Category Archives: mercy

On sin, love…and sisters

Today I had the honor and responsibility to lead a very informal service for my family in remembrance of my sister, Sharon. I’m not an ordained…anything, really, but it was a family-only thing at one of her favorite places, Whitey’s Fish Camp, and I was as qualified to lead a service as Whitey’s was to be a church.* Thanks to a good friend who actually is a priest, I was able to draw on an order of service, readings, and prayers appropriate to the occasion.

But there’s a slot for a homily. I reflected a lot about what I learned about sin and God’s love from my sister and my family and thought I should share some of it here:

One of the old jokes I learned in seminary was about a new pastor who had finished his first sermon at his first church. He was standing in the back, being complimented by the congregation as they filed out, when an old guy grabbed his hand, pulled him aside, and said, “Son, a sermon should be about three things. It should be about sin. It should be about God’s love. And it should be about half as long as what you just did.”

Obviously, I don’t need to tell a joke to warm up a crowd that is family. But that joke kept coming to mind, because as I reflected on Sharon’s life, I realized that watching her from my vantage point really shaped my theology, my understanding of sin, my understanding of God’s love. I’ll shoot to keep this half as long as a sermon.

Because of where I fell in the family, I never really knew Sharon before addiction knew her, and I was home for some of the hardest years of her life, when she was on her own and out of control. Of course, I’m also blessed to have known her after that, and her marriage, which is my easy mental tent peg for when she turned her life around, is only about a year or two separated from April’s and my marriage.

We get sin and addiction backwards in our culture. We think of addiction as being about doing a lot of sinning, a lot of bad stuff that makes God mad. I don’t think that’s right. Watching how Sharon struggled with addiction, I realized addiction, rightly understood, is the best way I can understand sin.

Sin, like addiction, is the fierce upstream current we have to fight against in order to move toward the light and be the best person we can be; in Romans 7:19, Paul talks about how “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do,” and that’s the force of addiction as surely as it’s the force of sin. Fighting that current takes a ton of courage, and let’s not fool ourselves, we all face addictions. For some of us, they are invisible or socially acceptable, like judgmentalism or anxiety or achievement. For some of us, they are relatively benign, like caffeine or smartphones. For some of us, they are visibly destructive and bring the added current of physical chemical dependency, and they can create a sense of shame that tricks us into staying away from the very love that is the only thing that can help us. To push against that takes a courage we should all admire. That’s what I saw in Sharon. That’s what I understand about sin.

We get God’s love wrong, too. A lot of people seem to think of God’s love as something you have to earn, like he’s an accountant that audits your moral books before paying out blessings. There are legalists who think that way even today, just as there were Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Those legalists complain that a lot of other people today think of God as just an easy grader; he’s still a judge, in their estimate; but he’s willing to let things slide if you show good effort. Those are both wrong; that’s not the love I know.

I saw what God’s love looks like when I was living at home and mom and dad were dealing with Sharon’s wild days. I saw their pain. I saw how many things they tried in order to get Sharon back on track. I saw how much it hurt to realize that the nature of human agency is such that you couldn’t make somebody want something, even if it was making your own child come back to who they really were. And I saw that, even when they tried “tough love,” the “tough” never, ever drowned out the “love.”

That’s the love of God that I know. The love of a parent who wants to return a child back to who they really are and are willing to do anything it takes to make it happen. I learned that from watching Mom and Dad with Sharon. I know families who finally gave up, who cut their lost child or sibling out of the mix. But even when Sharon wasn’t around, she always really was, and we were as happy to welcome her back to herself as the prodigal father welcoming back his prodigal son. And we are blessed — so blessed — that she brought David with her. This is a family full of marriages you can look up to, and Sharon and David’s definitely is among them.

One more thing I learned about life from Sharon is resilience. There were some false starts, some rehabs that didn’t take, and my assumption was that in staring down alcohol it would be all or nothing, that if she ever fell off the wagon it would be to roll all the way back to the bottom of the valley, probably never to get back up.

Sharon had some down times; I think as much as she loved the holidays, they were particularly tough. But those times when she got tripped up, she kept getting back up and shaking it off, and that was a wonder to see. That taught me what resilience was.

I can’t say for sure what happens after death. Christianity proclaims a Resurrection at the end of time, but we also talk about heaven right now. Either way, I believe that death completes the returning of ourselves to wholeness, peace and love by returning us to our source.

I picked the Gospel that I did, the one about the “Good Thief” who asks Jesus, while they’re both being crucified, to remember him. And what Jesus says is “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Today. With me. Paradise.**

I don’t think Sharon had too far to go. Wholeness? She picked up the pieces of the brokenness we all share, and she made it into a whole. Peace? She may not have been perfectly peaceful, but she set aside the restlessness of her younger days. Love? As I said before, she was always the most loving member of the clan.

