Defining a Successful Career

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I went on an adventure in early December. Let’s begin the tale at the beginning: a few years ago I learned that a professor at Marquette University had a collection of Tolkien manuscripts that he periodically allowed individuals to tour. It took me approximately 5 seconds to arrange a date and time for the next private exhibition. 

Unfortunately, the date and time were in 2020. Two polite reschedules later, he stopped sending emails of new dates. No one knew when the collection would be viewed again—why continue pretending we did?

All this led me to check the status in November, and what do you know? The collection was out for a big exhibition at the university until Christmastime, and tickets were available. I chose to make it a whole day of adventure by also booking an Amtrak to Milwaukee. Train rides, Tolkien manuscripts, and no driving headaches on I94 between two cities? I was IN. 

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Tolkien rocked my world in 2001 when I first met his work. He did it again in 2022 last month, when I can say that after 21 years of devoted passion, I’m pretty well acquainted with that work.

I don’t know your lifelong struggles, but I have some typical ones for an enneagram 5. The zeal to be seen as competent. The deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. These two join forces to haunt me with my greatest fears. What if I never “make my mark”? What if I never live up to that “promising future” people talked about so long ago? What if, after all, I’m only mediocre at everything I’ve done, personally and professionally?

At my age, these things should be past tense, after all, and still searching the horizon for promise seems a fool’s errand. 

The thoughts have haunted my last couple years, especially. Other people wept at Hamilton when his son died. (OK, I wept then too—I’m not heartless.) The part that had me sobbing? When Burr bows his head and recognizes in the despair of the too late—“I should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” Scarcity mindset, with tragic results, right there for all of us caught in it to see. The world is wide, but some of us have more Aaron Burr in us than we can comfortably handle.

Back to Tolkien. A man so enamored with the world of Middle-earth he was building that he created languages for it. Detailed, logically-cohesive languages. So in love with his hobbits be calculated the stride of a hobbit and the ground one could reasonably cover so that the distances in his writing were manageable in “real” life. So committed he created maps and diaries that he singed, tore, dyed, and dampened in order to make the antiquity of them real. He charted the moon phases and years and days of events in his created world so that his prophesies would coincide, again, in “real” life. No created world in literature has this level of detail and accuracy, which contributes enormously to making his work feel “right” to his readers. 

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His contemporaries thought his time could have been spent on more scholarly publications. His publisher tapped impatient toes for 17 years from request for a Hobbit sequel to publication. The Lord of the Rings didn’t disappoint waiting readers. Hobbit readers had grown up, and they recognized its genius. Yet most people who surrounded Tolkien thought his quirky obsession a huge waste of time. He never even finished what he considered his master work, decades in the making.

Something exploded on my mind in that exhibit, as it had twenty-one years before. Then, it was the beauty of the heroic quest to do the right thing with the time we’re given. Now, it was the recognition of a life profoundly successful, but not because of best seller lists or blockbuster movies.

JRR Tolkien devoted himself to something he loved. He put every piece of his heart into creating a world and creating it well. What others may have called obsessive he called devotion to a call. In fulfilling that call, he crafted a hope that shone through his world, and the world of his readers.

He devoted himself to doing something he loved well, and he offered hope in the doing. 

What else is there? When we look for our life’s promise, what would we want other than Paul’s holy trinity of faith, hope, and love? (For as we know, Tolkien did nothing without faith, too.) Whether we’re mediocre in the end or not, what could we choose but the honest working out of faith, hope, and love? When we look to find the success of our lives, that legacy Hamilton searched for, what more could we ask than that we were found to do what we loved, do it well, and do it in a way that infused it with hope? 

He did it again. Tolkien took something that’s bedeviled me for a while and he laid it out plain in front of me, in those edit-filled cursive loops, scribbled calculations, detailed datelines, and fake-blood stained pages. Waste twelve years writing Lord of the Rings? Hardly. He was building a world and inviting us along into it. Hope and love take time. Faith informs them both. Nothing done in service to the three of them is wasted.

Embodiment

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I have a dear friend who was widowed a few years ago. Since then, she’s stretched herself to live her life’s goal, which is to be a writer. There’s nothing like death to teach us how to live, is there? She’s worked hard. And she’s grieved hard. 

