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.

 

Trust, Love & Ice Missiles

 

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Race Point Beach

I spent last weekend on Cape Cod enjoying my annual pilgrimage to solitude and sanity. I had hoped to leave everything behind but alas, life conspired against me and I ended up bringing homework with me. As it turned out, that was precisely the way it was meant to be. Uninterrupted, I read voraciously, finishing one novel, reading another cover to cover, re-reading half of Eve and dabbling in some rather basic Lutheran theology. New England weather was at its finest with everything from 50-degree temperatures and blue skies to wicked snow and 50 mph winds. In short, this was heaven!

Two rainy mornings left me with some time to reflect on what I learned about trust during Holy Week. Being a student is an escape for me. It’s so easy for me to examine trust as an abstract thing. I look for proof or evidence to make an argument for the existence of trust. I can see it in others but what I miss is that I’m also already in the midst of a trusting relationship. How else would I be where I am right now?  On top of being physically able to be in school, through every assignment, every 5 a.m. paper, every registration decision, I have been led and guided all along the way. Deep down, if I let myself feel, I know that. But there’s always that lingering fear of being abandoned. Maybe that goes away. Maybe it never does. Maybe trust is hanging on in spite of that fear. One thing I’ve come to understand: trust isn’t an abstract. It’s a gut feeling and it comes only with experience. God hasn’t left me yet so I’ll take the next step and see what happens.

Those same two rainy mornings left me the time I needed to finish a paper on relationships and love. Ah yes, love, another gut feeling that  I prefer to hold at a safe distance. ‘Love bites’ was clearly not going to be a great starting point so I had allow myself a less jaded approach. What is love?  Digging past all sappy romantic notions, love is seeking the good of the other and a willingness to hold open space for the other to grow, to be and to become who they are. After all, isn’t that very simply what God does for me? God works for my good and allows me the open space that I need to be who I am, even when who I am is deeply flawed. I have been given the open space I need to grow, to fail, to explore, to be and to become. That same space has allowed me to accept love or to hide from it, to trust or to go it alone. No matter what I choose, that space is always open for me.

Typically, I spend my Sundays at the Cape on Race Point Beach but this time I had planned to spend Sunday morning at church. A little church dating sounded like a good idea. I combed through Google and social media and found a little Lutheran church about fifteen minutes from me. Instead, my last full day dawned to rain which quickly turned to sleet then to snow. 50 mph winds whipped snow into blinding curtains and kicked up whitecaps in the inlet outside my window. Driving would have been a very bad idea. By noon, there were a few inches on fresh and melting snow on the ground and the skies cleared to deep, clear blue. Church hadn’t happened but Race Point still called my name.

I found the driver’s side of my car completely clean. The passenger side was encased in ice and snow. That should have been a clue. But I was so thrilled to be headed to my happy place, knowing the storm would have whipped up the surf and the winds would be wild that I cleared the car without even thinking. I queued up an hour of good music and started driving. I drove the first few miles admiring the snow on the trees and the blue skies. I made it about three miles before the ice missile hit my windshield and scared me half to death. That wasn’t snow on the trees. It was ice. Big, heavy chunks of ice. For the rest of the hour drive I dodged raining ice missiles of death. The closer I got to Provincetown, the more deserted the road became. It left me to wonder if perhaps other people knew something I didn’t. The wind started to really shake my car and I considered turning back but my gut feeling was to keep going.

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Snow Squall, Race Point Beach

The parking lot was empty. It took both hands to push the car door open enough to get out. The roar of the wind matched the roar of the ocean. It was worth every second of the hair-raising drive. I walked up to the edge of the surf feeling so completely alive. The blues in the sky and in the water were beyond description. Then I turned around saw the curtain of black cloud coming straight at me. I got caught in a snow squall walking back to the car. I was truly in my glory.

But on the drive back, I noticed something. The shady, leeward sides of the trees were still covered in ice. Unless the sun and the wind could reach, they would stay that way. About eight years ago in the confessional I was told that my penance was to stand outside with my face tipped up to the sun and to let that warmth soak in until it melted all that was still frozen inside me. Most of that thaw been a long, slow process. But during my time on the Cape, something worked loose. Some ice missile of death was blown harmlessly to the ground and shattered. What I keep hidden in the shadows will never thaw. Pulling those pieces into the light and then letting go takes trust and the open space that only love can give. I have both.

Terms and Conditions

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I’ve spent the last few weeks avoiding coming to terms with my trust issues. The simple exercise of writing a list of those I trust turned into ten days of me either avoiding my journal entirely or staring at a blank page and then walking away.

With the start of Lent, I have found myself thrown back into the same emotional grist mill where I spent all of Advent. I kind of expect the teary moments this time around and that’s okay. I can handle those. That sounds like such a simple thing. To be able to cry and be okay with the tears. But the reality is it has taken a long time for me to get to this point. To stop believing the lies that crying over things that hurt is a sign of instability or weakness.

What has been so much harder to come to terms with has been my anger. This time of year always sits like lead. The end of January to the end of March is always haunted by memories of my father’s last weeks. The one place, the church,  I often turned to for solace has become so tainted that it is no longer a sanctuary and the church I have moved to is still too unfamiliar to be completely comfortable. I’m angry that I have been driven out of my refuge. I deeply resent being betrayed and abandoned by people I trusted, most especially my pastor and confessor. Every time those tears come because I’m feeling adrift, the anger comes raging up behind the tears.

