Two Words To Find Our Way

I was scanning the room, making a mental checklist of what I needed to do before I could leave.

My church hosts a Thanksgiving Day Dinner for our community and has for years – just one picture of the way God can work hope out of tragedy.

It had been a great day, one of those days that reminds you why you do what you do. But the day was drawing to a close and I was in a hurry to get from one Thanksgiving meal to another. My wife and I were celebrating Thanksgiving by ourselves this year and there was a slow-cooker full of ribs with my name on them as soon as I could make it home.

About that time a church member came rushing into the room with an urgency normally reserved for news that isn’t good.

My first thought – those ribs better not get cold.

“Daniel – you’ve got to see this!”

There usually isn’t much use arguing with this particular child of God and there certainly wasn’t going to be on this day.

I walked across the hall into a classroom packed with clothes – some on hangers, some on tables, all given so that moms and dads might find some coats and clothes to make the winer a little less harsh for their kids.

But she pointed not to the clothes, but to a wooden bowl against the wall, normally reserved for a Sunday’s School class’s offering. In the bowl was a wadded up piece of paper.

A closer examination revealed that it was more than paper, but a dollar bill, left by a mother with a message for us. Snuck between the wrinkles and the lines sat two words in fresh black ink:

Thank You.

I was reminded of that message this week. We’re getting ready to host the dinner again – turkeys and pies being prepared, clothes being organized, people giving their time and their gifts for the reason that this is just who we are and this is just what do.

These simple words of gratitude from a woman, like so many in Scripture, whose name we’ll never know. This mom, who would have given anything to have enough money not to need our generosity, giving us the kind of gift money can’t buy.

And to think how close I came to missing it.

It’s not hard to miss things these days, in the days and weeks after our votes have been counted. They told us life would return to normal after the election, but normal feels a long way away.

I attended graduate school with many friends who take pride in calling themselves progressives. I serve in ministry with many friends who would take great offense at being called the same.

And so, like many, my Facebook feed is filled with point and counterpoint. I could spend, and admittedly have spent, days swimming in outrage and self-defense, trying to keep my head above water in the midst of analysis and accusations about why things are the way they are and just what they expect me to do about it.

It’s exhausting. And as anyone with kids knows, when you are tired you miss things.

I wonder how many gifts all this point and counterpoint has blinded us to. I wonder what grace we don’t have the eyes to see because we just can’t take in anything else. I wonder how many times Jesus has walked right past us while our eyes were watching something else.

I’ve come to realize in the last few years how so much of faith and discipleship is resisting the temptation to blindly settle into the categories people want to squeeze us into – rich and poor, blue and red, young and old, urban and rural just to name the most obvious.

Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as resistors. It might be because we’ve been conditioned to be skeptical of them. I suspect, however, that the real reason is that in the midst of work and family and church and everything else we don’t have a whole lot of energy left for resisting.

But what we need, now more than ever, is to summon the courage to resist and to find a better way to live our days. The good news is that as we turn to Thanksgiving and prepare to watch and wait through Advent, the path of resistance might not be all that complicated. It might be so obvious that even a beginner can find it, it might be right there on a wadded up dollar bill.

Thank You.

These words might be the clearest path beyond the categories that fuel our outrage and our defensiveness.

It’s hard to feel superior to the person across the table when you remember that everything you’ve been given is a gift. It’s hard to convince yourself that you have it all figured out when you look back on all your mistakes that somehow in grace weren’t terminal. It’s hard to judge the person who thinks differently when you are reminded of the things you used to think.

At least it is for me.

Because no matter what gets our blood pressure rising, we all have have received much from the God who has chosen to give it to us. No matter whether our bubble is an urban one or a rural one, we all have much to be grateful for. No matter what we want to say to that one family member, if we are honest, we can all find one place to say but for the grace of God go I…

So, how can you survive Thanksgiving Dinner this year?  What is the way forward for us all?

The answer might be the same.

Begin with two simple words.

Thank You.

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To Change the World With My Own Two Feet: Guest Post from Jessie Buttram

I am excited to welcome my wise and snarky friend Jessie Buttram to the blog today.  Jessie not only has maybe the best twitter handle of all time –@jbuttwhatwhat – but she writes with humility and conviction about her search to love and follow Jesus. She is committed to her family, her friends, her church and to living a life of authentic and committed faith in the real world.  

