Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Supply-Side Jesus”

Al Franken was more creative than I am this morning.  Besides, the “gospel” in certain politicans’ rhetoric about how to fix America’s unemployment crisis really does resemble this sometimes:
YouTube Preview Image  Like the other day when Rick Perry told the New York Times that he “doesn’t care” that his tax proposal, (which would dramatically lower taxes on the richest Americans and increase the burden for the lower and middle classes), would only increase steadily rising income inequality.  Hmm.  To echo some of Jon Stewart’s sentiments, does Perry feel the same way about the some 234 people executed, including juveniles, since he became governor of Texas eleven years ago?


Walking With A Limp

"Dear God, I wish you would not make it so easy for people to come apart. I had to have 3 stitches and a shot."

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Genesis 32:24-31


Last year when in a few weeks my world turned upside down and I found myself in a deep depression, a wise friend told me this: “From now on you will choose as your friends the ones who walk with a limp.”

I didn’t know entirely what he meant at the time.  But these days I’ve been thinking once again about his words. This time because my hip has been aching- and it would be disingenuous to claim that I have been wrestling with angels.

Unless wrestling with my four-year-old son qualifies.  A favorite activity these days is to body slam mommy on the bed in some sort of primordial, male-bonding ritual that leaves me feeling as beaten up as the Mickey Rourke character in the last episode of the movie, “The Wrestler.”


But these days, when my hip aches I think I understand a bit more what my friend was trying to tell me. It has to do with the blessing of our wounds.  Jacob asked God to bless him and God gave him a sore hip that made him limp.  (Maybe we need to be careful what we ask for!)

These days when the pain in my hip acts up and I find myself hobbling, I remember a five-year-old boy, Trey, who loves playing sports.  Just about every kind.  Recently his parents noticed that he was limping at T-ball practice. Then one day Trey said he didn’t want to go to T-ball practice anymore.  Because his legs were hurting. So his parents took him to the doctor.  The doctor found a cyst.  Now they are doing more tests. They say that little Trey most likely has a degenerative bone disease.


When the pain in my hip starts, I remember Trey.  And I ask God to heal this little boy with the great, big smile and even bigger love of sports, so that he can play T-ball again.  I ask God to comfort Trey and his family and to strengthen them in all manner of grace.

Our wounds, whatever they may be, can serve as a gateway to entering into God’s compassion for ourselves and our world.  Our pain can become a sacred meeting place with God.  Our fragility?  A reminder of the times when we have wrestled with God and prevailed- when God, in the very act of contending with us, is actually closest to us. Locked in an embrace that will forever change us.

In our own and others’ woundedness we have an opportunity to experience in small part the very woundedness of God Himself.  If God is Love, then God is wounded.  Love cannot exist apart from woundedness.


The Bible affirms this truth.   God is One who was “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5).  The great mystery and bitter-sweet miracle of the Good News is that only in God’s being “bruised by our iniquities” are we healed.  Jesus on the cross is the clearest picture of this divine love.

So my friend was right: there is a whole lot that our wounds and other “walking wounded” can teach us. About God.  About ourselves.  About what it means to love and be loved.  From now on I will walk with those who limp.

Read more funny kids’ prayers here:


What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Another in my on-and-off-again, feeling-less-creative-but-more-convicted series, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”  This is compliments of friend Jennifer Berkowitz via Facebook:


5 Ways to Stay Spiritually Grounded When Fantasy Calls

Addiction and fantasy can often go hand in hand.  An alcoholic friend of mine will often say that there are times when he “gets stuck in his head.”  I know what he means.  While I have never craved the bottle, I know what it feels like to get stuck in my head, too.  Many of us do.

We can get stuck in our heads imagining all sorts of things, depending on our strongest attachments.  If it’s money or things, then we’re thinking about the next paycheck and how to spend it, or the dress at the mall that will make us look stunning. If it’s work or achievement, we’re anticipating the next deal or book contract.  If it’s affection from someone we love, we’re fantasizing about being in their arms.  For those of us with especially active basal ganglia, we’ll find just about anything to obsess about, whether it is the meeting with our boss or our next interaction with the guy at the gym who is always ogling us.


In such instances, when our imaginations run wild, we can find ourselves increasingly untethered from ourselves and from God in the present moment.  Because we are stuck some place else.  In a place that is not real.