This year, she entered a play writing contest and garnered one of the ten winning spots, out of thousands of entries. Did I mention I’m darned stinking proud of her? She wrote about the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death and visiting her mother with dementia and how those things didn’t always mesh well together. In one quick scene, a nurse at the assisted living comforts her with some theology and philosophy regarding death. 

Watching the video, I felt a jolt of recognition. Those were my words. Those were sentences I had said to help my friend. We’d sat at the local Corner Bakery as she talked and cried about the blows to her faith and her guilt and anger about God, the universe, and everything. I’d answered with what I believe about God and death. 

The words had meant enough to her to find their way into this award-winning play, now seen and heard by I don’t know how many people. They’d found their way into her heart. 

I cried watching that video. I cried for her pain. I cried for her children. I cried for the privilege of having God use my simple, tentative words to begin healing a broken heart. There is nothing, nothing that brings more joy to a pastor, or a writer, than this. We know that James warns we ought to watch our words and our truth carefully, because teaching others is a holy, sacred trust. We know we get it wrong too often.

The trust of God and humans cannot be taken lightly. Hearts and souls long to be healed.

Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect.

(James 3.1-2)
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We’re talking about what it means to be incarnate this month in church. For Advent, I wanted to discuss the meaning of incarnation (embodied in flesh). I want us to consider how we, too, are incarnate in the lives of others, not in the sense that we are deity but in another definition of the word—“A person showing a trait or typical character to a marked degree.” 

As believers in the Christ who became flesh and blood, breath and body, how do we show his character to a marked degree? Are we being incarnate in our communities, our families, our churches, our world?

Are we being incarnate in our random conversations that we don’t know will have an impact down the road? Is Christ’s character there at the table in our Corner Bakery? 

To “invite Jesus into my heart” isn’t a prayer for a ticket to heaven. It’s an invitation to Christ to be incarnate in my life, body, tongue, and mind. It’s an invitation for me to be incarnate, albeit in my own flawed ways, in my world.

I can’t get past that. I don’t want to get past that. I shouldn’t get past that. Words matter. Words heal or break. Words construct or deconstruct faith and hope. The Word gives me embodiment in others’ lives. What comes from my mouth, or keyboard, should show his character to a marked degree.It’s a sacred trust. 

Sightings of Home

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“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn finds that world’s version of heaven baffling yet familiar. Regardless of the confusing feelings, he knows it’s home, and he must discover more and more of it.

I think we, too, will be surprised by heaven. Most of all, I think we’ll be surprised that we will not “go to heaven” in the end. The Bible never uses that phrase—not once in 66 books. Instead, both Isaiah and Revelation describe the union of heaven and earth, a new creation where humans will find ultimate joy and God will forever be present. John describes kind of an Eden 2.0—people engaged in their best employment in a perfect new world that restores heaven and earth to their rightful lack of division. 

With respect to the hymn writer, we will not “fly away.”

Even the imagery echoes Eden.

“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”

Rev. 22:1-2, NLT
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The abundant flowing water and conspicuously important trees remind us of that place where humans were first offered a tree of life. As we read these words in a time of unrest that hasn’t happened in our generations, don’t these promises sound like a place we’ve been “looking for all {our} lives”? 

Do the nations frighten you right now? My own nation scares the life out of me, without even mentioning those at war in other parts of the world. A pandemic has retrained our social instincts to make us fear and avoid one another, destroying mental health and the community necessary for human flourishing. Political division has divided family. People look for exits when they do go out, spooked at the specter of gun violence anywhere and everywhere. Whole segments of the population fear the loss of basic human rights—rights people of color maintain they have never had and see slipping farther away. All the while, we’re bracing for weather extremes as we do little to stop the warming of our world. Then, there’s actual war, waged against innocent underdogs.

All in all, it seems the nations need some of those leaves from the tree of life, stat. The patient is in critical condition. 

So are a lot of us. I know I yearn for the day I no longer hurt 24/7. One day, I’ll be swing dancing and clambering up waterfalls again, a day when I won’t need healing trees because a resurrection body will never know pain. 

The promise is so much greater than flying away to some cloudy space with random harps. The Lord has planned a merging of God’s space and ours, perfecting ours beyond our current imagination and inviting us to enjoy it forever as perfected humans. 

