Life without a Bow

Every life is a story. In the weeks since I announced my new job and my rapidly approaching move to Hawaii countless people have dreamed up epilogues for the next chapter of my life. Many believe this temporary position will somehow become permanent. Others predict that I won’t come back, that another job on the island will line itself up as this one concludes. One man thinks God may be calling me to plant a church on the islands. But the most common epilogue is a romance with a Hawaiian man which will be followed by marriage and cute Hawaiian babies. As I listen to person after person predict what will happen next, I fill with mixed emotions. On one hand, I’ve got a lot of grace; clearly I am well loved and people are excited for me. Meanwhile, the jaded side of me thinks – get real people, this is my life, not a novel!

bow box

Maxine, my creative writing professor in grad school, encouraged us students to resist tying up our pieces in a bow. Using countless examples, she showed us that often the most compelling stories don’t have anything close to fairy tale endings. Yes, great stories always have conflicts that need resolution, but often the conclusions of these stories are messy. Not every tale gets straightened out and wrapped up by the final page. And not every story needs a fairy tale ending – the unexpected return of a hero, rags to riches, marriage and babies – to be great. Sometimes a few tangles and lingering questions make the best ending because real life is messy.

After four years of relentless job searching, the stress of underemployment and an income too small to warrant a budget, the certainty of six months of full-time employment is epilogue enough for me. I’m luxuriating in the freedom from having to look for work for a few months. I get time to reconnect with some dear friends and to make new ones. And let’s be real, the fact that I get to live in Hawaii is a big, shiny bow. God has provided respite. I’m relieved and elated and ready to play in the ocean. I feel satisfied and more whole and hopeful than I have felt in years. So why does everyone else feel compelled to write an epilogue and turn my life into a fairy tale? People are speaking over my life like Simeon prophesied over baby Jesus. But if six months in Hawaii is enough for me, why is it not enough for others? And when I sit back and reflect on this epilogue phenomenon there is one, overarching theme – more. Everyone wants to know more and for me to get more. It’s like there has to be something even better than this.

I’ve learned many valuable lessons over the last four years. To me, the difference between need and want is now as glaring as a glass of water sitting next to a peanut butter milkshake. I know how to stretch money through lean times. Thanks to some early system failures, I’m better able to pace myself emotionally and spiritually in the midst of trial. As I shed some nasty layers off my sense of entitlement, I bulked up with perseverance. Simple nourishment, slowing down, shedding excess: these are the survival skills I learned in the spiritual desert. God wanted me to know that discipleship is about holding on to essentials.

It’s about less, not more.

Trust over certainty.

Waiting rather than self-indulgence.

These are the complexities that make up the Christian life. They are, in and of themselves, both conflict and resolution enough for any story, any life. And here is the most important lesson I’ve learned – the grandest exchange between a human being and God is love expressed through faithfulness.

The most compelling story my life can tell is one of daily faithfulness to God. I’m not talking about big gestures but simple things – apologizing when I speak unkindly to someone I love, extending warmth and welcome to strangers, nurturing friendships, keeping an eye out for others who are struggling, and offering help where I am able.

There has never been a time in my life when God was not faithful to me but his faithfulness has not always meant the provision of things I thought I needed. As days of struggle stretched into weeks, months and years, God’s faithfulness was to abide with me, to console and comfort me, and to give me hope that I could live today and today and today with purpose.

I’ve told many people that my job these last four years has not been to get a job. I discovered that my job is to be faithful. If I can wake up today and invite God in to the rain or shine of my day and make it to evening having loved God, others and myself with any sincerity, then this is a good day, a great story, and a true comedy. This is life without a fairy tale ending or a big crimson bow and it is enough.

 

Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love. John 15:9

GrapeVines-72Res

Lent 2014: The Fiction Fast

I do strange things for Lent. The first time I observed Lent I was 24 and an earnest seminarian. I decided to fast from exaggeration and sarcasm. Yes, you read that correctly. If you know me, you realize the irony – I speak fluent Sarcasm. Hyperbole is part of my charm. My friend Courtney, a Presbyterian minister and a veteran practitioner of Lent, questioned if this would be too much for my first time. I thought and prayed about it but I was resolved. I’d always liked a challenge. Plus I’d recently been convicted by a sermon on Matthew 5:33-37. I was all in.

