Thursday, December 29, 2016

Letters to my Dear Sophia: Finding Beauty in an Ugly World

This is a series entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

It is December 29th, and it is cold and dark. Last week we celebrated your first Christmas, and it was everything I could have hoped it would be. Your dad was too sick to go, so you and I stood in church and sang Christmas carols and watched as we passed flames to one another during Silent Night, breaking the winter darkness with light and hope. It was so profoundly meaningful to me to share this moment with you, because for me, Christmas has always been a reminder of how to find beauty in the midst of the grimmest, darkest part of the year. Especially this year, with the horrible suffering in Aleppo and the many deaths of beloved celebrities, and the surge of white supremacy and hate crimes, the symbolism of this light, of Christ sweeping through the darkness like tiny flames that could not be overcome by the deep night soothes my weary soul.

But now Christmas is over, and we have entered what I consider the ugly part of winter. In November we have Thanksgiving, and in December we light candles through Advent, joyfully anticipating Christ's coming and coming again. In a few days we'll ring in the new year and celebrate Epiphany, and then it will be January and we'll enter not the darkest, but the coldest and gloomiest time of year. Although the days will be longer, the Christmas lights will come down and the tree will be brown and shed its needles all over the living room as I wrestle it out the door. We will commence the long slog of subzero temperatures, snow, ice, and an even more frustrating wait as the days get longer, but slushier. It's an ugly time of year, especially around late February or early march, when it's still dark outside at 5 pm, but now instead of pristine flakes, we have dirty half-melted snow piled eight feet high everywhere, and the weather teases us as it temporarily reaches habitable temperatures and then plummets again, leaving us six more weeks of snow boots and long underwear.

There's a lot of ugliness in the world, and it becomes readily apparent. Every day, news reports another horrible thing a politician said, or another terrible tragedy like mass shootings, hate crimes, poverty, destruction, and more. Every day we come face to face with callous people who would rather buy a new pair of shoes than give a quarter to a person in need, or who say disgusting, ugly things about women, immigrants, LGBT folks, or certain ethnic groups. So shocked are we in the face of this ugliness that it can be hard to know how to respond. It is overwhelming. Because I have raised you to have a soft, kind heart, I know you will see it, and that it will overwhelm you too at times. I have cried more tears than stars in the sky over so many tragedies that my fellow humans face.

Fred Rogers, one of my personal theological heroes, once explained how his mother instructed him to handle scary situations by saying: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." This is a beautiful example of how we can begin to respond to the ugliness of the world. Although it can sometimes feel like the darkness is more powerful than the light, looking for those helping demonstrates that there are glimmers of light even in the most deep, scary night. But to take it further, I would say it's important to spiritually feed yourself by seeking out beauty. Our brains are hardwired to look for the negative and scary. This is how we adapted to dangerous environments; learning from others' mistakes and paying attention to threads helped us survive as a species. But in our news-saturated, hyper-connected world, this tendency to look for the dangers can turn us from action and preparation to a terror which freezes us, and a hopelessness that is hard to overcome.

One of my favorite passages from the epistles says: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8) This is actually fantastic advice for how we can keep ourselves sane when things get really ugly. It's not to say that we ignore what's ugly, but that we cultivate in ourselves the ability to notice God's presence and God's kingdom in our midst so that we are not overwhelmed when things get really rough. If you notice the beauty in our ugly world when things are okay, it will give you strength and determination when it's harder to find those beautiful things. When you see how strangers contributed money to buy a car for a down-on-his-luck dad, or a child comforting a friend, or experience a warming hug in the midst of loss, you are reminded that we are not alone, and the darkness is not impermeable. Even the darkest night cannot overcome the smallest flame.

