Sermon: Wisdom from Below

This sermon was preached at Broadway Baptist Church on September 23, 2018.  Click here to listen to the audio.

“St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to the others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” 

Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation wanted James removed from the Bible.

Luther saw James’s assertion that “faith without works is dead,” as a contradiction to Paul’s gospel,  “We know that a person is justified[a] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

In the face of a Catholic Church that he saw teaching justification by works,  Luther boldly preached Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Soa gratia, Solo Christo, and Soli Deo gloria

By scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone, we are saved and to God alone be the glory

As protestants like Luther we believe that it is the grace, the love, the faithfulness of Christ who saves us.

It is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that reconciles us with God’s self and with the world.  And it is Christ’s continuing work in our lives through the Holy Spirit that is transforming us. It is easy to understand Luther’s complaint

But what if the epistle of James is not a contradiction to the gospel at all?  What if it’s actually a practical invitation to trust in Jesus more deeply, to surrender our more fully…

Surrender is not passive.  Surrender takes hard, intentional work

It’s one thing to say “yes” to God’s grace, intellectually.  It is another thing altogether to actually do what it takes to open ourselves to receive that Grace in our lives.  That doesn’t just happen because we make a profession of faith or walk down an aisle or have the right ideas about God.    It happens with everyday habits and decisions that allow God’s grace to enter into the deepest parts of who we are and produce fruit in the way we live.

Pope Francis recently told a group of teenagers, “the road to holiness is not for the lazy.” James would agree

In the chapters before this morning’s readings he writes that holiness is about being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…about being hearers of the words but doers of the word, about not acting on our prejudices, about caring for widows and orphans, about doing what we say we believe.

And in today’s passage, being gentle, yielding to others, and working for peace

In some sense, the Christian life is about working hard to choose these practices, to choose these habits, not to earn the love of God, but because we trust that God would use our obedience in these things to change us and to change our world.

But James understands that our ability to choose the way of Jesus only gets us so farAs the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7, We don’t  “understand our own actions. For we don’t do what we want, but we do the very things we hate.”  James describes this way of being as “double-minded”’That within us we have both wickedness and the salvific presence of God.  That we often contradict ourselves in word and action without even realizing it.  That we are at the same time attempting to follow Jesus and filled with “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition”

For us envy is a rather benign word, but in ancient world “envy” was shorthand for the most deceptively destructive forces within us.  Socrates called envy the ulcer of the soul.  Aristotle called it our deepest sorrow as others have what we want.  Like other ancient writers of his time, James calls this “an insatiable hunger or craving,” that operates beneath the surface of everything we do.  Whether we recognize it or not, it creates turmoil within us and every conflict and dispute we have with others.  It makes us believe subconsciously that we are not enough and there is not enough for everyone to share.  So we take what we need from others, we do what we have to do to protect ourselves, to keep our power and control.

And this “envy”, this hunger, this craving, unchecked can produce hatred, faithlessness, abuse of power, ambition, and arrogance.  James calls this unexamined sinful, instinctual way of being “earthly wisdom.”  

It is easy to look at the world around us and see this in everyone else.   The hard truth is that it is within us too…

Five years ago, I did Clinical Pastor Education, a hospital chaplaincy internship that they tell you is about learning how to take care of other people in crisis.  What they don’t tell you is that you the program forces you to deal with the crisis in your own life.

In my first days visiting patients I was consumed with anxiety.  I was so focused on performing well, on saying “the right thing”and doing the “right thing.”  But no matter how hard I tried, my interactions with patients were rigid and awkward, and probably not very helpful for them.

In one of our first peer reflection groups, I spoke up to defend a colleague who I thought was being unfairly criticized.  Jonathan felt attacked by my words, and it seemed that he was angry at me for the rest of the internship.  I perceived myself to be someone who is easy to get along with but I couldn’t convince Jonathon of that.  Over the course of the semester, he called me on my white priviledge, and my intellectual arrogance.  Every encounter with him proved to be another conflict.

And the coursework didn’t provide any relief!  Our instructors gave us readings and facilitated group conversations to help us better understand our family stories.  We were asked to write about the most painful parts of our lives. 

And out of all of this came a breakthroughWe learned that there was a connection between the particular hurts we experienced as children and the way we navigate the world as adults.  For the first time in my life I was able to name my insatiable perfectionism and the deep fear of rejection that drove it.  I could see it’s root in the quick temper of my father and the playground bullies standing at the chainlink fence.

Somewhere back there those critical voices without had become a critical voice within.  It was my way of surviving.  Doing whatever it took to not deserve the criticism of others, or criticizing myself so harshly that no one else could possibly say anything worse.  I finally began to name the deep pain that I had always felt. 

And what finally began to sink in was that I wasn’t the only one hurt by this wound.  As the old adage says, “hurt people, hurt people.”  I was shielding myself from hurt in the patient room as I focused on my own need to perform and in the process their hurt was neglected.  It was in my critic speaking loudly to defend someone else that hurt I Jonathon. And my critic who was so afraid to say the wrong thing as I tried to repair our relationship that prevented me from gaining his trust.  As I realized all of this, I tried with all my might to shut down the inner voice that was causing all of this pain.  But in a moment that changed my life, my supervisor, Angela, said,

“that voice is not an enemy you must defeat, but a hurt little boy who never grew up, a hurt little boy just trying to protect you.  Hear him with compassion. Speak gently to him.  Acknowledge his pain.  Feel his pain as your own.  Embrace him and embrace yourself, even if it hurts.”

