creating me [using words]

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Between Hours

I am a self at war between lethargic despair and energetic hope,
waffling daily between creating and miscarrying,
between shedding and building, grieving and imagining, raging and healing–
I am a person stuck between a nightmare and a daydream,
a twilight where strange thoughts intrude
and common thoughts seem suddenly alien
and I am lost, except
I am finding treasures everywhere–small ones that fit in my pocket,
unmeasurable ones that explode my heart.
I’ll make a shadow box for my collection of lessons learned
in the dim limbo before day breaks.

(Yikes, left out an entire line in the first post. This is the revision, with “I am a person stuck between a nightmare and a daydream,” included.)


How We Say It


Last week I heard a Christian comment, “I would rather offend someone into heaven than flatter them into hell.” I could not get over the absurdity of this statement. As if this person had totally forgotten it is by grace we are saved. That it is kindness that leads us to repentance. That God is infinite and unfathomable love.

I somewhat understand the sentiment behind the statement—that sometimes speaking the truth offends people inadvertently, and it simply will not do if we never speak up for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. But far too often, instead of hearing Christians speak up in love and compassion, I hear them going on the offensive. I think they think they are on the defensive, but either way, they sound as if they speak in order to insult.

This notion that we have to defend the truth by mocking our opponents is nonsense. I have never in my life met a person who was converted by a Facebook meme or a bumper sticker. I have never witnessed the grace of God invade a person’s life via ridicule of their former beliefs. It just doesn’t happen.

I know we would all be in agreement that it is past time we Christians took stock, not just of what we say but how we say it. I get it, that sometimes it just feels nice to say what we like, no restrictions, just let it out. Freedom of speech and all that. But we all know that authentic conversation isn’t quite that simple. There is a give, and there is take. I talk and I listen. I open myself up and I hold myself back. I speak up and I grow silent. Back and forth, back and forth until we call this a relationship, and it is the only, only way by which we learn and grow and love. Relationship is the only arena in which conversion occurs. Yes, of course, sometimes we say hard things that people don’t want to hear, but we say them on a foundation of mutual respect, thoughtful deliberation, and loving compassion.

No matter how good it might feel to release some steam, no matter how desperate you may feel to speak your mind, spewing is plain antithetical to the Gospel. The Gospel, which radically tears apart hostility and converts us again and again and again to the path of deeper love, demands a certain way of being and speaking and engaging God’s precious creation. No matter how theologically-correct your opinion, the attitude with which you share means more. Our words matter. And the way we string them together, and the tone of the whole endeavor—these things matter.

Take a look at how Peter handles this controversy with his fellow Jews. This is no small disagreement. Both parties feel that the truth, that God’s way is at stake.

Just think about what Peter was doing here. He was hearing, essentially, a new word from God. It’s not like he really had “Scriptural” support to back him up; the part of Scripture we rely on for these matters concerning the Gentiles was currently in the process of being lived out. So for now, it’s pretty much Peter and the Spirit versus the other leaders and tradition, his word against theirs. And he is clearly stepping out of bounds. He ate with people who don’t eat kosher, he’s consorting with Gentiles, he’s calling clean what was formerly impure. Peter is breaking the rules.

This made the other leaders anxious big time, and who can blame them? They were already breaking with convention by following this Jesus guy, and now Peter wanted to effectively toss their dietary laws and other restrictions out the window. Jesus would be more palatable if they didn’t stir the waters too much. Now they were really going to seem off the wall, with Peter of all people going rogue. He was supposed to be the leader! It would probably be okay if someone on the fringe of the movement—a teenager, perhaps, or a little old lady—thought outside the box, but not freaking-hold-the-keys-to-heaven-Peter. It simply would not do to have their leader gallivanting among Gentile homes. And so, they began to criticize Peter in an attempt to corral him back into obedience.

Peter could have gotten offended. Don’t they trust me? How dare they sabotage my ministry! This is so a power play. He couldn’t have gotten superior. Stupid apostles, can’t believe they call themselves apostles. Can’t they see what I see? That God has opened up the Gospel for everyone? Peter could have gotten confused and timid: Wait a second, maybe I have this all wrong. Maybe I misunderstood.

