God Always Wins – And So Does Love

Holy Saturday, a day in between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. Some fill it with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood –  making Easter Snow-bunnies – others just go about the day as if it were any other Saturday –  household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we were lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work.

While I have several of these non-celebratory doings on my to-do list today, I can’t get past how the suspended feeling this day evokes so markedly reflects how I have been living my life the past year. The 2 years leading up to today have been the most emotionally wrought time of my life – with more grief than I thought possible.  The deaths of my parents – whose love accompanied me all the days of my life even before I took my first breath – left me casting about – alone and unsure of my foundation. That I would also face the death of a relationship that changed the course of my life and showed me how wonderful and painful love can be, left me hardened and shamefully bitter. While the immensity of the pain has waned, the aftermath of bitterness remains. Never in my life would I have associated the word bitter with the essence of who I am. But as I sit here reflecting on The Cross, I am well aware of the darkness I have allowed into my life of late.

I have faced the bitter cold of winter with verve and relished the bitterness of a strong cup of coffee, but I never, ever would have allowed bitterness to find its way into my life in times past and yet somehow it has made a home for itself in my heart. Anyone who has quaffed their morning thirst with a bitter jolt of coffee knows that bitterness has staying power –  it will stay with you no matter how you try to mask it. Despite my attempts to fill my life with diversions, flavor, busyness –  that bitterness has lingered.

I have seen glimpses of my former self – the strong, joyful, sentimental, independent, naïve, happy as a lark child of God from time to time – but inevitably the sweetness fades and the bitterness once again grips me and I am left wondering if I will ever allow myself to love deeply and be loved again.

Yet, if I let bitterness win, then I have no business reflecting on the Cross today. This bitterness is a selfish gift from darkness, one that encourages self-absorption, self-preservation, selfishness. It comforts me with a solitude of sadness and impassable independence. It eats away a life that is precious to God and denies His power to redeem and restore. It scoffs at the opportunities of today and the promises of tomorrow. It destroys faith and drowns hope.

But I am a Child of God. I AM a Child of God! This bitterness will not have the last word. God did not rescue me from the grips of death 24 years ago to spend however many precious days I have in this admittedly broken but beautiful world absorbed by bitterness and selfishness. As I have moved through Lent and journeyed to the Cross this last week, I have felt both numb and alive. Numbed by the overwhelming battle for my heart going on inside of me and alive because I know who is winning!!

God always wins – always! The outcome is His alone and this Easter I am once again relinquishing my life to Him – totally and uncompromisingly.  Bitterness be gone! I am letting go of you – and letting go of the pain that brought you into my heart.  I am letting forgiveness move in and embracing the same Easter joy I felt 2 years ago when I laid my mother to rest on Good Friday and celebrated with great joy her new life on Easter Sunday. While God did not promise me an easy road ahead that day, and the following days and months were anything but, He did promise that He would never leave me. I somehow lost sight of that. It is easy to do when you shutter yourself away and allow darkness and bitterness a place to stay.

With God, what have I to fear? He created us to love one another. It is the way of His kingdom on earth.  To love is to live in His light. Imperfectly. Deeply. With compassion. With abandon. This Easter I am embracing life anew in His Light and in His Love.

God always wins and so does love.

Happy Easter!

Jesus said- “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” – John 15: 9-17

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Lead Me Lord, and I Will Shine Your Light

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

~ Psalm 51: 10-12

It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40-day journey to the cross; a time of awakening to the temporal nature of this life on earth and to the life everlasting. For me, this is a day for reflection on my mortality and my brokenness, and  for grieving my sins.  I strive to live a life worthy of the divine love and grace of our heavenly father and yet, I know I miss the mark.

Too often my focus is inward on the things of life that are not going according to my plan. Too often I do not turn the other cheek but hold spite in my heart instead. Too often I take each day “as it comes” and “for what it is” rather than giving thanks for each day that I have. Too often I allow my struggles to overwhelm my spirit and turn me to the darkness of doubt rather than trusting in the ways of our Lord and standing strong with an armor of faith.

As I struggle to understand the purpose of my Dad’s present suffering, watching this once sharp, vibrant man be reduced to a shell of confusion and despondency, I find myself  filled with doubt in the plans the Lord has for this faithful man. My heart questions just how merciful this “loving, grace-filled” Lord that I strive to live for is. This brings me to shame as someone who is studying to one day lead others to this same divine, loving, and merciful Lord.

Tonight, symbolic ashes born from the time before our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection will mark my forehead.  They will remind me that I am dusty. That like the ashes that stain my skin with the sign of the cross, I will one day be carried away in the wind and fire just as my mother was. They will cause me to ask myself what I am doing with the time that I have, however temporary, here on earth? How will I impact others. When He calls me, am I a willing spirit?

These ashes are also symbolic of the crosses we bear. They are not  worn out of shame, but rather, as signs of our acceptance that the struggles we endure are a part of our own journey to the cross.   The ashes remind me that my dusty-ness  is only temporary – that through my faith in Him, I will one day be made perfect.

In the meantime, our Lord does not want our crosses  – our struggles, our burdens, our imperfections – to define us. Rather, it is through those very crosses that our Lord’s grace and abiding love shines through.

Indeed, it was through my greatest struggle, one in which I laying dying to life that I found  new life in the Lord. He called me back to Him through my cross and gave me new life.

For I was dying… and He gave me life.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  

~2 Corinthians  5:17-21

 

Now,  He calls me, in all my brokenness, doubts, questions, and human failings  to shine His light to others as they journey to Him.

Lead me Lord. My spirit is willing and I will shine your light.

Shining Light in the Dust

 

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 “through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed;  sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:8-10

Lead me Lord,  and I will shine your light.

I spent the evening reflecting on my mortality, reflecting on my brokenness, and grieving my imperfections. It is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day journey to the cross; to death in this world; and to life everlasting.

Ashes born from the time before His resurrection mark my forehead. Symbolic of the crosses we bear are born not with shame, but with an acceptance that this yoke upon our shoulders, this struggle we face endure – is a part of our own journey to the cross and to the  dust from where we came. A symbol that our dustiness is only temporary – in faith we one day be made perfect

Our Lord does not want our crosses- our struggles, our burdens, our imperfections – to define us. Rather it is through those very crosses that our Lord’s grace and abiding love shines through.

Indeed, it was through my greatest struggle, one in which I laying dying to life that I found  new life in the Lord. He called me back to Him through my cross and gave me  new life. Now,  He calls me  to shine His light to others as they journey to Him.

For I was dying… and He gave me life.

Lead me Lord,  and I will shine your light.