Staying with the Pain

September 6, 2016

My entire life has been about trying to make things okay. I planned to go to Harvard when I was eight, thinking that if I did the best thing, the hardest thing, I would be good enough and things would be better. I used to go through J.C. Penny catalogs and plan all the furniture and things I would need for my house some day… my house that would be organized, peaceful, and planned out. I made wedding plans starting around age 10… planning a life that would be built on love, and support, and full of beauty.

My entire life has been about trying to bring about stability, predictability, safety, and peace and I have tried to get there through hard work, determination, and doing all. the. right. things.

I am almost thirty-seven and all the right things have not saved me.

I did the right things professionally, I did all the right things as a parent, and as a partner. I read ALL THE BOOKS. And, at each turn, I have been shocked that things were not easier, more peaceful, and that I was not getting the stable, loving, happy life that I had planned for since I was a small girl.

I have read what I am going to write here a thousand times, and it is interesting how we can know something in our heads for so long and yet it has so very little to do with what goes on in our bodies and souls and at our core.

The pain, in so many ways, comes in trying to escape the pain. It comes from hoping that if we do the right things, and try hard enough, then it will be okay.

As Pema Chodron wisely tells us, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

We try to escape the pain. Some of us through perfectionism, though unhealthy relationships, through drinking, food and buying things. But the reality is that there is no way out. And the question is then how do we live in that reality, where we must stop longing for the pain to recede, for the peace to come, for things to be as they should be?

I still have no answers, but a reminder to myself and to my few readers out there who might stumble across this, that our life will always be in the mess and there will always be pain. The question is not how to make it better, how to make it go away, or how to fix things (or fix ourselves) but rather how to live well in the midst of this.

I am reminded of what it means to get sober. One must wake up every damn morning and want to be sober. Be willing to go into life, into the struggles, and face it. To work at it. And then get up the next day and do it all over again. As Glennon Doyle Melton says, “Do the next right thing, one thing at a time.” We are not called to save the world or ourselves. Rather, to be present to the full reality of this life, here and now, loving and doing good where we can, and knowing also that we are finite, limited, and cannot do it all.

That the Times We Are in Today Will not Remain as They Are

July 4, 2016

Preached July 3, 2016
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green
Text: Gospel of Matthew Chapter 9:18-34

Sometimes it seems like nothing will ever be okay.

We look left and there is pain and hatred.

We look right and there is violence.

We look at our own homes and lives and see the ways that we fall short of the life we long for, the life we thought we would have.

Sometimes it seems like we are just going through the motions.

There are days for many of us when ask ourselves quietly, “What more can we do? What does all of this even mean? What are we even doing here?”

We scramble like little rats in those mazes where they do experiments, we scramble to try to make it better, to get to the end of the maze where we can rest and where everything is okay, we’ll get our treat.

If only we would make a little more money, things would be better. We could relax.

If only our spouse would love us a little more, things would be better we tell ourselves.

At each age, each life stage, we have our own set of if-only’s….

There have been and will be the big things – If only the cancer would be healed, we wouldn’t complain about the small things anymore.

If we could feel better. Our bodies. Our hearts.

If only we would find a job, then it would be okay.

If only we could stop drinking.

If only people would quit being selfish and violent.

If only people would vote for reasonable people.

There are so many if only’s.

For those of you who have ever struggled with acute or chronic illness, you probably can especially relate to this. Life seems tough until you are sick all the time. Or until you are facing death. And then you think, “Wow. I didn’t know. I didn’t really realize how hard it could be or how good it was before this happened.”

When you have those good days, you feel light and think, “Ah I will never stop appreciating this.”

I was chronically ill from the time I was in my mid-teens until I was well into graduate school. I went to doctor after doctor and got mostly sort of guesses at what it might be, but no one really knew. I was exhausted all the time, walking to my car from my house was a big undertaking. Some of my teeth fell out and my fingernails detached and fell off.

And I will always remember this day in college – it was in April and I was worn down from years of doctors and feeling bad and trying hard and nothing working.

And I woke up feeling okay. I remember standing up and walking to the bathroom that morning and feeling light. I could breath easily, my head didn’t hurt.

I hadn’t eaten so I wasn’t sick to my stomach yet.

And I took a shower and got dressed and was walking on campus in the warm spring sun and I remembered. I remembered what life was like before I was sick. I remember literally there was a bounce in my step. I thought, “Oh what did I do to make it better today? How can I catch this feeling? This calm.” I remember wiggling my fingers and moving my neck back and forth.

Nothing was hurting.

I remember thinking, “I wish I could put this in a bottle. This feeling of being okay. This feeling of things being. I want to keep it. I want to hold on it.”

And we have these moments, maybe some more pronounced than others, but we have these moments of wanting to capture the present moment and hold onto it, the times when things seem good and okay.

But of course, no matter if it a good day in the midst of sickness, or a good day in the midst of a stressful life, or a day without bombings on the news, or a moment of connection with someone whom we love but we struggle to make things work with, we cannot capture these moments when things feel okay and keep them or hold onto them.

