Who am I to stand in God’s way?

A sermon preached on Acts 11: 1-18, on April 24, 2016, at Wesley Memorial UMC.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

It’s always fun to preach on a passage full of the word “circumcision.”

But, let me quickly add, that it could be almost any word. The point in mentioning circumcision here is not to see how uncomfortable the pastor or the people will become during the sermon. The point is this: there’s a way we do things around here.

In this passage from Acts we are at the cusp of changes the disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t expecting. At this point, almost everyone who followed Jesus was Jewish. For them, this Jesus stuff wasn’t a casting off of Judaism but the next step in their faith journeys. It follows that the norm for men in the community was still circumcision. All Jewish baby boys went through this religious ceremony and there was no reason to expect that would change. After all, Jesus was also a Jewish man and circumcised.

But at this point in the story, the radical gospel message lands on the fertile soil of other people from other backgrounds. The Holy Spirit Jesus promised whooshes into locked rooms and Gentile hearts and rustles up new followers without asking permission or checking to see who’s a card-carrying Jew.

Those are the first three verses of our passage from Acts: Throughout Judea even the Gentiles are beginning to hear and believe. So Peter is interrogated when he gets to Jerusalem – the seat of religious authority – by “the circumcised believers.” These Jewish Christ-followers at home in the seat of religious power and tradition have a few questions for Peter. They accuse him of going into the homes of the uncircumcised and then eating with them. Explain that! they say. Explain to us how you can get all tangled up with these non-Jewish people, going so far as to be received into their homes and eat at their tables!

Right up there next to circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity were the Jewish dietary laws dictating what was clean and unclean. Other people didn’t keep these laws, so eating with them, in their “unclean” kitchens, sharing their strange and “unclean” foods, was outside the bounds. You’ll remember it’s one of the things people commented on the most when taking offense at Jesus’ behavior – we even preserve the notion of his outlandish behavior in our Communion liturgies, remarking each time we feast that he “ate with sinners.”

Starting with verse four, we’re told Peter offered his explanation “step-by-step.” He tells the Jewish critics that he was praying in Joppa and had a dream, a vision. He saw a large sheet lowered down from the heavens and on the sheet all sorts of animals were depicted – wild beasts and birds and reptiles and four-legged animals of all types. And a voice told him to Get up, kill, and eat! Being a good Jewish boy, Peter snapped back, Absolutely not! I know what’s unclean and I don’t eat things like that – never!

You may remember Peter usually needs the reinforcement of a threefold repetition. The night Jesus was betrayed, he is asked three times if he used to hang out with Jesus and three times he says Absolutely not! Never seen that guy! Two weeks ago in our readings, Peter enjoys a fish breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ and three times Christ asks if Peter loves him and then, three times, commands Peter to feed his sheep (John 18: 15-27; John 21: 1-19).

Three times is a thing with Peter.

So, as with those previous stories, here staring at the sheet of various and wild and unclean animals, the Voice tells Peter three times to eat the things he sees in the vision. Never consider unclean what God has made pure (v.9), it says, then the sheet is pulled back up out of sight into heaven.

In the next moment, there’s a knock on the door. Peter finds messengers from the Gentile Cornelius and, as Peter tells it, The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. When he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Cornelius shares his own dream-message, when an angel told him to send for Peter so that Peter could tell him and the entire household how to be saved.

So Peter starts to share the gospel in this stranger’s house. And the craziest thing happened, he tells the Jerusalem rule-following crowd of critics (vv.15-17): “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift [God] gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

When the crowd of believers and skeptics hear this, they back off. They give praise to God for this amazing news – and, they conclude that God is changing Gentile hearts and lives (just like their own hearts and lives) so that they might have new life, too.

Some hearts and minds were changed and some rules broken and released that day. But it’s going to take another four chapters in Acts before these early Christians stop worrying about circumcision as a prerequisite for joining the Christ-followers. Some things don’t change all at once, but in fits and starts.

Some habits die hard.

I’m sure you can think of church arguments in your lifetime about who we eat and spend time with, about who’s truly welcome in our sanctuaries and our communities and who needs to jump another hoop, show they really mean it, look more like those of us who are already at home in religious places and traditions.