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So what about now? Jesus also promised that the kingdom of God was here, now. In a way, he had broken through and begun the unification. When Jesus commissioned his followers, he told them they would do even greater thing than he had done, to the ends of the earth (John 14:12, Matt. 28:19). Jesus meant that every time one of his people did something as he would, we were planting little pockets of the kingdom in this world. 

Every time we offer kindness, healing, restoration, justice, comfort, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, hope—that’s all seeds of the kingdom planted. They’re all small places where heaven meets earth. For people who are hopeless or fearful now, these liminal spaces where they can see and feel the presence of God mean more than all the words we can spill. 

If we, like Jewel, are longing for our real home, working to bring the kingdom to our surroundings is a good way to at least set down some carpets and wash the windows of where we are now. We’ll never create heaven—humans can never eradicate evil because it’s part of us. We can, though, offer sightings of home to those who need it. 

This article first appeared here at The Glorious Table.

Vienna

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This song ran though my head the entire month of August. That was one persistent earworm, though as earworms go, they could be far worse. I finally began to wonder if God wasn’t trying to say something to me. Throughout the music, the singer talks to a “crazy child,” and if that isn’t how God sees me at times, I’d be very surprised. God has spoken to me in far wilder ways than through Billy Joel.

I listened to Billy Joel a lot as a young person. A lot. I hadn’t listened to this song in decades, so how did it get into my head suddenly? And why? 

I didn’t know the meaning behind the song when I was a teenager lounging by the turntable loving how a fellow pianist put words together. I’m sure I wouldn’t have understood if I had. However, as I approach a big birthday this month (tomorrow, in fact), I’ve learned more of the story.

Listen to Vienna.

According to Google, “Vienna” is Joel’s stand in for old age. The Old World setting. The accordion solo. (Yes, when you’re talented enough, you can pull off an accordion solo in a top 40 hit.) The lilt that feels like a waltz but isn’t. He doesn’t, however, intend it as we might presume. The most obvious interpretation of “Vienna waits for you” seems to be “Old age is coming, youngster. It gets us all. Why work so hard? It’s all meaningless!” Shades of Ecclesiastes.

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No, he means something entirely different. Age, in this song, is beautiful. It’s a time when purpose, productivity, and depth can blossom in ways we cannot imagine when we’re young. 

“You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.”

I spent so many years trying to be everything I wanted to be. I wanted not to make the mistakes my parents did. I wanted to walk in a faith that was new to anyone in my family and do it right. I wanted those perfect Christian children, and that, of course, is often what finally undoes us in our ultimately unholy pursuit of perfection. 

I wanted to prove I could be everything because that was the only way I’d ever known to be anything.

Joel was right. There are things I couldn’t be, and patience would have been a better virtue than pursuit. A life of integrity is created like good cheese—time and careful nurture. When we try to rush it, we get a veneer of being everything that only reinforces our need to protect the surface at all costs. In my profession, we get pastoral abuse. 

We get the Colosseum of Las Vegas, not Rome. I’ve seen both. One could never mistake the former for the latter. 

“Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while. It’s alright—you can afford to lose a day or two.”

Not because the days ultimately don’t matter but because, with good fortune, we will have enough of them to find out what makes us come alive and who we want to be. That can’t be rushed. We’ve done a bit of a disservice to our younger generations with our endless “follow your passion” rhetoric not because passions are’t good to follow but because we’re demanding people know them out of the gate. Anyone who has’t figured it out and gotten 3/4 of the way there by 30 is slacking.

Before 30 I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and if you asked me still I’d probably tell you the same today. I won’t be grown up until my soul is restored to the perfection its Maker intended, so maybe that’s OK.

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If we don’t have the days ahead of us? All the more reason to invest in disappearing. I’ve written and will continue to write a lot about sabbath. God invented this whole concept of disappearing and called it good. It was the way God gave us to reacquaint ourselves with God and also with ourselves. Going “off the hook” puts us back in relationship balance.

We remember our place in the economy of history—big enough to be beloved by the Creator, small enough to be a grain of sand in relative time. Losing a day might gain us a soul. 