My first Lent was a sometimes funny, always challenging experiment. I found myself offering the world more pauses, lots of apologies and much shorter stories. All of the new empty moments in my life created space for more introspection. I thought a lot about truth, chaffed against a deep-seated insecurity to be heard, learned about the risks white lies and half-truths pose to my soul and my relationships, and through it all I grew closer to Jesus, which for me, is the whole point.

It’s uncommon for Evangelicals to anchor themselves to the church calendar. I imagine there is a modest group of us who do extra devotional reading between Ash Wednesday and Easter but only a small subset who participate in Lent by fasting. Few of my fellow Evangelicals seem to understand why I observe Lent by fasting. Even my formerly Catholic sister-in-law is curious and confused by my practice. Sometimes I’m not even quite sure why I do this. Maybe it’s the artist in me craving sacred time when I can imaginatively enter into the life of Christ.

Every year I get to choose whether I observe Lent. I don’t have to do this. No one expects me to fast and certainly no one is judging me if I don’t. This is something I do for myself, for freedom. My attitude going in is always a strange blend of eagerness, seriousness and curiosity, with a shot of playfulness. Lent is a truly mystical choice in our get-the-next-best-thing-because-you-can culture. For me it’s 40 days when I willingly sacrifice something of my life, something I love or need, or think I need, because Jesus spent some time in the desert without a survival pack and without attempting to escape what was surely desolate.

The most unleashed thing about a Lenten fast is that there is no clear goal. There’s not a single anticipated outcome that I can project with any certainty. It’s just me creating space with the hope that this sacrifice will make me more attentive to Jesus. I think of it like a sugar detox. Once your body is stripped of artificial and added sugars, the flavors in natural foods begin to zip and zing along your taste buds like Pop Rocks. So I guess I could call Lent my “Quest for the Organic Jesus.”

book-stack

This year I fasted from fiction. Before you roll your eyes and think this lacked bite, know that I read several hours a day – probably the equivalent of time you spend watching TV– often finishing several books a week. Stories are like food to me; they feed my spirit and soak my always-thirsty imagination. I confess – non-fiction puts me to sleep faster than Ambien would crushed in warm milk. I’ll take David Baldacci over C.S. Lewis any day. (I know, I know. Please don’t judge.) Fiction captures me. It takes me on adventures, welcomes me into foreign cultures and families and then confronts me with new questions and challenges. In some ways, reading fiction has better prepared me to be a thoughtful pastor than most theology books and seminary classes ever did. Fiction lets me engage deeply in others’ stories without worrying about myself – what to do with my hands, what my face should conceal or reveal, and when to speak or keep quiet. Each book is someone else’s world, a life unlike my own. The more foreign the story, the more I can learn, particularly how to have compassion for a life so different from my own and how to welcome a stranger. I owe so much of my ability to love the world’s outcasts and the suffering because books have opened my eyes to complexities in the human experience that I didn’t know existed.

So now you see that my fiction fast of 2014 wasn’t just a trifle. It opened up hours of time in each day, some of which I intentionally replaced with gospel reading. Like those magnifying vanity mirrors that allow us to zero in on wrinkles and stray hairs, my fast revealed some major flaws in my spiritual life. For most of the 40 days, my yearning to read fiction dwarfed my yearning to read the Bible. That was intensely humbling, especially as a pastor. Many prayers spun out from there. I also grappled with the fact that too often my reading becomes a buffer from allowing myself to feel, to process my feelings and to pour out my day before God.