What I find puzzling is not that we argue or come at something from different angles. What I find puzzling is when we fail to acknowledge we’ve done this since the very beginning. With the hot breath of the Holy Spirit still warm on the backs of our necks, we were drawing dividing lines to determine who’s on which side. And… we shared stories of surprise and strange visions. We’ve listened, changed our made-up minds, opened wide our doors, praised God for the new vision.

If God gives them the same gift God gives us who already believe in Christ, then who am I? Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Here’s the Good News: it’s not up to us. “The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision…” (Preaching Helps at GBOD online). We aren’t the gatekeepers. We’re invited guests who’ve been given the mandate of love. We’re encouraged to look for the Spirit of God rustling up disciples we weren’t expecting. We’re allowed and expected to invite them into the fold, to feed those sister and brother sheep, to eat strange foods from strange other traditions along with them.

God does not seem to be recruiting bouncers to keep out the undesirables. In fact, God seems to like to bring home new brothers and sisters from prison and shelters and recovery programs. God seems to want a big family – from east and west, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poor and rich, mentally ill and mentally well, minimum wage earners and retired millionaires, those who slept peacefully last night and those who were kept awake with worry or loneliness…

Little things like who eats what and who’s been circumcised and who’s memorized scripture and who uses which bathroom and who is married to whom don’t seem to count with God the way we sometimes still try to make them count when we forget and think we are the ones in charge.

God is creating a family and the invitation is open. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

That’s the way we do things around here. Don’t forget it.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit: “Sheep blocking way at Miranjani top,” © 2014 by Naryneroz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Seashore

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

My brother and I called the canal at the end of our street “The Seashore.” When Topology Magazine announced its issue focused on water, The Seashore came flooding back into my memory after a long absence. I wrote this reflection on that place and the cusp between childhood and adolescence, land and water. I hope you’ll click over and take a look.

The exuberance of forsythia

forsythia.c2012_b.eckstein

I have friends who hate forsythia. Detest it. Feel the need to proclaim their disdain on social media. For all I know, they probably spit on the bushes when they walk by them. I’ve never tried to plant or tend it so maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it’s invasive or threatening to other nearby plants. I’m trying to be generous here: maybe they have good reasons for spending their energy hating a plant.

As for me, I delight in it. When we have enough warmish spring days in a row, it peeks its head out with bright – practically neon – yellow blooms, stark against its long, woody, still leafless stems. Everything else in sight – even the early showstoppers like Bradford Pears and cherry trees – is still tucked in for winter and biding its time, when forsythia shows up early to the party, wearing an outlandish hat and too much lipstick, carrying a game of Twister, hollering, “Let’s party!”

In addition to its sheer proclamation of color, I love the way forsythia branches jut out in crazy, spiky, improbable, irrepressible angles, the plant world’s version of the way Elaine used to dance on Seinfeld. It says, This is how I grow, damn it. Woo hoo! It’s spring! I love the way it naturally grows, untamed, wild, exuberant. It pains me to drive past a lawn where someone has taken matters into his own hands, trimming this marvelous beauty into symmetrical bland balls. Forsythia trimmed like this is merely a round bush with a haze of yellow, a herald with his mouth duct-taped so his announcement is garbled. When I see forsythia reined in this way, it reminds me of women who go too far in plucking their eyebrows. Like eyebrows, which on occasion can be too unruly and need a wee bit of help, I understand forsythia requires just a bit – but not too much – pruning help from a restrained gardener, to help it grow into its natural shape without becoming overgrown. Last year’s efforts paying off in early spring blooms; restraint flowering into exuberance.

I’m writing this in the fullness of Holy Week, which follows a fantastic and full weekend of hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber’s visit to Charlottesville, which follows a fantastic and full week of traveling to the Navajo Nation with students on an interfaith service trip. It’s been non-stop lately and I know I’m not the only one.

In the midst of this, the sheer timely gift of forsythia. Something we don’t have to create or remind or schedule, something beautiful that just shows up on time. Something lively, bright, festive, and over-the-top enthusiastic. Something that knows what time it is even when we want to stick our heads back under the covers for another month. Something that simply is – unmanaged, unchosen, uncomplicated beauty. In a leafless, weary world: a gorgeous, energetic, reliable gift of bursting bright beauty.

 

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photo credit: “Forsythia,” © 2012 by Barbara Eckstein, CC BY 2.0

Lax Lent

catholic family ash wed_c2014_rubydw

When, in my adult life, I first heard church folks start talking about “taking on” something for Lent rather than “giving up” something, I thought I would lose it.