And if that isn’t enough, she was also smart enough to delete Facebook off her phone during Election Season. 

I asked Jessie to write for the blog about whatever she wanted, because whenever she writes, grace and faith and challenge and hope come bursting through with trademark honesty, compassion and wit. And in the midst of a tumultuous season of life, what she has to say is an important and a good word – God is faithful and invites us to participate in that faithfulness by moving our feet and getting to work. 

You can read more of what she’s up to at https://meetthebuttrams.com

Enjoy!

 

jessie-buttram-2So God and I have had a recent COME APART that has also turned into a COME TO JESUS. But before I let you start thinking more highly about my relationship with the Almighty, I’ve got to shoot straight. I don’t know or love God very well at all.

I’ve (haphazardly) followed His teachings for most of my life, I write (I think) eloquent prayers in fancy journals, I dig (in varying levels of depth) into His holy word. But there has always been a little bit of ill fit to my faith. Mostly because I need to know ALL THE THINGS and God just isn’t quite small enough to fit neatly in my brain. So when I say God and I had a COME APART, I really mean for once I shut up long enough to hear that still, small voice stir His Holy Spirit in me and breathe a living truth in my life from the ancient texts. (No big deal.)

These past couple of weeks, I have been reading through the book of Joshua with the online community She Reads Truth, and YOU GUYS. Joshua is a NOT FUN book. Outside of the pretty memory verse take-aways (24:15, anyone?), Joshua is actually a bloody, brutal book recounting battle after battle as Israel claimed their inheritance. And without the Holy Spirit nudging (or downright shoving) REAL LIFE TRUTH my way, I probably would have one, two, skipped a few and found my way back to 1 Corinthians or so. Right? Right.

But thankfully I kept on, mostly because I like to complete things, but also because SURELY there was something good to gather up from the Promised Land.

One place I landed and just couldn’t shake the dust from my heart was in Joshua 7. After yet another direct disobedience (which I know NOTHING about, ahemcoughwink), God withdraws His favor from Israel and they lose a key battle. Joshua laments to God, begging for God to keep His promise despite his people’s unfaithfulness, and he pleads with God (verse 9), “What then will you do for your own great name?”

What then will YOU do for YOUR OWN great name?

(Once more with feeling.)

Here’s the thing: I tend to think pretty highly of myself. I mostly keep the house from falling apart. I get my kids to their various activities every day. I can write. I’m pretty smart. I’m usually punctual. So I tend to fall into the trap of asking myself, “Self, what can I do for God today?” And also its counterpart, “Self, what if I DON’T do this for God today?”

Dear Heavenly Father, what can I, a suburban mom and wife who easily forgets a third of what’s on my mental grocery list, do for You, O Creator and King of this GIANT EXPANDING UNIVERSE?

(I am convinced God has a SUPERB sense of humor, if only because He has suffered through my teenage self’s prayer journals.)

MY FRIENDS. I will be the last person to admit there is a DEEP arrogance to these questions cloaked conveniently in humility and self-sacrifice. AS IF the changing of the world is even a little bit up to me.

For most of my life, I have studied this God, some days more closely than others. And I know and have seen too much not to believe He is constantly at work in this world. I know He is far more in love with this world than I could ever be. I know He is far, far more interested in the eternal souls walking this cursed ground. I know He is infinitely more brokenhearted over the things that move me to tears.

To think, with any degree of believability, my action (or inaction) has any true bearing on God’s ultimate Good Plan to redeem the whole world is small-minded at best. God will do what it takes to restore this whole world to wholeness and holiness. TRUST, with or without me, with or without the gifts I think I need to bestow upon the waiting world, God has and is and will redeem His beloved creation.

BUT.

(Yep.)

What a kindness God has shown us, not just that He would redeem you and me (as if that weren’t enough), but that He would invite you and me to work alongside Him to redeem the rest of this hurting, broken world.

What a kindness God shows us when He calls us into His ultimate Good Plan, not because He is insufficient but because He is far more sufficient than we could ever fathom.

His grace is far more sufficient than we can ever lap up.

His mercy is far more sufficient than we can ever exhaust.

His eager, reckless, irrational love for you and me and this whole wild world is far more sufficient than we can ever, ever earn.