Five years later, I talk to this little boy often.  Sometimes when I feel angry, I look into his red, crying face and realize that my anger is not really about the person or thing I’m reacting to  but about my own hurt. 

 And by God’s grace in those moments, I sometimes choose to feel my own pain  rather than projecting it on someone else, saying that thing that would have hurt them or insisting on my way when I could just let it go.  As James instructs, I draw close to God, and I pray, and rather than giving this immature little boy what he thinks he wants, rather than saying yes to what James calls the craving within, I yield to God.  Most of the time though, I’m only able to see the hurting little boy in hindsight when the damage has already been done.

As I think about today’s gospel lesson I wonder if this is why Jesus took that child into his arms?  I know that it might feel like a stretch for you to interpret in this way, but just think aboutJesus holding that little child. 

I wonder if  This was his way of trying to break down that “double-mindedness” he saw in his disciples in a way that words could not touch.

The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus on the way, learned from his teaching, worked with him in his ministry, but they were also filled with what James called “wisdom of the world,” the envy, the craving that constantly grasped for power.  They could not reconcile God’s reign on earth, with a Messiah who would die.  They would resist Jesus’s suffering and their own.  Protecting themselves was the only wisdom they knew.The disciples did not see any inconsistency in following Jesus and also exalting themselves to positions of greatness.

And so maybe Jesus  grabbed that child so that they might confront within him their own fear of vulnerability?  Perhaps Jesus held the child closely hoping that they and we might have the courage to feel and hold our own pain?

It doesn’t matter how wise we think we are or how hard we try.  We will never be able to be gentle and yield to others.  We will never be able to make peace with others.  We will always protect ourselves at the expense of others, as long as our wounds go unaddressed. 

Are you willing to face your wounds?  Are you willing to let Jesus hold that little child within you? 

This is not something that I can even begin to tell you how to address in a sermon.  This is the spiritual and emotional work of a lifetime.  Facing our wounds might take sessions with a psychotherapist or counselor or spiritual director.  Our stories are so complex that we usually can’t unravel them without help from someone with professional experience. Our hurt is too deep to safely face on our own.  And not all of us are ready to do this.  Our wounds from childhood (and adulthood) are just too much, just too painful.

Facing our wounds will certainly take prayer.   A  willingness to listen deeply to all of the voices within us, and a kind of spiritual grit, that keeps us moving forward, allowing God to love us and forgive us, and loving and forgiving ourselves as we walk one step forward and two steps back

Facing our wounds will take community.  We need others to hear them.  To challenge us when we let ourselves off too easy.  But more often than not, to encourage us when we are too hard on ourselves.

Whatever it looks like for you, I pray that today you will begin to listen to that child within.  That you would have the courage to feel her pain and the humility to acknowledge how your survival instincts have held you back and hurt others. 

This hard learning is the way to gain what James calls “the wisdom from above”, but the wisdom from above is really from below.  We see this in the life of Jesus, the One whom Paul called, “The Wisdom of God.” The Wisdom of God who was made known in humility, in suffering, and in the cross…

but also in the resurrection!

The good news this morning, is that if we follow Jesus down this path of self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, and self love, we will find new life.

For though James sees wickedness within us, he also instructs us to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.”

No matter how hurt and wounded we are deep within, and no matter how much that woundedness has turned us in on ourselves and caused us to attack others, the image of God within us can never be corrupted.  The Holy Spirit is also there.  In God’s grace and with God’s help, we can always change. 

Neuroscience tells us so.

In preparation for our upcoming adoption, our agency required us to attend a training called “Pathways.”   Jenny and I spent two days learning about the way that neuropathways form in an infant’s brain based on his environment.  If a child cries and mom comes to comfort him and feed him, his brain wires together pathways that help him to understand that if he asks for help his parents will respond.  The creation of these pathways in those first few years determine a child’s ability to learn, his reaching of developmental milestones, and the level of safety and security he feels

Children who have experienced trauma develop  different kinds of pathways.  A stressful pregnancy already begins to shape the brain of the child.  When a baby cries and no one answers, no one feeds, no one comforts, pathways go undeveloped.  When a baby or toddler cries, and he is shouted at, or shaken, or hit, the brain wires pathways of fear.

We were told that all of our children had experienced neglect or trauma and that our children’s neuropathways, development, and behavior would reflect that.  We spent the afternoon talking about how to respond in ways that would not compound the trauma.

Our facilitator told us that the biggest challenge we faced in parenting would be not be our child’s trauma, but learning to deal with our own unresolved childhood trauma.  To recognize and deal with the ways that our neuropathways were warped and hot-wired by our own pain, so that we can begin to help our children find healing.

I was overwhelmed.  We are first time parents and our son has been through more in his three years of life than we will ever understand.  He was abandoned at birth and has spent his whole life in an orphanage.  

I want nothing more in life than to ease his pain, but I know that like every parent I will inflict new wounds.

I raised my hand and asked the social worker, “What do you do when you really blow it?  When you realize that you’ve really hurt your child?”

Surprisingly,  she said, “You’ll find it’s better for your relationship to make a mistake in parenting and work through it with your child than to not make the mistake in the first place.  This actually begins the work of rewiring the brain in a healthy way.”

