For a while those first few days of vacation, I didn’t know what to do with my phone or hands.
I couldn’t check twitter. Couldn’t google that question that came to mind. Couldn’t color a picture first thing in the morning. Couldn’t snapchat my kids. Couldn’t mindlessly scroll instagram.
I couldn’t use my phone for anything at all but taking pictures. Slowly, my hands found they were relaxing their grip. So did my soul.
Truth is, I’ve been feeling on the cusp of burnout for a while. Pastoring through a pandemic is not the casual stroll some people seemed to think. (Oh, you don’t have to do anything but record a sermon. How great is that? You must have so much free time!)
Yep. Learning new technology, and having to change it every time we had a new iteration of church, was easy peasy. So was dealing with mental health crises in the community. Helping our little church cope in their own loneliness and fear. Working with people who couldn’t pay their rent. Purchasing our first church building and planning a major reno project on it. Not taking a Sunday off in over a year because you can zoom from anywhere and people needed me.
The stuff of idle leisure, right?
And doing all this while never getting to hug my kids or even my husband, a man who spends all day in peoples’ respiratory systems, so not a good bet during COVID for immunocompromised me.
It was a lot. It was a lot for you, too. I know without asking that you went through and did a LOT.
I don’t list those things for pity. I list them to explain why I, like a lot of you, teetered on the edge of wanting to chuck it all and move to New Zealand to become a hobbit village guide. (Still not a bad option. I’d consider it.)
I was tired, cranky, physically weak, and weary to the bone of doing One. More. Thing.
So I went on our overdue, twice canceled trip of a lifetime last month with high hopes of rest and renewal.
I got those. It was the most glorious time of my life. Yet reentry created other problems I hadn’t anticipated. I’d planned for rest—but I’d put all my expectation on those two weeks. I’d assumed they would be a magical step away from reality that brought me back to earth somehow changed into a new me ready to take on anything in my path.
I’d begun a sabbath with all the wrong beliefs about what it was for. Even though, given I’ve written and taught about sabbath as one of my favorite topics, I knew better.
Sabbath isn’t meant to give us a rest from work or to bring us back to work ready to break new records.
Sabbath is intended to refresh us by rekindling our relationship with the One who knit together our souls. It’s meant to remind us that we done’t run the universe, and the world will turn on its axis without us giving it a nudge.
Because I’m me, I crammed the time before and after our trip with ALL the things.
Of course I could send out an important, long email for a new group I was chairing.
Of course I could write the sermon for the day after we got back and deliver it even though we got into the airport AT 1AM Saturday.
Obviously, I could prep the June newsletter so it could go right out two days after we returned. (You know it didn’t.)
Clearly, I could run 25 errands, prep for a cat sitter, pack, and still do a normal week’s work. Also take the computer in for a complete wipe and reset.
Of course I could, given that computer wipe, start right up Monday morning after we got back with a full week of meetings, agendas, sermon writing, social media handling, and 3 doctor appointments.
I set myself up for returning to the exact state I’d left rather than taking what I’d learned on the trip and putting it into practice. Fortunately, God stopped me in this nonsense before I could undo all the good.
I find myself asking the same questions post-vacation that I’ve pleaded with my congregation to ask themselves all year about life post-pandemic.
What are the best things you want to keep from this time?
I want a normal that remembers—I matter, but I’m not indispensable.
The world can do without me for two weeks. Or longer.
Not that I don’t matter to my congregation and to others I interact with. However, I matter more to them whole and healthy, recognizing my role as facilitator and friend rather than savior or enabler. We’re partners—and that means free communal give and take, not one-sided offerings.
It’s going back to relying on and respecting their God-given gifts. That’s taken a backseat during pandemic when stress was everyone’s worst passive aggressive friend. It’s time for a resurgence of trusting people and letting go the reins. If you, like me, have been grasping them a tad too tightly, slack up. Let people surprise you again with what God is giving them to share.
I want to make available, not necessary, part of my new normal.
