We Take, We Eat, We Remember

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smashed potatoes

Every time our friends come over to spend an evening with us, I get excited about what we can cook for them.

At first, there was an element of “PLEASE LIKE ME” to the food. If our food was good enough, we might be good enough. Perhaps the stink of “social pariah” might not be so pungent if the aromas from our kitchen were pleasing.

But they proved to us that we were more to them than just a well stocked fridge and wizard sauce makers. We had conversations where we got to know bits of our pasts, parts of what make us who we are today. We discussed favorite authors and books, sharing a few favorites with each other. We have talked about religion, politics, social justice – all of the things that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. We have laughed hard enough that we’ve needed to take ibuprofen at the end of the night. Ours is a young friendship, but it has the making of something lasting.

And we’ve eaten together.

Every time, they will tell us, “You don’t have to feed us to for us to visit.” And I believe them. But when we’ve made plans to get together, I still pull out my computer and start searching new recipes to try, or think about old favorites that I want to show off.

The truth is, there is something intimate about cooking for another person, and I have come to appreciate that.

Cooking requires our time, our imagination, a bit of ourselves. When we prepared a shrimp scampi, our hands were on each of the shrimp as we pulled off the shells. When we made waffles with a strawberry compote, I tasted the strawberries to check the sweetness. When we made wings, I used my memory to recreate an Alabama white sauce that we’ve done a few times, using my creativity in making substitutions for some of the items I didn’t have in the house.

Cooking involves all of the senses. Pressing down with our fingers on the piece of meat to check if it is cooked properly. Looking to see if we have the nice caramelization we want on the onions and garlic. Smelling the aromas of charcoal and wood chips when we open the grill and a roll of smoke pours out. Hearing the bubbles on the bottom of the pan as the broth begin to simmer for a risotto. Tasting to see if we’ve achieved the right balance of salt and acidity in the honey chipotle sauce. Our whole bodies are involved in the preparation of the meal we’re serving.

Jesus took a cup of wine in his hands and gave thanks to God. Then he told the apostles, “Take this wine and share it with each other. I tell you that I will not drink any more wine until God’s kingdom comes.”

Jesus took some bread in his hands and gave thanks for it. He broke the bread and handed it to his apostles. Then he said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this as a way of remembering me!”

After the meal he took another cup of wine in his hands. Then he said, “This is my blood. It is poured out for you, and with it God makes his new agreement.” (Luke 22:17-20, CEV)

Here, our table is the living room floor. Our eucharist is chicken wings and Coke Zero. But when we gather, we share what we have with one another. We share our friendship, our home, our food, our lives.

We take, we eat, we remember.

Let’s Be The Church Together

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20140618_3468_DxO Copie copie

Yesterday was a hard day. Hell, in the last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of hard days. Once again I find myself unchurched, and I don’t know quite how to deal with it.

It would be nice if I could just blow it off. Tell myself that they don’t matter, that if they can’t accept my son, why should I care.

And the defiant part of me that doesn’t like being hurt by the Church says that. I’ll listen to my empowerment music and say, “Yeah! The haters ARE gonna’ hate! I can shake it off too!”

But it’s not true. I can’t just shake it off. I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. I can’t act like finding another new church will be no big deal. That it wasn’t a huge act of courage just to step through the doors of that place and lay myself out to church people. That there wasn’t a massive unburdening when I was able to stand behind a keyboard and play again, after being certain that I would never have the opportunity again. That I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when we found ourselves in a home group, surrounded by people we genuinely liked being around.

Growing up, we used to sing a song that talked about the Church. One of the verses was:

The church is not a building
The church is not a steeple
The church is not a resting place
The church is the people

When I was asked why I would want to attend a church where I had so many differences with the theology, I wish I had been able to come up with that lyric, because that last line is why. The people. The woman who put her arms around me when I was telling my story and said, “I don’t judge you.” The group that prayed with me when my son came out. The people on the worship team that we ate terrible fast food and pretty decent Tex-Mex with. The times we were the Church, not because we believed all of the same doctrine, but because we believed that the message of Jesus was one worth following.

That same song had one other line from the chorus that has stuck with me for all these years:

Let’s be the church together.

I’m not sure where my church journey will take me next, but it will be with other people. I know that I’m still part of the Church, but it’s hard to be the church alone.

Welcome to Church, Hope You’re an Ear

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invisible

“You can come to our church, but you can’t serve.”

