Deplorable.  Conspiracy.  The n-word.

 

When Kelsey was five years old, as we were driving home from a playdate, she announced.  “Mommy, I know what the f-word means!” 

 

I tried to keep my face neutral as I glanced back at her in her car seat.  “You do, Kels?”

 

“Yes, it means ‘fat.’ At Cheryl’s house, you aren’t allowed to say ‘fat.’”

 

“Oh?” I replied, amused.

 

“Yes.”  Her face grew thoughtful. “But Caleb said that isn’t the f-word.  He says the f-word is fuck.  Is fuck the f-word, Mommy?”

 

“And here we are,” I thought.  Keeping my voice light, I told her. “Yeah, that isn’t a very polite word. You probably shouldn’t say that word.”

 

“Ok.” Silence filled the car as I exited the freeway.  Then, from behind me a lilting little voice sang, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck is a word you shouldn’t say…”

 

“Kelsey,” I added a little sternness to my voice.  “What did I just say?”

 

“But, Mommy,” she protested, “I wasn’t saying it, I was singing it!”

 

Ask any mom, you’ll probably hear a similar anecdote.  Children learn early what adults sometimes forget: there is power in words.

 

Sometimes words become symbols.  When Hillary Clinton referred to a segment of Trump supporters as “deplorable,” she wanted to differentiate between two groups –  hate-filled, alt-right white supremacists intentionally spreading lies to seed distrust and stir up fear versus the other group – the “people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

 

The differentiation was lost by the next news cycle.  The second group, the ones who Clinton said deserved understanding and empathy, were bombarded by the first to believe she had referred to them as “deplorable.”  Soon, it didn’t matter what the actual context of the speech entailed.  Deplorable had become an identity for disenfranchised Appalachians, for evangelical Christians, for anyone in a “flyover” state who has felt disregarded by their elected leaders.  When I recently heard a white, upper-middle-class friend refer to herself as a deplorable, I was a bit taken aback.  In the same conversation, when I said the word “conspiracy,” her eyes sparked.  “That’s a word they use when they want to shut you down,” she said, an edge of anger in her voice.

 

Some words connote a depth of meaning far beyond their dictionary definition.  In part one of Emmanual Acho’s guest appearance on The Oprah Conversation, there is a brief discussion about the history and use of the n-word, how it has been rebranded within black culture (although Oprah herself does not allow its use, no matter how it is spelled.)   

 

What gives any word power is the intention behind it.  A five-year-old singing about the f-word does not carry the sting of an adult screaming it at another adult. (Of course, after Kelsey’s song, we had a child-level discussion on the use of swear words.)

 

I think that most people who repeat what they have heard on the news or social media do so in this kind of innocence.  We might know it’s gossip.  We might not have taken the time to fully vet it ourselves but we trust the person who shared it with us.

 

Unfortunately, the source of the story or opinion may not be quite so innocent.  Since the days of Pulitzer / Hearst yellow journalism through grocery market tabloids to what is sometimes presented today as serious news, some media outlets have vied for their market share by latching onto the most sensational, shocking, attention-grabbing headlines they can find (or create.)  In the digital age, under quarantine, those methods have overfilled a sorcerer’s apprentice bucket with scandal, dire predictions and lies designed to frighten us and enrage us.

 

And we buy it.  And click on it. And share it with our friends, as we shake our heads and gather our children to protect them from an increasingly dangerous world.

 

Unfortunately, we do have an enemy.  But it is probably not your neighbor or high school friend or relative, even if they have gone over to the dark side (whichever one that is.)   It’s probably not Bill Gates.  

 

Our enemy is the one who prowls around like a roaring lion.  That old lion who roars, frightening the prey into the path of the younger lions, the ones with teeth.  If Satan (or evil, if you prefer) is the old lion, the young lions are those who intentionally use his tactics to accomplish their goals.  “Satan only has about six tricks,” a pastor joked in a sermon that has stuck with me. “But he keeps using them because they work!”

 

The more I investigate the inner writings of political strategists, the more chilling I find some of them. Cold calculations measure how much we will believe manufactured evidence when motivated by fear. It is no longer mistakenly crossing a line in our passion, it is obliterating that line and the next and the next in an inexorable march to gain more wealth and more political power.

 

As consumers, we have become accustomed to the blatant manipulation of product advertising.  Over the years, we have learned to be more discerning; most of us don’t jump up and drive to McDonald’s the moment a Big Mac appears on our TV (but a lot of us do get seduced by “targeted” ads.) 

 

Our skills at detecting political manipulation may not be as well-honed.

 

And then there’s our pride.  How can we admit we may have been manipulated?  If Russian troll farms influenced how I voted, what does that say about me?  So we double down on our opinions, even when there’s a glimmer that wonders, “Could it be true?”

 

And, unfortunately, our pride is one of the factors in the calculations.  I do not believe Trump is God’s man for our time; neither do I believe he is an evil genius.  Is he a sociopath and narcissist as many psychological reports suggest? Is he simply a man unaccustomed to real adversity or a man in the grip of greed? What I do believe about Donald Trump is that his pride opens him up to extreme manipulation from others.  David Horowitz grooms a young Stephen Miller who writes Trump’s speeches and feeds him the same fear and hate-filled “evidence” that the President retweets. Media reports are horrified and outraged (which is the point) and what the President says has less and less meaning (also the point).  Meanwhile, the silent power sits back in the darkness and is delighted.  

 

Since Eisenhower, much has been written about the potential of misplaced power in the military-industrial complex. Organizations such as ALEC have been happy to stay in the shadows and pull the strings of our legislature.  The American Legislative Exchange Council labels itself (and claims a tax-exempt charity status) as an educational nonprofit. In “educating” conservative legislators, the legislators receive campaign contributions and invitations to attend closed-door meetings with corporate lobbyists where they craft model bills designed to benefit the corporations.  Many of these “models” are copied verbatim (your state name here) and passed into law.  From the NRA’s “Stand Your Ground” law which protected Trayvon Martin’s killer to mandatory minimums and three-strikes in the “Truth in Sentencing Act” backed by the private prison industry, our society is being shaped according to stockholder share value.  ALEC’s recent agendas address voter regulation, school privatization, exploiting the pandemic to deregulate federal statutes and create bigger tax benefits for corporations.  As someone familiar with the history leading to the American civil war, I find their rhetoric emphasizing the influence of judges and states rights (where the majority of their power is concentrated)  uncomfortably familiar.  For more on ALEC:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3yIbxydlHY

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/04/03/alec-american-legislative-exchange-council-model-bills-republican-conservative-devos-gingrich/3162357002/

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/exposing-alec-how-conservative-backed-state-laws-are-all-connected/255869/

 

Our confusion and feelings of not knowing whom to trust come from a strategy designed to erode our perception of truth.  It is a strategy to represent perpetrators as victims.  It is a strategy to claim victims are the real perpetrators. And so on…

 

In an article promoting her new book Hatemonger, Jean Guerrero writes, “Horowitz wrote that hope and fear are the two strongest weapons in politics. Barack Obama had used hope to become president. ‘Fear is a much stronger and more compelling emotion,’ Horowitz argued, adding that Republicans should appeal to voters’ base instincts.”

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/08/01/stephen-miller-david-horowitz-mentor-389933 

 

Any person or organization that intentionally uses fear to manipulate, isolate and subjugate others are themselves being manipulated by the enemy of our souls.  Do not follow them.  Just don’t.

 

I’ve spoken with many friends who believe in the Republican ideals of limited government. They may not approve of Donald Trump personally, but they cannot imagine themselves voting for a Democrat.

 

Does it matter if your goals, even Godly goals, align with people whose actions do not reflect your values?  I think this time, in this election, it does.  In the past four years, hate and fear have been given a place at the table.  The default retreat – “it’s just politics” – has worn thin.  We are shouting at each other but very few are actually talking to each other. The earth itself seems to be reflecting our disharmony in waves of disasters. Our enemy doesn’t really care which side of the aisle we support.  Our enemy delights in the terror, in the fighting, in the gossip, in our pride, in our weariness and hopelessness. 

 

This time, in this election, I think it’s important to sit with God and look into our own hearts.  Our right to vote is a precious privilege, but our hearts guide our votes. No one can see who you vote for, not your spouse, or pastor, or denomination leader. Only God sees.  Your vote is important, but you are more important.  Your heart is what God cares for.  