Below are five tips for staying grounded when fantasy calls, inspired by philosopher Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace:

1. Recognize your thoughts as illusions not reality.  How do we do this? “We must prefer real hell to an imaginary paradise,” Weil writes, and goes on to provide a litmus test.  “A test of what is real is that it is hard and rough,” she writes.  Ouch.

2. Which leads to the next tip. If our fantasy represents an escape from something in the here and now, like pain, hurt or sadness, don’t be afraid to stay with the feeling and wait it out.  It is here, where we behold our own unfulfilled longings, emptiness, and frailty in their nakedness and in the light, that God will become realer to us.


2. You don’t have to “stuff” your fantasies but you need not indulge them either.  You do this simply by thanking God for the truths God is revealing through the needs and personal imperfections that underlie these fantasies.

3. Don’t make illusory future perfection an enemy of the present good.  In other words, whether you dream about a perfectly just society or a perfect sex life, don’t let yourself be robbed of appreciating aspects of that justice or relationship in the present moment and actively living into them.

4. Pay attention to the goodness that is real and right in front of you in the present moment.  Give thanks for these things.

5. Gently remind yourself of God’s love for you and let it be the thing that you mindfully return to when you begin to seek escape in fantasy.  “Love needs reality,” Weil writes.  To which I would add that reality needs love.  Love and reality need one another like a lover and her beloved.




The Difference Between Grace and a Sears Appliance Warranty

If you have one of these, be afraid. Be very afraid.

The $400 Kenmore Inteli-Clean vacuum cleaner I bought last year as part of a crusade on dog hair and allergens is on the fritz.  Again.  When I turn it on, it squeaks, moans, whirs, shakes and does nothing. If Jesus were here in the flesh, I would ask him to exorcise it.  Since he is not, this will be the second time in just a few months I will be trekking to the Sears appliance center for a free repair, thanks to my two-year, extended “master warranty.”


I called the store today in hopes that I might avoid the long schlep.  They referred me to a 1-800 number for folks like me whose occasional trips to the repair center are frequent enough to spark questions about whether a refund would be better. If not a refund, then at least an exchange or store credit.

When I tried the 1-800 number, a Sears customer service representative with a kind, sympathetic voice diagnosed my situation:  “we call what you have a lemon,” she said.  As if she were initiating me into an insider’s language for broken appliances.  As if I could not have told her that.

She went on to explain the benefits of my master warranty:  in order to qualify for a refund or credit, my vacuum cleaner would have to be fixed and then break down and be fixed one more time, all within one year’s time, before my warranty would expire.  “So, what you’re telling me is that I paid for a master warranty that really won’t help with my lemon,” I asked.  “I paid a lot of money for something that doesn’t really help with my problem.”


“Um, well, yes.  But you can call the store that fixed it for you and ask if you can replace it.  It is up to their discretion.”

“So, they can tell me that they won’t replace it then- if that is their prerogative?”

“Yes.”  And then, “I will transfer you over to them, but just in case here is their number.”

The same number that I started with.  The number that I had called in the first place.  Where a less kind-sounding, more officious woman had referred me to the 1-800 number.

“I just called them and they referred me to you,” I explained to the kind-sounding customer service representative.

Apologetically, “I’m sorry you’ve had this run-around.  I will call them and explain your situation when I transfer you over.”


She called.  I waited.  Then another woman answered.  “So I take it you would like your vacuum cleaner repaired but are wondering if your warranty will cover it,” she stated.

“Well, actually, no,” I said.  And then proceeded to give the explanation that I had hoped the kind-sounding customer service representative had already provided (when in fact she had not).

Thirty minutes after I had first dialed Sears I was told that I would have to bring my vacuum cleaner in on a day when the store manager- apparently the only one in the store with any authority to act outside of warranty stipulations- could either bless me with a refund, credit or exchange, or tell me the same thing.  That my warranty requires three breakdowns and repairs before any such blessing might materialize.


When it comes to our brokenness, we can sometimes treat it as if it were under divine, limited warranty. That if God is going to repair our brokenness, God will only do it at our expense.  Or will only do it a certain number of times within a certain period of time and then we’re on our own.  Or, that it is up to us and our initiative to make things better, and soon- before the warranty expires, or before God’s good graces run dry.  Other times we think we need to cajole or persuade God, like the store manager, into getting something back for the money we put in.  We think we deserve at least something in return for our inconvenience.  And we often think, if we are honest, that what we get ultimately depends on us. Our efforts.  Our strength.  Our weakness even.


