Friday, November 28, 2014

Praise God from whom all shopping bags flow...?

I stood in line for an hour and a half without a cart carrying a basket full of stuff and two boxes full of more stuff for $160 worth of merchandise today. There was much sighing. I kept telling myself, this might be the only day you have free child care and can actually go to the store and pick stuff out, so buy the stuff and get out, get out, get out!

I love this season. I love the anticipation, the longing, the delight, the promise of hope and joy and peace, all of which I think are essential to practice and promote when the darkness seems to encroach from all corners.

Lydia's Christmas List
It's hard to practice peace and hope and joy in a line that wraps around the perimeter of a store with a hundred other Scrooges out to buy buy buy some joy joy joy joy down under the tree.

I am a planner; I set up certain expectations for myself and I expect myself to deliver or exceed those expectations. No one says, Sarah, you really should blog daily in the month of December like you have the last two years, but here I am wrestling anyway with whether to attempt to blog daily in December or whether I should give it up. It's a challenge, so part of me looks at the doubting part of me and says, "Oh yeah, you BET I can do it, just you watch, I'll prove it to you," while the doubting part says, "Yeah, you're crazy." But surely I could get up earlier, stay up later, sneak it in over lunch, rush home to rush off to make cookies to wrap cookies to deliver cookies to sing and pray and read and hurry UP sit DOWN buckle UP let's GO... Surely I could make it happen. I can make it happen.

Advent is the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ; it is the period of time during which Christians sing, "O Come, o come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel..." the coming of Christ marks freedom from the slavery of sin, ransom paid, release from debt, burden lifted. We are supposed to hope for things yet unseen, and yet, instead, I yoke myself to obligation and ritual - I have to do this because this is what I do, this is what is expected, this is what will earn me love and appreciation. "Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel..."

It is hard to lift your hands in praise when you're still carrying your Black Friday shopping bags.

"Advent" is a part of the word "adventure," a pursuit to explore spaces we haven't before. This is a new season, new territory, with new challenges and new opportunities. An adventure has plenty of elements we hope for that are yet unseen.

Advent also means "a coming into being," like the advent of computers, or the advent of cell phones. Once there was none and now there is. Once it was one way and now it is another way. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.

So, too, with this advent.

I do not think it is possible, or realistic, or healthy, to set for myself a quantifiable goal of blogging/crafting/reading/event-ing every single night of December leading up to Christmas. I think it might serve the opposite purpose of the season - where there could be hope and joy and peace, there would be despair and frustration and anxiety. I do not want this season to be despair and frustration and anxiety. I want to use whatever minutes of the day I have for sowing love into my kids, and this is surprisingly difficult when you begin to believe the best way to demonstrate love is by signing them up for lots of activities or planning lots of outings or buying all the things.

I think what I will do this year is string up "hope" and "joy" and "peace," and maybe we will weave these in with some unscheduled nights to play board games or in the early morning hours on the couch under a blanket. Maybe we will pray for ways to make hope and joy and peace real in our daily goings-about.

And maybe, just maybe, there will be a moment like tonight after the giggling ceases and only the tree is illuminated, when I will feel so moved I'll sing, "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..." and believe.

2013: I was saying the exact same thing to myself.
2012: This is when I got this stupid I mean awesome advent activities calendar idea.
2011: This was the half-marathon, parents-30th-anniversary, season-of-Beans-going-crazy year
2010: This is when I was trying to make more quality time for my kids. I've obviously solved this problem.
2009: I was super-duper excited about Christmas and poetry and life.
2008: I posted a poem about Snow in Auburn that I still like because it's really a poem about hope and God's presence although you might not know it because it isn't the best poem ever.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why do we need spiritual leaders?