 

Our Creator doesn’t need us. He wants us.  Abba isn’t interested in utilizing you. Jesus told Peter his Father could send twelve legions of angels if needed; why would anyone think He needs us to battle other humans for Him? Abba invites you into fellowship to hang out, to just be with you. Did God craft the universe or wildflowers or brilliant sunsets for peak efficiency? No, He simply provides beauty for our souls.  His glory is displayed for capitalists and socialists, for Republicans and Democrats.  No political party gets to claim God as their sole supporter. 

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

Yes. They’ll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant. And it’s curious that we can’t possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem petty and ridiculous…And it may be that our present life, which we accept so readily, will in time seem strange, inconvenient, stupid, not clean enough, perhaps even sinful. . . .” Antov Chekhov

 “Truly, God does not see what man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD sees the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) 

 

Ask God today, “what do you see in my heart?”  

Then stay long enough to hear the answer.

 

 

A parenting program with this name – Love and Logic – was making its rounds through evangelical churches when my kids were young (perhaps it still is).  Its basic premise was that parents should allow children to experience the natural consequences of their behavior. Example: your dawdling child who doesn’t get dressed in time for the bus goes to school in her pajamas. Lesson learned.

 

Understandable in principle, perhaps not so much in actual execution.  Like most programs, it works well for some parents and some kids.  But not all.  Spectrum kids who are already suffering pain and shame, since their brains do not function like their peers’, will not benefit from yet another way to fail expectations they perceive as unattainable.  Authoritarian parents who already have an adversarial relationship with their children, who use the program as a system of punishment, will find the divide between them and their children growing wider.

 

In moments of quiet, I’ve queried further into the reckoning mentioned in my previous post. What are those “natural consequences” of our behavior?  And why this term, which is particularly loaded for me?

 

I know God is not an authoritarian parent, however much we have tried to shape Him into one in some of our churches.  All the fire and brimstone sermons, our endless cataloging of what a Christian is or isn’t (that changes with each generation in content but doesn’t change in severity), from the Old Testament to this morning’s Facebook posts, we shape a schizophrenic God according to our own understanding. We shape a God who is alternatively murderous and compassionate, who demands sacrifice and yet sacrifices Himself .   

 

God is Authority, don’t misunderstand me.  I have experienced Divine encounters that shut my mouth forever on issues of God’s existence and holiness. (another post for another time.)  And I don’t believe we have the capacity to understand either God or the spiritual realm beyond what He reveals to us.

 

But our Father (or Mother, if you prefer; gender is not an issue for God) is the parent who watches at the window for the lost child, who goes after the one lost sheep, who celebrates when a lost coin is found.  God’s kingdom, into which Jesus has invited us, is filled with freedom.  It is a playground of surprising treasure, hidden pearls of belonging and adventure, of finding new ways of being, of learning to fly.  We are all invited to be subjects in this kingdom today. Not in a harps-and-clouds, life-after-death scenario but today, in this moment, in the reality around us.

 

Jesus said God’s subjects in this now-kingdom are growing side by side with other subjects. There is an enemy, called evil, Satan, the fallen angel Lucifer.  This enemy recruits his own subjects, using his own tactics to further his own agenda.  For centuries, Christians have taken it upon themselves to identify who belongs to which camp. But as far as I can tell, Jesus said that is the job of God’s angels at the end of the age. That will be the time for sorting what is truly in our hearts and motivations.

 

I’m getting there…really….

 

Let’s bring the theological speculating down to today, in August 2020.  Here on Maui, the number of Covid-19 cases is rising, as in many places in America, due to the public’s noncompliance with social distancing guidelines.  At the beginning of the pandemic’s spread, I was grateful to be in a community who still hold great respect and care for ohana (family), especially kupuna (grandparents, the elderly). We have one hospital on Maui, with only 15 beds in the Covid-19 unit, for a county of over 150,000 people.  In the beginning, everyone complied. We stayed home, maintained social distance, wore masks and gloves.  Within six weeks, the number of new cases had dropped down to zero.   

 

And then.  As in many places in America, as officials advised cautious reopening around Memorial Day, some people decided the rules no longer applied to them.  Young people gathered in bars and beach parties.  Many Christians were convinced that scientists and government officials were acting in opposition to their faith.  Wearing a mask, complying with protocols became political, as if a virus distinguished the faithful from the “sheep.”  (Oh dear ones, who exactly is guiding you?)

 

So now the virus is spreading on Maui.  As in many places in America, the ones most affected are the ones who can least afford it – uneducated poor who must work to survive, who labor in service industries, catering to people who seem to care for little beyond themselves.

 

Yesterday, Maui’s mayor fumed at the blatant irresponsibility:  “Victorino said they have done enough education. Now it’s time for arrests. “I don’t think the education is necessary anymore. They will be cited or arrested.” 

 

“Natural” consequences.  You disregard the law, you will be arrested.  

 

Suddenly, I’m looking down a tunnel at the end of which infuriated Christians are railing, claiming to suffer for their faith.  Christians using precious resources, using the civic justice system, using social media to protest their violated liberties.  

 

And a weary world is further convinced followers of Jesus are empty, self-centered bigots.  

 

Does Jesus still get weary of our perverse and unbelieving hearts?  He said if we understood the least bit about faith, we could do mighty things.  Yet what are we doing? What are we focusing on?

 

Today, as I was washing dishes, I thought about a radio pastor’s comment on how churches can use the fear of Covid-19 to “bring people to Jesus.” I could almost hear Jesus slapping his forehead.  “Doh!”  (or maybe “Oy vey!”)  How far have we gone as Christians if we can’t recognize that manipulation and taking advantage of people’s fears is the antithesis of what Jesus wanted us to learn?  

 

In the first weeks of quarantine, churches got together and posted songs of blessing to a frightened world.  What are we posting now? Blessings or condemnation? Statements of love and caring or of warfare?

 

If there is an opportunity here, it is the opportunity for followers of Jesus to take the time to sit before Him and listen.  It is the opportunity to let go of defensiveness.  It is the opportunity to embrace our belovedness.  To know how thoroughly, how unconditionally we are treasured.  It is the opportunity to see Jesus offering that acceptance and encouragement to everyone around us.  Don’t worry about bringing people to Jesus.  He’s not keeping score.  Just bring Jesus to people.  Love your neighbors (and you don’t have to wear a Jesus T-shirt or even mention His name.) When love is genuine, Jesus can speak for Himself.   

 

This is our chance to get it right, my dear family of Jesus-followers.  This is our chance to step back, to examine our hearts, to, yes, repent.  Repent means to turn around and go a new way.  Jesus is calling us to come back to the heart of our faith.  Not the heart of our religion, which has gotten so twisted.  The heart of our faith was that moment when we said, “I don’t know anything else for sure but I want to know You, Jesus.”  

 

Jesus said,  “No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.  Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:27-30 , Message)

 

That’s our invitation, dear family.  Will you accept?  

 

Nothing heavy or ill-fitting.  No agendas or scripts.  First, accept the oxygen mask Jesus offers you.  Breathe in His love.  Again.  Again.  Only when that love is flowing in you as naturally as breathing can you help with anyone else’s mask.  Maybe that means wearing a literal mask even if you don’t think you need it.  Maybe that means looking deeper into the claims or assumptions of others, even those famous or trending personalities. Maybe doing your own research before sharing or forwarding a post.

 

My sister-in-law recently posted some guidelines that I think can be helpful:

How can each of us decide what’s reliable information, and what isn’t? Who’s in the Circle of Trust?
The Five Easy Es of source-vetting:
1. Exclusivity: Reliable sources don’t say they’re the only ones with the truth.
2. Emotionality : Reliable sources don’t use emotion words, or try to make you feel strongly
3. Expertise: A reliable source knows what they’re talking about.
4. Ego: None
5. Earnings: None
Distinguishing between sound reporting and conspiracy thinking or propaganda.
1. Is the presentation one-sided?
2. Is there an independent pursuit of truth?
3. Is there a careful adherence to the facts?
4. Are those accused allowed to respond?
5. Are all sources named and cited, and if not is the reason explained?
6. Does the work claim some secret knowledge?
 

