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.”

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.

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!”

 

 

 

Prayer

The first thing anyone would say about my mom before she got sick was that she was a mighty prayer warrior. My mom loved to pray. Her forte was intercessory prayer. And she loved praying the scriptures. The way she prayed was the way that I had been taught to pray through my parents’ example and through the church. But truth be told, I always struggled with that way of praying. I looked up to my mom for being able to pray like that and for loving it so much, and I thought something was wrong with me because I struggled to pray like that and it wasn’t something I loved to do. I actually found it boring, and wondered if God was as bored as I was with my prayer life.
My mom was always lauding God for answered prayer, but I never heard her talk about unanswered prayer. There had to have been times that her prayers were not answered, but this was not something that was talked about. And honestly, it’s not talked about in the church that much. When it is, there’s always an idea put forth that God has something better in store if He doesn’t answer your prayer. I have found this to be true only sometimes though.
All this to say, I have a hard time petitioning God and having faith that God will answer my prayer, perhaps due to some unanswered prayer I have experienced through the years and just the way things have turned out. I do still try, but it feels flat to me, almost like I’m asking my cat for something. I have found that prayers of supplication and petition cause me to worry more too, so I generally don’t pray like that. I struggle sometimes with whether this is a lack of faith on my part or if I’ve truly found a different way of praying that is okay.
I do trust God though, and I have a rich and fulfilling prayer life. I have found ways to pray that resonate with my soul and that draw me deeper into fellowship and trust of God; it’s just that my prayer life looks different than the ways that believers are typically taught to pray.
To me, prayer is a way of being in life and with God. Day by day, moment by moment. It is going to God as I am, with all of my emotions and messes and laying them down at His feet. It’s accepting life as it comes, not in a fatalistic way, but with grace and compassion. It’s trusting that God is present. Not that He’s in control, or that He’s working something out for good – those things don’t comfort me, whether they be true or not. My comfort comes from knowing that God is with me. When I sin, He sets me back on my feet and says with compassion, “Try again.” When I am angry, He stays through the anger, until I’ve spent myself and then there is just His love. He gives me space when I’m too mad to look at Him, but He never leaves. And when I turn my face back to Him, I find only compassion. He rejoices with me when I rejoice. The darkest of places is where I have seen His light the brightest, and I know that He suffers with me.
Prayer is being comfortable with mystery and okay with not knowing all of the answers. It’s making peace with uncertainty. It’s holding life loosely, knowing that God holds it firmly. It’s trusting that God is not limited to speaking through the Bible alone, and looking for Him where ever I find myself. It’s knowing that God is within me and that I am His beloved child. It’s hoping in God – not that He will always change my situation, but that He will walk beside me no matter the situation, carrying me when needed, and that one day I will see Him face to face, with nothing veiling His glory from my eyes. It’s holding the sacredness of all things, the spark of God light in all and allowing love to pour forth in order to guide those in darkness to the One who loves them perfectly. It’s holding space and compassion for those in my life, wishing them peace, and knowing that ultimately God holds them too.
It has taken me a while to realize that my prayer life and relationship with God doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s, nor does it have to fit a certain prescribed way of being. I no longer feel a sense of duty when it comes to my prayer practices, and actually look forward to my time focused with God.  For anyone out there who struggles with praying “the way you’ve been taught,” know that there are other ways out there.  Seek God and God will come close to you.  I am a contemplative Christian in practice, but I’m not going to lay out my specific practices, because it’s taken me a while of seeking to find the ways I communicate best with God, and these ways may not be helpful for you.  The last thing I want to do is give you another list of “how to pray” advice.  But I do want to encourage you if you’re struggling.  Don’t give up; keep seeking, and most importantly listen for God.

Silencing Demons

I had a rough weekend.  We are having a pretty challenging time with one of the kiddos.  I found myself at a point where I just felt done.  Done with experiencing all of the anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness and crazy that comes along with this particular situation.  And so I turned back to old coping mechanisms, dancing with my demons, aiming to dull the feelings and attain some semblance of control.

But then Saturday night, I was faced with the Gospel reading for Sunday, and found myself in the story.

Mark 1:21-28 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”   But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”   At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The Gospel story is interesting, because Jesus had not called the man to him, nor had anyone shoved him forward to be healed.   But he cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are…” bringing attention to himself, whether he wanted it or not.  He could have just left the synagogue, without speaking to Jesus, but there had to have been something about being in the presence and authority of Jesus that drew the man out.

I relate to the man with the unclean spirit. When I hold hands with my demons, God is always right there, waiting for me to engage with Him, so that He can heal me.  But it can be a struggle.  His presence draws me, and yet, my demons whisper to me, “Why would God want anything to do with you? If anything, he’s here to destroy you. I know who He is….too holy for you!”

