When I Think About My Children on Ash Wednesday

636239814887137802-Ash-Wed-5I know I write and talk a lot about my children.  They have totally changed everything about my life, and even much about me.

Like, just now, my younger son, who attends preschool at the church I currently serve, popped his head into my office and said, “I love you, Daddy!”  It’s totally changed my work day.

He does this every day, mind you.  It’s one of the things I wait for in the morning.  “I love you, too,” I respond.  He always waits around until I say it, letting his class go on down the hall.  After he hears it he’ll run to catch up with them.

We wait for love.

One of the most moving and meaningful things as a pastor is Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday we get to do some public art: the public act of remembrance that you place on the foreheads of everyone who comes, from the oldest to the youngest, that we are dust.

That time is fleeting.

That the world buries us one minute, one hurtful act, one sinful offering at a time (much of which we participate in), and there is very little that we can do to stop it, so we should wait around to feel love whenever we can get it.

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was walking through the neighborhood in Chicago when a well-known gadfly said incredulously to me in my formal collar, “Gonna peddle some superstition today, eh Father?”

I ignored him.  But as I thought about it, I realized that if I was going to speak to him on one day, Ash Wednesday would be that day, because Ash Wednesday is the day where religion offers something that speaks to everyone, regardless of what they do, or do not, believe: you will die.

Dying is the leading cause of death.

The knowledge of our mortality is too much to bear sometimes, though. And as I mark my own babies with that cross, I always choke a bit. It is too much for them to bear, too.

And yet, with their bodies, they do.  Because cells grow cancer. Because heart disease and car accidents and suicide don’t seem to care about your age.  And my babies are made of cells, and ride in cars, and live, and it happens. To all of us.

But instead of being depressing, Ash Wednesday is like the day when we all communally hug the cactus of our mortality, hug the cactus that we do wrong and harm in this world, even when we do want to (but also, sometimes, we do want to) and remind ourselves that we are not gods.

We are not God.

And once we get that fact out of the way, somehow we start to truly live.  Like the cancer patient in remission who realizes that life is better spent on love than arguing.  Like the near-death experience that increases are thirst for life rather than makes us more fearful.  Like the person living with depression who, because the meds are finally working, smiles and laughs and realizes that they are worth it, by God.

When I think about my boys, my babies, my children on Ash Wednesday, I am full of hope.

I hope that they will embrace life, and death, and all of it with a gusto, with a big bear hug, as confident as they wear that cross, that sign of hope for Christians, on their brow.  I hope it reminds them to love really freely, and really intensely, and to wait for love, and stick around for it.  I hope it reminds them that they don’t have to do it all, they don’t have to be perfect, that nothing is unforgivable, and that they can admit that sometimes life is too much to carry alone, and that they aren’t alone even when it feels like that.

And, sure, my eyes will tear up, and I’ll choke a bit, but not because I will think of their death, but because I will think of how they can, they will, with their lives, and their love, overcome all that tries to bury them in this life, by God.

 

Marie Kondo for the Soul

blog-image-2Watching Netflix’s new show about tidying up a house the “Marie Kondo way” is fascinating to me.

Part of the fascination is seeing how much fighting the couples featured on the show do about household work.  And it’s not fascinating in an “I can’t relate” sort of way, but more like, fascinating in the way you watch an old video of yourself and notice things you didn’t in the moment.

I relate. A bit too much.

Her now well-known practicing of taking out each thing from each drawer, closet, nook, and cranny, and asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” is practiced again and again by weary people just looking for a bit of sanity amidst the clutter.

And it got me to thinking of how freeing it was for these people to give up some things, and how I interact with people every day who wish they could do this same thing with the things they feel bad about in their life.

Like, I talk with people every day, who pick up that memory, that “time I didn’t call my mother back, and she died unexpectedly, and I never got to say goodbye,” and they look at it, the sadness of it, the hurt of it, and they just put it back in the drawer of their soul.

It doesn’t bring them joy, but there it still is.

Or they take out those hateful words they said to their spouse in a fit of rage, the words that put that person over the edge, and they can’t take it back…it’s already been used and there are no returns on words like that.  And they look at it with tears in their eyes, and they put it back.

Or they take out that time someone told them they were lazy, or stupid, or slutty, or no damn good, and they look at it crying, and put it back in the drawer of the soul because they just don’t know how not to believe that after all these years.

