On Grief, The Whys, and Being Helpers.

My first semester of seminary, I had a professor who reminded us frequently that God meets us where we are. I have always genuinely believed that. God meets us in the depths of our despair and the heights of our joy. God is present with us here, as we gather together in this place of worship, and as we labor alone in our work. Writer Anne Lamott put this a funny way when she said, “ ‘Help’ is a prayer that is always answered. It does not matter how you pray—with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago, I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’”

And because God meets us where we are, we know that God is with us even amidst the worst that happens in the world around us—in our communities and across the globe. It was devastating to listen to the news reports about the destruction and violence in Paris, a city I visited while we were stationed in Germany, my favorite of all the cities I have ever visited. I prayed for the people of France and for all those affected by the violence, but my words felt insufficient.

Then I read about the horrors occurring in Lebanon and Iraq and the worries Japan faces over the earthquake and tsunami warning and I was nearly overcome. SO much destruction. So much grief. So many lost and many more left feeling without hope.

I thought about the Gospel message for this week, about Jesus sitting with his disciples who were so concerned with the coming devastation of the temple that they couldn’t see beyond it. They seemed only to consider the immediacy of the things that were to come in that day and age, unwilling to hear the rest of Christ’s message that these things were but the beginning and they were ONLY birth pangs, not the sum total and end result. God’s grace in and through the world and our continuing participation in that work brings about restoration after such horrors as the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and the violent attacks around the world Friday. I’ll admit that this passage from Mark 13 is uncomfortable for me to speak on because I do not care to dwell on destruction, death, or apocalyptic messages. I have had lupus for nearly 19 years and have worked really hard to keep my focus on the joy of life and move past my suffering. I prefer to speak of God’s love and restorative grace, and focus on modeling Christ’s greatest commands. Yet Jesus did address these things. They are included in our scriptures, so we must deal with them.

God calls us to live our abiding faith in all our moments—those that are joyous and those that cause us grief. I see that abiding faith in the way this congregation gathers each Sunday. We are literally small in number but have such a profound belief and commitment to the love of Christ that we show up week after week in service to God and humanity. And it isn’t just here at Faith UCC. People of abiding faith are able to find ways of moving through darkness to light, from alienation to community, from guilt to pardon, from slavery to freedom, and from fear to assurance. With our abiding faith, we find our way to salvation through God’s grace. We demonstrate that faith through ritual and prayer, but we don’t only bring our prayers of petition to God, we bring our prayers of gratitude and joy for what God is doing in this world around and through us. And when we praise God in our joys and in our sorrows, we are practicing what Bruce Birch calls “the giving back of grace.”

Whenever we are authentic and genuine in our prayers to God, whenever we are faithful and trusting, God hears and, in some way, responds to our prayer. And so now, as we think back to our passage from 1 Samuel, we see that Hannah innately knows this. She enters the temple, and in her confidence strides right past Eli the priest to bring her prayers directly to God. In those days, this was a bold act—do circumvent the priest and speak directly to God, especially for a woman, but it is her abiding faith that almost requires that she do that. The prayer Hannah utters is raw in its emotion and desperate in its cry to Heaven to answer the deepest longing of her soul. Not just to satisfy some cultural expectation that a woman should bear children, but also because Hannah confidently believes that her trust in the Lord will bear fruit. Even Eli, who first assumes she’s drunk and making a spectacle of herself, eventually sees that she is genuinely pouring out her soul before God—at that moment, he seems confident that this woman’s prayer will be heard.

And it is, isn’t it? Hannah leaves the holy place and goes forward not to letting her depression overtake her. The scriptures say that when she returns to her husband, “her countenance,” which had been so consumed with distress over the matter of children, “is sad no longer.” In time, she conceives of Samuel, raises and weans him, and then takes him to be in the service of God. She doesn’t know that when she fulfills her vow and gives up her most auspicious blessing that grace will return to her, but it does. This once barren woman has five more children and her firstborn goes on to usher the people out of the violent age of the judges and into the age of kings—one of which, we believe, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ, himself.

In Hannah’s story, we witness that long-running thread that weaves its way through Scripture: that idea that God seeks out the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s curious, isn’t it, that Hannah’s faith was audacious enough to believe that the God of all creation might have any interest in the hopes and prayers of a lowly, barren woman. How moving that in all her brokenness, she takes her abiding faith, that loving, confident faith and walks it right up to God and says, “Here God, here is the deepest longing of my heart. And if you grant me this blessing through your grace, I will return it to you.” And God answers that prayer, trusting in Hannah, too, that this outsider, this “little one” will be true to her word. It is not from political power or some form of earthly strength that the monarchy is ushered in. Instead, it is born of humility and the audacity of hope, faith, and connection with God. How wonderful it is to know that humility is not just part of an oft-quoted verse in Micah and something to be bragged about, but an actual means through which we might bear witness to the beautiful things God brings into our world. And how magnificent that we witness the fullness of God’s love even and especially through the broken, the poor, and the most desperate souls among us.