Snorkeling right in the face of penguins, sea lions, iguanas, and turtles does something to you. I’ve loved all of God’s wild creation since the day someone first put a book of ABC animals in my hands. That wonder tends to fade in our every day though, when we’re not close enough to a pelican to see its feathers ruffling in the moonlight.
Pandemic allowed my inner over-achiever to amp up the work level and ignore the rest of the world outside my home. I couldn’t leave the house anyway. Why not be more productive?
Hiking and snorkeling every day required me to see with grateful eyes all the wonder of the world. Going face to face with a penguin or struggling up a volcano’s side reminded me that I’m part of a stunning creation. The author who set it in motion surely can give me what I need to do my work without me going at it 24/7. A grateful me surely will produce better work.
I want to make awe, not achievement, part of my new normal.
In the future, I plan not to hyper-schedule the time around my full-on breaks. I’ll prepare with joyful anticipation rather than cramming all I can in the last few days. I’ll ease back in. I will refuse to feel guilty about that. It’s in the easing that we remember lessons learned and slowly apply them to a refreshed and possibly reoriented life. That takes time, and it’s equally as important as the vacation/sabbath itself.
So no, I haven’t done all the things on the list in June. I’m going to enjoy the birds a little longer. Take a few more walks in my garden. Ease back into life so that maybe that easier way will become the pattern. Because you know what? Work isn’t life. All of life is life. I’d just forgotten.
I want, plan, to make a whole, shalom life, not a piece by piece one, my new normal.
I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless.
The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.
A Surprising Conversation
We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things.
Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.
He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.
“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”
A Church Like Quitu
My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible.
Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?
How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?
Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?
I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.
I’ve really returned to my love of reading this year. The past several years, I’ve read for my dissertation and classes but not a lot for fun. I loved reading for school! But there was little time for other things.
So to wrap up February, in honor of Black History Month, I want to offer you a round up of some of the books I’ve read the last few years written by black authors. Some are new reads this month; others are old friends.
“Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.”
Such a disturbing and needed theology of black suffering and history in America and its relationship to white Christianity. This is the first book I read in February. learned so much, and I especially liked learning about the black women who stepped into their faith and told the truth about injustice. It’s hard, painful, and important to read this book as a white Christian. You will read things you wish you had never known about. But we must know about them.
I’ve been reading a lot of the Bible, especially the exodus stories, this past year from the point of view of the suffering, and it’s been huge in my understanding of Scripture. Cone brings us through this process so that we can see God, and the cross, when we see the lynching tree.
“Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom. I don’t need to fear my own anger. I don’t have to be afraid of myself. I am not mild-mannered. I am passionate and strong and clear-eyed and focused.”
Brown has a great ability to explain exactly how it feels to be a black woman in America in a way others can understand. She is unflinching but also positive in her assessment of what can be done to honor her and others for being “still here” despite all the attempts to negate their existence.
If you want to understand the daily struggles that black women, and men, face that we really don’t see, listen to Brown.
“What is the cost when a woman lacks access and investment, encouragement to own her voice, and opportunities for influence in her sphere when there is no obvious pathway to progress?”
This book about women in leadership asks: How do women uniquely learn to believe in and develop their voice as a leader? I love her emphasis on women encouraging one another to find their voice and rise together. Saxton refuses to give in to scarcity thinking and wishes for everyone to learn their power. I plan to put into place some of the things I learned in the chapter on finding a village. I’ve never really had a mentor, and I definitely need sponsors. Also, I need to be those things for others.
I heard Patrice at Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference a few years ago and knew from the first night I would like her. When I listened to her teach about memoir, I had already picked up her book the night before. It’s a treasure of one woman’s learning how to navigate growing up, race, marriage, family, and not belonging anywhere yet finding grace. It’s beautifully written and relatable. Gopo paints such vivid portraits through essays that detail her life experience. The words are beautiful, even when the experiences aren’t, and the essays convey a story of family resilience.
Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. My second read of this February! This is not for the theologically faint of heart. It’s hard work, but he takes the reader through the Bible, and some history of black theology, to find a solid place for a theology of freedom and justice. Like me, McCaulley seeks a theology that can hold both a tradition of justice and one of more conservative approach to scripture. I especially enjoy the section on Luke and how it intersects with the entire arc of the Bible to bring justice issues forward.
The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper. Another one I read a couple years ago. Harper offers a similar overview of scripture in a more accessible manner. She spreads out a gospel that is so much richer than the me-sized, individualistic gospel we’ve been taught in so many places. It’s offers a gospel that reconciles and restores.
My favorite quote is when she talks about Finney’s revivals and how, when people came to the altar to give their lives to Christ,
This is what it still should mean. She makes a beautiful case for the two, personal and corporate salvation and re-creation, to be inherently intertwined as the whole gospel.
Another new release! Here’s my Amazon review: In his new book, Jemar Tisby takes us on a journey of how to fight racism—the is not simply a how to manual. He gives the Christian basis for the fight in well considered textual and historical explanations. He also gives us an American perspective on the issue, with historical commentary. He explains historic systematic racism as well as the different stages people might be at in dealing with their own racist tendencies.
Nowhere does Tisby reflect a disrespect for or condescension toward either those who practice racism or those who aren’t quite sure what to do about it yet. He approaches the topic with humility and the intent to take people wherever they are and teach them at that level. It makes the book approachable and useful when talking with those who remain entrenched in certain racist tendencies or attitudes. He has a gift of teaching powerful truth in a disarming way that can get past defenses and allow for change.
His approach is clear and well explained. The framework is an acronym ARC. “ARC is an acronym that stands for awareness, relationships, and commitment.” Then, the thoughtfulness and helpful attitude with which he comes at the topic comes out: “Perhaps you are just starting the journey, and even baby steps are accompanied by the risk of stumbling and falling. But you learn how to walk one step at a time through persistent, informed practice.
And yet, he tells the clear truth about the topic.
“In order to fight for racial justice, racism must not be lightly dismissed. It must be treated as the evil offense against God and human beings that it is.” (Jemar Tisby)
I learned how to mobilize my community for change. I discovered ways I can fight systemic racism that I had no idea I could do. The church I pastor has moved past many of the troublesome issues he mentions, but we can still learn and grow and unearth attitudes and beliefs we don’t know we have. We have the tools to serve our community better because of Tisby’s book. We learn how to: talk to our kids, cultivate relationships, see our own past, learn, take apart systems, create our own statements of justice, give out to our community, and more.
Robinson tells her story of discovering life as a brilliant black woman in a world not made for her. Her stories of military school and training as a black woman are unimaginable, and it has caused her to become a great advocate for young women. She began a program to mentor girls toward leadership. This story moved me to continue following her to see what more amazing things she has planned for girls who can lead but haven’t had this truth spoken into their lives.
There you are—a handful of great black authors you could be reading and maybe have. If you have suggestions, please comment with them. I would love to see some possibilities I haven’t read!
Are we ready for a round up post? On February 1? Of course we are. Because we know:
1) I’m not usually on time for these sorts of things.
2) You got inundated with that jazz last month, and now you actually have time to look at these things.
See? I planned that out. So here we go. My favorite things of 2020.
Five favorite books
OK, 7. Because choosing is hard, and I could have easily picked twelve.
I met my goodreads goal of 35! I know that’s not a ton, but 2020. I was tired. We were all tired. I spent the first third of the year finishing and defending my thesis. Plus also, I did a lot of puzzles. Finishing the goal is a win. It doesn’t matter what the goal was. I finished.
Let’s not waste our time moving goal posts on ourselves because we don’t think what we did was good enough. Not Spoiler: it was good enough. We made it.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Enough said. Truth – I’ve never read it. I’ve been a little major and an English teacher, and I have never read this book. Now I have, and now it has changed me. It makes me sad to see how much has not really changed. To see the world through the eyes of a child and to see her slow awakening to what people to what people are capable of, both good and bad, is enchantingly and devastatingly told.