We are always in a back and forth time, in between holy moments and seasons and the ordinary time of existence when we bump up against the limits of human compassion, the limits of human bodies… the reality is that day in and day out we bump up against the limits of love and care and peace.

Our topic this week is about healing, and I am struck by the deep need we all have for healing – both physically and psychologically – individually and as a society. Yet, we make shockingly little progress on it.

Many of us face what some people call “first world problems” – the car is broken, air conditioning is not working, the car in front of you isn’t going fast enough and you want to get where you are going right now, the sound system at church isn’t working right, put our foot in our mouth, we send the kids to school with mismatched shoes, or forget the birthday of beloved.

And it is not that these are not real challenges, but wham – all of our daily struggles end up feeling pretty minor when we face the really hard stuff.

For those of you that have lost a loved one, perhaps you know this too well. If only we could see her one more time. If only we could hold his hand, kiss him, or sing to her again.

In the face of great pain, all of a sudden previous pain seems kind of minor or trivial.

In times of great pain or desperation – our own illnesses, facing death in a more imminent way, facing the loss of someone we love, in our come to Jesus moments  – thing seem clearer, priorities obvious.

But man is it hard to live that on a day to day basis. It is hard – really impossible to hold on to the clarity of a moment.

And so we try hard to try to figure out how to make things be like the should.

I want to say that again because that at the heart of what I want to talk about today.

We try hard to figure out how to make things be like they should.

And frankly, for most of us, that doesn’t really go very far. Because once you get things like you thought they should be – maybe you improve your marriage, you figure out how to heal from abuse or addiction, you finally get your house clean and yard mowed and closets cleaned out, your business set up, you are not longer sick, or your finances in order – there is something else.

Sometime that something else is that you realize that the color of your carpet doesn’t really look right, or the car you thought you wanted is looking a little old. Sometimes it is realizing that you thought that getting the right job and the working really hard and making enough money would make things be like they should, you thought getting married would help, or when you had a child then life would be like you envisioned it.

We live in a culture and a time that says always, “More.” More more more. Try harder, work harder, get more and do better. The grass is always greener! You thought you were doing well because you were feeding your kids brown rice and vegetables? Well come to find out your brown rice has high levels of arsenic in it and the organic vegetables you bought from Kroger’s that are shipped in from California are using up all the water in California.

There is always something else we can do better and we live in this if-only culture that always whispers to us like a siren, “A little more. Try a little more. Get a little more. Do a little more. You aren’t quite good enough yet.”

And what we are really trying to do with all these things is to heal. We are trying to make ourselves whole, complete, well. We are working hard to make better the things that are broken because we live in a broken world.

We are taught often that we can get to healing like it is a line on our productivity to-do list. Healing of our bodies, our relationships, our hearts, our minds through check-lists.

We are lured by the call of our to do lists and our pinterest boards and productivity hacks that if only we get the calculus right, get the right app on our phone or right plan, things will finally be better. The right mix of hard work, insight, good tips, clean closets, healthy food, and better elected representatives and we would be set.

It is a tempting story.

Yet, even when we do all the right things, we still get sick.

We do all the right things and people we love still die.

We try to do all the right things and we still face pain.

We still have that secret we haven’t told that eats at us.

We still feel shame. We still make terrible mistakes – sometimes on purpose and sometime by accident.

And this is not because something is wrong with us – it is not that we haven’t come up with just the right mix of How to Be in the World but it is because we are in a world where wounds and pain are just part of what we have to face from birth until death.

It doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of good – joy and love and connection and beauty and healing and hope – but it means that we will never find a way to get out of the hard stuff. We won’t be able to check off enough boxes for everything to be okay.

As we see Jesus in chapter 9 of Matthew, for him too it is just one thing after another.

He is going to the girl who died and on the way meets the bleeding woman who needs healed.

He gets to the girl who died and brings her back to life, moves right onto the blind men, and then to the person who cannot speak.

One thing after another.

And as we read the story of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, it never stops. He does slow steady work, healing here, healing there, but in fact he does not fix it all. He did not wave his hand or a magic wand and make it all better, rather Jesus life and death and resurrection created the space for a new kind of healing.

He lived among the people, in the mess of this human existence, slow and steady, in a very little corner of the world doing what he did. His acts of healing, his preaching, his love, and his speaking hard truth about things that undid the way it had been done before.

His hard work and hard love in the face of dogma and imperial power brought his life to an end very early, but he knew this too and prepared for it.

He lived into his death by the very human act of gathering folks around him that loved him and whom he loved, teaching them slowly and patiently, inviting them to walk with him. Knowing that his time on earth was limited, he says later in Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Some have interpreted this as telling the disciples to convert people to Christianity by saying a particular kind of prayer or, as some Christians have seen it, as pressuring or forcing people to convert. But when I read this, I hear “baptize them” – tell them that they can die to their old selves and be renewed!