And so, when we think of “the least of these,” suffering in the aftermath of Friday’s devastation, let us remember Hannah and all those God will work through for good. Too often in this world, and especially in the Christian subculture, the focus turns toward apocalyptic messages. It seems like every time there is a disaster, natural or man-made, self-appointed prophets will prophesy the coming of “last days” and the end of the world. I’m reminded of a particularly prescient line from one of my favorite shows, Angel, where after a painful experience a character new to the world called Illyria says, “We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?” And the usually somewhat morose Wesley replies, “There’s love. There’s hope – for some. There’s hope that you’ll find something worthy. That your life will lead you to some joy. That after everything, you can still be surprised.”

We can get so consumed by the destruction, death, and disease, that we forget that even in the midst of those horrors is God and the certainty of God’s blessing. I look around now at my social media newsfeed and listen to the conversations around me, and I’m surprised by the blessings that abide even still. I see it in the Parisians who flooded the streets just hours after the horrific attacks crying out in their grief, their determination, and in their defiance, lighting candles and raising a sign that said “NOT AFRAID.”

Why do bad things happen? I’d like to have an answer for you. I’d like to tell you that some philosophical or theological explanation has somehow satisfactorily answered the question of suffering and pain for me. But the truth is that I haven’t found one. I just don’t know. But maybe the whys aren’t as important as what we DO in the aftermath. And I don’t mean going out and exacting some retributive justice—we are not called to do that. We are called to love and pray for our neighbors and for our enemies. What I mean is that when we see people suffering and in pain, perhaps more important than the WHYS are the WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOUs. And WHERE DO WE GO FROM HEREs. When we meet people in their lowest moments, the whys don’t matter. But we make a difference in how we approach others and how we help them in their times of sorrow and grief. Not with answers, but with care. Not with platitudes, but with love. By meeting basic needs or by sitting with them in silence.

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Now my kids watch Daniel Tiger, a cartoon spin-off of the beloved classic from my early youth. My favorite quote from Fred Rogers is this, 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.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” And that is what we are called to do now.

When we are tempted to let the horrors of this world overwhelm us and deny us the joy of each and every day, we need to rebel. We grieve, but even in our grief, we know that our eyes cannot be trained on the devastation and the ones who destroy, but rather on the one who brings us such blessings. There will not be a time in this age where things will be without the possibility of falling apart, but we are called to continue moving forward, striving each day to do our faithful work, to pray our faithful prayers, and to love with the faithful certainty that God is with us, God is among us, God is within us all. So let us move forward into this uncertain week in the world, let us continue to boldly proclaim the love of Christ, let us praise God even in our grief, returning grace for grace. Let us be the helpers. Amen.

I Will Always Be on the Side of Love.

For nearly four years, despite my seminary studies and perceived ministry call, my family has been unchurched. I could go into a long explanation as to why, but the short version is that it wasn’t high enough on my priority list, we had a lot going on, and our family (which included our two very young sons) wasn’t ready yet. Eventually, “the stars aligned” and we found a faith community that both fit us and where we fit. This community has accepted my entire family with open arms and welcoming hearts. I’ve had the honor to preach my first two sermons there despite not having completed seminary yet. It can’t be merely coincidence that this community we’ve found is called Faith UCC.

If you’ve been following this blog or me, personally, for the last several years, you’ve noted my progressive evolution. If you’re paying attention, you should also have seen that my progressive views have only shifted my focus toward following Jesus, but have not, in any way, compromised my faith. In fact, I spend more time studying scripture, praying, and examining spirituality than I ever have even at the height of my seminary course schedule. Becoming an open, progressive Christian has only drawn me closer to God, not pushed me further away. Doubts? Yes, I have them. Everyone does. It’s a part of faith. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, of course, but this has been mine.

People like me are often accused of watering down the gospel, capitulating to culture, or not taking the bible seriously because we don’t read it literally. I knew I had found the right denomination when I read my own thoughts echoed on the UCC website: it is precisely because I take the bible seriously that I cannot possibly take it literally (but, more on my problem with biblical inerrancy in future blog posts).

