take family photos in Jesus’ name. Send Christmas cards in Jesus’ name. Decorate the tree in Jesus’ name.

Another approach would be to let all the cultural Christmas-y things be. Without angst, let them be what they are: a break from work, a way of being with friends and family, a time for fun and feasting, etc. Play the fool, as it were, as if there were very little you could do to bring Christ in. The catch, of course, is that the fool also believes there is very little you can do to shut Christ out. As you may remember there was no room for him in the inn, but he came away. You may remember that conception normally takes two, but he came anyway. You may remember Herod tried to eliminate baby boys entirely, but he came anyway. You may remember that they killed him, but he came back anyway. You can’t get rid of him if you wanted to.

If you allow Christmas to make a fool out of you, it will be because you believe this: Jesus will be among us—God with us, Immanuel—this Christmas. That story never changes, never dies, never quits repeating itself, no matter if it’s the whole world singing his praises or whether it’s just two pregnant women swapping stories over swollen bellies. Only a fool is willing to accept the mind-boggling, world-changing smallness of a God-baby.

If you want to find the sacredness of Christmas, perhaps you should leave the crowds, the stores, and the places of power and go looking in stables and forsaken places instead. If not literally, then go there spiritually, on the lookout for holy. Go to that unlikely place inside yourself where bitterness reigns, and look for something new to be born into it. Sit under the blanket of darkness long enough to find that one small rip in the shroud where light is just beginning to poke through. This makes Advent an adventure, like wisemen who suddenly embrace the wisdom of fools to follow a star and worship a baby. You are looking for the unexpected, for the quiet arrival of God, for subtle signs of incarnation. You’ll accomplish very little by way of reclaiming the culture for Christ, but Christ will reclaim your humble adoration. With rejoicing and laughter, you will find yourself stunned. Rather than speak your mind this Christmas, listen for angelic tidings that will tear your settled view of the world apart. A true Christian Christmas will leave you undone. Its absurdity will rattle you to your bones. The mystery of the incarnation will take you by surprise.

By all means, receive Christ like a baby into your arms. Seek Christ like a shepherd. Listen to the unbelievable promise of angels, who speak of peace and goodwill for all. But don’t expect anyone to believe your story. If God wanted to make this stuff more believable, more palatable for the public, more popular to those with power, God could have chose a different way.

As it were, God chose the insanely impractical way of entering the world as a child, as an outsider, making first appearance in a stable. There is no forcing God into the spotlight, and there is certainly no preserving his place of honor, as the cross so aptly taught us. You can only wait for God to come, and turn your eyes in the direction you least expect so as not to miss it when he does. You can be a part of that foolish remnant who patiently believes. Advent is about waiting in darkness and re-training your eyes to see anew, and if you do, you will be reintroduced to the absurdity of the Gospel yet again. May this week bring you a very Merry, very startling Christmas indeed. Amen.

Sermon preached at Covenant Baptist Church on December 23, 2012, based on Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55. Audio available here

Gratitude to Rachel Held Evans for her blog post, “God Can’t Be Kept Out,” which served as an inspiration for this sermon. Also, Max Harris wrote a book called Sacred Folly about the church’s use of the Feast of Fools to highlight the incarnation. 

Grief Food

I cooked today for the first time in weeks. All I made were eggs, with spinach, and bacon. I ate them with grapes, two slices of banana bread someone gave us, and a glass of orange juice. It tasted sooo good. I ate every bite and wished for more. I felt alive.

I have been eating microwavable crap, take-out, and snacks, if I have been eating at all, which is huge divergence from my regular eating habits. But today I cooked.

Not that I’m such an expert, but if I were to write a guidebook for the grieving, I would say: Don’t be afraid to go with the flow of your grief. As long as you aren’t doing anything violent, rash, or self-destructive, go ahead and let yourself be in bed for hours on end, turn up your nose at food, watch three movies in a row, or go half a day without answering your phone. I know I haven’t been eating so great, which would be destructive eventually. But eventually (when I was ready) I cooked my own meal instead, and it tasted so good it made me feel human.

