Tangible

Scanned Image2-1I’m reading the One Hundredth Psalm on my patio this morning, coffee in hand, as a splashy redbird nonchalantly strips the needle-like leaves from the rosemary in my herb garden.

For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
his faithfulness to all generations.

In a flash, I am whisked away from my patio and am in the backseat of a blue Chevy Bel Air, racing along a two-lane road in the Florida panhandle, my thin blonde hair whipping in the wind, stinging my eyes.

It is the summer of 1968 and from the dashboard radio, Jeanie C. Riley is belting out Harper Valley P.T.A. The acrid stink of a paper mill tells me Panama City Beach is just minutes away. A few miles short of town, my father pulls off the road beside an open-air rest stop. “Everybody out!” he commands with a smile. With a whoop of delight my brother and I leap from the car. My thighs peel away from the vinyl seat, leaving a pattern on the backs of my legs.

For the next ten minutes we stand stock-still beside a roadside picnic table, arms extended like scarecrows while Dad slathers Coppertone on every exposed millimeter of our bodies—even the insides of our ears. He always made sure we were wearing sunscreen before we hit the beach, knowing that the instant we arrived at the motel, my brother and I would bolt for the turquoise water of the Gulf, screaming like banshees across the white talcum sand.

The parental care. The practical love. I still cherish them, all these years later.

The Lord is good . . .
God’s steadfast love endures forever;
his faithfulness to all generations.

We don’t know a whole lot about the writer of Psalm One Hundred. One thing we can surmise with confidence, though, because it’s jumping up and down and waving at us from every line, is that the psalmist has experienced something of God’s love so tangible, it makes him or her bold to declare: The Lord is good.

Sometimes God’s love and goodness show up through nature—a cheeky redbird in your herb garden. Or a welcome wave of cool air in September—God’s way of saying, “Chill, dear, I’ve got you.” Sometimes love is Coppertone in the hands of a caring parent, or a friend who forgives you when she has every reason to hold a grudge. Once, love became as concrete as a cross.

The love of God is the one eternal reality; there is no other. When everything else has passed into shadow, what will remain is Love. The Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.

This piece appeared first on September 7, 2015, as a devotional for Baptist Women in Ministry.  http://bwim.info 

Easter Fail 2015

5437335840_6ffbe4d95aSo for starters, there was a veritable Easter parade of technical snafus (microphones not working, video issues, missed cues, etc.). In our second service we had to stop mid-way through the first stanza of Christ the Lord is Risen Today because there was an entirely different hymn projected on the screens. The audio in the wonderful baptism testimony video was out of sync, like a Godzilla movie.

But all of this pales by comparison with the moment in the 8:45 service when, near the end of my message, as I accelerated toward the mighty Empty Tomb Crescendo, I invited a sanctuary full of pastel-clad worshipers into “everlasting, ever-living, ever-praising DEATH!”

Happy Easter, y’all.

Okay, so I was excited and momentarily lost my train of thought. It happens. I knew I’d committed more than a minor fumble when the congregation, which up to that point had been nodding and supportively amening, did this simultaneous little head-tilt—a collective ruh-roh. A few of them actually gasped. Some laughed out loud. I think even God probably offered down a sympathetic “Bless her heart.”

The Devil’s favorite lie
Later, as I kicked myself in my office, my friend and fellow pastor, Sharyn Dowd, gave me a hug. “Don’t take it too hard,” she said. “All the screw-ups in worship today were because of that swipe you took in your message at the penal substitution theory of atonement.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I’m sure of it,” she said. “Penal substitution is the Devil’s favorite lie for keeping us anxious and ashamed our whole life. We were just getting pushback.”

The crucifixion of Jesus is a great and holy mystery. Because of our genuine need to make sense of this mystery, the Church has offered a number of theories about Christ’s death over the past two thousand years.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: Let me explain. No—there is too much. Let me sum up:

Atonement Theory (sorely abridged)
The New Testament does in fact say, “Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 14:3b, Galatians 1:4, Romans 4:25) This claim is not up for grabs. The real question for two millennia has been: How do we interpret that claim? Most atonement theories are based on bona fide biblical metaphors for the cross: the “military” metaphor; the “obedience” metaphor; the “ransom” metaphor and the “sacrifice” metaphor.

The “penal substitution” atonement theory, which comes out of the sacrifice metaphor, is not in the New Testament. It’s been around for about 500 years—ever since Martin Luther misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be a sin offering, who knew no sin…” Luther interpreted this verse in terms of punishment rather than sacrifice: God treated Jesus, who knew no sin, as though he were a sinner.

Unfortunately, penal substitution became the prevailing Protestant view of atonement after the Reformation.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, in a recent sermon on John 3:16, takes a hilarious (and harsh)
romp through the penal substitution atonement theory:

“…God had this one little boy – and he loved that little boy so much… but he had to KILL that little boy because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, or felt up your girlfriend or maybe you used swear words or looked at dirty pictures. The important thing to know is that God killed his little boy rather than punishing you, because let’s face it, someone had to pay and you should feel so grateful about all of this that you believe and (most importantly) you behave. But the good news is that if you believe all of this and if you try really hard to be good then when you die you get a special all-inclusive vacation package called Eternal Life.”

Ouch.

