The Lost Man and the Tree

I came outside to an almost empty street.  A large crowd stood at the gates of Jericho, cheering and praising God.   The crowd began moving slowly inside of the gates, and a small girl came running by me.  “Pardon me, Talitha.   What is happening?”

Breathlessly she stopped and said, “Jesus!  Jesus of Nazareth!  He has come to Jericho!  And he has made Blind Bartimaus see!!” 

Before I could question the girl further, her mother swiftly walked up and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her away.  I could hear her spit my name like a curse, fussing at her daughter, “That’s Zacchaeus. Don’t ever talk to him.”

That sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me, but this was inconvenient because I wanted more information.  I had heard murmurings around town that Jesus would be coming, and everyone had plans to go out and meet him and guide him to Simon’s house.  Simon was the head Rabbi at the synagogue, so it only made sense that this rumored prophet of God stay at his house. 

How I wished that I could have gone out with the crowd to meet Jesus!  I had heard so many marvelous things about the man, and to think that he actually did a miracle outside our city gates made me heartsick because I missed it!  What was he like?   Seeing him in the crowd would be my only possibility of seeing Jesus, but even that was a slim possibility for me.  I’m short, so standing at the back of a crowd would do me no good.  But going into the crowd is way too risky. A quick flash of steel, and I could fall, with no one to step out and aid me.

I’m not liked much in Jericho.  I’m a tax collector; “wretched collaborator with Rome,” or so the people say.  I never meant to be that.  I needed work, and one day a Roman official came to Jericho seeking a man for the job.  Of course, no one wanted to do it!  Collaborating with Gentile Romans caused instant defilement.  My mistake was making eye contact with the official.  Before I knew it, he had pointed me out and assigned me the job.  It didn’t seem as much a request as a demand, and before I could think about resisting, the townspeople made the decision for me.  They began spitting at me and cursing me until the Roman official had a soldier draw a sword to restore order.  The official looked at me and said I could charge as much over as I needed to cover my own expenses, and that I should consider adding a surcharge for every time I was spit and cursed at.  He shoved a bag with a ledger in it and walked off laughing.  After a few months it became clear to me I was the town pariah, as no one would dare step foot into my house since it too was defiled because of me. 

At first I did start charging more, out of spite.  But then, I got used to the extravagant way of living.  If I was going to be hated, I might as well be able to buy anything I could imagine.  But even Blind Bartimaus had it better than me socially, and that’s not a lot – but now look at him!  If what I just heard was true – he can see!  And he got to see and talk to Jesus!  Of course, a man like him deserves that.  He’s been oppressed his whole life.   I don’t deserve that kind of mercy from God  – not after what I’ve become; an oppressor to God’s people. 

I know I won’t be permitted to go to Rabbi Simon’s house.  He hasn’t spoken to me in over a decade.  I look back towards the crowd, and am surprised to see that the crowd has moved past Simon’s house, and is getting closer to where I stand.  That must mean that Jesus is not staying in Jericho, which means I may just have a chance to get a glance of him, if I move quickly!

I run as fast as I can to the Sycamore tree just outside of town.  It has wide branches for climbing, and the leaves are so large, I should be able to remain hidden once I have settled in.  This is the perfect spot for me to get an unhindered view of Jesus. 

I hold my breath as the crowd starts emerging from the backside of the city.  I’m straining to figure out which one is Jesus, and just as I think I’ve figured out which one he is, I hear a child yell, “Look Papa!  There’s a man in that tree! Look at that silly man!”

I sigh.  Middle Eastern men do not climb trees.  I’m not going to be able to go unnoticed after all.  People start straining to look my way, and I hear my name.  “It’s Zacchaeus, the filthy collaborator!”  That brings forth an anonymous onslaught of insults and curses.  I even feel a rock or two bounce off my legs.  I close my eyes and hold my breath, praying for mercy, that the crowd will move on and that Jesus won’t notice the small ruckus I have created. 

As I’m wishing that the earth would just open up and swallow me, I notice that a hush has fallen over the crowd.  For a moment I think they must have moved on, but when I open my eyes, I almost fall out of the tree.  Just below is Jesus, looking right at me! I see the smirks on everyone else’s face, and I brace myself for a strong condemnation from this man of God.

“Zacchaeus! You need to come down from that tree!  I must stay at your house today!” It was the first time in a long time that I had heard my name spoken with love and such delight.  He seemed excited!   Shock and joy burst in my heart and I practically fell out of the tree getting to the ground so that I could take him to my house. 

As we walked along, I could hear the crowd murmuring against Jesus.  He had taken the heat off of me.  It didn’t matter though.  I was taken in by his love.  I couldn’t stop staring at him in wonder.  He didn’t seem put off by the crowd’s disdain at all, and smiled and winked at me for reassurance.  I still couldn’t believe he had rejected the offer of staying at the Rabbi’s house (or Jericho at all), but changed his mind when he saw me!  He had to have heard the curses being thrown at me.  He knew who I am – an oppressor, and yet, he has seen me and has given me such a great mercy!   He is going to stay at my house, at risk of being defiled by me, and it doesn’t seem to bother him.  I am filled to the brim with his acceptance of me, and I burst. “Lord!  I will give away half of my income to the poor, and anyone I have cheated, I will restore four times worth of damages!” 