I don’t remember observing Ash Wednesday until high school or giving up something for Lent until college. I was still barely getting the hang of any of that when “taking on” became the new “giving up,” but what annoyed me about the change in terms wasn’t only a novice’s frustration. I didn’t like the tone. As in, Giving up is so last Lent. Or, as in, Getting rid of distractions from God and hunger for that which isn’t God, is not enough. Making room in your life to feel that hunger is not enough. You need to do something, too.

I don’t care what anyone else does or does not do for Lent. Really. It’s not up to me to approve and I only care in the sense that a friend or neighbor might need help and encouragement in sticking to their spiritual discipline. Most of the time I don’t share with my students what my own Lenten discipline is, sometimes because it takes me a couple of weeks into Lent to decide, sometimes because it’s too private, but I try to offer them suggestions for their own observances. I try to crack open the ideas we have about it so they can meet God in the strange and wondrous places God’s waiting this year.

This is my favorite Lenten suggestion so far this year: Don’t worry about reading the Bible. And don’t start a mammoth Bible-in-one-year-OK-go-Genesis-page-1 reading plan. Start with setting aside a time and a place – even if you end up reading Twitter during that time. It comes from a colleague’s observations of a bodybuilder, who encourages people to just start going to the gym, even if they only read a magazine once they get there. Making room for the new habit of going to the gym (or daily Bible reading) is the most important part. The rest will come. God will bring it, in the space you hold open.

Why aren’t there more suggestions like this in Christian spiritual life together? Well, because many of us decide to “take on” an hour a day at the gym or “give up” sweets, as if Lent is a season meant for massive self-improvement projects. First lesson: if we could improve ourselves by ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus.

Why aren’t there more suggestions like this? Because we don’t believe fervently, deeply, desperately enough in the grace we are already swimming in. Because, no matter how many times we encounter it, the suggestion that resting in God’s presence is prayer enough (without the laundry list wordy prayers, without doing anything else) feels like getting away with something. When I tell students that if they happen to doze off while trying out centering prayer, God will understand and that, maybe, those moments of rest in their sleep-deprived lives could be gifts from God, they humor me. But I don’t think they believe me.

Our toxic culture does not know what to do with space except fill it up with the closest thing to hand. Our nervous, frenzied souls do know what to do with space – but they need encouragement, periods of detox, reintroduction to their natural habitats.

The main reason I resist the “taking on” language is context. The only people I hear talking about this are people who are already too busy, self-critical, and fearful of not measuring up: fast-paced professional people, overcommitted pastors, and worn-thin ambitious college students who already think it’s all up to them. In these contexts, “taking on” is poison – even taking on good and worthy and disciple-making things like visiting prisoners and feeding the homeless. I’m not saying never to engage in those ministries. I’m just saying, if you are the type who is always measuring and always coming up short, no matter how hard you strive and plan and organize and visionboard, maybe this year give space a try. Make your resistance training be the effort it takes not to fill up the time and place you want to reserve for God, to rest in God’s presence. That’s all.

I know this is making some of you itch. Bear with me. Try trusting that even if you think it’s unrepentantly lax, God can meet you in the space of “nothingness” and redeem your “lack.” What have you got to lose?

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Here’s a previous reflection on Lent, including a few other suggestions for unconventional observances.

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photo credit: “Catholic Family Ash Wednesday,” © 2014 by RubyDW, CC BY 2.0

Leftovers and Champagne

champagne for all_meathead movers_sa2.0_c2012

Yes, that’s right. It says “meathead” right there on the picture.

We have a dry erase board on our refrigerator, where I write our menu for the week. Last week, with plans to cook several other nights and plans to stay in on New Year’s Eve, I wrote “leftovers and champagne” in the dinner spot for that night. It represented the perfect combination of industry and relaxation – cook enough on other evenings so that dinner won’t be a production and we can just sip and enjoy.

All week when I passed that reminder I felt clever and satisfied. “Leftovers and champagne” seems almost a lifestyle statement, beyond New Year’s Eve. Be simple and frugal in some places and splurge in others. Be down to earth and no frills, but with an occasional side of frills. Be willing to combine things that aren’t normally thrown together…I could go on, mining the poetry and deeper meaning of my dry erase title-lifestyle.

