Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”  1 Corinthians 12:12,13

“Body dysmorphic disorder.”  Have you heard of it? Apparently it’s when a person becomes so concerned about his or her body image and convinced that he or she has a defect of some sort that they spend crazy amounts of time in the mirror and find it hard to function.  So, for example- and we women are probably more susceptible to this, thanks to the messages the media sends us, but men are not immune either- an average-sized woman with an average-sized waist will look in the mirror and think she’s huge.  That is body dysmorphia.  It’s a bit like looking in a funny mirror and thinking what you see is reality.

Sometimes I wonder if the church has body dysmorphia, too.  Sure, we at least pay lip service to the notion that we, the church, are “the body of Christ”- “one body” with “many parts” as the apostle Paul describes (1 Corinthians 12:12)- but then we spend far too much time looking in the mirror complaining about our nose.  Or our breasts.  Or our love handles.

We spend far too much time looking in the mirror when we could be looking at Him who is “the Head,” as Paul describes.  We could be looking at Jesus.  Instead, these so-called “blemishes” become easy excuses for not staying focused on Jesus and what Jesus wants for us.  They become the obstacles we put up to Jesus’ invitation to join Him in the real world where the real action is.

If you’ve ever been around Christians who stare at their navels rather than gaze at the world around them, then you know what I’m talking about.  If you’ve ever sat in a group of other “body parts” and found that the conversation revolves around the problems with just one body part and how things would all be different in the church if that body part were not there or underwent major plastic surgery, then you know what I mean.  If you’ve ever been the body part that all the rest of us would like to cover up as “private” when it’s as obvious as a birthmark on the forehead, then you have an appreciation for what I’m trying to say.

Because wherever there is a church, there is a body and a “mirror” of sorts.  The stories we tell ourselves about who we are.  The people in our congregation we look to to define us and those we would prefer not to.  The ways we see ourselves that clarify who we are and how we live.

But what if, instead of obsessing about ourselves in the mirror, and doing all we could to change certain body parts because they’re annoying or ugly or embarassing, what if we looked in the mirror and saw the face and head of Jesus?  How would things change?  Would we still be inclined to complain and belly ache about our church and its defects?  Or, would we start to talk differently about all of the unique characteristics that make us who we are?  The scar on our knee from a childhood bike-riding accident.  Or, the way our shoulder clicks every so often when we move it.  Or, the lazy eye that shows up sometimes in pictures.  And what if we learned to claim these things as good and lovely because they belong to a body with Jesus at the head?  What if we chose to do this, even if it felt uncomfortable or against our nature?  What if we prayed to be able to do this?  What would change?  How would our life together look?

When I was a kid I had to wear braces because I had a crooked smile.  My mother took me to an orthodontist for an evaluation: after asking me several times to bite down, smile and say “ah,” all the while quizzically looking at my jaw in relation to my face, he turned to my mother and explained that while, at the whopping cost of $5,000 they could fix my crooked teeth, they would not be able to fix the assymetry of my face.  At that, my mother, who is one of the most soft-spoken, patient and slow-to-anger people I know, exclaimed that my face was “just right,” that there was nothing wrong with it, and that we would not be needing their services.

When Jesus is “the Head,” there is a sense in which we don’t need to worry too much about whether we’re “just right” or not.  We can rest in the assurance that we are.  That because Jesus loves us and has called us to Himself, and has gathered all of our broken parts together to be in Him, we are okay.  We are accepted.  In fact, we are more than okay and accepted.  We are lovely and loveable.  In the same way that a mother can exclaim at the perfection of her child.  And this assurance in itself should be enough to help us start acting more like we really are- not what we think we are- in the world around us.  More beautiful.  More loving.  With parts that, with all their eccentricities, come together to make up Jesus and function like it, too.

 

 

The Octopus and the Quarter

"It is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a Giant Pacific Octopus to enter a hole the size of a quarter."

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  Mark 10:23, 24

The rich, young man’s story is one many of us have heard many times before: an otherwise very good man (he has kept God’s commandments at least) comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer causes him to walk away sad, because he cannot do the one thing Jesus says he lacks.  “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” is Jesus’ reply.

In her book, Marking Time:  Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense, Barbara Lundblad makes the case that as familiar as this story is, we have a hard time seeing ourselves in it- precisely because Jesus’ words hit so close to home.  We tend instead to avoid the “elephant in the room”- that Jesus is talking about the problem of money, lots of it.  We do this by going down various exegetical rabbit holes, like “this man was a fawning flatterer who wanted to add eternal life to his holdings,” or “this man’s theology was faulty.”  Or, “this man got his wealth through dishonest means,” or “the real issue is faith, not money.”

But at the end of the day, we have to face the fact, Lundblad writes, that this text really is about money.  About the fact that when we have lots of money, we find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, so that our poverty in an encounter with God’s grace- and in turn our capacity to receive God’s offer of abundant, unending life- can only extend so far.  So that we can at best stand at the periphery of God’s kingdom and gaze on God’s riches with sadness, only to walk away.

Nowadays it is easy to see others in the face of this rich, young man.  He is the non-descript Wall Street trader bringing in big bonuses, with little appreciation for the struggles of people like us on Main Street.  He is the venture capitalist who will stop at nothing for a big deal, even if it means sacrificing the livelihoods of hundreds of workers struggling to get by at minimum wage.  He belongs to the richest, one-percent of Americans, as a billionaire who has amassed a great fortune, while we are in the other 99 percent.