I’m pretty certain if I had forced myself to cook and then forced myself to eat it before today, I would have felt like a ghost only pretending to be human. By the time I ate that simple home-cooked meal today, I smiled, actually smiled as I chewed, and I might just return to the kitchen tomorrow for the pure pleasure of it.

Can There Be Any Rejoicing?

This is all I could figure out how to say . . . I recommend listening to the audio rather than reading the manuscript, but it’s your choice.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

My eye—or more accurately my heart—was drawn to this particular lectionary passage from Philippians, and I think the reason it got to me was because it is sooo the opposite of how I feel and where I am right now. Typically, when I feel dissonance with a text, that means: Pay attention. Dig deeper. Don’t run from the discomfort. Sit with tension and see what comes.

But this week the disconnect was too much. Rejoice in the Lord? Small children were gunned down in an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday morning. What is there to rejoice about in times such as these? I read a text like this one, and I push back:

Rejoice in the Lord? You can’t be serious.
The Lord is near . . . Really?
Do not worry about anything? Yeah right.
Pray with thanksgiving? If I pray, I will pray with sorrow.
Peace of God . . . what peace? What possible peace could there be???

Our world just doesn’t get much more brutal than it did Friday morning. I don’t even know how to pray for things like that; they are too big and too awful for words at all. And it is times like these when I think one more ounce of pain in the world would do us all in. How much more can we possibly take?

The third Sunday of Advent is supposed to be about joy—that’s the official theme—but there are just too many joy-sucking events in the world, if you ask me. I would love some holiday cheer right now, but the world keeps delivering pain. It’s paralyzing. It’s too much. It’s awful.

Recently, as I was facing my own season of grief, someone made the suggestion that if there are any blessings along the way, if anything good shows its face in the midst of this horror, be sure to notice it. They said I wouldn’t want to miss it, if there were any blessings at all mixed in with the pain. This wasn’t a way to belittle my pain or pretend it wasn’t there; it was just a reminder to notice everything—the good along with the bad.

But when people say or when the Scriptures say, “Rejoice in the Lord,” I tend to think of a big Holy Spirit party—dancing, clapping, praising and shouting. How are you possibly supposed to rejoice at will, no matter the crap is going wrong?

What if rejoicing has nothing to do with the level of enthusiasm you bring to it? What if rejoicing is as simple a thing as saying, “In the midst of all this soul-crushing pain, I am grateful for this one friend, or this one comfort, or this one act of heroism, or this one whatever?” What if rejoicing means that you feel—I mean really feel—the weight of the world’s darkness and you see the evil of which people are capable, and yet you don’t fail to notice kindness too, even when kindness seems trivial compared to the magnitude of a crime? What if rejoicing does not imply that you ignore all the ugly? Maybe you are just as fed up and angry and brokenhearted and disgusted as can be, but you realize that it would give even more power to Evil if you let the Evil be all there is to the story. Evil wants to be the only thing you ever see, Evil wants all the fame, all the attention, so you open your eyes to glimmers of goodness, no matter how fleeting, even amidst the storm. Joy can be Pentecostal or joy can be somber, depending on what’s appropriate to the situation. But joy cannot and should not be contrived or forced. Joy is not some strange denial of what is tragic and painful and sickening. Rejoicing is when you see the most awful things about the world side by side with the beauty and kindness that still exist, and you pay attention to them both, though the contrast is excruciating.

Also, I used to think that rejoicing in the Lord meant I was supposed to sparkle with delight every time I thought of God—the way children light up at the thought of Santa or the way grown-ups light up at the thought of a martini or the way I feel when I taste chocolate or Dr. Pepper or cheesecake. But who has ever been pleased with God as consistently as they have been pleased with chocolate? No. One. Ever. If you’re looking for pure happiness, stick with the chocolate. God is more complicated, and your feelings towards the Divine are bound to be mixed. You cannot force yourself to feel delighted about God, especially when the world’s all messed (f***) up by gunmen or you are smack in the middle of a personal dark night of the soul.