But I won’t. At least, I won’t be quite as satisfied and smug about it as I tell you how the meaning morphed.

This morning in the pool, I started to wonder if God was drowning me again. I was annoyed at the many schedule changes and inconveniences during winter break, forcing me to go to the campus pool I don’t like, and to find a half-lane to squeeze into in the whopping four lanes leftover after the swim team takes all the others. I was annoyed that things like that still annoy me, even when I can see how small, fleeting, and ridiculous they are. I was feeling stressed out by the unintelligible emails I was receiving from our ministry’s web host and the glaring error message I found when I tried to visit the website earlier this morning. I was mad at myself for running a yellow-then-red light on the way to the bad gym’s ridiculous hours and getting a ticket for it. And I was feeling anxious, that chest-tightening short-breathed worry that’s never any fun and makes swimming notably more difficult.

As I swam, I noted the annoyances and my annoyed posture in response to them. I mentally calculated the days of the month in case I could determine whether any of the anxiety was hormonal, in addition to the situational variety. I kept swimming. I acknowledged how most often, if I’m honest, I want to feel good and have an easy time of it. I felt myself resisting the anxiety and frustration of the morning. Go away! Everything about me was saying No! to all of it.

Suddenly I remembered a time of deep grief after a hard break up, the first time I’d countered loss with compassion and patience rather than anger. In my twenties, my go-to method for break up recovery was to get pissed off, catalogue all the grievances, and eventually convince myself he’d been a jerk anyway. But after this break up in my mid-thirties, I was sad, not angry. And I didn’t want or need to get angry. For the first time, I knew it wouldn’t help me or change the situation. So whenever the sadness welled up and threatened to overwhelm me, I just said to it, sometimes aloud, I see you. I didn’t indulge it, but I didn’t fight it either. I let myself sit with it and, eventually, I could ride out the feelings, which approached and receded like waves.

No, I didn’t become beatifically calm and beautiful as I glided through the pool and glowed from within.

But I kept swimming. I thought about Job and how I don’t really believe God puts obstacles and tests in our way to make us stronger/more faithful/thankful/obedient/whatever, but how I do think God is ready and willing to show us something better and healing in every single moment, no matter where and how we find ourselves. I didn’t get to the I see you stage in the pool, but I tried to stop feeding the beast. I swam and thought about the school crossing guard who was a half block away when the police officer stopped me this morning. The cop was white (and so am I). The crossing guard was black. She looked over several times while I was stopped there, waiting for my ticket. I swam and wondered if she’d been keeping an eye out and how the whole thing might have felt less annoying and a lot more threatening if I was black, too. I thought about my momentarily poor driving behavior, which resulted in a whiny rant and some inconvenience, but not my arrest or worse.

I stopped to squint at the large digital clock. Not enough time for the final 20 laps I was hoping to do. So I did 10 more and didn’t castigate myself for missing the mark.

Afterwards I checked my phone, and the emergency help email I’d sent our tech support alumnus had been answered and the website was back up. I texted my husband about the ticket. I drove home more carefully. I’d been feeling alone and anxious all morning but when I emailed and texted, help came. When I reached out, someone was there to reach back.

I would rather have written about being down to earth with occasional frills thrown in – so clever! I would rather not divulge what a seething mess of vulnerability and bad attitude I am sometimes. But if God can work with this, then who am I to complain or cover? The truth is, it’s New Year’s Eve every day, the same old familiar leftovers sitting right there on the microwave-hot plate, next to the champagne flutes. Futile, bratty splashing and self-centeredness, paired with a robust grace.

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photo credit: “Champagne for All,” © 2012 by Meathead Movers, CC BY-SA 2.0

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights

My neighbors want me to keep Christ in Christmas

I should start by saying we don’t know many of our neighbors. There’s the one I refer to as The Encroacher for his wild disregard for property lines, and there are the seemingly nice ones across the street who I’ve spoken two twice since they moved in, once when I delivered a welcome cake and the second time when we were all out shoveling snow last winter. There are a few I know by sight from the pool and there’s my accountant-neighbor who I actually look forward to seeing each tax season. Overall, not a great track record for someone who’s supposed to be familiar with loving neighbors.

Keep Christ in Christmas lighted message

It’s bigger and brighter than it seems from this picture I took with my phone.

