We Are Church

img_9993What strange days we find ourselves in right now. The news from all over is ever more concerning. Cases of COVID-19 have appeared in two schools near my home and a friend for the university was exposed to it at their internship. I started to prepare a couple weeks ago by buying paper goods, hand soap, Tylenol, and cold medicines. Still, I was profoundly shocked to walk into the grocery store Thursday afternoon, right after the announcement that schools were to be closed indefinitely, to see the meat case nearly empty. Saturday, I was able to go early in the morning to get meat but the vast array of produce I’m used to so casually picking through was mostly empty. Instead of rows upon rows of colorful fruits and vegetables, there were only empty black bins. It struck me in that moment how spoiled I have always been. I’ve never in my lifetime walked into a store and not been able to buy everything I need for several days worth of complete meals to feed five of us. I have never before seen entire grocery store aisles empty – totally and completely empty – of bread, eggs, milk, juice, meat, frozen vegetables, and fresh produce. In any other time, I’d probably crack jokes: hashtag first world problems, hashtag toilet paper famine, hashtag where’s the beef. But this isn’t like anything I’ve ever faced before and, for once, my dark gallows humor is failing to keep up.

Then the churches started to close.

I have watched and talked on social media over this past week with many of my clergy friends who agonized over whether it was enough to warn those considered vulnerable to stay home or whether they should cancel services altogether.  How do we share the peace? How do we share in communion? How do we keep people safe? How do we best minister to anxious people in this frightening time of crisis? In some cases, bishops made the call for them but many others had to make the best decision they could for their own congregation. Many decided that, for right now, love looks like an empty church.

This morning, I scrolled through social media and I saw church after church after church had found ways on very short notice to connect via livestreams, recorded videos, posted reflections and emails. Pastors preached to empty churches. Organists and musicians played on without their choirs. People shared links to services and reflections from all over the country, across all denominational lines. And there, my friends, is the Body of Christ in action. Right here, right now. Maybe we’ve gathered a little differently this Sunday, but make no mistake, we are still church and Jesus is in our midst. There is no shortage here. There are no empty shelves. There is no worry about what will be restocked or when. There are no quantity limits.

It can be easy to fall into a routine of receiving communion every week in the same way that we pick up groceries. I got the grace I need to get through the week. I can come back next week and do it again. But here’s the thing, Jesus is so much bigger than that. The gift of our Lord that we receive so blithely, so routinely is so far beyond anything we can ever hope to understand. The grace given to us in the sacrament is boundless, infinite, and endless. The grace we receive never runs out. So no matter how long we have to wait to receive communion again, Jesus does not leave us wanting.

For now, let us keep finding new ways to connect safely and let us hold fast to promise of Jesus in the Eucharist.

And may God hold you in the palm of his hand, until we meet again.

Saint James grads, I know y’all sang that last line.

Hashtag we are church.

 

God In Aisle 7

God has a funny way of showing up in unexpected ways. Moses got a burning bush on a desert mountain. I got a stuffed bunny rabbit in Aisle 7 of the grocery store. God told Moses, in rather dramatic fashion, that God was the God of his ancestors. Me? I got a nudge to notice a cardboard display of Beatrix Potter’s rabbits. Moses stopped and listened and asked questions.  I noticed. Yep, there’s Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. And I kept walking. I’m about to be 46 years old and I do not need a stuffed bunny rabbit from my childhood. That’s just silly.

But God seemed to think otherwise.

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Of course, I remember. I can still practically recite those stories. I loved Peter Rabbit.

But it wasn’t really the story of Peter Rabbit that mattered so much now. It was the memory of a time when life was simpler, back when someone was taking care of me instead of the other way around. It was remembering that sense of security that comes with being held and loved so completely, especially now, when I am feeling so completely tapped out.

Yes. I remember. 

And cue the waterworks. Right in the middle of the Aisle 8. And I don’t mean a stray a tear. I mean a good old dig-for-tissues cry next to the Pepsi display. And of course, I still had half the shopping to do yet. But, before anything else, I doubled back and picked up Peter Rabbit.

The grocery store may not look much like a desert mountain, but some days, it sure feels like one. The same God who has been at my side through the darkest times in my life is here with me now. And while a burning bush might freak the neighbors out just a bit, a stuffed bunny riding shotgun in my car’s cup holder barely raised an eyebrow when my son saw it. God let Moses know that he had the cries of his people. And God let me know – yet again – that he hears mine too.

God will not be distracted. And it seems, God will remind me of that fact from time to time in whatever way it takes to get my attention.

 

 

Knowing When to Shut Up

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The remnant of Hurricane Michael passing south of Long Island. Do I see the storm or do I see the sun rising?