I think what it means to rejoice in the Lord, is that, when you find reason to rejoice, no matter how small the rejoicing, you are in that moment of rejoicing, in God. Of course, you were in God all along and God was in you. But the rejoicing is what helps you know it, what helps you see the reality of being wrapped up in God. Rejoicing is like putting on 3-D glasses. Pain has a way of flattening the world down, so that you can only see two dimensions: pain and regret. Rejoicing doesn’t take the pain and regret away; it just helps you see the third dimension, a dimension akin to hope. This is faith: the rounding out of pain and brokenness, the belief that there is more to this world than those cold hard straight lines of suffering. Even when the world goes flat as can be with shock and grief and utter dismay and we are gasping for breath, faith is that wriggly little notion that won’t leave us alone, hinting ever so softly at a third dimension, even now.

It’s always a shock when tragedy strikes, to discover all over again how very little there is that we can control in this world. The Scripture says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”  I don’t think we get to choose much in life, other than our responses to those things we didn’t choose. We’d much prefer to make things happen than have things happen to us, and yet when darkness befalls, choice becomes most crucial; when we have the least energy to make any choices at all, we have to choose how to respond to bad things, and we can—yes, we can—choose gentleness, again and again. We have every right to get angry and there’s a need to live boldly, but gentleness means we abstain from violence. It means we get creative; we invent ways to deal with rage that don’t involve more wounds.

It’s one of the only ways we know the Lord is near—when we see people respond with true gentleness. It gives us hope, after we’ve seen the worst of humanity, then to see the best of humanity. Compassion. Love. Gentleness. Service. Sacrifice. The Lord is near.

And yet, I know it makes no sense at all to say “Do not worry about anything,” when you cannot send your child to school in the morning without fear. What use is it to pray if God’s presence doesn’t stop bad things from happening? What comfort is God in a time like this, when God didn’t stop the horror from happening?

I don’t know how to answer all that, but I am remembering this: Prayer didn’t keep Jesus safe either, and I think that’s worth paying attention to. The thing I kept thinking the last few days is that there is just too much pain in the world, so much I think I might break. And then I remembered: there is too much pain in the world, so much God broke. Broke right open and poured out blood—graphic but true. At a time like this, we remember that God binds up wounds and heals the broken-hearted, but before any of that happens, first God breaks when we break, hurts when we hurts. Before the healing starts, God is broken with us. There is no greater evidence in all the world that God suffers with us than God on a cross, broken.

We always want to know why terrible stuff had to happen, and that question is so painful because of its lack of an answer. The huge WHY looms over our hearts, the lack of resolve eating away at our souls. I think God entered the question with us when God suffered and died on a cross. After all, it was Jesus who prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and the heavens gave no answer. At Christmas we talk of the incarnation—the miracle of God among us—and in days like this one, we try to imagine God is still among us, even now, and we hold in our hearts that sacred and ancient image of the forsakenness of God on the cross.

The Scriptures say, “Do not worry. Pray. Make your supplications with thanksgiving.” Obviously, there is plenty of stuff to worry about. Obviously, prayer doesn’t keep you safe: Jesus prayed so hard he sweat blood, and still, he died. Obviously, there’s not much to be thankful for at a time like this. Let’s please not deny or belittle the obvious.

However, I don’t think it’s a denial of the pain to be thankful we have a God who suffers with and to be grateful for the friends who keep us company—I think that’s called solidarity. I don’t think it’s a denial of reality to pray, even if the only prayer that makes it out is a groan, a sigh, a tear—I think that’s called compassion. I don’t think it’s a denial of the risk of living to keep on living and shedding fears as you go—I think that’s called courage.

And finally we come to peace. It is promised that the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Peace? What peace?

If you have peace because you know everything is going to work out just like you are hoping it will, then that would be a peace in accordance with your understanding. You understand what will come, and you like it; therefore you have peace. Easy as pie. But the peace of God surpasses understanding. It has a mystical, contemplative, inexplicable element to it, and we’re not talking about blind faith or naiveté or silly innocence. It’s not the fragile, misguided hope that things will happen the way you want them to. It’s not the ignorance to think you are somehow going to skate by unscathed. Peace is something deep and abiding, a certain kind of grounding that resides in the soul, and I don’t think anyone—even the greatest of the saints—feels it at all times. At best, you feel it in spurts, and often you feel it when you don’t expect it. It’s more like a gift than a thing you can attain by trying, though some people are better practiced at receiving such gifts than the rest of us. I think the practice of receiving peace starts with rejoicing, by the way—you take note here and there of beautiful things and miniscule surprises and extraordinary daily occurrences, and this expands your receptors for peace.