I do not know the neighbors with the new Christmas lights, the ones who made a large Christmas tree out of lights and stationed it so it shines through their back woods and directly at the main road into the neighborhood. You can’t miss it. When it showed up last week I enjoyed the novelty of the giant lit tree in the midst of the real bare winter trunks, and it was a nice surprise, to be greeted through the woods like that.

After a couple nights away, I drove back into the neighborhood in the dark last night and it was suddenly apparent which neighbors had been busy putting up their lights and decorations while we were gone. I love exterior Christmas lights, so I drove slowly and took in the new splendor of the neighborhood – and I saw that the Christmas tree neighbors had added to their message. They’ve staked out more ground in the woods and you can see from the picture that they want me to keep Christ in Christmas. (I suppose it’s possible they want me to keep a cross in a tree, but I’m going with the simplest explanation being the most likely.)

The woods were brighter. There were more lights to catch my eye on the drive through the neighborhood. I don’t exactly disagree with their message. So why did I struggle to like their full message as much as I’d liked the tree on its own?

I think my trouble with it has to do with audience. If I went to worship and the sermon was about “keeping Christ in Christmas” I’d listen attentively and hopefully for what that might mean in the context of our gathered Christian community. If I met a friend for coffee and he mentioned some specific ways he was attempting to “keep Christ in Christmas,” I’d want to know where he was coming from and what I might glean for myself from his experiences of the season and his personal devotion. In my neighborhood, where most of us don’t know one another well and where we can safely assume we aren’t all Christian, is a prominent drive-by “keep Christ in Christmas” message the best, most faithful way for a Christian to greet her neighbors?

Christmas display of lights

I’m thankful for this neighbor’s candy canes and reindeer.

What if Christ was never in Christmas for some of our neighbors, who might be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu – but who might still decorate their homes in lights at this dark time of year and who might even participate in some of our cultural Christmas traditions? What about the cultural Christians or former/lapsed Christians who also know this as a special time of year, who put up lights and experience holy longing, though they may be estranged from God or religious community right now?   As Christians, is our best seasonal greeting an indiscriminate reminder to observe a religious tradition that not everyone is part of? Obviously, I don’t think so. I would have preferred just the lit tree. I would have even been fine with a message like “Christ’s light shines in the darkness” – biblical and a statement of faith for the person making it rather than a correction for everyone else.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but Christians don’t have a lock on celebrating all he ushers into this broken world. If my Muslim neighbor can demonstrate this with a hug or my non-religious neighbor with festive seasonal lights that don’t have much to do with John’s warnings or Mary’s song, I’m OK with that. In church, we can remind ourselves all we want to why we do all this each December. In the world, I wish we’d preach less and open ourselves more to seeing the lights in our neighbors’ yards. We have never been able to contain Christ, thank God, and we might be surprised by how Christ does indeed shine, even without his name in lights.

Beginnings. Advent.

mitten Advent calendar at hearth

The beginnings of things are sometimes hard to discern, as they are happening. Sometimes we experience that lightening bolt of recognition, a sudden, stark contrast between then and now, seeing in a stranger’s face the one we are beginning to love in that same moment. More often, we realize in the midst of things that they’ve already begun, something new seeping into the familiar terrain, changing the texture like steady gentle rain saturating dry ground. What was hard and dusty becomes damp and spongy, the moment of change imperceptible.

Advent doesn’t officially begin until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but if you are paying attention to the lectionary you’ll notice the end of one Christian liturgical year and the beginning of the next seep into one another over several weeks before Advent. There are anxious and bored people who concoct “wars” regarding Christmas: that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way it can be hard to tell where we are in the circle of the year, how professing Christ as Lord of all sounds a lot like talking about his second coming. I mean to point out how, when we are busy with lines in the sand between Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas retail displays, the bareness of winter arrives in the midst of falling colored leaves and pumpkins, gratitude arises weeks before and after Thanksgiving Thursday, and the practice of waiting opens into the necessary miracle of an unclenched heart, making enough breathing space for today.

It’s the space that interests me most. No room in the inn. Census cities full of crowds. Sidewalks bustling, full social calendars, and long lines at the register, where everyone peers down into cell phones while they wait. Even the space in Mary’s day to allow time in solitude for reading before Gabriel shows up. More obviously, the literal space she makes in her own body to carry another body for most of a year. I imagine that was good practice for making space as her son grew up into exactly who she’d been told he would be, and more than she could have conceived.