Last Sunday, our pastor talked about how we can only really love when we know we have been loved, and I know Sharon felt that. That is, if anything can be, the silver lining of the awful timing of her passing. On her last day, she got to soak in the reality that she was SO loved that her sister would give up her kidney for her. May we all feel that much love on our last day.

*Side note: Should you ever go to Whitey’s, do check out the hand-carved tribute to the late Jimmy Van Zant. It’s not exactly a saint’s icon, but it’s the culturally appropriate equivalent.

**That part I pretty much stole from Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. In appreciation, I encourage you to buy not only that book but his coming-soon Barking at the Choir.

Advertisements

Simpleton

I think the last time I blogged about anything, I banged out some lyrics to songs that had come up in my playlist, but I only referenced one song – Derek Minor’s Change The World (with guest Hollyn). Here’s the song with lyrics for the uninitiated. (I’m not typing it out.)

It came up again tonight (I swear my playlist isn’t that short), and it had me thinking about a critique I’d heard from several different quarters lately – people I respect a great deal (as well as some others). The problems with contemporary Christian music (or CCM) are two-fold: the musical theory is too simplistic, and the theology is, too.

We all have gateways to the transcendent, and for each of us they’re different. For many, being in nature can help you feel a super-rational connection to the divine; for some it’s being in a holy shrine or place of worship. For some, it’s reading; for others, it’s writing. For some, it’s classical music; for others, it’s ocean waves.

Contemporary praise and worship music is such a gateway for me. (I must not be alone, or else it would be a non-genre.) I will be the first to admit that I’m not a musician and definitely not a music theorist. I can sing, loudly if not well. I can often carry a tune, although not with great range or sophistication. If a million chimps with a million typewriters would eventually bang out a Shakespearean sonnet, I can probably beat them to the punch of playing the melody line of a song on a piano. Musically, I am happily mediocre.

I could not care a whit about music theory. I’m attracted to voices and sounds for reasons I can’t explain. I seem to like them uncultured and unpolished: I’ll take David Crowder or NeedToBreathe over Josh Groban. (I used to have secular pop references, but I honestly haven’t listened to secular pop music in two decades or more, except for the occasional stadium rock (Seven Nation Army, say) or oldie (Brown Eyed Girl).)

So if the critique of CCM is that it’s musically simplistic, well, I can’t fight you. That’s like telling me my Italian sounds more like it’s Venetian than Neapolitan: I will just have to take your word for it and be grateful that I’m in the game at all.

But the theology, there we can talk. The critique of most CCM is that it espouses a too-cheery theology.  It’s like anti-country music; everything works out in the end. I understand that this is often so, (though not always), and I understand why that is problematic in our complex world. I have struggled in these electronic pages with the problems that a too-easy theology leads us to. I understand that the ending, in this world, is not always happy for the Christian, and in fact, if we are truly following Jesus in standing with the marginalized, we are likely to end up much closer to the original apostles (all martyred) than Joel Osteen (decidedly not martyred).

So why do I listen to such theologically stunted lyrics? Let me spin out a couple points on this:

  1. We’re not the first to go down this road. I was part of a group that, as part of it’s reflection, read Psalm 1 this week. One of the self-proclaimed least formed Christians hit the heart of things quickly: “It says the evil are like chaff that are lost in the wind. But when you think about the shooter in Las Vegas…” The cheery “everything works out in the end” theology of CCM isn’t very different from that of the psalmists. If I need to add some context, it’s that this is a theology of hope, not current observation. The meek are gonna get what’s coming to them by and by, not that there is any evidence to support that. If you think the evil are going to amount to nothing, it’s based on an understanding of what true and eternal happiness is that isn’t reflected in what you see on TV. That’s for sure.
  2. My soul needs the balance. This has been a week, although truthfully, every week is like this if you pay attention. On Monday I read about older people trapped in a Kafkaesque hell by predatory professional guardians, and I also read about the increasing likelihood that you will die alone. On Tuesday I read about a sexual predator who was lauded by our culture’s powers-that-be and unhindered in his devastation for decades, a company that runs camps for juvenile offenders that led to multiple deaths, a system of juvenile justice in a major US metro that systematically victimized those it was charged to restore to wholeness. On Wednesday, I read about natural disasters that killed a couple married 75 years and are slowly jeopardizing the lives of an island of 3+ million people. On Thursday, I read about the genocide of a people by Buddhists, for gosh sake, including the testimony of a 20-year old whose 18-month old was torn from her hands and thrown into a fire, then dragged off to be gang-raped while her parents and siblings were killed in the same place. Usually, God’s prophets bring a message of warning, like Jonah or John the Baptist: repent or else. But sometimes, things suck so bad that God’s messenger has to say: it sucks now, but I swear you aren’t forgotten. Read the news these days, and you need that prophet to appear.

