The Feast of St. Stephen

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Stephen.  Yes, the one who was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death for his faith.  Doesn’t quite ring with the Christmas spirit, does it?  What happened to God with us, peace on Earth, goodwill towards men?  I was pondering on this, and then read one of my readings for this morning.  2 Chronicles 24:17-22   Talk about a downer!  It was a passage about how the people of Israel once again left God for idols, God sent prophets to them to bring them back, who they of course ignored, and God gets mad.  So He prophesies through Zechariah saying, “Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.”  Then the people get really mad and stone Zechariah.  As he is being stoned, he says, “May the LORD see this and call you to account.”  Yikes!  I have to be frank, God kind of freaks me out in the Old Testament.  So, I asked Him about it.  What do I do with this God?  Keeping in mind that the people who wrote these histories generally believed that anything bad that happened to them was because God was mad at them and was punishing them gave me a little room to ponder.  The people in Israel seemed to see an angry God, and my reading of the OT leads me to that conclusion too.  Who wouldn’t, when you read that God has forsaken His people because they forsook Him?  Everyone has come to the consensus that we all deserve no less.

But that doesn’t make sense because God was constantly trying to win His people back.  He loved them. He loves us. In fact, He loves us all so much that we found ourselves celebrating the arrival of God in humble human form yesterday.  A God who loves us so much that He was willing to be with us in our suffering and mess, and even suffer Himself, to the point of enduring a brutal death even though He was innocent.  And with love, as He’s dying this unjust death, cries out to His Father, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.”   And so, what we took as an angry God was One that pursued us relentlessly, sacrificing Himself for the love of us.  A light shining in the dark!  God with us!  And now, we see a new way.  God has not forsaken us, even when we have forsaken Him, and He has promised not to forsake us.

St. Stephen points us to this new way in Christ.  He too prophesied and taught about God, and when the people got mad, and began to stone him, he took the way of Christ.  As he looked up and saw Christ standing at the right hand of God, he was reminded that he was not forsaken.  Unlike Zechariah, who called on God to bring justice, Stephen called on God to give mercy and asked that God not hold his murderers’ sin against them. And that’s what we receive in Christ – mercy.  So on this Feast day, may we be reminded of the mercy of our loving God, and walk in step with Him as we offer mercy and love to those around us.

Return of the King

As of tomorrow, I have officially made it through an entire liturgical church calendar year in the Episcopal Church.  We are coming upon the end of “Ordinary Time,” which is the story of God’s people.  It appropriately ends with the Feast of Christ the King, in which we look forward to the second coming of Christ, even as we prepare and look forward to the celebration of the first coming of Christ beginning with Advent and culminating in Christmas.

One of my favorite books is the third book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King.  In it, the King of Gondor returns.  Gondor had been under a steward for a very long time, and the people had lost hope that a true King would ever come to claim his throne.  One of the passages in the book is a saying of lore that one of the wise-women of Gondor speaks: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.”   And sure enough, when Aragorn shows up, he has healing in his hands, and is able to heal those wounded in battle, and call many back from the brink of darkness and death.  Aragorn wasn’t to be known as king by his ability to swing a sword and conquer the enemy, or even in his ability to lead people.  He was known as the rightful king because he brought healing.

This passage has always made me think about Christ coming in His glory and being crowned King.  Not a King that brings wrath and condemnation, that conquers nations, but a King that conquers fear and death and hatred, who is good and loving and who has healing in His hands.  A King who has fought and loved and mourned and laughed and cried and died along with us, but who death could not conquer, and therein was our hope.  A God King – God with us, the One who has carried our sorrows and bears with Him healing and because of this, we can approach our King unafraid and with great joy!

There was great joy in the book when Aragorn was crowned king, because the people knew that he would rule them justly and with compassion and were not afraid.  They knew he would protect them and provide for their needs and they knew it because he brought healing.