About a week ago I was talking with a friend about Job. I have a great fondness for Job, especially when life gets overwhelming, which it has been for awhile now. It seems like every few years, God and I circle back to this space where all I can do is shoot my mouth off about everything that is going wrong and when I get like that, it’s easy to lose sight of what is going right. Eventually though, usually after a much needed kick in the ass, I’ll end up where Job ended up:

Then Job answered the Lord and said:

I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
 “Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?”
I have spoken but did not understand;
    things too marvelous for me, which I did not know.
“Listen, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers.”
By hearsay I had heard of you,
    but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
    and repent in dust and ashes.

 

Or in my own paraphrase: I shot my mouth off about stuff only God can understand and I’ll shut up now because I know God better now.

Am I ready to shut up now? Am I ready to stop trying to justify the things in my life that aren’t going well – or more precisely as well as I’d like them to be? Can I stop coming to prayer with my scorekeeper’s math of working half time and going to school three-quarter time and trying to find time to shop, cook, and do laundry? It’s not like God doesn’t know already. Can I now come to prayer and shut up and let God speak to me with the love and encouragement that God knows I need?

Maybe. Maybe it’s time for the perfectionist honor student to sit down and listen for awhile. Maybe it’s time to remember why I went back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to remember it’s a miracle that I was able to go back to college at 41. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the people God has brought into my life, including an incredibly loving and supportive church community.

Part of looking around at the mess around me means taking a look over my shoulder at how far I’ve come and then taking a look ahead to see how close I am to the next steps in life. Instead of focusing on how College Algebra makes me feel incredibly and unbelievably stupid, I can focus on the renewed energy I’m finding in a uniquely creative assignment for an independent study in the Theology and Ethics of Death and Dying.

I’m thirteen months away from graduating. There was a time, not all that long ago, that I could never have seen myself in a college classroom. So yeah – life is a mess right now. But maybe where I see a mess, God sees something more. And maybe if I can shut up long enough, God might be able to show me just a glimpse of what God sees in that mess.

Reformation

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Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.

 

The Message We Send

What does the Church hold as more important: conformity or Eucharist?

If you think that sounds like a loaded question, you’re right. It is. But it is a question we need to be asking. Recently, a little girl in Indiana was denied her place at the Eucharistic table because she wanted to wear a suit rather than a dress for her First Communion. The parish insists that they issued a dress code requiring girls to wear dresses with long sleeves. But clearly the dress code wasn’t about modesty or being dressed appropriately because the suit she wore was both modest and appropriate for a First Communion. Her parents were told that either she wore a dress or she would not be allowed to participate with her class. Instead, she would receive Communion after the Mass, privately with her family and the deacon and there would be no pictures. Intended or not, the message sent to that little girl told her:

There is something wrong with you.

You don’t belong here.

You aren’t good enough.

If you want to be part of the Church, conform.

The message also sent to her classmates and their families was that there was something wrong with her desire to be herself because that self didn’t fit a particular image the Church wanted to create. Because she did not fit that image, she should be hidden away. Because she did not fit that image, shaming and excluding her was acceptable.

Her family ultimately opted to find another Catholic school and another Catholic parish rather than force the tearful, confused child to wear a dress just to fit in. What should have been a joyful celebration instead became a traumatic experience that caused deep and unnecessary emotional and spiritual wounds.

authenticI don’t want to debate dress codes or gender roles or images of femininity and masculinity.  I don’t care. I don’t care if she prefers suits and ties to dresses and frills.  I don’t care how short or how long she wears her hair. I. Do. Not. Care.

I do care very much that a child was denied her place at the Lord’s Table and she was denied her place within the Body of Christ. This. Is. Wrong. There is no spin, no list of rules, no tradition, no hermeneutic that can ever justify keeping a child from Jesus and, worse, telling her that it’s her own fault for wanting to come to the Table as her most authentic self.

A 9 year-old does not have the spiritual maturity nor the theological wherewithal to differentiate between God and Church. Through the eyes and understanding of a child, the Church, the priests, the deacons, God, and Jesus are all rolled into one. Because of this, the Church must be very conscious of the messages it sends to our children and the message the Church is sending to its girls and young women is emotionally and spiritually harmful.

Our girls are growing up being constantly told that their shorts are too short, their pants are too tight, their shirts are too low, their shoulders should not be bare, and their makeup should be more subtle, but also that dressing too much like a boy is wrong. Our girls are growing up knowing they are not permitted to be ordained. In some places, they are still growing up knowing they cannot serve on the altar. They are growing up with the message that somehow being a girl is shameful.  More concerning, our girls are growing up with the subtle message that even though Jesus loves you, he expects you to meet a certain standard in order to earn that love. They are getting the message that it is perfectly normal to have to surrender your authenticity, in part or as a whole, in order to be loved. If it is okay for Jesus to expect these things, it is only natural to expect the same in other relationships.

