When the rain falls and the floods rise

Into every life a little rain must fall.

These words paraphrased from a Longfellow poem have been ringing in my ears today. It isn’t raining here, actually it’s been kind of a dry week. But I feel the rain.

Many of my friends and family are also feeling the rain today; this week holds many shades of sorrow. Friends are literally still digging out from storms that blasted a month ago. Family are tending to grief and memories of loved ones lost long enough ago that others are forgetting and still so fresh as to prick tears from those close by. Other friends sit freshly wounded at the loss of life, too soon, too sad, too shocking to describe.

Grief is so common, it could provide the one universal human experience. Everyone who loves eventually feels the pain of loss. Longfellow says it is inevitable. Into every life a little rain MUST fall. But why must it?

I want to reject it. Wall it off, don’t let it in the gates. Ward off loss at every turn and with all my defenses, I’d turn myself into the loneliest woman in the world.

I don’t have the answer to the question of why.

I don’t know why it has to hurt so much to love.

I don’t know why life ends too soon.

I just don’t know.

There is little comfort in the knowledge that others hurt, too. Surely the answer to my pain is not the pain of another. Still, Jesus said we are blessed when we mourn because we shall be comforted. Perhaps the answer is not in avoiding our pain, but in seeking to comfort each other in what we all will come to experience in time.

Comfort each other with the same comfort you have received.

-St. Paul

Finding ways to empathize may connect us in ways that heal the other rifts that divide us. If I can see you as one who grieves, I can perhaps overlook ways in which we differ. I can find a way to love those I find unlovely.

Longfellow is awfully optimistic, promising the sun is still shining behind the clouds. Sometimes it hides for so long.

I have seen the sun after a storm, its brilliance brighter than before. It is not a guarantee that the rain won’t fall again, but perhaps enough to remind me to believe.

The Rainy Day
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary

HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

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The Team That Screams the Loudest

When I was in school, we would often have pep rallies where teams or grade levels would throw a cheer back and forth, getting louder every time until all the students in that section were screaming at the top of their lungs. There was only one rule, the team that screams the loudest wins.

As I think about all of those poor vocal folds getting cracked and torn (it was a badge of honor to lose your voice because of your intensity) I am also pondering the issues surrounding internet communications. These lines of text are called social media, but I really have a hard time referring to a field of battle as anything approaching social. I’m feeling ranty and today’s my day off, so of course I am blogging about it.

Yesterday in a Facebook group someone shared a screen-shot of an actual conversation between two people who live just over 90 miles from me. The interaction was the worst of the worst of trolling, name-calling, accusations, stereotyping, all that was missing was ALL CAPS! What made matters worse was that one of the people involved in this vicious behavior proudly displays on their public information that they attended a university loosely affiliated with my denomination.

To understand why that even matters, I have to tell you that there aren’t that many Quakers walking around the US these days. We have a good reputation with most people who learned about our involvement with abolition, women’s rights, and the peace movement. Social justice is a pretty big deal to those who cherish our history and look to influence the world today. When a person even tenuously associated with our name gets it wrong, it makes a big splash.

The person posting brought this up. At that point I had a choice to make. I could defend this person’s ridiculous behavior or I could disown them, or I could say that not all Quakers believe the way he does. I suppose the other choice would be to scroll by and say nothing…but we all know you can’t let someone be wrong on Facebook.

I can not even begin to count the number of interactions I have seen in internet communications that leave me shaking my head at the bruised fingertips and cracked nails that fall victim to the ideology planted in our formative years that the team that screams the loudest wins.

Does it? Does it really?

Some days I think so. Those days are depressing. Those are the days that I don’t want to get our of bed or interact with other humans. I can’t stand the thought that so much of our lives, our futures, our children’s futures are being determined by who is shouting the loudest, and often the vulgar-est, and often the hateful-est. It is mob rule at its worst.

There are other days when I have faith in the subversive forms of love and service that hide their glory behind the scenes bringing peace-filled moments into the darkest places. On those first days, I try to duck my head and involve myself in those second day kinds of activities. I’m determined to be part of the solution, and shouting louder is only going to cost me my voice, and maybe my heart, and possibly my soul.