Friends, change is possible. You can let go of selfish envy and ambition.  You can be gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, a peacemaker.  Not by your willpower, not by your understanding, but in the grace you will find when you are willing to embrace the hurting child within, seeing the ways that unresolved fear and pain drives your restlessness, your hunger, the deepest cravings within you and be willing to let go and surrender to the grace of God.

Draw near to God, little children.  Let Christ pull you to himself and hold you close today

Amen

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The Gospel According to an Enneagram One

This post first appeared on Coracle on September 19th, 2018 as a part of their 9 week series on the Enneagram

“Neither do I condemn you.” —John 8:1-11

It’s a familiar story. The Pharisees, concerned that Jesus cares nothing for the law, test him with a real life case study: a woman caught in adultery. Jesus, instead of answering, stoops in the dirt to write with a stick. We move onto the next sentence as soon as we exhale, but I wonder how long the crowd waited for him to respond? Were they as stone silent as the space between punctuation marks? Or were they loudly shaming this slut and Jesus too. I think we know how these things usually go.

Finally, Jesus rises to his feet and invites the sinless person in the crowd to hurl the first rock. Again the text is quiet, but I imagine the cacophony continues with even more fury. Jesus drops down to the dirt again, waiting until every man in the crowd drops his stone and walks away. Rising to face the woman he asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she says. Jesus replies, “Then neither do I condemn you.”

The familiarity of Jesus’ words threaten to rob them of their power. They are extraordinary. Jesus tells the crowd that only the sinless One can condemn this women. If Jesus is, as we have historically claimed, the only human without sin he would have been fully justified in picking up the stones and killing this woman himself.

But Jesus refuses what the law requires.

Jesus goes beyond what is logical or expected just to love this woman. Loving her not meaning that he denied her transgressions, but that he refused to define her, invalidate her, or terminate her personhood as a result of them.

Might Jesus show me the same type of mercy?
Might Jesus also refuse to condemn me?

I hope so.

As an Enneagram One or “Perfectionist”, I feel like I’m surrounded by this shouting crowd every morning.

Ones are defined by the presence of an angry inner critic. Ones like Eights (the Overcomers) and Nines (the Peacemakers…ironic but true) are motivated at a gut level by anger. I get angry at dirty dishes, flat tires, passive aggressive co-workers, the injustices of the world, but mostly myself.

I constantly condemn myself for not accomplishing enough, not exercising enough, not cleaning enough, for not being enough. My inner critic is loud and shape-shifting, speaking in a myriad of ways when I’m awake and disrupting my sleep as my subconscious agonizes over real or imagined undone tasks. For a One, the rules are important and the most important rule is, “Be perfect.” And if I break this irrational but very real expectation, I’m throwing rocks at myself without anyone else being around.

This condemnation awakens me daily ringing as loudly as my alarm clock. Some mornings I scream back. I tell my critic to shut up. I argue with him. I insult him. But no matter how forceful I get, he always snaps back more ferociously. Other mornings I speak gently to this voice, carefully acknowledging that he arose in my childhood to help me survive. I thank him for trying to protect me. Sometimes just acknowledging his good intentions calms him down. Either way, these never-ending conversations are exhausting.

Lately, when I hear the voice rise up, I try to breathe deeply and let the critiques wash over me without giving them my attention. I imagine these negative thoughts as passing clouds outside the window of my soul, here for a moment and gone the next. If I wait long enough the voice decreases in volume until I no longer hear it at all. If I wait long enough, it’s as if I hear Jesus rising from the dirt saying, “Neither do I condemn you.”

This is the good news for an Enneagram One like me.

As much as I condemn myself, Jesus doesn’t condemn me. My inner critic might correctly recount the wrong I have done and the right I have left undone or done imperfectly, but if I allow myself to sit and breathe and wait, I find that his word isn’t the last word. The last word is Jesus’s word of grace. Grace that does not excuse my imperfection, but displaces its ability to define who I am.

This practice of detachment is really an acknowledgement that I am powerless to fix or save myself. It is a statement of faith that has nothing to do with my ability to be faithful. It is an act of surrender to the God who made me and this wondrous world at the same time imperfect and in God’s own words at creation “very good.”

If you are an Enneagram One, find a practice that helps you to let go:

Journal. Write your compulsive, angry, thoughts until you have nothing left to write. Let go of them as the ink dries on your page.
Go to a yoga class. The positions of yoga were designed to help monks still their bodies and minds for prayer. Sometimes feeling the physical discomfort of a pose or trying to stay balanced in a pose allows you to focus on the present moment.
Meditate. Set a timer on your phone. Focus on taking deep breaths, breathing in more deeply than usual and exhaling out every bit of stale air. Repeat a short scripture or phrase that brings you to love and acceptance. Neuroscientists tell us that this repetition helps the voices that arise from the “monkey” and “lizard” brain to stop.
Go to a place where you have no responsibility and nothing to fix or perfect. Many Enneagram teachers say that the best way to love a One is to take them on vacation. Find a place that you can take yourself on a mini-vacation during the workday or for an extended time on a day off.

Have faith that even when you cannot see it that both your imperfections and the relentless critic within are parts of who you were made to be in the image of God.