Ministry, like life, is not something we pastors can control. Because our work centers around people and their connection to God and to others, what is a smoking ember on Monday can cause a blazing firestorm on Tuesday – all it takes is a little wind. During Lent this year life gusted and ministry blazed. Miscarriages, crumbling marriages, career disappointments, painful perseverance, major life changes: all of this was swirling around me and within me. And each night as I retreated to the quiet of my bedroom, when I would normally pick up a book and dive into a fictional life, the silence and my empty hands stripped away my buffer. I catalogued my cares and fears before God and I cried enough tears to turn any book into slimy paper mache. And every time, I felt better. More connected to God. Heard and loved. Companioned by a Savior who endured much more than 40 days in a desert. A Savior who knew solitude and hunger, and who understood the need to stay connected to the Creator of all good things. Those tears and those prayers cleansed me and prepared me for another day.

This is what I learned by fasting from fiction – even the things we enjoy, things that are not inherently harmful, can become liabilities to our spiritual lives. We can lose ourselves in the things we love. If mismanaged, our hobbies can diminish our vital connection to God. Even healthy habits can become a buffer, an escape, a way to hide from God, ourselves and the world. I suspect that we are all masters at twisting good, happy, fun and fruitful things into barriers, numbing agents and knots. I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to love myself better than this. I want my relationship with God to thrive in and for itself, but also so compassion and mercy can continue to flow in my ministry.

Lent 2014 – I gave up fiction. I wept with Jesus. God restored me. I’m ready for more. More life and more ministry. And yes, more fiction. I’m reading again, but I hope with greater maturity, using fiction as a tool for fun and relaxation and not a buffer against my life, my feelings and my God.

A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

Scripture Most Evangelicals Don’t Believe

“The board could not reach unity about hiring a single woman to do family ministries.” This sentence was the culmination of a five month interview process with a church. The main components of the position I applied for were adult spiritual formation and pastoral care to families. The search team spoke at length with six of my references to hear stories of my ministry and they grilled me with tough questions for hours. They unanimously recommended me to their board as the candidate called to this position. And then, in a completely unexpected turn of events (for the search team, pastor and me), the elder board rejected their recommendation. The pastor had the unfortunate burden of calling to tell me why I would not be called to serve their church. He told me that, for the elders, it wasn’t so much that I am a woman as it was the fact that I am single.

None of the board members met or interviewed me. Their decision was not based on the Lord’s presence in my life, the fruit of my ministry, my character or my professional qualifications, though I am sure the search team and the pastor gave witness to all of these. They based their decision, it seems, on the belief that there is an incompatibility between the role of pastor and singleness.

This decision reveals an implicit bias widely ingrained in the evangelical community – that being married is best. I believe that because Paul uses a marriage metaphor in an attempt to describe the depth of Christ’s love for the church (see Ephesians 5:21-33; 2 Corinthians 11:1-3), and because as we interpret and apply scripture we have not understood that there are limits to metaphor, we evangelicals have allowed the Christ/Church marriage metaphor to transform our understanding of human marriage into the quintessential symbol of relational health, wholeness and joy.

The belief in the greatness of marriage has so saturated evangelical culture that our beliefs about singleness are shaped almost entirely by default. Because we see marriage as such a beautiful and whole expression of love, singleness has becomes a less-than, not-to-be-envied, even suspect, way of living. This bias reveals itself every time I visit a new church or meet a new group of believers who, when they discover that I am single, start telling me about their unmarried friends, brothers, cousins and coworkers like eager sales associates for eHarmony. It waves its banner annually when our pastors preach a multi-week sermon series promoting healthy marriage while offering (maybe) one sermon or a two-minute aside about living faithfully in singleness. (This trend is even more problematic when we consider the reality that, according to the 2012 census, singles make up 47% of the adult population in the United States.) We see the slimy underbelly of the evangelical bias toward marriage when believers speculate together about the sexual orientation of friends and family who remain single in their late twenties and thirties and beyond. (Is there a more unchristian practice than this?) And it is our unchecked, unbalanced bias toward marriage that leads even our elders to believe that single people and childless people cannot empathize with and minister to couples and parents.