Teach them what I have taught you – to heal people, to walk with people where they are, to hope together that the times we are in today will not remain as they are – that there is another way than the violence of occupation and violence imperial power and ways of being religious that are dogmatic and exclusionary.

There were fifteen miracles where Jesus healed people in Matthew.

He attended to one after the other, knowing that he would never check off all the boxes. It would never be completely okay, but it would a little better. For today. And tomorrow he would do the same thing again.

Our culture thrives on the idea that you can have it all, but in his commitment and reality of his full humanity, Jesus showed with his life that you cannot have it all and your work will never be done.

He knew that in his lifetime he could not fully heal the world and be true to his divine nature and his human nature.

His life provided an example, a new way forward, a new paradigm for God that was not the God that sends down fire and brimstone on cities and towns, but a God that rides to his death into Jerusalem on a little donkey.

A God that goes to the sick among us, those on the margins of society, and calls his people to do the same.

In Luke we read how Jesus sends the disciples out to heal, bid them to travel light, and then later sends out 72 to heal in his name. No one went out with a grand hurrah or weapons or pomp and circumstance, “We are here to save you!” He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.”

The amazing thing about Jesus as the person on which our faith is based is that he was not some magical sorcerer who waved his wand and fixed things, but he was with his people doing what he could.

The stories of miracles in the bible call us to a life of healing, but not a life where we can do it all or have it all.

The stories of healing in the bible remind us that it will be one pain after another. Among those we love. In our society.

So as we go out to the world, hurting like we will hurt, watching the hurt flash before our eyes on the news and in our neighborhoods, tell yourself that our journey is long and there will always be something else.

We can endure this, we can do the work we can do, little by little, by keeping perspective. “I will be with you always,” he said. Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Our call is not to be all okay ourselves, and not to make the world all okay, but it is do to the incredibly hard work of healing day in and day out when things are a mess, not giving up on ourselves as we mess up over and and over, and not giving up on others as they mess up over and over. Not giving up when things don’t go how we want them to, when the hurt seems unsurmountable.

The story of Jesus birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension is a story of long, hard slow work, where Jesus teaches us to do what we can with what we have, knowing that we cannot do it all, or have it all, and we must get up every morning and face the world and try to make it better even if that costs us everything.

So let us keep up this slow hard work, my friends, in a world that desperately needs patient, forgiving healing people.

May it be so.


This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.

When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free

July 20, 2015

When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free
Preached July 19, 2015
at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about an experiment that was trying to get a sense of why people make the decisions that they do. Subjects in the experiment were offered two dollars if they would sign a piece of paper that said:

I [name goes here] hereby sell my soul, after my death to the leader of this experiment for the sum of $2.

If they signed the paper, they got $2. There was a line for the subjects to sign and under that line it read: “This form is part of an a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”

They were told that they could rip the paper up as soon as they signed it and still get their two dollars. Yet only 23 percent of the subjects were willing to sign the paper. After some pressing from the experiment leader, another 17% were willing to sign the paper, but that still meant that 50% of folks were not willing to sign a meaningless paper.

When the experimenter asked people why they wouldn’t sign it – knowing that it could not possibly be real or binding, most people couldn’t really explain it. Even several atheists who didn’t even believe in souls said they just didn’t feel right signing it.

Haidt recounts other experiments like this. In some, the researchers control for plausible good reasons not to do something, and then ask people to do it, like the sign your soul away experiment. There was also one where a dead cockroach was sterilized, and quickly dipped down in some water and then out again. People were offered money to drink the water, and few would, despite the fact the researchers assured them and explained how it was impossible for any germs or cockroach pieces to be in the water.

In other experiments, they construct stories and scenarios where people do things that just “seem” wrong even though the researchers are careful to construct the stories so that there are no actually harmful consequences. Yet people continue to refuse to do things even when they cannot explain why and continue to insist that something is right or wrong just based on how it seems to them, without being able to offer plausible reasons.

It raises the important question about why we do or don’t do unreasonable things, or things that seem to make sense.

This matters to us for a couple reasons. First, most of us know people who make decisions that seem atrocious. They live lives that seem unreasonable to us, off the wall, abhorrent, or just plain wrong. We think to ourselves, “There are obvious reasons for them not to believe that or do that and they do it anyway!?!?” We also may think this about some politicians who take positions or make decisions that appear to make no sense whatsoever. While sometimes this can be attributed to pandering to their base, often it seems that the positions they take or decisions they make don’t even help them strategically. They just seem to be unreasonable positions with no apparent strategic benefit either.

So it is important – as individuals and as a church – to think about how we might respond to people when reason is not enough.

And, it may or may not be the case that some of us look at ourselves and give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Good thing we are reasonable and have thought out all the pros and cons of this or that and come to a calm, measured decision about things.”

Yet, for some of us, for those non-saints among us today, we actually may have a few things in our life that we do that are counter to reason. Where we know the right thing to do, the right way to act, the right thing to say, what we really should be doing, and yet we do something different.