From Burned Out to Beloved: Soul Care for Wounded Healers. Bethany D. Hiser. As a pastor and as a person who is constantly trying to save the world (is that redundant?), I found this work indispensable. Ms. Hiser helps people like me to pull back and to see ourselves. She helps us to equip others rather than to “save” them. In the process, we learn how to love and be blessed by our work rather than burned out. After the year we’ve just had, this is required reading for caregivers of any sort.
Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson. Peterson’s work is so challenging for pastors and so absolutely necessary. I needed this this year. Desperately. His whole section on rest and Sabbath is something I had been contemplating and wrestling with for a while, and this book blew it wide open.
Sabbath is a chance to let God do what God does best, without my interference. It’s my chance to join that after stopping long enough to see and to hear it.
The God Who Sees, Karen Gonzales. Gonzales puts the story of her family’s journey from Guatemala to the United States alongside the nomads of Scripture. The foreigners, those on the margins, those of whom God tells us to take special care. She explains to the reader God’s heart for those who find themselves on this journey and how we can make that struggle easier. I love the way she puts the stories together and the research she does into this very difficult issue.
Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell. I will inherently love anything Gladwell writes. This book is quite timely, given our desperate need to hear what others are thinking and understand where they’re coming from. His exploration of how our different backgrounds and “languages” of communication affects the way we understand one another is fascinating. Gladewell is always a winner for me. He’s what I want to be when I grow up.
The Sun Does Shine, Anthony Ray Hinton. What can I even say? This man lost most of his life in prison. Why? Because, to summarize the words of those who arrested him, “they will convict any black man of the crime, and you are as good as any other.” It’s not just a story of one man’s injustice though. It’s a story of the relationships he made in prison and what all of us can learn from listening to those men alone in their cells. The relationship between the author and the klansman was so crazy and beautiful. This is one of the men you meet in the movie Just Mercy. You should meet him in this book, too.
Booked, Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior. As the Goodreads descriptions says, this book is for, “Anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.” Dr. Prior tells her memoir through literature, and this is so relatable to me. As a little girl who could never be torn away from a book, I could also tell my life through stories. Some of the stories she chooses could also be mine. I love the mingling of memoir and literature and life. This, too, is how I could explain out my life.
Five favorite recipes
Creamy Sun-dried Tomato Fettuccini Yes please. Pasta. Garlic. Sun-dried Tomatoes. The word “creamy.” It’s all there.
Cinnamon Roll Macarons. Hands down the best macarons I’ve ever made. Only I put chocolate ganache filling in, because who doesn’t’t love cinnamon and chocolate???
Vaca Frita de Pollo. One of the women in our church was making this while on zoom, and I NEEDED the recipe. It was all I dreamed of.
Chicken Normandy. Do it on a cold day when you have lots of time and want the most delicious chicken dinner you’ve ever had, possibly.
Za’atar Man’ouche. I saw this on a travel show and said—I need this in my life! And what do you know? Our kid had given us zaatar in a Christmas gift. Here you are. You’re welcome.
Thing I’m most proud to have made: Two of the kids gave me a Great British Bakeoff Book, and let me tell you, everything in it I’ve made is incredible. But this was quite the challenge.
Five favorite podcasts
2020 was not a good year for podcasts. I generally listen to them in the car, and, well, I didn’t spend much time in the car this year. Like, we saved a lot of money on gas, maintenance, and we should have just probably cancel the insurance. I hardly drove that thing. So I’ve been missing my podcasts. But these have been my favorites.
That we learned to slow down and live without the unnecessary things we thought were so important.
That we said “enough” to injustice and decided to change ourselves in order to change our culture. We also decided to stop engaging with the nonsense and just get to work.