So choose beauty, little one. Choose to see with eyes oriented not at now, but at not yet. Choose not to see a terrified young woman with a frail baby in a manger, but the beginning of a story that changed everything. Choose to look at where light has broken into darkness so that you may see that the truth of light, and hope, and healing, and peace, and joy, and lions and lambs and a city where it is never night and the gate is always open is only a hair's breadth away from you at any given moment. When you look with those eyes oriented toward that promise, you will be emboldened and strengthened to bring that reality a little nearer. Your fears will be answered with an overwhelming word of peace and comfort, and you will begin to see the beauty which overwhelmingly renews and restores all that was once ugly, broken, or evil. You will see Easter lilies blooming in brown slush, and know that spring was actually waiting for you the whole time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Letters to My Dear Sophia: When Evil Wins the Day

This is a series entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

My dearest Sophia,

I cried this morning holding you in my arms. Yesterday, we went to vote in the presidential election for the first woman to ever hold a major party nomination. I wore a pantsuit and a white shirt as a nod to all my sisters who came before and fought for my voice to be heard. I cried while filling out my ballot. Let me tell you why.

When I was in sixth grade I wrote an essay about Helen Keller. It was so good that my teacher accused me of having my older brother write it. When I was in 8th grade I got 104% on a US History test about WWII. The teacher made me take the test again under her supervision because she didn't believe I could score that high without cheating (I got the same score). When I was 18, I was mailed a flyer for deaconess training, the approved ministry track for women in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, who believe women cannot be pastors. When I was 26, I was told I was "a good little preacher" but that I wasn't "enough like a pastor" to lead a congregation (a pastor is male, apparently). When I was 27, a parishioner cornered me in the church office and joked about "getting me on the church bus" and "not letting me escape." He worked across the street from my house, where I lived alone.

All my life, I have been told that I can do lots of things! Except those things that are for men. I can be eloquent, but surely not as eloquent as my brother. I can be smart, but surely not the smartest in the class. I can be a minister, but not an equal to male church leaders. I can preach, but my words will always be hindered by my femaleness--my voice, my expressions, the length of my skirt. I voted for a competent, knowledgeable, tough stateswoman, with you, my daughter. And you and I and every other girl and woman were told that it doesn't matter how accomplished you are; you are still less than the least qualified man. That hurts. That's why I cried.

I cried because you deserve better. I cried because I worked so hard my whole life, have fought so hard for recognition, to be considered equal. And yet our president elect has admitted to sexual assault, and now he will become the leader of the free world. He has valued women only for their sexuality and appearance, and now we must listen to him; follow him, as a qualified woman sits, once again, on the sidelines. I am angry. I am angry at our country, for being so partisan that they would vote against me, against you, against our LGBT family and friends, against our Muslim and atheist brothers and sisters. I am deeply wounded. I have been told, once again, that I do not have value, and that you do not have value, except for what we offer to men. I am discouraged, that we have come so far only for so much racism and sexism and self-interest and white, angry hatred overtake it so easily. I expected better of us.

This is the first major historical event in your lifetime, but I think it's important for you to know about it even though you don't remember it because right now I feel fear, and anger, and disappointment, and pain, and you will feel these things too, someday. You will be told you have less value because of your gender identity or appearance. You will be told your voice means less, that your consent doesn't matter, that you aren't as smart or worthy of leadership positions. You will be told that justice is impossible, and self interest is the only way. But my dear Sophia, those are lies. You, like every boy and man in this world, were created in God's image.  You are worthy, not because of your appearance, your orientation, your reproductive organs, or the color of your skin, but because you are a child of God. Never forget that. Those who judge you as less, value you less, give you less regard, tell you who you love is wrong, tell you you do not have autonomy over your own body, they are speaking from their own brokenness. We are all sinners, and we are all separated from God's goodness by our mortality and the evil in and around us.

And yet, Christ is here. Christ is here declaring your worth as a child of God: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) And most importantly, Christ has made us a promise, that we will be redeemed. That "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:38-39) To me, this says that evil didn't win. Today, our country voted for injustice, for fear, for self-centeredness, for separation. But while our lives, our nation, and our world are finite, God is infinite. God's justice reigns supreme over all our human failures, over your life and your neighbors' lives, and the lives of every person who has ever existed. 