Then we wonder why our young women, who have been raised in the Church and have been taught since childhood about the all-encompassing love of God, are so easily drawn into unhealthy, unloving relationships. Parents and Church leaders will scratch their heads and wonder: Why do our young women try so hard fit in with society? Why are they so willing to give up their very identity for any person or group of people who merely say the things they want to hear?

I think what we really need to start asking ourselves is whether or not it could be because we’ve taught them to be fake. Could it be that the reason they work so hard to mold themselves to their group of friends is because they’ve been subtly taught from childhood that conformity is the path to love and acceptance? Could it be that the reason they tolerate disrespect in relationships is because a disconnect between hearing, “I love you” and actually being treated with love and respect seems normal to them?

Amazing, intelligent young women raised in loving, faithful families, are reaching young adulthood and selling themselves out. In part, they do this because they have been taught that to do so is not only normal, it’s expected. Until we start broadcasting and reinforcing the message that our girls are beloved daughters of God – full stop, no checklists – then the Church will continue to fail her daughters.

Love Is…

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Love is a cup of tea of the front porch.

Love is the hug you didn’t know you needed.

Love is the prayer you didn’t have to ask for.

Love is the laughter at an inside joke.

Love is the text message and the phone call that says, “Are you okay?” and Love stays on the line until you are.

Love is showing up.

It is the steadfastness of an old friend.

Love does not leave you in your darkness. Nor does it abandon you to your imagination.

When you would choose to withdraw from all around you, Love is the breeze that caresses your face and keeps you present.

When you would choose to be alone, it is the bird perched on the windowsill who keeps you company anyway.

Love is understanding. It is compassionate. It is empowering.

Love is healing.

Above all else, God is Love.

Let Go

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So what happens when you put a perfectionist with no artistic talent whatsoever in a painting studio? Eye twitches. Eye twitches happen. And clenching of the jaw and a death grip on the paintbrush. But it’s okay because I’m in a private party with some of my longtime Catholic grammar school friends and we’re all hopeless perfectionists. We’ll leave the connection between Catholic grammar school and perfectionist tendencies for another post. For now, there’s food and there’s mimosas. There’s music from our younger days. It’s all good. Except I can’t paint creatively. I can paint a room, including the trim, and it will be gorgeous. But a beach? At sunset? With palm trees?

Ha ha ha! No.

For the next couple of hours, I reminded myself with every third stroke of the paintbrush to lighten up and let go. In the end, we all had a great time. We laughed ourselves silly and I came home with some great memories of friends that I love dearly and a painting of a beach at sunset – or the beginning of the apocalypse – with what could be either a sickly palm tree or a dead tarantula on it. But whatever, it’s hanging in my kitchen, conveniently covering the calendar, and, oddly enough, I’m rather fond of my apocalyptic tarantula.

I suppose my fondness for this painting has less to do with what it looks like and a lot more to do with what went into it. And I suppose maybe that applies to a lot of things in my life. I know where I’ve been and I know what it took for me to be where I am. The last few months got way more hectic than I can comfortably handle. So when I caught myself reading American history during what was supposed to be my prayer time at the beach in the morning, I knew something had to give. I need that time with God far more than I need an A in history. Yeah, I actually had to read that sentence out loud a few times until I could say it without my voice shaking.  I will most likely walk away from this summer class without an A, bringing an end to a two-year streak of perfect grades, and I am okay with that because I know what when into it was the best I had to give at this point in time. It seems like perfect timing that the Week of Guided Prayer starts this weekend just as one class ends and the next one starts. It’s the precisely the interruption I need. I’m not feeling like I’m on the most solid of footing, but that’s okay too because when I first attended the Week ten years ago, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal and yet, here I am again. I’ve been on more solid ground and I’ve been on shakier but it doesn’t matter because it’s all holy ground.

So, ultimately, what did my little foray into the arts teach me? That sometimes it’s okay to let go and when I find that things aren’t turning out quite the way I think they should, it’s completely cool – and actually rather helpful – to throw down the paintbrush, jump up and dance the YMCA with three other friends while the rest of the class paints on. Because in the end, it was never about the perfect beach painting. It was about the part of my soul that went into it. And you know, I think that’s pretty much what life is all about in the end. It’s not about what life looks like. It’s about how much soul goes into living it.