I can’t help but notice that all of these beliefs and assumptions about marriage and singleness exist in riotous tension with another of Paul’s letters. In my opinion, 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the single-most ignored, if not disbelieved, passage of scripture by evangelicals today. I encourage you to grab your Bible and take an hour to listen to, pray through and study this passage, but for the sake of our current topic, I’ll quote only highlights:

7I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 8Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do…17Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.39A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

Paul talks about singleness and marriage in a balanced way, not denigrating either lifestyle, calling them both gifts from God. How many evangelicals do you know, married or single, who really view singleness as a gift?

It doesn’t take an exegetical contortionist to pick up on Paul’s inclination toward singleness. He actually recommends that believers remain unmarried because it allows them to focus solely on pleasing the Lord. He says, “it is good” or kalos to remain unmarried. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that kalos was a word “applied by the Greeks to everything so distinguished in form, excellence, goodness, usefulness, as to be pleasing; hence [to be kalos was to be] beautiful, excellent, eminent, choice, surpassing, precious…”

What I love so much about this passage is that it reminds us that to marry or to remain single is a choice, and to choose to remain single is a beautiful, admirable thing. By Paul’s testimony, those of us who are unmarried have the advantage of space within our hearts and lives to devote ourselves first and foremost to Christ. The word devoted (verse 34) can be literally translated “sitting constantly by.” What a beautiful image, that being single allows us to sit constantly by Jesus. What a wonderful, perhaps even ideal, context in which to minister to the church.

I know many naysayers would ask me how I reconcile this with Paul’s teaching about overseers in 1 Timothy 3 –“the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife…he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him…” People often read this passage as a job description for pastors and consequently believe that overseers must be men who are married and have children. I believe that Paul writes descriptively from within the culture and context of the early church, not to indicate that he sees gender, marital status and parenthood as prescribed conditions every potential overseer must meet. It seems that the main point of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is that overseers must be people of integrity and proven character. If marital status and parenthood were ‘must haves’ in leading the church, then Paul himself would not have been respected by the early church as the wise apostle and advisor that he was.

A woman recently asked me to be her mentor. She is older than I am, married and has a child. Her husband asked her why she would approach me when I am not married. She told him that she chose me because I am wise. She believes I can help her unpack the message of scripture and help her weave it into her daily life. With a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, I can and will.

Every day I minister to men, to married people and to parents. Our congregants respect me and seek me out for counsel not because I share the same life experiences they do (in most cases I don’t); they seek me out because they have seen consistent evidence of my character, they know my devotion to God and his Word, and they have seen me live what I preach. Bottom line – they trust me – not because of my age, gender, marital status or how many child I have or have not birthed, but because I am a faithful servant of our God.

Singleness is a good gift from God. It is a way of life that should be respected in the church, if nowhere else. It could be approached as a significant life choice to be prayerfully discerned by young adults and by those following a call to ministry. How many evangelicals believe this? How many single Christians believe this? Unfortunately, we seem to have shaped our regard for marriage and singleness based on cultural influences and our personal experiences rather than the teaching of scripture.

It’s Valentine’s Day, church. I want you to hear and believe this message, as I do: there is nothing deficient in me or my ministry because I am single. With God’s strength, mercy and love, I can do all things. I cheerfully celebrate Valentines Day and every day because I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a God whose love for me is whole and fulfilling. I wholeheartedly support and work for healthy marriages and families. Would you do the same for me in my singleness?

Matryoshka Syndrome

Matroyshka-Semenov-Dolls

As a child I played for hours with a matryoshka doll. If you are not familiar with them, matryoshkas are wooden dolls first fashioned in 19th century Russia. Their smoothed wood surfaces are painted with vibrant colors and intricate designs. My doll had a crimson and rose design exactly like the picture above. My childhood delight in the matryoshka was not just about its artistic beauty; the doll was like a treasure box with ten more treasure boxes hidden inside. Each matryoshka has a seam and when I opened mine up, nestled inside was a smaller but equally beautiful doll. I’d lift out the next figure, take a few moments to study her design and then open that one to find another, and another, and another until I got to a baby matryoshka no bigger than a quarter. I’d take them all out and line them up in a row, full-grown to infant, studying the changes in their shiny coats. I imagined them a family of sisters posed for a portrait or perhaps images of a single girl captured at each stage of her development. There was something magical in the metamorphosis before me — the infant whole, her design simple, with every doll down the line growing bigger, her planes and slopes an ever-expanding canvas for the artist’s brush.