Please take the phone off the hook (whatever that mean anymore). Take social media off the hook. Take work off the hook. If you don’t lose a day or two, you’ll lose yourself. If we reach Vienna and that person really is a stranger (no coincidence this is the album title, I’m sure), we’ve lost too much.

So happy birthday to me. I’m entering what a viral Facebook post calls the most productive decade of human life. Sadly, Snopes has shown that post to be based on a false claim about a nonexistent study (and you so trusted in Facebook reliability, right?). To be honest, productivity may not be what I’m valuing most anyway. Still, David Galenson in Old Masters and Young Geniuses opines—there are different kinds of productivity and genius. One includes the “experimental innovators, those whose work was exploratory and filled with trial and error and decades of accumulated wisdom and feeling. Those who fit the experimental pattern did their best work later in life.” 

I’m going with that. Vienna isn’t here yet—but it waits, and that’s not a negative.

What Do We Believe about Death?

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When I was eighteen, the car I was a passenger in swerved to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. Two other vehicles—a car and a truck—hit us. Devastatingly, an elderly woman in the other car had a heart attack at the scene and died. In an attempt to comfort my friend, who had been driving and was at fault, I said to her as we left the hospital, “God must have had a reason for her to die now.” My friend looked at me and replied, “I don’t want to know that God.”

New to the faith and so young, I didn’t realize at the time what I know now—my words not only didn’t comfort my friend, they made her pain worse.

How many platitudes have you heard people utter in the face of death?

When we’re uncomfortable or uncertain, awkward words tumble out. If platitudes are the best we’ve got, though, what do we have to say in the face of tragedy? Personal tragedy, like the loss of a loved one, or a national tragedy, like Uvalde? Does what we really believe about death change what we say when we face it?

Continue reading at The Glorious Table.

Mickey Mouse, Sabbath, and Discernment

A girl in the high school class I taught showed up one morning in a T-shirt that had Mickey Mouse emblazoned on the front. I paid it little attention. It never occurred to me that Mickey was a dangerous character, plotting a school coup. I taught the class, comprised of seniors, and sent them on to their second-period class without a thought about their attire.

That is until I found myself in trouble with the principal for not sending the girl home. You see, the school had a rule against screen-printed clothing, and Mickey was an offender. Cuff him. He’ll never see The Happiest Place on Earth again.

Discernment is a gift of the Spirit. It means to be able to determine right from wrong and not to be deceived by anything that would lead us to foolish choices. As we spend more of our time creating rules about whom we associate with, what is acceptable to believe, and whose group is “in,” we’ve lost the skill of discerning guidelines created to help us flourish from barriers created for a false sense of security.

Luke narrates a story that helps us determine one from the other.

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One Sabbath, as Jesus was walking through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some religious leaders said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”

Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:1-5 NIV)

On two other occasions in Luke, Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. Rather than be overjoyed for them, the leaders “were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.” They had their rules. No work—including good work—was to be done on the Sabbath.

These were not God’s rules. They were human additions. Originally, God commanded humans to observe a sabbath—a healing, restoring, reconnecting day of rest. It was intended to remind us that we belong to a creating, saving God who works while we don’t.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Somewhere along the line, leaders studied the words of Scripture, interpreting every detail and creating long lists of what was allowed and not allowed.

They did this with good intentions. Life was more jumbled and chaotic after the exile, so they were returning order, giving people a sense of comfort, stability, and identity.

Sabbath is one of the most important commands, so they parsed it out and asked themselves what, exactly, “work” meant. Deliberations went on and on, which is how we come to the notion that merely picking a piece of grain randomly in a field, swishing out the chaff between your fingers, and popping it in your mouth is illegal “work.”

By Jesus’s time, obeying these interpretations had become a source of pride instead of an expression of love for God. Rules had become a way to wield power over people rather than to give them safe community guard rails.

The Sabbath matters to Jesus because the whole concept was meant to free people. Legalism about it ended up burdening people, just as it does now.

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Jesus asks some questions:

  • Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?
  • Suppose your child or ox fell into a ditch on the Sabbath day. Wouldn’t you immediately pull it out?

Also, he makes an important statement:

  • The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath

Rules are made for human flourishing; humans are not made for rule flourishing.