It might be as benign as, for instance, procrastination where we know there will be negative consequences for us in the future that outweigh the short term relief we get from putting something off. We know what the consequences will be. We know we will have to stay up late, and be tired the next day. We even know we will regret it, and yet we keep on waiting to write that memo, do the dishes, write that paper – or sermon – or make that phone call that we need to take care of.

The list goes on – we know that we are destroying our environment, but our actions are often, at best, slightly out of our comfort zone, and often they are simply token. This is both on an individual level – those of us in the room know that we live in houses that are bigger than is fair in terms of energy consumption… those of use who drive and fly more than our share, pumping out our greenhouse gasses by the ton.

And on a collective level – we want the economy to keep growing, we as a people want to live comfortable decent lives, and we kind of have this gnawing feeling that what we are doing is melting those polar ice caps, not to mention keeping lots of people in developing countries in slave-like working conditions to feed our hunger for affordable clothes from Target, yet… yet… yet… we kind of keep living mostly how we live, hoping that our diligent recycling efforts and occasional donation or protests or online petition signing on Facebook will atone for a life we know has dire consequences for others – today and in the future.

And so the question remains: what are we to do? We see others making terrible decisions that seem to defy logic and reasonableness, and yet also we ourselves are often not able to resist the sirens of a comfortable life, of addiction, of dishonesty, of yelling when it feels good even when it hurts others, of self-righteousness arrogance, of our knowledge that we know, and others do not.

The little voice in the back of our head tells us to stop, to change, to do better, yet we stuff it down, quiet it, we feel guilty and then ease our guilt with more of the same, or perhaps we have ignored it so long, that we cannot even hear that voice inside of us.

Haidt makes the argument that we are two: we are an elephant and we are a rider on that elephant. The rider on the elephant is a logical reasoning, the little itty bitty rider, and the elephant – the big big elephant – is our intuitive reasoning, our gut, our accumulated patterns of thinking and being. Haidt makes the argument that the rider often likes to think that he or she is driving the elephant around, telling him or her where to go, and occasionally maybe, it is true the rational rider can manage to get the elephant to do a thing here or a thing there. But, Haidt makes the argument that mostly the elephant is in control and our reasoning rider often believes himself or herself to be driving the elephant, but that neurologically the intuitive elephant is running the show, with the rational reasoning following our intuitive reasoning just a split second behind. Haidt makes the argument that the rider is a most often a function of the elephant. Almost as if the elephant walks to the right and the rider thinks, “Ah, yes, to the right. That’s where we need to go.” It happens so fast we don’t even realize the order it happens in.

Mostly, Haidt says, despite our fetishization of enlightenment rationality, we are what Hume called a slave to our passions. It is not that we don’t reason, but more like reason is not really a judge or teacher, weighing the evidence or guiding us to greater understanding. Rather reason is more like an attorney or a press secretary, justifying our actions and our intuitions.

There is an organization called The Frameworks Institute and they do a lot of good work with this idea. They point out that “when the facts don’t fit people’s frames, often they will changes the facts, not the frame.” That is, our feeling about what is right is so strong, our intuition – our elephant – is so powerful that when facts contradict it, people ignore the facts, they change the facts, not their frameworks and habits of thinking.

If we look at the environmental movement, it is a perfect example. For years, scientists have been telling us about the melting, the rising sea levels, the concerning weather patterns, the fact that Bangladesh will be fully under water in the lifetime of our children. They provide models, graphs, charts, studies. And yet. Go out on the streets of Bowling Green and people will tell you that global climate disruption is not a thing. It is an invention. Things are fine.

And yet, even those of us that believe that this is true, continue to live as if it isn’t so, ignoring the calls that radical change across large swaths of humanity is essential if we are to avert the destruction of the world as we know and instead we take our baby steps, hoping it is enough, but knowing that it probably isn’t.

We – we here – and we out there – are not an overall rational reasonable people despite our wishes.

And one thing that we often do is to tell ourselves that we – we good ones, we educated ones, we who listen to NPR and read The New York Times – we are different than those people out there. Yet, I want to suggest this morning that that kind of thinking simply worsens our predicament. It makes us feel good, yes, but it contributes to an us and a them, the good ones and the fallen ones, the wise ones and the unknowing ones – the very kind of separation and exclusion that so many of us have experienced in other contexts in our lives when we were told that we were other. That we were not enough. That we were not good.

I want to suggest this morning that in one way or another, we are all wrapped up in what Foucault calls the divine spectacle of humanity’s madness. But! You protest! Just like Alice in Wonderland, ““But I don’t want to go among mad people!””

Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Our madness takes different forms, yes, but we are all, in one way or another, riders on our elephants, struggling to wrestle a little control over our lives, over our collective future. Grappling to make meaning in a world that often seems mad.

And, so, again, we return: what are we to do?