Twenty-some years later, the matryoshka is gone from my parents’ home but I thought of it today as I shared coffee with my friend Natalie. Natalie and I were catching up for the first time in several months and as such conversations go, we started off with general updates about our lives but were soon soul-deep in a conversation about the complex decisions and struggles we are facing and the spiritual weight of it all. We discovered ourselves asking the same profound question — what is stopping me from doing the thing that is good for me?

Natalie and I are intelligent women. We can easily identify what we want, what we need and how we can get to where we want or need to be. We agreed that the sticking point is often that we don’t do, that we don’t follow through. We wonder if that’s because we don’t have the courage or the energy to tackle what seem like a thousand matryoshka-like steps to our goals.

I’ve always had an expressive personality. When I was a little girl and I felt something (anything), I felt it strongly. I expressed my feelings in a spirit of freedom and exuberance, my volume and tone matching the fervor of my feelings. But as I grew from a girl to a teen, I received so many messages that said my feelings were too strong and that it was not okay to express my feelings strongly. Ultimately, the message I heard was that my feelings didn’t matter that much and therefore I didn’t matter that much. Inundated with these messages, I began to filter and dilute my expressions and to hold my ‘unacceptable’ feelings within me. At first it was like swallowing a zoo, but the longer I kept my cage closed, the more my feelings settled down. Eventually they diminished from roars to squeaks and moans dull enough to be mistaken for wind passing through branches.

From girlhood my life seemed to move with warp speed and I was suddenly in my mid-twenties in a counseling session talking about the abuse I was experiencing and about body image and some self-destructive behaviors that I felt powerless to overcome. As a competent professional and a seminary graduate, I believed that counseling was an investment in my health. As Corrie sitting in a room with a counselor, my choice felt way more scary than healthy because it meant reopening the zoo and letting all the animals out. I fought the stupid cultural stigma of needing counseling. Those old voices that told me I was making too much of my struggles rose up and taunted me like ghouls. I was taking steps toward a healthier me but I felt weaker and phony. Most days I strode through my work and relationships tall and confident. While counseling affirmed the strengths I had, it also forced me to see and feel the things that I had kept hidden within me for so long. Like when you walk across a sturdy lawn and your ankle rolls in a soft patch, there were now moments in each day when I stumbled upon and sunk into my vulnerabilities. After a few months of sessions it seemed like my life was just one big soft patch and my soul felt swampy — but it wasn’t all bad. It was also healing to have someone listen to my feelings and not minimize what they found. Wonder of wonders, my counselor thought that my emotions were natural, healthy even. With her it was acceptable to have a stale, zoo-full of feelings and it was safe to let them out.

Today, over a creamy chai latte I shared some of my story with Natalie. I reflected on how much I’ve healed and how I continue to grow from the seeds of that counseling. I’ve learned that there is a very healthy medium between suppressing my feelings and letting them control me. Sometimes it still seems a dangerous and scary thing to acknowledge my feelings to others, especially when I need to tell someone they’ve hurt me, but I need to tell them. There is a high cost to denying, diminishing and suppressing my feelings; when I do that, I drown myself in emotional debt.

A few weeks ago I received a series of emails from a man who was disappointed and frustrated by my actions. Knowing that few resolutions happen over email, I called him to ask for his perspective and to share my own. We cleared up some misconceptions and I accepted responsibility as I needed to. The teenage me would have never picked up the phone. The twenty-something me would have called but stuck to the surface and the facts and quickly ended the conversation. But the woman I am today made the call and took another very important step. Toward the end of our conversation, I kindly said that the language and tone of his emails made me feel belittled and patronized. I told him that my relationship with him is important to me but that I felt his method of giving me feedback was hurtful and therefore difficult to receive. I asked him to please call me or come to me in person the next time he has an issue with me. He had very strong response to my feedback but that’s okay. One of the most important things I have learned over the last decade is that in conflict you can’t control someone’s response, you can only control what and how you communicate. Though confrontation and working toward resolution is messy and difficult and not always successful, it is very important that we try our best.