While we may not have to decide our own Sabbath rules, we are in the position of having to figure out for ourselves, “What are my rules going to be? What principles am I going to live by? What are my guard rails? How does Jesus help me discern them?” Most of us don’t (or shouldn’t) have these dictated to us, like clothing rules in a high school. We have to exercise our own discernment muscles.

Jesus invites his listeners, and us, to explore these helpful questions:

  • Are your rules setting people free?
  • Are they giving rest?
  • Are they doing good?
  • Are they saving lives?
  • Are they helping others?
  • Are they bringing you closer to God?

Discernment is not a gift for only a few. It’s a requirement. We’re all told to be wise as serpents. We’re all instructed to be responsible for our own choices and the voices we choose to hear.

Mickey Mouse rules don’t bring about the flourishing God planned. Wisdom does.

This post originally appeared at The Glorious Table.

Wally

This spot was empty in July. I had a newsletter and blog ready to send. It only needed a push of the button on the 4th or 5th. Instead, I found myself on a plane on the 5th, headed for Connecticut. I didn’t want to go.

Let’s start at the beginning. 35 years ago, I said “yes” to corresponding with a pen pal in Sing Sing prison, New York State. It was a program set up by Prison Fellowship. Wally wrote to me faithfully. He called (collect) every week. I was less faithful at writing, but I at least chatted on the weekly calls. Really, he chatted. I mostly listened, until the timer cut us off.

Through releases, returning to different prisons, drug episodes, homelessness, a terrible marriage choice, and more jail sentences, Wally and I kept writing and kept finding each other. I also moved, four times, and before the internet, keeping tabs through that was harder than you think.

Wally was a faithful friend, and also a professional thief and drug addict. Humans are a little complex that way. Someone on twitter last month asked me why I would choose to help a man she considered less than worthy instead of people more deserving. I didn’t answer. The question didn’t merit response. 

If a person can’t see the humanity of a man because he’s homeless and addicted, I refer them to Shakespeare. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Humans are all equally the image of God. Wally’s soup kitchen friends, whom I met in Connecticut, are not lesser images than those of us pontificating with our on keyboards how we would weigh human worth. God’s breath in our lungs gives us all enormous weight we’re too frail to carry on our own yet too glorious not to.

I got a call on Friday July 1st that Wally had chosen to enter hospice care for his stage 4 lung cancer. I didn’t blame him at all—it was the right and dignified choice of a man who has had little choice over the entirety of his life. I started checking flights.

Friday he was resigned but feeling OK. He could be in hospice for a few months. Monday they told me he was worse, but still, he could live for a few weeks. Tuesday, they called again and said he might not make it through the day. My plane was at 6pm. It got canceled, and the assistant got me on an earlier flight. Earlier, meaning I had to leave immediately.

A lot of us were praying I’d make it in time, but when the plane landed, I had a message to call the hospital. I did, and the information was what I’d feared. We’d lost Wally just an hour or two earlier, while I was in the sky between Chicago and Hartford. I guess I’m not the first person to cry in an airport.

Wally had named me his next of kin and medical power of attorney. Wading through Connecticut law looked daunting, and the gratitude I have for the hospital staff and everyone else who gave me both assistance and compassion is enormous. They did everything so well and so kindly. At some point, I’ll be the recipient of his ashes, the dust that we all return to the only thing left, except the beat up wallet and phone I carried home.

Paintings Wally made for us while in prison

Friends, I’m still processing. 

Processing the grief of a life that could have been so much better with a family who encouraged rather than abused (and a functional, redemptive prison system). 

Processing the sadness over never hearing “God bless and you know I love you. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers,” on every single sign off to a phone call or letter. Every one, for 35 years. 

Processing the trust that a man who had learned not to trust anyone put in me to make his life and death decisions. 

Processing the love that the staff and clients of his favorite place, the soup kitchen, had for him that overflowed in a memorial service right there in the kitchen that I was blessed to conduct. 

Processing how I witnessed, for two days, the reality of the dignity of every human life.
Most of all, I’m a witness to Wally’s life, the longest running one he had. So I’m telling his story, because he deserves that. We all do. 