Do not let the evil of today define and discourage you, but continue to seek justice, love mercy, and walk with your God who is bigger than Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, and hate, and greed, and all evil. Let that God rule your life. Fight for justice. Know you will fail sometimes, and despair, as I have today. Know you will let unkindness win, as I have today. But know that the love of Christ connects us both to our (gay, trans, black, immigrant, Muslim, atheist, pro-life, pro-choice, fearful, lost, angry, confused) brothers and sisters, and that it also connects us to the future that we have been promised. And that future is one of peace, equality, and redemption.

My prayer for you today is that you learn to let hope overwhelm you, and never give up, even when those around you tell you that you can't do it. And that the peace that surpasses all our understanding work in your heart as you act justly and love even those who persecute you.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Letters to My Dear Sophia: Hoping When Hope is Gone

This is a series entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

Letters to My Dear Sophia: Hoping When Hope is Gone

As I was driving to work this morning, it occurred to me what a miracle you truly are. Having a baby is a surreal experience wherein the love of two people is transmuted into flesh and blood. There is something very divine about this, which I am sure greater theologians than I have explored at length. Nonetheless, it really struck me, because last week I watched the debate between two presidential candidates, one of whom brought up late term abortion and accused women who have them of some very mean things. This necessitated conversation about what exactly drives somebody to have such an abortion, and the answer is generally: something has gone very wrong. It's a tragic situation, and one I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, and the whole thing made me realize what odds you have beaten just to exist. From the moment of conception, there were so many cell divides and so many things could have gone wrong, and yet here you are.

As I noted in my last letter, you are my "rainbow baby." That's the term in the online baby community (yes, that's a real thing) used for a baby that comes after a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, because "after the storm is the rainbow." For me, you turned out to be the culmination of all my hopes, but that is not true for everybody. I remember a family, not one I ministered to directly, but I heard through the grapevine what had happened. A woman had gone into pre-term labor at a different hospital, and because of some mistake the doctor made, she ended up losing not only the baby but ultimately needed a full hysterectomy. She would never be able to have children. It's all well and good to say, like Job having a new family and new children, that God will just replace what was lost. But the replacement is not the same, and sometimes even that is not possible. I imagined the months to come, with this poor woman sneaking down the hallway in her house, passing a closed, unmarked door, behind which lay all her hopes and dreams that would now never be.

Sadly, this is life. You will lose things that are very, very important to you. You will lose beloved toys, pets, friends, and someday you will even lose me. I am so sorry to be so grim, but better you should understand this reality young, not so that you fear it, but so you can learn early how to hope even when it's hopeless. Some people might say that it's Pollyanna-ish to continue hoping in the face of hopelessness. Sometimes when the doctor says this is the end, it really is, and no miracle will stop death and time. So what do you do in the midst of that?

There is a TV show that your dad and I like a lot. We watch it about six times a year, so I'm sure you'll know what I'm talking about by the time you're old enough to read this. It's called Futurama, and it's a silly cartoon about a hapless pizza delivery boy who accidentally ends up in a cryogenic chamber and wakes up a thousand years later to become a space delivery boy instead. It's usually ridiculous and silly, but sometimes it hits on the profound and this particular episode is about his best friend Bender, a bending robot. On a routine mission, the Planet Express is attacked. Bender is annoyed that he's being woken up from his nap, so he crawls into a torpedo bay and is fired out of the ship. But because the ship is moving at maximum speed when the torpedo is fired, there is no way for them to catch up to his greater velocity so they return to earth without him. The main character, Fry, doesn't give up on him, though. He hijacks the rest of the crew to go on an expedition to a mountain observatory where a bunch of monks have been looking for God using a high powered telescope. After locking the monks there in a closet, they take over the equipment and fry searches for days. 

