For the Moments I Disappointment Myself (We Begin Again in Love)

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Copyright MO 2014

Recently, I’ve been catching myself reflecting on my actions, attitudes, and behavior with disappointment and disgust. I’m the one who, at 18 years old, vowed never to live my life out of step with my values, who vowed to always live with passion and bring life into the world. Because I knew what it was like to almost lose it after falling asleep at the wheel, totaling my car one July evening shortly after graduating high school. I glanced heavenward in prayer that dark night, my soul in chaotic communion with God, claiming with ardor that I would live it right. Not take a breath for granted. I took my heart by the hand in firm grip. “You’re going to be passionate. Keep your complaints to a minimum. And above all, you’re going to take this life, and love it, and love others,” I declared, releasing my flexed, pointed finger and gritted teeth. I then proceed to cry, turning my fuming fingers into open palms, and slowly rested my tear-drenched face into them, learning a lesson on self-compassion and how absolutely compulsory it is.

So when I have days like today, days where I’m so aware of my slights, my transgressions, missed opportunities for sincerely listening to and loving those around me… when I’m acutely attuned to the cloudy mind I’m allowing myself to get sucked into, instead of opening it to the beautiful mess and joy around me, I celebrate one of the greatest strengths that life has to offer: its elasticity. The supple forgiveness it offers to simply begin again. And again. And again and again until the time clock of our individual lifespan wears thin. That whole “it’s never too late to be the person you wish to become” thing. Yes. I celebrate that people forgive. And I also celebrate that in order to truly drink in the forgiveness of others, I must also forgive myself. I must learn— though it’s ok to forget and re-learn over and over again— to return the next day with eyes opened wide, glance looking forward or upward, not down in crestfallen shame. And sure as winter, I will repeat this cycle countless times, but the observing, learning, and practicing piece of forgiveness makes it possible to begin again.

It’s moments like these when I’m reminded of a closing prayer we once read when I visited a Unitarian Universalist Church:

For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For losing sight of our unity,
we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness,
we forgive ourselves and each other;

we begin again in love.

-Robert Eller-Isaacs

I look out the window at the moon singing to the night sky and snowy hills and valleys below. Tomorrow, every color known to humankind will show up again, somewhere. People who cried yesterday will laugh today. A lonely wander will find solace in the smile of another stranger. And I, too, will rise anew to begin again in love.

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‘Cause Tonight the World Begins Again.

Christmas Eve.

There’s a song that reminds me of this night, no matter what time of year. It’s not your typical Christmas song. You probably won’t hear it on your local soft-rock-turned-Christmas-since-Thanksgiving-Station that’s already played Feliz Navidad 50,000 times. I doubt you’ll sing it in Church, either.

It’s called “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls. I’m not sure what lead singer Johnny Reznik intended for this song, but I can’t hear this song without thinking about the hope of Christmas.

I picture Christmas Eve like looking out the window at midnight after an evening of appreciable snowfall. The roads are unplowed, smooth snow glistening like sugar cookies, fresh in the street, untainted. The media isn’t yet in a frenzy over which facility is closed and which will get a two hour delay. A hushed silence blankets the world, if but for the night, drawing you in closer to the person next to you. There is peace and wonder and beauty, but it doesn’t scream, nor demand your attention. Heaven knows we don’t need more screaming, more arguing. Instead, its peacefulness is what garners our attention and draws us nigh. This is a bit of what Christmas Eve feels like to me- a baby, born in privation, surrounded by the love of God, except this baby isn’t screaming. This baby is sleeping peacefully in Mary’s arms. There is a beckoning to this Jesus that doesn’t yell, but quietly, calmly pulls my soul in deep, especially on a night like tonight. 

This night is always my favorite out of the year. A sense of anticipation churns in my heart as I look up at the stars convinced that hope is always out there for the searching, that life is inherently good, that there is a love out there trying to find ways into every person’s heart.
For the past twenty-some years, I’ve felt a taste of this beauty, this hope, at Church, singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. I remember the peace and stillness in my mother’s voice as she sang. Sometimes I would lower my voice, or stop singing altogether just to hear her sing. She rarely sings, but this night is an exception.