The answer, of course, is not to throw up our hands and decide that reason and rationality have no place in the world. That data doesn’t matter. That our gut feelings are always right, that our collective madness is the best that we can do, but I want to suggest that we take reason and rationality off of its pedestal and realize that our world will change and our own lives will change when we realize that information is never enough and the best data will not save us. Despite our desperate wishes, the truth – or even THE TRUTH – will not set us free.

Reason is never enough because we – we in here and we out there – are a complex nexus of rider and elephants, of head and heart, of body and soul and mind and we – we who are here, we who fly gay pride flags, we who fly confederate flags, and we who fly American flags, we who support gay marriage, we who do not, we are all in this together. We are all trying to make our way in a broken, messed up confusing world where things are not fair, where things are not rational and where it feels so good to make an us and a them, a right people and a wrong people, a rational, reasonable people and those other people.

But we are all mad, my friends. We are all woven into this mad world, making decisions that do not make sense, and no matter how right we think we are, being right is not enough. Being right feels good, but being right is not a strategy to get to the world we long for.

In my classes, my students and I do deliberations. We take a contentious issue and have a short guide that frames three different options, outlining the position and then the tradeoffs of each position. The guides are designed to give a fair hearing to different viewpoints and a fair assessment of the pros and cons of each view. I ask my students, when people make a point, or a claim, even if it seems wrong, or absurd to ask what is behind the statement. You think that everyone should have a gun with them at all times? What values underlie that? What worries underlie that? The person is saying they value security. They are saying they feel insecure. Perhaps they long to feel more powerful. Perhaps they don’t feel safe. They are saying they value certain freedoms. We are not trying to agree or disagree with the values or the feelings that underlie the statement, but to hear them. To hear our neighbor where they are at. To pay attention to their elephant.

My students do not usually leave our deliberations with different viewpoints, but what they do say over and over is that they understand their classmates better. The liberals understand the conservatives better. The conservatives understand the liberals better. They are less other to each other. Which, I believe plants the seeds for hearing each other better. As one of my students said, it seems like in the U.S. we have lost the idea of an us. It seems like there is always a good us and a bad them, but we don’t have an us anymore.

We as individuals and we as a church can dig in our heals. We can insist on being right, on the truth that we know, on reason and rationality as our altar. Yet, if we cannot hear our neighbors – our most “other” neighbors, our confederate flag flying neighbor, our neighbor who thinks we are going to hell, how can we reach the world? How can we do anything but simply preach to the choir. If we are serious that we our faith is not just for some us, we must ask how can we be a church and a faith for all people who need love? Who need to be heard. Who feel like an other.

We do not have to agree with people’s elephants to pay attention to them, to speak to them, to acknowledge them, to tell them that they are inherent worthy and have dignity. And, if we are ever to corral our own elephants in the direction that we would like them to go, we must at least recognize that they are there, to learn perhaps to be friends with them, to recognize that they are part of us.

I wish that we would know the truth and we would be free.

But may we leave today, knowing we are not free. And the truth with not get us there. Freedom is a long, slow journey of learning to love ourselves, of learning to love others in all their messiness and brokenness, of listening, and reflecting, of letting go of our egos and our righteousness. Over and over again.

Perhaps it is the case that we shall never be truly free – not free from suffering, not free from our elephants, no free from our neighbors who seem crazy or drive us crazy.

Pema Chödrön says, “In life, we think that they point is to pass the test, or overcome the problem. Yet the real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, and then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Perhaps, if we are to taste a little freedom, it will come from this coming together, and falling apart, as individuals, as families, as a church, as a world, and not running from that. Letting go of how right we are, how much better we are, and seeing that we are all in this together, struggling together on this spinning planet to try to eek out something a little more humane, a little more beautiful, a little more worthy our years here. May we show care to ourselves in this messy journey, and care for others, even the most other others.


*This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use in whole or part without permission.

Finding Our Way to Sunday

April 4, 2015

Holy Week can be a lot of things. It can be a time when people who are not Christians or religious feel sick of seeing things in their Facebook feed about religion. It can be a time to color eggs and get dressed up. It can be our one visit to church this year. It can be a reminder that loss is excruciating and painful. It can be an invitation to remember the kind of lives we are called to, where even when you try to do the right thing, sometimes people betray you and bad things happen. And it can be a reminder that even after bad things happen, there are often ways forward that you we can’t yet imagine, that don’t even seem possible.

Holy Saturday is especially important to me because it reminds me of all the people in the wake of loss, in the midst of unbearable hopelessness. On that Saturday after Jesus was killed, no one knew what was to come. For the disciples, for the people who believed that Jesus could renew faith and perhaps renew the world, for Mary who loved her son so dearly, they sat on that Saturday in anguish. Shock. In the numb that often follows death. It wasn’t yet Holy Saturday. It was just a sad, horrible Saturday for people who thought things were maybe going to be better.

This Saturday, may we not run too quickly to the hope, the stone rolled away, the miracle, and remember all of those people who are sitting in shock, in trauma, in aloneness, and in fear. Who hope that there will be new life, somehow, in the midst of death, but don’t yet see a way. May we remember how important it is to be with folks who are in that long Saturday. Who long for love, who need our care, and who need us to be patient with them and welcoming to them as we all try to find our way to Sunday.