The first time I heard those words, I was sitting in a living room one summer evening. There had been countless meetings about my thoughts on music before I took over as the worship director and then countless after I began to implement the changes that I had laid out in those previous months. Despite assurances that what I wanted to do was okay and in line with the vision of the church, when there was pushback, the leadership decided that the old ways were easier.

The second time I heard those words, I was in a sanctuary, trying to figure out how something that I never hid suddenly made me unfit to play the piano in our church. We heard that we were to love our son, but not to support him, and why would we want to attend a church where we had such different views about topics like the inclusion of the LGBTQ community and the necessity of a literal hell.

When I wrote that we were asked to leave a church, there was some resistance to that idea. Of course we weren’t asked to leave – we were simply asked not to lead, and in our case, leading was playing on the worship team. We were welcome at church, just not to serve.

I find this disingenuous. I don’t believe it’s intentionally misleading, but nevertheless, it is untrue.

First, I think we need to talk about the purpose of a church. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says this about the Body of Christ (the Church):

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? (1 Corinthians 12:12-17, NLT)

Paul uses some fairly shocking imagery here. The idea of a single giant body part is both comedic and slightly horrific. A disembodied eye or ear is silly, but it is also the stuff of nightmares. It is certainly not a functional body.

When we tell people that they are only welcome in a church in the limited way that we have laid out for them, aren’t we assigning them to be body parts that may not apply to them? If we say that someone can attend church, but are unqualified to serve, we make them into an eye or an ear – something that observes or listens. There are benefits to those skills, but how do we function as a body when we relegate the bulk of the Church to passive positions?

In both of my situations, I was told that I needed to be quiet and get with the program. To be who the pastor wanted me to be. To make myself an ear.

Which brings me around to the original question – was I asked to leave?

If someone is being asked to make themselves something that they are not, are they being welcomed to your church? If you’re asking someone to make themselves invisible, do you want them in your congregation?

If someone comes to you as a hand or a heart or a foot and you tell them to be an ear like everyone else, then is this a Body or is it just a nightmare?

Our Voices Will Not Be Silenced

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voice

In 1988, I met Jesus on a muddy hillside in Pennsylvania.

I had caught glimpses before, but there, with the smell of pine needles and the body odor of a few hundred unwashed humans, I saw him clearly and I fell in love. I had been raised in the Church, but it took a long haired man in jeans and a t-shirt to tell the story in a way that broke through my teen mind and show me just how much God loved me.

I stood on that hillside, tears running down my cheeks, my normally loud voice quietly whispering the prayer that I finally understood. I experienced something revolutionary in those woods, and was unable to turn away. I had felt the love of a Parent who would never turn their face from me, and I was changed. A voice that wanted to speak that love to others was awakened in me.

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Ten years later, I lay in a hospital room, begging for the birth to be over. I had pushed for hours, and the child in me seemed content to stay there forever. Finally, with the aid of forceps, tears, and a mighty yell, the baby was born. The doctors had said that they didn’t want the baby to cry because there was meconium present in the fluid, but not to be outdone by mom, our newborn let out a cry that sounded far more like that of a 2 month old than a 2 minute old.

After far too long, I was allowed to hold this child to my breast and we nursed for the first time. This time I was the parent, and I could never turn my face away from this child. I was changed. A voice of love and protection awakened in me, unlike anything I had ever known.

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When my child was born, the doctors announced, “It’s a girl!” And based on the information they had at the time, that was accurate.

But in classic “don’t judge a book by its cover” fashion, that assessment was incomplete and 16 years later, the child who had been raised as a girl told us that she was he. During this rebirth there was no yelling even though there were some tears, but the mother who nurses her child cannot forget them, and turning away from him was not an option. The love that I had experienced on that muddy hillside nearly three decades earlier demanded that I show love to others, and the love that I had experienced 16 years previously when we had nursed together in a hospital room had never wavered.

Some, however, were not convinced that love and acceptance were the right decisions. They believed that the Parent who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” didn’t mean that for the gay or transgender children and that support from parents here was best not offered publicly. They believed that the voice that I was sharing could mislead others, shifting them away from the truth as they saw it. We were told that continuing to speak would mean that we could no longer be a part of their part of the Church.

My husband, who loves my voice and who loves our son, held my hand as I said that silence was not an option. Too many LGBTQ people have experienced not only hatred from the Church, but silence in the face of their suffering, and I cannot be silent.

In the days since, there have been tears and yelling and grief. A day of rejoicing was rendered somber, as we were unable to worship with a church family that we had grown to love.

Being asked to leave a church is an incredibly painful thing. But we are still a part of a larger family, with an infinitely loving Parent. And I will not be silent about the vastness of that love.