What if we gave up shouting for our teams and starting serving one another in love?

What if we stopped identifying by our ideology or our politics or our class and started living into the faith we profess? (I’m mostly talking to my Christian sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, cousins and relations–those who claim as master the one who said the absolutely greatest thing is to love God and the second to love the person next to us.)

What if we did choose to scroll by those wrong people on the internet and whisper a prayer for them instead of shouting them down with the greatest insults?

I am all for standing against injustice. I think we ought to speak the truth. I also believe the best way to do so is in person with full accountability for the things we say and do.

If I post about homelessness and do not love the homeless, I am a noisy gong or clanging symbol.
If I post about racial reconciliation and do not love individuals and communities other than those like me & mine, I am accomplishing nothing.
If I post about a cause that matters and am not actually doing anything to make things better myself, personally, on my own time, I am nothing.

Where there are tweets, they will cease.
Where there are posts, they will pass away.
Where there are selfies, they will fade.

But these remain:

Faith

Hope

Love

And the greatest of these enduring forces is Love.

ReFreshing

Spokesperson

Last week I attended the birthday party of a newly 24-year-old gay man in a bar. I know that may come as a shock to some of you, and you might even hit “unsubscribe” because of it. Before you do, though, I hope you will hear me out one last time.
I was at a queer birthday bash in a bar because that is precisely where I believe Jesus would be. He didn’t get the reputation of being a “friend of sinners” by keeping his distance from the gritty side of life. And he didn’t get called a glutton and a drunkard by abstaining.

That can be tough to hear, I know, especially if you have spent a good portion of your life in places that teach an image of a porcelain Jesus. You know the ones, alabaster skin, waif-like beauty, clean, manicured nails.

I can’t tell you whether Jesus was man-gorgeous, but I can tell you that he got his hands dirty. Jesus was a tekton, a builder working alongside his father. He hung out with fishermen. He called himself a shepherd. None of these occupations are known for their similarities to the fragrant allure of the perfume counter.

Some of the rest of you are going to be angry because I insinuated that being at a gay man’s birthday party is gritty. You would be correct. It was one of the most low-key gatherings I have attended in a while, and I am a pastor so do not underestimate just how tame things get when I am around.

I sat at a table of people with diverse lives, histories, and backgrounds. Some had boozy drinks, others savored a craft beer, some mostly sipped water. Not one of them expected that the late-30’s mom type who just sat at their empty space was a pastor, except the person who invited me to sit beside them. That person knew my secret identity, but no one else did. So they were honest. Honest about their lives. Honest about their dreams. Honest about their frustrations.

One person spoke about their interactions with the post-worship crowds on Sunday at a local deli counter. One nicely dressed Christian physically assaulted her co-worker because they were out of his favorite chicken. Here was the moment that would out me.

I had a choice. I could have remained incognito, the one person at the table who knew me would not have revealed my secret. Honestly, though, there was no way I could not say what came next. “I’m so sorry that happened. As a pastor, that ticks me off and breaks my heart.” Then I added just for flair, “Next time he comes in, you should tell him you are praying for him.” I couldn’t help it. She would not strike the average church goer in middle-America as being the praying type.

I’m not always a good spokesperson for Jesus. I would guess that all of us fall short from time to time, and I can’t say I’ve never been the guy so mad about chicken that I blew it. (Ok, maybe not about chicken, but other things for sure.)

My point in writing this is really to call my Christ-following friends out of the closet, out of the church doors, out of our enclaves and onto a chair at a table, in a bar, celebrating the life of someone God loves with people whose only interaction with Christians is post-worship hangry-ness. If we want people to have a different view of Christ, a different impression of Christians, we have got to spend more time with them.

I can hear the objections, “But, go to a bar?” Yes! GO to the bar. “Sit with people who are drinking?” Yes! SIT with people. (Ok, sit where you are invited to sit, and maybe don’t start at a biker bar, and make good choices, and be safe, and take a friend.) But the only way you are going to look like Jesus–friend of sinner, glutton, drunkard–is to go where Jesus went and hang with those society has labeled as not enough.