But instead, Peter just got friendly and honest and unashamedly open. He told his story, without hesitation or embarrassment or apology, without coercion or anger or frustration. He simply told a tale without demanding anything in return, and what would you know, it worked! They were silenced by his words, the text says. Peter had an impact just by telling a story.

One of the reasons his story was so effective is that he was anxious, just like them, at least to begin with, when God first showed up in a vision and told him to eat four-footed animals. “Surely not!” he replied to God with indignation, much in the same fashion these circumcised believers responded to the news that Peter had eaten with a Gentile (“Surely not!”). There was a kinship between their two reactions, but something happened to slowly change Peter’s perspective, despite his dogged persistence to stand firm.

But before he shared the part where he changed, he shared the part of the story where he resisted. It was if to say, “It’s okay to be on a journey about this. You may feel resistant at first—so did I! You may feel alarmed at first—so did I! You may even feel guilty at first—so did I! And then the guilt faded away into marvel, the alarm became gratitude as I witnessed the Spirit be so generous as to fall upon any and all.”

It wasn’t just a story about the conversion of Cornelius. It was a conversion for Peter too, and by humbly retelling this surprising sequence of events, Peter let his friends know, “It’s okay to change.” He made it clear for all of us that from the beginning of the Christian story that the Gospel doesn’t just get to you once; the Gospel transforms you over and over and over. If you find yourself dispensing it with the arrogance of someone handing out old news, chances are you’re no longer speaking of the Gospel at all. But Peter didn’t accomplish this message by cramming anything down anyone’s throat; he merely lived his story, then told about it, then trusted the story to do it’s own work, in its own time. Think of Jesus too, who lived a certain way and told parables and let himself be mocked rather than mock. There simply is not room in the Christian way for the haughty slander of our opponents; only space to tell stories, to listen to our enemies, to reenact the love of God.

Of course, I know myself to be preaching to the choir on this topic. Covenant is the kind of church that is determined not to be mean or ugly, and that is one of things I love the very most about this place. Here is a people you can trust. No one is going to bite your head off if you’re too liberal or too conservative. No one is going to call you a heretic just because you’re on an authentic journey of doubt and discovery. No one is going to shun you for your politics, your positions, or your denominational heritage.

But I guess what I wonder about is whether we would have the courage to tell a story like Peter’s, even if our friends wouldn’t agree with us. The occasional problem with being such nice people is that sometimes nice becomes a substitute for real encounter and honest dialogue. But church isn’t the place we come to cover up our opinions. Church is where we expose our opinions to the Spirit of God and to the spirit of our fellow believers, the place where our hearts get converted again and again.

For example, if we leave this text today in the realm of Gentile/Jew relations, it hardly has much relevance for us non-Jewish, non-kosher eating, non-first-century folk. But when I read Peter’s line, “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” I can’t help but think, here’s a concept we are meant to broaden. But if we stopped and asked ourselves the question, “What is the biggest point of tension in our world today—the biggest dividing wall between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” I’m wondering to what extent we’d have the courage to speak our thoughts out loud? You may think there’s an anti-Gospel wall of hostility between this group and that group, but I may be stuck resolutely on my side of the wall, appalled that you could ever imply I need to move positions. It is risky, risky business to allow the biblical story to expand itself all the way into our narrow lives, and it turns out that if there’s anyone we are going to offend by speaking our truth, it’s probably the person down the pew, not the supposed heathen down the street. But though there’s potential for offense, the same rules still apply. Conversion, even the ongoing conversion of Christians, only happens in relationship, in conversations of mutual respect, by swapping stories, by using words with love and compassion, even when they are very hard words to say.

How might we risk increasing vulnerability with one another? How might we risk the expansion of the Gospel, so that we never find ourselves stuck in one place? How might we ask ourselves the hard questions, face up to the difficult points of tension in the world, become voices of bravery and beauty amidst the clamor of cheap contempt? I don’t exactly know how it is we grow braver and kinder instead of “scareder” and harsher, but I think it starts with telling our stories and listening to others, even if we or they sound too radical.

If, at any point along this risk-laden journey of ongoing conversion, we feel ourselves begin to reel off course, then we stop everything. I mean, halt literally everything, and go back to our Center, that is, the pulsing heartbeat of this place and it’s fundamental orientation towards kindness and the hostility-breaching love of Christ. We lean in, lean in far and long to this thing called Grace and we listen deep, and once we’ve heard the strains, we open our mouths and echo them back into the world, without pretension, letting the Wind carry our words where it will. Amen.