He smiles long at me, and addresses the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this home, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

In that moment, I knew I wasn’t lost to God anymore, no matter how anyone labeled me.  Salvation indeed had come to me, in the form of Jesus, and through his full acceptance of me.  And I was changed because of it.

The Healing

A few Sundays ago, the gospel reading in the lectionary told the story of 10 lepers being healed by Jesus.  The story goes that 10 lepers were far away from Jesus and cried out for him to have mercy on them.  He said to them, “Go show yourselves to the Priest” and as they went along their way, they were cleansed.  One, a Samaritan, seeing that he had been cleansed, ran back to Jesus and thanked him for healing him.  Jesus wondered at where the others were, but turned to the man and said, “Get up and go. Your faith has made you well.”

I have been chewing on this story for a couple of weeks now.  I have been wondering about the nine lepers who did not return to Jesus to thank him for their healing, and what reasons they may have had. And I’ve been pondering the man that did return to Jesus and the statement that Jesus made to him upon his return.

I imagine myself in the group of lepers, crying out to Jesus, “Jesus, have mercy on us!”  I hear him say clearly, “Go, show yourselves to the Priest.”  And I imagine on any given day I could have a myriad of responses.

Response 1: I look at Jesus as he turns towards someone that’s closer to him, that can touch him.  All he said was to go show myself to the priest.  What good is that going to do?  I thought he would come over here and touch me to heal me, or at least call me over.  I have heard that he has touched others.  Why wouldn’t he do that for me too? It’s not even worth going to the priest, because Jesus obviously isn’t going to heal me.  In my sulking, I don’t even notice that I’ve been healed.

Response 2: I look down and notice that my skin seems to be clear. I’m in disbelief!  How is this possible?   Jesus didn’t say I was healed though.  Maybe it’s just the way the sun is shining on my skin.  After all, wouldn’t he do something more than just tell us to go to the priest to check our skin?  I bet it’s only my arms and face that have cleared, but I probably am still leprous on my stomach.  Is that itchiness I feel?  I scratch my belly through my ragged cloaks and think about going home instead.  Don’t want to embarrass myself.

Response 3:  As soon as Jesus instructs us to go to the Priest, I realize, my skin has cleared!  Yes!  I’m definitely going to the Priest so that I can get clearance to go see my family and friends again. As I go on my way, I start worrying.  But what if it doesn’t stay healed?  What if it comes back after I go see the Priest?  Worse, what if it comes back before I can even get to the Priest?  I study my skin closely.  Is it itching again?  Is that a spot?  Should I even go to the Priest if the spots are just going to come right back?  I guess I will, but I worry all the way there, and can’t stop worrying that my healing isn’t permanent.

Response 4:   I look down and my skin is clear.  I have a slight moment of excitement but then shake my head and think, No, this is too good to be true. Jesus wouldn’t heal me.  I don’t deserve his favor. I’m sure he will find out what a lousy person I really am and withdraw his goodwill towards me. I’ve probably only been sent to the Priest to be reminded of my unworthiness. I slink back towards my lonely tent in shame.

Response 5:  As soon as Jesus tells us to go to the Priest, I look down and notice that I’ve been cleansed!  That’s great!  Well I mean, of course I would be healed.  I’ve always done the right thing.  It seemed totally unfair that I should get this wretched disease in the first place when I’m such a good person.   And of course God answered my prayer and that proves what a great person I am!  I skip towards the Temple to see the Priest thinking only of myself.

Response 6:  Jesus tells us to go see the Priest.  I look around. Everyone else is looking down at themselves in wonder.  It’s obvious they’ve been healed.  I’m afraid to look.  I just don’t believe that it could happen for me.  I’ve been this way for so long.  It was they that had cried out for mercy.  Not me.  I just can’t look and face another huge disappointment.

Response 7:  I hear the command, “Go show yourselves to the Priest.”  I look around.  There’s one guy that starts jumping for joy and starts running back towards Jesus. There’s a few others that start walking doubtfully towards the Temple grounds.  Some of the others look like they are just going back to our camp.  What should I do?  What’s the right thing to do?  Obviously some of my friends don’t actually think we’ve been healed, so maybe what I’m seeing isn’t real.  But then there are some that are going to the Priest – maybe I should too.   I’m definitely not following that Samaritan.  He couldn’t possibly have it right.  But I just really don’t know what to do.  I flounder between just going back home or following the others to the Priest. I just wish everyone was doing the same thing so that I could know what to do.

Response 8:  I am amazed! My skin is clear!  But I better go to the Priest and get it checked out for sure.  I mean, it looks to me like I’m clean, but what if I’m not?  I’ll just have to trust the Priest to let me know if this is certain healing or not.