This year, I barely went to Church, as in a place you go to on Sunday mornings. But I’ve experienced Church that much more strongly out here in the wide open spaces. I liken it to how some animals have a poor sense of eyesight, but sharp olfactory acuity. I may not get “fed” through sermons and communion and prayer anymore, but my sense of God in the everyday is clued in more strongly than ever before, and I find God gathered around a fire with friends, in 5 AM foggy sunrises, in sunsets over the mountains, in conversations about reconciliation and peace amongst nations, and in the most boring, trivial parts of life.
So I may be joining the crowd of “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) Christians tonight, but there’s no place I’d rather be. I know I’m not the only one. All sorts of people can find their way to Church on this night. Some who haven’t set foot in a Church in 10 years, only to discover that tonight, there really is plenty of room at the inn for all of us.

We discover, tonight, that in the midst of all the gifts, packages tied up in strings, something isn’t satisfying, and we realize that the greatest gifts that we’ve been given, like the song points out, are faith and trust and peace while we’re alive. We realize that we’re in this together, not focused on ourselves or egotistic societal mores, if but for one night. We’re focused on something bigger, on something we can’t explain, on something we can’t quite put our fingers on, on an event that we weren’t even around for all those thousands of years ago, but still choose to celebrate, year after year after year.

•••

It’s not coincidental to me that Christmas Eve falls one week before New Year’s Eve, and somewhere, at some moment in time tonight, you might find yourself placidly at a pew or lying in bed by candlelight, or perhaps driving home from a Christmas party or wrapping that last gift, turned inward, pensive, musing about the year as it slowly dwindles into its final seven days. And maybe your heart will fill with regret, or even bitterness. Maybe you didn’t treat people around you the way you wish you would have this year. Maybe you’ve had more joys this year than you could have ever foreseen, and on this night, your heart is so full, it just might burst with gratitude. Some of us will have lost someone, or something, this year, perhaps unexpectedly, that meant so much to us. And so our hearts are hurting as we experience our first Christmas without them. And as tears of joy and abundance, or tears of pain and hurt—or perhaps an amalgamation of both—warm your cheeks tonight, may you feel a presence come over you. Dare to believe it is God, softly whispering in your ear, “tonight’s the night we begin again.” All of our unmet hopes, all of our grievances, all of our confusion, all of our gratitude, our story, commingled with God’s story- the hope that on this night, like so many thousands of years ago, the world begins again. A hope rekindles. A baby gets born who will one day encourage the whole wide world to know how much they are loved, forgiven, freed. Whose words will affirm the pushed aside and the misunderstood. Who will flip things upsidedown, claiming that the last shall be first, the first shall be last. Ah, yes, that subversive guy. But wait. He’s just a baby tonight. Not a word has come out of his mouth yet, and his life, the story, is just starting, or re-starting. Ah yes, tonight’s the night the world begins again.

May we come to realize we are loved tonight. All of us, everyone of us, united together, seen with eyes of love. And not with a trite “Jesus loves you” kind of love, but a deep, pursuant, persistent love that never shouts nor excessively coddles, but is after you constantly, desperate for you to know how much- just how much you are loved, dear Child of God.

May we realize that together we “will do even greater things…”

May we each realize that Church doesn’t have to be a place you go to, but a peace you feel when you look up at the stars and can’t explain anything coherent at the moment, taken over by awe, knowing that in the midst of all this chaos is order and solace and constancy and bigness and smallness.
And if Church is a place you go to, should you ever feel dismissed, remember, God’s heart never closes. You are welcome here; there is always room in the inn of God’s heart. 

May we remember that everyone is forgiven. That this night is characterized by the innocence of a Child in a Manger. We are forgiven by a God who longs to lift us up out of shame; a God who will bend down on one knee, lift your chin up for you when your crestfallen glance won’t leave the ground, look you in the eye and say, “Look into my eyes, Child. I love you. You are forgiven. Whatever ‘dirty secret’ you hide, whatever you are so afraid of the world knowing about you, whatever holds you down, traps, and ensnares you… Whatever tries to convince you that you can’t change or that it’s too late or that you’re too far behind… Whatever prevents you from experiencing the allelujah… let it go tonight.”

Because God has promised us better days.

For tonight’s the night the world begins again.

And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings
And desire and love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
And it’s someplace simple where we could live
And something only you can give
And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive
And the one poor child that saved this world
And there’s 10 million more who probably could
If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
I wish everyone was loved tonight
And somehow stop this endless fight
Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days
So take these words
And sing out loud
‘Cause everyone is forgiven now
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again
‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

God is Not a Genie ((And Other Thoughts on Healing))

“There isn’t anything God can’t do!” “God the mighty healer!” “God renews, transforms!” “We are made into a new creation- behold!- the old has gone and the new has come.”