Jesus taught that greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul and mind. He said that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t know how you are wired, but for me it’s very easy to love God. As an individual and as a pastor, my passion is to love and care for others. It’s the “as yourself” part where Jesus and I wrestle. I’ve never been great at loving myself…I guess I just heard too many messages that told me that my feelings didn’t matter and so it wasn’t worth speaking up. But I am trying to love myself better and in many ways I’m succeeding. Being honest with that man and respectfully acknowledging that his words and methods hurt me was not just about me loving my neighbor, it was also a significant expression of me loving myself!

A few years ago one of my mentors asked me if I felt that I had a voice. That stunned me; it was a new question with a devastating answer. In an instant I said no and in the next instant I was saturated with grief over all of the times that I stewed and suffered in silence. As a girl, when my feelings were rejected and I began to stuff them inside — in that abyss of powerlessness — I surrendered my voice. As Natalie and I were talking today, the image of the matryoshka doll popped into my head. For so many years I lived out of the smallest version of myself. I was like a matryoshka frozen in the infant stages; I spoke only with a diminished or diminutive voice. The reality is that I am a woman worth so much, capable of so much more!

Semenov_Traditional_Nesting_Doll_1

How many of us live as a shadow of our true selves? How many of us lead with a shaky whisper when our voices should ring with confidence? Learning to love ourselves makes all the difference. It’s no surprise to me that Katie Perry’s song Roar and Sara Bareilles’ Brave have become huge hits, especially with young girls. It seems like an epidemic, so many girls receive messages that they are worth less than others, especially boys, and that their feelings are not an important or acceptable part of the human experience. Maturity teaches us that these are lies. We are full of worth. Emotions are an important, God-created part of our being. This is so fundamentally true that even women who don’t know or love God are writing songs to encourage girls to find their voices and speak up.

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
when they settle ‘neath your skin
kept on the inside and no sunlight
sometimes a shadow wins
but I wonder what would happen if you
say what you want to say
and let the words fall out
honestly, I want to see you be brave”  (Sara Bareilles)

“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
scared to rock the boat and make a mess
so I sat quietly, agreed politely…
I’ve got the eye of a tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me ROAR” (Katie Perry)

Nesting-Dolls-dolls-2282268-353-333It takes a lot of love to heal from the toxic messages we hear. It takes time to rediscover your voice and courage to use it. Maturity born of mistakes teaches us to live large and use our voices without harming our neighbors. This is difficult work, but it’s so important to living an abundant life that it’s worth any cost.

A New Year’s Walk

Today we begin another year, 2014. I started my day with a walk in the January sunshine, still reflecting on the Advent and Christmas realities — they have captivated me anew. Things are in bloom here in Arizona, just as there are spaces opening within me, ready to be filled with new life and wonder. The sky is a brilliant blue. The sun is warm. A soft breeze brushes my skin and fills my nose with fragrances of spring. There is too much beauty and bloom here to capture with my amateur photography skills, but every corner seems to have something to proclaim, so I went back for my camera. As I uploaded the images I caught, I read through the Gospel of Luke again and read the story in the vibrant blooming life all around me. Would you take this walk with me?

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

HEARD

HEARD

Zechariah’s wife became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

favor

FAVOR

Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

OVERSHADOW

OVERSHADOW

Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

POSSIBLE

POSSIBLE

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.

BLESSED

BLESSED

His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has filled the hungry with good things…

FILLED

FILLED

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…to show mercy…to rescue us…to enable us to serve him without fear.

FEARLESS

FEARLESS

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.

SHINE

SHINE

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.