Does RFRA Offer Christians Freedom?

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freedom

Christian freedom has been in the news a lot the past few weeks. I suppose technically that we should be talking about religious freedom, but let’s be honest, the discussion about Indiana’s RFRA bill has centered largely on how it applies to Christian businesses.

With marriage equality already a reality in 37 states and the Supreme Court hearing arguments about gay marriage bans later this month, there should be no putting off the discussion about the LGBTQ community and the Church.

But that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. A refusal by many Christians to engage with the culture in a discussion about the rights of some of the least of these. All under the banner of freedom.

It seems to me that there are two different freedoms being discussed. Freedom that releases you from certain actions, and freedom that releases you to certain actions.

Freedom from can be good. Freedom from addictions, freedom from oppression, freedom from slavery. There can be true joy found when we experience freedom from something. Generally, we cannot begin to experience freedom to do something for others until we’ve experienced freedom from something that binds us.

This past weekend, people who hold to the Christian faith celebrated the biggest freedom from – the freedom from the grip of death through the act on the cross. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we no longer bear the weight of death, but instead are made free sons and daughters.

The thing about freedom from, is that it is a highly personal thing. When I began to experience freedom from shame, I began to find my voice again. When we recognize the ties that bind us and remove them, that freedom from leads us to discover our true selves. There is beauty in that, but it is a primarily self-focused, individual kind of freedom.

But I believe that Christianity offers far more than simply freedom from. It also offers freedom to. Freedom to serve our neighbors. Freedom to care about the welfare of others. Freedom to love unconditionally. When we look at that kind of freedom, it is outwardly focused. It uses that freedom that we have experienced personally, and uses that to be a blessing to those around us.

When we realize that we have freedom from so much, we can begin to operate in a freedom that is active. 

Looking at RFRA and the motivation behind it, I see it primarily as an opportunity to experience freedom from, rather than freedom to. It is about being freed from the demands to serve those who we may disagree with, those who we may see as undeserving. It frees us from the need to discuss how the Church can interact with the LGBTQ community. When I look at the Scripture, that feels antithetical to our calling as Christians.

For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. (Galatians 5:13 – NLT)

Regardless of whether or not one believes that same-sex marriage is sinful, it seems to me that we need to take our inward-focused freedoms and use them in a way that reaches out. If we have experienced freedom from shame, we now have freedom to lift up and encourage. If we have experienced freedom from addictions, that gives us the freedom to experience empathy. If we have experienced freedom from judgment, we then have the freedom to give grace. For everything that we experience freedom from, there is a gift that we are now free to give.

Freedom from chains is the path to an abundant life. Freedom to give is how we experience that abundant life.

The Dark and Beautiful Cross: Christus Victor

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Love will never invoke fear.
Perfect love expels fear, particularly the fear of punishment.
The one who fears punishment has not been completed through love.
1 John 4:18 (VOICE)

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Every Friday at my Lutheran school, we had chapel. And while most of our friends at public school were off on Good Friday, we still met in the morning to have a Good Friday chapel service.

When we went into the sanctuary, all of the linens for Lent were still on the altar, the candles were lit. The church was somber, as it was through all of the Lenten season, but there was still color, still signs of life.

But at the end of chapel, they would strip the altar. The candles would be extinguished, all of the linens would be removed, along with everything adorning the altar, save the cross, which would be draped with a piece of black fabric.

It was a solemn, and slightly beautiful ritual to watch. Through all of my adult years in evangelical churches that don’t particularly celebrate Good Friday, it has stuck with me. The picture of the cross on the bare altar, shrouded in darkness.

That memory has offered me comfort in my own grief, it has filled me with awe, it has given me hope.

One thing that the cross has never done is to inspire fear in me.

For most of my life, I tried to reconcile the way that the cross has spoken love to me with the idea of it being necessary atonement for God’s wrath. Fear and love are said to be incompatible, but the Easter story is often told with a healthy dose of fear. Fear of punishment, fear of death, fear of separation.

When I discovered the theological idea of Christus Victor, it resonated with me. Victory not over God’s wrath, but over the principalities and powers that enslave us. Over death itself. Here was the love that I saw poured out on Calvary. Here is the foundation of abundant life. Here is victory. Here is power and joy and peace.

The idea that the cross is not a giant block of God’s wrath, but rather an expression of God’s love is one that moves me to the core of my soul. It allows me to recognize the debt of my sin, but rather than being submerged in guilt and fear, it allows me to bathe in acceptance and love.

In one theology, the cross is a relief from God, in the other, it is the love of God.