Response 9:  I am astonished.  I look around as we all admire each other’s clear skin. Okay, so Jesus told us to go to the Priest.  That’s what I’m going to do.  Sheesh there are some people here who aren’t going to the Priest.  They won’t stay healed.  You have to follow the directions if you’re going to get and stay healed.  I chuckle and roll my eyes at the Samaritan who is running back in the direction of Jesus.  I feel sure that Jesus is going to rebuke him and tell him to go to the Priest like he said to in the first place.   Well, that’s what I’m going to do and my healing will be sure.

Response 10:  I swear Jesus looked right at me when he said, “Go show yourselves to the priest.”  He saw me, and I felt no shame being seen as a Samaritan or a Leper.  As soon as he said the words, I turned to do as he said, but then felt such a relief in my body that I had to look at and touch my skin.  It was smooth and clear!  Such joy burst from my heart, I could only praise God, and that I did at the top of my lungs.  I must thank this man that offered God’s healing to me.  I must go to him!!  How can I not? So, I turned and ran back towards him, lest I lose sight of him.  Out of breath, I threw myself at his feet, kissing them and thanking him for healing me.  I looked up at him and he asked me where the others were that had been healed.  I honestly didn’t know.  All my thoughts had gone to Jesus, and He was all I wanted to know.  He turned his face towards me and smiled.  I fell deeply into his gaze as he said, “Get up and go.  Your faith has made you well.”   And in that moment, taking in my deliverer, whatever suspended disbelief I may have carried melted away, and I believed him fully. 

The story tells us that when Jesus instructed the Lepers to go to the Priest, they all were cleansed.  Even when he spoke to the Samaritan at the end of the story, he says “Were not 10 healed? Where are the other 9?”   I believe that all the men were healed physically. Some may argue that perhaps they lost their healing because they didn’t come back and express gratitude, but it doesn’t say that.  And that goes against the stories Jesus had been telling of the compassionate and merciful masters, and the father who takes back a prodigal son. I believe they kept their physical healing, but missed out on experiencing the love God had for each of them.

This story reminds us that God’s mercy is bound only by our lack of belief.  The healing and love was there for all of them in abundance. But it took faith to accept and believe it – and that faith drove the Samaritan straight back to Jesus. This is no less true for us today then it was for all 10 of the lepers in that day. God’s love is unimaginably huge, and we all are welcomed into it, if we would only dare to look in His eyes and believe Him.

I will, with God’s help

I have been thinking a lot lately about our baptismal covenant.  As an Episcopalian, at every baptism, confirmation and various other special days, the congregants are asked to renew our Baptismal Covenant.  It’s lovely really, the things you would expect of a Baptismal Covenant.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?

And we as a congregation answers, “I will, with God’s help.”  

Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

                I will with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

                I will with God’s help. 

And those are really easy to say.  I love that the covenant recognizes and confesses the need for God’s help in keeping the covenant, because it gets real in the next two questions:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Honestly, I struggle with those two.  I mean, of course I want justice and peace among people and I want to serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being – it is what we are supposed to do – but in practice, what does that really look like?  How do I strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

Corruption is all over government and corporate America.  I have Christian friends both conservative and liberal, and as we choose sides, we tend to demonize the leaders (and sometimes followers) of the other side.  And the more I see memes and articles and opinions offering condemnation and/or poking fun at the other side, the more I see us divided in Christ.  We’re not striving for peace amongst ourselves, so how can we strive for peace for the world? 

But Jennifer….what they are doing is evil.  What they are thinking is evil.  We need to condemn it!   Maybe, I don’t know.   What I do know is that our Baptismal Covenant says nothing about condemning evil.  Resist evil – yes.  Fight for justice – yes.  But fighting for justice doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the right to make fun of or condemn other people.  Getting angry and condemning actions and systems of oppression may be right and appropriate, but doing that alone does not change anything and does not actually give justice to those who need a voice and support.   

 We absolutely do not have to agree with the evil we see.  But it does not benefit anyone to merely point it out and condemn it in self-righteous indignation.  I’m speaking of myself here.  It is very easy for me to see the articles and memes that reaffirm my beliefs and get angry at the other and feel justified in laughing at something stupid the other side has done, or judge another person asking if they can really be Christians if they believe/do a certain thing.  But both sides feel that way, and feel that they are the right ones.  When I cast myself as the right one, I separate myself from my neighbor and don’t necessarily promote peace.  God has been whispering to me each time I do this, “Lean into your Baptismal Covenant, Love.  How can you be justice for people?  Are you truly respecting the dignity of that person you are chuckling at?  How can you encourage peace while standing by the ones who need a voice?”

God is the right one.  And He loves everyone.  And that is our calling.  We are children of God. We are a resurrection people.  People of restorative justice, mercy and reconciliation. 