So it is harder to see our own selves in the face of this rich, young man.  But there we are, too.  Because as Americans we live and breathe in a culture that prizes wealth above all else- so much so that “money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.  Again, Brueggemann, quoted by Lundblad, writes:  “Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy.  It has become a demonic spiritual force among us…”

The “American dream?”  It’s really a dream about money.  More of it.  Plenty of it.  Enough to live “comfortably” at least.  And, to the degree that it drives our politics and defines how we understand democratic participation and our identity as Americans, this promise is, I suspect, quintissentially “American.”

When Lundblad wrote her book, the year was 2007.  It was before the worst of the recession had hit.  Before the housing bubble bust and the huge Wall Street bail-out that left many of us wondering where our tax dollars had gone, staring into the face of a monstrous national deficit.  Unchecked greed and the pursuit of excess were arguably at an all-time high.  But Lundblad didn’t know then what we know now:  that if in 1999 average CEO compensation is 419 times that of the average line worker, according to Graef Crystal, in his book, In Search of Excess, that disparity is only more exaggerated today; that the wealthiest one percent of Americans saw their income rise 275% between 1979 and 2007, while those in the bottom fifth lagged behind with only a 20 percent increase; that according to a report released this week by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, millionaires in this country have been receiving billions in taxpayer-funded support every year for “everything from child care to bad debts to boats and vacation homes” (The Huffington Post).

If we are Americans, we belong to this system.  We are part of it.  We may not be among the richest of Americans, but we have done our part to contribute to it.  To perpetuate the notion that wealth means more.  More say.  More power.  More life.  More virtue even.  We have told ourselves that “the good life” equals being rich.

Meanwhile, the Majority World lives on less than two dollars a day.  Clean, drinking water is in short supply.  One solid meal a day can at times be hard to come by.  These are living standards that would make just about all of us Americans- even the homeless women I met last night at the local shelter- “rich.”

The other day I took the kids to the Georgia Acquarium.  We were all mesmerized by the Giant Pacific octopus.  Did you know that octopi have three hearts and their blood is blue?  Crazy.  And they can live just about anywhere, from tide pools to depths of 2,500 feet.

The thing that I still am marveling at, though, is this: even at a maximum weight of six hundred pounds, one of these octopi can wriggle its way through a hole that is only the size of a quarter.  It may take a long while.  It may take a few tries.  But somehow one of these suckers can cram itself through an opening that small and come out just as alive and wiggly on the other side!

A bit like a camel through “the eye of a needle.”  Even if the “eye of the needle” was really a gate.  (Another exegetical rabbit hole.)  Because what Jesus is saying here is that when we’re rich we have a whole lot more stuff to dispense with in order to experience the riches of God’s kingdom.  Riches measured not in terms of dollars but in love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.  Wealth counted not by the rise or fall of a stock index, but in denominations of free, abundant life.  Possessions not in the form of a big house and cushy retirement package, but in the assurance of one’s part in God’s mission to redeem all creation.

And insofar as we have enriched ourselves without thinking about how our wealth belongs to God’s mission, we are poor.  Poor because we, like the rich, young man recognize our inability to let go of the very thing that keeps us on the periphery of God’s kingdom.  That enslaves us in the mindset that we “are” only on the basis of what we “have.”

Can there be any good news here?  The disciples weren’t so sure, but I think there is.  I think it is when the rich, young man walks away as many of us do in all manner of ways, and Jesus still “looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21).  Because the same Love that points us in the direction of where the good life really is is also the Love that watches when we walk away from the very thing we need to do in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Love like this makes all things possible (Mark 10:27).

 

 

 

Is Jesus Big?: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

article_America’s Children and the Environment_getty.jpg“…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3,4

“…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17

Bedtime these days consists of a pretty extensive routine: bath, books, then lullabies with back rubs.  At the end of it, I turn on the hall light just outside my children’s room to remind them that Jesus is with them and to ward off the monsters.

Often, though, within minutes of my leaving the room, my four-year-old will slink out of bed, blinking and bleary-eyed, to say he’s scared.

When he did this the other night, I told him what I always tell him:  “When you’re scared, just let the light remind you that Jesus is with you and watching over you;” this followed by a little prodding back to bed.

This strategy has usually worked.  Not this night, though.

This night, when I say “Jesus is with you,” my son isn’t so easily persuaded.  “No, he’s not,” comes the response.

“What do you mean?,” I ask.

“I don’t see him,” he says.

“Good point,” I am thinking to myself.  “So what if ‘those who believe without seeing are blessed’ (John 20:29)?  Most of the time, seeing is still believing.  Didn’t Jesus say, afterall, that He brings ‘recovery of sight for the blind’ (Luke 4:18)?  Can’t we ask Jesus for eyes of faith?  Can’t we ask him to help us see him?”

So now I am kneeling next to my son on the bathroom floor.  “Do you want to see Jesus?,” I ask.  I am remembering similar invitations issued to me as a child.  First at the age of four by missionary parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: I remember lying on my bed looking up at the geckos on the ceiling, wondering why I didn’t feel any different after inviting Jesus into my heart.  I had followed directions to a tee, but nothing had happened.  Nothing dramatic, that is.  And I had wondered how it was that Jesus fit into my heart.  Into such a small space like that.  Wasn’t it claustrophobic?

Then there were the many more impassioned pleas that followed over the years.  Emotion-laden appeals to accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior.  In Vacation Bible School.  At camp.  In the weekly Awana Club where I memorized and recited Bible verses in exchange for ribbons.  At the campfire.  Over the lulling sound of the guitar in worship.  In the hush of teenaged heads bowed and eyes closed (at least partially), when by way of raising our hands we said “yes” to Jesus (or didn’t raise our hands for fear one of the other kids was peeking like we were).

