Lenten Confession: Theft

drug-store-aisle

Yesterday at the Drug Emporium while
scanning the shelves for my favorite lotion
I encountered a blind woman and her companion

who, to my profound irritation, scooped
the last two bottles of St. Ives Creamy Vanilla
from the shelf and dropped them into the basket.

I have not yet determined whether it is
a sign of my complete self-absorption
or possibly exhaustion

that when the companion made a quick
dash to the toothpaste aisle I considered
quietly lifting the St. Ives

from the blind woman’s basket
then tiptoeing away
silent as the grave.

Truth Beneath the Ashes

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses.

Ash Wed. SchmeerSeveral years ago in Waco, TX, a couple hundred of us gathered for a crack-of-dawn Ash Wednesday service led by a team of seminary students. All kinds of folk—Baylor students, doctors, construction workers, grandparents—gathered at the shoreline of Lent, sleepy-eyed and somber. Fiddle music beckoned, “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…”

No Ash Wednesday service would be complete without the imposition of ashes and pronouncement from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spilled into the aisles, ready to receive the mark of the cross, after which we would turn and mark the forehead of the person behind us. Just ahead of me in line stood a college student, a kind, cheerful young woman named Rae. We waited our turn, then Rae received the ashes and I stepped forward to receive mine from her. That’s when things went…um…slightly askew.

Rae pushed my bangs aside and smudged the sign of the cross on my forehead, according to plan. But as she drew her hand away, somehow she got some of that inky schmeer on my nose. Horrified, she tried to wipe it off and in the process, managed to spread the greasy mixture to my cheeks, my chin and, as best I can recall, one of my earlobes.

Finally there was nothing to do but laugh at this epic Ash Wednesday fail. I hugged poor, mortified Rae and returned to my seat, looking like a coal miner.

But as I sat there blotting my face with a tissue, it occurred to me that what Rae had just done, quite unintentionally, was to paint a picture of how it really is with me.

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses: As with those ashes tucked conveniently beneath my bangs, either I try to cover up my sin so that no one will see—or I try to pretty up my sin in order to make it appear more respectable. I’m okay wearing my dust in a smart little liturgical shape, along with everyone else. In fact, when worn that way, the dust actually becomes a sign of my spirituality. But the greasy truth is this: my sin is all over me in blotchy smears from head to toe.

The Apostle Paul also found himself covered in dust one day—sprawled face-down in the dirt of the Damascus road, blind as a bat. But even as he lay there picking grit from his teeth, a promise began to stir inside his heart and mind which, later, he would put into words for all of us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

That’s my story. I’m gratefully sticking to it.

This piece also appears at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc.

Love’s Bullhorn

Some things are a delight to listen to. Then there’s John the Baptist.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
~ Matthew 3:1-2

Street PreacherThere are certain sounds in this world that make listening a pure joy. I have my favorites: Garrison Keillor’s buttery voice on public radio; the pure brass tones of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man; Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk; anything by the Avett Brothers. Some things are a delight to listen to.

Then there’s John the Baptist.

This wild-eyed, wild-haired, hellfire-and-brimstone Nazarite is anything but delightful. And yet all four Gospels report that the people flocked to him in droves from what we know today as Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. Think about it. Jews and Arabs standing elbow-to-elbow because, as Fred Craddock put it, when the gospel is being offered you tend to forget why it is you hate the person standing next to you.

Meeting John the Baptist is about as much fun as walking through a body scanner at airport security. So why in the world would all these incompatible, barely-speaking-to-each-other people leave home, hike all the way out to nowhere and let themselves be devoured by sand fleas in order to hear an uncivilized oddball holler at them for hours about getting right with God?

Maybe because for all his eccentricities, poor grooming, scorching rhetoric and horrible bedside manner, John brings them face-to-face with the moment they’ve both craved and feared most: the opportunity for a do-over. A chance to come clean. The hope of a fresh start.

I have a friend in his 60s, a rugged, burly, brilliant guy who looks a little like the Marlborough Man from the old cigarette commercials. Decades ago he graduated from an elite university in the East, then moved to Texas to work on a graduate degree. But somewhere along the way he became addicted to crack cocaine. Lost his family; lost his place in graduate school; lost big pieces of himself.

Providentially this man washed up cold and wet on the shores of our church. We did what Christ-followers do and put our arms around him. Gradually he began to find life again and, miracle of miracles, was even reunited with his wife. My husband and I had them over to our place one night for supper.