If you’re prone to agnosticism, or even the mildest of skepticism, this sounds pretty dang fishy. So you’re saying your God is tough when you’re strong enough to take it, but mushy when you’re in a bad way. Uh-huh.

But, look, is that not what Love does? When my wife or daughter or friend is confidently wrong, I can nudge them back toward the path. But when they are lost and broken-hearted? I have to encourage first.

I get that music can be a vehicle for both movements of the human and divine spirit. If you think I’m a musical simpleton for soaking in God’s goodness through music in uncomplicated tunes, I’ll plead guilty. The complexity of the world is enough right now, and I pray in hope of the day when it’s music that challenges me instead of the news.

 

The Most Jesus-y Thing My Church Does

Our church held it’s annual festival last weekend. Now, I grew up in a respectable Southern Protestant household, so this was foreign to my childhood. If we wanted to ride marginally safe spinny rides, our only outlet was the county fair.

On its face, the festival is a pure sellout to the devil, raising money for the church school by selling cheap thrills, bingo and fried foods galore.  It attracts all sorts of people, including several who I’m sure have never darkened the door of a church except to sneak into the bathroom. The carnies who work the rides seem particularly sketchy. To make it worse, it happens during Lent every year, without fail, when we’re supposed to be solemnly fasting, abstaining and atoning.

But our pastor of the last 20 or so years is a wise man, and while most people who are aware of the festival (and it draws from across the area) think it’s timed to be close to St. Patrick’s Day, not so, he insists. It’s timed each weekend to fall on the weekend of Laetare Sunday, which marks a sort of “halftime break” for Lent. While Sundays remain a feast day, even in Lent, the readings for this week are particularly joyful, reminding us that Lenten fasting is only for a season.  This year, the Gospel was the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or the story of the Prodigal Father, which may be a more accurate name). And while listening to that Gospel for the millionth time, I realized that the festival was perhaps the most “Jesus-y” thing our parish does.

I don’t mean for a moment that our faith community doesn’t show lots of other glimpses of the body of Christ. We worship. We partner with the poor and oppressed, through our sister-parish relationship with a church in Haiti. We try to live out the challenge of Matthew 25 by feeding the hungry through local outreach efforts like St. Vincent DePaul. We learn together to grow in discipleship.

But at the beginning of the reading, before you get into the parable, you learn that what prompted Jesus’ telling of it was the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus “welcome sinners and tax collectors and eats with them.” And when the parable itself turns from the prodigal son come home to the do-good son who stayed behind, it says that what sets the “good son” off is “the sound of music and dancing” from the homecoming celebration.

Because we’ve been doing it so long, I suspect most people who might be offended by the lack of Lenten decorum in our festival have either made their peace or moved to another, more respectable parish. I’m sure there are still a few who grumble about the noise, the mess, or the parking. The rules of good Christian decorum would say that, if you want to come back to Mother Church, you should show up on Ash Wednesday, do some serious penance, maybe take a class or two, and when you’re “ready”, come back for good. And if you’re just trying to be respectable, at least make it to the dress-up services at Christmas and Easter.

But as surely as the love of the Prodigal Father short-circuits the reinstatement plan of the prodigal son and skips straight from indentured servanthood to the full homecoming of a lost son, so, I would argue, does our festival offer everyone the opportunity to celebrate a homecoming to our community, just as Jesus did when celebrating with sinners and tax collectors.

During the weekend, I sat next to a couple (playing Bingo) who said they weren’t members of the church “anymore”, but they still come back to festival each year because it’s fun and homey and reminds them of their connection to the place.  I ran into another old friend who said she had fallen out of the habit of Church, once her kids had flown the nest, but she realized that it was important, and Festival was her first step back. Is Festival “enough” to be a part of God’s family? Common sense would say, no, you need to show up for Mass and throw something in the offering plate. But who are we to say?