Thank goodness that the grace of God doesn’t operate this way! The Good News, in spite of ourselves, is that God loves us and desires to be in relationship with us, brokenness and all.  And God finds us before we ever have to go looking for God.  We don’t have to do phone acrobatics or schlep to some heavenly appliance store dragging all of our stuff with us.

God is right here.  In front of us.  We have a direct line.  And God is offering a free, no-strings-attached, lifetime warranty on all of our broken parts.  This isn’t just any “master warranty.” You might call it the Master’s warranty.

By the way, the other day I found a vacuum cleaner that someone in the neighborhood was throwing out; since ours wasn’t working, I took it home and gave it a spin.  It worked just fine.


Wanted: A Few Salty Men and Women

“For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at  peace with one another.”  Mark 9:49,50

Julia Child doing some taste testing on her show, "The French Chef."

This passage is weird in a number of ways.  First, what does it mean to “salt with fire”?  The image that comes to mind is God in Julia Child attire, apron and all, sprinkling the disciples with flames of fire. Which begs the question: is God doing the “seasoning” here, or is someone or something else?


And then there is the issue of how salt can lose its saltiness.  I was never good in chemistry, so those of you who were can maybe explain this to me.  As incentive I’ll throw in a free subscription to Fellowship of Saints and Sinners.

And what about the whole “have salt in yourselves” command?  If someone or something or God is doing the seasoning, how do we “have salt” in ourselves?  Do we do this by being at peace with one another? Or, is the being at peace with one another a byproduct, like the finished casserole, of our having salt in ourselves?  Or, are these two states of being meant to co-exist? If so, do they co-exist in spite of, or because of, one another?

The encouraging news here is that commentators are asking the same sorts of questions.  The less encouraging news is that they differ in their answers.  But a general theme that emerges is the purifying and seasoning nature of salt in Jesus’ time.  Salt served to flavor not just hummus but the sacrifices that the Jewish priests offered on the altar to God, in keeping with the Levitical command: “Season all your grain offerings with salt.  Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).”


To be salted in this act of worship was essentially to be set aside for God.  To be “made holy” or sanctified.  To be conscripted for God’s mission to God’s people.

And in this sense Jesus when speaking of “everyone” is directing his remarks primarily to his followers. Elsewhere, for instance, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).  But I would also add that this statement and its context can be understood more broadly, too, as part of a more universal appeal.

While the “fire” to which Jesus is referring may be the angry flames of persecution that his disciples will soon face, it could also be the hot tongues of hell to which he has just referred in the preceding verses. Hell in Jesus’ time was an actual place just outside the gates of Jerusalem:  “Gehenna” was where all of the city’s refuse went to be burned; a big, smoldering garbage dump; it was a metaphor for what happens when we reject God’s love for us.  Our lives go up in flames, with all of our “rubbish”- even our best virtues- being burned away. In times like these, God’s Spirit, convicting, encouraging, prodding, pulling us up when we fall, or giving us a good shake, can feel much like the “refiner’s fire and “launderer’s soap” of Malachi 3:3.


So it may be that Jesus is intentionally conflating several “fires” here insofar as they represent the painful clearing away of anything that stands in the way of God’s Love penetrating and transforming our lives.  The fire of persecution. The fire of hell. And, the fire of God’s Holy Spirit which at Pentecost appeared in the form of tongues of fire on the heads of the believers.  To be salted with each of these fires is to undergo a necessary and painful process at the end of which are left only the gold and silver. Those pure, precious nuggets that shine.  That tell a unique story that is necessarily “salty.”  A story that contrary to popular stereotypes of Christians these days is never boring.


I made the acquaintance of Frankie this morning at my favorite local coffee shop.  Frankie’s tattoos are like chapter markings in a book about his life.  There is the knife on his right forearm- a reminder of the time he was stabbed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while seeking shelter at the Superdome.  On his left bicep are red flames over the bold inscription, “Washed by His blood, not by water.” They describe his conversion to Christ.

In Frankie’s case the “refiner’s fire” came in the form of a Category 5 hurricane.  Frankie was at The Bourbon Pub, the gay dance club he managed, when Katrina hit. He remembers those seven minutes of kneeling on the floor as the most surreal, terrifying moments of his life. The swat team arrived within minutes, and Frankie found himself being led, wading chest-high through a river of water, to the Superdome. In the days following, this former member of the military joined the rescue squads that would airlift out the vulnerable and wade through waters to look for the stranded and lost.  It was during one of these moments that Frankie said a prayer, something along the lines of, “God if you bring me through this safely I will let you love me.”