When I read about that celebration, I think about Christ being crowned King of all kings, and what great joy we will feel!  Because He will rule with gentleness and mercy.  We will bow our heads before Him, but He will lift us up.  Because He brings with Him reconciliation and redemption and resurrection, and He has healing in His hands.    Come Lord Jesus, Come!

Dancing Despite It All

One of my contemplative prayer practices is to dance with Jesus.  Every day. Twice a day if I can. I have a particular song that we dance to, and a particular place in my mind.  And it brings me great peace and has helped me trust Him more.

Some days, I don’t feel like dancing.  And that’s okay, because Jesus understands when I’m sad and I don’t feel like dancing.  On those mornings/nights He makes the meadowlands and/or stars dance for us.

But last night*, I was mad at Him.  My mama isn’t doing well and it looks like she may have to go to a nursing home at least for a little while until she can get back on her feet.  I don’t like that.  I don’t like that we are having to go through this at all. So even though I told Him that I was mad at Him, and I didn’t really feel like dancing, He insisted that I dance with Him.  He didn’t seem deterred at all by the fact I was pretty angry with Him.

“Why can’t we just sit, and You make the stars dance for us?”

“No, you need to dance with Me.”

“But I’m mad at You!  Why would You want to dance with me?”

“It doesn’t matter. I will always dance with you.” And He held out His hand in expectation.

We started slowly, and I started crying.  How can I dance when my mama can’t even stand?  The thing is, dancing with Christ always delights my soul, and I find myself laughing with Him in joy every single time.  I didn’t want to laugh.  How can I feel joy when my mama is suffering so?

I kept my head bowed for a while, because I didn’t want to look at Him. I can be stubborn when I’m mad.  But when I did finally look at Him, He was crying with me as we danced.  Anger made way for sorrow and grief as we continued dancing.  As we twirled, I noticed that the stars were dancing a long with us, and then during one of the lulls in the music, my mom appeared.  We took her by the hand and pointed her face to the stars.  “The stars dance for us Mama.” And she laughed with joy.  We danced around her as she laughed and pretty soon we were all laughing even as we cried.

Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive.  Life is hard right now.  I have found that rejoicing in God, does not mean that I feel happy.  Nor does it mean that my feelings of anger, sorrow, depression, etc go away.  I used to think that being a Christian and finding hope in situations and rejoicing in God meant that I had to feel good in the process. That I had to spout off hopeful Bible verses and talk about how I’m trusting God that everything will work out. Romans 8:28, right?  That I had to be encouragement to others even as I felt like I was drowning – after all, I’m a witness for Christ, yes?   I felt like I had to be strong to show that I was really trusting God and to prove to others that He is good.  Because me being okay in the midst of sorrow proves His faithfulness and is the kind of witness you want to have, right?  That’s not true for me though.   And I’m done with that.  I’m done with trying to fit myself into that box that just doesn’t work.  God doesn’t demand that, nor is it Biblical – it’s Christian culture that has shaped this idea. Rejoicing in God looks like me laying on the floor crying and asking Him why.  It looks like me telling Him that I can’t do it, that I can’t handle things.  It looks like me feeling angry at Him and railing at Him and throwing myself a good temper tantrum. It looks like me taking all of my feelings to Him and feeling them – inviting them in for tea with us and accepting them.  He has never once asked me to deny any of my harder feelings, nor shamed me for being broken with Him.  And therein lies the joy.  That He accepts me as I am.  That He meets me directly in my mess and will sometimes even sit with me in it until I’m ready to get up or until He makes me get up – ha!  He’s there.  God with us.  The joy lies in having a relationship with Him that is so pure and strong, that nothing can break it, even when I feel like my life and everything else is breaking a part.  My hope is in that relationship.


*I actually wrote this a year ago, and for some reason never did anything with it.  My mama ended up having to stay in the nursing home, and is still there.  But God walked with me through all of it, and continued to meet me where I was.