And now my son wants to see Jesus.  “Yes,” he says, when I ask him.

But how does one describe to a four-year-old what it means “to see” with the eyes of faith, I wonder.  And now I am searching for the right words but bumping up against the limits of language.  Maybe a bit like the many people who sought to introduce me to Jesus years ago.  Parents.  Youth group leaders.  Sunday school teachers.  Maybe their experience also got lost in translation.

“You can invite Jesus into your life,” I say. And then, “It’s going to take time, but more and more as you grow you’ll begin to see Jesus.”  And as I say this, I am almost praying it for him- that he would see Jesus more and more.

“Sometimes you won’t see Jesus but other times you will,” I go on.  “Like Lucy in ‘Prince Caspian.’”  We had seen the movie a few weeks earlier.  In it, Lucy, the youngest of the four children returning to Narnia for another adventure as “sons and daughters of Eve” and “kings and queens of Narnia,” is the first of the four to see Aslan; she alone catches fleeting glimpses which sustain her belief in the lion’s care, while her siblings remain in the dark and in disbelief for much of the movie.

“Remember how sometimes Lucy sees Aslan and other times she doesn’t?,” I ask.

“Uh huh.”  Now my son is nodding his head.  A light has turned on.  He is smiling with recognition.

“It’s like that with Jesus.  Sometimes we see Him and other times we don’t.  But just because we don’t see Him doesn’t mean He’s not there. He is still there even when we can’t see Him.”

Now my son is smiling.  The crinkles on his forehead have disappeared.  He is heading back to bed.

“Mommy, is Jesus big?”

Pause.  I am guessing that Jesus was probably no more than 5’6″ if that.  (Most men in first-century Palestine would have been of average stature, right?)

“Yes,” I answer.  “Jesus is very big.”

“Bigger than Daddy?,” my son is asking as he climbs the bunk bed ladder, then pulls the comforter up to his chin.

“Definitely bigger than Daddy!,” I exclaim, as I tuck him in one last time turning to go.

Maybe Jesus’ “bigness” is what I had missed in all of those “come to Jesus” moments.  In my Kuala Lumpur bedroom staring at the geckos.  In Awana Club and at church camp.  Jesus had to be small to fit into my heart.  And he had to fit just the way I was told he would fit- as if by some magic formula I could ask Jesus into my heart and he would appear, taking residence in my heart and never leaving.

But this Jesus wasn’t the big Jesus I as a child intuitively hoped for.  He wasn’t a powerful, majestic beast with a breathtaking roar, untameable and free.  He was too small for all that.  “Inviting Jesus into your heart” often could just as well have been like saying the right, magic word to a genie in a bottle, and then voila, or poof- there this little Jesus was, a bit like the handle that you mechanically twist to make a jack-in-the-box jump.  Always manipulable.  Never unpredictable.

And isn’t it interesting that with time, as we become more “grown-up,” the Jesus we believe in can tend to shrink?  So that he becomes more like garnish on our plate rather than the real food?  So that the One whom the apostle Paul describes as “before all things” and in Whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) is little more than cheap, chintzy decoration on already full plates?

Yet Jesus is saying here that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom of God.  Which could just as well be another way of saying that we need to remember that Jesus is big and that Jesus is everywhere- even as He is seated at the right hand of God.  This Jesus is the One who contains all of the pain and glory of the world. This Jesus is the very “heart of the world” as the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, describes in his lyrical tribute to Christ.

Which means that we don’t have to carry Jesus with us: we don’t have to tuck him away near our left ventricle or hide Him under an aortic valve- as if the onus were on us to coax Jesus to stay around in our soul’s living room, as if Jesus’ presence ultimately depended on our words and actions.

And we don’t have to bring Jesus to people, either, as Rob Bell writes in Velvet Elvis.  Why?  Because Jesus is already there!  He is there whether or not we see Him.  All we really need to do is ask Jesus to give us eyes to see Him and then look for Him.

It’s a bit like my two-year-old daughter when she reads her favorite book, Curious George.  On every page, there is always George, the mischievous monkey, into this and into that.  George at the train station.  George at the farm.  George at the toy store.  And when we read together, all my daughter does is point and exclaim, “George!”  On literally every page she points and exclaims, “George!”

And that’s really all we need to do, too.  When we see Jesus, we point.  We point and we exclaim, “Jesus!”  Like a child over her story book or in a make-believe place called “Narnia.”  And chances are that the more we find ourselves doing this simplest of things, the more we’re pointing and exclaiming in wonder at all of the places Jesus shows up on the pages of our story, the more we’ll know that we’re in God’s kingdom.  We’ll know we’re in that place where God is reconciling all created things in heaven and on earth to Himself (Colossians 1:20).

 

 

 

 

“Cry, Cry Africa.”

“Cry, cry Africa, only cry for southern Sudan.”  (The refrain of a song sung by the children of Amazing Grace Orphanage, in southern Sudan.)

We had been warned that some times the Sudanese government sent Antonov bombers across the border into the skies over Adjumani refugee camp, in northern Uganda.  It was a place I had the good fortune of leaving- unlike my new-found friends for whom this drill of “run for cover” had become a way of life.  Their new normal.

We didn’t really think it would happen- at least while we four Americans, standing out like sore thumbs in a sea of emory-colored south Sudanese, were there.