In a team building exercise at work today, we were given fifteen people and a life raft that only holds nine. The Titanic is sinking, basically, so who gets in and who stays behind? My team kept Obama but dumped Jay-Z, we kept the carpenter but dumped the line cook at Denny’s, we kept the pregnant lady but dumped Meryl Streep, we kept the stay-at-home mom but dumped John Boehner. At the end of the discussion, we had a priest and a rabbi in the boat with us and Oprah Winfrey in the ocean. My teammates wondered, why are we keeping the priest and the rabbi? “I suppose maybe someone might take comfort in a spiritual leader,” someone said. “I’m agnostic, so…” someone else said. “If we dump the priest, I’ll feel guilty about it,” someone else said, crossing herself simultaneously, “and have to go to church.”

I didn’t know how to answer. Why should the priest and the rabbi get a spot in our hypothetical life raft? What do they have to offer?

I had just brought up my come-to-faith college experience during the earlier ice breaker, so one colleague asked, “Are you still religious?”

I process my thoughts so much better with a keyboard and a backspace button, so when these kinds of conversations happen, I get a little nervous. I always work up in my head this big deal about how I love Jesus but I’m not that kind of Christian, you know, that kind, and I’m not that other kind either, I’m serious but not legalistic, saved but not a six-day Creationist, deeply interested and educated in the history of religion and a lover of the word of God that I really believe is the word of God but also believe that all truth is God’s truth so I also like science and math and philosophy and the advancement of new ideas and the realization of wonder and awe in nature and the power of mystery and miracle and relationship and love, love, love, so you see I’ve really thought a lot about all of this so please don’t think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in my head.

“Uhh, yeah… well… yes, but not in a ritualistic way…” I stuttered, “I care very much about faith, still.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

She really doesn’t care about all of that. All she really wants to know is if I’m going to be offended because we are thinking about saving Oprah and ditching either the rabbi or the priest.

So I offered the priest up to the sharks. After all, I said, he’s a man of God. He’d do that kind of thing to save someone else. Plus, if he’s Catholic, he doesn’t have a family waiting for him at home, and he’s on good terms with God, soooo… pull Oprah back into the boat.

The question bothered me all day long—why should we keep the priest and rabbi in the boat—all through the afternoon trust equation discussion, through happy hour, on my drive home, and even through our Friday night house church meeting.

We studied the first part of James 3 tonight, which is all about the power of the tongue. How does bad language and our speech affect our behavior and attitude? How do words impact our children, our neighbors? How should we speak? What should we expose our kids to?

And in the midst of all of this I thought—all of the people I work with, all of the people I’ve interacted with year after year, they are all trying to be good people. They generally know the difference between right and wrong. They have their own moral codes, adopted from their parents or from their culture or reshaped and redefined along the way, and they are all not perfect. They try to watch their language and speak kindly to other people and encourage their children and spouses. They are all trying to be better. My office and school and higher education is filled with people who are generally good human beings trying to be better at something, trying to succeed.

The conversation tonight wasn’t just morality, but isn’t that what you hear most days from spiritual leaders? Do this. Don’t do that. Be kind. Follow the golden rule. Do better. Be better. Even corporate America and business educators are suggesting that businesses flourish by becoming agents of world benefit. World benefit – isn’t that what Christians aspire to? Do good? Serve the poor? Care for the earth? Treat each other with kindness (it was, after all, World Kindness Day yesterday)?

Which brings me back to an even bigger question than why spiritual leaders… why God? Who needs him, anyway, now that world leaders and business educators and philosophers have reasoned out the best ways to live? They are preaching the same gospel, aren’t they?

As we hashed out the ways our words affect other people tonight at house church I imagined the same conversation taking place in my secular work environment. It was nearly the same, minus a few Bible verse references.

Except for this one thing: Grace.