Holy week can be a lot of things. This is the beauty of the incredibly rich Christian tradition. It can be coloring eggs and visits to church once a year, it can be an invitation to live a different life, and it can be a reminder of the rough world we live in and the possibility that it might be different. It can be all these things and a thousand more. I am thankful for a God that wants us all where we are at. Let’s widen that circle. Build a bigger tent. Come in and let’s figure it out together.

Amen amen amen.

p.s. A good book on Holy Saturday is Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.

On a warm clear morning, some thoughts from my last two years

March 24, 2015

Don’t be enticed by the promise that things will be okay. If only you simplify, or eat better, or pray more, or work out more, or are kinder, or fairer things will work out like you think they should. Yes, these things are good, but we do not live in an economy of reward, where doing the good and the right things yield to you what you long for. We do the right thing to do it, not because it will make us happy or make things easier, but because it is the right thing. It will always be hard, if you are living well you will be struggling, you will be aching, you will be longing and loving and failing and getting up again. It is messy out there, beautifully and excruciatingly messy. The sirens of simplification, of accumulation, of trying harder, of being more worthy, of being nicer – they call to us, but they are false promises. Life is in the mess, the ache, the joy, and baby steps forward and the big steps backward and it is here that we must find what we long for.

In the Long Wake

June 2, 2014

In the Long Wake
Preached June 1, 2014
at First Christian Church, Bowling Green

The text for this sermon is Acts 1:6-14:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.


We sat there in my Aunt Carol’s kitchen, surrounded by casserole dishes, the unused oxygen tank, prescription medicine bottles, and each other. It felt like some sort of weird dream. Here we were writing thank you notes to people who had given money to the church in Aunt Carol’s name. It seemed bizarre to be marking the day after her funeral sitting awkwardly in her kitchen writing notes to people, but at least it gave us something to do.

Like so many deaths, it seemed like it happened in slow motion but was so fast I couldn’t really remember what parts took place where. There was the questionable x-ray and then more scans and so quickly things moved from a normal life to surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and hospital beds in the living room because she couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore. Many of you have been there.

I was with her the last time she left her house. What strikes me is how mundane it was. She lay there in the middle of the night her hospital bed in the living room and the breathing was so labored. Do we go to the hospital? Don’t we? It was like we just didn’t know at the point what was good and what was bad. Was she trying to recover or was she now just hoping to die peacefully? She didn’t know and we didn’t know.

Within twenty minutes we decided to go to the hospital and that was that. Out the door, leaving pill bottles on the kitchen table, a midnight snack on the cabinet, and we left her home of 30 years and she would not come back.

And so here we sat, after her death, in the kitchen, struck by the banality of her absence. The cars still drove on the roads outside. We had to return to our jobs. The casseroles would stop coming. The notes would be sent out. And life would go on. It felt so momentous to be without her and yet the world went on, and we were left to make sense of things in the wake of this loss.

As we think about our scripture this week, I think of the roller coaster the disciples were on for the weeks surrounding Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Often, we hear the stories in the Bible and nod with familiarity because we have heard them so many times and know how they turned out.

But imagine Jesus friends and his mother sitting together after the crucifixion. That quiet, odd, calm that comes after a death where you no longer know just what to do with yourself. Arrangements have been made, there has a burial, and now you must figure out how to go on. I imagine how they sat there on that Saturday, felt sick to their stomachs, worried, unsure of what to do as they faced what seemed like both an eerie absence and a chaos that Jesus’s death left. What were they to do in the face of the world that was broken before Jesus’s death and surely seemed even worse now?

We must remember that although the resurrection was joyful, it came after a losing a friend to a violent death just a few days earlier. Imagine what it might be like to lose, not only a friend, but your leader and teacher whom you believed would lead to a different world. Imagine how you would feel if you lost your teacher friend, who was like your family, and three days later that person showed up, wounds gaping?

They had seen miracles, but as they saw the wounds, and struggled to make sense of it, like many of us still struggle to make sense of it – they struggled to integrate it into their lives and to what was happening. They did not yet know that Jesus was the Jesus we know or that the tradition he and they would leave would be Christianity. It would be many years later that the term Christian would even be first be used.* At this moment in the bible they were poor, exhausted followers of a charismatic, poor, Palestinian Jewish teacher in Galilee and Judea.

Thus, even with the resurrection and the ascension, we must remember that the disciples were real people who did not know what was happening, did not know the outcome.

Jesus’s life and death and resurrection and ascension does not shock our ears because we have heard it so much, but these words invite us to consider this in its own context and where this would have been traumatic, scary, and confusing. And overwhelming.