The point is: Sometimes the only way to rejoice is to find one simple thing of beauty amidst a terror. Sometimes the only way to know God is near is to look at the kindness of your friends.  Sometimes the only way to pray is simply to notice the world around you and let what you see into your soul. Sometimes the only way to feel peace is to let yourself not feel it until it surprisingly comes to you on its own in some subtle way. And sometimes it is good to remember that at the heart of our faith is this imagery of the suffering God.

There is a poem by Mary Oliver that says it best, to me:

Heavy

Mary Oliver

The time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it—
books, bricks, grief—
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled—
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Amen.

 

This is my sermon, “Can There Be Any Rejoicing,” based on Philippians 4:4-7, preached at Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas, on December 16, 2012. Other sermons here. Information about Covenant here

Soul Garden

I have so many molds to break before I find real me. So many expectations to disappoint before I’m free. So many pressures to ignore before I see. So many lists to abandon before I can be. So many lessons to unlearn before I am she.

I have gathered all into my soil like seed and now I kill to see what sprouts–a weed? Plant, bloom, exotic tree? Necessary beginning, that seed, yet not the truth of me, you’ll see.

Short on Glee

I wanted to buy the $15 tree. It was only 3 feet tall and the price had been reduced significantly already—it was looking a little sparse compared to others, I guess, or maybe it had been bought once and then returned, I don’t know. I saw that tree and it looked like me: this tree is how I feel about Christmas.

Nate wanted the seven-foot tree priced at $78, but I said there is not enough time left before Christmas to enjoy all $78 worth.

We were already two weeks late buying a tree. Normally getting and decorating the tree is one of my favorite traditions, but our house has sat bare of holiday décor for two weeks because the festivities seem so far off and foreign to how I actually feel. Buying a beautiful tree would seem so . . . false somehow.

But then I visualized the small tree actually in my house and how every time I walked in the living room it would be a visual reminder that this holiday sucks. So I let Nate get the expensive tree. I don’t even know if we can afford it. But I am sitting in front of it now and it is probably our prettiest tree yet, damn it.

Maybe it is a reminder that there is still beauty to be found in all life’s ups and downs.

Maybe it is a symbol of hope

Or a warm reminder of holidays past

Or a gleam of light in a dark hour

Or just an effort to stay alive.

Maybe it is one way to say, “I’m not going to die. See, I bought this lovely tree. I must still be alive.”

I might go back and buy the $15 tree for my bedroom, though, because that little scraggly guy deserves some love too, and we could keep each other company.

The Dark Side of Christmas

A Sermon . . . 

We light the Advent candles one by one, week by week, ever so gradually, because the dawning of light happens slowly. Outside of here, the pell-mell rush of the holiday season disguises the agony of real waiting. Waiting is hard work, so we lighten the mood and count our way to Christmas with cookies and candies and carols.

The world’s all abuzz except when we come here. Everything slows to a snail’s pace here, enough to annoy us a little when we bustle in all bundled up in holiday frenzy. The steady rhythm of worship collides with the chaos of our consumerism. We were probably more at home in the chaos, because waiting, real and honest waiting, is uncomfortable, slow, dismal.

The unlit candles symbolize we still sit in darkness, living in anticipation of the light yet to come. But no one wants to think about darkness this close to Christmas. Every store you enter is beaming bright with lights in defiance of the fact that outside the mall, it’s dark by 6 o’clock: our days are getting shorter; our nights are getting longer. It is a dark season.

Advent is like watching the sunrise build on the horizon, the dead dark of a winter night ever so slowly shifting to the pink hues of coming sun. Yet we remain camped in a dim place, blanketed by night sky, worried whether the rays will ever reach us, fortified by the hope that they will. That’s what Advent is.