I honestly don’t know what exactly it looks like, at least in my life.  But as I lean into the baptismal covenant, as I strive to respect the dignity of every human being and serve Christ in all people, all I can say is, “I will, with God’s help.”

Darkness Acknowledged

I’ve been doing some trauma work lately in therapy. It’s been pretty intense as I have a lot of repressed anger, and processing that is actually harder for me then processing the trauma itself. Those that know me well know that I don’t do anger. Anger is one of those emotions that was pretty frowned upon in the Christian circles I grew up in.

Although anger was not explicitly forbidden, the basic teachings were that righteous anger, like Jesus’ was permitted, and then if you did get angry about anything else, well, “in your anger, do not sin.” But no one ever really explained what that looked like. Obviously, physical violence, threatening, and/or name-calling (Raca!) was not okay (unless of course you’re Jesus flipping tables and calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers). But what about thoughts? Well, even thoughts were to be suspect, because really anything you were thinking was basically you doing it in your heart. Or so we were taught from the words of Jesus in the Bible when he commented on lusting after a woman in your heart being basically adultery. And so we had to watch our thoughts, lest we do something horrendous in our hearts! And on top of that, if someone did something that injured, we were always encouraged to forgive pretty immediately. Afterall, Jesus forgave us for those awful thoughts and other sins we have done against him, so there’s no room for anger against others. In my young mind, the only answer I had when I got angry – in order to keep from sinning – was to deny I had the anger. The problem with that is emotions don’t just disappear when you don’t process and work through them. My anger got buried deeply in my brain and body, and for a while that was okay. Friends would comment on how calm and happy I always seemed. But eventually, the mask started to slip, and I found that in order to deal with the anger that just wouldn’t be shoved anymore, I started turning it against myself, working hard to numb this emotion that I had been shamed for.

I have done this for years, so fast forward to now, and my therapist and I have come to the conclusion that the repressed anger has got to come out. It’s a very slow work in progress, because I still feel a great deal of shame and fear when it comes to allowing myself to feel anger in my body. My therapist thinks I fear that I’m going to “hulk out” and turn into a giant green monster that destroys everything in sight. He reassures me that it won’t happen, but my anger feels like something so dark and violent, that I can’t trust that it won’t happen. In my mind, that kind of deep rage that is buried there is evil, so I carry a lot of shame and I want it to stay hidden. But it’s killing me, and my therapist assures me that it’s okay for it to come out. He won’t judge me.

I’ve been praying about this, asking God to help me heal, and He keeps bringing me back to the story of the demoniac from the Gerasenes region. I’ve pondered it for a while now and there are some interesting points that have stuck out to me.

Basically this man was possessed and as the story goes, no one could control him. He would break ropes and chains. He lived amongst the tombs and would scream and slash himself with stones. In the story, Jesus had just stepped out of his boat when the man saw him from a long way off and came running up to him, bowing down.

The interesting thing about this is that Jesus didn’t come after him. Jesus didn’t command him to come to him. The man and his demons came running to Jesus. The demons knew who he was, and as we will see later in the story, they were afraid of what Jesus would do to them – and yet, they still came and fell before him. This is not the first story where a demonized person comes to Jesus out of their own free will, terrified, and yet, they come to him. There is something about Jesus, that draws even demons to himself. As he’s on the ground, the man shouts at Jesus, asking what he wants because he knows who he is – the Son of the Most High God – and he starts begging Jesus not to torture him.
Then Jesus does something interesting and quite compassionate – he asks the demon his name.

Really let that sink in.

This demon has been torturing this man, and Jesus has the power to bring the demon out, condemn him and send him to what the demon calls “the bottomless pit.” Jesus has the power to give this demon what for, but he doesn’t. He asks the demon his name. Names are important. Names identify us and connect us. Names allow us to be seen. One could argue – if Jesus had the power to condemn the demon to the pit – he likely already knew his name. And even if he didn’t – he was a demon – an enemy of God and humanity – why would his name matter?

But somehow, it did matter. When Jesus called the demon out of the man, he made sure that the demon was seen. Named. Acknowledged.

And the demon was still scared. He knew what Jesus could do to him, and so he begged Jesus not to punish him, not to send him to the pit, but instead begged to be allowed to go to the pigs on the hillside.

And Jesus listened. He listened to the pleas of the demon, and he had mercy. He had to have known that casting the “Legion” into the pigs would free them to go somewhere else, or maybe even come back, but he did it anyway. There was no condemnation of the demons or the man – just freedom for all of them.

Jesus reminded me – if he didn’t condemn demons, he’s not going to condemn my deeply buried anger. Like the demon, he will call it out and it will name itself, and he will acknowledge it, listen, and set us both free.
He has reminded me that I need not be afraid of my darkness, because he doesn’t condemn it. He accepts me as I am, and loves me into healing and wholeness. Darkness and all.

Psalm 139: 11-12 “If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

Don’t listen to the haters

I saw a video yesterday that disturbed me. In it, a couple of women were yelling at a man in a McDonalds, telling him that he was too fat to be eating there, and that he needed to leave. They even went so far as to tell him that he just needed to stop eating and that he was disgusting. It really bothered me.