And sometimes I’m the person taking the memory out.  The memory of something I said, or was said to me.  Something I did or did not do. And I just lug all of this crap around with me, constantly, and when I pull it out I know it does not bring me joy.

But I put it back in my spiritual closet, anyway.

Why?

The genius of Kondo’s work is not that it’s revolutionary or innovative.  The genius in her work is that she has a system of closure for acknowledging the relationship and usefulness of things in such a way that we can give them up.

The genius is in the ritual goodbye.

And the church has such a system, too.  It’s called “Confession and Forgiveness.”

And it works, by God.  It’s one of the things I’d say the church gets very right.  The system of saying goodbye to the hurts we’ve done or we’ve had inflicted on us, it’s a good way to get rid of them.

Of course we’ve messed up the process a bit.  We’ve said confession blesses God more than it blesses the person, thereby turning it into a demand of guilt rather than an opportunity for healing and wholeness.

But when it’s done right it can be…freeing.

Like giving away things that not only don’t bring you joy, but bring you strife.  Like letting you let go of things you argue with yourself about, replaying a terrible tape of that terrible time as if re-watching it would make anything change…

It doesn’t. It won’t.  Acknowledge you’ve lost your usefulness for that memory, and give it up, by God.

I will admit, there are some times when I’ll pull out a memory, a deep wounding memory, one that I know has lost its usefulness, and I’ll look at it, with tears in my eyes, and slide it back into my heart.

Because I’m just not ready.  For some reason or another I hold on to things that hurt long past their due dates, by choice.  But each time I do, I know the day will come when I will give it up, like that old T-shirt that’s not fit to wear anymore but I just can’t let it go.

Confession is not a fix-all, just like Kondo’s process is not a fix-all.  Honestly, her work exposes a much deeper and more insidious problem than keeping things too long: we buy too much.

Which has a spiritual counterpart, too.  Because too often before I say a hurtful word, or just after someone has said something terrible to me, I’ll decide to keep that memory, to “buy it.”

And I don’t have to. I know I don’t.  Forgiveness gives me permission to say no to carrying it around, to say goodbye to it before I ever grab it and claim it as mine.

If I’ll just do it…if you’ll just do it.

We could all probably use some Marie Kondo in our houses.

And I’m willing to bet we could all use some for our souls, too.

 

On Spiritual Heroin

6392110-depositphotos_27815151_original-1472641889-650-54cd1b8c1a-1492240092Dopamine.

That regulator of emotional response that infects our gray matter.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you see a social media post that you wrote gets a like. Or a share.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you eat a food you really love, and which is probably just a little bit (or a “lotta-bit,” as my kids would say), bad for you.

You get a little shot of dopamine when you’re involved in healthy and unhealthy sexual activity.

You get a little shot of dopamine in certain spiritual and religious settings, too.  Intense spiritual retreats or weekends that use physiology, sociology, psychology, and yes, some smattering of theology, can create a situation of euphoric high.

Not unlike a drug.

Connection. Creativity. All the feels…

The problem with the dopamine wave, of course, is that a trough follows. It always follows.  There’s no other way to make a wave.  You can’t have a wave without a trough.

And the real trouble, of course, is that if you experience a “spiritual high,” you may get the idea that “this is what God feels like.”  And so when you’re not feeling that high, you’re pretty sure you’re not feeling God.

And if you’re not feeling God, then you need to be finding God…

I have a few friends who are perpetual church shoppers.  They go from this big box to that big box, seeking out that spiritual high. Their excitement is always at its zenith when they find a new place.  But when the trough appears, or the shine wears off, or the lights fade just a bit, off they go.

I don’t blame them.  And I’m no better, perhaps. If I weren’t a branch manager, I might do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might.  I don’t know…but in looking objectively at it, I see the behavior without being in it, and wonder about it.

I can’t say if I’m again spiritual highs or not, actually.  Kind of like I can’t really tell if I’m against candy bars.

Because in theory, I am against candy bars in many ways.  They’re bad for your teeth, your diet, and your overall health.  Not just bad in excess, mind you.  They’re actually just bad.  And may be as addictive as nicotine.

It certainly can get your dopamine running.

And yet I eat candy bars sometimes. And I’ve had a cigar in my life once or twice.

We must be honest about this reality: we do destructive things on purpose sometimes because we enjoy them.

But we hopefully do them with clear eyes.