God FOR SURE doesn’t need us to ask Him what we can do for Him. Instead, God wants us to follow Him in the great work He is already doing in this world. He wants us to join Him, to pull up a front row seat to the redemption He is unleashing on this world. God wants us to ask Him, “What will You do for Your own great name?” and watch as He blows our minds away.

God, in His infinite kindness, beckons us nearer, “Let’s do this together.”

 

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The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office

I hate this place.

They do their best to make it nice. They know you are nervous when you come here. They know you are doing everything you can to hold yourself together. They know your family hangs in the balance while you wait to hear your name called.

So they smile. They put you in nice, comfortable chairs – as nice as you can have in a doctor’s office. They invite you to look at the pictures, big black and white pictures – of moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren. Smiling. Enjoying. Living.

This could be you – that’s what they want you to think. The pictures are supposed to put you at ease, to make you feel better about being here. They are here to help you believe.

But the pictures and the faces also confront you. They are of other people. They are of other families. These are not pictures of you.

The nurse calls our names and we look at each other, hearts racing, blood pressure skyrocketing. She walks back and I sit, waiting for another person in white to walk out and call her name.

Why is it always white? Everything here is black and white. It’s all celebration or despair, nothing in between. Everybody comes here to walk the tightrope of joy and tragedy, heartbreak and relief, praying against death and desperately hoping for new life.

We hear her name and look at each other again. Can’t avoid it any longer. We walk into the room – we’ve been here before. A familiar room and a familiar face.

She doesn’t remember us. We’ll never forget her.  She was the one who delivered the news that broke our hearts. Her words brought the grief that wouldn’t go away.

No heartbeat. 

This might not happen for you they told us. You might need to consider other options. And we have.

We’re as surprised as anybody to be back here for this, back in this room waiting, back here sitting and staring at a screen, back here trying to make sense of it, back here waiting for a verdict that will change everything, one way or the other.

She talks to us, asks us the usual questions, and then she gets a big smile on her face. We can’t go there yet.

We don’t smile when we come here.

“Your baby has a good, strong heartbeat.”

Our shoulders drop. We finally smile. We hug and we laugh and we cry, different tears than we’ve ever cried before.

“There’s your tax break, Ogle”, my wife says almost immediately with a wry, Chicago smile.

“Will this be your first?” the nurse asks us. Yes, we smile.

We tell her our story, about how this room is the last place we expected to be, about how we were learning about “other options”, about how pretty much is a really important metaphor when placed before impossible.

For nothing is impossible with God.

It turns out this office is full of preachers.

“I’ve worked here a long time and I’ll tell you that sometimes God knows more than the doctors. When God wants you to have a baby you are going to have a baby!”

I can’t help but think about our friends – women who would be great mothers and are still waiting. Has God decided something different for them? I hold it down, there are some days for theodicy and some days for celebration.

They take us into another room and we sit for about three minutes before another staff member – one who gave us our options and cared for us so well the last time we were here – comes bounding in with a huge smile on her face. “I’m so happy. I’ve got to call your doctor – she will be so excited.”

We tell her our story and she can’t help it either. “Sometimes God knows things that the tests don’t – you all are going to be great parents.”

For nothing is impossible with God. 

We look at each other again, eyes bright with hope and relief. We know there will be more trips here and more things to worry about. Every trip to this place, a friend will tell me later, is a chance for them to tell you what might be wrong with your baby. But not today.

Today we hope and dream for the life that is just starting to grow. Today we laugh about changing diapers and early morning feedings.  Today we know we’ll be spending a whole lot less time and money at Barnes & Noble and a whole lot more at Buy Buy Baby.

And we remember. As scary as this place is, God is here. Of course God is always here, has always been here. God is here with us today and didn’t leave the last time we were here.

God weeps with the ugly cry weepers and rejoices with the new parents celebrating life and dreaming dreams.

A few months later we sit in our living room. It’s a wreck now, nothing compared to the chaos it will become in a few weeks. Our house is littered with stuff, contraptions and must-haves only an entrepreneur could dream up. We’ve painted a room purple and jammed more pink into it than we ever imagined possible.

We smile and we wait, full of nerves and anxiety, wondering what we haven’t done yet and certain of all the ways we aren’t up to this.

We look at each other again and we remember – that even here, in this mess, we aren’t alone. God is here too. And that is enough.

That’s what we learned at The Church of the White-Walled Doctor’s Office and from the preachers in scrubs.