Shelly Rambo is a theologian at Boston University and she has written a book that I have found very helpful in thinking about what Christianity can look like today in the midst of a world not only full of suffering and injustice, where it can often feel overwhelming, but particularly a world where Christians and Christianity are too often part of causing harm. In her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining she makes the argument that the power of the resurrection is not Jesus’s resurrection as the triumph of life over death, but the power of the persistence of life in the midst of death. His wounds were still open.

Through hundreds of interviews with trauma survivors, she realized that they were learning how to live with experiences that were difficult to integrate into their existence. Survivors of Katrina, survivors of war, rape, of childhood abuse and neglect. For many of her interviewees, there was never a time when there was victory over the pain, when it was gone, or away, but rather the best that they could hope for was a life in the midst of the reality of this experience that remained with them.

And Rambo argues if Jesus’s resurrection and ascension was the end of the story, there is no more for us. And this is why, in our verses today we hear, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven,” two angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And they are called to turn their attention back to the aftermath. To the world that remains.

We hear that they returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, and they prayed.

They gathered together to turn their attention back to the world. To turn their attention back to the world that was still shot through with trauma, and death, with oppression, and people who long for a better life in the midst of brokenness. I don’t know about you, but I know of longing for a better life in the midst of pain.

Shelly Rambo writes about a theology of remaining – where we do not go to the triumph, to the victory, because in that triumph and victory we leave behind the people who are still living in the midst of pain and wounds and death. And that, my dear friends, is all of us.

Many of us have probably heard and been told that we should be saved. And for too many of us this was about saying a prayer or perhaps going to an altar call and someone telling us that was it. It was about making a decision that had something to do with whether we would go to heaven or hell, whether we would be good or bad, in or out.

And, while we can affirm together this morning the need to open ourselves up to rebirth and to make meaningful commitments to our faith journeys, our verses this morning draw us back down to this world where salvation is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing process – salvation is slow, my brothers and sisters, it is slow and it is long.

What if we are saved not by just saying a prayer, but by doing as Jesus did – which was to honor tradition while at the same time disrupting that tradition, by loving those people that were said to be unlovable and that includes loving ourselves, by speaking out truth, even when the costs were very high, by forgiving and offering grace even when it is so very hard. That is where salvation is, day in and day out, remaining. Remaining when it is hard and sad and the answers are not clear.

The well-known Christian theologian and African American thinker Cornell West speaks to this when he says that justice is what love looks like in public. He says, “We need the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people,” we are called, he says, “To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.” This is life in the midst of death.

We heard this morning that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and they went to the room upstairs. They began, in many ways, their ministry of remaining with the world. Catherine Keller is a theologian at Drew University and says that this theology of remaining that this is a “theology that holds up in the face of personal and collective suffering, for it frees us from the dishonest resolutions, the grim guarantees, the disappointing promises.”

We have all been on both sides of those resolutions and promises – that things will be different, that we will really, now start to do the right things, the things we should, be the person that we want, to be the partner that we want to be to our spouse, the parent we want to our children, the person that we know we can be. Turn on the televangelist and they will tell you that you will be saved and it will be different. That there will be victory over what ails you – drinking, drugs, envy, pain, disordered eating, sexuality that causes you or others harm.

But I want to suggest this morning that we have not been well served by teachings that frame the Christian journey as one of triumph, or absolutes.  Shelly Rambo notes that insofar as Jesus’s story is proclaimed as life conquering or life victorious over death, the church cannot speak to the realities of traumatic suffering, where there is never the end of the story, or the victory over the struggle, but there is instead slow hard work to eek out a path where life can be decent or even good in the midst of struggle –there must be a return and a return again and again to each time take a step forward, to heal a little bit, to struggle with the demons, and to inch ahead.

This is a theology of staying with it, on the ground, in the trenches. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” said Jesus as he ascended. You will be my witnesses and the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” and they returned to Jerusalem, and went to the room upstairs where they were staying.

The Christian tradition is a faith born out of violence – of death – of trauma of loss, and confusion. And perhaps it is like this because, at is best, Christianity can be a faith that makes promises that are real. That no matter what you do, you are still welcome. No matter what happens to you, you are fundamentally good. That you can be saved. That you can be loved. That you can love. And that you can love.

But this grace, this salvation, this love – it is not magic. You will be witnesses, he said. It is slow, and it is hard and we are called back again and again to love each other, to remain with each other.

I have spent much of my ten years in graduate school studying the ways that people try to grapple and make sense of their faith and their lives with specific regard to sexuality and relationships. There is a significant movement in the U.S., one that I have studied for many years and I’m finishing my book on it now. Many of you probably know it as True Love Waits, the idea that one of the key things we must do for our children and that good people must do is, “Wait until you are marriage to be sexually active.” Just say no, they say. It is 100% effective.

As I was preparing for this sermon, reading about how theology and the church and Christians can respond to the needs of the world, here and now, rather than looking up to heaven or thinking about things for a later time, I kept coming back to my many years of work and study about relationships and sexuality.