Meanwhile, Bender has been flying through the galaxy and somehow life has spawned on him, forcing him to play God with them, where he royally screws up and kills everybody. In the course of this deep space trek, Bender happens upon a galaxy that has "a high probability" of being God, and engages in conversation where he pours out his woes about accidentally killing everybody. God is sympathetic and they talks philosophically about this difficulty for a while. Back on Earth, the ship's captain Leela is trying to convince Fry to give up and he says: "You can't give up hope just because it's hopeless. You gotta hope even more, and cover your ears and go 'bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla!'" Eventually, Leela does convince him to give up, and in frustration he hits the instrument which spins and somehow telegraphs his parting words about wanting to find Bender to space, where it's picked up by none other than the "probably God" galaxy, who proceeds to chuck Bender back toward earth. He crash lands in front of Fry, and all's well that ends well.

The line about hope is silly, and delivered in typical silly Fry fashion, but there's actually a lot of truth there about hope works. Hope is both a feeling and a practice. Right now, the things you are hoping for are to be fed and get snuggles, and as you get older you'll find yourself hoping for trips and opportunities and admissions and partners and job interviews and pregnancy tests and so much more, but the bigger our hopes get, the bigger the pain when they don't work out. A cynic would tell you it's better to just set low expectations and not be disappointed, but I just can't get behind that idea for myself. Hope is in itself a painful thing. It's full of longing and desire and fear of loss or failure, but it's also something which has the capacity to motivate you powerfully and pull you through the darkest times. It has the power to change the world. 

Sometimes it seems silly to hope. Why hope when it's hopeless? Sometimes it's impossible to do it. Depression and grief make it challenging indeed. But I think the biggest gift of God in our brokenness is hope, even when it's hard, because it evokes our imagination beyond our current pain. When I work with the kids at the hospital, we do an exercise where we practice hoping because you may not be able to feel hopeful all the time, but you can practice it. The exercise is pretty easy and goes something like this: imagine a guy, Jim, who wakes up and the dog has pooped on the floor beside his bed and he steps in it. Then the hot water heater is broken so he has a cold shower, and he drops his toast butter side down on the floor where the dog eats it, and then his car won't start. We make assumptions about what's going to happen next based on what has already happened: the day started out terrible so surely nothing good will happen. I contend, though, that the trick to hope is to intentionally base our expectations not on the reality that exists today, but the reality that might exist. That means if your day starts off rotten, you choose to say something good is going to happen. This builds anticipation, and gives you agency. Maybe you need to smile at somebody because making their day better might make your day better. This isn't just 'power of your mind' stuff. Maybe your day really will stink. But the point is that you practice doing this in small ways, so that when you really need to exercise your hope muscles, they're in shape.

As people of the resurrection, our lives our built on this. Rather than assuming that, because the world sucks it can never get any better, or because death exists there is no hope in our lives, we go on with the assumption that God can do a new thing. Hope is looking at tomorrow not based on today's bad day, but based on the promise that even death can't stop the God who loves you and cares for you. It breaks my heart to think of the grief you will endure in your life. When you smile at me now, you're so happy, and you love your Ellie and your face lights up when you see your dad and me, and everything is new and bright and exciting. The sin of this world will try to rob you off that naive optimism that you have right now. Now you don't know any better, but soon you will understand disappointment. Because I love you and I want you to be resilient despite life's hardships, you must hold onto that innocence. To do that, I want you to remember these words: God promises new life. When you are sad because your friend moved away, remember that God promises new life--new experiences, new friends. When a boy breaks your heart, I want you to remember that there is new life; there is healing, there is love. When you first say goodbye because of death, I desperately want you to remember that there is new life. That even though hope this day is gone, that real hope, true hope, transcends what is possible, and promises new life.