That many of us came to appreciate in a new way those who keep the gears running and keep us safe. Healthcare workers, food workers, delivery drivers and sanitation workers. Those who bring my groceries to my door and those who hover over ICU patients, for 36 hours straight. Please, let us not forget. Oh and by the way, a lot of those people are immigrants.
The thing that happened this year I desperately needed and didn’t know I did. Can you guess?
That’s it. That’s my round up. What about you? What were the things you loved about 2020? What are the things you’ll remember and take forward? I would love to hear.
See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.
I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over.
Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.
So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.
My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.
Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change.
But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster.
Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.
God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first.
Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.
IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent
That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media.
The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.
While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.
An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.
Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right.
The same peoplewho have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same peoplewho counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad.
In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve.
If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece.
The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be.
If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus.
We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.
We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.
I’ve been revisiting the story of Moses bringing this people out of Egypt again. You know—burning bush, wth? Pharaoh, plagues, lambs, all that MGM stuff.
After God gives Moses a woodshed moment at the bush, Moses makes his way back to Egypt to free his people. A little reluctant and frightened, at first he is met with excitement. Finally, a savior has come to free them!
Then Pharaoh digs in the talons deeper and makes life even more unbearable than it already was, which was pretty stinkin’ unbearable. He forces the people to increase their work while decreasing their supplies. Thus, the next time, Moses finds a less than enthusiastic crowd.
Ex 6.6-9 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’
Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.”
Did you catch that last part? They did not listen to Moses because of their discouragement. Other versions translate it their “broken spirit and how hard they were made to work,” and “they had become too discouraged by the brutality of their slavery.”
This last line struck me when I read it this time. I could not get away from it. I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before, or at least, I’d never paid attention. They believed—but they got too discouraged, too broken, because of the cruelty with which they were treated.
Make no mistake, that was Pharaoh’s intent. He planned that. When he authorized the increase in brick making with no materials to do it, he knew the result. The people would be too worn down by one more setback to dare to dream or try.
We’ve heard this story hundreds of times, and all of those times I recall, we’ve heard how the Israelites behaved horribly. They were unfaithful, reckless, foolish folks who didn’t believe and didn’t obey. I’ve never once heard this verse spoken of.
These are a people filled with trauma. They’ve suffered terrible degradation, dehumanization, oppression, and marginalization. For generations, they have no experience of freedom and no ability to govern or lead themselves.
The normal human response from and to trauma is exactly what we see—fear, confusion, comfort with the devil they know, inability to see that things are going to get better after they get worse, and anger at the person responsible for that worse part.
The gut-wrenching beauty here is that God knows this. He understands that they feel too broken to believe. So he continues to free them, bringing them out, showing them his power, and fulfilling his promises, regardless of how they feel or act.
He does this because that is who he is.
God is bent on good for his people—and he will not be stopped. He loves them through their trauma and brings them to the other side of the Red Sea, and beyond.
The story reminds me of another stretch in Scripture that’s rather notorious for its imagery. It’s a Psalm sung during the exile of Israel, much later.
By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst of it
We hung our harps.
For there our captors demanded of us songs,
And our tormentors mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing the Lord’s song In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth If I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem Above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one
who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock. (Psalm 137)
It’s one of my favorite songs in Godspell, beautiful and haunting. But the songwriter doesn’t use those last lines—the horrific ones about murdering babies. They’re not exactly lyrical.
The Babylonian exile was not a nice “pack up your things and get going” on a vacay. It was not Sound of Music. It was everything you know that modern tribal warfare is, and these people are not merely homesick. They are demoralized, exhausted, mourning loved ones, hopeless, dehumanized, humiliated. They’ve been beaten, raped, killed, and brutally taken from their homes.
This song speaks their emotion, and these are their honest, anguished words. It’s strikingly similar to how the Israelites felt in Egypt.
It tells us that he hears, sees, and knows his peoples’ pain, and he does not turn away from their expression of it.
Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s terrible imagery.
Yes, forgiveness and refusal to take revenge is God’s way for us.