We think of Advent as a celebratory preparation for Christmas day, and it is. Advent is also darkness, waiting, wondering, watching, longing. It is a needy, vulnerable place where the prophets are telling you the dawn from on high will break upon us, but the prospects of it being true seem bleak. Though it’s lined thick with hope, Advent is the seasonal dark night of the soul; it’s the story of those who wait in the shadows, and waiting is at the heart of the Biblical story indeed: How long did Abraham and Sarah wait for a baby, for a promise, how long did the Israelites wait for deliverance in Egypt, how long did they wander in the wilderness, waiting for the Promised Land, how long did they sit in exile and whisper hopes about a coming Messiah, how long did Anna and Simeon pray in the temple that they might see the Coming One? When Zechariah prophesied that the light would dawn on those who sit in darkness, it was more than a pretty phrase; it was a description of reality.

Personally, I’ve never felt the weight of Advent’s darkness like I do now. I’m more needy than ever before for the coming of some obvious light. I feel like one who sits in darkness, in the shadow of death.

According to Zechariah’s prophecy, the light is headed straight for me. How uncomfortably personal and direct. I don’t like this poignant promise from God, because what if it doesn’t come true for me?

I know you want to assure me that it will come true, but haven’t you ever felt that the light couldn’t possibly be meant for you? That the light couldn’t possibly be on its way to you? That you might as well get used to the dark, because the dark was here to stay? I mean, you’ve been there before, right? No sense pretending that the preacher isn’t as human as the rest of us. The thing is, I’m susceptible to despair too, only it’s my job to hold up the hope week after week after week.

You know what happened to me in the last two weeks? I let myself be a human, not a pastor, not superwoman, not the girl who knows what to do when bad things happen, but just a person who found herself in the dark.

And then one of you had the audacity or the good sense to light a candle and set it down in my darkness without pretention. And then another one of you did the same. And then another. And then another. Over and over, like you were forming a wreath of promises to encircle my dark place.

I’m probably breaking a sacred trust when I tell you this, but sometimes pastors talk amongst themselves about their congregations. Complain even. Gasp, I know, it’s terrible. And pastors sometimes, sometimes talk about their churches as if church members were a group of rowdy toddlers in their terrible twos or hormonal teenagers who bicker with one another. The pastor is supposed to be the all-wise parent trying to reign everybody in. I know, it’s hard to imagine a church bickering, but it happens. (Not everybody can be Covenant.) The way I see it, whether or not congregations behave badly, I don’t agree that we pastors should think of ourselves as parental figures.

Maybe it’s just hard to feel parental, when all of you are older than me. Or maybe, no matter how old I am or how old I get someday, I am in awe of you. I want to be more like you. I didn’t come to this church to fix you or guide you or change you. I wanted this job because I thought this is one of the best places in the world to live out faith, with people like you. I would like to be that person who celebrates you, who sees you, who walks beside you, and notices the way you shine. I came to this church because I was under the impression that we might be capable of inspiring one another—you and me. I thought we’d make a good team. I thought I would like to seek God with you, open the Bible and wander around inside Scripture with you, slowly find out how to love with you, become people who pray with you, figure out this gentle way of doing God’s work with you.

But I have to tell you, it’s hard to break the mold. Pastors are pressured to be all authoritative and knowledgeable and preachy; we’re supposed to keep it all together and keep it real all in the same effortless breath. I’ve been trying on my own to break the pattern, to dispense with being in charge in favor of being in cahoots with you in this grand scheme to love God and love our neighbors. I have wanted to inspire an environment of co-creators and co-conspirators, walking together with God and with one another, bearing light to dark places. But breaking the mold isn’t easy business. People still talk to you like you’re fancy and important and parental and learned and super spiritual. It’s hard work to try and get Kyndall more obvious than the role she wears and the title she bears, and it is sometimes difficult to convince myself that I am more than role I wear and the title I bear and to keep in mind that all of us right down to the babies are priests to one another.

But then this week, through no effort of mine, the mold got all broken, praise God. I mean, the circumstances were ugly but the responses were a thing of beauty that I’m still admiring. I plopped right down like a newbie to pain and you ministered to me. You took up the towel and washed my feet and I swallowed my pride and let you.