Whether it’s the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the “good Christians” of today, it seems to be an easy slip to let our zeal for righteousness translate into a “Gospel for the good enough,” a way of acting that implies (if not overtly states) that you have to meet some minimum standards to fall within the circle of God’s love.  The music and the dancing and the celebration of homecoming reminds us that the Gospel isn’t for the good enough; it’s for all of us. Whether you come home to Festival to reconnect with family or friends, to ride rides, eat fried foods or dance to loud music, it all happens beneath the shadow of our church because we know that that’s our ultimate family, our ultimate home, and even when we’re “supposed to” be serious, our Prodigal Father is always ready to deep-fry the fatted calf and cue the band. That’s what the Father said to the older, “do-good” son. That’s what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees who “tut-tutted” him. That’s what our Church reminds all of us in it’s most Jesus-y moment.

image

 

The difficult grace of the passive voice

My wife is truly a saint in the making, and not only because she puts up with me.  She has an unquenchable thirst for God – prioritizing prayer and study. She’s great at something I am horrible at – praying for others in her life, not only when they ask for it but just as part of her daily routine. And, as the founder of a moms’ prayer group at our daughter’s school, she convenes a community of women that she cares deeply for and serves in countless ways.  She has organized enough meal drops for sick or recovering members that the “Take Them a Meal” website should consider her for their board, or as a celebrity endorser.

I mention this because, as she recovers from her own health issue, it is readily apparent that she is very uncomfortable with the shoe being on the other foot.  As her friends rise to the opportunity to reciprocate for all she’s done for them, she is grateful, but uneasy.  Some of it, I suspect, is the desire not to be the center of attention, but it’s more than that.  We are trained to think of faith in the active voice – we pray, we worship, we study, and especially we love, by feeding the hungry and caring for the sick and comforting the lonely and sometimes guiding the lost.  But if we are all equally children of God, and we live in a community of faith that supports each other, we need to be willing, when needed, to accept the sort of support we freely offer to others.

If you’re the type who is used to achieving, used to independence, used to control, being helpless (or at least needing help) is tough.  There is inevitable guilt (“think of all the people who are in much worse shape”) at being served, when you are used to doing the serving.  There is a safety in being the one to offer help; depending on others can feel like the opposite of safety.

But I think it’s good for us, to some extent, to accept the difficult grace of the passive voice.  When we do, we make evident that there are not two classes of people in God’s family – the givers and the receivers – but that we are all both, all the time. If it is in giving that true joy lies, there is a consideration in letting others embrace that joy at our expense. And the experience of receiving something that you could not attain on your own is to experience the definition of grace and a kind of love that is a reflection of the divine.

I’ve been reflecting this week on Luke 7, where Jesus goes to a Pharisee’s house and a “sinful woman” washes his feet with her tears.  There are a lot of dynamics in the story, but one that hadn’t struck me before was Jesus’ willingness to let this woman wash his feet. Late in John’s Gospel, when Jesus says he will wash the feet of his disciples, Peter protests – no way, you’re the one who should be served. But if we are to be the hands and feet of Christ, that not only means we need to heal and feed and go where Jesus would have us minister; it means we need to let others do the same for us. May we embrace the difficult grace of the passive voice.

What a hairless Mexican dog taught me about mercy 

My first lesson in this Jubilee Year of Mercy came from a hairless Mexican dog and her owners over the New Year’s weekend. 

Chica, the dog in question, is owned by friends of ours. Over Thanksgiving, we house- and dog-sat for them, and my daughter, always passionate about dogs, bonded with Chica and her brother Taco as they all shared a bed. 

On New Year’s Eve, we got a text: Chica had gotten out. Our family was distraught, but only to a fraction of the owners. 

Over the next few days, they literally didn’t rest in their search for Chica. We helped a little – designing and distributing fliers, calling vets, posting on social media, hoping to mobilize other sets of eyes. On New Year’s Day, someone called to say they saw Chica get hit crossing a major street, but that when the caller went to help her, she took off, as fast as any greyhound. We spent the night helping the friends comb the streets and alleys where she was last seen. No signs. 

While I idled through the streets, what I couldn’t shake was how this was a parable for our time. The shepherd with a lost sheep meets the prodigal father. 

The unflagging devotion of Chica’s owners – they could not rest until their dog was safe, and they would do anything to secure her? That’s how God pursues each of us. And they were relentless. 

And Chica? Her every need was met, she was showered with love and treats and an FSU t-shirt, and when she got the chance to leave all that, she bolted. Driven by fear or longing for something she thought was better than the perfection she had. 

That’s us. 

The owners never gave up hope, but on Saturday night they realized they had done everything they possibly could. Though their role in the parable was the divine one, they were only human, and they put things in God’s hands and collapsed. 

In the night, Chica came home, waking them at 4 am with her kisses. She was bumped and bruised but no worse. In the end, as we all know, no matter how fierce the search party, ultimately you don’t get found so much as you find home. 

And the owners? They were thrilled beyond words.  

That’s what divine mercy looks like. 