When I look at the bible, I try to interpret it through my Jesus-Kingdom-Love lenses. This is also how I try to conduct myself in my daily life. Because I believe that Jesus is God (and The Word) made flesh, I take his own words as my living imperative: Love God and love your neighbor as myself. If, as we read in Romans, love is the fulfillment of the law, then whether I get the minutia of doctrine correct is not the measure of my faith or my love of God, is it? If doctrine is the measure of one’s faith in God–determining whether one “goes to heaven” or doesn’t–and there’s only one proper way to interpret scripture, yet there are tens of thousands of denominations (yes, you read that right, more than 41,000) that differ on various doctrinal positions, then there’s going to be a whole lot of people left out, isn’t there? Put simply: I will not put the words of Paul and other authors of scripture before God. I will not elevate the bible to a position equal to that of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I refuse to lift the bible up as a fourth member of the Godhead. It doesn’t belong there. I take it seriously, I use it to help me understand God, it informs my faith, but it is not flawless and meant to be taken wholly literally. The bible is a holy book, but it is a book; not God.

I could be wrong. I don’t really know much of anything. 

I don’t know, but I do have faith. I have faith that God is a loving God and that God is always good. I have faith that God has given us brains capable of interpreting scripture, our surroundings, and our experiences, and that God wants us to use those brains.

And yet, I understand that I can only see any of that through the prism of my own experience. If someday I stand before God and God says to me, “Jessica, you’ve loved too much, you’ve accepted too many,” I think I’ll be okay. If my greatest sin is that I refused to condemn others for their differences, well all right then. The plank in my eye is not small, so I’ll refrain from picking at the specks in my neighbors’.

The sin management of others is not my job. Neither am I a member of the Christian police. I will admit that it is difficult, as a flawed human being, not to judge others. I tried not to do that when I sat on the Christian right, but I failed sometimes. I try not to do that as a member of the “Christian left,” but I still fail sometimes.

Most importantly, know this: wherever a debate rages over faith issues with both sides bolstering their argument by proof-texting the other (civil rights, LGBT issues, hell, women’s roles, etc.), I will always be on the side of love. Where my own reading of the bible causes me to wrestle over conflicting views within scripture, I will always be on the side of love.

LOVE WINS.

What does love look like? I don’t know precisely, but I do know what love looked like in the example of Jesus. Paul tells us what he thinks love looks like and what love does not look like in 1 Corinthians 13.  And so I will choose love. I will choose to show my best version of love to everyone I meet. It’s been said so much over the last few weeks, but it’s true: Love wins. Ultimately, love wins because God wins. In my mind, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

You’re free to disagree, of course, and I’m still going to love you.

A Believer Because of My Doubts

A writer I greatly admire is working on a new book and recently posed an interesting question:

“What is/was your biggest need as you crossed into a new kind of Christianity?”

This is such an important question and one I felt compelled to give considerable thought. Many of you understand that I’m going through a spiritual evolution of sorts. It’s been a bone of concern and dismay with some of my loved ones who feel I’ve strayed too far from my conservative roots. They aren’t wrong. I have, but isn’t this just part of growing up? Isn’t change an inevitable piece of what it means to be human, live, and experience the world? Rest assured, I have not undertaken this evolution lightly and I proceed with caution along it.

Some of those closest to me respond by lovingly proof-texting my assertions and quotes. Some of the most frequently utilized passages are Rom 12:2 (Do not be conformed to this world…), Matt 7:13, 15 (..the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, Beware of false prophets…), and 2 Tim 4:3 (…having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…). I do appreciate that people care enough to try to turn me toward what they believe Christ taught, but I believe that G-D meets us where we are. I’d like not to conform to the things of this world, but I do LIVE in the world. God came to us as Jesus IN this world. We have to continue living in this world until we move on to whatever comes after it. It’s really all we have, isn’t it? All we know with any certainty is that we have to survive and live in this global community until we don’t.

Soul-searching and evaluating our hearts and beliefs is something that all people do at some point. It is integral to living. For some of us, re-evaluation leads us deeper “into the fold.” We lean into or fall back to what we were raised in because, perhaps, it makes the most sense. Others find this a time of leaving behind old ways and moving toward new. If God sees fit to meet us where we are (and I believe God does), then we have to accept the idea that we are all gloriously imperfect beings who are doing our best to grapple with a complex confluence of needs.

This is how I originally answered the writer’s call on his Facebook page:

I think my needs are/were emotional, tangible, and spiritual. I need/needed to find a sense of community, love, and acceptance coupled with compassion from all angles. I need/needed to have some way to articulate what I was feeling and thinking with some foundation in biblical texts in order to “defend” and/or validate those thoughts and feelings. And I need/needed to feel comfortable living in the tension that comes with really wrestling with both the biblical texts and with what it means for humanity and for my very understanding of God.