Today your little baby heart is tender, but it will get bruised and toughened up with years. Never let those years harden your beautiful, sensitive heart. Hope even when it's stupid to hope. Hope even when it hurts to hope. Hope stubbornly. Hope aggressively. Hope blindly. Hope ridiculously. Don't ever let anybody tell you not to hope with every part of your being, and when you can't hope any more, hope some more, until the enormity of your beautiful, optimistic, stupid hope shatters death and grief.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Letters to My Dear Sophia: When You Go to the Waters

This is the first in a series of posts that I hope to make, entitled "Letters to My Dear Sophia," which I intend as a compilation both for my daughter when she grows up, but for you as you raise your children, and think about yourselves in the oft-parental relationship to your heavenly parent. My intent is that, through reading these letters to my daughter and the intense love I have poured into them, you might hear an echo of the kind of love and hope that God has for all of us.

Letters to My Dear Sophia: When You Go to the Waters

Today is your baptism day, and you are three months and one week old today. The last three months have been a whirlwind of getting to know you (even though I knew you as you knit in my womb), of helping you learn to understand the world a little more each day, and today marks the beginning of a completely new adventure in which you learn to see a totally new world from the one you were born into. Ordinarily, I would have had you baptized as soon as possible, but I had to find a weekend that would work for the people that I most wanted to support you in your baptismal promise, my dear friend Rusty, a fellow minister and his wonderful wife Lynette, who I know will be a powerful influence in your life of faith, as well as my parents, who so shaped me into the woman I am today. Because baptism is not just about you and me and your father, but about you and the God that I will teach you about and help you come to know and love, and about all the people who will be your teachers and guides throughout your life: your church community, the body, and about a whole new world.

A few weekends ago, I attended your new church's baptism orientation, the point of which is to get some basic education about what baptism is (as a minister, I think I have this down pretty well) and to get to know a few other families whose babies are also going to be baptized into this fellowship of believers. Your pastors, Bradley and Javen, asked us why we wanted to have you baptized. As I sat there, I realized that I had no way of giving a complete answer in a timely manner. I rattled off something about community and being held up in hope during difficult times in your life, but that's such a pale explanation compared to all the things in my heart for you right now.

Although you only gently cooed during your baptism, one of the things that I love about baptism is when the babies give one of those wonderful full throated cries at the sudden discomfort of having his or her little head drenched with what I imagine is relatively cold water. Not that I take pleasure in the discomfort of babies--though probably some who know me well would accuse me of that--but that it's so perfectly fitting for the occasion. After all, what is more appropriate than an ear-splitting scream upon the day of your death? That's really what this is, you know. This baptism that we have so casually, calmly signed you up for is your death, the big one, the one in which we, your mom and dad and grandparents and godparents, say on your behalf that we promise you will die, have died, and are dying to the old world, the old way of things. Not just your old self, but to all the old things. The old world that you were born into, full of old sorrow and old despair and old hopelessness and helplessness and decay and chaos.

You will learn more about this guy as you get older, but there was once a theologian named Martin Luther, and he talked a lot about how as Christians we live in two worlds at the same time. We live in this physical world, where we're subject to all the suffering and evil that exists in it because of the stain of death here, but at the same time, those of us who have been baptized into God's world, the new world, simultaneously inhabit the world that is what God intended it to be at the very beginning, and what God promises it will be again. How is this possible? It's because of the miracle of Christ's love for us, and God's presence through the Holy Spirit in your life and in all those around you. When that water was poured on your head, the Holy Spirit came with it, to make a bridge connecting you to this world, now, and that world that is coming, the "not yet."