The Bourbon Pub & Parade advertises as the "only gay pub" in New Orleans.

For many of us it takes a “fire” in the form of a cataclysmic event- if not a hurricane, then a divorce, a breakdown, or bankruptcy- to help us see that our lives exist for One greater than ourselves.  That we are not our own but belong to a Love that seeks to ravish us.  That in the furnace of hardship and suffering, whatever its source, God is refining us.  Making us into people seasoned by experience with stories to share. Each of them particular.  Each of them interesting.  Each of them with a savory message about how God’s love has found us and is wooing us.


When we “have salt” in ourselves, we are letting that salt be there.  This is a hard thing to do. Because it means that we have to get over ourselves.  We have to be willing to acknowledge the painful things that have “salted” us and how they made us who we are today. We can’t just pretend these things don’t exist somehow.  They are part of our story.  They are forming us into people who exist for Love.

Being “salted with fire” is a necessary, unavoidable thing. How we receive it, however, is voluntary. “Having salt” means letting our trials become opportunities for growth and open doors into fuller, more abundant life.  “Having salt” means trusting that not just our humanity but our personality and character are undergoing transformation for the better when we find ourselves in the furnace of trial or temptation.


There is nothing boring or replicable about a “salty” person.  They are a gem in the ruff.  A rare find. One-of-a-kind.  A real “mensch.”  They know they belong to a kingdom that is not of this world and they live like it.  If you have met such people, you can probably count them on one hand.

I’m not exactly sure why Jesus includes this final exhortation to be at peace with one another.  Perhaps he knew that too much of anything can be dangerous.  Sure, he probably didn’t know that too much salt can cause high blood pressure.  But he probably did have a premonition that if his disciples were already arguing only minutes earlier about who was greatest (Mk. 9:34), even their eventual forms of suffering could become easy fodder for more spiritual one-upmanship.  It is amazing how we human beings can find just about anything to compete about, and, if truth be told, the early church soon found itself in similar wrangles.  The fourth-century Donatists claimed that those who had fallen away from the faith during previous persecutions were not qualified to administer the Sacraments.  In their eyes, one’s level of suffering and one’s capacity to endure it were somehow a requirement for priestly ministry. Thankfully, Augustine put an end to this silliness.


“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace,” Jesus says.  Let the seasoning be there. Welcome it rather than run from it.  And don’t use it to pretend that you are somehow any better than anyone else. Understand that your salt may be different from another person’s; welcome their salt as you welcome your own, as something God is using to season the world.  To make God’s love a little more palatable and a little more flavorsome for the rest of us.





Weird Jesus Sayings Continued…

 Yes, I haven’t forgotten.  After a brief hiatus we’re continuing our exploration of the weird  things Jesus said.  And, there are plenty of them.  We’ve only scraped the surface in our big  dig.

Thus far we’ve asked the questions that we couldn’t ask in church, like, “Was Jesus racist?” or “Was Jesus crazy?”  We’ve discovered Jesus’ potential as a Renaissance Man and poked holes in  prevailing stereotypes about his manhood.  Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, wasn’t “macho.” Just really cut with great abs and still in touch with his sensitive side.  Manly but  comfortable having deep conversations with women.  A rare combination.  (What can I say?  I’m in love.)


Tomorrow we’ll look at another weird saying: “For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is  good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at  peace with one another.”  Stay tuned!

If you can put up with the cheesy voice-over at the beginning, this is one artist’s worshipful depiction of Jesus, and it’s otherwise quite moving:  YouTube Preview Image





Reclaiming Two Bad Words

Anne Graham Lotz' latest book is Expecting to See Jesus.

The other day Anne Graham Lotz spoke with NPR about her journey as a woman who has faced resistance in her vocation. The preacher, author and daughter of the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, says she is privileged to wear the label, “evangelical feminist.”

Which struck me.  These days “evangelical” and “feminist” are loaded words.  They carry a lot of baggage, and rarely do they come as a pair joined at the hip.  If anything, the “evangelicals” and “feminists” I typically hear about in the news are the last people I would expect to see holding hands taking a leisurely stroll together.


Lotz went on to describe her understanding of an “evangelical feminist”: “It’s just a woman who knows what she believes, has strong convictions and the courage to stand up for them regardless of glass ceilings or boundaries that other people may want to place upon us.”