This is my sermon on Acts 11:1-18 from April 28, 2013 at Covenant Baptist Church

Shine in the Night

Sorrows spun, the angels won
when with my shroud of pain
they poked needle-holes
to let the sunbeams through

looked like meager stars
from where I sat reposed
just enough light to say,
You are not alone.

I add to this splattering
my own pin-prick shine
underneath pain’s shadow
I hold hands with small lights

Together, form constellations of hope
against the backdrop of night
the stars have spun my sorrows
upon heaven’s gallery of art

Note: I do not one hundred percent understand this one. Any interpretations?

My Heart

“Follow your heart,” they say.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” taught others, and they were quoting The Book word for word.

Which is right? Is the heart the seed of wickedness or the seed of truth?

I like my heart. She is good and kind to me (and others). She has remarkable faith in my abilities as well as empathy and admiration for others. Everything daring I have ever dared, she instigated, then cheered me on. Every sorrow that seemed to rip me asunder, she wept. Every human being who defied their stereo-type–it was her who saw their humanity and pointed it out to my lofty mind.

Even when following her lead has broken my heart, how can I be angry at her, who endures the brunt of the brokenness in her very core and does so with such grace? I honestly cannot recall a time she erred, beyond the necessary missteps of maturing.

And yet, I live my life so afraid of her, for it was always said she would lead me astray, get me into trouble, guide me off the beaten path. I guess they were right. She had led me out of bounds and into troubles and past the fence and outside expectations and down a trail I had to blaze myself, that naughty girl, God bless her.

She is the friend who is always, unquestionably, on my side while remaining capable of generosity towards those I find most threatening. She is the pioneer, companion, pulsing beat of who I am. I’m just about ready to trust her.

It Takes a Village

(Audio here.)

Unlike most healing stories in the Bible, in this case, we learn quite a bit about the healed one, Tabitha. She is a disciple, who lives in Joppa, known for doing good and helping the poor. We hear that Tabitha clearly made and kept good friends. At her death, her friends gather around, wearing the proof of her goodwill on their very backs, clothed in the works of her hands.

Most biblical miracles focus on the healing event itself and the power of God; we learn very little about the person who was healed. In this case, we hear all about Tabitha and nothing about God, at least, not directly. God is barely mentioned, which is highly unusual for a miracle account. Even Peter does not invoke the name of God when he heals, nor does he verbally give God the glory, the way he does when healing the lame man in chapter 3 or healing the paralyzed Aeneas just before this story in the city of Lydda.

So just who is at the center of this story, anyway? Is it Tabitha, with her good deeds, is it Peter, with his healing powers? Is it God, at work behind-the-scenes, or is it Tabitha’s friends, who mourn and urge and hope on her behalf? It is odd to find such a dramatic healing story in which God is not explicitly the central character. Could it be that, in a sense, it takes a village to heal a person.

God, of course, is the Ultimate Healer, no doubt. But what if Tabitha’s friends hadn’t sent for Peter? What if Peter never came? What if Tabitha hadn’t been such a friend to her friends in the first place—would they have held out hope on her behalf if she hadn’t been so dear to them before she was gone?

In many New Testament miracles, the emphasis is on the sheer power of God alone. But there are a few exceptions. For example, Luke also reports that a paralyzed man’s friends once carried their friend to Jesus on a mat, and when they could not get close to Jesus for the crowds, they hoisted him onto the roof, dug through ceiling tiles, and lowered him down in front of Jesus. It is the power of God that heals and forgives, but in that case it was the audacity and persistence of friends that made such a healing event possible.

Tabitha seems to have made friends like that herself. It is clear that her death is much grieved, and when her fellow disciples hear that Peter is in a nearby town, they quickly send after him saying, “Please come at once!” It isn’t clear what they hope to accomplish by sending for Peter. After all, she is already dead; what could be done? But it sure seems they are hoping somehow, someway that things could be reversed.

The urgency of their request suggests they thought perhaps Peter could set things right. Did they really think she could be revived? I don’t know about that. Did they dare to hope in the recesses of their heart that there still might be a way forward, a way of healing and life? Yes, I think they did. They seemed to think something could be done. Despite the very worst, Tabitha’s fellow friends and disciples still had gumption enough to dream.