Yes, it would have been wrong for an Israelite to actually dash a baby against a rock, and there would be no excuse.
But somewhere in here, we get the realization that God knows we grieve and hurt and fear, and He lets us do that.
That’s what going on in Egypt as well.
They’re grieving. Exhausted. Hopeless. They wanted to believe but it was just too much. In the middle of that, God sees and hears and remembers and loves.
He guides them out when they cannot see a way out.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
And I think that’s what going on for some people right now, as we enter 2021.
We’re OK. But we’re fortunate.
Many with mental health issues or addictions are still hopeless.
Many who are alone are still scared.
Those who have lost people are mourning.
And God sees and hears and knows.
Sometimes we as humans want others to hurry up with their hurt, grief, etc. We want to rush forward into 2021 and erase all that was this year. Many people will try for a do over, a forgetting, an obliterating of all that pain so that we can put it in the past.
But God doesn’t do that.
He sits with us.
He holds us up until we can walk on our own.
He weeps with us at our discouragement and hears our hurt.
We need to be willing to sit with pain, too. Ours or that of others. To sit with people or our own souls and hear them and give them permission to hurt. It could be the first best thing we do in 2021.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
He knows fear—My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”
He knows uncertainty—“Will you leave me, too?”
He knows loss—he’s been betrayed so many times
He knows grief—“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
He knows loneliness—“My God why have you forsaken me?”
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried.
God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it. (John 1:5 NLT)
As I type this, I’ve just received an email telling me my dream trip, the one I’ve been planning for two years, has been canceled. As you read this, that’s where I should be.
I know as sacrifices go this year it’s not tipping the scale, but the trip was both symbolic and a lifelong dream for me, and I’m devastated.
December may host the darkest days of the year, but it seems for many that the darkness never lifted after last winter. When spring arrived, so did protracted global crisis. We’re entering the Christmas season tired, grieving, and anxious. Family togetherness probably won’t look the same. There could be members missing from the circle around our tree. It’s unlikely we here will have in-person church services for this important time of year, and that loss of community during one of the most-community oriented seasons of our lives cuts deeply.
The lights might be twinkling, but not a lot of people are singing “Joy To the World” in quite the same key they’re used to.
Into all this enters the promise of a baby in a manger wailing under a star whose wattage won’t quit. Nothing about that part of the story has changed. The Light of the world still came, still lives, and if nothing could extinguish it when John penned those words some 2000 years ago, nothing can in this year of woe either.
Think about the world Jesus entered.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, the people there lived under oppressive rule. They might not have seen Roman soldiers often, but they felt their presence. They knew the grasping greed of the tax collectors and their power to destroy a family already on the economic edge. They had seen crosses on the roadside, and they knew who usually hung there. Though their ruler Herod pretended to be a Jew, they understood his true loyalties lay only with himself.
They needed light to believe the darkness that pushed them into the ground and stole their breath could be pierced.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, most of the population existed in near-poverty, including Mary and Joseph. They subsisted, with a home and enough food, but they worked constantly, and one bad year could be the difference between survival and devastation. Jesus and Joseph would have carved plows, yokes, chairs, and bowls six days a week, unaware of this thing we refer to as leisure time.
They needed light to hope that their children’s lives could be better.
When the star shone on Bethlehem, mothers died in childbirth, children died of diarrhea and other results of poor sanitation in crowded areas, and everyone died in plagues. In cities, people lived sardined together in buildings with no modern comforts such as air conditioning or indoor plumbing. Alexander Hamilton famously sings that, where he came from (1750’s Nevis), many people lived “half as many” as twenty years. Jesus understood this, too—at 33, he had already lived close to the 35-40 average lifespan. (High infant mortality, however, skews that number.)
They needed light to see that the grave didn’t close out their life story and this difficult world was not their only chance to find peace.