God is up to something and new life is on the way.

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Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.

 

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Neighborhood Prayer: Seeking a Real God in the Land of Sin, Violence and Death

It doesn’t matter the week, we’re never far from it – the pain, the hurt and the loss.  That’s the beauty and struggle of the Internet – tragedy is closer to us than it ever has been. Packets of data squeeze the distance between us and injustice, bringing the pain into our living rooms.

This week it is Terence Crutcher, a student and a member of his church choir, the latest black man turned into a hashtag after being shot and killed by the police. If you’ve seen the video, you know it’s awful. So bad, in fact, that one commentator called it one of the worst we’ve seen.

It’s a sign of how desensitized we’ve gotten to death – particularly the ones that involve race, police and guns – that one could be described as worse than the others, as if any time someone created, loved and redeemed by God has their life snuffed out isn’t the worst.

A few weeks ago, where I live, it was Kenny Moats, a police officer doing his job when he was ambushed and killed. It was one of the few things in my part of the world with the power to move SEC football off the front page of our newspapers.

We have, of course, settled into a kind of liturgy around these tragedies. Shock and outrage are followed by posts and tweets about whose life matters, a cacophony of blame and anger that doesn’t seem to get us anywhere except in a rage at each other until the next one comes. Then we all begin again.

It’s all enough to overwhelm you, to make you seek escape in anything else, to lead you to avert your eyes and soul, to lock on anything else so you can avoid paying attention. At least, that’s what I want to do.

When I become overwhelmed, I want to retreat and pray about things that are easy. When I don’t know what to say about another murder, another life lost, another family and community fundamentally changed, I want to pray for myself and situations that won’t challenge me.  When I don’t know where to find the words to say both that this violence is far from God’s design and yet that things aren’t as easy to square as the social media screamers would make it, I’m tempted to concern myself with only what God would ask of me.

But faith, as my friend Dana is always teaching me, is about paying attention. We are formed by what we watch and we are shaped by who we listen to.

Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great theologians of the Church, wrote in the Fourth Century, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed, that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.”

In the Twenty First Century we would say that because in Christ God assumed every part and every dimension of human experience and life, there is no part of our lives, no community among us, no nation on the globe with which God is not concerned and that God is not working to heal.

The world, its people, and the issues we face, all of us and all of them, they all matter to God.

One of the implications of Incarnation – that in Jesus God came into our world – is that our spiritual lives and our every day lives aren’t separate. To borrow from Paul, the flesh is the arena of the spiritual, the spiritual is concerned with the flesh. In short, the distinction we want to make between church life and the lives we live and comment on and interpret is really a distortion of one of our most basic beliefs.

Because of this, we can’t pray as an escape from the world’s chaos and heartbreak. God won’t allow us to find refuge from the cares of the world in a sweet and safe spiritual life.

Instead, for our prayers to be called in any way Christian they have to include the struggles of the world. For our devotion to be consistent with the way of Jesus, it has to be open to the hurts of friends.

For our spiritual life to be big enough to welcome the God who has moved into our neighborhood in Jesus, it has to make room for the struggles of our neighbors, especially the ones we don’t understand.

To engage the world as a Christian I have to ask for God’s help and then do the hard work of watching the video.  It means I have to seek God’s grace and then listen to the lives of the people who are hurting.

It means I have to get prayed up so I can enter into being uncomfortable, because uncomfortableness isn’t an obstacle to faith but instead is most often the path to finding it.

It means coming to grips with the reality that we are a long way from the beloved community and that living into our calling as Jesus’ people means naming the gap between between what painfully is and what really ought to be.

Even when we don’t want to.

So, today I’m daring to pray, both to listen and to speak the words – words that go beyond the easy labels and words that risk more than I’m comfortable with. I’m praying for the grieving – the friends and families whose lives will never be normal, long after the rest of us have moved on to the next thing. I’m praying for God to move us and to help us find a way beyond the arguments and the predetermined talking points, to find a way to live again as if a loss of life was more than an occasion for winning an argument. I’m praying for God to give me words and wisdom to find some way to be an instrument of peace in a world and a nation seemingly constantly at war.

Mostly, I’m praying for courage and for faith – to listen, to speak, to believe and to live as someone who knows that God so loves this world, the one we’re trying to live in, and all the people in it. And because that’s true, everything can be different.

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