As we lingered over coffee and dessert the man began to open up; talked about where his life was going. “I want to believe that my best days aren’t behind me,” he said. “I want to believe my life can still be good for something. I just can’t help but feel like I’ve blown all my best chances.”

That’s when his wife—a lovely, sixty-ish, bohemian Texas flower child—grabbed his hand and said with conviction: “Baby…if God can yank Jesus out of a grave, I figure God can make something beautiful out of your busted parts.”

With John the Baptist it may feel sometimes as though he’s the one busting our parts. But his message comes down to the same good news: Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Love’s Eyes

Love has a way of changing people’s features.

EyeJoseph, son of David, the angel said, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
~Matthew 1:20b-21

You’re darn right he’s afraid. See, for most of his life Joseph has pretty much lived with a carpenter’s saw in one hand and his rulebook, the Torah, in the other. And his rulebook tells him there’s only one way to see an unmarried, pregnant woman. This is a disaster for poor Joseph.

But in a dream he hears the angel say, “God is doing something new here, Joseph. Mary is not who your rulebook says she is.  God is bigger than your rulebook. Take the leap of faith!”

Often it does require a leap of faith in order to be able to see someone in a new light.

Our son Taylor is a remarkable person with a quick sense of humor and a tender-to-a-fault heart. He also has an acute sensitivity to people in pain, no doubt because he himself lives every day in the land of Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

One night a few years ago when he was a senior in high school, Taylor and I spent an evening meandering about town together and ended up browsing for an hour in an art gallery. We topped off the evening with cheesecake and coffee at a favorite restaurant.

As we were eating, out of the blue, Taylor said:  “I know I’m not much of an artist. But if I were a painter, I know what I’d create.”

“What would you paint?” I said.

“I’d paint a banquet scene,” he said. “A super-elegant table with flowers and crystal and mountains of food. And there would be some very particular guests.”

“Who are they?” I said.

“So, sitting at my table would be Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden.”

I took a long sip of coffee. “That’s some pretty intense company,” I said.

With a mouth full of key lime cheesecake he said, “Yeah, but in my painting, even though we’d still be able to recognize them, they would look different than we’re used to seeing them.”

“This is fascinating,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, see—because we hate them,” he said, “we only know how to see them one way. But in my painting we’d also be able to see them as they appear to God, who only knows how to love them.”

Love has a way of changing people’s features.

Love says: People aren’t always who you think they are. Take a leap of faith . . . I’m doing something new here.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Love’s Family Tree

charlie browner

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…”
~ Matthew 1:1

Sometimes people decide they’re going to read through the New Testament in order to grow spiritually. So they turn to Matthew because it’s at the beginning of the New Testament and, alas, never make it past the first seventeen verses. This guy begat that guy, and whosit begat somebody else, and what’s-his-name fathered so-and-so. Just dreadful.

As every great storyteller knows, the beginning’s got to be great. He or she has to have us from “hello.” Had John Grisham begun The Firm twenty years ago with a three-page genealogy, he might still be practicing law in Mississippi. No gifted writer starts by blathering on about who begat whom. It’s a lucky break for Matthew that the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were maybe the only people on the planet who weren’t bored by the “begats.” After all, this was their story.

There are two things I particularly love about the lineage of Jesus.

First, the surprising variety. There are all sorts of folk, both pious and problematic, dangling from the branches of this family tree and Matthew doesn’t try to cover them up or pretty them up, God bless him. As family trees go, Jesus definitely has a Charlie Browner on his hands. This is something of a relief to me since my own family has its share, not only of humble, salt-of-the-earth types, but also bootleggers and jail-dwellers and a smattering of moonshiners. Hey, no problemo. Jesus’ family is a fixer-upper, too.

The other genealogical jewel here, I believe, shines best in the names of the women on this list. Sure, there are plenty whose names should have been included but weren’t. Conversation for another day. But four of the five who do make the cut all have something surprising in common:

Not one of them is Jewish.

You would assume to see a lineup of pure-blooded Hebrew matriarchal all-stars in this genealogy. But nope—turns out Jesus wants everybody on his family tree: Jews, Hittites, Moabites and Canaanites. Also Postmodern-ites, Democrat-ites and Republican-ites, not to mention seducers and murderers and schemers and well, just everybody.

Ultimately what this boring list of names stands for is the beautiful news that none of us really belongs but God loves us just the same. Not one of us qualifies for a spot on this tree but God welcomes sinners like you and me anyhow. It’s not about pedigree—it’s about mercy.