So what I wish for you, my precious little one, is that you have a death. You have a death to all those things which would try to make you selfish and hard and closed off, and that you subsequently have a life, one made richer by understanding both suffering and joy, tears and laughter, death and resurrection. I want you to have a life full of trying and struggling, and sometimes failing, so that you can better taste the sweetness of victory. I want you to have a life that sometimes breaks your heart, though it breaks my heart to think of you in pain, so that because of who you know you are in your friend Jesus, you may fully understand healing, and that your heart may be made softer, more open to the pain around you, so that you may pour that love which has healed you onto those around you. On this day of your baptism, I wish for you to love fully, joyfully, and hopefully, and to learn what it means to be loved so much that somebody would die for you, as Jesus did, and as I would for you. I want you to have all shame about the failures you will have, the bruises you will earn, and the pain you will suffer to be washed away in those waters to be replaced by the understanding of just how precious you really are. I hope that you will learn to follow Christ passionately, and pursue that which you have been called to be and do as a child of God and a sister of Christ, because you know that your hands do make a difference in bringing about that not yet realm.

Mostly, though, I hope your old eyes die, to be replaced by eyes which see not that which is, but that which can be. That you learn to experience the renewal and every-day births that come in the midst of all the bad stuff. I will never forget that you are the baby that came to me so, so soon after having said goodbye to another baby, and because of that you are special. You are my life-baby, my daughter who came to me as if blown in by the storm that broke my heart, who healed my grief and showed me that there really is new life. I hope your heart doesn't have to be broken like mine has in order to understand this, but that in your baptism you will stare with new eyes at all your little disappointments and losses and learn to see where God's hand was doing a new thing.

Today you went to the waters of baptism, and came out a new child, and this is my prayer for you: that your eyes always see the beauty of that new world. Welcome to your new life, little one. I'll do my best to help you live fully in it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How does prayer work, anyway?

"He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, "Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" -Luke 11: 1-13

First of all, I want to offer a shameless plug for my pastor Lois Pallmeyer, who preached on this text this morning. I highly encourage you to check it out because it's a beautiful piece of writing, and even though I'm about to offer my perspective, there's something to listening to those who are older and wiser than me. Here it is.

Secondly, I must apologize for my long absence. It turns out that pregnancy is kind of hard, and so is having a newborn. Baby "S" was born on June 26th after 16 hours of labor, and she is perfect. If you'd like to be spammed with baby pictures, take a look at my instagram.

Now, onto the matter at hand... 

After church today my husband and I were talking about how prayer works, and he said, "Well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? We don't know." You've got to admire his comfort with ambiguity. Unfortunately, most of us aren't totally content with that answer, especially when everything is going to hell and you find yourself thinking, "Okay, God, was THIS in your plan!?" It makes prayer feel pretty futile, and even worse, can lead us to question God's motives, as if God is some kind of devious puppet master pulling the strings in our lives until we pray to appease God's mighty wrath. So what's the point of prayer, anyway? Is it indeed to "ask so the door will be opened?", it to change God's mind as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham bargains with God over whether or not to let the city stand? (Genesis 18) Is it just a meaningless practice that gives us spiritual discipline? There is no place in the Bible that I know of where somebody conclusively explains exactly how prayer works. We are told to do it ("pray without ceasing") and we are told how to do it as in the text above. We are told it is important, and we see lots of other people in the Bible doing it, even at risk of bodily harm (Daniel). So how does it work?

Well, like P, I don't rightly know. This is what prayer is for me, and maybe in hearing a little of my experience you can get a sense of what prayer might be for you, and how it might shape your faith walk. I think I've mentioned in passing that my parish internship was pretty trying. I've not been super transparent there, and one of these days I will share what I have written about it. In the interest of brevity, I will say that in retrospect I consider it to have been abusive, and it took me some time to recover from it. My final year in seminary was spent coming out of the fog of depression and trauma that the internship caused. Because the internship was a requirement for my degree and for candidacy as an ordained minister, I had to jump through several hoops because of my not-great committee evaluations. After doing everything faithfully and trying my best to heal and learn whatever I needed to learn from the experience, I again met with my candidacy committee, who told me that I was not ready to be approved for ordained ministry and deferred me. I was totally stunned by this and my well laid plans were now starting to fall apart in front of me. One day I was sitting at my desk doing homework and worrying about what to do with this situation, being angry at myself and angry at God, a song came on my playlist:

The chorus is what struck me in that moment.