Then one morning we heard the drone-like sound overhead and saw the giant wasp roll in. We didn’t check to see its stinger.  We did the only thing we knew to do: we ran for cover, our bodies hitting the ground of our little, mud huts (tukuls), then lying very still as we waited for the monster to pass us by.

The next day one of the refugees took us to her tukul about a half-mile away from the compound where we were staying.  (A compound, by the way, where widows who have lost their husbands in five decades of Sudan’s civil war now care for some of the 1.7 million children left orphaned by the genocide there.)  The woman showed us the big, crater-like hole in the ground maybe fifty feet from her home.  In this case, the crater had been the result of another Antonov bombing expedition- all part of the north Sudanese government’s ongoing campaign of terror against its own civilians.

That was ten years ago.  When I read the news yesterday that Sudanese military aircraft had again crossed an international border to drop bombs on refugees, this time in the newly established South Sudan, those memories came flooding back.  It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I haven’t had the chance to return to my friends in Adjumani, northern Uganda.  Life has gotten in the way, young children being the biggest development these days.  But I think often of these dear ones and the tenaciousness of their faith, hope and love in an otherwise hellish place. Their names and faces come to mind when headlines about the Lord’s Resistance Army (the other specter of terror in that part of the world), or news like the above, catch my eye.

One day I hope to be with them again.  To introduce them to my husband and my children.  In African terms, and as Christians, we are extended family, after all.

“Mama Susan,” as she is affectionately called, has run Amazing Grace Orphanage now for nearly fifteen years.  Her “thorn in the side” is that she is almost totally deaf:  even with the help of an aid, she can barely hear.  But ever since she met the first child she would care for- a baby girl whom Susan found abandoned in one of the camp’s garbage dumps, so hungry she was eating human feces for breakfast- Susan has opened her heart and arms to take in and care for more and more children.

Now the orphanage provides a redemptive oasis to nearly thirty children. Every night they gather under the stars for bedtime prayers and to sing songs of praise.  When they pray, they simply lift up their needs, most of them very tangible, in the form of medicine for Josephine who struggles with the after effects of polio, or for money to pay the tuition fees for Maurice.  Somehow God always seems to provide.  They pray for friends across the seas like me and the small team of seminary students I took with me ten years ago. We have all stayed in touch with Mama Susan and her helpers over the years, doing the little we can to help, be it in the form of an annual financial gift, or advocacy in our churches and with our representatives in government.

These days the biggest need and opportunity are primary and secondary education for tomorrow’s leaders of this fledgling country.  Mama Susan recently sent me a proposal for a new nursery school in Adjumani.  With news like yesterday’s, which suggests that South Sudan’s new independence has done little to bring a sure-fire end to a very old war, it is no wonder that Susan and our friends at Amazing Grace remain cautiously hopeful that one day they will return to their country. For now, they prefer the familiar (life as refugees) to the unknown (uncertain times in their own country), dreaming of a day when they can live peacefully in a homeland where the mangoes are plentiful.  All the while, they cry for help through the bars of a song, somehow in the miracle and mystery of faith knowing that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).  What would happen if we cried with them?

If you have ideas about how to help Susan and the enterprising widows and orphans of Amazing Grace Orphanage, in Adjumani, Uganda raise more money to train the next generation of teachers, doctors, ministers and educated citizens of South Sudan, please leave your thoughts here or drop me a note at kristinarobbdover@gmail.com.

 

“The Little Ones”: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

Jerry Sandusky is charged with sexually molesting 8 boys. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up…it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned out in the deep sea.” Matthew 18:6

Jesus could just as well be speaking here about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the many powerful people who colluded with him to keep four decades of child sexual abuse secret- all under the guise of Sandusky’s charity, The Second Mile (a foster home to protect the most vulnerable of children, those without parents).  I get sick just thinking about the evil perpetrated here- first, by a middle-aged predator with a fetish for anal and oral sex who preyed on young boys, and then by an institution that deemed its reputation as a champion in college football more sacred than the lives of these little ones.

Even sadder and more disturbing is that we have seen this all before.  Catholic priests sexually molesting the children in their care.  The highest echelons of church leadership sweeping the abuse under the rug.

The lesson? That it is almost a law of the universe that power corrupts.  That wherever power is present, whether in the church or in college football, we need to be suspicious.  We need to be asking who “the least of these” are.  The church’s witness to Jesus Christ is credible only insofar as the church stands in solidarity with the powerless.  Christians need to be on the side of “the little ones.”

Because at heart the revelations about Sandusky and his co-collaborators are a deeply tragic story about how power, when it corrupts, always chooses “the least of these” for victims.  The “least of these” in the form of nameless little boys such as “Victim 1, 2, or 10.”  They at one time must have believed Sandusky was their savior, a ticket out of an already dysfunctional childhood- only to see their hopes demolished.

As a mother, I know that as irritating and exasperating as children can often be, these little persons also come wired to believe in the goodness of God and the world around them.  They come with built-in reserves of faith, be it in Santa Claus or Jesus Christ.  “God consciousness” is how the nineteenth-century, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher termed it.

Try wearing one of these as a necklace, Sandusky and friends.

You have to do something pretty terrible to destroy that God-consciousness and to make one of these “little ones” stumble.  So terrible, Jesus says, that it would be better if a great big millstone- a huge, heavy stone used to grind wheat- were tied around your neck and you were drowned in the depths of the deepest part of the ocean. The consolation here is that if the violations of Sandusky and his pals against the least of these fill us with disgust, they are an even greater abomination to God.