Grace—an undeserved gift that releases us from slavery to “do good things” and delivers us into “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” This love frees the spirit from the burden to perform, the burden of guilt, the burden of fear. It is rooted in relationship. It filters the muddy waters. It strengthens and encourages and emboldens because we know there is a force that is stronger than our imperfections who is working in and through us for wholeness, for completeness. It is compassion in a hurricane of brokenness and disease. It is freedom from the hells we have been given and the hells we’ve made for ourselves, in addictions, in poverty, in selfishness, in greed. It illuminates so we can see how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. It resides in us through the Holy Spirit as compass. It clarifies, purifies, mends, heals, hones, hammers, and polishes. Because it is unearned by definition it does not consider your qualifications or your past failures; grace loves and loves and loves, all day long, whether I take it or not, whether I recognize it or not, whether I call it “Jesus” or “God” or not, it shows up in truth, it shows up in beauty, it shows up as forgiveness, it shows up all over the place.

Spiritual leaders, then, shouldn’t be morality instructors. Even though the internet loves the “ten ways” lists, and people love to know how to become better people, the priests and rabbis might do better to stop telling people how to be better. Spiritual leaders should be more like scientists who observe and announce, “Look! Look what I found!” or maybe like poets who ponder and write, “I saw this small thing in the world and look how full of meaning it is,” or maybe they should be like stargazers who point to the heavens and declare, “There, isn’t that marvelous?” Spiritual leaders should say, “Let me show you grace. Here it is. Here it is. Here it is again. This is grace. This is love. This is Christ. This is God. Here is the Father. Here is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. Here they are again, ever-present, everlasting, loving you forever and ever and ever, loving you even after you screwed up, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ even in your attempts to earn it, loving you, beautiful you, stunning you, masterpiece you, God loves you. That’s it. That’s all.”

Maybe I’ll grant the spiritual leader this one final benediction, “Now act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” We don’t need the priest who preaches morality. We need the priest who points to the heavens and says, “God. Have you seen this? Have you seen this grace? Have you seen this love?”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Things Beyond My Control

I am writing this in Word on my laptop in the living room because of things that are beyond my immediate control.

A week or so ago, the buzzing from the doorbell xylophone in the hallway at our new home began buzzing so persistently and at a gradually increasing buzz rate that Brandon decided to flip the breaker for the hallway, disconnect the doorbell, cap the electric wires, and screw a plastic cap over the top. This was all completed without any electric shock and with my flashlight holding assistance, and we are all a hair less insane for it. Not to mention quite impressed with Brandon’s handy-man-ness.

However, the cable internet box is on the same electric line, apparently, and when it turned back on, something happened. I don’t know what. Something. I can no longer connect to the wireless on this laptop. Don’t start with your internet-guru recommendations for powering down the box and counting to five and then to ten and then if that doesn’t work, 30, or removing the saved network and resetting the blah-dee-blah so that the yippity-do can reset… I tried all of that already. And, it’s only this computer. This network. My phone, the other wireless devices in the house, other laptops in the house, they all connect. And, I took this wireless-less laptop with me out of town last weekend and guess what. It connected to THAT wireless network.

Now, back on my home turf, there it is. The “wireless networks are available” signal with the optimistic gold star over a gray set of internet connectivity stairs. But, no.

My husband found this little thing called an “Ethernet” cord that connects the computer to the router. Ta-da! Wired network. Except that the router or modem or whatever is sitting on our piano and the cord is only three feet long, so in order to connect to the internet I have to sit on the floor by the piano. This is what the internet calls a first-world problem.

So I am sitting on the couch in the family room without internet access writing this blog post in Microsoft Word, because of things beyond my immediate control.

I like control. I like to do things a certain way because I know I will do things right and efficiently and in the time I want to have them done. I’m not sure you are aware, but this is not the best attribute for team building in a workplace (or family or marriage or church or friendship or life), and I’ve fought this personality trait for years. The “I’ll just do it myself” mentality is a dripping poison toward breakdown with a possible side effect of insanity and in some cases, a slow and lonesome death. It’s best to monitor yourself for symptoms daily in order to avoid the onset of a serious episode.