I know the weight of my debt. There can be some comfort when you believe that you are being spared wrath. But it pales in comparison when you experience a genuine outpouring of love. The Bible says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Fear will bring forth a response, but it becomes wearisome.

Love will bring forth a response, but it will last forever.

As we enter these final days of Holy Week, I think about that cross, shrouded in black. It reminds me that God’s love had a cost, because love always has a cost. But God believed that I was worth it, and that makes even the the dark, ugly cross beautiful to me.

Fresh, Not Frozen

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grilled pizza by Alise

When the dark days came the first time, I stopped cooking.

I was nearly 30, I had four very young children, and a husband who was battling demons that nearly took him out of the picture entirely. Chicken casserole gave way to frozen chicken nuggets. Spaghetti dinners turned into SpaghettiOs. The Chinese delivery person predicted my order before I placed it. I knew that my family needed more, but I had no more to give. Preservatives, sugar, fat. Uncomplicated flavors. In the midst of my own depression, I turned to that which was easy, that which was convenient. These became my mode of survival. Foods that filled me up quickly, but left me hungry again far too soon.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t wake up one morning and announce to my family that I was going to stop cooking. It just gradually happened, without fanfare, without anyone really noticing. If someone had already gone to the trouble of making and packaging different foods, why did I need to bother making them?

Eventually, I took to saying that I didn’t really like cooking very much. But even that was taking the easy way out. The truth was, I didn’t like the circumstances that led me the place where I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t like feeling lonely, I didn’t like feeling separated.

Those same feelings that led me to stop cooking, led me to stop engaging with my first husband in any meaningful way. It was easier to just find the things that were easy about our relationship and ignore the parts that required work. Things were fine, but they weren’t filling.

None of that could be sustained.

When the dark days came again, I started cooking.

At first, I didn’t want to. I told Rich that I didn’t like to cook, that I wasn’t good at it. But rather than turning to pre-made, processed foods, he cooked for me. He made me soups because he know that was food that gave me comfort.

As time passed, I started cooking with him. At first, I would only chop up the vegetables that we would be using in the meal. Later, I started making the potatoes or rice that we’d serve with the main dish. Then I made sauces, appetizers, desserts. It became that I looked forward to our time together in the kitchen.

I found myself looking for recipes that gave a new take on favorite ingredients. I looked for new spices or vinegars to add interesting flavors to the same tired foods that I had been used to eating. New combinations, new ingredients, new techniques.

The same way that laziness in cooking was evident in the laziness in my former marriage, the new found zeal for cooking led me to work harder in my new marriage. When our marriage struggles, we don’t hide it under a veneer of “fine,” we take a look at what is hurting us and address it. Sometimes it isn’t great, like the avocado vinaigrette we tried to make, but if we don’t try, we can’t know what works for us. We can fall into predictable patterns that feel safe and easy, but ultimately lead to emptiness.

When we talk about our next house, we often talk about what we want in the kitchen. We dream about ample counter space, a huge pantry, an extra large range. We imagine the meals that we will cook together – full of complex flavors, vibrant colors, quality ingredients.

We want that for our marriage as well. Conversations that are don’t shy away from the complex questions. Living out dreams that are vibrant and alive. Treating one another with care because we recognize both the value of the other person, and our own value.

We will cook and we will love in a way that is fresh, not frozen.

(This post originally appeared at A Deeper Story. I’m slowly moving some of those posts back over here, now that ADS has shut down.)

When Jesus Was Dead

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There was a time that Jesus was dead.

Yes, there was resurrection, but today can we sit in that spot before that resurrection, for just a moment?

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Can we sit with his disciples?

They were almost certainly more than that – they were his friends. They had left their regular lives to spend time with this man. They believed his message. They trusted his words. They ate with him, they walked with him, they ministered with him. For the better part of 3 years, their lives were intertwined with Jesus’s.

They had the grief that comes with losing a close friend. They knew that he had spoken of life after death, but how could they know that it meant resurrection? How could they know that he had the power to raise himself from the dead? How could they know that they would ever get to share a meal with him or laugh with him or argue with him again? How could they relish in the “some day” reunion with him when right now they were feeling the ache of loss?

And there was the manner of his death – executed in the public square for the very declarations that they had followed. Jesus was whipped, mocked, and crucified for saying that he was the son of God. They had believed the same. They had said the same. Mixed with their grief was a sense of terror – what if they were next?

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Can we sit with Judas?