When back in 1998 State College police were investigating Sandusky’s shower escapades with Victim 6, Sandusky was quoted as saying this to the victim’s mother:  “I wish I could get forgiveness.”  The molestations continued.  Sandusky wanted forgiveness insofar as it wouldn’t require him to stop showering with little boys.

It is hard to say whether God’s judgment in the form of a millstone around the neck precludes forgiveness.  There are few things, I suspect, that are totally unforgivable in the light of eternity.  For the time being, I’m satisfied to know that in God’s scheme Sandusky and company will be spending their waking hours with phytoplankton on the ocean floor.

What I’m more concerned about now is what happens to “the least of these” in this story. Where will they be five or ten years from now?  Will they find restoration and healing?  Or, will the great millstone drag them down, too, so that the tentacles of an evil system strangle these precious, young lives in their grip? Will they become perpetrators some day like Sandusky?

In your infinite goodness, have mercy, O Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Playground Police

Did you know that there are now apparently playground police   officers?  I got stopped by one yesterday. She was in full uniform.  The real deal: a City of Atlanta officer with badge, belt and holster to show for it.

And she summoned me like a real officer would.  Stern, formal, with a tone of authority laced with suspicion.  From across the playground she called,  curling her index finger with enough gravitas to elicit some concern that my kids  and I had done something very wrong on this inner-city playground in downtown Atlanta.

I came.

“Mam, are you this boy’s mother?,” she asked, with a hint of       suspicion and threat in her voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Your son has been throwing acorns.  One of those could take a child’s eye out.  He’s not allowed to throw acorns, understand?”

No matter that my son had been acting like a regular four-year-old boy.  No matter that he had not been throwing acorns at anyone or anything in particular.  No matter that all of the kids together had collected a whole pile of acorns at the top of the slide.  No matter that one of them might be a budding naturalist. A future conservationist, maybe.

No matter that just the other day my neighbors’ house was broken into and their stuff stolen.  Or, that our neighborhood has seen a spate of home invasions in the last few years.  Or, that Atlanta’s murder rate was up.

“Okay,” I said.  (The last time I gave lip to a cop hadn’t gone well.)

“Mam, is he your only child here or do you have another one?”  The tone was officious and the inflection on “only” that of a distanced professional with a very important job to do.

“She’s mine as well,” I said, pointing to my two-year-old daughter, all the while wondering if now was the time when the cop called Defax and whisked my children off to child services.

The cop nodded, as if to say, “I’ve got your number.”  She wouldn’t be calling Defax this time at least. She turned to apprehend the parent of another acorn-wielding child.

The episode has me thinking about the way we human beings find the smallest, most nit-picky matters to prattle on about when there are real criminals to catch, real emergencies to attend to and people out there who really could use our help.  And we see this everywhere.  Not just on the playground. When millions of Americans are out of work and precariously hanging on to some shred of economic hope, our political leaders spend their time on legislation to keep “In God we trust” in our national motto. When the poor, the oppressed, and the blind of our world cry out for a little Good News in the form of a hand up or a new lease on life, our churches waste precious time jabbering away about what to do about the prickly issue of homosexuality (an issue that by the way never made Jesus’ own hot-button list).

“Playground police” are everywhere, and I wonder why.  Is it because of that thing Christians through the ages have called “sin”?  Is it because of our built-in propensity to miss the mark?  Is it because our world’s problems and our inadequacies at resolving them seem at times so overwhelming that we would rather concentrate our efforts on something that while frivolous is at least manageable?  Sometimes when my “to do” list is so long that I feel overwhelmed about where to start, I do something that is not on the list: I clean.  I clean when I really don’t have to.

I wonder if the same principle applies here.  As human beings we harbor an innate desire to be in control when all around our world threatens to implode.  We like our kingdoms- even if they’re only kid-sized in the form of jungle gyms.  We like to make rules- even if the rules miss out on where the real-life, high-stakes drama is.  We like to justify ourselves- because if we didn’t, we’d have to depend on Someone else to do it for us, and that scares us.  Or, if it doesn’t scare us, it asks too much of us.

But what if when we prayed the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come,” we really meant it?  What if we prayed that prayer every day, and in doing so, asked ourselves what God’s kingdom looked like in the day before us?  What if we asked God to forgive us of all the times we seek to be playground police in our marriages, families, places of work, politics and churches?  What if we asked God to reveal God’s kingdom to us, so that we could be available to the persons really in need of our help?

gullivers travels short jack black 2 6 10 kc Gullivers Travels: Movie Review Round Up

"There are no small jobs. There are only small people." Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels

I suspect that we would become bigger. Bigger people with bigger hearts.  With a bigger Gospel and therefore bigger things to attend to than acorns at the jungle gym.

 

Skeleton at the Beauty Parlor: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

"Dear God, it must be super hard to love all the people in the world, especially my brother. I don't know how You do it."

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

Every Halloween my neighborhood with its white picket fences and wrap-around porches magically transforms into an ethereal, other-worldly realm of flying ghosts, cackling witches and lit-up pumpkins. This year was no different.

With one exception.  This time one lawn boasted something I had never seen before: a skeleton at a beauty salon.  A frame of bones stretched out luxuriously in one of those now-antiquated chairs you used to find in 1950′s beauty parlors, its skull tucked under a helmet-hat blow dryer.

When Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I think of that skeleton at the beauty parlor.

