Thursday, February 19

The Other Side of Lent

I liked her, but secretly.  My professor in seminary was a small Korean woman who spoke into our first-semester lives a host of things, most of which we weren't certain we agreed with.  Each week, as she taught us multicultural ministry, her lectures came out with chopped-up ideas and uncomfortable questions.  I couldn't always track with her but when I did she left me gasping over the profound new way she viewed truth and God and love.  She used phrases like "both/and" and "we are spiritual beings who have a human experience." But I was among students who preferred saying "either/or" and disdained that cultic "spiritual" talk.

Because we were 24.  And evangelical.  And seminary students.  And we lived in the Western World. And we knew so many things, you see.

She made me uncomfortable in my faith but I was drawn to her uniqueness.  So, I kept my mouth shut while the other students fumed and shook their heads.  I kept listening.  Over the years, she encouraged me in different classes and finally nominated me for a "Graduate Who's Who" edition and essentially said, "Don't be silent anymore. You are somebody."

But everyone didn't have the same experience.  Some students took their pent-up anger to the dean of the school to say, "She's wrong" and "She shouldn't be teaching."  He disagreed.  And the wisdom of age and experience trumped the passionate jump of youth whose depth of insight was not deep enough to make a splash in the world.

Sometimes we think we're more than we are. 

Yes, I'm taking up laughter for Lent.  But it's not that haughty, gloss-over the hard stuff, look-at-me-like-we're-in-middle-school kind of laughter.  There's another side, a self-reproaching awareness, a step into the humble.  The other side of Lent is that I am giving up taking myself so seriously. 

Here's what I know: I don't part the waters for any one.  I don't hold back any powers of destruction, see the complete picture of truth, or establish a foundation in any place.  Nothing is truly built on my life.  I like to think that in tandem with the rest of the Church I have a role to play, but I don't make her body move, establish her beauty, or push her blood through her veins.

I have as much opportunity to follow Wisdom as anyone else and equal chances to draw the short stick when I attempt to take hold of her.  In my attempts to be kind, I am not always right.  In my attempts to be right, I cheat kindness.  Nothing sets me apart except the expectations of those around me.  And in this season I'm saying to myself, "You don't save anyone.  Let the expectations be directed to God."

Reading through Job again I suddenly see how self-important Job is and all my prior impressions are now shattered.  Where was the righteous man who was so innocently acted upon?  The sermons and stories and New Testament scriptures over the course of my life painted him so saintly.  "Well, sometimes tragic things happen to the best of us."  But in this read-through all I see is his pride and all I sense is his entitlement.  Perhaps I'm learning to read it through my own heart.

When we take ourselves so seriously ("I deserved something different") we jump into anger and offense.  We demand responses.  We view ourselves as examples of truth.  We can't take a joke or make fun of ourselves.  We dare not be wrong.  Thus, you see, where the need for laughter comes in.

A friend of mine said last week, "Sometimes things falling apart seems like a dreaded unraveling to be avoided at all reasonable cost. Then it happens, usually in more than one way, and the grip I had on my ravelry is laughable. Levity and relief enter, an unexpected benefit. Suddenly I realize: the universe of possibly is now open to me."

This Lenten season, if any new truth is going to open up to me -- and please, God, may it be so -- I need to make room for it lest the ego fill the whole space that was meant for wonder and worship and worth. 

We give up so that we might take up.  They happen together else we fill the void with ourselves.

Sunday, February 15

Lent is for Laughing

Then I [wisdom] was constantly at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, 
rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.  
-- Proverbs 8:30-31

I had a great aunt whose faith was the vehicle through which she served the world.  She spent 40 years in ministry, cared for a disabled daughter and loved the same man for 60 years.  Her life's work took her to people on reservations and in prisons, to senior citizens, migrants and gamblers.  When she passed away four autumns ago it was in order to begin a long deserved rest.

When my aunt's health initially started to decline she told her husband that, should she pass on before him, she knew the woman he should marry.  She named for him a woman they'd known some 57 years prior.  A few months after my aunt's memorial, he found the woman she named, widowed now herself, and after many long distance phone calls and a visit, they were married in the spring.

My uncle's resolve demonstrates that there is a way to find joy during times of sorrow and it just might be to let sorrow do its work of leading us to joy.  James says, 'Count it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance and may endurance have its perfect result that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.'  Count it all can be defined as consider it all.  I've written before about how this is a thinking word... a cognitive assent to think through, process, what the trial just might be doing to bring us to wholeness.  The joy here is not necessarily a feeling, but a hopeful knowing.

In this season of life, I walk around with this mixture of joy and sorrow.  Joy for what God led us to spend the last 15 months doing with people that were inspiring and generous and loyal.  And yet sorrow for the pain of the piercing arrows I've endured, and even caused, in the days since we saw fit to let that chapter close.  Some days I mourn and some days I dance.  And feeling truly 'tossed by the wind' I know finding wisdom going forward will require that I abandon this double-mindedness.

Which brings me to Lent.