What does mercy look like to…

What does mercy look like to me? Every time I’m confronted with my own failings, which is a lot, it’s remembering that God loves me more. It’s also every small kindness I receive and every chance to offer one to others.

What does mercy look like to my family? It’s every person who lets on that they know that this first Christmas, New Year, round of birthdays, etc. without Dad is going to be tough and offers Mom, or my sisters or nieces a little extra TLC.

What does mercy look like to the too many people I know who are battling – battling cancer, battling addiction and mental illness, battling tough times of all sorts? It’s the hug, the casserole, the pithy words of encouragement, the break that finally comes.

What does mercy look like to the refugees desperate for a better life? How can it be anything but the welcoming of a stranger that Jesus has on His short list of what His followers will be judged by in Matthew 25?

What does mercy look like to the people living in daily terror in Syria, Iraq, and too many other places we don’t even notice? It’s someone with power risking their life to make it stop. I’m almost a pacificist, but I know that much.

What does mercy look like to Muslims here and abroad who have nothing to do with these people who claim their faith to do unspeakable things? It’s embrace, friendship, acceptance from Christians who have their own issues with people hijacking our religion to spread hate.

What does mercy look like to people who live in fear in Paris, in California, in just about anywhere? It’s the comfort of knowing that the Christian Bible says 365 times “Do not fear” and not once says “get so afraid that you’ll be a sucker for any tough-talker eager to lead you away from who you are, which is God’s child.”

What does mercy look like to the fear-mongers? It probably looks horribly naive. But I also hope it looks like the nagging conscience of the right they know is true. And it definitely looks like the offer that, while it may not be easy and certainly won’t be without some shame and loss of face, God wants them back in His love, only at the cost of letting go of their hate and fear and the phantom power it brings them.

What does mercy look like to the radicalized? I honestly don’t know how, but my faith tells me that God holds out hope even for them, that they will come to know the deception they have bought for what it is. Mercy always offers the chance to exchange false idols for real God. Even when the rest of us have written you off.

What does mercy look like to you?

What do we do with mercy?

Today, Pope Francis inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy to help us bring to the forefront the role of divine mercy in our life and to “rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”

Mercy is the place where God’s perfect love meets our brokenness, be it sin, failure, lack or imperfection. It is also where we seek to be like God, to embody the spirit of Christ that we confess lives within us, by extending that same love to the brokenness of others. It seems to me that, over the course of the next (almost) year, we can do the following to grow in mercy:

  1. Understand it. To truly grasp the depth and power of God’s love for us, personally, we need to come to grips with the brokenness we each struggle to hide from others, from God, and from ourselves, and fully understand that God’s love for us surpasses the scars of that brokenness. That in itself is tough.
  2. Accept it. It’s not enough to cognitively understand mercy.  We can do that without fully accepting, in our hearts, that this love of God applies to me, to my particular brokenness. There are a lot of people walking around carrying a lot of stuff not because they don’t know in their heads that God loves them anyway, but because they can’t love themselves past that stuff.
  3. Offer it. We Western Christians can get really wrapped up on the one-on-one, me-and-God component of faith and completely overlook its communitarian dimension. In his homily today, Francis underscores that the reason to dwell on mercy is to empower us to go out beyond ourselves and share it with others. Read the news. Look around. We could all use to offer a lot more mercy, a lot more love, to others this year.*
  4. Receive it. Consider this the flip of #3. Even if I accept God’s love, I can still throw up walls to prevent other people from reaching to me, especially if I hold on to past hurts. Receiving the love of others can be harder than it sounds.
  5. Share it. So, the secret to this year of mercy is that it’s all about spreading the Good News of God’s all-surpassing love with others. Once you’ve experienced it, you’re better able to testify to it. As this is timed to the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, which among many other things fundamentally changed the relationship of the Catholic Church to other religions from one of sullen superiority to respectful encounter, this is not a license to go proselytize the already religious under someone else’s flag. But the “nones,” they are everywhere, as are the disaffected former believers. Bringing them some genuinely Good News about what God wants of them — to love them — is our calling.

* Looking for a way to show mercy? Here are 14 from Catholic tradition. The seven corporal works of mercy:

To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To Shelter the Homeless
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned
To bury the dead.

And the seven spiritual works of mercy:

To instruct the ignorant.
To counsel the doubtful.
To admonish sinners.
To bear wrongs patiently.
To forgive offences willingly.
To comfort the afflicted.
To pray for the living and the dead

Try to play blackout bingo on these instead of picking and choosing.  And as you delight to instruct the ignorant and admonish sinners, remember that the #1 ignorant sinner is usually in the mirror.