RISING

RISING

There was also a prophetess Anna…She was very old…eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

LOOKING FORWARD

LOOKING FORWARD

And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.

GRACE

GRACE

May the Lord bless you with the faith to see his story living in and around you each day. Happy New Year!

Barrenness and the Birth of Hope

The third gospel begins with the story of a barren woman. When you take a moment to think about that, it’s pretty shocking.

Two thousand years ago a man named Luke wrote down an eyewitness account about a man named Jesus and then gave it to a man named Theophilus. A story about a man, from a man, to a man – It’s surprising that such a narrative would begin with the story of a woman, and a barren one at that!

Luke determined to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write “an orderly account” for his friend Theo (Luke 1:3). He knew Jesus was the greatest man to ever live, and not just a man, the Son of Man, which meant GOD. So why didn’t Luke start his gospel with a dramatic Jesus-as-God moment like Jesus’ baptism or one of his miracles? Why begin with a woman? And what exactly are we supposed to learn about Jesus from a barren woman?

In those days, I’m sure a woman’s reproductive status was something everyone knew about (since pregnancy is a three-dimensional experience and you can’t hide resulting children), everyone thought about (because children, especially male children, meant an apprentice for your trade, security in your old age and continued heritage for your family name), but few spoke of. Talk of reproduction was probably reserved for the company of women. But Luke wanted an orderly account of Jesus’ life and that orderly account, in his opinion, had to start with a barren woman named Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her husband were not people to sneeze at. They were both descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses and a great leader of Israel in his own right. Zechariah was a priest, a highly esteemed position among their people which came with a stable, life-long income. Though born into privilege, Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t just coast on their good fortune, they lived with integrity. They were “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (1:5). Everything sounds great for Elizabeth and Zechariah until Luke begins a sentence with the word but.

“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v 7)

Three bald clauses equal one devastating reality that shredded the couple’s contentment. Elizabeth was barren. So they had no children. And their happiness was incomplete.

woman alone in the desert

Who can translate “well along in years” to an age? Was Elizabeth 35, the maternal age at which, today, we consider pregnancies high risk? Was she 45 and skirting close menopause? And Zechariah, who may have been a decade or more older than his wife, was he concerned about decreasing virility? Our curiosity about numbers and conditions doesn’t really matter. Luke simply indicates that the couple was old enough to know that their chances of conceiving were as miniscule as a mustard seed.

It is a beautiful and profound privilege to be life-bearers. But then, how utterly painful to have the womb and the cycle and the spouse – and the yearning – only to have your body wash away all that potential life each month. For years, Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, and Elizabeth embodied, this tension. Like discordant notes buzzing, knowing they needed only a slight tweak to create a beautiful harmony, Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted and waited.

But here is the thing about this couple, which to me seems both wild and wonderful: despite all the years of riding the reproductive seesaw, despite the pain, disappointment and exhaustion they must have felt, Elizabeth and Zechariah kept asking God for a child. This is hope, and in my opinion a rather robust version of it – despite overwhelmingly improbable odds, they looked to God and continued believing that life could come to them.

Where do people get such inner resources? Surely Elizabeth’s faith was a deep well, drained by disappointments, but always having enough water to scoop up and drink. Maybe she was able to temporarily quench her soul-thirst for a baby by pondering the story of her ancestor Sarah, another barren women who, in her old age, became both the mother of Isaac and the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16).

If this hope for life was about righteousness then Sarah, who deceived kings and doubted God, should have remained childless and Elizabeth, who stood tall and blameless before God, should have had a pack of little priests following after her by the time Luke writes. Reading the story closely, I see no indications that Elizabeth felt entitled to a baby because of her lineage, her advantageous marriage or her blameless life. She didn’t do any bargaining with God or rage at him in her long disappointment. The way Luke tells the story, Elizabeth simply waits, quietly buzzing with hope, believing life can begin in her.