What do you know, maybe the boring thing’s not so boring after all.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Let It Be: 2014

Snowy tree-lined road at sunrise.

Call them resolutions, aspirations, intentions, whatever. I pray that a year from now these will have been true of me in 2014:

1.  She lived in and led from the roominess of God.

“The Good Shepherd leads his sheep out of the tight and tiny boxes in which we lock ourselves into his spacious pastures.”
~ Timothy Radcliff

“All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Spirit.”
~ Thomas Aquinas

2. She wore her own face.

“Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces…”
~ May Sarton, “Now I Become Myself”

“The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation… and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but their own vulnerable selves.”
~ Henri J. M. Nouwen

3. She was mindful of each moment.

“We spend a long time wishing we were elsewhere and otherwise.”
~ Robert Farrar Capon

“The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.”
~ Philip Simmons

4. She practiced stillness.

“I learned…that inspiration…comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness…The imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.
~ Brenda Ueland

5. She operated more often from love than from fear.

“Our fear is in the service of all the little ways we have learned to protect our false self. But love is really who we are. We’ll never see the love we really are, our foundation, if we keep living out of our false self of self-protection and overreaction. We must remember that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4:18).”
~ Richard Rohr

6. She chose joy.

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation…
~ Mary Oliver 

7.  She finished that dag-nabbity book!

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
~ Thomas Mann

Good and gracious God, let it be.

photo cc flickr.com/photos/18_2rosadik36

In the Receiving Line After Worship

Mophead HydrangeaIn the receiving line after worship an elderly
man wants to tell me about his hydrangeas.
They were gorgeous last summer, he says,

but not as splendid as in 1972 when the blue
ribbon at the state fair went to his wife who,
by the way, was Miss Butts County back in

the 1950s and whom he still misses every
day, especially when he eats peach jam on
his toast which is almost every morning

except Tuesdays when the VFW guys get
together down at the café. The people behind
him in line shift on their feet and glance at their

watches while he, oblivious to their impatience,
goes on to describe for me (in detail) the attributes of
her winning Lemon Zest Mophead—which he swears

was the size of a dinner plate, or maybe a large salad
plate. The hydrangea story is taking forever and my own
agitation is building until the moment I take his hand

in mine (a gesture of care but also, I regret now to say,
meant to hurry him along) and I feel his paper-brittle
fingers which are not at all like a hydrangea,

but rather like a maple leaf in November—all
that luscious green vigor stored deep within itself
just before it lets go of the limb and is airborne at last,

carried on a breath,
caught up in the glory of all created things,
its final fluttering the most beautiful 
of all.

Red_maple_leaf

Bedrock Love

leopard-skin-tall

In my dreams we are Fred and Ginger.
We dip.
We twirl.
We glide cheek to cheek
in a pool of blue light,

you in that smart top hat;
me in chiffon and stilettos.
People gaze at us with longing.
How elegant! they exclaim.
How effortless!

In the real world, of course,
you and I are not Fred and Ginger,
we are not even close.
On our best days we are
maybe Fred and Wilma,

punching a time-clock down at
the quarry; padding around on
chubby square feet;
wearing the skin of some
prehistoric thing.

You grin and say Let’s go for
ribs at the drive-in.
And as we race off
in that car with
stone wheels

and no floorboard,
I think What a lucky girl
I am, living this
Yabba Dabba Doo life
with you.

Theological Reflections on a Bulldog

Willie as PuppyOur dear English Bulldog, Willie Boy, died last week. Hearts are still at half-mast around here.

Back in December of 2005, in a moment of temporary insanity, Tim and I decided to grant our daughter Lucy’s persistent and increasingly creative requests for a puppy. We approached the task of choosing a breed with painstaking precision.

Okay, in truth we Googled this dog. Plugged in the two most essential characteristics—“requires minimal exercise” and “excessively affectionate”—and voila (or as we say in the South: wah LA), all fingers pointed to the English Bulldog. (Our Google search for dogs born potty-trained came up empty.)

Willie lived up to his breed’s reputation. He was a furry love sponge whose idea of rigorous exercise was a trip to the mailbox. He fit in from the get-go.

And along the way Willie taught me some things about God. For one thing, God appreciates a good joke. Anyone who doubts God’s sense of humor has never met canis lupus bulldawgus. It’s my fixed belief that bulldogs got thought up at around 4:45 on Friday afternoon, when God was feeling a wee bit prankish.