Yesterday, a friend re-posted a message from a well-known speaker in Christian evangelical circles.  I will eventually listen to it all, but I was not encouraged in the first two minutes when the speaker referred to Covid-19 as having been manufactured in a Chinese laboratory.  There have been numerous studies on the virus that have disproven this theory, yet this man’s “secret knowledge” labels this rumor as fact.  And my friend, by sharing his post, propagates the misinformation, adding fuel to the conspiracy fires.

 

None of us like to see ourselves as the bad guy.  When we read the gospels, we’re on Jesus’ team; we’re not the Pharisees. But remember, the Pharisees thought they were on God’s team.  They weren’t corrupt; they were diligent followers of God’s laws. And most of them missed the Messiah right in front of them.  How many of us are so certain in our politics and our own church-view that we aren’t missing Jesus right in front of us? Have you asked Him?  Honestly? Have you sat down and listened, really listened, for His answers?

 

His answers might surprise you.

 

Last week, a category 3 hurricane swept toward Maui, where I am living at the moment.  I have experienced only one other hurricane in my life, in 2007, during my first-and-never-again time on a cruise ship.  The ship’s captain had to negotiate with Cuban authorities to shelter us behind, but not too close, to their island. Still, we experienced rough seas; the rolling deck reminded me vividly of Titanic films, as we hid in our bunks and prayed.

 

That’s what I do when a hurricane is headed toward me.  I pray.

 

Last week, about four days before the hurricane was predicted to make landfall, I received a text from my friend Shelley. Shelley lives in a faith and prayer life that I hope I can one day emulate. When she tells me something she’s heard from God, I take it very seriously. She has lived on Maui for many years. Like most Hawaiians, who have seen many dire predictions come and go, Shelley knows some people will hoard emergency supplies and others will do little to prepare.  It is a big ocean and Hawaii is a small chain of islands surrounded by cooler water.  The likelihood of a hurricane directly hitting land at top speed is small.

 

Still, it has happened.  So we prepare.  We watch the radar readings, we gather our supplies, we decide when it is time to drag in the patio furniture, when it is time to board up windows.

 

When Hurricane Douglas was still over 2000 miles away, when there was not much of a nod toward concern, Shelley sent out the following text: “There is a verse in Genesis (18:32) that is prompting me now. I am asking that ten of us will stand in the gap for Hawaii…certainly there are 10 of us willing to pray…specifically for forgiveness and repentance of hard-heartedness, fearfulness, unbelief, idol worship, apathy, spoiled-ness, being unlovely and unkind.  This prayer of repentance is for Christians first and not unbelievers. Praying the Lord will mercifully turn the storm.”  

 

What was amazing to me was that the night before, I had been on my face before God repenting for these very things in me.  I had just watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th and I was (am) facing my own hard-heartedness, my own apathy, my own willingness to believe what was convenient for me instead of looking into uncomfortable issues that stirred my fears.

 

I joined the ten and prayed for Hawaii and for the church.  I prayed for us who know with such certainty, who are so quick to judge.  I prayed for my friends who saturate themselves in a single viewpoint, who see the investigation of other opinions as dangerous and compromised.  I prayed for my sisters and brothers who rush to repost “proof” of the others’ conspiracies. My heart broke over the smiles of our triumph in the face of others’ suffering.  Our closed minds and our closed hearts.  The church divided not only along red and blue lines.  Christians using Scripture to condemn other Christians, using faith and Jesus as weapons to win an argument.

 

I’m not sure who coined the term first, but both meteorologists and software project managers use a visual aid called “the cone of uncertainty.” In tracking the trajectory of a hurricane, analysts forecast the most likely path of the storm; with constantly changing data, they acknowledge the factors that may change its course.  The cone of uncertainty is a predictive model reset at certain intervals to more accurately adjust expectations.

 

On Saturday, the day before Hurricane Douglas was expected to arrive, I ate breakfast under a beautiful deep blue sky graced with only a few puffy white clouds and a gentle breeze.  Before stacking the patio furniture, I sat with my face to the sun. Michael commented how blissfully unaware we would be without weather-tracking technology.

 

On Saturday night, the storm was 300 miles away.  It had not dissipated as much as anticipated; a wind speed of 90 mph was still predicted to “pass dangerously close to the islands.” We were smack in the middle of the cone of uncertainty.   I went to bed, cognizant that I was on a small rock in the middle of a big ocean.  What had felt like a place of safety from the troubles on the mainland was in reality, by its very isolation, vulnerable. 

 

“In this world, you will have trouble.”  No matter where you live, no matter how you try to insulate yourself from it, trouble will come.  It sometimes seems to me that we in the church spend a lot of our time and energy trying to rid ourselves of trouble rather than welcoming the growth that comes through it.  We haven’t been taught how to value our mistakes.  We haven’t celebrated our failures.  The tares of the enemy have grown up in our churches, tares of perfectionism and shame, pride and shunning.  We don’t know what to do with leaders who turn out to be human instead of the epitomes of piety we expect them to be. (Has there ever once been a church that has repented in this scenario, taking responsibility for failing to pray for and support a leader who fell to temptation?) Friends, we have carried such a burden for such a long time, this striving to be the light in a dark world, this striving to be godly in our every word, thought and deed.

 

I believe God is inviting us to lay that burden down.  He does not need us to appear godly.  He’s already God, He has that covered.  God doesn’t need us to be crusaders and warriors.  He wants us to be real.

 

I believe this pandemic isolation can be a gift for the church. (Please know I’m not saying Covid-19 itself is a gift. It is a devastating virus, the source of so much anguish.  My heart goes out to every person and family who has suffered from it; we must never minimize their pain.)  Right now, church leaders are reimagining what church will look like post-pandemic.  (Many educators and families are doing the same.) Some, I know, just want to return to “normal” ASAP.  But many are taking the time to examine why we do what we do.  With church, so much of our time and energy has revolved around a large gathering, with all its programs and performances.  I’m beginning to hear some mature leaders confess a relief in the interruption of ceaseless activity.  Others are starting to wonder who exactly our services have been serving. How much of our budgets are used for ourselves?  When did caring for the poor and lonely among us get relegated to just another line item or outreach activity? Just because we’ve traditionally encountered God in church services, is He not greater than these? Can God not bless new ways of being church?  Is it He or us so tied to these traditions?

These are uncomfortable questions.  But God loves a good question, especially one asked in humility, with the willingness to hear whatever His answer contains.

 

When I woke up on Sunday, the hurricane had passed just north of Maui. (I had actually slept through the tsunami sirens.) Michael showed me the radar picture which showed the storm literally skirting the islands.  “Looks like the hand of God to me,” the words escaped my mouth unbidden.

News commentary throughout the day ranged from relief to nonchalance, from “Twenty miles south and it would’ve been much different; hopefully, we’ve learned to be prepared”  to “It always happens like this; no big deal.”  I wondered, “Does it even matter if anyone else believes God’s hand turned the storm?”

 

Pondering this question, I recognized that while I did have a sense of urgency leading up to the hurricane, I didn’t have fear. (Except for that moment of anxiety when I realized we still haven’t gotten around to writing a proper will. Darn.)  I trusted that we were in God’s care no matter what happened, so I wasn’t surprised as the sense of urgency dissipated somewhat throughout the day.  I was surprised, however, when it returned the following day, along with the radar images in my mind.  

“What’s going on, God? The hurricane’s over.  Why do I still feel such a sense of impending doom?”

 

The image that came to mind was that cone of uncertainty. Except in the place of Maui, the American church was sitting directly in the path of a storm.  The church I had been praying for.  The stubborn, unrepentant, convinced-we-are-right family of Jesus-believers.

 

And the storm?  I think the storm is the consequences of our behavior.  I’m not talking about Judgement Day or the Apocalypse here.  And I’m certainly not talking about politics, although I suspect it will be dismissed as such.

 

I think what Jesus is indicating is that there is a brewing storm directly tied to the consequences of our behavior.  The unkindness, the angry rants, the satisfaction at others’ misfortune, the lack of compassion, the apathy, the pride…  we have let our fears drive our words and actions.  We have listened to men who claim to speak for God but who do not know His heart.  We have chosen what is easier over what is better.  We have not believed Jesus.  We have not listened to His whispers.  