Doing Our Faith

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I had a friend in high school with a white Camaro. Classic car. Meticulously restored. White-glove-clean inside and out. But whenever this friend had to go somewhere, he got a ride from friends or family. He owned a car, but he never drove it out of the garage. He retained it as a showpiece, but the purpose that car was built for—transportation—never happened.

Believers in Christ sometimes act like that Camaro owner. We (think) we have meticulous theology, airtight beliefs, and a knowledge of right and wrong. We’re constantly disciples, learning about God, but for what purpose? What is knowledge of God without action that resembles God? Jesus isn’t interested in us all getting a Ph.D. in Doing Church. He wants us to drive the car out of the garage and use it for its purpose.

Continue reading at The Glorious Table.

Why “How,” “Why?” and “Shocked!” Solve Nothing

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It’s all about power. It always has been.

If you’ve been around social media for any length of time, you’ve seen the reactions to weeks like we’ve recently had.

“I’m shocked!” “Heartbreaking.” “How is this still happening?” “I can’t imagine.” “Why aren’t we doing anything about this?”

This can be any number of things.

Right now, it’s a(nother) devastating school shooting. A week before it was a(nother) supermarket shooting, aimed at black Americans. Before/concurrent with that, a(nother) report of massive church negligence and buried abuse. But it could be so many things. 

We’re always shocked.

Not really. We’re never shocked anymore if we admit the truth. Anyone still shocked hasn’t been living in reality. It’s an easy placeholder when we have nothing else to say. When we have no intention of doing anything about the source of our shock.

We’re always heartbroken. We can never imagine what the tragedy is like, even though we can’t help but imagine every time we go to school drop off, at least for a while. BIPOC can’t help but imagine constantly. 

We pretend we don’t know why it happens, and we wring our hands in hopelessness at any change. Then we go back to our lives and pray, in those hiding places in the depths of our minds and hearts, that “next time” isn’t coming for us. We know there’s a next time; we know the space between is increasingly tighter.

Violence is becoming claustrophobic.

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The “why” is always the same.

It comes down to retention of power. What have we proven ourselves willing to accept in our fealty to the god of power? What sacrifices does this god require to grant power to those who are willing to feed it, bow to it, and beg from it? Church, how many silver coins have we taken to retain our small fiefdoms?

We know the answers.

  • Too many church leaders have been willing to accept the collateral damage of people in our congregations dying or being permanently disabled by Covid. It’s a sacrifice worth making to the gods who will ensure we remain popular and powerful.
  • As a whole, we’re willing to risk our children’s lives and mental well-being, so long as we can retain the power we imagine guns grant us. Future generations damaged by the psychological dissonance of fearing the place they should be safe don’t matter. Persons obsessed with their “rights” (and their campaign donations) keep their power. Children are a disposable sacrifice willingly made to uphold illusions of guns bestowing power and safety. Church leaders will pretend this is true so their base remains beneath their pedestal.
  • Abandoning church abuse victims, while destroying their mental health and reputations, seems a small price to offer the gods. It leads to easily retaining the power of office, leadership titles, and flowing funds.
  • Women know, too, when they speak up, that they will be screamed down by the worshipers of power. They know the price they will pay. They understand their abusers will receive at best 12-year sentences. Almost certainly, they’ll never even face legal ramifications. They know their careers will be endangered. Women recognize their detractors will be congratulated quietly in secret church meetings and openly on social media. The acolytes will never readily accept insulting their gods.
  • Our citizens, and future citizens, of color appear marginal losses compared to the blessings bestowed by white majority power. The zeal to retain it—refusing the delusion of “replacement”—allows for just about any sacrifice on the altar of supremacy. Violence is a tenet of the religion. It’s preached from pulpits that dare to be backed by a cross.
  • Our women endangered by traumatic pregnancies can be re-victimized and even left to die, because control over their behavior matters more than their lives. The church rightfully cares for life, but the lengths some will go to legally control rather than preserve life reveals their true goal. He who holds the control over any group’s bodies wields the power. Ask anyone who has a passing acquaintance with slavery in the US. 
  • That acquaintance, by the way, some in power desperately would have us not ever pass, for the same reason. Defaming brilliant people of color is a price they consider well worth paying. Don’t ask, don’t tell about our history of horror, and all will be well.