There are plenty of biblical examples of just these sorts of women, Lotz says.  And maybe this is where “evangelical” comes more into play.  Because an “evangelical,” as originally conceived during the Great Awakening movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is someone who places a strong emphasis on biblical authority.  (How “biblical authority” can be bandied about to support various political platforms in and out of the church is another story, but a common denominator among evangelicals is this prioritizing of Scripture.)  So Lotz turns to Scripture in looking for her feminist role models.


An “evangelical” is also someone who believes in the importance of personal conversion.  Here again Lotz appeals to personal experience in recounting her own conversion to “evangelical feminism” and its impact on her parents:

RAZ: And yet, I understand that early on, when you began spreading your message, even your father, Billy Graham, and your mom, Ruth, they weren’t entirely supportive.


LOTZ: That was when I started that Bible class that I told you about. And they were not supportive. And I think one reason was because the traditional role of women in my family have been that the mother stayed at home, reared the children, kept the house so that the husband, father, could go out and do ministry, which was my mother and father’s case. And so they just felt that, you know, I had three children and a husband, and my role was to stay at home and be that traditional type of wife and mother.


So they didn’t think I should, but once again, I wasn’t living my life to please my parents. As much as I love my mother and father, I knew that I was called of God to teach that Bible class. So I’ve been teaching for about three years, and I looked up in the class one day and they were sitting in the middle of my class. I’ve been going for about five minutes, so I had to, you know, catch my breath, swallow hard, and then I stopped and introduced them and then went ahead and finished the message.

From that day to this, they did an absolute about-face in their opinion, and they saw what God was doing. They saw that God had indeed called me, that people’s lives were being changed. I was getting people into God’s word. And I’ve had no two greater supporters than my mother and father unless it’s my husband and my children.”


An evangelical emphasizes the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its transformational relevance to the world.  An “evangelical feminist” does this same thing- only within a framework that assumes God calls both men and women to serve God and God’s world, equipping them with gifts that in themselves are gender blind.  In this framework, to reject God’s call to serve using one’s gifts for preaching and teaching would be more than “un-feminist” or “un-evangelical,” although it would be both of these things, too.  At heart it would be unfaithful.

So I applaud Lotz for her courage to take two bad words that do not often belong together and reclaim them for their original meaning. It has inspired me to do the same.  From now on I will gladly be pigeon-holed as an “evangelical feminist.”  Thank you, Anne, for your bold example and the trail you are blazing for women like me.




The Spiritual Practice of Getting Lost

See more funny signs at

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be…mistreated four hundred years. But…afterwards they will come out with great possessions.”  Genesis 15:13-14

Have you ever been lost? If not, you may want to try it sometime.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, recommends it as a helpful spiritual practice- as one of those “ordinary-looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”  An “altar in the world,” in other words.


I remember standing in the dark on a curb in a run-down section of Queens, New York.  I was twenty-one years old and preparing to start my very first job the next morning. And there I was.  Stranded, lost and feeling awfully vulnerable.

I hadn’t intended to be there, of course.  I had hailed a taxi cab with every expectation of making it to my destination.  The only problem was that my driver was lost, too.  He had started driving only a few days before.  Before that he had been driving somewhere in Africa where English is not the primary language, because he didn’t speak a lick.

When we had driven around for about an hour looking for the address scribbled in my datebook, I had finally in exasperation ordered him to stop the car and let me out.  So he had.  Right there and then.


Ten years later the same thing happened again.  With only a few variations.  This time we were in Beijing, China.  This time when my driver couldn’t find the hotel, he pretended the hotel didn’t exist, jabbered away on the phone with a friend of a cousin whose mother he had met while playing Mahjong, and then dropped me on the doorstep of that friend’s rinky-dink hotel.  Which proved to be a bit of a comedown from the elusive, four-star “Emperor’s Palace.”  I spent the night tossing and turning in a claustrophobic, smoke-stained room above a noisy street.

Experiences like these are good preparation for the times when we find ourselves really lost, Taylor writes.  And this can happen “anywhere, in all kinds of ways.    You can get lost on your way home.  You can get lost looking for love.  You can get lost between jobs.  You can get lost looking for God.”


Taylor is refreshingly honest about the times when she has been lost: “I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick.  I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. ..While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back.  I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path…I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.”