Faith, by the way, rarely has anything at all to do with proof or surety or with knowing what it is we should ask for. Faith is more like the stubborn ability to keep dreaming. Faith is igniting the imagination and discovering possibilities in the face of improbabilities and asking for help even when all seems lost.

Children seem to have this kind of conviction almost intuitively. Just yesterday I saw on facebook that this week at school Asher has been smelling different kinds of plants, and when Ellen asked him what the plants smelled like, he answered, “One smelled like chocolate. And one smelled like my dreams…” Children do not sense any disconnect between their dreams and their daily worlds. Children feel no sense of shame about their dreams, as if they need to cover up their stranger ideas.

But somewhere into adulthood, we grow too refined for our own dreams; we think it necessary to stay cool and collected, logical and reasonable. Our own daydreams seem off limits, and yet, what if our dreams are the beginning seeds of faith? Hope is a defining mark of the people of God, but our reasonable side is always scolding our inner child, “Don’t get your hopes up, don’t get your hopes up” so as to avoid disappointment. But by avoiding disappointment, could it be we’ve avoided a miracle, our lack of vision cutting us off from an invasion of Spirit?

Mind you, dreaming doesn’t stop Tabitha’s friends from mourning or from dressing the body. Their vision and their hope stay grounded in reality. They lovingly wash her body, they weep, they run their fingers over the fabrics of her well-made garments and feel acutely the ache of her absence. But beneath all that, they seem to hold in suspense the possibility that something more is yet to happen.

When Peter arrives, he is pressed in on all sides by the crowd who loves her. They are carrying the things she’s made them, showing Peter the evidence of her kindness. Were they merely expressing their sorrow, or was this a silent form of intercession, a pleading on her behalf?

And though Peter sends everyone out of the room while he kneels and prays and helps her up, I cannot help but think it was not his prayer alone, but the chorus of prayers ringing out from every room in the house that resuscitated her.

Fredrick Buechner writes, “When it comes to putting broken lives back together—when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls—the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”[1]

One of the miraculous things about Tabitha’s life is that she opened herself up to the people around her, and then, when she was dying, her friends were there for her, which had an effect no one could have anticipated. Developing that kind of kinship with other people requires a vulnerability many of us are seldom ready to risk. Especially when you’re hurting or wounded or dying, your instinct is to shut down, hole up, hide, retract, constrict, preserve. Close up your heart like a clenched fist. Only, as Buechner said, it’s hard to receive any love, any help, any healing when all your crevices are sealed shut and your hands aren’t open. It’s hard for anyone to help you if don’t ask or say what you need. It’s hard for anyone to love you, if you keep you hidden away behind a mask. People may love the mask, but it doesn’t do your heart any good if your façade is popular and well-liked.

I am convinced that as we get older, we don’t necessarily learn by default how to be more comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes we just learn how to maneuver more easily and more convincingly in our armor, ‘til the armor seems as if it’s a part of us. Like the metal is our very skin and the truth of who we are. It takes work, hard and deliberate work, to peel off the layers of protection, emerge as we truly are, and let people befriend the real us. Tabitha strikes me as a real person, someone who knew others and let herself be known. But vulnerability and healing take hard work. It takes practice to learn how to stop hoarding yourself and share.

Here is what I am finding out: Not everyone you confide in is going to listen. Not everyone is going to respond in the right way every time. Not everyone is going to lavish love and acceptance on your truest self. But somebody, somewhere, is going to place their hand on your life and resurrect something inside you that you thought was long dead. So you keep opening yourself up to the healing touch of people around you. Yes, you are risking further wounds that way. Yes, you are creating the possibility of rejection. But you are also creating the possibility for genuine love and care. No one can love you if you keep parading a false self as a substitute.

Sometimes healing just happens, out-of-the-blue, without warning. But other times, healing happens after a group of friends rather tediously peel tiles away from the ceiling and heave their friend to the feet of Jesus. Arguably some environments lend themselves to healing better than others—such as when you’ve got a group of friends to help.