 

I don’t know exactly what the storm will entail.  But I can imagine.  I can read the signs, even when it is still a beautiful sunny day.  I hesitate to write what is in my mind, because I fear that dismissal that comes with partisan politics.  Please know I’m not writing out of a concern for ballots right now, but out of a concern for souls.

 

Here goes: 

Some of you, my dear friends, believe that Covid-19 is, if not entirely a hoax, a matter of grossly inflated statistics and part of a conspiracy to withdraw support for President Trump by devastating our economy.  You may believe that any proposed vaccine will be used to erode your rights at best and at worst, become the very “mark of the beast.”  You may believe there is a cure, a simple, inexpensive protocol being censored off social media by big pharmaceutical companies.  You may believe masks are muzzles, a sign of compliance with overreaching government.  You may also believe that people who disagree with you are either foolishly deluded or actively harmful.

 

Or perhaps others’ disagreement doesn’t phase you. “What has light to do with darkness? The foolish things of the world will confound the wise,” you are assured by your church friends.  “The world has never respected us.”  

 

When you are offered a mask, you respond with, “If you die tonight, do you know if you’re going to heaven?”  You see yourself as agents of truth, standing against a sea of lies.

 

Except, dear friends, the world doesn’t see you as agents of truth.  They see you as incredibly selfish.  They see you shouting about your God-given liberties while bodies pile up outside morgues.  Maybe you don’t believe the statistics, but the world does and they see you as being callous in the face of others’ suffering.  They see you disbelieving empirical evidence, facts proven in laboratories by nonpolitical scientists, and embracing simplistic (sometimes ridiculous) claims and lies that are immediately disproved by minimal investigation.  Have you ever considered how your “witness” for Jesus is damaged by all the brazen claims you lump in with Him?

 

The world has lost respect for you, dear friends.  You’re right, it was never much to begin with.  You were always that quirky neighbor who spent so much time at church.  But you did help at community events and you were kind to children.  Maybe there was something in those prayers of yours…

 

But now.  For the past four years, your credibility has been deteriorating.  Back when Bill Clinton was caught in a sex scandal, you railed about accountability and personal integrity.  Now, when the same media reports increasingly outrageous moral failings of this president, you rail against the media.  You have traded your own integrity for political power.

 

True or false, this is what the world sees.  

 

And why should we care what the world thinks?  

 

Because, dear friends, Jesus cares about the world. 

 

Because, dear friends, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you belittle and mock and spread gossip.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you turn your backs on asylum-seekers who want nothing more than to live.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you shake your heads over Black Lives Matter protests, shrugging off any notion that it may have anything to do with you.

 

And lest my friends on the left get too comfortable here, you are wearing Jesus’ name when you  distance yourselves from your brothers and sisters.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are dismissive and refuse to listen.  You are wearing Jesus’ name when you are arrogant, when you use your education (or any gifts you have received) to assert your power over another.  

 

Our Creator loves variety.  We are each born into a personhood of inestimable value. When that personhood is not esteemed, when lies uproot the truth of our belovedness, we begin to treat one another as less than. We disrespect, are unkind.  We group into camps of us and them. We blame and allow falsehoods to grow. And we don’t acknowledge the wrong of any of it, not until a steely-eyed glare stares into a camera over the neck of a dying man.

 

Our differences are not dangerous in themselves.  We are created different, every one of us.  The danger lies in our discomfort with difference.   So, let’s listen to each other. Let’s talk about vaccine damage, about the role of government, about the role of the media.  Let’s talk about who is qualified to speak for us, if we don’t feel our individual voices are being heard.  Let’s talk about socialism and welfare reform.  Let’s talk.  And let’s listen.  It is only in the conversations between us that we can truly see where we actually agree and where we differ.

 

A storm is coming, dear friends.  Unless we repent, all of us, for how we have treated each other (Christian or not), we will bear the consequences of our behavior.  What has been kept in-house will be shown to the world.  It is a reckoning that will not pass us by.

 

Pray with me?

 

In my middle life, I wondered if the purpose of my life was simply as a cautionary tale.  I had chosen poorly so often, with such severe consequences, I wondered if all I could offer was to be an example of what not to do.

 

Although self-condemnation threatens to whip that notion into a froth of depression, it obscures the grain of truth within: My life holds meaning for you. My voice matters because we are all connected.  Paul compared us to a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26)  Each voice, each individual’s story, can enhance or damage our connection.

 

My friend Kelly Bean speaks often, in her work with African Road, about this connection through our stories. The people of Rwanda have experienced terrible lessons to achieve peace and reconciliation that we Americans would well-advised to heed.  In the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, Kelly posted this from New Hope for Girls in Tanzania: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ0NQfHl4fE&feature=youtu.be

This family of 48, compromised mostly of girls rescued from slavery and sex trafficking, has seen more than its share of suffering.  But one of their first responses to the pandemic was to send encouraging words to those of us unaccustomed to hardship.  I find this incredibly moving.

 

If we humans are going to progress as a species, if we are going to protect our planet and not destroy ourselves, we absolutely have to acknowledge we are all in this together.  We can no longer afford to keep squabbling.  Today I saw an ad for an organization called The Epoch Times, that at first seemed an over-the-top mockery of a far-right political agenda.  I was halfway through when I realized it was seriously promoting outrageously paranoid claims, seeding distrust and division under a guise of informed reporting.  It made me incredibly sad, both for the viewers who would believe it and the short-sighted agenda behind it.  Is power and money worth the damage we are doing to ourselves as humans?  This is the kind of scenario I envision when we fall before Jesus, saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not vote to promote a pro-life agenda on the Supreme Court?  Did we not march to protect the sanctity of marriage and traditional values? Did we not tithe and attend church and sing in the choir, even when the government tried to forbid us?”  And will Jesus say, “I never knew you”?

 

What we do to one another matters. If our words are full of blame, suspicion and hatred for those who think differently, we end up hardening our own hearts. Jesus prefaced this warning with “do to others what you would have them do to you” and “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.”  For those of us who like Biblical principles, the latter is a good one.  It isn’t a threat, it is more a description of nature.  The measure we use, especially if it is perfectionism or performance, ends up being the shadow we live under.  Our own words mock us when they are applied to our lives.  Who hasn’t vowed as a child not to be like our parent in a particular way, only to find the very words we despised emerging toward our own children?

 

When Jesus told us to be perfect, he wasn’t talking about performance, he was talking about love.  Love beyond what’s expected.  Love extravagantly.  Give grace to others like Jesus gives to you.  I recently read the comments on a friend’s Facebook post (not doing that again anytime soon.) What struck me, having been away from evangelicalism for awhile, was the hate veiled in Christian-ese.  “Bless her heart, we don’t know how she has strayed so far from truth. She used to be a good Christian.”  Wow.  How often do you hear judgement couched as concern? Condemnation dressed in Bible verses?  

 

I remember speaking to someone standing with his yellow picket sign outside the lines at Comic-Con.  With his handheld speaker, he was informing everyone in line that they were going to hell.  For those of us who believe love wins more people to Jesus’ kingdom, it was disturbing to hear the anger spewing from this brother.  As far as I could see, most people were giving him a wide berth.  I stepped up to ask him how many people he’d converted with this approach.  He replied, “Thousands.”  

 

“Really?” I asked (a little disbelievingly, I’ll admit.)

 

“The word of the Lord shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I send it,” he replied. For him, that answered my question and he raised his bullhorn.

 

Magic words.

 

I stopped writing for awhile, keenly aware I am venturing into territory fraught with conflict.  Faith is something that one can rarely be argued into or out of.  And truly, no one knows what is in our hearts but God alone.  Sometimes even we can only discern our own true intent with the Spirit’s counsel.

 

For myself, I know there was a time in my life where I used Bible verses as cover for my own uncertainty.  I believed God; I wanted to be a faith-filled, “no compromise” Christian. Yet I kept running into disconnects.  I sorrowfully informed my college friend that although God loved her unconditionally, she could not be both a Christian and a lesbian.  I burned my autograph collection because I wanted to burn idolatry from my heart; my bold actions shouted down the inkling that my idolatry had only switched from TV stars to Christian celebrities.  

 

I heard sermon after sermon justifying the Old Testament righteousness of murdering thousands. I followed the mental gymnastics of reconciling the wrath and mercy of God.  Simplistic answers to complicated questions and complicated answers to simple questions, all told with a beneficent smile and a pat on the head.  And in the end, the catch-all “God is a mystery” and “you have to have faith.”