Sound familiar?
These are awesome truths about our God.

But they can’t be taught in a vacuum.

Knowing these truths alone won’t change you. Neither will praying them.

Because God is not a Genie.

No. Leave that for the blue guy in Aladdin, who sings “I’m here to answer all your midday prayers. You got me bona fide, certified. You got a genie for your chare d’affaires. I got a powerful urge to help you out.” (Feel free to sing along to the rest of “Friend Like Me,” all you Disney kids of the 90s out there.)

Instead of a Genie, we have the maker of the universe who calls us into maturity, who heals, restores, renews, refreshes our souls.

But how?

How, exactly, does God heal us? Grow us? Change us?

Because maybe you’ve been praying for God to “change you,” to “heal you,” or, perhaps in your most desperate moments, shouted out a dire, “Fix me! [Now!].” And you might still be sitting there. Waiting to “get healed,” “get fixed,” “be whole.”  And you’ve realized that either God’s not who he says he is, and he really isn’t in the business of healing, or he is and you just never got the message that there’s something for God to do…. and there’s something for you to do, too.

You see, we can wish and pray away our desires for healing, for change, for wholeness, while the rest of the world, so it seems, is getting healed, experiencing the hallelujah, walking in Shalom, while you’re off in your room feeling jipped, wondering where your burning bush is, only to realize you’ve been wondering around in the Sahara and there’s no shrubbery in sight. Just you. And God. ((And plenty of sand)).

Why doesn’t God just wave a magic God wand over us and fix us?
That might be nice, and a heck of a lot easier. But it wouldn’t allow us to experience faith.

Not the “if you just believe hard enough, sincerely enough, and pray long enough, you’ll get healed” faith.

But the kind of faith that has to go through something; go through a journey. Because if all we had to do was pray some prayer and our problems would absolve, that wouldn’t really be faith, right? It would be magic.

Why hasn’t God healed you yet?
Because he has a journey to take you through.
Yes, He wants to go on a journey with you.

Will you go?
Will you sign yourself up?

It’s not an easy one, but it’s worth the risk; it’s worth the pain; it’s worth the discomfort.

Perhaps it might look something like this:

First, you might come out from under the covers and ask the God of Light to come walk you through this darkness.

Then it might look like digging back into your past and uncovering the broken pieces that look really scary. I know the edges look sharp, but go on, see what’s really there. You might discover too that, “the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”

Because somewhere on your journey, you might uncover all the parts of yourself that you don’t want to see: the part of you that stuffs your emotions, that doesn’t voice your questions, that’s looked the other way for so long because the second you stare at reality face-to-face, your eyes well up with tears of shame. Hang in there. Ask for forgiveness. Not just from God. But from others. Not just from others, but from yourself. And give yourself some grace.

Somewhere on your journey, you might find yourself outstretched on the floor, pen in hand, journaling, and feel a sense of depravity come over you as you are reminded once again that we can’t do life alone. We need humans. And human relationships are messy and vulnerable. Again. Throw on some grace, (wo)man.

Somewhere on your journey, you might cry. Not just those couple of stray tears that sometimes leak when you yawn real wide, but the kind that are guttural, coming from the soul, not holding anything back as you lament into the comfort of Christ’s arms. You might cry in front of people, too. Or in a counseling office. Or in public, on a day when some slight thing brings back a memory, and suddenly you realize you’re in a long line at some store or in some office and people are staring at you and that’s ok; they don’t understand yet because they haven’t tried to explore the deep seas of their insides yet. And when they do, they’ll wish that the people around them weren’t staring, but instead, respected your moment, perhaps showing just a little extra kindness, like holding the door open for you on your way out.

Somewhere on your journey, you might laugh. Seriously. You might be on the phone with that awesome friend, spilling your guts to him or her, and it might occur to you in hindsight how ridiculous something you did actually was, or laugh at the dumb things that used to upset you, or make some joke at your serious circumstance, somehow capable of finding laughter in an otherwise stir-crazy, disheartening, painful situation.

You might sing. Whether it’s something worship-y, like singing “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” at Church one Sunday, grateful for the dimmed lights because the whole time your soul is unfettered in the hands of Christ, moved, free, tears collecting in the corners of your eyes, confident that no matter how rough it gets, you’ll still be there, standing, and so will your Maker. Or maybe you’ll sing “(Wo)Man In The Mirror,” rolling the car windows down, looking at the guy on your left while idled at a red light, and sing out with a hearty key change, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make the change. You gotta get it right, while you got the time ’cause when you close your heart then you close your mind!”