I worry, though, when it comes to spirituality, that the lens is foggy and the mirror is dark.

I’m not making a case for boredom when it comes to religion. Trust me: religion is making that case for itself quite well without my help.

But I am making the case for clear-eyed analysis of how we claim to experience the Divine; an inquiry into what we’re talking about.

Because an excess of dopamine creates monsters. Religious and spiritual fanatics who are willing to do terrible things.  Even believe terrible things about other people who don’t share the high.

Because they’re not thinking clearly.  They’re literally “doped up” on religion.

Modest, regular amounts of dopamine are necessary for creativity, courage, and pleasure.  It’s not that we don’t need it.  We do need it.

But when we regularly strive to get a rush from it, a high, we fall into the pattern of the addict, surviving the trough until the next hit, willing to do or believe terrible things to get the fix.

And yet the faith says that we’re not to survive, but to live.  Not live through the trough, but in it.

I’m wondering, out loud, if spiritual highs are less about God, and more about us.

More about our brain than metaphysics.

I don’t know.

But I do think they’re probably addictive.

And I wonder if the addiction is part of what has effectively wounded the mainline.

 

 

Mary Oliver Broke My Heart

171127_r30985I don’t remember when I first read her work.  I’m sure it was in my twenties.

Because in my twenties I knew too much. Everything, actually.  And if you doubt that, just ask my 27 year old self.  I would smile demurely and shy away from your question, but secretly answer in the affirmative.

And then enter Mary.

Mary, the poet.

Mary, the theologian…though unwittingly, perhaps.

Mary, with her short stacked sentences packed on top of one another like pancakes, dripping with meaning.

Heavy, sweet meaning.

Her observations on simple things, like ducks and pipefish, made me wish I knew how to engage with the world in a way that still retained the wonder and awe and love of my young self.

And she was doing it in this way until she was quite old!

She helped me to realize that I knew not only nothing about things like ducks or pipefish, but I knew nothing about a life observed and that I better get with the program, better surround myself with poetry, if I was ever going to know anything about anything.

Let alone, myself.  My life.

Poetry helps us to observe life, and observe it intently. With feeling. With hope and a good bit of angst and…good grief.

It is something, when it works.

Poetry is the picture that prose wishes it could paint.

Poetry is the picture, mind you.  It doesn’t paint it; it is it.

Poetry is prayer both for those who are sure “prayer is perfectly fine for other people” and for those for whom prayer is every breath.  It unites the faithful and the faithless in fancy couplets where they’re forced to hold hands, at least for a moment.

It is subversive.

Submersive, if that is a word.  It doesn’t matter…that’s what it is.

It is like water, winding its way through your soul as your eyes are jarred by

unexplained breaks

and

dangling groups of letters that

just make you hold on because you’re never sure when you’re going to

jump.

And when you do jump, when you build up the courage to actually engage poetry like an explorer spelunking into the cave of words, you crash into meaning.

And your heart breaks.

Like mine did when I first pondered what I’d do with my “one wild and precious life.”

And you’re never put back together in the same way again, thank God.

Her collection House of Light sits on my desk. I crack it for inspiration quite a bit.

But my favorite of her poems is this one below. And it’s the one that I’ll end with, I think, because, well, she’s finally made the journey.

And let me tell you: with her wild and precious life she broke my heart.

And I am grateful for it.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

“I Only Do This in Two Places: the Church and the Bar”

imagesThis past Sunday it hit home to me again.

I’ve said it for years, but it hit home for me again.  In church we do this absolutely counter-cultural thing.  This thing that, really, we only do in two places: the church and the bar.

 

Now, some might also do it at other, in-frequent places, like sports arenas or concert halls.  And you might do it with professional organizations, if you’re the kind of person who digs it more than the hoi polloi.

But I’m going to guess that this activity is one that, for most people, only occurs in two places, namely the church and the bar: communal singing.

Well, and probably confession, but we’re going to stick with singing in this blog post…

Yes, you probably sing in the shower, but not in community (though, that would be funny to hear that coming from the gym locker room at the local YMCA).

Yes, you sing in your car, but probably only by yourself or one other trusted person who won’t make fun of your mis-remembered lyrics and off-key high note to a-ha‘s Take On Me.

I’ve known atheists who were the most active church attenders simply for the music.  It’s that powerful of a movement within humanity.  It just wells up inside us, and has to have an out.