And Willie was evidence that God uses all the crayons in the big box. In 1848 Cecil Frances Alexander of Dublin, Ireland, wrote some words that would become a best-loved children’s hymn: All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all. 

Mrs. Alexander wrote the hymn to help children better understand the opening words of the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

I can report that Willie Boy didn’t know the Apostles’ Creed from applesauce. He never once weighed in on the predestination debate, or invited anyone to consider the gospel, or lifted a paw to help address the problem of evil in the world.

And yet, as my heart lurches now for our jowly, gassy, ornery little guy with the undulant waddle and goofy underbite, I can’t help but marvel at our colorful Creator—who jolly well could have made all animals boringly alike, but who, for the sheer pleasure of it, gave us bulldogs and baboons, wart hogs and wallabies, poodles and panda bears. Yippee!

So here’s to you, Willie Boy—you hilarious reminder of God’s creative goodness. Sleep soft, old friend. You gave us joy.

Willie's jowls on floor

Chuck It/ Love It: #2

CC flickr.com/darylljann/4206002971/

CC flickr.com/darylljann

I offer today the second installment in the Chuck It/Love It series—in recognition of my alternating desire to chuck the Church over Niagara Falls and announce my undying love for the wobbly thing on the JumboTron at Turner Field. (Entries are from my journal spanning twenty-plus years and three churches in three states. Names and identifying details have been changed.)

Chuck Church
“Nobody here has forgot the church. We just wish we could.”
~ Romulus Linney, Heathen Valley

Today I visited with Tad. He and his partner, Rob, have been part of our church for about a year now. Tad and Rob sometimes hold hands in worship, which sends some people into complete apoplexy, I know. But today I didn’t want to talk about any of that. Today I wanted to know Tad better; to hear more of his story. His life story. His God story.

We sat with the sun on our shoulders as he told me of the day when his mother, father and four of his five siblings severed all ties with him because he is gay. Nine years went by. Then Tad’s father became gravely ill. The children flew from all parts of the country to be with him in his final hours. At the hospital, as everyone gathered around the father’s bed, Tad remained in the hallway, just outside the door. His sister, the only one who’d remained close to Tad, bent down and whispered in their father’s ear: Daddy, Tad is here, too.

The father opened his eyes and declared to the family and to the universe: I have no son named Tad. Then he died.

Tad also told me, with tears dripping off his chin, of how in high school he’d had an under-the-radar boyfriend; a secret he eventually revealed to his youth pastor in their extremely conservative church. Two years later the boy died in a motorcycle accident. After the funeral the pastor told Tad that his boyfriend’s death was God’s punishment for their wicked relationship.

“Your friend died in his sin,” he’d said, “but there’s still hope for you, Tad.
If you’ll simply turn straight and stay straight, God will find it in his heart to love you again.”

Love Church
Recently Marlo called me about getting together. “I think maybe God is trying to get my attention,” she said. “This is new for me and I don’t know what to think about it.”

“Come on over,” I said.

I first met Marlo several months ago on a Sunday when her 23-year-old daughter, Kelsi, introduced us after worship. Kelsi’s speech and cognitive abilities are impaired because of brain trauma she suffered as a child after falling from a tree. But Kelsi is brave, hopeful, resilient and, what’s more, last summer she collided with Jesus in a beautiful way while hanging out with other twenty-somethings from our church.

Everyone else in her family is adamently non-religious. So when Kelsi started bringing up her new-found faith at the dinner table, Marlo decided to come and see for herself what snake-oil fakeries these Baptists might be peddling to her daughter.

After worship Kelsi dragged Marlo to the foyer to meet me. Because of her brain injury Kelsi has absolutely no filter. Whatever she’s thinking is exactly what comes out of her mouth:  “Pastor Julie, this is my mom. She’s an agnostic. So you have your work cut out for you. And my father isn’t here today because he thinks church is a big crock.”

After such a poetic introduction I was happily surprised a few months later when I got the call from Marlo asking if she could come see me.

I’d barely closed my office door when she threw herself on my red floral couch and said with obvious agitation, “I can’t explain it, but every time I’m at your church I get the feeling that God is tapping me on the shoulder. In a Baptist Church, for God’s sake! My friends think I’m nuts. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or mortified.”

She described how, during her first time in worship, when we came to the Passing of the Peace she panicked and didn’t know what to do. Turning to the elderly man next to her, she stuck out her hand and blurted: May the force be with you.”

I love Church.