So there’s some looking back to move forward, there’s divulging all the secret parts that you’d rather leave in their caverns, unexplored. There’s some two steps backwards. There’s some trying again. There’s some rewinding. There’s some tears. There’s some prayers. There’s facing some fears.

But without a doubt, if we take the necessary steps to stare at our hurts, our pains, all without running away… if we poke around at what it was really like growing up in our families of origin, to confess a burning secret to someone you’ve never told, to reach out to that distant person you love so much but don’t even know where to start because it’s been such a broken journey… if we do this dirty work instead of hiding behind our paltry prayers, we will, indeed, experience the great healing of our God and echo along with Joel, that we also know God will be true to his word when he says,

“I will restore the years the locusts have taken.”

Amen.
Allelujah.
We’ve made out better than a Genie.
We’ve experienced Shalom.

Credit: Sarah Bessey, pinterest

Credit: Sarah Bessey, pinterest

What’s God So Angry About?

There’s things I keep being told about God that break my heart. I can hear them reverberate through my brain right now, voices that, almost hauntingly, make my stomach sink. “God is a God of wrath.” “How long, Lord, will you be angry forever?” Laments the Psalmist. “Where will you spend eternity- in Heaven or Hell? The day of judgment draws near!” shouts the billboard of 1-95 southbound. Here’s 60 more of those.

I get that we disappoint God and ourselves when we hurt one another. When we are selfish. When we forget about the poor and the vulnerable. When we miss the point completely, in all of our arguing and fighting instead of our loving and reconciling. I get that God is out there, somewhere, longing for us to get to know the one who knitted us in the womb.

But why is he portrayed as being so full of anger? Why does he hate our sin so much that he believes we should die for the time when we flipped off the …idiot… driver behind us? Why did he want baby birds or baby cows to die in order to assuage him into forgiving the sins of the Old Testament?

The American Psychological Association classifies anger into two dichotomies: constructive and destructive. Destroying an entire planet except for a dude, his family, some animals, and a boat would fall on the latter end of the anger spectrum. Inciting war? Also destructive. Completely rejecting an entire country? (Psalm 78:59) Destructive. Getting angry over injustice, over what Bono calls “stupid poverty” (preventable poverty, made possible through 30 cent mosquito nets that can literally save millions from malaria), over children being sold into sex slavery, over racism, over sexism, over homophobia, over unfair labor wages, over privilege, over entitlement, over hoarding riches instead of giving freely? Now that’s something worth getting fired up about.

I don’t know why, if our God is love, I’ve heard so much about God’s anger during the course of my Christian development. If you were to be describing a person using the vitriolic language I’ve heard used to describe God’s wrath, anger, and violence, I would be so afraid of this God that I wouldn’t want to show my face- I’d be hiding for shelter all day long, too scared to come out. But, oh, it’s not a person; it’s God. Why is it ok for God to do these things? Because God is who God is and God gets what God wants?

Isn’t there something better that our faith offers?

Isn’t there something more beautiful than wrath and anger and destruction? Getting angry and screaming? That’s easy. But I don’t imagine that a God who created the entire world, including everything, and everyone in it, takes the easy way out. I believe this God patiently wipes our tears after we apologize. I believe this God gives a look similar to the look my dad would give us kids when we did something wrong: We didn’t need to be spanked, or grounded, or punished (though sometimes we were). All Dad had to do was give us “the look” and my brother and I knew at once that we instantly disappointed the very person we love and respect so much. That’s enough for me to feel remorse and regret for my actions. And it was enough for my dad to express his disappointment without destroying me, killing me, or hurting me. And together, we’d have some heart to heart connection after the apologies have been said and the embraces, embraced. And none of that would have ever occurred if we justified our yelling, our destruction, our violence, our rage.

Perhaps the love I experience in those exchanges with my dad is the joy Jesus alludes to when he says, “blessed are the peacemakers.”  There is a gravity inside my heart that longs for God’s heavenly embrace when I’m scared, confused, and alone. It feels like an innate instinct. I think it’s because my heart and mind and soul know that I can trust this refuge, know that I am always welcome back in this Everlasting God’s arms. It must be. Because if my heart and mind and soul didn’t taste of this, and tasted the later- the burning anger, the fiery brimstone, it would protect me from it. For surely, I would die.