This is the world into which the great I AM entered as flesh. The similarities of disease and injustice strike us clearer this year perhaps, but they don’t surprise the baby who took up residence in a musty feeding trough in a place whose capacity for sin he knew too well.
The darkness can never extinguish the Light of the world. All the pain and difficulty in Jesus’ world could not stop the blinding star from flashing its sign for all to see who wanted to see: “Come. Faith, Hope, and Love are born tonight. This Light cannot ever be overcome.”
We can be overcome. We can be overwrought and overworked. We can lose heart, and our courage to keep on can be extinguished. Those are the days we look to that star of Bethlehem we hang a facsimile of on our tree and remember: its incredible light was only a sign. Though it shone like a Fresnel lighthouse lens beaming its way out to a dark sea, it only pointed the way to the greater Light.
That Light shone in a wooden trough on a holy night in a cave long ago. It also shone out of an empty tomb behind a cast-off stone on a morning when all hopes had been shattered. The darkness cannot extinguish it. Death has no power over it. Neither pandemics nor racism nor ugly divisions can separate us from it. If we follow him, even when it feels like we’re walking in the deepest darkness, we can know that we are walking toward life.
“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8:12 NLT)
The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? (Ps. 27:1 NLT)
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. — Maya Angelou
This famous quote of Angelou’s, sometime erroneously attributed to Oprah, although she credited it properly, has surfaced anew lately. We’ve seen it more for good reason. Far too often in the last few years, people we previously trusted have shown us who they are. We’ve come to terms with that truth, even when we have desperately wanted to believe otherwise. Yet the quote has its positive side, too. If someone shows you who they are, and who they are is dazzling, believe that, too.
This Advent, we’re working through some of Jesus’ I AM statements. Several times he told the people who he was. More importantly, he showed them. It always rang true. He was/is who he said he was.
Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life. I AM the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6.27, 35)
Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last. I don’t know about you, but so much of my life at times seems filled with working for food that doesn’t last. Not tangible food I ingest. Food of others sorts. Praise. Appreciation. Perfection. Bylines or likes on a page. Numbers of people tuned in to a church service or a live video. “Food” that nourishes our egos but what about our souls?
It isn’t that these thing aren’t important. They are. I’m not going to get on a soapbox about how promoting a brand or a church or a book is somehow ungodly and a waste of our precious one life. I don’t know that this is true. We are given gifts by the Holy Spirit, and God enjoys when we use them for our fulfillment and others’ benefit. I don’t believe God looks at our promotional efforts and shakes a head at how pointless they all are. God loves when we bless others through our work, and we can’t bless others who don’t know we exist. It isn’t the actions themselves or the need for them professionally or personally that causes malnourishment of the soul.
Using that kind of bread to feed our souls isn’t sustainable for long, because it was never meant for that purpose. It doesn’t fill the holes hungry for real love and acceptance that hang nothing on what we produce or how profound or witty we are online.
We hunger, deep in our spirits, for food that will satisfy those gaping holes of being loved for who we are and being wanted in someone’s space, no conditions attached. So when we exchange those likes, tweets, and shares for acceptance, we’re gorging on food that doesn’t last. That space empties so quickly, needing to be filled again every day, just like out stomachs.
The people who crowded around Jesus the day he made this statement had a similar experience. They hung who they were and how valuable they were on the thing they could see, like the bread and circuses so popular and familiar in their Roman/Jewish world.
They wanted to measure Jesus like this too, but he defied them. After he’d fed the crowd miraculously, he left them, but they tracked him down, wanting more.
“I assure you that you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate all the food you wanted. Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life.
They asked, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires?”
Jesus replied, “This is what God requires, that you believe in him whom God sent.”
They asked, “What miraculous sign will you do, that we can see and believe you? What will you do?
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.But I told you that you have seen me and still don’t believe.
Jesus knew they came for the show. He knew they wanted to be defined and valued by their proximity to the sparkle and glitter. He knew they would define him by what he could deliver, and they would turn on him once he did not.
So Jesus showed them who he was.