A few different people stood up for him and started yelling back at the women, who were eventually asked to leave by management.

However, as all of this was going on, the man was just standing there. I had to wonder how he was feeling in all of this, because while there were people taking up for him, no one was actually talking to him or trying to encourage him. If I’d been there, I would have talked to him, and not engaged with the women, owing partly to my aversion to confrontation, but more importantly I would want to support him in what seemed like an awful situation. So, I’d like to write an open letter to this man, and to anyone else who has ever been shamed for the shape, color, gender or state of their body.

Dear One,
If I were there, I would take your hands in mine and ask you to look at me. And I would look at you – and I mean really look at you. With my eyes, I would embrace you as the beautiful, worthy person that you are, and I would try my best to reflect that back to you.

And this is what I would tell you:

Your body is a good body. As it is. It does not need to be changed to be worthy of food, pleasure or respect. Don’t listen to them.

Your body does not determine your worth.  You being alive and breathing – your very being determines your worth, and it’s complete. Your body is perfect the way it is. Don’t listen to them.

Your story – it’s yours and it’s amazing. These people telling you how you should be don’t know the blood, sweat and tears that you have poured into your life. They don’t know the experiences that have made you and are making you. They don’t know what you need and they don’t have the right to tell you what you need. Their opinion does not matter, because they have not walked with you all the way. Don’t listen to them!

Your body has walked long with you though. Your body has been there for you through the good times and the hard times. Your body values your life.

Your body is a record of all that has been in your life, and that’s amazing!

Listen to your body. As it has walked with you, walk with it. It’s voice is far more important than the voices shouting around you, trying to shame it into a different state. Feed it, move with joy in it, give it rest and listen. Listen. It will tell you what it needs. And that’s enough.

You are worthy as you are. You are beautiful as you are. You are enough.

Don’t listen to the haters.

Rachel Held Evans and Community

When I found myself sojourning away from Evangelical Christianity a few years ago, in search of a way of relating to God that was not heavy laden with constant guilt, shame and fear, it felt very lonely. My husband had his own sojourning that has ended quite differently than mine, but he expressed that the one thing that scared him the most was losing community and the friends he had at church. He had read so many accounts of people losing their faith and automatically losing their community because of it. I vehemently argued that this wouldn’t happen. Not with the Christians we knew and had come to love. I remember him shrugging and saying that he was preparing for it, so that when it happened he wouldn’t be upset. And when it happened, I was the one that wasn’t prepared. I was also not prepared when I lost cherished friendships because my beliefs had merely changed into a different flavor of Christianity. It felt isolating, and it made me question the path God was leading me down, because I felt so alone in it. And yet, I knew it was the way He was leading me, so there was no turning back.

But, God had not led me down that path to be alone with Him. He opened my eyes to the great community of believers, sojourners, wilderness children thought to be lost, but found in the great love of Christ our savior. The church I have settled into holds lots of space for everyone, and so I found a place where I could ask questions and be who I am without worrying about losing friendships or being judged.  I have found my people for this part of my journey.

I also found an online community of the wounded, the doubters, the joyful, the sorrowful, the wanderers, the mystics, the hopeful, but most importantly the beloved ones of God who are fervently seeking Love in yet undefined spaces. Rachel Held Evans was one of the prophetic voices curating this space for us, binding wounds, opening doors and making room at the table for anyone starving for the living bread and water of life. And she died this weekend. She was my age, with two very small children, and my heart is just broken. So many people all over the world were praying for her healing from sickness, not expecting this sickness would actually lead to her untimely death.
And the community is mourning at large, together. I have seen so many tributes to Rachel, testifying to how she walked with us on our journey and/or led us wilderness children back to the water we so longed for and needed. At first, I felt very alone in my grief. I only knew her through her words, and through hearing her speak at the Evolving Faith conference that was held last October. Why was I taking this so personally, when she has close friends and family that definitely have the right to be devastated? But as everyone has been mourning, and sharing their very vulnerable thoughts and fears and doubts, I started hearing the same things I was feeling. And there was encouragement that we are allowed to feel how we feel. No shame. There have been no cheap platitudes or coffee mug verses being thrown around; just a deep sitting with the heaviness we all feel. An acknowledgement that life isn’t fair and that there is so much we just don’t understand. And I started drawing comfort from the togetherness we have in this great sorrow, even though we are all over the world. Somehow, it feels like we have been drawn closer together in this, and it feels like a great force of love is growing out of the void of Rachel’s death. Because we are being real and honest with each other. There is no posturing, no hollow words of comfort. Just togetherness in sorrow. And that is Church. That is the Body of Christ. There lies hope. Because, just as Rachel was in her own way being Christ to us, we are being Christ to each other, and His love courses through us, wanting to be poured out, with more than enough to go around.