 

I still believe those answers.  I know there are spiritual dimensions that I cannot readily perceive.  I know that I am not the center of the universe and I must trust that my Creator sees and does more than I can imagine.  But I also know that He invites me to come and reason together with Him. I know that Jesus told us over and over to look beyond outward appearances to the heart of a person’s behavior.  

 

Jesus did not give us magic words, however much he is quoted in this vein.  Jesus gave us an example of a life completely surrendered.  Jesus spent time alone with His Father, then only did what He saw His Father doing.  

 

What would my life look like if I did that?  

 

Why is that such a frightening proposition?

 

It exposes the holes in my faith.  Could I sit still long enough to listen?  What if I can’t hear anything? What if God doesn’t want to talk to me?  What if He does?  Will I hear His disappointment with me? What if He asks more of me than I want to give? 

 

That’s some uncomfortable reality right there.  

 

Laying my heart bare like this is revelatory only to me; God already knew what I was covering with my busyness. It takes courage to lay it all down and sit before Him.  It takes trust.  

 

Not many of us are so thoroughly convinced of God’s love for us, despite what we sing on Sunday mornings.  It takes inner work to move through our parental wounds to know, experientially know, God’s deep welcome, His delight in us.  I often wonder if at the core of our squabbling with each other is a sibling rivalry that can only be healed with the assurance of our Father’s abiding acceptance of each of us.  To know that I am thoroughly treasured “just as I am” in this moment brings a solid peace and an invitation of freedom.  If we no longer have to worry about being good enough, about earning our acceptance, we can look beyond our squabbling to explore the kind of love Jesus knew.  

 

When I was in junior high school, I was bullied.  It was in the first years of racial integration and tensions were high. I’d like to meet whoever thought it was a great social experiment to put together teenagers, fresh from homes filled with 1970’s racial distrust, without guidance or supervision.   I was near the bottom of the pecking order anyway: shy, mostly friendless, awkward in appearance and socially.  A trio of black girls found their superiority by making my life miserable. With threats of violence and ugly humor, I was persecuted daily.  I lived in fear.  Stories from the high school of knifings in the restrooms haunted me.  Confused, afraid, ashamed, I hovered adjacent to larger groups and calculated routes to ensure I would never be caught anywhere alone. I dared not use the restroom for fear of being “jumped.” For several years, I lived with a series of “mysterious”  kidney infections rather than telling my parents that I held my urine eight hours every day.  My Bible told me to pray for my enemies.  So I did.  I turned the other cheek, sometimes literally.  For three years, I prayed daily, for them and for the persecution to cease.  With a child’s faith, I did not understand why God did not answer my prayers.  Without knowing specifics, my youth group leader’s advice was to persist and “pray without ceasing.”

 

I learned early in life that theology matters. Even as I know God held my faith as precious, still it was my own misunderstanding that allowed myself to be used as a punching bag for years. My fear of the bullies twisted Jesus’ words in ways He never intended. I tried to make an overwhelming situation have a martyr’s significance. But Jesus never advocated for abuse. In that teaching, he was revealing a standard of loving that went beyond expectations.  He was preparing us to recognize a love that exceeds our tiny boxes.  For it is only in receiving such a love, in letting it make its home in us, that we can hope to extend it to others.   

 

Perhaps it is a schoolgirl’s rage that rises up in me even now when I see people in power using Scripture to manipulate others for their own benefit.  The acceptance of women and minorities being told they are less than especially irks me.  Was it only coincidence that, when I was in junior high, the “women’s libbers” movement was treated with disdain in my household? Not only by my father and male relatives, but my mother and church ladies spoke against those bra-burning hippies who belittled all my mother’s hard work as a “housewife.”  I was told feminism, lumped in with socialism and humanism, was a dangerous work of the devil, designed to upend a perfectly good traditional social order created by God himself.  Male and female roles were already clearly defined and anyone who tried to muddy those waters was either hopelessly pagan or deluded.

 

Was it wrong for me to be bullied? Did I deserve the abuse? Those answers, so clear now, were not as obvious at the time.  Today, the psychological damage caused by bullying is well documented. (Yet, even now, in some circles a “survival of the fittest” and “boys will be boys” attitude still prevails.)  My evangelical upbringing pointed out every Sunday that I was a worm, that I deserved eternal hellfire. As a female, I was never encouraged to advocate for myself.  My bullies attested that I was an object for derision.  God’s silence in the face of my prayers confirmed it.  

 

This is how lies take hold.  In the childhood of our psyches, we collect clues from family, faith and the world around us.  It makes sense, even if it doesn’t seem quite right.  Up is down; God is loving and hating; good comes from bad so maybe bad is good? It’s all mixed up with faith and mystery and a pastor tells us with assurance that this is what God says.  Who are we to argue with someone who went to seminary, someone who has such an obviously closer connection with the Almighty? We are worms, after all.  Saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves.

 

And we, who would never abuse a child, shake our heads at photos of children in cages.  We, who give generously, look away from the immigrant “situation.”  It’s all so political, who knows what is really true.  We’ve been told for generations now that the “liberal” media is not to be trusted.  We’ve been told a lot of things, from people with a lot of power.  From our pulpits. Our social media. We suspect not everything the president says is true but that’s politics.  And we’re supposed to honor our leaders, right?  The Bible says that, right?  

And now.  A worldwide pandemic.  Added to the confusion is the very real threat of death.  I’m okay today, but what about tomorrow?  The Bible says do not worry.  Leaders are arguing, and my patience is less with them.  If I get this virus, if I die, I could be standing before Jesus this year. Has my faith been enough?  Have I been enough in this life to prepare me for what lies ahead?

I bury the questions beneath layers of busyness.  

Until God whispers, “come.”

 Where to begin my story?

 

Does it begin with my birth? My parents’? Their parents?  In this tapestry that is America, that is humanity, where do the stories that walk among us begin and end?

 

It is May 2020.  Covid-19, a literal worldwide pandemic, has kept us isolating in our homes for the past two months.  In a failure of federal leadership, some American states have begun re-opening despite medical experts’ predictions that this will lead to more deaths.  It is a crisis of unprecedented proportions: a political crisis, a medical crisis, a human crisis that has revealed both the best and the worst of us.

 

In recent years, I have begun to discover the value of my own voice.  I have begun to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my life experiences.  Today my voice seems very small.  Why begin writing now, when the world as I have known it could be ending?  When I could be one cough away from my own mortality?

 

Perhaps that is the best reason to write.  If a million of us are going to die this year, that could be a million stories untold, a million truths unheard.

 

So here I begin anew.  My story.  My truth.  For what it’s worth to my family, my friends, I will tell what I am as well as I can.  If there is indeed power in vulnerability, then let my voice be heard:

His name was William Sweat.  My father’s grandmother’s grandfather. Born before America, around 1773 in South Carolina.  He was “counted as white” in an 1860 Tennessee census, although ten years before, he and his wife Lucinda were recorded as “mulatto.”  His father Benjamin and grandfather (also William) were named in a “Rogue’s List” of “free negroes and mulattoes that infest that county and annoy its inhabitants”  in October 1773. 

In the late 1700’s, the Sweat family moved from South Carolina to Tennessee.  William served as a private in the War of 1812, finally receiving a pension at age 98. William could neither read nor write. He lived to the age of 100. And William Sweat was “one of the biggest land owners and largest slave holder in Campbell Co., Tennessee.”

 

A person of color who owned slaves?  I’ve since learned it wasn’t all that unusual, but my first foray into ancestry.com confirmed what I’ve always known: my family is complicated. 

Apparently the racism embedded in our family history comes not just from our Scotch-Irish roots but from our native American ancestors who sought to differentiate themselves from the even more oppressed status of “Negro” in the Jim Crow south. My cousin has traced our American roots into the mid-1600’s (and before, evidently).  Our (many-great’s) grandmother was Margaret Cornish, thought to be one of the “twenty and odd” Angolans stolen by privateers from a Portuguese slave ship in 1619. A year before the Mayflower, one of the first Africans brought to (not yet) America, stolen by pirates, sold as an indentured servant at age nine. Our (many-great’s) grandfather was Robert Sweat.  I haven’t yet been able to confirm if Robert was an English immigrant to Jamestown or a Native American –the Sweat surname is listed on several tribal registers from that area — but he was a church member. In 1640, when Robert Sweat “hath begotten with Child a negro woman servant (Margaret) belonging unto Lieutenant Sheppard”, Robert was ordered to perform “public penance in the divine service at James City Church”.  Margaret was sentenced to be “whipt at the whipping post.”  The pregnant black lady was whipped —  white supremacy and patriarchy — traditional American values?!  If trauma is truly inherited in our genes, I’ve got at least 400 years worth to work through.