So here I am. Second Sunday of Lent. A blank page in my journal staring back at me. Trust. Who do I trust? There is a list. It has more people on it than it used to. But is a very gradational list. I trust only up to a point. And that point depends on the situation and the person and our relationship.

Am I on my own list? No. Or maybe a better answer would be: Not yet.

Is God on my list?  Cautiously, yes.

How is that God, who loves me unconditionally, is so hard for me to trust? Because too often what I’ve known as love has always been conditional.

Conditional love can be defined, broken down, and understood. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Expectation and reality. That makes it strategic. That sets up the conditions that are the rules of the game. They’re a pattern, a puzzle to be figured out; terms to be agreed to. I can learn how to play that game. What risks to take. What strategy to use. And when the stakes are too high, to walk away.

Unconditional love is a total unknown. There is no game and therefore no strategy. There are no terms and conditions to agree to. Unconditional love just is. Which means there is no control. And that is terrifying. Things beyond my control have a nasty way of coming back to hurt me.

I know enough of God to know God doesn’t work like that. More than ever before, it seems like Lent for me means working through who God is not. The tears, the anger, the resentment, the betrayal and abandonment, the broken trust: none of those came from God. But if I can hand them over, God will take them.

If… for two little letters that’s a really big word.

 

 

Unexpected Answers

Unexpected Answers

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I read a lot of books. I recommend books to friends I know would enjoy them. But I don’t write about books on this blog. Unless of course, I run across something that so rocks my world that I have to write about it. Last time that happened, it was The Shack. This time it was Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People.

Ever read a book that you can’t put down? I’ve read a lot of those. A few years ago, I called out sick because I had quite literally stayed up all night to finish the Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest and still had 100 pages left when the sun came up. I couldn’t go anywhere until I knew what happened to Lisbeth Salander.

But now let me ask the question another way: Did you ever read a book that wouldn’t let go of you? Because in the last ten days I read one that pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t that long of a book but it took me ten days to read because, crazy as it sounds, I swear to you that book told me when to pick it up and when to put it down.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had read Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix during the Week of Guided Prayer over the summer. That book beat me up. It challenged me into a profession of faith that I felt not quite ready to make. Add the scripture readings into the mix and well, I came away from that week feeling very bruised. The image of a rosebush being pruned (or run over by a lawnmower, depending on your perspective) was the image of the week.

So maybe given how that week went, pre-ordering Pastor Nadia’s next book Accidental Saints was probably a little crazy. But it was okay because I wasn’t going to read it right away. I figured I’d save it for the long Thanksgiving weekend. I lasted all of about 2 hours after UPS dropped it off. Then I randomly read all of Chapter 8 in the laundromat and cried my eyes out. (Don’t worry – no spoilers here.)  But even reading a random chapter was enough. It grabbed me and pulled me in. As I read, I found myself facing all those things that had come up during the Week of Guided Prayer: trust, surrender, pruning and deeper healing. I read about “forgiving some jackass who I really want punch in the throat” and how much love and grace can sting. Being loved well stings – that is a perfect description of something that I’ve felt so deeply but could never manage to find the words for and to see it there in black and white in my hands dissolved me entirely.  For the second time in ten days I was sitting in the laundromat with a book in one hand and wiping away a stubbornly steady flood of tears with the other. The regulars there are probably beginning to wonder if I’m coming unhinged.

Deacon Ron always tells me to look for the recurring themes in my writings. Trust and surrender are not my strong points. Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Read any three random posts on this blog and you’ll see those things pop up. What you might not find so easily are the themes I don’t write about as much. Being vulnerable.  Letting people love me. More specifically, not letting anyone close enough to love me.  It’s taken a long time to learn to open up again and even longer to accept that I had walled myself off from being hurt because I had been deeply hurt – actually I believe the term most often used by my therapist was brutalized, although try as he did, he could never get me to say that word out loud.

It was hard to type that sentence and if this seems a bit disjointed here it’s because I had to walk away to make a cup of tea and sit in the sunshine for awhile until all the ugly feelings that word brings up – weakness, powerlessness, shame, fear, embarrassment – had dissolved again.

For years there had been a lingering pain that I could never quite explain. I know why I flinch if someone touches me unexpectedly or why I get panicky if I hear someone yelling and angry. But I could never find the way to express how much it hurt, and sometimes still does, to hear, “I love you” or to have someone do something kind for me. And it sounds pretty batshit crazy to tell someone, “I’m so glad you hugged me (said you loved me, repaired my car, drove me to a doctor) today. I needed that. And by the way it feels like you ripped my heart out of my chest in the process.”  No. I kept that level of crazy to myself in hopes that sooner or later it would make sense. I don’t know how I expected that answer to come but I can promise you I never expected it to come all at once in the middle of the spin cycle.

Grace stings because it is so undeserved.

Love stings because we believe ourselves to be so unworthy.

Trusting God is scary as hell because it means first accepting that we are so
loved.

Surrender requires working through the other three.

candleAnd this is why grace is like water. It slips under the walls, through the cracks in the mortar, drips in through the ceiling. Not only is it impossible to hang on to, it’s impossible to keep out. Except it’s more like rubbing alcohol than water. It stings but it cleans and once you’ve been soaked in it, you can be set on fire.