Beloved Broken Girl

Several months ago, I decided to clean my son’s closet.  He used to like to climb inside of it and make himself a cozy little hideout.  However, over the course of time, it got full of so much junk that stuff would tumble out when you opened the door.  He wasn’t able to play in his closet, nor was he able to use the toys in there, because he couldn’t find anything in the mess anymore.  But he was living with it.  Stepping over stuff, pushing even more stuff in his closet to “clean his room.” Little buddy started out helping me, but then he got overwhelmed with it all and just stopped and left.  As I continued to work, instead of the mess getting better, it got so much worse. Occasionally I would look around and would feel overwhelmed with the monumental task in front of me, but I knew where I was going.  About mid-way through, when his room and closet both looked like a massive storm had blown through, Little Buddy and Baby Girl came into the hallway and both just gasped in wide-eyed horror.  Little Buddy screamed, “Mom!  My room is so messy now!  What are you doing?!”

“I’m cleaning, buddy.”

Little buddy laughed in disbelief and said, “I’m leaving! This is too much!”

But I kept at it, and eventually Little Buddy was able to come back and discover that he had a lovely closet to cozy up in.  When he came back in, he was amazed and said, “Mom!  It’s so clean now.  I can go in my closet. I can do this; I can do that!”  He was excited to find toys that he hadn’t played with in a while. And then we cuddled in his closet, because there was room now.

I liken this experience to the path I have tread with God these past couple of years, dealing with my mom having younger-onset dementia, my son having ADHD/HFA, and my struggle with depression, anorexia and self-injury.  My life had been pretty messy for a while, and I was making due the best I could by using my addictions to avoid and deny my pain.  You know, shoving things in the closet and telling myself everything was fine, when there was actually a huge overwhelming mess slowly growing out of control, hidden and just waiting to pour forth when the door was opened.  Before long, it became impossible to shove anything more into that closet, and the mess came pouring out into the pristine room I had been keeping.

I started trying to clean up the mess myself, but it was so overwhelming it seemed impossible that I would ever make even a dent in it.   I went to the hospital twice, and ended up in residential treatment for 6 weeks for my eating disorder and self-injury.  And God met me in all of those places, and we started picking up together.   But even when I got out of my residential treatment, I found that I was still overwhelmed by everything, and constantly wanted to just shove stuff back in the closet and forget about it.  And that’s when God told me to just rest, and let Him take care of it.  I had a really hard time with that.  This was my mess; I needed to clean it up.  My Evangelical background had always insisted that we as Christians should be “doing” things.  If I had problems, well, it was my fault and I needed to pray harder or read my Bible more or be more active in church, which of course added to my burdens. But the thought of just resting, made me feel guilty.  God kept gently prodding me to rest and trust Him though.  And so I finally did, and when the guilt came, He led me to the story of Mary and Martha, where Mary rested at Jesus’ feet and just listened to Him.  And I heard Him say to me, “Jennifer, my Jennifer, you are worried about so many things, but there’s only one thing that matters.  So rest Beloved, and listen to Me.”

So as I rested and followed Him wherever He led, He continued to clean up my mess.  But let me tell you, it got a whole lot messier before things started looking better.  He had to pull everything out of my closet, and had to throw things away that I had long held onto, and that I wasn’t necessarily ready to get rid of.

This cleaning up is taking a really long time.  He’s still digging some stuff out my closet, but for the most part, the disaster area has been cleaned up, and like my son, I stand amazed at what’s available to me now. He has cleared out so much space for me to explore my faith, and room has been made for me to have wonderful fellowship with an amazing body of believers.  There’s also quiet space for me to just be with God.

I have found too that when things start getting messy again (because they do), instead of shoving them back in my closet to quickly rid myself of the garbage, I go to God instead, and hand them over.  He knows exactly what to do with my mess, and I know I can trust Him because I am His Beloved broken girl and He loves me.