Here’s an out.

You might think this is a poor reason to go to church, but there are much poorer ones that motivate the supposedly pious…

If you want to talk about having a reason to check out a church, especially if you’re not particularly religious, this is one of the most practical reasons: to sing with other people.

The need is there within you.  Indulge it.  It’s human.

And probably Divine.

And probably (in the right community) a healthier habit than the bar.

 

Is The Church Growing or Just Aging?

68747470733a2f2f7777772e67696674737465722e636f6d2f6e6577732f77702d636f6e74656e742f75706c6f6164732f323031332f30332f492d646f6e742d6b6e6f772e6a7067I was recently listening to Krista Tippett and Adam Gopnik wax eloquently on all matters of faith and doubt.  The original airing of this particular episode of On Being  was first heard back in 2015, but they re-played it in December of 2017.

And, of course, I just listened.  Which gives you some insight into how far behind I am in my podcasts.

But Gopnik, who is ethnically Jewish, though he doesn’t practice a faith (and, funny enough, has a Lutheran spouse) was talking about how at his family reunions he’s been noting how some relatives are growing, and some are simply aging.

And though he puts himself in the “simply aging” category, I disagree.  Because he defines “growing” in this sense as “still discovering” and being filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  And if you read any of his writing (and you should read ALL OF IT) you know that’s not true.

He’s growing, even in his old(er) age.

But it got me to thinking about the church, individual congregations, and this common life we share together.  I have to wonder: is the church at large, and your congregation in particular, growing? Or just aging?

And not in numbers.  But growing like a tree grows.  Like a flower grows.  Like a sea full of life, grows and swells.

Are you embarking on new territory?  Are you changing things up, and allowing yourself to be surprised at what happens?  Are you discovering new gifts you never knew you had?

Or is it all the same?  Familiar, but frozen?

And what about you?  Is your faith growing, or just aging?

Are you finding awe and wonder at new insights and new thoughts?  Has your faith evolved with your experience(s) of life and death?  Are your encounters with the gay community, the immigrant community, that ethnic community you historically have feared, changed the way that you see God and see yourself?

Have you grown past seeing God as some sky wizard pulling levers, or some Santa Claus keeping track of naughty and nice lists? Has God become, as theologian Paul Tillich says, “The ground of all being?”

Or is your faith unchanged, and therefore, unchallenged?

Perhaps in 2019 we can all take a bit of stock, communally and personally, to ask ourselves:

Are we growing…or just aging?

And if you’re afraid to ask the question, well…then you know the answer.

“Jesus’ Rejection Letter” or “Hard Pass”

rejectionDear Mr. “of Nazareth,”*

We’re grateful that you applied for the position of pastor at our church.  Unfortunately we do not think that you are what we are looking for at this time.

In other words, “hard pass.”

We find you to be entirely too political in your public presence.  Word has gotten back to us that you participated in a recent riot at the temple, and were seen chasing people out of their stalls.  We find this kind of action unacceptable and far too controversial.

In addition, your sermon from the mountain top in recent days (which went viral, and not in a good way), though encouraging for certain demographics, failed to speak to all demographics with words of Godly comfort.  Making claims that some people are “blessed” implies that some are not, and we’re not comfortable with that kind of explicit bias.

In observing your lifestyle through social media, we note that you’re often found at local hangouts with people of questionable background.  As our mothers often told us, “Show us who you hang around, and you show us who you are.” We know who you are. These people are not the kind of people we want in our church, and should we call you as our pastor we’d expect you to cut ties with those kinds of people.

We also think you are far too young to lead a congregation on your own. At thirty-three years of age, you haven’t had enough experience to teach and preach the way you do. Your boldness is not only off-putting, but troubling to many, and maybe a bit narcissistic.

In addition you:

-do not dress appropriately for the role.

-do not adhere to the behavioral norms that we expect from our leaders (must you really break the rules so much?).

-seem to advocate for things/people/ideas that make us uncomfortable

-speak to women as you do men, and find that blurring of gender-lines to be confusing.

And while we like the fact that you can attract crowds, we’re afraid that would bring too much of the wrong kind of attention, and we’d prefer not to make waves.

We think that perhaps you should entertain going back to school for continued training, or consider a profession that doesn’t involve public ministry.

Sincerely,

Popular Christianity

*consider changing this name