Although my ancestors did fight against the British in the American Revolution, we are not blue-bloods. My family is full of “good ole boys” who love Nascar and are roughly divided over God and beer.  We are hillbillies, who didn’t emerge from the hills and hollers of Kentucky and Tennessee until my parents’ generation, by which time our nonwhite roots had been purged from bloodlines and most memories.    William’s granddaughter was named America Sweat.  She bore 14 children, including stillborn triplets named Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego. (I kid you not.)  Her husband, if my cryptic uncle is to be believed, displayed some aberrant sexual behavior.  

 

Whispers.  Innuendo.  I doubt my family history is either better or worse than anyone else’s but I learned early that there are things we do not discuss:  Sex. Mental illness. Racism. Our emotions. Finances.  Religion. Actually, the list of things we can discuss is much shorter: the weather. Other people’s shortcomings.  

 

I begin this recounting with a caveat: the reminder that this is my story.  My perceptions, my emotions, my thoughts.  I read once that no two children have the same parents.  Our parenting changes with each child, with the relationship between us and within ourselves.  My sisters may not agree with my perceptions or conclusions about our family.  My cousins may remark that I missed things glaringly obvious to them.  That’s okay.  

 

It has taken me a lot of years to accept that subjective truth can be as valid as objective truth.  In our early marriage (and okay, yesterday), Michael had to often repeat that my feelings were legitimate just because they were my feelings. My brilliant daughter can draw a straight line from my emotional need to be justified through the Age of Reason back to Ancient Greek dualism and some pretty messed up ideas of Aristotle (like women and slaves having no souls.)

 

When you live under the idea that right and wrong, good and bad, is an ever-constant judgement in which you fall far short, life can be a discouraging, often desperate, trek.  As a sensitive hyper-vigilant child, I could not articulate my particular philosophy of life. But I gathered its parts through what I saw and felt deeply.

 

A large portion of my adult thought life has been given to re-examining those conclusions I made as a child.  In my childish mind, the world was filled with potential dangers, God was an angry judge and people were not trustworthy.  As much as I may have wished it so, I did not wake up one morning to discover a beautiful secure space occupied by a loving Creator and people filled with good intentions.  This is not to say I have not found these things, only that they did not arrive magically.

 

When my daughter was not yet a day old, I held this amazing person with all the tenderness and terror a new parent’s hormones can contain.  I couldn’t believe the hospital would permit us to just take her home, without some kind of proof-of-competency exam.  For my driver’s license, I had to prove I could drive responsibly.  How could we be allowed to take sole responsibility for this precious being with her soft skin and old-soul eyes?  I prayed that day, fully conscious of my own struggles within my family.  I prayed that the generational issues I had noted, from my grandparents to me, would stop with me. Addictive behaviors, insecurity, anger, depression, sexual and self-esteem issues. I prayed that my daughter would be protected.

 

God has reminded me of my prayer many times over the past thirty years.  He has honored that prayer, but not in the manner I intended.  I wanted magic.  I wanted Him to take it all away.  I wanted the problems to not be problems anymore, instantly.

 

What I’ve received has been healing by inches.  Three steps forward, eight steps back.  God has allowed me to accompany Him on a journey to discover not only the nature of these issues but sometimes the roots as well. Dropping into the past with present perspective is always a tricky business.  I invite you to witness my journey and I promise to share as honestly as I can.  

 

Clinical depression.  Such a sterile term for a tempest of emotions.  For me, major bouts are cyclical but there is a persistent low-lying depression that has been a daily cloud for most of my life.  Medication helps, therapy helps, prayer helps.  What doesn’t help, even though I keep doing it, is berating myself. I try to will myself into not being depressed. 

I once heard someone use the analogy of comparing mental illness to physical injury.  Imagine someone who has been hit by a truck and is lying in traction in a hospital bed.  It would be ridiculous to yell at that person, to tell him to get moving, shake it off and be productive.  Yet because “it’s all in my head,” I continually try to convince my brain to be not broken.

 

As an intuitive, super-sensitive person, I often absorb the feelings of those around me, even those in the world at large.  Since 2016,  I’ve experienced an increasing struggle with anxiety and feelings of discord.  With Covid-19, the strength of what I’m feeling is “unprecedented.” Grief, with all its accompanying stages (except resolution). Uncertainty, sadness. Even an unexpected gratitude amidst the fear, loss and anger. 

 

And depression.  It hit again a few weeks ago, a particularly nasty bout.  Color and light drained from my world as energy drained from my body and hope drained from my mind.  I knew that God and hope were still there, but they were as hidden as the sun behind days of black clouds and constant thunderstorms.  It felt like life would always be this dark existence.  I stayed in bed for hours, condemning myself for my laziness.  It took every ounce of willpower to get up to forage for food.  I skirted the house like a ghost, unwilling to contaminate my family with the darkness. The self-condemnation shifted to my food choices, usually sugar, salt and fat-laden, microwaved at best.  I ate in front of the TV, where I remained for more hours.  Curled in on myself, in the solace of unthinking and the distraction of badly-written drama, I could sometimes keep at bay the guilt that reminded me how worthless I was.  The litany of my poor choices compared to others’ more worthy lives kept me on the couch until bedtime.  Still, another four or five hours passed before sleep allowed my broken brain to be consumed sometime in the early dawn.

 

Even as I report how I have existed the past few weeks, I feel shame and guilt.  How privileged am I to complain about how I can lie around for hours? People with real problems have to deal with depression and how to work enough to buy the food I so easily condemn.  I don’t deserve the life I have.  I don’t deserve anything….

 

And so it goes.  Grains of truth wrapped in lies. Shame. Suffering.  Unbidden, the phrase “Lincoln’s melancholy” comes to mind, reminding me that this has a name, melancholy. Depression.  Immediately, my mental accuser berates me for comparing myself to Lincoln, who did such good in the world, while I am such a disappointment.  Surely God is just as disgusted with me.  He’s given me such blessing and I have failed.  Done little of eternally significant value.  I am the unworthy servant; He should take my talents and give them to someone who invests more wisely. Will I be cast into the outer darkness? I deserve it, worthless piece of…

 

On Monday, I told Michael I keep hoping I’ll wake up one morning and find the depression lifted.  But every day is the same.  And I recognize that my own self-sabotage perpetuates the problem: skipping meals and meds, staying up all night, foregoing hygiene and general self-care.  I feel worthless and that is how I treat myself.  I am a hedgehog, curled up in self-protection, not wanting to puncture anyone but afraid of more hurt.

 

Michael is gentle with me, as are my children.  No one else is as bothered by my lack of productivity as I am.  Michael reminds me it is okay to ask for help when I need it.  He makes me a peanut butter sandwich.  His care emboldens me to respond to a few texts, informing my friends that I’m struggling.  Their response is immediate and supportive.  I turn off my phone.  What is wrong with me?  Why can’t I just receive their kindness?  Why do gentle words make me weep even more?

 

Still, I know they are lifting me in prayer.  

 

Tuesday, the first day in a while, the weight is less.  My actions do not change but my heart feels a bit lighter.  I turn my phone on and read the texts.  I let the love bathe me.  I read a poem in my email, its title capturing my attention:

 

When I am tired

 

O ceaseless God, sometimes I am tired.

I get tired of serving when the need is so great.

I grow weary of loving the dying,

healing the shattered,

rejoicing with the hopeless.

I tire of caring for those who do not care,

and forgiving the unrepentant.

I am spent, crying for justice to unhearing ears.

I am not a strong horse, but only a little burro, God,

and I can’t carry the whole load.

 

Beloved, you are smaller than that:

a tiny blue butterfly

in a blossoming tree.

I do not ask you to transform the tree:

only to do your work

in the bloom where you find yourself,

for there, in that labor,

which is enough for one butterfly,

the nectar of my delight revives you,

and the whole tree rejoices.