As I reflected on the question and my response, I realized I had left out a crucial component of the self. Our minds, given to us by our Creator, have needs, too, do they not? I contend it is intellectually dishonest to claim that anyone has a righteous monopoly on scriptural interpretation. Everyone is using human intellect to grasp scriptures that have been interpreted by human beings, translated by man, and originally recorded in a different time (several, actually), under foreign cultural traditions, and directed at specific audiences. It is impossible to strictly read the bible without “outside” influence. We are all subject to our own cultural, historical, and personal biases.

As a life-long student, it is incredibly disheartening to have that love and need to learn called into question and/or identified as a path to spiritual destruction. I know that God is big enough to handle my doubts and questions. I cannot fathom a God too weak to stand up to rigorous intellectual query. I stand in profound disagreement with the idea that the G-D who created me: mind, body, and soul, would require me to turn off my brain before engaging with scripture. I find it offensive that the same Jesus who sat among religious teachers listening to and questioning them as a child (Luke 2:41-50), would ask me to accept scripture at face value, checking my brain at the door of the churches I enter into. If the new Christian litmus test requires me to choose between believing every word of scripture is literally, factually true (inerrant) and throwing it all out the window–well, then I guess I’d have to throw it out the window and find some other way to connect to God. But thankfully, Jesus did not give this ultimatum. I can find truth and solace in God and the scriptures, believing Christ died and rose, without being excluded because of my questions and doubts.

I was once told that the more I spent time in the “Word of God,” the fewer questions I would have. The answers to my questions, the solution to my doubts, the elixir for my troubled soul–all of it–simply required more bible study. I have found the exact opposite is true. Over the last fifteen years, spending increasing amounts of time reading scripture has only posed bigger, more complex questions. I open, read, and prayerfully reflect on scripture now more than ever. I have grown into a person of complex faith, no longer needing to force myself to reconcile with Christian apologists.

For my faith to stay together, this evolution is a necessity. Every single day, this journey leaves me feeling closer to my Creator, my fellow human beings, and the natural world around me. There are days when I get too philosophical and begin questioning my very existence–fully embracing the proverbial existential crisis. And then there are days when I want nothing to do with biblical scriptures, but just want to experience the Divine in the mundane parts of life, in serving others, in nature, or in the smiles and giggles of my children. 

I suppose that most of all, I just want to do right by God, by humanity, and by all that is good in the world. I try to do my best to follow Jesus. I know it is well with my soul if I seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. I do not know all the answers, no person on this Earth does, and that is okay.

On Caitlyn Jenner and Our Call to Love

I had an insightful seminary professor whose words planted in my mind and heart seeds that are still sprouting. She once reminded our class, “You can only see from where you stand.” These words have been at the fore of my mind since I heard them, but never have they been as important as on weeks like this.

My only “issue” with Caitlyn Jenner springs from the understanding that perhaps she wasn’t as honest with her ex-wives and children as she could have been. And yet, I can’t judge or cast aspersions because I can’t possibly imagine the complex cacophony of emotions involved with living the vast majority of her life feeling like she was born with the wrong physical body, especially in the era she was raised. I pray that people like Caitlyn find peace in finally becoming (in body) who they have always been in mind and spirit. I also pray for the families who have to cope with the implications of these truths to a degree none of us can really understand.

The bible doesn’t discuss transgender issues, but I’m seeing a lot of comments from folks who are trying to make sense of this from a biblical perspective. Many are confused. I sympathize with that struggle, though I think perhaps some are over-thinking it. We want to believe that God doesn’t make “mistakes.”  I’m not sure God did; Caitlyn has always been exactly who she is deep down. It’s just that she has finally developed the courage to express that truth to the world.

In fact, while God may not make mistakes, we know nature does. We do not always know why people are born with bodies contrary to what is typical. My son was born with autism. I developed lupus at the age of fourteen. My best childhood friend died of cancer at the age of seven. Caitlyn Jenner was born in the wrong body. Some people are born with both sets of reproductive organs. Some people are born missing limbs or other body parts. Some people get grey hair in their teenage years. None of this makes any sense in our limited human understanding.

For better and sometimes worse, people go to great lengths to make their outsides match their insides. Children who are born with birth defects have them repaired, if possible. We treat physical and mental illnesses that interfere with our ability to function in the world. People have cosmetic surgery, dye their hair, wear makeup, get tattooed and choose clothes that help them project an image more consistent with who they are in mind and spirit. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with any of us. We are all just trying to live our best and truest lives.

Christians are not called to judge or look down on anyone; we are called to love. There is no caveat to Christ’s most important two commands: love God and love others as yourself. Period.

I pray that, as we all try to make sense of the world from where we stand, Christians heed this call to love by eschewing the instinct to judge and condemn, instead expressing the compassion within.

I think that trans woman Laverne Cox said it best,

I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues…

Amen and amen.