The Gospel According to the Enneagram

This entry first appeared on Coracle on September 18th, 2018 as a part of their 9 week series on the Enneagram

“You must be born again.” —John 3:1-21

Whenever I read these words from Jesus to Nicodemus, I think of the messages I heard as a teenager about what it meant to be a Christian. I was told that there was supposed to be a separation in my life between who I was before and after I “accepted Jesus into my heart.” I believed that my inborn sinful nature was enough to corrupt the goodness that God created within me. I was told that the person I was born to be needed to be overcome and left behind.

I obsessed about sin in my teens and early twenties. I rejected the concept of sin a few years later when I deconstructed my faith. But no matter what I believed or didn’t believe about God, I was tormented by guilt and shame about who I was.

I think we have misunderstood being “born again” just as much as Nicodemus did. We’ve believed that our rebirth is a complete abandonment of our first birth, that our lives can be divided into old and new, sinful and redeemed. We’ve viewed rebirth as something that happens instantaneously, once and for all. We’ve confused our tendency to hurt ourselves and others as a conscious choice of rebellion that we must outgrow, rather than a wounded part of us that is on a lifelong journey of integration and healing.

What if rebirth in Christ isn’t about leaving behind the person we were born to be at all, but about recognizing that we are and always will be full of mixed motives—sinful and sacred, broken and beautiful?

The Enneagram is the spiritual tool that has helped me redefine myself in this way.

The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system that may have origins as diverse as Buddhism, early Christianity, and the Sufi traditions of Islam.

Named for a nine-pointed geometric shape, the Enneagram describes nine distinct but interrelated types:

1 — The Perfectionist
2 — The Helper
3 — The Performer
4 — The Romantic
5 — The Investigator
6 — The Loyalist
7 — The Enthusiast
8 — The Challenger
9 — The Peacemaker

Each person has a “wing,” a secondary type that shapes their primary type. Wings are typically understood as being drawn from either side of an individual’s primary number. For a One (The Perfectionist), wing options would be Two (the Helper) or Nine (the Peacemaker). I am a One with a Nine wing. Practically this means that the “peacemaking” part of me tempers the critical part of me, helping me to understand and appreciate the different perspectives of others, views which my inner perfectionist might otherwise might perceive as wrong.

Each type also has a number they go to when they are stressed and a number that they go to when they are healthy. For example, when stressed, a One takes on the unhealthy qualities of a Four (the Romantic). With the inner critic in over-drive, the unhealthy One becomes resentful of others having fun, sensitive to criticism, and depressed. when feeling secure, a One’s critical voice becomes quieter and they take on the healthy qualities of a Seven (the Enthusiast), becoming more self-accepting, relaxed, and open to spontaneity.

These numbered types are more about a person’s motivations than their actions, making it impossible and potentially damaging to “type” someone else. Richard Rohr explains that it takes many people years to even know their own type. If it is the work of a lifetime to know ourselves, how can we really know someone else?

For those who are afraid of “being put in a box,” it might be helpful to imagine the types as you would colors. There are an infinite number of unique shades of blue, and yet we perceive each one as blue. While your number may be a helpful tool for understanding yourself, it remains a tool, imperfect and far from from comprehensive.

To begin to find your type, I would recommend listening to “The Enneagram”episode of the Liturgist Podcast with Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile or reading Cron and Stabile’s book, The Road Back to You. While there are many online assessments that will take less time, I find that taking this slower, more in-depth approach allows you to learn about each type’s motivations, perspectives, and habits, and discern what feels true to the person you know yourself to be.

The “road back to you” through the Enneagram starts with a brutally honest personal inventory of the shadow and light within you.

You might feel great grief, sadness, and even anger when you learn your number. Perhaps you will finally have a name for the great pain you’ve always felt but never fully acknowledged. You might be devastated to learn that you have within you the thing you’ve always hated. You might sober as your realize how destructive you have been to yourself and other people.

You might find great relief when you learn your number because you understand, perhaps for the first time in your life, that you were meant to be who you are, with your unique strengths, weaknesses, and everything in-between. You might feel more connected to others, knowing that within your number there were, are, and always will be other people who see the world the way that you do.

Though it comes though great pain, the rebirth possible through the lens of the Enneagram is good news. In this holistic system of grace our “good” and “bad” attributes are not understood as competing forces within us, but as parts of a spectrum. A balance of light and darkness, yin and yang in which our great gift and our great downfall are two sides of the same quality. What threatens to destroy us also makes us successful. What torments us also brings us life and gives life to the world.

With the knowledge of your number’s motivations, struggles, and path to health, your life can begin to transform from a quest to fix yourself to a journey toward harnessing the inherent goodness in every part of who you are.

Because of the pain caused by my inner critic (type One), it is natural for me to try to shut it up, but when I do this it only comes out more violently.

I have come to realize that this angry voice is my voice, the voice of a scared little boy who learned to be as perfect as possible, seeing and analyzing and fixing his shortcomings before anyone else could. It was his way of surviving.

I have learned to speak gently to him. To thank him for protecting me.

But I also know that what Jesus said to Nicodemus is true for me: It is time for the little boy to grow up, to find a new identity, to have his brokenness transformed into maturity.

This critical voice doesn’t need to stop speaking, it needs to be transformed.

After all, another name for the One is “Reformer.” Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Jimmy Carter are Ones.