Over the past six years, Lent has proven to be the most formative time of year for me.  The practices I've participated in have shaped, stretched and frustrated me.  We've given up things like meat and income. I've taken up things like writing, prayer and presence. This year I wanted to resolutely set out to take up joy and gratitude but I wanted to make that more tangible and more effective for all of us in our home.

So, here it is. This year, I'm taking up laughing for Lent.  And it's a family project.  I heard it said, in a recent interview with April Smith, who lost her two young sons in an EF4 tornado back in May, that to live in sorrow would negate their life.  And in that moment it occurred to me that no matter what the untold stories are of our last year, I needed to move firmly into the joy that comes from the bone-deep gratitude I feel as a result of it. I need to match what I know with what I feel. I think that's Paul's idea of 'making joy complete' -- to be one in spirit and in mind.

Every day I'll practice the abandon that might take the form of play or sport or celebration.  I'll read truly witty authors, the kind that make me laugh out loud.  I'll watch a movie once a week that's funny -- and not in the dark humor or frat party kind of way.  My kids and I will practice levity and irony and watch Jimmy Fallon clips and go to family friendly improv.  Even the people I spend time with need to be okay with calling out the absurdities of life and poking fun at our own faults. This Lent I am committed to laugh and laughter really only works when we do it together.

We tend to look at Lent as this somber time when we whip our own backs and kill our own spirits.  But I believe that God loves it when we love life.  My friend, Margaret Feinberg says, "Joy begins in God and all that exists was born in joy." (By the way, read her newest book. It will form the way you view joy). The book of Proverbs describes a women in this way: "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.  She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue."   When we're laughing at life we find a way to understand others and the events of our lives.  When we're seeing the joy we're moving into wisdom.  When gratitude is our lens then we can know the strength brought by abandon.  Sorrow can be shackling, but laughter breaks the chains.

At my core, gratitude has already won. Now, for the next 40 days, my body will practice what my soul already knows.  And on this next Resurrection Day I'll celebrate the delight of life. "Then I will go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight." -- Psalm 43:4

(**I know what I'm going to read, but I'm completely lost on funny movies.  If you know some good ones, leave me a comment.  Thanks!)

Thursday, February 5

Finishing Sentences for Jesus

There's one person on the planet who holds the title of My Best Friend.  We spent our last year of high school finding one another and knitting ourselves together with honesty and bravery.  We wrote so many words to one another in college, paid for untold long distance minutes, visited, wished, valued.  Her one beautiful life took her to Japan, then California, and then New Zealand and she never came back.  

I haven't seen her in thirteen years.  But when I sign up for accounts on websites and the secret question is, "What is the name of your best friend?" I type in her name.  When I read the story of David and Jonathan I think of her because I still believe we are one in spirit and I love her as myself.  When I was pregnant with my sons, each of them, I toyed with making her name my back-up name in case the baby I birthed was a daughter.  Her impact on my life reaches from my adult beginnings and will persist unto my end. 

This was a relationship wherein we could finish one another's sentences, where it wasn't tricky to have to determine how she would respond, how she'd feel, or wonder what pool of unhealth I might disturb if I was boldly me.  While we had to work through some disappointments and misunderstandings, hers was never a thorny embrace.  

I've been thinking about the disciples lately.  Having found the one their culture was longing for, the fulfillment of all the stories, the hope of all the ages, they must have felt seen and known to be invited into his life. But then they had to learn to relate to him as a person. What must it have been like to see how painfully slow Jesus was at putting on his sandals, how he entered a home and ignored them so he could give the host his attention, how he leaned a little too hard on those he dined with and made his plans for the day that left so much wasted time.  Did it ever bother them when he just disappeared to pray or whistled while they walked all those miles or laughed too loud at John's fishing stories?  Was life with Jesus ever not quite what they were expecting?   

It must have been.  Because so many times Jesus puts them on the spot with questions, "Who do people say that I am?  Now, how about you?" "Why are you talking about having no bread?  Don't you understand?"  or "Where is your faith?"  And over and over again they seemed to be stumped.  How they must have wracked their brain to think of the answer he was searching for. Perhaps they hoped, like my perfectionist brain does, to score the exact right answer.  Being able to finish Jesus' sentences always must have felt like a test. 

Did any of them ever get it?  Aside from the time that Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," was there ever a gold star for their responses?  What knit them together if they couldn't predict his desires?  If they can't answer the Pharisees when they ask, "Why does your best friend eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  or "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?"  We never hear fantastic answers from these guys.  They cannot speak the mind of Christ.  Maybe they were smart enough to know they shouldn't try while Jesus was still with them.

This gives me great comfort because I'm weary of trying to finish sentences for Jesus.  To the question of, "What does God want?" or "What now?" I can only answer, "I don't know. Ask him yourself." If you know him, talk daily to him on your own.  I cannot give you your answer from Jesus.  Get it from him. Watch his lips.  Carefully notice his cues.  Follow his eyes.  Experience how tricky it can be and then show some grace for each other.

Some days I think I can know the mind of Christ.  And other days I have to submit to the mystery.  Is our Christ fickle?  No.  Does my self-importance get in the way?  Most certainly.  Can I finish Jesus' sentences?  Only for me, but not for you. Only to declare him as Lord. That may be the only time we get it right.