I have no choice
But to cry out for You
Please help, cause I'm helpless now
You hear my prayer
When my whole world comes unglued
I know You can fix it, but I don't know how
I don't know how

That was exactly how I felt. My plans, my life, what I had hoped for had all come totally unglued and there I was sitting at my desk feeling too many feelings and not knowing what to do next, and I turned that song up and listened to it on repeat over and over while sobbing. That was my prayer at the moment: "Please help, I'm helpless now." It was a moment of complete surrender for me. I had spent the previous weeks flailing around trying to fix things or salvage something, and I had spent the previous year flailing around trying to contort myself to fit into what that congregation wanted from me instead of just being the (fantastic) minister I am, and it had broken me. So I cried and let go of all that trying. That was my prayer. It was simple, it was desperate, and most importantly it was genuine. It was the Spirit interceding on my behalf with "groans too deep for words." (Romans 8:26)

I wish I could say that that moment at my desk was some kind of revelation in the moment, but it wasn't. I cried, as I had done before and would do again, and I turned off "repeat" on iTunes, and then continued with my homework. But what was revelatory was the sense that God was with me. That Jason Gray had had a moment of desperation and others had too, and I know in that moment that that song was the voice of God telling me I was not alone. That incident stuck with me throughout the next year as I took my first wobbling baby steps toward living into my call authentically. Somehow all the right people, from the chaplain and pastor who mentored me in Michigan over the summer before my CPE residency to my supervisors and the peers in my group had showed up in my life and stood with me and walked by my side as I rediscovered who God had created me to be.

So had God heard my prayer and changed what had been in store for me because I asked? I somehow don't think so. I had already been accepted to the residency program, and we were already set to go to Michigan for the summer. I don't like the idea of God manipulating other people's lives to suit my prayers. What I do know is that God showed up for me in my hour of desperation. God was present for me when that song came on and a wash of anguish and grief poured out of me as it hadn't before, pleading for help from the bottom of my soul. God showed up for me in the call from my pastor the following week, and God showed up for me in the kind words of my peers at seminary, and friends who let me rant and rave and offered words of solidarity and encouragement. Mostly, God showed up and changed me. Something about that moment of vulnerability led me to more moments of vulnerability where I learned and grew and made room in my self for all that I needed to be a chaplain and a better pastor. It also gave me new determination: a sense that God WAS with me guiding me, and had been with me, and that even the experience of being mistreated wouldn't be wasted in his hands. It helped me defy the voices that discouraged me, and embrace the minister that God had created me to be.

In my life, I have experienced some challenges and losses, and although I'm not much for formal "prayer time" in my day, I do keep an ongoing dialogue with God. It's usually a little sarcastic, because I think I'm often the wayward, reluctant disciple that God has to let faceplant from time to time in order to remember to stay close and learn the lessons that need to be learned. And in the course of that prayer life, I have come not to see prayer as a time to ask for wishes, but as a time to let it all hang out. To be who I am to God, who God knows I am already, and in doing so be assured that I am loved, wanted, and that God is working with, in, and through me, even in the grief, frustrations, even in the (often extreme) stubbornness. So for me, asking and having the door opened is more about receiving God than things; knocking is about having the door to God's kingdom fly open now and then; and seeking is about finding that God was really there all along. God does answer prayers, but as P pointed out, we don't really know how it works. But we do know that something happens and the Spirit is alive and present for us in our weakness and in our joy. My prayer for you is that you fully experience the mystery of God in your prayer life and beyond it today and every day.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Three Stories

This is the story of Keiji Nakazawa, author of the Japanese comic series Barefoot Gen.