One of the original twelve, but at the end, he was disappointed. Jesus wasn’t turning out to be who he thought he was supposed to be, who he had been told the Messiah would look like. He stayed with him, so clearly there was a closeness in that relationship, but Judas could see the turning of the tide, and he wanted to get out ahead of the pain that was about to be poured out on the people who were followers of Jesus. He had information, so he used it.

But then it wasn’t a long trial. Jesus wasn’t merely beaten and humiliated, he was crucified. His friend, his mentor, his teacher – the man he had devoted his life to for years was utterly destroyed. Sure, he was probably in the clear because he had been the one to give him up, but the devastation of that act ate at him until he could bear it no longer and he took his own life. Grief mixed with guilt and shame caused him to forget all that he had heard about love and forgiveness.

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Can we sit with Mary, his mother?

Just a child herself when she conceived, Mary had raised a boy who became a man and claimed to be God’s own son. And because of the events surrounding his birth, she believed it. But that didn’t stop her from remembering the times that she had nursed him, had held him in her arms, had comforted him when he had experienced pain, both physical and emotional. His deity hadn’t stopped her from thinking of him as her son.

Despite all she had done to protect him, he had still been captured, tortured, and murdered. She watched his back be torn open. She had watched him struggle to carry his cross up to the hill of the skull. She had watched the nails gouge into his wrists and feet. She had watched him struggle to breathe and then she watched him die.

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Can we sit with the brokenhearted today?

People who have heard the Easter story so many times that it has lost all meaning. What does resurrection look like in the face of loss and mourning? What does the promise of eternity look like when you are dealing with the daily ache of missing a person who is no longer here? What does Jesus rising from the dead have to do with grief?

Are we using Easter as a way to avoid talking about the difficulties of living in a world that still has death? Are we using the resurrection as a way to keep from talking about the pain of loss? Are we talking about the astonishment of Sunday to avoid the humanity of Friday?

I believe that Jesus did rise. But there was a time when Jesus was dead. Let’s sit with those who are in that season.

The Lost Boys

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Elliott's feetThe house comes alive with the noise
that only six children can make.

Games are pulled off of the shelves,
with shouts for favorites.
Food is prepared,
with some expressing disdain and some voicing excitement.

Heads rest on one another’s shoulders,
hugs are given,
turn into wrestling,
then to comfortable piles of bodies on the floor.

Sometimes the house echoes with the sounds of arguments,
sometimes with the sound of music,
often with the sounds of laughter.

But this week, the loudest sound
was the cry in our hearts
for the sons who weren’t there.

A Strong Faith

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file0001406187121 I remember in my teens and early twenties praying for God to strengthen my faith. Even when belief came somewhat easy for me and faith seemed simple, doubt has always lurked. I trusted much of what I was taught in church and at the various Christian events that I attended, but there were also questions that remained. Questions about the place of women in Church. Questions about the exclusion of certain kinds of sinners. Questions about the fairness of eternal torment for temporal wrongdoing.

Questions that really boil down to the goodness of God.

I would often consider these questions to be a sign of a weak faith. A sign that I needed to spend more time praying, spend more time reading the Bible, spend more time in church. Something to help my faith be different than it was. Something to help me have a strong, robust faith.

Following Elliott’s death, those questions intensified significantly. I thumbed through books meant to give comfort to the believer after the death of a child, but they left me feeling more frustrated than uplifted. Instead, I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and highlight, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

Hillsong United has a popular praise chorus called Oceans. One of the lyrics says,

Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

It’s easy for me to wonder, what is wrong in me that when I encountered tragedy, my faith does not feel stronger, but rather feels like it is barely holding on? I have been through seasons where it has felt battered before, but in them, I could read something meant to be encouraging and be encouraged. I could listen to something meant to renew and feel renewed. There was pain, but there was also a sense that the pain had some purpose – something that I needed to learn.

But Elliott’s death seemed senseless. What is to be learned from the death of an infant? What encouragement can be gleaned from the loss of a child? How can faith be made strong in the midst of aching breasts and empty arms?

And really, what does a strong faith look like? How do we qualify the strength of our faith? What formula do we apply to figure out if we’ve achieved the mythical “strong faith”?

Some days the mere fact that my faith still exists feels like a testimony to its strength. That I can still see beauty in the Church feels like the marker of strong faith. That I can find fellowship where there has previously been rejection makes me suspect that my faith has power.

It is the faith of the Resurrection and the Life weeping at the death of a friend.

It is the faith of the Alpha and Omega asking to have his trials taken away.

It is the faith of the Savior of the world asking God why he had been abandoned.

A faith that sometimes feels loss, feels burdened, feels abandoned.

But a strong faith nevertheless.

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