Because our own efforts to be more like God- to beautify our souls in a spiritual
“up do” of sorts- can often leave us feeling racked out like a bunch of dried-up bones.  Many of us have gone through all the motions of being a Christian- weekly church attendance, Bible study, tithing 10 percent, teaching Sunday school- only to find that our prayer life is empty and our hearts are numb to the things of God.  Many of us, in seeking a wellspring of living water, a place where our souls can drink and find restoration, go to church and find nothing more than a few more skeletons at the beauty salon.  All of us sitting in a line of helmet blow dryers.  Each of us hoping that maybe this time we’ll come out looking and feeling a little better.  A little more beautiful- like “you just stepped out of a salon,” as the Salon Selectives commercial used to croon.  A little more alive.  A little more like Jesus.

Such is the problem with organized religion.  Most of us go into it thinking we will find abundant life but come out dead.  We go into it hoping to find our best selves and instead emerge like the walking dead. “Can these bones live?” we find ourselves asking (Ezekiel 37:3).

The problem is that skeletons don’t have hair, skin, or nails.  They don’t have the basic requirements for a beauty salon.  They need all of the elements of a whole, unique person before they can undergo a full, spiritual makeover; and they need these elements not separately but together, by way of integration.

Which is what Jesus is alluding to here.  “Be perfect” is not a command to be spiritually flawless.  It is not to have all of one’s religious ducks in a row. Or, to use all of the right, Christian lingo and follow all the appropriate cues. We have all been around such people.  People who would like to think that their Christian complexion is without blemish, despite the nasty whitehead on their nose.  I remember sitting next to one person in a church membership class who, in a personal survey of spiritual gifts and aptitudes, concluded she had all of them by checking each of the boxes.  With my two or three checks I had felt a bit inadequate, if truth be told.

Thankfully, being perfect is also not about having all of the spiritual gifts. Being “perfect” according to Jesus is, rather, having integrity: it is being integrated in such a way that all your parts come together. So that your love of God and neighbor doesn’t change once you leave church.  So that your patience, kindness and self-control don’t turn off once you pull up the driveway and open the door to your husband and children.  As Stanley Hauerwas recently quipped, “Christians are supposed to love one another even when they are married.”

Similarly, it is one thing to put on a nice smile and really mean it for the folks in your Bible study, but what about the annoying next-door neighbor who lets their dog poop on your front yard and parks in your space? What about the person at work who is always stealing your ideas or undercutting you behind your back? What about the person who in the name of God blew up your son or daughter in a roadside bomb? Does your love of neighbor extend to your enemies as well?  Does your love have enough integrity to withstand all of the variations that “neighbor” represents?

Most of us, if we are honest, will answer “no.”  In some cases we may give a titular nod to the notion that we as Christians must love our enemies, but we have yet to internalize it.  We have yet to let Love permeate our being in such a way that our inner life accords with our outer actions.  Until then we are no more than brittle bones waiting for a make-over.

The Good News is that by God’s grace these bones can live.  In the same way that the Spirit of God moved over Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, attaching bone and ligament to flesh, the Spirit of God can move over our parched frames and give us skin, nails and hair, so that we become real “mensch.”  People with integrity.  So that when others see us they don’t just see skeletons at the beauty salon.  They see instead real, whole people with real, whole Good News about a God who loved us when we were yet still enemies (Romans 5:8).

 

 

Bare, Naked Power: Weird Jesus Sayings Continued

“Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Matthew 5:39-41

We tend to think that power requires money.  Lots of it.  Or political clout, which these days often goes hand in hand.  Or, we associate power with raw physical strength and the ability to retaliate with violence.  A big defense arsenal.  The most cutting-edge in military technology.  Or, a paddle on the behind of a misbehaving child.

But what if real power were actually very different from all these things?

The story goes that during the years of apartheid in South Africa, white Afrikaner soldiers with bulldozers came upon a squatters’ village of poor black South African women.  The soldiers told the women they had a few minutes to evacuate before the bulldozers would come in and demolish their homes.  The women had to think quickly.  Their men were away- many of them at work.  Any effort to resist with violence would be foolish.  What were they to do?  Stand by as their homes crumpled in the merciless claws of the bulldozers?

They knew about Dutch Afrikaners’ strict moral puritanism.  So they did the one thing they could think to do in the moment.  They stripped right down to their underwear- and then they took these off, too. They got buck naked, with the result being that the men turned and ran and the squatters’ village remained standing.  All thanks to a few bare, naked ladies.

Real power looks a bit like this.  Real power resists the easier, more natural impulse to take up arms and strike back at a wrongdoer.  “You heard it was said, ‘an eye for an eye,’” Jesus tells us in the preceding verse.

Real power charts a different course: “But I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not resist an evil person. But…” Which is not to say “be a pushover.”  Jesus isn’t looking for a few trusty doormats.

The harder way, one that rejects acquiescence to violence, be it in the form of giving in or taking up arms, is to insist on our humanity before one who would seek to dehumanize us.  To insist not with words but with actions, so that we essentially poke fun at or shine a light on our enemy’s oppressive tactics.  So that we ridicule the ridiculousness of those who mistreat us.

To hit someone on the cheek in Jesus’ time was to treat them as less than an equal.  Like a servant.  So to turn one’s cheek would be in essence to send a clear message: “if you want to hit me, do it like an equal.”

To take someone’s coat would have been in some cases to take someone’s only outerwear, so that all they had was their underwear in the form of the cloak.  To give the cloak as well would have been to strip down naked in front of one’s oppressor- as if to say, much like the bare, naked ladies of the squatters’ village, “Would you rob me of everything, even the clothes on my back?”

In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers often asked civilian passersby to carry their packs.  One mile was the limit. A second mile was illegal.  To offer to go the second mile would have been to critique that society’s glorification of empire and conquest over all else.