In 1945, a young Japanese boy named Keiji was on his way to school at about eight in the morning when he bent down to pick something up off the ground. Suddenly, an atomic explosion rocked the city of Hiroshima to its very foundation. The simple action of bending down had saved him, as a concrete wall had shielded him from the blast and the majority of the fallout. All around him was devastation: his neighbors and friends burned to death, everything he had ever known alight as far as he could see. Keiji searched for his family, and unfortunately found that his father and brother had died immediately. His mother and infant sister died of radiation poisoning a few days later.

Confused and disoriented, Keiji joined with other survivors of the blast trying to stay alive. One day about a year later, Keiji headed down to the river in search of supplies, and saw something very strange. Although the reports had said that the city would be radioactive for 70 years and nothing would grow, Keiji spotted green popping up along the river. Blades of grass, fresh with morning dew dotted the landscape up and down the banks of the river. Somehow, despite all odds, new life bloomed again.

Ground zero along the banks of the Ota River, Hiroshima, Japan, 2008.

This is a story my friend Rusty told me.

In 2012, a group of seminary students landed in Haiti to begin their J-term learning experience. They left Port au Prince that morning and made it to their hotel in Jacmel on the southern coast. The group decided to get drinks to unwind from the travel, but soon after, the earth began to move, and the city crumbled around them. Most of them had been outdoors, but as they stood staring at the remains of the building that they had just been inside, the terrible truth of what had happened set in. Some of the students on the trip from another seminary had died with the thousands of others in the city.

With most of their belongings lost and no way to leave the city, the group headed to the camp where everyone else had been sent. It was a surreal scene, with people wailing for their dead or frantically searching for loved ones. The group had little food or water between them, but they hunkered down in hope of rescue.

As night fell, my friend remembers the camp coming alive, not with wailing but suddenly with song. Songs of worship, songs of praise, songs of God's grace and love rising from the destruction all around them. As one group's song would fade, another would begin. All night, a song of victory in defeat.

The bar where Rusty and his classmates stood moments earlier in Haiti, 2012.

This is my story.

My husband and I were on our way back from a friend's wedding in Hawaii when the spotting started. Ten weeks along, we had been filled with such hope, such excitement about this first child of ours. I had spotted before and had still seen a strong heartbeat just three weeks earlier, but the exhaustion of the trip and the increasing bleeding shook us.

When we arrived home from our red eye flight, the first thing we did was call the doctor. There they did an exam and could not find a heartbeat. They sent us to radiology for an ultrasound, where a kind woman told us that unfortunately, the baby had stopped growing two weeks ago. There was nothing that could be done.

One doesn't understand agony until their heart breaks open at the words “I'm so sorry.” The words sound so empty when your whole future has been destroyed. As P leaned over me and my heart poured out my eyes, all I could see ahead was the why, the what happened, and the how can we go on? And yet months later, I am here again, with hope for a child growing inside me, for a family, for birthdays and kissed owies and skills taught, and so many giggles to come. And there is life here.

Baby P (due June 2016), stubbornly refusing to roll over, December 2015.

This is both an old and a new story.

I tell you these stories not because I want to make you sad, but because you, too, have lived through destruction. You have lived through the disorientation, the confusion of who you are and who God is and what we do when all hope is lost. In the last chapter of Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus tell Jesus (who they don't recognize) that “they had hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel.” I think this is the saddest part of the whole Bible, and encompasses so much loss, sorrow, and emptiness. We had hoped.

And yet God was revealed in the breaking of the bread to those disciples. And yet God freed Israel. And yet Christ healed the blind. And yet our Savior rose from the dead. And yet.

We find our lives in ashes from time to time, and today I tell these stories so that you remember that your story is part of a larger narrative: the story of God, of humanity, of all creation. And those stories tell us that the audacity of hope is often as simple as grass growing, a song rising from the rubble of a broken city, the embrace of your best friend while you stand stunned and lost in grief, or an empty tomb.

You are not alone. Amen.

Sunrise at Riviera Maya, Mexico, new every morning.