The Bible is replete with examples of how “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.”  Abraham and Sarah are an obvious one.  They set off on a journey that twists and turns.  Along the way, Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, twice; Sarah passes off Hagar to Abraham so he can use her as his mistress; and Abraham passes up the prospect of seeing his son, Isaac, grow up (only to be told at the last minute that he won’t have to).  Later, Abraham’s descendants wander forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus forty days.  The take-home?  That we need to be willing to set off on a journey with nothing but God’s promises to us.  We need to “consent” to be lost, “since you have no other choice.”  This “consenting” or surrender is the practice that helps us develop a kind of “rock-bottom trust.”  Which is really a groundedness in the faithfulness of God to hold and steady us when we cannot do this for ourselves.


Here is Taylor again:

“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure.  When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces.  Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives.  And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times.  When the safety net has split, when the resources are gone, when the way ahead is not clear, the sudden exposure can be both frightening and revealing.  We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail.  To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place.”


Last year I found myself there: lying flat on my face with the breath knocked out of me.  My safety net had split.  My resources were gone.  My friends had begun to fall away- or, I began to discover who my real friends were.  The way ahead was not clear, and I felt totally exposed. Which really was both frightening and liberating all at once.

In that time and since, God has met me more than in all my years of “success” put together.  Raw trust, dependency on God, humility, groundedness, gratitude, self-awareness, prayerfulness, vulnerability, honesty.  These are the “great possessions” that can emerge when we find ourselves in the wilderness without our bearings.  They can make saints and sinners alike rich in the things of God.



Great Expectations

 We all expect things out of the cards we have been dealt in life.  We expect to find  the right someone and be married for life.  Or to land the job that will finally make  us happy.  Or to live long enough to see our children grow up, go to college, and  start families of their own.

We expect things not just as individuals but as societies.  In first-world America we  expect  that trains run on time, that our grocery stores will have food on their  shelves, that  we won’t die from polio.  We expect that the stock market will one day  rise again. Or, that our politicians, however  corrupt or disconnected they might  be, will eventually do what we are demanding they do- or be voted out of office.


At heart expectation is desire.  Desire as entitlement: that what I want I deserve to have.  Entitlement insofar as “I” or “we,” the source of the desire, presume to be at the center of our universe.

Even our smallest, pettiest expectations can be great to the degree that they fill a void that would otherwise be there in the absence of our desires.  While the object of these desires can be good in and of itself, the desire for some future possession of the object can rob us from an experience of God’s grace in the present moment.  A moment in which our hearts can be free to desire God and God alone.

Only when we have been emptied of these attachments can grace truly enter in and make a home in our hearts.  “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void,” Simone Weil writes, in Gravity and Grace.


But if the void is an act of God, making us aware of our need for God and God’s grace, human will can still play a role: “we can fix our will on the void,” Weil writes.  In other words, the compulsion to buy that next cute pair of shoes online when my shoe rack rivals Imelda Marcos’?  We can choose to look beyond this desire to be well-dressed, impress others or seek escape from something else.  We can acknowledge whatever is driving our urge and then look beyond it to the emptiness this compulsion is trying to fill.

In a sense this act of the will is a bit like slaying dragons, because our expectations have taught us to believe in a non-reality.  A false mode of existence whereby what we acquire materially is what makes us lovable, worthy or significant.  When in fact nothing could be less true.


And when we slay the dragon and face the void, we can choose to sit there.  In that emptiness.  In the void.  And it is there we can wait with open arms to receive the grace of God.

Weil puts it like this:  “The extinction of desire (Buddhism)- or detachment- or amor fati- or desire for the absolute good- these all amount to the same: to empty desire, finality of all content, to desire in the void, to desire without any wishes. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait…Always, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we have to fix our will on the void- to will the void.  For the good which we can neither picture nor define is a void for us.  But this void is fuller than all fullnesses.  If we get as far as this we shall come through all right, for God fills the void…The good seems to us as a nothingness, since there is no thing that is good. But this nothingness is not unreal.  Compared with it, everything in existence is unreal.”


These days our nation has been forced to stare in the face of failed expectations here, there and almost everywhere.  We as individuals and families, many of us, have watched our variations on the “American Dream” fall apart.  Like little children on Christmas morning, we have run downstairs with great expectation to find only coal in our stockings.  Maybe now more than ever, we are ready to be “in the void.”  Maybe many of us are already in it.  If so, God’s grace is finding us, and may it fill us to the brim.


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