So let us follow Rachel’s example of being Christ to everyone, even those who cursed her or disagreed with her, and let us continue to draw closer to each other as the body of Christ – differences and all.

Love and Holiness

I have been thinking about the holiness of God lately.  Specifically how does the holiness of God work with the love of God?

The meaning of “holy” is “to be set apart.”  When we think of God being holy, there is an idea that He is set apart from us.  Which granted, He is in a way, which I will explain later.  However, what I have experienced in the church and my background is the idea that God is so holy that He is untouchable and/or unapproachable.  This particular idea of His holiness seems to negate His ability to love and forgive us freely.  Holiness and the wrath of God intertwine so tightly that there is no room for love.  When one hazards the legitimate question of how a loving God can send people to hell to burn for eternity just for not believing the exact right thing – the answer is always, “God is HOLY.”  Because He’s holy and we are utterly depraved, God feels pretty wrathful towards us about that, so not even His love can protect us from His holy wrath.  His holiness and wrath demand blood one way or another, and only then can he offer his love and forgiveness to us, assuming we believe the right thing about all of this.  If that doesn’t make you nervous about God’s holiness, then word pictures from the Bible and from some well-known pastors can help you move in that direction.  I’ve heard descriptions of God’s glory and holiness being so unapproachable and overwhelming that we would burn in God’s presence if we were even allowed there.  Not much indication of unconditional love there.  This is an exclusive holiness.

So I’ve been wrestling with the idea of God being Love and Holy and what that really looks like.  I have concluded that it is because of God’s love – because He is Love – that He is holy.  He is set apart from us because He loves us perfectly and unconditionally. He has the kind of love that we cannot seem to manage even under the best of circumstances.  But God – He does it in the very worst of circumstances!  That is holiness.  That is the glory of God!  I find it hard to see any wrath in that kind of holiness.  His holiness is not something that excludes us.  The virtue of His holiness is that He wraps us in His love and calls us His own.  We are the ones that have created the language of Holy exclusion – not God.

And some would argue that the Bible says that He is untouchably holy…..And to them I say, the Bible says a lot, but most importantly that God is Love.  It tells us that God is so in love with us that he became one of us.  Born in dirt, made with dust.  Suffered with us. Touched and restored the ones deemed untouchable and unclean. The ones excluded from a holy God that demanded sacrifice.  Turned that idea upside down by reminding them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Told a “this is God” story about a rich Father that loved his wayward son so much that he swept him up – pig stink and all – into his arms and welcomed him back lavishly.  And when they killed him for turning the ideals of power upside down, for letting all in, he did not invoke the wrath of God with His dying breath, but instead asked God to forgive them.  That is holy.

When I watch the way my dad is with my mom, how much he loves her, reaches out to her, and stays with her in the midst of her disease, I witness God’s love in action and those are the holiest of moments.  When I feel compassion or watch my husband’s gentleness with my child during a difficult moment – God’s love is real there, and it’s holy.

I have come to the conclusion, through my experience with this holy God, that His holiness is defined by his love, not the other way around.

Late Thoughts

I haven’t been writing all that much lately. I put way too much pressure on myself to try and say something profound each time I write. Lovely husband says I should just write anyway.  He said that a few months ago.  So here I am.

I think I feel this pressure to be okay when I write. I mean, sure I struggle with my faith in God at times, but I don’t write about it until I can tie it up in a nice neat bow at the end.  Because it doesn’t seem encouraging to say “I don’t know where God is.”  The end.

You ever notice how best-selling stories of faith and overcoming ALWAYS end with the redemption in the story?  The “I’m angry with God” parts are, at worst, completely left out or at best skimmed over – a stepping stone to the redemption.  I’m all for redemption stories; after all my faith is based on one.  But what happens when the story doesn’t end in redemption?  But Jennifer – you may say – what about life after death?  God will redeem and reconcile all to Himself.  I will give you that hope, but it is not a comfort in a raw moment where you are watching your mother cry and suffer with some sort of pain that she can’t even articulate – and you can do nothing to ease that suffering and you wonder how much longer she must endure.

It’s these moments that I don’t know where God is; that I don’t want to hear anyone try to make it okay with Christian platitudes.  Because sometimes, it’s just not okay.  Sometimes life is awful and unfair and there is no pretty answer to make it all okay.

I am learning that God still meets me in the ugly, and that doesn’t mean it’s warm and fuzzy or that things get “fixed”.    But He’s there.  Just like I can sit with my mom in her suffering, when she has no idea that I’m even there.  Just like I can try to stay in the moment with my kiddo when s/he is having an all out melt-down and can’t hear a word I say. Would it be nice to hear God and have His comfort in those moments?  Absolutely!  But it doesn’t happen that way a lot of times.  Sometimes I feel alone and I doubt that God is there and I wonder at God’s goodness in a world with so much suffering.  And there is no pretty bow to tie it up in.  It’s just the way it is.