I am learning to be aware of my drive for perfection, at times detaching from it and at times harnessing it to move toward my own health and wholeness hoping that my struggle will enable me to work for the health and wholeness of others.

May we all be born again.

1 — May the perfectionist make peace with their imperfections and work for change in the world.
2 — May the helper know that they do not need to serve others to be loved.
3 — May the performer feel acceptance in their falling and failing.
4 — May the romantic know that they belong.
5 — May the investigator embrace their life and its emotions without knowing all the answers.
6 — May the loyalist know that they will be okay even in their “worst case scenario.”
7 — May the enthusiast stop chasing the next high and have the courage to confront the hard things in life.
8 — May the overcomer walk defenseless toward themselves and others.
9 — May the peacemaker hear and speak their own voice, knowing that the world needs to hear it.

May all of us be born again so that we might see the kingdom of God and live more fully into the joy that is found when we say “yes” to our true selves.

a few things we want you to know about God…

Judah, my son, in the morning I pray for you.  That you will sleep peacefully.  That God would slow your beating heart, wrapping you in Her warmth.  That your dreams would fill you with wonder and curiosity.  That your imagination would grow big and wild, waking you in the morning ready to run and play and create your world.  I pray that when a nightmare steals sleep that your nanny would be near to lift you close to her chest and hold you until your crying eyes close again.  And when you wake alone I pray that you feel God’s arms around you.   I don’t know what anyone has told you about God or what no one has had to tell you for you to already know about God.  Perhaps you will have a different name for God than we do.   Or maybe you won’t understand this feeling, this presence, as God at all, holding a deep appreciation for the human spirit, that glowing light within.

We told the social worker that we wanted you to choose your own spiritual path and we meant it.   Your mom and I put our faith in the person and way of Jesus.  We will tell you bible stories and our stories, but we’ll also introduce you to other stories and  storytellers.    We want to create the space you need to choose your own faith or  the space to let that faith  choose you.  We want you to see that the multifaceted, all-encompassing, beauty of the Divine is larger than any culture that reflects Her and more wonderful than any religious lens that attempts to behold Him.

But there are a few things we want you to know about God.  The bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but also over and over again, “Do not fear.”  I know this is probably confusing.   I could explain all sorts of complicated things about the Hebrew and the Greek, but I will simply say this: God is the mystery that energizes, animates, and holds together every good thing in our lives.  I hope that you believe this, approaching every person, every plant and animal, every breath with wonder and reverence.  When you color or make up games, or sing silly songs, or dance around the yard, that is God moving in and through and around you.   When you fall and scrape your knee or feel overwhelmed with sadness for reasons you don’t understand, that is God also with you, feeling your pain, shedding your tears. “Fearing” God is being careful to remember and respect that God is in all things and all people.  “Fearing God” is not living carelessly, not hurting anyone or anything made in God’s image, especially yourself.

Sometimes God’s presence will scare you, because God will invite you to risk yourself to care for someone else or risk something you believe is important to become more of the person you were meant to be.  When you feel this fear, I pray you will face it with everything you have, knowing that it will never be easy, but it will always be worth it…even when you cannot yet see it.

But there is another kind of fear that is never from God.  Anytime you worry that you’re  not enough, anytime you’re afraid to be yourself, anytime you feel paralyzed by guilt and shame, that fear is not from God.  There will be many people who will tell you that God needs you to think or act a certain way to be loved and accepted.  Don’t believe it, even if (and when) we somehow make you feel that way.  God loves you just as you are.  Nothing can change that.  No matter what you do. No matter what you believe or don’t believe.  No matter who you love.  No matter where your life takes you.  Nothing.  Really nothing.  Nothing can separate you from the love of God. It’s taken me 31 years to even begin to believe that.  If one day you find yourself believing in God, know that though He has all sorts of hopes and dreams for your life, that all God asks of you is that you let Him love you.

And whether you believe in God or not, know that all I will ever try to ask of you is that you let me love you too.

“Give me the Holy Spirit!”

Whenever the front desk calls saying that someone wants to talk to a Pastor,  I know that after the prerequisite testimonies and prayers there will be a plea for cash.

As I walked downstairs I let out a big exhale, trying to let go of my cynicism and frustration and find the patience to be present to whoever was waiting on the couch.

Steve [We’ll call him] asked me to help him understand the scriptures.   I began flipping through his white Gideon bible, careful not to drop the bus pass and homeless identification card marking pages, and careful to find passages expressing God’s universal presence and unconditional love.

 I read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who struggled to understand the scriptures until God sent Phillip to read with him and baptize him, and ultimately celebrate the way the Spirit was already at work in the Eunich’s life.   I read Paul’s words from Romans, “..the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  and, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Steve grabbed my hand and loudly interrupted, “Give me the Holy Spirit!”

Everything within me protested.

I can’t give him the Holy Spirit.  He already has it.  We all do.

God’s ruach (breath, wind, spirit) hovered over the waters to create all things, blowing into dirt to form human beings in God’s image.  According to God in the Holy Qur’an, God is as closer to us as our jugular vein.  God’s Spirit is the animating force sustaining all of creation, all relationships, all work, all creativity… everything that brings us life, healing, and wholeness.  Jesus became human so that we could reclaim the divine presence in ourselves, our enemies, and those we marginalize.  Ultimately in Jesus, we find God’s spirit present in suffering and death.  The whole history of the church has been the struggle to remember and proclaim this truth.  I wanted to tell him that he already had everything he needed.