Spending time with people does not mean we agree with all their choices or that we share all of their opinions. What it does in us is to demonstrate the value of those around us, and what it does for them is offer an alternative view of Christ and his church. Those open doors are worth everything.

We have done an awfully good job of dividing the world into “us” and “them.” We hang out with people who are like us, and sometimes in a very literal sense we say, to hell with “them.” I believe that breaks the heart of the One who came to tear down the dividing walls of hostility. It is uncomfortable and challenging to spend time with people who are not just like us. Growth is uncomfortable, but necessary if we are to love “them.” If our personal righteousness and reputation are more important to us than bringing light and life into the lives of others, we aren’t heeding our master’s call.

Our presence with them, hearing their stories, seeing the light in their eyes, will change our hearts. Which is great, because Jesus already loves them. If we truly believe what we say with our mouths, that Jesus Christ died to save sinners, with us at the top of the list, then Jesus Christ died to save those we have too often labeled as defective. And it’s time to peel off the sticker we’ve plastered over Christ’s stamp declaring their worth as priceless.

My friend, whose birthday was being celebrated, pulled me aside and asked, “Is it wrong or selfish of me that I am glad that all these people are here for me?” Three tables, about 12-15 people total. “No, my friend. It’s your birthday, and you are worth celebrating.”

Joining God in loving those around us,
ReFreshing

A beautiful dress

This was at the top of my soon to be 9-year-old daughter’s birthday list.
“A buetaful dress” to be more precise.

My rough and tumble tom boy.
My sweet and sometimes spastic child who can’t always find herself in space.
My awkward, lovely, frustrating, cherished girl.

She wants a beautiful dress.

It makes me misty-eyed because it reminds me that at the center of herself she just wants to be loved. She longs to be appreciated and celebrated.

It is hard to remember this when she won’t brush her long red curly hair.
It is hard to remember when I have to ask her six times to stay out of her brother’s personal space.
It is hard to remember when everything about her is and always has been loud and sharp and on the move.

But she is almost always in a skirt and tights, and she loves to make bracelets.
Why wouldn’t she want a beautiful dress?

Why is it so hard for me, as her mother, to see this tender heart longing to be seen?

Am I too busy?
Have I fallen into the rut of seeing only her challenges?
Whatever the cause, I am awake and aware of her today.

Because she wants a beautiful dress.

God, open my eyes to see the heart in each of my children that cries out to be loved, cherished, seen and understood. Give me awareness of my own tendency to walk through life so busy that I miss the quieter call to love these precious gifts.
Amen

Awareness, beauty, gratitude–
Ingredients for a ReFreshing Life

**I wrote this post over a year ago and set it aside. It jumped out at me today, tugging again at my heart.

Justice & Mercy Depend on a Humble Heart

A message given at Friends University Chapel, February 9th, 2017

I was born here in Kansas in a very small town south of Greensburg. If this were a joke, you might ask me, “How small was it?” To which I would reply that it was a town so small that I was born the New Year’s Baby on the first day of May. That is how I promptly lost my 15 minutes of fame, just hours after I was born, by being mentioned on the national news.

I grew up in a home where my parents were active in ministry. My dad was a pastor, my mother a pastor’s wife, then they transitioned to camping ministry where we spent the next 8 years living on the grounds at Camp Quaker Haven, just South of Arkansas City, Kansas. We moved to Wichita when I was in 3rd grade, and I attended Wichita public schools until I graduated from East High in 1997. (Go Blue Aces.)

I was always a really good student, and I left High School, and even college feeling like I knew a lot and had a good understanding of the world around me. I can’t tell you how much less I know now than I did when I graduated from High School 20 years ago. That isn’t anything new, I am sure lots of older people give you a hard time about not really knowing anything because you are young. We joke about it, but it really has been true for me that the more of life I experience, the more I learn that I still need to study and grow.