The thing is, I am grateful for all the candles you’ve lit on my behalf, but it still looks dark to me. Too dark to think, too dark to pray, too dark to trust. But I’m learning that having the courage to face your darkness can feel like you’re giving into the darkness and being swallowed by it like a coward, like Jonah running away and being overcome by the waves and the whale. That’s what grief feels like, but it’s not what grief is. Grief is walking straight into the setting darkness. You know you can’t run from the dark, so you square your shoulders, set your face to the east, and let the blindness come. Your friends will tell you that the sun also rises in the east, which means despite the terror of the looming night, you’re actually facing the right direction. You can’t know in that moment whether your friends are right about the sun, because grief clouds your head and fogs your hope. But this isn’t a failure to feel that your world’s gone fuzzy, so I’m learning. It’s all a part of becoming who it is you’re meant to be—to enter something really hard without knowing for sure what’s on the other side of pain.

When you’re at the place in life where you feel a hurt so deeply you cannot get out of bed, it turns out that the season of Advent belongs to you. It’s your dark night of the soul and it’s your impossible promise of coming light.

When you sit in darkness under the threat of loss and buckled by the heavy weight of life and risk, then you’re primed for light; you just don’t know it yet. You’re in that spot where God will seek you out and shatter your night and bind up your wounds and make you whole and send you stars that point to a Savior. You don’t know for sure if that’s the truth, because the night is scary, but even before there’s a single glimmer of the rising sun, there will be a prophet or two to hold out hope on your behalf. That’s the Big Announcement for which Zechariah’s son was born into the world to proclaim: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

It’s kind of like being outside at night, and you would be completely blind, except you’ve got the moon, though the moon is sometimes only a sliver. You know the moon isn’t real light, only a reflection, and maybe that scares you to walk the night by the light of the moon. But how is it that your friends could reflect such light into your heart at all if there wasn’t a Son somewhere around the curve of the earth, on his way to break in from on high?

Amen.

Based on Luke 1:76-79: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Audio available here

 

Advent Confession

I wrote an Advent prayer of confession for Covenant, which, in truth, I wrote for myself:

Oh Light of the World, we sit in darkness and wait.
We look to the skies for the coming of the Messiah.
We long for a God who will heal our wounds and right our world.
We need the peace only God can give.
We need the grace only God can show.
We need the Divine swaddled in human flesh
If we are to hold in our arms
The Gift of Love.

Night of the Soul

I have no peace.
Peace is the way I know God–
know peace = know God
no peace = no god

I balk at prayer–
I’m not going to beg
then suffer disappointment
if it’s a no-show

I know by now
God is everywhere,
God is subtle;
if only I have the eyes
to look God will be

But the sun has set
Must I strain my eyes?
the [G]od I think I spot,
a figment of my imagination?
or not?

Eyes play tricks in the dark
I’m too tired to host
that debate within myself,
to engage the confusing conversation
with my weary, desperate eyes.

I need:
an obvious God
bearing candle-light, please,
no lurking in the dark
no whispered allusions to Presence.
Am I held?
Or am I not?

I have not energy
for faith, belief, prayer
no urge to beg or plead
for grace

If grace is truly free,
it can find its way to me
or I shall be

forever in the dark . . . ?

(Is waiting
bravery?
or resignation?
Am I
giving in
to darkness?
Or facing it?
Is sitting still
an act of courage
laying in bed
more noble
than pretending
or numbing
or escaping
this necessary pain?)

By the way,
why is pain necessary?
No answer to that

yet

What a Way to End a Year

No, I haven’t disappeared. Just wading through shit (sorry to be so blunt) right now, and it’s hard enough to breathe, much less write. But I’ll go ahead and share my sermon from last Sunday, which I was excited about at the time I preached it, before other unrelated things blew up in my face and fogged my whole perspective. So now I don’t know if it was any good or not. You can tell me. (Actually, if it’s not any good, don’t tell me, as I’m feeling fragile, and I work really, really hard on this preaching stuff. I am trying to become really good at it someday, as I think it might be my special way to help the world, but it takes a long, long time to get really good at things, and I’m still practicing.) Anyway, I thought this was an appropriate way to end the church year:

 

(P.S. Audio here, if you’re interested.)

 

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer . . .

. . . so begins Francis Bacon’s essay on truth from 1597. What is truth? It’s a question that has captured philosophers for millennia, though the skeptic Pilate scarce had the time to consider it. It was the only question he asked Jesus for which he did not care to hear an answer. He was interested in Jesus’ alleged kingship, where Jesus came from, what Jesus has done, but he did not listen to Jesus’ truth.

It was just as well, perhaps, that Pilate left the room without Jesus’ reply, because Jesus’ truth was hardly something that could be summarized and digested in a single conversation. Pilate was looking for evidence, not a whole new way of life.

When he did have room to answer, Jesus responded to Pilate’s whole interrogation in the predictable Jesus-y way: he evaded the questions, taking the dialogue his own direction instead. Jesus showed no interest in winning a debate. He came to earth to do one thing, he told Pilate: “to testify to the truth,” and such a testimony had little to do with an argument and more to do with how he lived and who he spent time with and that he healed people. His truth was embodied, not debated. He gave parables instead of lectures, because his truth was like stories that live in your heart. It wasn’t the kind of truth that could fit on a flashcard; it was the kind of truth that blew up the world.

How could all that living he had been doing fit into a measly question and answer session with Pilate? Jesus’ truth was a living, pulsing thing, which was not the solid sort of stuff an attorney could work with, but Jesus didn’t sweat over his lack of a defense. In fact, he embraced it. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he calmly told Pilate. “If it were, my followers would fight to prevent my arrest.”

And true to his word, there was no prevention, no defense, no attempted escape. The closest thing to a protest on Jesus’ behalf was the disciple who bravely or foolishly cut off a soldier’s ear in the Garden, but Jesus nipped that in the bud, healed his enemy’s ear, and told his beloved friend to put away his sword.

Here was a king without a military and a truth that could stand alone without an army. From Jesus’ perspective, his truth needed no defense. Wow. I have lost count of how many times in my lifetime I have heard the warning that truth is under attack in our country or world, and whether that is an accurate assessment of societal ills or not, I know that any attack—big or small, real or imagined—would not ruffle Jesus’ feathers a bit. He would look into our scared little eyes, gently remove the swords from our grasp, and say “There, there. Quit chopping people’s ears off with your biting rhetoric. How else will they ever hear me, unless you quiet down and let me tell my stories?”

You see, the major difference between Jesus and us is that he let people crucify him. We’ll fight tooth and nail to defend the truth whether or not the King asked for warriors. We’re so afraid he’ll lose without our help. But his kingdom is not of this world, and neither is his victory. The only way he fought back was to quietly come back to life after they beat him dead. He just lived, and that was his argument. Which is a hard game plan to follow for those of us who prefer a contact sport or an impassioned debate.

After college, when I trying to pick a seminary, I visited one campus where part of their sales pitch was to explain that if we chose their seminary, we would read more liberal theology than the liberals, so as to better defend ourselves against them. Something about that speech seemed off to me, even then. Needless to say, I did not choose that school; I opted for one where the truth was a wide world to explore rather than a battleground on which to stake a claim, where the truth was something with the power to make you come alive rather than something with the clout to make you belligerent.

Truth is less of a territory that needs defending and more like the energy that enlivens the world. Truth is the very spirit of Jesus Christ who fills you and guides you and moves you, and no one can take that Spirit away from you, so there’s no a need to take up a sword. So when you see people strutting around with the supposed truth strapped to their chest like a badge of honor, shut up your ears and run the other way, because that arrogance isn’t Jesus. Truth is not surety; Truth is patient discovery. Truth is the unrelenting willingness to transform and the ever-ready eye to see things in a new light. Truth turns you into putty, something of substance that can bend and arc and stretch and move along with the winds of the Spirit and the sudden startles of new insight. When you notice yourself growing stubborn and rock-like, that’s when you know you’re drying out and nearly empty: the truth is leaking or evaporating and you’re hardening like a lump of lifeless dogma.