But instead I held his hand tightly and did what he asked, praying passionately for him to receive the Holy Spirit .  As soon as I said “Amen”, he shook my hand, put on his shoes and walked out the door saying,  “You have been released.”

Did Steve find what he was looking for?  In the last couple of weeks I have seen him over and over again, walking down the street, eating at the Agape Meal, or sitting in the back of the sanctuary.  I know my words didn’t have the power to bring the Holy Spirit into Steve’s life, but I wonder if perhaps God used them to help him see something that was there all along?  And if not, I hope he will ask again and again until he feels God’s presence so fully that all he has to do is breathe

Bàba ài nī

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“Bàba ài nī.”  I hit replay on my phone again and again to hear the words reaching for the fundamental truth I  want my child to know. “Daddy loves you.”  I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly repeat them that first time.

Now a day doesn’t pass without Jenny and me walking around the house saying, “Bàba ài nī!” “Māmā ài nī (Mommy loves you)!”, and “Wō ài nī! (I love you)!” to each other, the dog, our little boy’s picture, or an empty room.

It is hard to fathom that we could love this child so much.  We’ve never met him, never heard him speak, never been in the same room.  We only know him through pictures, videos, and badly translated medical charts…but we love him.  What is this mysterious space opening in our hearts, stretching wider through pain and joy, longing to pour out all that is within us to make space for this boy?   How is that this seed, the calling of adoption,  planted in the heart of my bride as a girl, sprouted and grew all these years, tenderly, quietly, until all of a sudden we found it breaking forth from the ground of our life together? It’s sprout pushing aside heavy layers of contentment and fear, replacing our laughter about the plight of friends with children with a blooming desire for children of our own.

Like any miracle, it’s a mystery too confusing and beautiful for words.

I’ve always struggled to understand love.  I’ve felt it.  I’ve received it. But it’s never made sense to me.  Something in my psyche tells me I have to earn the love of others.  It didn’t matter how much my Sunday School teachers told me God loved me, or my parents or grandparents told me they loved me, another voice told me that I had to make myself worthy of love.  When I received praise as a teenager and young adult, my already strong  self critic told me I didn’t deserve it.  Heartfelt words felt hollow and disingenuous.  Couldn’t they see my flaws, my mistakes, my failures?

Looking back I know that they did, but that they saw me through the eyes of love.  I didn’t understand what this meant until I married Jenny.  I was deeply embarrassed when she saw the messiest, most selfish, hidden parts of me and deeply moved when her affection did not wane.   It wasn’t that my words and actions didn’t matter or weren’t hurtful to her, but somehow her love for me was rooted in something deeper than my ability on any given day to love her well.  As I experienced this again and again, my ego began to crack and break until I could begin to receive her love without qualification, not even my own.

As I look at the picture of this little boy that will call me Dad my heart feels like it could explode.  I think I am beginning to understand a little more of how my parents feel about me and how all parents feel about their children.

This love is a grace beyond us.  We don’t will it or create it. It overcomes us.  A life-shattering gift.

I don’t need to understand it.  I just pray that I can stay open enough to receive it and generous enough to give it.

 

Reflections from the Baptist/Muslim Dialogue, April 16-19, 2018

Originally published on EthicsDaily.com May 2, 2018

Bearing Witness to Confront Negative Stereotypes about Islam

How do you begin conversations with parishioners and neighbors at home whose minds seemed closed by negative stereotypes of Islam?

We Baptists wondered this aloud as we left the third national Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

We spoke at length about confronting Islamophobia in our churches and communities.

Does this mean correcting Uncle John at the Thanksgiving table? Sometimes. What about writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper or our state representative? Absolutely. How about having an uncomfortable conversation with a Sunday School class? Certainly. But is this all we are called to do?

I then remembered Mohammed Elsanousi, director of the Secretariat of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, explaining earlier in the dialogue, “When we do things like this in Islam, we are not allowed to do them on our own. We are instructed to invite our non-Muslim neighbors to witness what we are doing to hold us accountable.”

He was speaking about his advocacy for the Marrakesh Declaration, a document authored by Muslim scholars across the globe urging Muslim-majority countries to protect Christians and other religious minorities.

As a Baptist, I was deeply moved by this effort that honored the legacy of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams and John Leland, just as much as the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

I felt God calling me not to be a witness in the sense of accountability, but to “bear witness,” to share the good news about the compassionate, sacrificial work my Muslim neighbors were doing with all who would listen.

I felt this call again when Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, who saw Christian soldiers massacre Muslims in his refugee camp as a child, embraced a Baptist pastor and called him his “brother from another mother.”

I felt called to bear witness as Anwar Khan, president of Islamic Relief USA, spoke about Islamic Relief’s work to feed Rohingya Muslims in Bangladeshi refugee camps and help hurricane victims in Tarboro, North Carolina.

I felt called to bear witness to the faith of brothers like Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes, resident scholar and imam at the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, as he showed us how to wash our hands, arms, feet and head to cleanse ourselves from the dirt of our lives and invited us to pray shoulder to shoulder.

One of my new Muslim friends told me he feels closest to God with his face on the ground, and for a moment I understood what he meant.