Make no mistake—these things are all related. They’re all related to power. They’re all part of the design to keep it at all and any cost. They’re all deeply rooted in the church, not just the culture. 

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Our outraged shock is misplaced. We should be past it. We can no longer be shocked, and we ought to give up the pretense. Shock isn’t action. There is no prize for being the most appalled. We’re not impressed by those whose privilege allows them to be continually amazed.

Our repeated cries of “Why?” only feed those in power. So long as we’re asking questions and wringing hands, we won’t be making any demands. Powerful churchmen can even appear righteous by answering the questions. Deflection. Whataboutism. Thoughts and prayers. 

The church needs to strike at the idolatry. She needs to ask herself—what am I worshiping? The church—its power structures and people—must return to its founding Rabbi and internalize his words of humility and emptying. The people who crave churches based on goodness, while acting in humility and kindness, can’t hold back on those strikes. The American church has a graft of an evil branch attached to its tree, and it needs pruning. After all, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4). This land, right now, is very, very foreign.

  • Any church leader who prizes reputation over transparency shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader who bows to white values (sometimes mistaken for family values, biblical values, God and country values) shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader whose behavior and doctrine embody disdain for women shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader who isn’t willing to submit to and be taught by the marginalized shouldn’t lead.
  • Any church leader whose love affair with authority exceeds a love for people shouldn’t lead.

And denominations should be holding their leaders to this, or we are right to abandon them. The church in American isn’t failing because of culture wars or Millennials and Gen Zers who just want to sin freely. We’re failing because we’re worshiping a false god and preaching a false gospel. When we give our offerings to the god of power, we reap the whirlwind we’ve sown.

Why does this keep happening? Because those in power are willing to let it–they want it to keep happening. Those not in power need to be loud in our refusal to assent. 

No Fault Forgiveness

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I woke up at 3:30 this morning, and I was preaching a sermon. Or as I prefer to say, teaching a sermon. Yes, I was awake, watching myself, in a sense, creating an outline on a whiteboard and inviting the congregation to talk about repentance and forgiveness. It was a very strange experience, needless to say. At the time, I thought to my semi-aware self, “I hope I remember this in the morning to write it down, because I think it’s good stuff.”

Who knows though how good 3am theology really is? Also, as I’m writing this having been up since 3:30am, I make no guarantees on its quality, either.

I am writing it down. I believe that someone needs to hear it, whether that’s you, my congregation, me—I don’t know. It didn’t come to me for no reason though, so here, at least, is part of the forgiveness piece.

What Forgiveness Is–and Is Not

Many people in the church, especially women, are bullied into forgiveness rather than walked alongside toward it with grace. You don’t have to look far right now to find the double anguish of women who have spoken up about abuse seemingly helped along by the church. In too common practice, leadership then accuses them of trying to destroy their church/pastor/spouse by not engaging in “biblical” forgiveness. 

What they mean, of course, is not being willing to pretend the abuse never happened, and if it did, to agree that they are mostly to blame.

So where do repentance and forgiveness belong in the cycle of church life and discipleship? 

Forgiveness seems to me to have 3 steps.

  • Release
  • Reconciliation
  • Restoration

(Yes, even in an odd awake dream, I apparently alliterate like a good preacher. The “repent” side was also 3 ‘R’s.’ Whatever.)

Release

“Release” is what we typically see Jesus talking about when he mentions forgiveness. In Matthew 18.22, he uses a word that means to cast away or to let go. When Peter famously asks how many times we should forgive someone who has harmed us, Jesus answers with “seventy times seven”—a phrase known to mean “infinite.”  

When someone harms you, continually release them from the debt they owe you. Let the account go. As Paul will later explain, “Love keeps no record of being wronged.” So forgiveness, to Jesus, means to free both people from the imprisonment of holding on to a wrong. He asks that we choose to toss away the accounting books that hold the debt.

This aligns with the parable with which he follows his statement to Peter. A rich man forgives the massive debt of another man. The second, however, chooses to hold on to a much smaller debt owed to him. This, Jesus makes clear, is an affront to the generosity he has had extended to him. As what we now call the Lord’s Prayer teachers us, true gratitude for our own forgiveness results in forgiveness extended to others.

In Jesus’ definition of forgiveness, books are wiped clean.