It’s the space I need most right now, and pray for. The downside of being an accomplished scheduler is any empty space looks like it needs an agenda. I am ready for the unclenching of heart and time, the strangeness of open anticipation, the space for something wholey new and holy to be born. I am ready to lay off organizing my days and to experience making room in myself to receive the gift God wants to give. I’m OK with being pregnant a while, giving attention to simple, daily patterns of eating and sleeping, while God works out the rest.

What if this is the way Advent comes? What if this slow and simple longing for what’s missing in my life is the seed God’s ready to water and tend, if I leave enough room and let myself be tended? This is not a plea against the marketplace or holiday gatherings or Christmas cantatas. It’s a simple prayer, reminding myself that I’m not God, that I need God, and that I’m ready (again) to let God be God.

The carpenter from Nazareth knew long workdays, sweaty lunch breaks, lazy coworkers, small paychecks…delicious dinners, restful sleep, the warmth of family, healing touch. The incarnation means there is nothing secular anymore. No place to hide from God. No part of life God-in-Christ is not intimately familiar with, in human form. We miss this all the time, like most people missed the lowly birth of God into this world. It would have been easy to go on about your census business in Bethlehem the next day, unchanged. Even for the wise travelers who recognized something had happened, did they know what to do with it those thirty years the baby took to grow up and take on his ministry? It’s too easy to hold our breath through “the weeks leading up to,” through shopping lists, long workdays, countdown to vacation, advance baking – as if all of that doesn’t hold the potential for incarnated holiness, too.

Seeping-in texts, festive foods, special soundtracks, candlelight at church and at home. Space looks like these, too, like ordinary spaces and paces transformed, like flickering lights in the yard. Holiness has not escaped the everyday. It’s shining right through the middle of it. If we remind ourselves earlier than normal and linger longer in the music and lights, so be it.

When holiness is harder to see – as it has been this week and too many angry, violent weeks – or, when we forget how beautiful and ordinary and accessible it is, it helps to make a point of seeing and celebrating it. Unmistakably. Longer and larger than a season itself can hold. Until, without quite knowing when the change occurred, our dry-cracked hearts are drenched with new rain.

Hidden

Before I even started this blog, I wrote a few pieces for an online publication called catapult. The thoughtful themes and diversity of voices was an appealing place to begin writing for a broader audience.

Topology is a brand new magazine from the folks who used to put out catapult and they are running a few “throwback” pieces from the old magazine this fall.

This month they are featuring a piece I wrote in 2013 about living on the margins as a family dealing with autism. I hope you’ll click over and take a look.

Expectations Met

Blaha_1024px-Serpentine_wall_UVa_daffodils_c2010

What did your parents tell you to look for or look out for when you headed to college? What are you telling your own kids as they leave home? What we say – and don’t say – matters.

Do you know what your church says about campus ministry? What’s that – you’ve never heard anyone say anything about campus ministry? Unfortunately, you are not alone on that one. I’ve got a few thoughts about this, over at the blog for the National Campus Ministry Association.

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photo credit: “Daffodils and serpentine wall,” © 2010 by Karen Blaha, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Grace on the porch

I’m a sucker for a good porch. It’s possible I could write my spiritual autobiography traced through porches I’ve known and loved, from my grandparents’ painted cement slab porch where we ate tomato sandwiches in summer…to the rustic framed Appalachian porch painted with the reminder to “Be still, and know that I am God,” in bold blood red letters hanging over the view…to the wide, wrapping Adirondack refuge of a porch, with nap-assisting furniture and a constant breeze at the lapping edge of the lake… Asked recently for images of God’s grace and presence, I replied in complete honesty, “Porches and Communion.”

So when The Walking Dead decided to pause a while on one of the porch-fronted fancy houses of Alexandria this week during the season’s opening episode, I smiled. [Light spoilers ahead.] They had my attention from the beginning of the scene, where Morgan was perched on the porch steps, tending his walking stick/weapon. This is the first time I can recall any lingering on one of the pretty porches of Alexandria. Mostly folks just stand on them when they are waiting for someone to answer the door.