I felt called to bear witness to the mystery of God I experienced as I fell to my knees and the kinship I felt as I heard “Peace be upon you” spoken to me over the shoulder of my brother.

Over the years, I have been quick to call out what I saw was wrong in talk about Muslims and Islam.

While I still believe this kind of critique is important, now I feel more compelled to bear witness to what is right about the lives of my Muslim neighbors.

What if we focused on telling the stories of their spiritual journeys and their acts of neighbor-love that rarely make the headlines?

What if we committed to give testimony to the connection we feel with God in conversation, prayer and shared meals with our Muslim friends? How might this change the conversation?

Perhaps it would open up just enough wonder to transcend our typical arguments.

Maybe it would build enough of a platform to allow us as interfaith advocates to stop being defenders of Islam and step aside to allow our Muslim friends to tell their own stories with the possibility of being known and loved in our communities.

Willie Jennings, associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, writes that the key to dismantling racism is not knowledge but desire.

We don’t change because we gain more knowledge. We change because we fall in love with those we have been taught to hate.

Could it be the same with dismantling Islamophobia?

I love my Muslim sisters and brothers and I will bear witness to the beauty of their lives, hoping that others will see what I see in them. I will not be silent.

Originally Published on May 3rd, 2018 in the Alliance of Baptists’ Connections

Renewed by the kinship built between Baptists and Muslims

by Drew Herring

“When we encounter diversity it is an opportunity for us to acknowledge our limits.” In these words from Dr. Raimundo Barreto, assistant professor of world Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, I heard God’s invitation to listen deeply and intentionally at this Third National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue April 16-19.

As Dr. Barreto spoke, I looked around the room at the Anglo, African American, Latino, Asian, and Arab brothers and sisters who had traveled across North America to Green Lake, Wis. Our gathering was specifically organized with the hope of mobilizing young leaders, but we were graced with the presence of many generations.

In addition to the congregations and educational institutions we serve, our group of 62 participants represented the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptists, Baptist World Alliance, Canadian Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, Lott Carey, the Islamic Center of North America, and Islamic Relief USA.

Like the National Baptist-Muslim dialogues that preceded it, this dialogue included sessions highlighting theological distinctives and theological common ground between Baptists and Muslims, as well as both groups’ initiatives to promote religious liberty and social justice around the world. What made the 2018 dialogue unique was its focus on relationships. Each participant was challenged to begin, or strengthen, a relationship with a partner of the other faith tradition and create a covenant between their two congregations at home.

To empower us in this goal, our sessions were less academic and more rooted in lived experience. Our Muslim sisters and brothers spoke about the everyday consequences of Islamaphobia, telling stories of wrongful accusations, death threats, protests, loan denials and violence.

In a particularly poignant moment, Anwar Khan, president of Islamic Relief USA, reminded us that his experience of being held by the Transportation Secretary Administration (TSA) was not that different from the treatment his African American sisters and brothers might receive from police anytime they are behind the wheel of a car. Anwar had named the elephant in the room. While he appreciated the concern about Islamaphobia by our group of mostly white Baptists, he reminded us that we still had much intrafaith work to do to dismantle racism within our own tradition.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Global Christianity and the American Church along with it is growing fastest among poor and immigrant communities, particularly among Latina women. What would it look like if instead of choosing fight or flight, white Baptists like me decided to acknowledge our limits? What if we preemptively embraced our position outside of the center of the shifting religious landscape by giving up power? What if we

saw the growing diversity of Christianity and the broader community as an opportunity to listen and learn not just about our neighbors, but about the multi-faceted image of the God we share?

Returning from Green Lake, I am renewed by the kinship built between Baptists and Muslims in hard, side-hurting laughter and tender, tearful vulnerability. I am renewed by the God I met as I prayed with my face on the ground beside my Muslim brother and served communion beside my African American sister.

I am renewed in my calling to end racism and Islamaphobia, not just as a pathway to greater social justice but for a deeper participation in God’s work to break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing the fullness of God in and through each other.

I am grateful to be part of an Alliance of Baptists family that has responded to this call time and time again over 31 years, and continues toward the voice of the Lord together.

Week 1: What is Easter?

I poured a mug of coffee, read the familiar scriptures, and stared blankly at my journal.  The climax of the story I’ve staked my life upon taunted me like Rorschach ink blots, mysterious and silent.  So what?  I tied my brightest bowtie and drove toward the bells, brass, Alleluias and pastels.

What is Easter?

The answer that eluded me at my writing desk became more clear at the traffic light.

I saw Easter in the man walking from JPS, half-tied gown, hospital bracelet and drawstring bag.  Walking slowly, but walking forward.

I saw Easter in the woman with her bed roll, resting in the bus shelter but on her way somewhere.

Later that day I saw Easter in Sunday Schooled elders refusing to believe they’d arrived spiritually and wondering what new life might be found if they could let go of the stubborn bits of ego still lingering after all these years.

I saw Easter watching determined worshippers strut past parking lot protesters.  The meant to be derisive accusations about our “Gay Jesus” only causing greeters to hug friends tighter and welcome more cheerfully and a teenage boy with wisdom and compassion beyond his years to ask, “Why do they have to tell lies?”