 

I reflect a while on those lines.  Beloved. I can be one tiny butterfly, in the bloom where I find myself.  The poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, has a heart after God’s own.  Once again, his reflection of God’s love touches my own heart and I find myself hungry for the nectar of God’s delight to revive me.

 

Today is Wednesday.  Today the sun is shining and after I get up, I do not return to bed.  I feel raw, shaky, like with the chill of the first cold cloth after the fever has broken. I have enough energy to count out my meds into a pill dispenser, a task that felt overwhelming two days ago. I swallow my thyroid medication.  I go downstairs to find breakfast. I eat a banana with my pop-tart.  

 

I am cautiously optimistic.  Was it the prayer? The poem? Was asking for help, letting in that bit of light,  enough to dispel the darkness? Or have my brain’s chemicals finally balanced enough to end the cycle?  It is still too fresh to risk looking too deeply; I fear being pulled back into the pit. 

 

I talk to Patti, my spiritual director, today.  Her kind words are more of God’s nectar.  She reminds me that depression is not failure.  That God and hope are still shining, will not be long obscured by the clouds.  That the grace I give others to be their own lovely and flawed selves, I can extend to myself.

 

Hope, like the sun, peeks into my life today.

A friend commented yesterday about how our emotions seem to come in waves in this time of quarantine. There are waves of grief over what or who we have lost. There are waves of uncertainty, bewilderment about our future. Waves of anger, depression, fear. There are even waves of joy, gratitude that we can be together either in person or online. It feels surreal, that we can be happy, that we can recognize the good in the midst of suffering.

Right now I am sitting on my deck, watching the waves pass through the channel between Maui and Molokai. It is a windy day, the palms blowing, more sturdy trees bent permanently in the direction of the tradewinds. Yesterday’s calm ocean is now dotted with whitecaps. Wind-whipped waves travel past in a never-ending parade.

Maybe that’s the thought I’ve been trying to capture in my brain. Waves never stop. They break on the shore and the tide draws them back out, but the waves keep coming. Steady or wind-whipped, measured in inches or feet, the waves continue on their course.

And here we are in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes it feels like we are drowning, as wave after wave pummels us. Mostly we are keeping our heads just above water. And in the rare moments of calm, we can lie back and float.

Last night, like many nights recently, I struggled with insomnia. My brain has trouble settling. But last night, as I listened to the wind, I imagined myself floating in the ocean. The saltwater buoys me like a baby held in her parent’s arms. God whispers soothingly. He tells me it’s okay to let go, to rest. He tells me I don’t need to struggle to stay afloat, I just need to relax, lie back and let Him carry me.

Jesus calmed the wind and waves with a word. I can trust God to do the same for me, even when it feels like I’m drowning.

4/12/20

Easter Sunday 2020. Today, there are some churches determined to hold meetings despite local government stay-at-home orders.  They believe they are being faithful to God by defying the government. Even if scientific evidence warns that their actions will perpetuate the virus, will endanger the vulnerable among them, still they will gather.  Some believe God will protect them. Others say if they die from the coronavirus, they are going to a better place. Many believe their leaders’ assertions that the government is infringing on their constitutional right to “religious freedom.”  

 

Onlookers may wonder at the churchgo-ers’ apparent naivete.  Less generous terms include “stupidity” and “Darwin award winners.”  That’s an easy generalization, as dismissive as it is condescending. Most of us who see so clearly the error of these followers fail to see our own participation in this scenario.  

 

How can “those people” deny scientific reality? How can “they,” who purport to be loving, be so selfish?  Don’t “they” see the manipulation, how those ambitious leaders are seeking their 15 minutes in the spotlight?

 

Them.  Us.

 

“They” are foolish. “We” are wise.  

 

And so we divide ourselves.  Coastal elites and Midwest pragmatists.  Democrats and Republicans. Christians and pagans. Black and white and brown. The one percent versus the ninety-nine. Traditional versus progressive. Every label carries a connotation.  Are you with us or against us? Are you them or us?

 

I have heard many sermons on Jesus’ parable of the wide and narrow gates.  Most of them focused on how our behavior as Christians must be set apart from “the world.”  What I find interesting is that in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this analogy directly follows Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others what you would have them do to you.”  It also directly precedes Jesus’ warning to beware of false teachers and to not become one of those who do all manner of religious performance without really knowing the will of the Father.  Jesus sandwiched our choice to act between preferring one another in love and seeking His heart despite all appearances.  Most people will settle for the appearance of good.  

 

In today’s world, it is indeed a narrow path to find those who treat everyone with the same love. Fear divides us but love truly does unite us.  Only God has the capacity to judge who is listening, who is following His heart. Those loving souls are in the Southern Baptist church, in the Pentecostal church, in the Catholic church, in no church.  Despite many a preached warning, I believe they are in temples and mosques and Greenpeace meetings. No denomination has an exclusive domain on hearing God. Jesus told us to look at the fruit of a person’s life, not at how righteous they appear.

 

In my formative evangelical years, I was told to beware of unity.  “He who is not for us is against us.” Except Jesus also said, “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Huh…????!!! In these sermons, there was even quite a bit of creative epistemological convolution to justify why “us versus ‘the world’” was Jesus’ primary objective.  It was not a far jump from there to how the practice of condemning and ridiculing others was actually “loving them into the kingdom.” 

 

That’s some pretty sour fruit.

 

How have we come so far from Jesus’ good news?  How have we turned the invitation of our Creator to join in a fellowship of unconditional love into a judgmental condemnation of human behavior? How have we allowed ourselves to once again become so embroiled in legalism and the appearance of righteousness while taking advantage of the least among us?

 

Jesus had some chilling words regarding millstones that all of us who have been Christians for any length of time need to consider.  Are we leading astray children in the faith (of any age)? Are we teaching anything beyond what Jesus taught? Are we adding our own prejudice to His words?

 

Today is Easter. Resurrection Sunday.  He is risen.  

 

He is risen indeed.  

 

What is He saying to you?

4/11/20

 

Holy Saturday.

 

A day of waiting.  The day before the resurrection.  Except Jesus’ friends didn’t know they were waiting.  They didn’t know resurrection was just around the corner.  They only knew devastation. Grief. Bewilderment. They had given their lives to follow the Messiah and now He was dead.  Logic shouted that they had been wrong. Jesus wasn’t God. How could God allow Himself to be stripped naked and suffer an excruciating, shameful death?  Would they be next? Would they all be crucified for following Jesus?

 

Everything they knew, everything they believed was called into question.  How were they so deceived? And what next, if they lived? Go back to fishing?  They had seen miracles. How could the greatest teacher, who had spoken with authority over disease and spirits, over nature itself, the man who had called Lazarus from the grave, how could He submit Himself to those petty, jealous leaders?  How had He succumbed to such an ignoble end?

 

Rumors trickle in about Judas, the betrayer.  Dead by his own hand? How could he betray the Master? Why is Peter so uncharacteristically quiet? Did Judas know something we didn’t? Are there more betrayers among us?

Uncertainty warred in every heart.  Last week they were being cheered, following behind Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Did Jesus know those same crowds would soon be shouting for His execution? He was the Messiah!  He was, wasn’t He?

We thought Jesus would lead us to victory over these Roman dogs. They are unholy pagans, yet they never miss an opportunity to humiliate us. Arrogant elitists, we have suffered under their derision our entire lives.  Jesus was supposed to be our Savior. Wasn’t He?

 

Today we face grief and uncertainty in the midst of this pandemic.  We’ve been waiting indoors, but for what? What will life look like next month? Next year?  Rumors of a new normal trickle in. No more handshakes as a standard greeting. Business and educational models permanently altered. A society standing six feet apart in small groups of bandana-covered faces.

Until very recently, we lived in a perpetually chaotic and fast-forward society. In rare moments of reflection, we noticed that perhaps our social relationships were beginning to suffer from our relentless pace of life.  Fragmented families, shallow friendships, an unhealthy focus on productivity and wealth acquisition. A concentration on image versus substance. A growing divide between economic classes. Racial and social justice issues increased while many of us were too busy to pay attention.

 

Now we’re home.  We’re noticing that our survival strategies may not be sustainable.  We’re facing previously ignored problems within our own homes and families.  Before, when we got too uncomfortable, we went to work, or shopping, or got busy on a more manageable project.  But now, we can’t escape so easily. Now, the same issue crops up ten times in the same day.