But what is not happening in this story? Debts are wiped clean, but does this mean the people in the story are to go forward pretending they had never been incurred? Do they allow the person to accumulate debt again in the same way? Jesus doesn’t demand that. The release is required—but the reconciliation and restoration are not necessarily a part of that equation.

That’s where we can fail, in an abusive situation, to teach forgiveness the way Jesus did. Forgiveness is a miracle and a sign of a heart alive to Christ’s deep love for them. It can never be marveled at enough. Downplaying its importance is to forget Jesus’ pretty serous words earlier in Mathew 6.14-15.

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Yet forcing it, in a world where we know repentance is often false and peace a one-way street, feels like an abuse of the very concept. It appears to be mocking Jesus’ “490” proclamation, not endorsing it.

Full disclosure—I am a #metoo woman. I was abused by a relative from the ages of 8-14. I have quite a clear grasp on what it feels to demand forgiveness versus come to it by grace. I have forgiven. The release is complete for me. Nevertheless, restoration of the relationship was never on the table. The harm done continues to this day, and a demanded restoration of trust would have been a sham. Indeed, with three daughters of my own, trust would not ever be offered in any way. We both have freedom. We do not have a relationship.

This is why it’s helpful, I think, to look at this 3-step process for forgiveness. We can get through step one, and that truly is the forgiveness that Jesus asks of us. Steps 2 and 3 may happen, and they may not. Either one is OK.

Reconciliation

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A possible Step 2—reconciliation—is simply to say to another, “You’re part of the family again. You’re accepted back.” The person has repented, and the relationship is mended.

  • It’s the church treasurer who stole money and repaid it reconciled to the body—but she is not necessarily given back a position at the till.
  • It’s the person who has gossiped or lied about another being taken back into a group of friends or a church small group. The person lied about has received an apology, but he might never entrust that friend with vulnerable truths again.
  • It’s the alcoholic parent being invited to Thanksgiving and the family vacation at the lake. His daughter, however, will continue to hide keys and perhaps credit cards.

Reconciliation is a move beyond release to acceptance, with caution. The release is done. The forgiveness part is over. The shalom has begun. It is not yet complete. In this place it might never be. We cannot force reconciliation nor should we, because we could be pushing someone who has already forgiven back into a relationship where there is no true repentance. 

The abuse will continue, and it will be twice as damaging, because everyone will assume all is well when a happy face bandaid is put on a deep unhealed wound. There will be pressure for the wounded not to speak up again, and the abuser will take advantage of that. 

Reconciliation is the choice of the victim, and it should never be assumed. 

Restoration

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Restoration seems to take it one step farther in the sense that the relationship is restored completely. Terry returns to the equation.

This is the church treasurer not only being invited back to fellowship but to trust and leadership. It’s the spouse not only forgiven abuse or adultery but the repair of the relationship to a better state than before. It’s Saul of Tarsus becoming Paul while Ananias vouches for the man who would have killed him a month before, given the chance.

This is the kind of “as far as the east is from the west” forgiveness God extends. It’s not a human ability. When it happens, it’s a miracle of grace and God. 

It doesn’t have to happen.

Healthy Forgiveness

I believe it’s time we look at Jesus-taught forgiveness for what it is, not for the painless (for the perpetrator), “don’t make waves” conviction many church leaders fall into. Forgiveness is the release of debt. It can be done unilaterally, as in my case mentioned above. 

Jesus emphasizes its importance because our unwillingness to wipe clean the slate of another shows a poor understanding and experience of God’s great love in clearing our own slates. Bitterness and resentment in the heart and soul of a believer set up a roadblock to our own intimacy with God. We lose our first love.

Reconciliation and restoration are never unilateral. They cannot be the work of one person. The image of either one requires two sides coming together. Thus while one offended party does the work of release, the offender must be doing the work of repentance. (Recognize the wrong, take responsibility for the wrong, and restore what was taken—if you want to know the 3 R’s in that half.) 

The reconciliation and restoration are possible—but they are not required. This side of eternity, many things will be restored by the grace of God. Many, however, will not. This is the tension with which we live as believers. We believe and hope for God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. We recognize that this liminal occurrence isn’t common. We pray for grace. W repeat. Amen.