Approaching the bread and circuses world in which we live believing we can find who we are and what we long for from it is asking for food that will not last. Yet this is where we live, so how do we find the balance between living there and gaining our value there?
Drawing near to Christ, the Jesus who was born in a feeding area and lived moving toward a cross, is our touchpoint. The Christ of loaves and fishes and water and wine is beautiful and generous and abundant, but this was not his daily life. Jesus didn’t materialize fish and fries for his disciples at every meal. His presence was the bread of life, not his miracles.
When we gain our identity through proximity to his humble life rather than a shiny show, we can learn to manage that show as a helpful tool but not as our main source of nutrition.
The world this year seems to have grown both closer and lonelier. More people than ever long for acceptance in another’s space without conditions attached. We haven’t been in others’ space much, and when we have, we wonder if the wrong word or opinion might sever the relationship.
Interpersonal strains, writ large by how much we’ve been in the same space for so long together, have brought more of us to the point of recognizing that we need love for who we are, even when we are at our worst.
Jesus offers to fill those hungers that nothing else can. The miracles of feeding 5000 aren’t about food. They’re about love. Abundant, magnificent, extravagant love that knows no bounds of physical reality that would count loaves and fishes and find them not enough. The miracles are about filling our hearts with the bread we need—the nearness of a savior whose love can’t be put in a box of opinion, dogma, or party.
It can, however, be put in an animal trough. It can come blazing hot on a winter’s night, lighting up our hearts and filling them with food that will endure for eternal life.
It’s that food that grounds me when I launch into the world around me where identity and love can be bought for a large enough following. We do need daily food. It’s not a bad thing. It’s fine and good to work for. But it’s not the same thing as eternal food. We cannot confuse the two.
Last time I talked about the difficulty in giving thanks during years like this one. Yet I know, from experience and from God’s word, that doing it anyway matters. Giving thanks anyway:
Reminds us that we do have much to be thankful for, even in hard times
Helps us find the small things and appreciate them
Gives us compassion for those with less to be thankful for
Heightens our awareness of everything around us, to notice the little joys
Boosts our mental health, as gratitude always does
Shows us the arc of God’s care for us, even when we weren’t looking or seeing
Is obedience, and that comes with its own peace.
So today, I’m going to look back at my gratitude journal in 2020 and list some of the things I wrote down. I hope you can find some, too. I admit, I’ve not been great at keeping this journal this year. But the act of doing it always brings me joy and peace. I highly recommend a gratitude journal.
It doesn’t have to be preciously cute or Pinterest worthy. Mine is a solid red notebook my husband brought back from a medical convention. It says “American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery” on the front. You can see, I’m all fancy.
It’s such a good practice for our hearts and souls. Pick up a notebook form the dollar store, and start writing. I write three things a day. You do you. Here are some great ideas and options in case you need them.
If you want some ways to get creative and make it super fun, I love the ideas of bookending and decorating, talked about here.
And if you want to hear the whole TED talk about gratitude the above article mentions, view it here.
So here’s random list of 20 things I’ve written since April.
Coyotes looking at me in the backyard, while I’m on a zoom meeting (Yes. It happened.)
I’m learning new patterns of kindness
I don’t worry people will kill my white children
Hamilton (How lucky we are to be alive right now!)
My new home office
The fun quotes I made and framed in my new office, like the one below.
Crickets in my house (I love them. I’m not sorry.)
The ability to learn new things (hello, zoom church)
My husband home longer in the mornings (his gym at work where he went early is COVID closed)
Daughters who decorate my house for my virtual graduation
That graduation! That dissertation DONE!
People who put the dishes away
Quiet mornings on the deck
Early morning sunlight filtering through the trees
The privilege of white skin, and the responsibility
That’s a short list. You can see it’s pretty varied. Some big things. Some little things. Some serious and some just plain fun. In this year of hard, find the small things that give you joy. Write them down. Go back to that as often as you need to. Feed your soul on joy.