So I’ve been watching for things beyond my immediate control lately, things like the slowdown at the same places on Interstate 77 every morning, or where the lane ends heading southbound every evening, also the on-ramp at I-90 and Chester, and the driver(s) in the left-hand lane that belong in the right-hand lane. They are all beyond my control. The slowdowns, the traffic jams, the crawl toward home, the turn signal driver sitting in the ended-lane after whizzing by at 90… all beyond my control.

And then there’s the late meeting, the pack of undergrads walking slow in front of me, the cars that breeze through the crosswalk, all beyond my control, there’s the rain and the time change and the sudden virus attack and the fever and the chills, there’s the husband who has other priorities than laundry, there’s the children with their homework and their reading and their games and their practices, the children who want me always, the car that needs gas to go on the highway, the child who is not sleepy and is singing, all beyond my control.

When things are beyond my control, my instinct is to wrestle them into submission. “I’ll just do it,” I think, and I finagle maneuvers that will advance me through rush-hour traffic at the expense of my nerves and possibly someone’s fender (or middle finger). I rearrange traffic patterns. I consider edging my front end out into lane-ending traffic so to block the cheaters. I pray for the souls of the sinning Honda drivers of the world with their inconsiderate attempts to bypass the rest of us—graceful and humble—who have all waited our turn to get on the southbound ramp like good citizens of traffic land.

You wouldn’t believe how effective this is(n’t).

I was reminded last week that when we are so focused on the problem, we often miss the more creative solution and innovative opportunity that exist beyond the box. Focusing on the things that are beyond my control only reminds me over and over again how out of control I am. I have no control. Almost all of the time circumstances are beyond my control.

I think I spent most of last week staring at this problem: things are out of my control. I cannot see my old friends. I cannot go on a date with my husband. I cannot make the traffic go faster. I cannot make new friends because I do not have time to see my children. I cannot write because I need to read. I cannot read because I need to see my husband. I cannot see my husband because he is working. I am working. I am driving a long way to work. I am stuck in traffic. I am stuck in traffic. My wireless internet is not working on my laptop. Things are beyond my immediate control.

Sigh. This is a lousy place to stay. This loop, this constant hamster wheel, this anxiety spinning circus, I’m pretty sure that short-circuited my immune system and landed me in bed Saturday night for fifteen hours after two days at a writers conference. I could hear God saying, “How’s that ‘I’ll just do it’ attitude working for you now?” as I texted my mom and mother-in-law to watch the kids for one more night, as I pulled off the highway to park in a rest area and sleep for twenty minutes before finishing my drive. How’s that working for ya?

Once you stop staring at the problem and accept these circumstances—these completely immediately uncontrollable circumstances—real-life solutions start to materialize. Hey, did you know that time actually speeds up when you talk to your mom on the phone for your morning commute, and it works going home, too, with a friend you haven’t spoken with in months? Did you know that the other drivers on the road kind of disappear when you are so engrossed in a phone conversation or radio show, and you drive and drive and suddenly, you are pressing the garage door opener and saying, “Hey, I gotta run, I’m home already”? Did you know that when the time is compressed with your family into two-and-a-half hour blocks it distills stronger, its quality is sometimes better, purer under pressure, each second of Sorry or dinner or living room yoga or Harry Potter kind of sacred, kind of holy?

I wouldn’t have known these things except that I stopped staring at the problem. Do you know what looped in my head most of last week as well? I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon with a side dose of Why-doesn’t-he-do-this-Why-won’t-he-say-that? You can guess how productive those two navel-gazing loops were. But when I stepped out of the hamster wheel and said, “I miss you,” when we started to communicate again about date night and commiserating schedules and began to plan for the future (see “possibilities,” see “innovation,” see “creativity”), suddenly there was love again.

Staring at the problem breeds despair. Looking beyond the problem fosters hope.

Did you know that you can write a lot more with a lot less distractions when you are writing on a computer that doesn’t have an internet connection?