As Rick and Morgan get reacquainted, Morgan persists in seeing Rick as the man he once knew, back at the start of this whole thing. Rick persists in explaining how he’s not that guy anymore. They’re both a little right and a little wrong. [Early last season, Rick and Tyreese shoveled graves behind the church for their cannibalistic captors, but as this season begins, Rick considers leaving the body of a more recent enemy in the woods to rot. Morgan starts shoveling the grave but Rick doesn’t (until his encounter with the dead man’s son). Are the ethics of The Walking Dead measured by when they stop burying their dead properly?]

In a moment I think they underplayed, Rick offers for Morgan to hold baby Judith. Underplayed, because imagine having been on your own as (we assume) Morgan has been, without any company for all this time, fighting every moment for your life against walkers and the occasional humans with nefarious designs on you. Imagine that as your existence, and then imagine just seeing a baby, much less the wonder and intensity of holding one again. I can’t imagine anyone in that scenario not crying from the relief and hope of that touch. They don’t play it that way but the rest of the scene takes place with Morgan holding one of the most precious and vulnerable parts of Rick’s life.

They’re discussing an incident between Rick and Carter, one of the inexperienced Alexandria men who doesn’t know how to fight and yet doesn’t want to follow Rick’s lead. Rick and Carter just had a showdown where Rick stood over a crumpled Carter, gun pointed at his head, before finally lowering it without shooting. One of the main tensions of the story right now is how unprepared the Alexandrians are for the world as it is now because they haven’t had to fight for survival the way Rick and his crew have. The ethos of Alexandria has been to fortify and stay out of sight, but Rick knows how vulnerable this makes them – and how they don’t even recognize this yet.

Trying to explain his actions and who he is now to Morgan, Rick says, “I wanted to kill him, so it would be easier. So I wouldn’t have to worry about how he could screw up or what stupid thing he’d do next. Because that’s who he is, just somebody who shouldn’t be alive now. I wanted to kill him, but all that hit me and I realized I didn’t have to do it. He doesn’t get it. Somebody like that, they’re going to die no matter what.”

The dumb luck of the naïve and sheltered and the gritty determination and survival skills of experienced fighters amount to the same thing: being alive at this moment. In both groups there are those who shouldn’t be alive, if the world were logical. A defenseless baby, formerly abused women, nerdy super-brains afraid to fight, people who’ve made terrible, hurtful choices, and others who’ve made room for their journeys toward reconciliation and redemption.

That’s how it is with the grace of God, offered lavishly to each of us regardless of merit. None of us deserves to be here or to get a second chance. But here we are, in the midst of an ongoing battle where we are both who we once were and no one like that person anymore. Here we are, out of the jail cell and on the porch, holding something as miraculous as a baby in an apocalypse, and invited to come live inside the house with the family.

 

Time for a big hit

The RevGalBlogPals group sends a weekly email with encouragement, highlights from blogs around the group, and a short article and a prayer for the week at hand.  I wrote this week’s article and prayer (below) on the theme of fall break — for which I am very ready!  I hope it reminds you to enjoy a break soon.

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When my dad was growing up on a tobacco farm in Southside Virginia, the family ritual was to take a mid-morning break right there in the fields. My great-grandfather would say, “I think it’s time for a bit hit,” and that was the cue to sit down for a few minutes for a snack, which was always the same: a Pepsi and a pack of Nabs. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until lunch.

In campus ministry, the first big hit of the year is fall break. We start fast and furious in mid-August and steamroll our way to the third week of Advent, when exams end and my congregation leaves me until the season after Epiphany. It’s startling how much can fit into the first six or so weeks before fall break – and how tired I can be so early in the year, so far from Advent 3.

I have been tempted to use the weekend without my usual preaching gig to get ahead, and then to keep at my desk Monday and Tuesday while the university is a ghost town, to get more things done. Instead, I give myself full permission to be off these precious four days when students are off. My husband and I often take a short trip and indulge in ways we usually don’t, like last year’s ridiculously long naps in a hotel right on the beach. I make no apologies.

The thing about a big hit is you know when you need one. In my ministry and my life, I’m trying to trust that and give myself what I know I need when I need it. I’m constantly surprised at how easy that sounds and how hard I find it to do. So I’m thankful that this weekend the university has called for a big hit and we are pointing the car towards the mountains, with napping, hiking, slow meals, and something bubbly to drink in our very near future. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until Advent.

God of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest, remind us of how we are made in your image. You are not too busy or important to rest and relax, and neither are we. Give us the rest we crave and the fearless hearts we need to accept this. Amen.