This kind of hope is marvelous to me, and by that I mean, I marvel. I read about Elizabeth and admire her but I struggle to identify with her deep yearning for a baby. If you know me, you know that I love children, but I seem to be missing the female gene that makes you want to get pregnant and birth a child. If I were like Elizabeth and faced the same challenges, would I be strong enough or faithful enough to live like Elizabeth, to embody and abide with such an improbable hope?

As a hospital chaplain, I once worked in antepartum, the unit that is home for women with high-risk pregnancies. Most of our patients spent weeks, if not months, nesting on their plastic-covered hospital mattresses, slowly transforming the bland walls of their rooms into bright collages of family photos, crayon drawings from expectant cousins, amateur but heartfelt poetry and handwritten prayers. It seemed that our patients all followed an unspoken ritual passed down from the mothers who had come before them – if they surrounded themselves with a still-life of smiling faces, loving words and colorful doodles, they would somehow knit their wombs into plush receiving blankets and their babies would arrive safely. The place was equal parts wishes and fear, friendly yet hushed, scented with Elmer’s glue and tears.

That’s where I met Kelly. She and I were the same age but she married young. For the past eleven years Kelly and her husband had been trying to have a baby. By the time I met her, she was in the very early days of her ninth pregnancy. She’d had something like five miscarriages and three stillbirths. They’d done every fertility test, procedure and drug available. IVF failed. Donor eggs failed. Though there were no diagnosable issues, Kelly was told her womb was a hostile environment. The most recent squeeze of fate? The couple who contracted to be their surrogates accidentally got pregnant with their fifth child a month before the scheduled implantation.

For over an hour Kelly told me about the breathless babies she got to hold, only to carry to the cemetery. She chronicled her grief by making a full chapter of each miscarriage and lost opportunity. It was a stunning story, so painful that it almost felt exaggerated, like a made-for-TV movie that is “based on a true story” but you know the producers made everything more dramatic than it really was. But Kelly’s story was real.

I expected a woman who knew such loss to be woeful. I looked for the desperation that haunts the women in antepartum. I listened for secret pains to leak out in common phrases like I wish and my fault. No matter how well I listened or how closely I looked, Kelly’s story was bound with smooth skin, dry eyes and frank talk. I’d been a chaplain and pastor long enough to identify denial. Kelly sat before me somehow very healthy. Her serenity was palpable; it was so clear and bright that I had trouble maintaining eye contact (a difficulty I seldom have). Kelly’s story sent me inward; I had a hundred questions and a jumble of feelings. At the end of my visit, I asked Kelly the one question that burned in me the entire hour:

“What is it in you that keeps you from giving up?”

Without pausing, she said simply, “I’ve always known that God created me to be a mother.”

People might argue with Kelly’s words but the lesson here is not in our opinions, but in Kelly’s spirit. What I initially identified as serenity, I suddenly knew as a living, pulsing, Spirit-breathed hope. A hope like Elizabeth’s. Hope that said a baby may be improbable, but with God it is possible. Hope that stood tall through the second-guessing and disapproval of friends and neighbors, that endured big things like disappointment and grief, and that sneezed at little things like advancing years and hostile wombs. For both of these barren women, the hope for life didn’t hinge on personal qualifications, track records or wishful thinking; their hope rested solely on God, the Creator of all life.

So I come back to one of my original questions, why did Luke begin his orderly account of Jesus’ life with the story of a barren woman? Barrenness, this no life within the place of potential life, is the soil of hope. The absence of life, the yearning for life, like a womb or a fallow field – they whisper and shout, I was made for more than this; I was made for life!

It doesn’t take a long look around to know there has to be more than this. Just as Elizabeth and Kelly and millions of other barren women have cried out for life to begin in them, our souls cry out for life to come and set the empty caverns of our hearts pumping. We were made for life, for abundant life, but this world is a hostile womb.

Elizabeth is just one person in the midst of a centuries-long story; people might assume that her part is insignificant. Well, take notice, world! Elizabeth’s barrenness shows us just how wide and long and high and deep was our need for God to come and fill us with new life, a hope which Jesus would fulfill.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah]…and said…“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…And he will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

She who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.

Soil-Fertilizer