 

 

 

To Be Known

I have been deconstructing my faith for over a year now.  It’s taken me a lot of trust and healing work with God to come to a place where I’m not afraid or mired in guilt or shame anymore.  I don’t know how a religion that is supposed to set people free and be such good news can hold one in so much fear and guilt.  Unfortunately, I’m not alone in my experience.

There are still times I feel a resurgence of fear though.  Old habits die hard. I know that fear is not from God.  There’s a difference between the Holy Spirit convicting me and fear that comes from religion, so anytime I feel old fear rising from stuff that always terrified me before, I take it to God and ask Him to speak freedom to me.

I recently heard a talk by a pastor that quoted the following verse and went on to say that he guaranteed there were people hearing him right then that this verse applied to, and they would be shocked to one day find themselves in hell:

Matthew 7:21 “Not everyone who says to  me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

This verse has always scared the crap out of me because, as the pastor pointed out – these had to have been church people that were deceived.  I mean, they were casting out demons and prophesying and doing amazing things – but that wasn’t enough.  My question was always, how on earth can someone be doing these amazing things and not really have a relationship with God?  I had always struggled to just read the Bible and pray consistently – what hope was there for me if these people were doing these awesome things and yet didn’t know him?

But, in my time of deconstruction, I have come to trust that God holds my salvation. He loves me and is guiding me.  And Jesus’ one commandment was to love.  Love God and love people.  Even Paul admits that love is the fulfillment of the law and that it’s more important then prophesying, speaking in tongues or even martyrdom.  So, that’s what I do. I love God and people and trust that God helps me when I falter in that.

I recently heard an interesting Maundy Thursday homily given by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She was talking about how Jesus had issued the command to love, and how he showed the depths of his love to his disciples by washing their feet, even though he knew very shortly that they were going to betray and deny him.  There was no limit or withdrawal of  his love though.

She said that part of fulfilling the command to love others is actually being the others that are receiving love, and that’s hard.  She said that she could accept people loving her for her writing, or her pastoring or her art or when they didn’t really know her that well or when she had done something for them.   Earned love is easy to receive.  But she said she had a really hard time receiving unconditional and freely given love from those who really knew her – her good and her bad, and yet still loved her for all of her.  She pointed out that it stings, because we have this sense of unworthiness and of not deserving that kind of love.  We want to work for it.  And God immediately brought the end of that terrifying verse back to my heart, “Then I will declare, ‘I never knew you…'”  He didn’t accuse these people of not knowing Him – He instead told them that he had never known them.  He whispered to me that people don’t want to be known by Him because they are afraid and don’t trust his love to be enough.  They want to work for it.  It may sound funny to hear Jesus declare he never knew someone, because He’s God, so He knows us anyway, right?

But there’s something about being known in relationship. Being known in a relationship requires being vulnerable and trusting the other person.  It requires trusting that the other person will love and accept you as you are. It is an openness that allows you to be yourself and then to receive the love freely given from the other person. We have such a hard time with that though.  Look at how hard we work and posture for people to try and be seen as worthy in their eyes.  And so it’s even harder to accept that I can go to a holy, perfect God and offer my whole self to Him and not have Him reject me if I open my most ugly and vulnerable parts up to him.  It’s even harder to accept that not only will he not reject me, but He loves me and delights in me, even though he knows my ugly parts.  His love doesn’t require me to change. His love doesn’t require me to do things to please him.  It’s that unconditional.

No, to be in full relationship, to experience the joy of God’s Kingdom, He says that I must be willing to be known.  I must be willing to be vulnerable and trust that God loves me as I am.  That’s the only way I can be healed.  Being able to step into God’s light, and acknowledge the things I struggle with, allows a healing and salvation to occur that could not happen without my cooperation and vulnerability in the relationship. I am changed by this unfathomable love that I see in his eyes that accepts me and draws me deeper into his embrace and love.

 The thing is too, the more I love God and the more I receive his love of me at my most vulnerable, the more I am healed and changed.  I want to please him and spend more time with him!   I have found that the more I allow myself to be known by him, the deeper my trust goes.   And all of this results in me being better able to love others unconditionally because I’ve experienced this all-surpassing love of God.

 

 

Worth: A conversation with God

She sat with her back up to the tree, feeling the vibrancy of life there.  She heard the grass whisper as He came and sat across from her. She gave Him a tired smile.

“You don’t seem as joyful as I wish you to be.”  There was a silent question in His statement.  She shrugged and averted her eyes. He studied her. “You still don’t believe your worth.”

She sighed and met His gaze briefly before looking back at the ground and picking a blade of grass to start splitting.  “How could I?  I’m utterly depraved, born into sin and evil. I don’t deserve good things.  I deserve your wrath.”

“Have I ever told you that?”

She shook her head and met His gaze as a tear slid down her cheek.  She read many emotions there; deep compassion and love, a great sorrow and even a hint of anger, although the latter not directed towards her.  It was silent for a beat as He seemed to be thinking.  “Jennifer, my beloved, tell me something.”