And so, with my demons, I hear myself cry out in distrust, “Why are you here?  You’re going to destroy me! I know who You are, but I want to be in control!”

So I’ve engaged with Him, me and my demons, and as the demons continue yelling their lies, God says, “Silence!” and calls me to Himself, away from them.  And in their silence, my feelings rush in and I feel utterly out of control.  He is destroying me – my self-will and fear and shame and addiction and the untrue things I have been told and believed about myself.  He destroys my self-reliance and the control I try to maintain for dealing with the hard things in my life, and that feels like death to me.  But He’s freeing me. I can’t look at Him at first.  But He sweetly calls, “Jennifer, my dear one.”  And I can’t resist the way He says my name, so I look at Him through my tears.  And I find nothing but gentle compassion.

I know who He is – the one with authority over life and death, feelings, and my very breath.

I know who He is – the One who has called me His Beloved, silencing my demons once more.   So, I walk on in recovery and life, hand-in-hand with the One who loves me through it all.

Where is God in Unanswered Prayer?

 

In some of the early mid-stages of my mom’s battle with dementia, she would have delusions and hallucinations.  She believed that there was a conspiracy to kill her and that my dad was sometimes a part of that conspiracy.   Sometimes my dad would have me come over to their house and I could calm her down.  As the disease progressed though, it became increasingly difficult to calm her.

There was one particularly bad episode in which he called me to come over, and this time I became a part of the conspiracy to kill her.  She paced non-stop, angry and terrified, and nothing me or my dad would say could calm her down.

My mom was one that always drew comfort from God and from the Bible, especially the Psalms.  So, I began reading her favorite Psalm out loud, praying with all my heart that she would calm down.  I just knew with everything in me that God would answer this prayer.  After all, she was such a faithful follower and prayer warrior, I knew He loved her, I was reading from His Word, and I had all the faith in the world that He was going to hear and answer my cry.

She didn’t calm down though.  If anything, she seemed to get more agitated.

God did not answer my prayer.

No one had prepared me to deal with that.  There had always been an answer.  There had always been a reason for things.  This non-answer made no sense to me. I felt utterly betrayed and not for the first (or last) time did I cry out to God, “Where are You?!”

And yet.

My faith was in Him, and not in His answering prayer.  I knew God was real and was there, because He held my faith.  I knew He was there, because I couldn’t walk away.  I was so angry with Him, you better believe I wanted to walk away! I wanted to say He wasn’t real and just be done with Him. It would have been easier to say that He wasn’t there, then to try and grapple with why He wouldn’t hear my prayer.   But I couldn’t.  Because in the very depths of my being, I feel Him.  He’s how I breathe, and while I felt deeply wounded, I knew it would kill me to walk away.

This happened over 5 years ago. And I still wrestle with this situation.  Over the years, I have come to believe that prayer is not about changing God’s mind, but more about shaping who I am in God, and teaching me about who God is.  For me, prayer has become an acknowledgement and seeking of God’s presence, opening myself more and more to Him.  I’m learning to accept situations as they are, although I will still pray for God’s goodwill and mercy.   But I don’t necessarily look for a specific answer anymore.  I just want to walk with God, whatever may be going on.

In light of the ways my prayer life has changed, I was thinking back on that situation, and asked myself, if this happened now, how could my response and prayer be different then it was 5 years ago?  What if I had gone into the situation acknowledging that God was already there, instead of looking for Him in an answer to prayer and a removal of suffering?

Because He was there.  He was there in the suffering.  But we have such an aversion to suffering, and can’t see how God could be in it! I had always been taught to try and pray it away.  But sometimes, bad things just happen.  Sometimes, for whatever reason, God doesn’t remove it.  But we aren’t alone.  Because He loves us, He suffers with us.  He was born out of suffering, into a suffering world, where He touched and walked with those who suffered, and He then experienced great suffering at humanity’s hands.  Our God knows suffering, so we are not alone.

And that day, my mom was not alone.  In love, we did everything we could for her, and my dad patiently stayed by her side, enduring accusations and her terror, until the episode finally subsided.  And there was the evidence of God and His love.  As He suffered with us, we suffered with her.

Do I still question God about that situation?  Yes.  I’m human, and I don’t totally understand the whole idea of suffering, so I will probably always have questions and get angry at God.  But He is gentle and He holds my faith.  My hope is in God.  Not in what He does for me.  Not in His protection.  Not in His blessings. Not in God’s promises from the Bible.  I’m thankful for them, but my hope does not lie there.  My hope lies in God alone.  Because when all else falls away, God remains.