These subversions of worldly power belong to a great big divine conspiracy to remake the world.  When Jesus could turn stones into bread or wow the crowds with his miraculous, superhero powers, He in his humanity chooses instead to depend on God for nourishment and give God alone the glory.  When Jesus could rain down lethal thunderbolts or launch divine, drone attacks on those who crucify Him, He instead allows His enemies to pin him up on a cross.  Bleeding to love us.  Like a bare, naked sign that reads: “This is what we do to God around here.”

Jesus endures this humiliation in order to let us in on a new way of being human.  A mode of existence that relies on God for new life rather than on our own cockeyed efforts.  That reinforces how loved we really are as those made “in the image of God,” and empowers us to share that message with one another and the world.  And here Jesus is not just inviting but admonishing us to take part in the great conspiracy.

But how do we practice real power in our context?  How might we incarnate it in our relationships at home and in the public sphere?  What might it look like as a way of life?

When one partner cheats on his or her partner, the aggrieved partner’s “turning of the other cheek” might mean preparing a five-course, candlelit dinner date for their spouse and his or her new love interest.  When homeowners face the prospect of foreclosing to banks whose predatory lending policies caused the problem in the first place, “giving up one’s coat” might mean handing over not just one’s house but everything in it. Including the coy fish, lava lamp and full-size replica of Elvis.  Maybe even throwing in one’s clothes. When an exploitative manager demands longer work hours from employees, “going the second mile” might mean offering to go without meals and no overtime pay, and then publicizing the offer with local media outlets.

These forms of resistance point to a whole, new way of being human and engaging the world.  One that does not simply reinforce the status quo or trade in the same corrupt currencies of money, political power and violence, but rather calls them into question, by subverting and shining a light on the injustice.  Or, by caricaturing the exploitation, thereby laughing at it- so as to deflate it of its power.

Jesus’ death on the cross?  Were it not so tragic, it could just as well be God’s laugh.  A “joke’s on you” moment in the history of the world, with Christ’s resurrection as the punch line.  In this sense, when we play our part in the divine conspiracy, we become fellow comedians taking cues from a Master of stand-up comedy.

And, I’m sure those women in the squatters’ village shared some good laughs as they pulled up their pants and buttoned up their shirts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret

If regret can sometimes seem like an animal on our backs, there are ways we can tame it.  Here are five practical tips for dealing with regret when it threatens to get the best of us:

1. Don’t be afraid to look squarely at your regrets and get to know them a bit. What are they about? Are they mistakes you made? Paths that you wished you had taken but never took? Grievances against God? Grudges towards others who have wronged you?  Sometimes to journal about these things helps.  Sometimes to talk about them with a trusted friend or therapist is the answer, especially in those times when your regrets concern great loss or grief- over the death of a family member or the termination of a job, for instance.  There is no shame in finding a companion who will help us get to know our regrets and the sometimes visceral emotions and impulses they elicit in us.

2. Welcome the lessons that may be there.  Ask yourself what God might be teaching you.  That interaction with your boss that made him so angry? Was there something you could have done differently?  If so, what was it?  How might you respond differently in the future?  What do you need to do in order to make the change(s)? Equally important to ask is this:  what was not yours to own? If your boss blew up at you over a seemingly small issue, you do not need to be responsible for his own problems with anger management.  How might you clarify your boundaries in future interactions so that you don’t find yourself in similar, dysfunctional situations?

3.  Sit with the feelings and sensations that come with the regret, so that you are then able to release these feelings. Repression won’t help us with our regrets. If the regret causes sadness or anger, we need to feel these things. In feeling them, and not being afraid to feel them, we are then able to release them.  We actually cause worse problems for ourselves when we try to stuff the feelings or pretend that they are not there.  I don’t know who originally said this, but a friend passed it on and I think it’s true:  “We cause more problems for ourselves and others when we try to escape our pain rather than feel it.”

Many of us have picked up the wrong message that feelings of anger or sadness are “negative,” and that we need to get rid of them in some way- so that we are inclined to judge ourselves for feeling these things.  If you can, let that judgment go.  Feelings are never “wrong” or “right.”  What we do with our feelings and how we learn from them are the important thing.

Sometimes the feelings of anger or sadness can be so strong that we feel out of control.  In times like these, it can be helpful to let ourselves feel these emotions when we are in the presence of another trusted person.

4. Practice forgiveness.  Almost all the time, our regrets contain at least one person whom we need to forgive.  Often we are that person.  Other times, we are holding someone else accountable- and often rightfully so.  Jesus says we are to forgive “not just seven times but seventy seven times” (Matthew 18:22).  Arguably, this quality of being forgiving towards oneself, others and God is the most distinctive trait of a follower of Christ.

But before we can forgive, we need to have the courage to name the wrong done to us and how we were hurt.  If we are not able to do this in a safe way with the person who wronged us, we need to find an alternative way to acknowledge the wrong and process feelings around it, so that we can gradually move towards forgiveness. In other words, don’t forgive too soon- which is why forgiveness is step four and not step one!

5. Thank God for your regret and give it back to God in praise and thanksgiving.  This is not to say that we should ask God for more things to regret.  But give thanks to God for the things God is teaching you through the particularities of your regret.  Which really is only your regret and nobody else’s.  Nobody else harbors the same, exact regrets you do.  They are yours only.  As such, they are part of a unique story.  The story of a one-of-a-kind person whom God loves and is redeeming.