 

We’re coming to the end of ourselves.  It’s a good place to be. Because, at the end of ourselves, we notice that we’re not alone.  God is there.  

 

God was there with Jesus’ friends on that Saturday.  In their bewilderment and uncertainty, in their devastation and grief, God was there.

 

God is here with us today.  We don’t know what resurrection is awaiting us.  I suspect it is a merciful reset on a society that was plunging headlong into an unsustainable divide.  But no matter what we are feeling today, no matter what ugliness we are beginning to notice in our own souls, we can be confident that God is with us.

 

Tomorrow, a lot of churches will be preaching about Jesus’ substitutionary atonement on the cross.  A cosmic trade, if you will, of our sinfulness for Jesus’ perfection. I personally believe Jesus’ submission was so much more important than a concern for personal holiness.  I believe God wanted Jesus’ entire life (not just His death) to be our model. What Jesus said and did was a reflection of His relationship with God. Throughout the book of John, Jesus repeats that He only does what the Father is doing.  Jesus listens.

 

With a few notable exceptions, most of the time in which Jesus listened to His Father, He was not listening to an audible voice.  Like us, Jesus poured out His heart into seemingly empty space. He prayed and listened in silence.

 

One of Jesus’ favorite names for Himself was “Son of Man.”  Most of us would’ve capitalized on the “Son of God” half of the equation, but Jesus delighted in His full identification with all our struggles. Jesus had family tension (how many of our siblings called us crazy?), He had relationship problems, bickering employees, financial issues, etc.  He wasn’t above it all, He was in it all. Just like us.

 

And just like us, Jesus had a loving God to turn to when He was exhausted and when uncertainties threatened.  God is with us. The Emmanuel of Christmas is just as present at Easter. God is with us.

Last fall, during a memoir writing class in Berkeley, I had an idea.  Still too timid to publish my work into print, I could begin sharing my writing on a blog.  I would name it 2020 Hindsight, and I would reflect back on key moments in my life from which I gleaned pieces of wisdom.

 

I wrote my first entries in December, but didn’t want to post them until I had the website perfected.  

 

Today is April 7.  Bernie’s campaign has co-opted my tagline but even more important, the world has changed.  

 

Today, much of our world is indoors. We are physically distancing ourselves from each other in the hope of containing the spread of a worldwide pandemic.  Today, there is no cure or vaccine for this coronavirus which grows in clusters and kills many whose immune systems are already battling other diseases.

 

Today, the idea of publishing this blog seems to fall somewhere between folly and hubris.  Who cares about my little insights in the face of daily tragedy? Yet I am reminded of a young girl whose diary captured generations to live in her uncertainty, to mourn her loss, to galvanize our resolve to never again let our complacency allow such a holocaust to occur.  I am no Anne Frank, but today I’m pushing “publish” on all the drafts.

 

I stopped just now, and stepped outside to take a deep breath of ocean air.  I noticed a constriction in that breath, my lungs not able to process as deeply as normal.  I’ve had a raging sore throat for the past couple days. Coughing if I try to speak for long.  A slight fever. Is it Covid-19? Strep? Do I risk going out of the house to have it tested? Is it safer to stay inside and focus on self-care?

 

These are questions I wouldn’t have asked in January.  

 

No one knows how long this forced separation will be necessary.  No one knows how life itself will change in the wake of this pandemic.  No one knows.  Except One.

 

I pray for wisdom and healing.  Gobble some more vitamins. Resolve to look at online options for medical care.

For all of us staying at home right now, there seems to be a similar struggle.  We are used to being busy. The larger questions of life have been easily drowned out in our busyness.  But now, being home, these questions remain and our distractions are fewer. Unresolved conflicts in our relationships emerge multiple times a day. We are facing ourselves in ways we have avoided for years. It is a good thing, but it is not pleasant.

 

Today, for me, I’m looking at my own tendency toward procrastination.  Case in point: committing to this blog. I deceive myself if I simply label it sloth or perfectionism.  There is some truth to both, but at its root, my procrastination is an avoidance of conflict. A conflict of belief.

 

For me, writing is therapy.  It is holding a mirror to my own thoughts and actions.  It is looking deeply. It is discovering, sometimes, what I haven’t wanted to see.  

 

In his Confessions, Augustine said God was nearer to him than he was to himself. God sees our true self better than we do.  The good news is that even in seeing us as we are (without excuse or pretense), God loves that person better than we do.  God sees our reality and loves us without reserve. God loves our past and future selves just as much as our present selves.  

 

In my American evangelical experience, I’ve been taught to despise my past sinful self, to beg for forgiveness and cleansing of my present self and to put my hope in a future, holier self.  I imagine God rolling His eyes and shaking His head at that picture and just picking me up in His arms. God does not differentiate as we do; God is not constrained by our concepts of time and space.

 

My procrastination, my avoidance lies in the conflict deep in my soul: Do I believe that God loves me unconditionally?  Do I believe I am accepted, welcomed as I am, or am I still trying to earn that love? It is a humbling thing to believe.  We Americans, who value our independence, who proclaim our freedom as an inherent right, for us to take ourselves down from center stage, to submit to a greater Other and acknowledge His authority as Creator…. humility is a small word for that submission.

 

We look for God in times of crisis.  Sometimes to scream at Him at the unfairness of our situation, sometimes to beg for supernatural help.  Even the staunchest of atheists, upon reaching the limits of human knowledge, may wonder if there is more beyond this existence.  Many of us reject the Santa Claus version of deity we were taught as children. We decide, if there is a God, His invisibility and seeming indifference to the circumstances of our lives justifies our disinterest in Him.  We arrange a life that has little to do with God. We may feel a superiority to the masses still bound by religion or a mild curiosity for those we respect who still adhere to faith. 

 

But then.  A global pandemic stretches the boundaries of resources and knowledge.  Every person on the planet is affected in some way. Some cling to denial, others step up to offer help.  We are together on this planet in an unprecedented commonality of physical chemistry and vulnerability. We, who have spent the past years fighting each other over climate change and political power, are now stuck together, for better or worse.  Our priorities are shifting. What has lain hidden in our hearts is being manifested for others to see. Alcohol sales and domestic violence stats are up but so also are unprecedented generosity and community-building activities.

 

We are being invited to look into our own hearts.  We are being invited to face our own fears. It may be ugly at first, to sift through the layers, the defenses we have erected to guard ourselves.  It is neither easy nor pleasant.  We will be tempted to distract ourselves with technology or escape into media binges.  

 

I name this as an invitation because we always have a choice.  We can choose not to look. We can choose to continue with our busyness at home.  We are amazingly proficient at adapting. But I believe this time offers a critical opportunity for our growth as individuals.  I believe God is waiting to show each of us what He sees when He looks at us. If that image causes you to cringe, then I believe this invitation is especially for you.  You are loved, deeply, intimately loved. You were created in love. You were put together with unique abilities, amazing capacities.  

 

Today, and for however long this period of isolation lasts, I invite you to look with me.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking back, or forward, or in this present moment. God is there with you.  He will help you notice.  

 

Today, with the authority of Jesus, I bless you in the noticing.  Don’t worry about what to do with what you see or feel. You don’t have to discern or change a thing.  Just be. Just acknowledge God’s invitation to be with you in it. If you feel condemnation or fear, give it to God.  He will hold it for you. This isn’t the time to make lists for self-improvement.

 

Start small.  Five minutes. Find a quiet corner (or headphones or a pillow if needed).  Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, aware of the breath filling your chest and letting it out slowly.  After your breathing slows, imagine the space around you filling with the light of God. Feel His presence with you.  He is not judging, not lecturing. He is just being with you, smiling on you because He loves you. Like a toddler tucked in her grandpa’s arms, rocking on the front porch and staring out into a summer afternoon.  If that familiarity is too uncomfortable, imagine Jesus as a close friend just hanging out next to you, a comfortable silence between you. There is nothing that needs to be done or said, being together is enough. Like a Christmas afternoon following the flurry of unwrapped excitement, adrenaline slows and contentment hums a soft song.  Stay in that moment. Stay in that Presence for the remainder of your time. Nothing more is needed today. As you continue in your day, remember that light, God’s smile on you.