She loved how He said her name.  It was as if every time He said it, she was being made anew, recreated in a love deeper then she could even attempt to fathom.  There was a deepness to it that caused her soul to ache joyfully for something she couldn’t quite pinpoint.  She waited for Him to continue.

“Think back to the very first time you saw your children.  Describe for me what you felt and thought.”

Joy bubbled from the very bottom of her being and she laughed a bit, closed her eyes for a second and smiled, letting these scenes drift into her mind. “I remember Little Buddy being the most beautiful baby I had ever laid eyes on. I couldn’t believe the little one in front of me was mine! And I loved him from the very depths of my being at first glance.”  His eyes danced with joy as if He too felt the same way about her little son, and was pleased that she was so happy.  She continued, “And Baby Girl.  She was so precious to me.  I remember that she was crying so pitifully and my heart just broke with the love I had for her.  I remember stroking her cheek and whispering my love to her, and that I would always be there for her, and she stopped crying when I did that.  I knew she was mine and that I would do everything I could for her.   I love them both so much.”  She smiled warmly as she thought about her kids.

He grinned affectionately, but raised an eyebrow and said, “So would you say they deserve your love?”

She frowned thoughtfully.  “Well….that’s an odd question.  They haven’t done anything to deserve or not deserve my love… I love them because they are my children.”

He leaned back onto His elbows and surveyed her.  “So what you’re saying is that they are loved as they are, come what may, because they are your children, because they belong to you?”

“Yeah….” she was starting to see where He was going.

“Let me ask you a different question.  Remember the time Little Buddy got into some major trouble, and he felt so bad about his mistake that he told you that you should just make him go to hell?”  A great sadness rose in her chest as she remembered that day. “What did you think when he said that to you?   He had made a pretty big mistake, and you had every right to be mad.  What happened in that moment though?”

She closed her eyes, and fought back tears. “It tore my heart in two.  To hear him say that, and to hear how much he hated himself broke my heart to pieces.  I just wanted to pick him up and love on him so very much that he wouldn’t ever have to question again how worthy of love and forgiveness he is.  I love him, and even at my maddest, I would fight for him. Never against him.”

“Jennifer. Does he deserve my wrath?  Even if he never comes to me?”   She scrunched her eyes together and started crying. Cold voices shouted answers she didn’t want to hear. He said her name again, “Jennifer.  My Jennifer.  What does your mama’s heart say?  What does that fierce love in you for him say?”

She practically shouted as she sobbed, “No!!  He doesn’t deserve your wrath!!!  If anything he needs your love!!!  How could you make him, with all the struggles he has, and send him to hell if he doesn’t believe just the right thing?  How is that compassionate?  How is that unconditional love?!  I love him so much I could die to show him that, so if you’re Love, how could you not feel that way too?”

She pulled her knees to her chest, put her head between them and sobbed.  After her crying was spent, she felt him move closer to her.  “Jennifer….remember love…..”  Her name came as a gentle song to her heart, and she knew Him.  She knew God as Love.  In a flash, she saw him come and be born messy in a manger of scandal. She watched him love and laugh and cry and be magnificently human, and she watched him suffer.  She watched him brutally suffer at the hands of evil men, and watched him offer nothing but forgiveness in return.  There was no wrath of God to be found – only the wrath of men who couldn’t accept a God who loved so unconditionally.  She watched and cried as he died and she felt the weight of humanity’s sin against their Creator.  She had forgotten where she was until she felt Him brush the side of her cheek with the back of his hand.  She startled and looked into the eyes of her resurrected Lord.  Love had conquered even death, and turned it upside down.

She sighed and with resolve said, “I’m sorry.  I trust you with him.  I know you love him, and I’m really not worried about your wrath towards him.”

He smiled softly at her. “And yet, you worry about my wrath towards you?”

She smiled sheepishly. “Okay, point made.”

“Not yet, Beloved. That night that Little Buddy said those terrible things about himself, were you able to convince him of your love for him and his worth?”

She shook her head. “No, he couldn’t accept it.  He was so miserable too, and I would have done anything to make him see that what he believed wasn’t true.  But I couldn’t.”

He looked at her solemnly. “My sweet Jennifer, don’t you see? It too is your lack of belief in my unconditional, persevering love that keeps you cut off from the fullness of joy that I have to offer you.  There is no wrath from me, as you fear.  Just as you love your children fiercely because they are yours, you too are worthy and well-loved because you are mine!  Your inherent light and worth are created and guarded in my love for you, so that nothing you do or don’t do can drive me away.   I love you as you are, and will always strive with you.”

“But I mess up so often!”

“You are human, love.  Not meant to be perfect, but meant to grow and learn.  I’ve given you grace for all the falls, just as you give your children grace when they mess up.  Being human is not a bad thing.  I made you and I have called you good.  I delight in you and love you because you are mine, and that is where your worth is found – and nothing takes that away from you.”

She smiled as He pulled her on to her feet and laughed, “Let’s dance!”