When Jesus says his “yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30),”we can know that God does not ask us to carry the life-sucking noose of regret.  We have an alternative.  We can “put on” Christ. The same One who tells us to forgive seventy seven times knows all of our regrets.  He knows all of the ways that we or others or circumstances, or all of the above, have robbed us from living into the abundant life He intended for us- and He doesn’t hold these things against us.  Ever.  We just have to claim His love for us.  We do this by choosing Him rather than our regrets as the thing that will define who we are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Space Dog: The Animal of Regret

Laika was the first animal of any kind to travel into orbit. Otherwise, she would have been just another mutt rounded up in the streets of Moscow.

The first-ever animal to orbit the Earth and to die in space was a dog named “Laika” (Russian for “Barker”).  When the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 in 1957, Laika out-performed two other dogs to earn the dubious honor of participating in this experiment on the impact of spaceflight on living creatures. Laika’s reward was a one-way ticket into space. There were no expectations that she would survive.  She didn’t.

Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists said this:  “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it.   We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.”

We all have our regrets- if we are honest, that is.  We regret that we did not party more in college, or majored in biology when home economics was our passion.  We regret that we married too early.  Or that we married the wrong person. Or that we didn’t marry the right person. Or, that we didn’t have children.  Or, that we had too many children.  Or, that we didn’t spend enough time with our children. The possibilities for lamenting lost opportunities, poor decisions, failures or wrong turns are endless.

I remember sitting with a dear friend just weeks before her death.  She told me that “all of her demons” had come back.  By that she meant all of her deepest regrets.  All of the things that she had held against herself, God or others.  Mistakes.  Wrongs.  Unfulfilled dreams and desires.

She was not alone.  A recent study found that when men and women come to the end of their lives, many often have regrets.  Typically, the study found, men are more likely to regret vocational choices, and women, relational ones.

The problem with regret is that while it may be entirely justified- we may harbor legitimate gripes about how we have lived our lives or the cards life has dealt us- remorse of this sort doesn’t help us live fully in the present.  Sure, to a certain degree regret can teach us something if we let it, whether it be that we not let others live our lives for us, or that we seize opportunities as they come.  “Carpe diem!,” as the saying goes.

But some regrets are harder to learn from.  Or more paralyzing and incapacitating.  We screw up, blow it royally and make a mess of our relationships and never fully recover.  Or, someone else screws up royally, makes a mess of our life, and we never fully recover.  Or, despite high hopes for a family, we never find the right mate. Or, we are simply unable to have children.  In these instances, regret can become a noose around our neck.  The more we indulge it, the tighter the noose becomes, sucking the life and possibilities for new life right out of us.

Regret is not just an individual malaise.  It is systemic as well.  We see it in the church. In remorse over our fractured life together or our inability to be who we were meant to be.  In all the times we failed to be a prophetic voice or proclaim the Good News.

A pedestrian walks by grafitti on a downtown street in Detroit, Michigan, in 2008. (Credit: The Huffington Post)

We see it on the national scene in the justifiably angry calls of protesters over big bail-outs and extravagant bonuses to America’s richest one percent at the expense of the other 99 percent.  Or, in our public lamentation over 9/11 to the degree that it may have been preventable.  Or, in our regret, many lost lives and billions of dollars later, that we went to war in Iraq on the basis of a false presumption. These regrets feed an attitude of national, moral and existential despair.

Parker Palmer, in his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, describes this despair in American democracy and politics as a kind of “public brokenheartedness.”  I identify with Palmer, who has himself suffered several bouts of severe depression: his own, very personal experience of despair finds points of resonance with the existential angst and hunger for healing that we see these days on a national scale.  In the disenchantment of “Occupy Wall Street.”  In a mother’s grief when the body of her child flies home in solemn military ensemble.

Regret at its core is essentially broken-heartedness.  Broken-heartedness over the existential lostness of all humankind.  Despair at our inability to break free from the “nothingness” of what we had hoped to become.  Or achieve.  Or discover.  Or believe.

The great nineteenth century, Russian writer, LevTolstoy, in his Confession, much like the writer of Ecclesiastes before him, described his own experience of despair this way:  “If I had simply comprehended that life had no meaning, I might have known that calmly- I might have known that that was my fate.  But I could not be soothed by that.  If I had been like a man living in a forest from which he knew there was no way out, I might have lived; but I was like a man who had lost his way in the forest, who was overcome by terror because he had lost his way, who kept tossing about in his desire to come out on the road, knowing that every step got him only more entangled, and who could not help tossing. That was terrible. And in order to free myself from that terror, I wanted to kill myself…The terror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted as quickly as possible to free myself from it by means of a noose or bullet.  It was this feeling that more than anything drew me on toward suicide.”

When we stare into the abyss like Tolstoy did, when we behold our own deep broken-heartedness, about our lives, about the state of our world, about our limitations in fixing our individual and corporate problems, we have two choices.  We can either fall apart.  (Many of us have.)  Or, we can allow our heart “to break open,” as Palmer suggests, spilling out in embodied compassion for the world.

To do this, though, we need more than the grit of our own self-determination.  We need a Savior.  We need to trade in our own noose of regret for One whose “yoke is easy and burden light” (Matthew 11:30).  We need to ask for His help.

“One nation under God” goes the pledge of allegiance.  What if we actually believed it? How would we live?  How might we learn from our regrets, as opposed to letting them serve as an easy excuse for cynicism and disengagement from the world?

Because apart from the grace of God our lives really do dance on the edge of despair.  But in Jesus, there is hope. Even when the noose is in our hands, we can know that Jesus holds the other end of it.  He will never let us go.  Just as I believe He never let Laika go, either.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s “5 Ways to Tame the Animal of Regret.”

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