Love Wins
Bottom line: The notion that what God mostly is is ANGRY with us is as mistaken today as it was 500 years ago. As Richard Rohr puts it: God loves us, not according to our capacity to be good; God loves us because God is good.

The Love of God is the one eternal reality. When everything else has passed into shadow, what will remain is Love. Love never ends, never fails, never stops, never dies. Fortunately, the news of Easter is so powerfully transcendent, it can bear any of our botched attempts to communicate it.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Monks and Mediation: What some Benedictines taught me about conflict

Chapel steeple, Monastery of Christ in the DesertSeventy-five miles north of Santa Fe there’s a high desert canyon so ancient, so primordial, I half-expected to see pterodactyls in the sky instead of hawks as I steered my rental car along 13 miles of single-lane dirt road. The road runs along the Chama River where elk graze along the banks, and beavers big as bear cubs drag sticks from the woods to their dams in the greenish water.

At the end of the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where some 25 Benedictine monks from a dozen countries around the world share their lives with one another, and with the guests who come throughout the year to pray and work alongside them. Hospitality is embedded deep in Benedictine practice.

The robed, sandal-shod brothers gather in a beautiful adobe chapel seven times a day for prayer, starting with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. and ending with Compline each evening at 7:30. They pray the Psalms, all 150, over the course of each week, then start over again. They sing all the psalms, even the “cursing” ones that call down the whole gamut of affliction on the heads of the psalmist’s enemies. I can report that Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks feels perhaps a wee bit less appalling when set to Gregorian Chant.

The monks not only pray; they also labor four hours a day and invite their guests to join them. My assignment the first day was pulling weeds in the cemetery with Brother Will from Atlanta and hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow with Brother John Baptist from Malawi. Other guests worked in the hops field. The monks brew and sell their own beer, called Monk’s Ale. “Brewed with care and prayer” it says on the label.

Trouble in the Canyon
I came to the Monsatery a week before their 50th anniversary celebration. In the gift shop I bought a history of the community, commissioned for the occasion. The monastery got its start in 1964 when an intrepid Benedictine monk named Father Aelred from Rhode Island stumbled upon the remote canyon by happenstance and was hooked. He and two close monk buddies from New York set up three tiny tents on the banks of the Chama and made a go of it. In the face of blizzards, floods, land disputes, wild animals and near-fatal injuries, they carved out a primitive observance of monastic life in the tradition of John the Baptist.

Fast-forward eight years to 1972. The monastery has grown! From three monks to four.

However, relationships between them have deteriorated to the point that Father Aelred and his one-time best friend, Father Gregory, are no longer speaking. They communicate now with each other only through notes passed to the other two monks. Things continue to go downhill until one day Father Aelred asks the groundskeeper to drive him to Santa Fe. Without a word to his three brothers he catches a bus out of town. They never see him again.

Ain’t for the Chickenhearted
I talked with Brother Andre, a spunky monk from Connecticut, about this. “For crying out loud,” I said “All you guys do is pray and seek God. How did things get so sideways?”

Brother Andre just grinned and said, “Yeah, well…”

Then he told me about a monastery in the Midwest where the brothers were in revolt against the abbot. “They said they’d rather see the monastery close than work with him,” he said. “They had to bring in a mediator.”

“Geez,” I said. “I’m torn between despair for the Church in general, and relief over the size of our occasional flair-ups back home.” Brother Andre grinned again, the skin around his eyes going all crinkly. Then he summed it up for me in a pronouncement worthy of a bumper sticker: “Sister,” he said, “Christian community ain’t for the chickenhearted.”

There’s a grace note at the end of this jangling story. Because the Spirit of God works just fine in spite of human silliness, the Monastery is a beautiful, thriving community today. I’m sure squabbles still flare up over this or that. But love pings around the place like a pinball and bounces off the red canyon walls.

And every night, as the monks wrap up their prayers, their liturgy includes mention of “our beloved founder, Father Aelred,” making no reference to his defection forty years ago. Instead, they bless his memory and thank God for all the gifts that have come since.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at http://www.abpnews.com.

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

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.”

“Fascinating,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, see,” he said, “because we hate them 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 whom you think they are. Take a leap of faith . . . I’m doing something new.

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,
he reminds me, 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 I feel my own agitation rising, 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 papery fingers

which are not at all like a hydrangea, but rather
like a maple leaf in November, all that lush, green vigor
stored deep within itself, just before it releases the limb

and is airborne at last, carried on a breath,
caught up in the glory of all created things,
its final fluttering an ovation of praise.

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.

I Have Regrets

1971-06-25-life-ad-baby-oil-ali-macgrawThat first perm comes to mind,
followed by twenty years of scrunch and fuzz
and photographs I’d like
to bury in the backyard.

And all those summers
at the beach, my pink,
immortal skin glazed
with baby oil. That was
a mistake for sure.

Also I should have listened
to my father when he said
beware of credit cards
and check the engine oil
now and then.

There are of course darker offenses:
affirmations undeclared
encouragements withheld
anger unleashed.

Yes, I have regrets.

But not among them
is that brilliant afternoon by the bay
when the preacher said Do you,
and we said Of course, though

we could not have known then
all that our vows
would supply and demand.
Even so, years later

as I consider this life we have made,
my prevailing regret
is that this blasted thesaurus
doesn’t contain a word

coming anywhere close
to the relief I feel
in knowing you and I
belong to each other.