Easter is not just a day or a season but a habit.   A continual, defiant, choice to not let suffering, fear, or hate have the last word.   A commitment to Wendell Berry’s command “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

 

 

 

 

A Word for the Weary: Part I

 

Isaiah 50:4-8a

Every morning I read a psalm and a few gospel verses, set the timer, and write into the sunrise.   There are days when when my lingering in bed or the demand of an early meeting squeezes my 20 minute practice into 5 or 10.  There are days when I stare at my timer impatiently, ready to get on to the real work of the day.  There are days when I doubt the words I write are worth their weight in ink.

But then there are those other days…

Days when I can’t write long or fast enough.  Days when my pen finally stops and I breathe heavily over pages filled with words somehow only partially my own. Words too desperately honest, too important, to be held back by my measured hand.  The seemingly formless scribbles concealing the rawest beauty.

Writing is the spiritual practice that helps me transcend the noise of my first conscious moments and listen.   Word by word, I am emptied like the body exhaling out every last bit of stale, constrictive, breath.  In the mystery of hand and mind moving at the same time,  I read back the surprising things I’ve written and breathe in refreshed, resting in a new space of center.

Writing invites me into self-examination before NPR tempts me with self-righteousness.   Writing affirms that I am enough before my inner-personal trainer tells me to run faster.   Writing (for myself and not anyone else) allows me see beyond my work the God who is working on me.

Writing is the discipline that reminds me that I need to hear the voice of the Lord before I have words to offer anyone else.  Isaiah writes, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”   My worst writer’s block occurs when I forget that I am chief among the weary ones.  My pages stay empty when I write to meet my preconceived notions rather than whatever words my pen forms.  And so morning by morning I show up.  The timer is running…

Declaring my LGBTQ love: thoughts on the Illumination Project

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“Love is not what you say.  Love is what you do.”   I’m glad this quote is posted in the youth hall men’s room for our teenagers to see during the Valentines season.  These young men need to know that words of love mean nothing without a commitment to actions that make space for others to flourish, even and especially when that costs something (for this is why St. Valentine was martyred).  These young men need to think very carefully about telling someone they love them if they aren’t willing to embody that love.  These young women (I assume the same poster is  hanging in the ladies room?) need to learn to only believe the words “I love you,” when their partner shows them the kind of fidelity and care that love really is.

But I also hate this poster.   It makes me angry.  What we say matters.  Words break trust and wound souls.  Words dehumanize.   The nursery rhyme is a blatant lie: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will cripple me far longer than physical injuries.

It is also true that what we don’t say matters.

I am proud of the many beautiful, thoughtful, courageous responses to the Illumination Project’s short-sighted conclusions and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship‘s  discriminatory policy  that prohibits the hiring of LGBTQ persons for any missionary assignments or key leadership positions.  With all of the Facebook comments, blogs, and articles, and sermons, I’ve wondered “What else is there to say?” And so I’ve said nothing.

In an Ethics Daily interview with the Illumination Project Committee, Suzii Paynter makes the point that what is most important is not the hiring policy of our denomi-network, but the love and care that LGBTQ persons receive in CBF congregations, even in congregations that are not welcoming and affirming.  In one sense it seems that Suzii and the Valentines poster are right: actions speak louder than words. This has been the message of many pastors and churches I’ve served over the years.  I’ve been encouraged to work for what I saw as justice slowly and gradually behind the scenes, being careful not to speak too loudly and offend people, especially if they have money.  This approach has been framed as balancing “the pastoral” and “the prophetic” or described in a favorite phrase of the Illumination Project as, “meeting people where they are.”

But I now see this type of voice as a voice of privilege and this type of love as incomplete.

I now see that not saying anything is only pastoral for part of my community.  I now see that speaking out prophetically is in fact the fullest expression of the pastoral office when the people I love are being excluded by the baptist family they hoped would be their home.

I will no longer be silent.

I will not personally attack any individual or organization, but I will speak up forcefully for and with the ones I love.  I will speak up with my gay friend seeking ordination.  I will speak up with the woman who stood in my kitchen with tears of joy as she gave thanks that her and her wife could finally worship together in a Baptist church.  I will speak up with one of the most gifted preachers I know as he receives rejection letters from search committee after search committee.  I will speak up with my future adoptive son’s adoptive”guncles” whose wedding I look forward to planning.  I will speak up with the couple who loved my aging grandparents, helping with groceries and doctors appointments, and becoming the sons they never had.  I will speak up with all of the LGBTQ people who have invited me into their homes and into their lives, teaching me more about love and grace than I ever could have known without their friendship.

I love the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   The CBF has financially supported my education, created space for me to discern my calling, opened up opportunities for employment, and brought me friends who have sustained my ministry over these last ten years.  I am proud of the CBF’s courageous efforts to elevate the voices of women, work for racial reconciliation, and respond to God’s work outside of traditional institutions with new church starts.  I truly believe that this is a movement that is seeking to follow the Holy Spirit.

I love the CBF enough to speak up when I believe that they are choosing to be less than God has called them to be.  I love the CBF enough to speak out when I see them choosing less than the fullness of God’s image, as they say “no” to the LGBTQ lives and the unique gifts they offer.  I love the CBF and my gay friends enough to lean into the tension. I know not all of us can or should walk this path any longer, but I will stay and speak up.

Who are the other lovers out there?  How will you speak up online or in person? How will you speak up in Dallas? With acts of protest or resistance?  With rainbow pride? With motions on the floor of the business meeting?

Love is not just about what you do, but what you say.