I had to learn some of this the hard way on my journey to become a pastor because I had this call from God, and it was something I knew in my gut, but there were lots of people who didn’t believe me, and I could do nothing to prove it to them. Girls couldn’t hear a call from God to preach; it just wasn’t done. I knew it wasn’t done, and I’d never been one to rock the boat. But yet there was this stirring of truth inside me that countered the status quo. So I took that stirring and examined by every means I knew how: I prayed, I studied Scripture, I asked advice, I read books and articles and commentaries, I journaled. But having a good answer or the most-well documented research or the best logic wasn’t enough to convince my old church, my friends, my family. So I slowly began to learn that the Truth didn’t need to be defended at all. I don’t have to defend my vocation, my calling, my life to anyone; I don’t have to defend the truth. Because Truth is something inside me, and my job is to live it, not prove it. I don’t debate the truth; I seek to embody it such that you couldn’t kill the truth without killing me, because I think that’s what Jesus did. Truth was more than idea to him; it was an identity, a way of being in the world, and that was strong enough to stand on its own, without an army.

Truth isn’t really something you can diminish into a packaged defense—I mean, you can try, but you will always lose something of Truth when you reduce it like that. Fortresses are such puny holding grounds for Truth; the splendor will explode past the walls every time we try and contain it, so who are we to try and dig trenches?

I think this is why Jesus was reluctant to own up to his kingship when Pilate asked; he didn’t want to give the wrong idea about who he was. It’s hard to understand the kingdom of heaven when the heavenly kingdom is so dramatically different from all the kingdoms of earth. If we call Jesus King, we might get the wrong idea that King means something we’ve seen before—a dictator, perhaps, or someone who feeds off power, someone who demands, hoards, and wars, someone who conscripts labor for the sake of advancing his empire. So instead of explaining how he was different, Jesus showed us. This isn’t a King who needs defending; a God whose glory will be diminished if we don’t toe the line. This is a God with glory to share, glory to spare, glory he will allow to be smeared on a cross and hammered with nails. It is a truth-telling rather than a stance-shouting kind of glory. It doesn’t need to be brandished or flaunted or paraded or forged.

When they drug him away to be crucified, Jesus said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” In other words, this is what God allows to happen to his truth-bearer. This is a King who allows his glory to be trampled and mocked without ever raising a fist. Who are we to think that we deserve to be believed in the world? Who are we to think we have a right to stand up and fight, when Jesus himself laid down and died? Mind you, I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus gave up on the truth. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus ever subjected himself to the empire. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus ever compromised an inch of who he was. But he radiated his truth in such a nonviolent, such a non-egotistical, such a non-domineering way that only the most sincere saints of God have ever come close to emulating his truth-bearing.

Miraculously, God entrusted us with the truth, entrusted us to pass it along the same way Jesus passed it along. But it didn’t take long in human history before soldiers would place the sign of the cross on their shields in hopes that God would help them win a battle, which is perhaps the most sacrilegious use of the symbol of the cross ever. And to this day, we find ways to decorate our shields with crosses, to use truth like a prop to bolster our opinions and give us a sense of superiority over others. But this isn’t the way of the Kingdom, and if we’d listen to Jesus, we would know what kind of King he really is, and by following him we’d become citizens of this strange, strange kingdom.

On my way out of the library this week, I stopped in front of a piece of art titled, “Thanks and Praises.” It depicted a circle of African-American women in long, flowingly, brightly colored dresses-yellow, orange, gold, green, blue red. With arms raised high above their heads, they were dancing, worshipping. Behind them, the background started dark then gradually turned to light, from left to right as if their story was one of light breaking into darkness. And it occurred to me that women who have known the horrors of human slavery do not offer praise and thanks, unless the Light that has come into their world is wholly different from the slave-owner. They pay homage to no king unless it is a King who sets them free. They dance for no owner, no master, no chief, no commander. They dance for the Truth that brings freedom.

It is toe-tapping Truth, this coming of Jesus into the world. You don’t worship him for his power, because he doesn’t wield power over you. You worship him for laying his power down in order to set you free. By God, this is a King like none other.

This is a King like none other. King is almost the wrong word, isn’t it? ‘Cause we’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve never met a king like this One before. What is truth? How bewildering to discover Truth is a person, Truth is a spirit, Truth is that thing which won’t stop living even after you kill it. We’ve never seen anything like it. It’s enough to make you dance your praises. It’s enough to make you humble. It’s enough to change everything.

All praise and glory be to Christ our King, the bearer of Truth. Amen.

 

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