Tabitha’s resurrection seems so down-to-earth, without even invoking the name of God. No fancy stuff, other than the stuff of her life, which was her work, her clothes, her friends. Perhaps God need not be mentioned because the Spirit was present already. God, there in the good deeds, God, there in abiding friendship, God, there in the weeping. God, in the dreams of friends, who do not give up, even in the face of death. God, in Peter’s prayer, and in Peter’s words, “Tabitha, get up!” God is in her as she rises. The fingerprints of God are all over, such that people in Joppa who hear the story “believe in the Lord.”[2]

Of course, in light of all the tragedies that have occurred in our world in recent days, we are reminded most acutely and painfully that not everyone rises, not everyone gets healed, not everyone escapes paralysis or death, and like Tabitha’s friends, this fills our hearts with mounting grief. But as we are coming to find in every tragedy, small miracles do happen. That is, families and victims with enough time and tender care often do heal, cities pull together, ordinary people exhibit kindness and bravery we didn’t know was possible. When the people rise up, they raise the downtrodden with them. When our prayers rise up, when our ability to dream of a better world refuses to die, when we resurrect hope and generosity, when we stubbornly continue to risk vulnerability despite all threats, then death never gets the final word, and the fingerprints of God pop up in the most destitute of places.

If it takes a village to heal a person, then by all means, don’t set off alone. Join the work. Make yourself accessible to miracle. Don’t speak too hastily of God. Open your eyes and look for God instead. Be a friend to someone. Let someone be a friend to you. Do not let any amount of disappointment shut down your capacity for dreaming. Watch in amazement the daily miracles. Speak resurrection words wherever you can. Live with all your heart. Don’t hide. Amen.

[1]  Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, 46.

[2] Acts 9:42b


My sermon on Acts 9:36-43, preached on April 21 at Covenant Baptist Church

(Sizable) Dreams

I dream I am free of all abuse.
I dream I am loved.
I dream I am beautiful to someone.
I dream of personal, noncompetitive power.
I dream I am free and confident and fully alive.
I dream I am a writer, a poet, a true artist.
I dream of a family.
I dream of deep friendship.
I dream of new life emerging from graveyards.
I dream I love and my love is accepted.
I dream I live as magnifier of earth’s beauty, creating nothing truly new but creating attentiveness to the subtly extraordinary.
I dream I speak them and my dreams come true.

A Rebel Seed

Some thoughts I had while writing most unconventionally slant-ways across the page in my lined journal:


What is rebellion? Is this rebellion, to write out of the lines? To find a different way of being and talking and sharing in a world of straight lines and one-inch margins and twelve-point font? Is it rebellion to pick up a paintbrush when you “can’t” paint, or belt out a brand-new melody all your own with nonsense words, or to take (yet another) risk no one understands? Is rebellion bad, or is it the starting point of dreams?

(Write backwards or slantwards or upside down if you must. Even recover cursive, if it helps. Anything at all if that’s what it takes to find your voice buried beneath the notebook precision.)

Remember a Few Small Things

On coaching myself through ministry. First shared in a workshop at the Baptist Women in Ministry Conference this past February.

In Preparation for the Journey,
I Remember a Few Small Things:

I will not get it right every time. I will get it right sometimes, but then, sometimes no one will appreciate it. I will seldom know in the moment whether I’m getting it right or whether I’m getting it wrong, but I will courageously give it a go anyway.

I will learn who I am, and then I will be myself.

I will notice Grace when Grace shows unexpectedly. I will ferociously notice Grace, as all things hinge on this noticing.

I will not be afraid of grief—at least, not too afraid to face it.

I will sometimes want out of this call. That’s normal, I will remind myself.

I will wrestle, wrestle, wrestle with Scripture until she nearly gives me an ulcer. I will not cover over her unsightly spots, I will not make light of her toughest sayings, I will not avoid the angst she causes me, I will not give up on her capacity to inspire her people.

I will not give up on the power of love. I will not surrender my absurd belief in resurrection, no matter what kills me.

I will unleash my imagination; I will open my spirit; I will unlock my power; I will listen to my inner wisdom.

I will temper my words; I will silence my presumption; I will put a padlock on hate forever.

I will be true to myself, true to my conscience, true as I can figure out how to be. Sometimes I will be confused for a very long time before the fog clears, and I will be exceedingly patient with myself when that happens.

I will forgive myself (70 times 7 if I must).

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creating me [using words]


creating me [using words]