I don’t know.

All of this just hurts my heart.

The things I hear youth being told at conferences and conventions and camps about God and how we are detestable in his sight, but luckily, he’ll accept us because instead of making us die, He made some other man die because God loves blood as a means of forgiveness.

It causes me to wonder how we really view God.

If we really see him as so wrathful, how does that impact our relationship with him? Our trust of this God? Our fear of this God? Is this why people are so afraid to propose anything about salvation different from “believe or burn?” Because the God they know is angry and will send people there; no more second, or third, or ninety-nineth chance? What if the “unbeliever” walks gingerly into his or her first few moments of death and experiences a blinding light, struck by the beauty of the God he or she has spent their whole life ignoring, only to realize this wasn’t the God they were  intending to ignore. They wanted to ignore the little gods of hatred, bigotry, and shame. But instead they realized that those gods didn’t exist; at least not in celestial form. The only God that exists is the one who loved them from the start, before the start and now it’s nothing but two long lost lovers in an airport, embracing, making up for lost time, lost connection, and renewed relationship.

All of this makes me wonder, What are we telling our kids about this God? How does this impact their development into adulthood?

I can’t explain away the parts of the Old Testament (and New) that describe God in such violent ways. I think there’s allegory and metaphor, and maybe, just maybe, God didn’t actually write in this book about how much he hates people who don’t worship him, people who perhaps don’t worship him because they’re scared of the God they’ve been presented with.

If Jesus told us to love our enemies, is it not plausible that God and Jesus actually practice what they preach and love people who are too afraid to love him? Even the people who don’t believe in Him/Her because they think S/He stands for ignorance and hatred? 

I’m seriously not trying to be divisive here. My heart just hurts from conversation after conversation of trite remarks about God’s wrath without ever considering that perhaps certain voices in Evangelicism have blown God’s anger out of proportion. When I read this book, when I live each day, when I experience grace and mercy and forgiveness, when I experience the divine connection to God in prayer, when I see the beautiful sky at night, I’m convinced so deeply that we do indeed worship a God that I can confidently call “love.” It feels so good to exhale and shed one more layer off of an asphyxia-causing noose, a layer of dogma I’ve heard about God but never experienced- a God who is more concerned about our sin that the imago dei he placed inside of us.

When your God is love, you are freed to love. When your God is love, you don’t have to walk in fear of when this God’s next outburst will be. When your God is love, you are freed from the ridiculous notion that you have to get the words right, the verse memorized tit-for-tat, have an answer ready for every and any question that comes along. When your God is love, your God isn’t afraid of your questions. S/He simply sees them as an opportunity to connect with a soul s/he loves, and mutually, we gratefully delight in each other’s companionship. And S/He loves us so much that s/he longs to have such moments with us. It’s beautiful, really. And sure not lonely. And definitely not laden in anger. 

They say love is patient, love is kind, love is gentle, that love is not self-seeking.
They say my God is love.

And love conquers all. 

The Paradoxical Sting (Prayer of Forgiveness)

Give us clean hands, Oh God,

But, like a child who falls down on hard ground,
scraping his/her hands,
dirt and dried blood disrupting
the smoothness of our open palms,
and learns that part of fixing up our wounds
is that awful, stinging, first aid antiseptic
that cleans our cuts,
accepting that we have to add more sting to our stings
in order for them not to sting anymore,

May we, too, realize
That our hands can only truly be made clean
When feel the sting
of our actions,
When we recognize the consequences
of our mangled webs we’ve trapped ourselves in,
When we feel the weight of what we’ve done
or hurt we’ve caused
Or verbalize all the secret truths about ourselves
we try to repress…

When we confess to God,
To those we’ve wronged,
and to ourselves

When we allow ourselves to hear,
taste, and feel the anodyne forgiveness of our God

When we allow ourselves to humbly take in
and receive grace in the forgiveness
of another human being,
the very one, in fact, we’ve wronged

When we, in turn, let such forgiveness
simmer down deep
into the parts of our souls still drenched in shame,
and finally make peace with ourselves through forgiveness,

Then, and perhaps only then, will we experience
the allelujah of being washed clean
,
Our broken pieces made whole
Our scrapes, healed,
Our hearts, resolved.
Our harried minds, resoluted,
Our souls, in holy peace.

Amen.

copyright MO 2012