A book a few years ago came out called Sex and the Soul and in this book college student after college student said either 1) they were religious and they considered their relationships and sexuality to be wrong and thus separated it from their religious identity or 2) they were no longer religious because they could not make sense of their relationships and sexuality in light of the teachings of their church. Their faith wasn’t able to answer the experiences and realities that they had on the ground.

And this fractures people. It fractures people from their own bodies, from their faith, from their families, because it is an easy answer to the lived experience that is messy, and complicated, and disordered.

There are not one step answers to making sense of our relationships or our bodies, and this is why Jesus was among the people. Our tradition honors the beauty and messiness of people because God was the people. John 1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But in Greek, here the Word is logos which can be understood as both wisdom and knowledge. It is a creative use of language that draws on both Greek and Hebrew traditions. John is saying here that in the beginning was knowledge and wisdom, and knowledge and wisdom was with God and knowledge and wisdom was God.” And in a later verse we see, John’s gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

And we are now left. Like the disciples left in the wake of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, we are now left, sitting, in the midst of chaos, in the midst of people who will tell us that there are clear easy answers – just say no – just get saved – just do this or just do that – and we are left in the long wake to do the slow work. The slow work of looking away from heaven and the magic and miracles and being a witness to a life that was lived with the people, in the messy, broken, disaster of a world.

We are sitting around our table, in the wake, and the world is waiting for us to be present and remain. To remain when the answers are not easy, when the work is hard, when we ourselves feel broken, and hurt, and scared and not sure of what to do.

And perhaps it is here that we can all find salvation together, bearing witness to The Word – logos – the wisdom and knowledge – that became flesh. To give an account – to testify – to what life can look like in the midst of death.

May it be so. Amen.

*For more on this, see Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), especially pp. 1-26, 240-241, 250-259.

This sermon is copyrighted. Please do not use without permission.

Against Disaster Outrage

May 15, 2014

Of course, I am sad for the girls who have been kidnapped in Nigeria. I mourn for their families and their communities. But, the reality is, I am not more sad for them than I am for 3.1 children that die each year because of lack of adequate food, or the millions of women that are raped every year, or the 2,400 people who have been killed by U.S. drones in the last five years.

I have concerns about the social media and traditional news media focus on this incident. I feel similarly about the obsession with the Malaysia flight that was lost, the recent Korean ferry disaster, the Haitian earthquake, and I even remember inklings of this concern in the wake of 9/11. My concern is not particularly aimed at individual people who are posting on facebook or sad, but I am speaking more broadly to the disaster/outrage/forget pattern that we are all familiar with by now.

My concerns are several. First, when we focus our outrage and our energy on disasters or dramatic incidents, we distract ourselves from the slow grind of suffering that is all around us, and all around our world. The kidnapping incident is terrible, yes. But it is but one of hundreds upon thousands of terrible, traumatic, and unjust happenings that are routine around our world. We need to train our hearts and minds to be attentive to the world as it is, not as it is filtered through the most sensational news stories of the day. We cannot know all of the suffering in the world, and we certainly can’t be sad or outraged by it all, lest we collapse from the weight of the pain. But, we can be thoughtful in managing our time, energy, and moral outrage. It is not a series of sprints from one disaster to another, but rather a slow, long, and difficult walk of endurance that demands awareness of, and an ongoing attentiveness to, our complicated world. It also demands that we take the time and effort to reflect on what actions we can take, actions that will likely not be easy or without cost to us.

Second, I am particularly concerned with the U.S. tendency to get so worked up about injustice somewhere far away, particularly if the injustice is taking place in Africa (Kony 2012, anyone?) or by those claiming a connection to Islam. I recognize that the outrage and the concern comes from a sincere place, and that it is rare that intentions are bad. Yet, I think we are all called to dig deeper and to ask ourselves why outrage comes so easily for this, but the injustices that are so close to home are not social media sensations.

Finally, the reality is that social and news media outrage does not have a particularly strong record of mattering. Archon Fung and Jennifer Shkabatur have written an early draft of a study on viral social media engagement. They point out that there is very little empirical research on the impacts of such campaigns, but they speculate that, in a flawed and broken political system, social media campaigns have the potential to enhance democracy. I hope that they turn out to be right and that all of the hashtags have not been for naught. However, I suspect that efforts such as #bringbackourgirls primarily serve to provide people a sense of efficacy and mattering, but are not particularly helpful in actually creating change. I think by and large, change is slow hard work. My fear is that much online activism and Facebook outrage serves a palliative function, letting us imagine we are doing something when we are not. I include myself in this, of course. I am well aware of the irony of blogging about the ineffectiveness of hashtags and facebook posts.

And so, six years later, I return to my own words written in 2008 as I grappled with this. At the very least, it is a good reminder for me, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone else as we stumble together toward the world we long for:

I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that the work of love and justice is often about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world.

We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our world, town, congregations and families will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snail’s pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Too many people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people.

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because, to everyone, their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, to be aware of the ways we perpetuate systems of harm and can work to interrupt those systems, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be, and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need harm-mitigation work.