I started at my church 10 years ago. The first week I was serving my congregation, a man went on to hospice care and died. His funeral was 10 days after my first Sunday. I didn’t perform that funeral, thank the Lord there was a former minister who the family had already planned to come do the service. I got to wait a whole 9 months before my first funeral. I have now officiated at over 30 funerals. But that first death taught me something. I had no answers for this grieving widow who was old enough to be my grandmother. I had nothing to say, and wasn’t even sure how to pray or how to help. I went to her house and just sat on her couch saying nothing for almost an hour. I felt like a complete failure. She saw it differently. In the 10 years since, she has often remarked that she felt so loved and cared for because of that time I spent sitting in her living room.

I also serve as a birth doula, supporting laboring women encouraging them and helping them stay focused, to move, to breathe so that they can make progress toward their goal of having a great birth experience. Birth is such a fluid thing, it is different every time, there are no hard and fast rules of what to do or what will help every woman. What they really need is someone to be with them. Years of ministry, of walking with people through death and new life, I am convinced that one of the most important things we can do to support our fellow humans is simply to show up and be present for those life-changing moments. Presence is something that characterizes my approach to ministry. It is how I make a difference in the world.

How many of you want to make a difference? I don’t meet many people who are 100% satisfied with the way the world works, with the way people treat each other, with the health of our families, communities, and churches. There aren’t many rallies where people chant “Keep things the same! Keep things the same!” We all want to make a difference, and it can be so difficult to know how to make our mark, how to impact the world in a way that only we can as individuals.

As Christians, we want to impact the world for the kingdom, it is in our most basic prayer: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That prayer begins to be worked out in our hearts first. Let your will be done in me as it is in heaven.
I love the verse that has been chosen for your theme this year. Micah 6:8 was one that I learned in high school and I knew it was important. In my mind as a minister, as a follower of Jesus, as someone who wants to make a difference in the world, this verse sits alongside Deuteronomy 6:5 that instructs us to love God with all our heart, soul, and essence, the verse Jesus quotes alongside Leviticus 19:18 which says to love your neighbor as yourself. These are what Jesus used as his ruler when applying the rest of the law and prophets. Love God, love neighbor as you love yourself. The same two things are emphasized in this verse.

There are three things in Micah 6:8. We are instructed to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

I want to talk with you this morning about humility. That doesn’t sound like a very fun topic, but I believe it is critical to understand, to practice, to possess humility if we are going to make a difference in the world.

It isn’t hard to get on board with the first two parts of that verse. Who doesn’t want justice? I want justice for myself, my family, my neighbors, my enemies. As a middle child, I am often accused of having an overdeveloped sense of fairness. I want everything to be fair. If there’s a box of 12 ice cream sandwiches, it only makes sense that everyone gets 2 in my family of 5, with 2 left over that obviously go to the parents. It’s only fair.

And we all can get on board with mercy. Who doesn’t want to be forgiven when we’ve messed up? Who doesn’t want to see the sick healed, for the world to be repaired? We like mercy, it’s something we see as a positive contributor in our lives and society in general.

Humility gets a bad rap, though, because we associate it with humiliation. We think that to be humble we have to think less of ourselves. Some very smart person once said that humility is not thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less! (Rick Warren)

Humility is not a bad thing, it’s just being honest about who we are and what we bring to the table.

Humility is basically this: recognizing our strengths without pride, and our weaknesses without shame.

Wouldn’t we all like this to be our state of being? Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell people about who you are without blushing or strutting? Wouldn’t you like to be able to offer your particular gifts to the world without worrying about people thinking you are being vain? Wouldn’t you like to be able to admit you are not equipped for certain tasks without being though less of? We get to that place by practicing humility.

Humility is a necessary ingredient in self-discovery, and in building true, lasting relationships. Humility allows us to ask for help as well as lend a helping hand. We can do both without worrying what people think about us. Humility takes all our anxiety about getting it wrong or being misunderstood and throws it out the window. Because humility helps us see that everyone has weak spots. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. When you have gaps in your skills or you take a wrong path, you are not alone. It is the very definition of being human to not be infinite, to not be perfect, to fall short. The other side is also true: Everyone has strengths and something to contribute, you, your neighbor, the least of these has something to give.

That is why we have people included in the scriptures like the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus. Jesus took his 5 dinner rolls and 2 little fish and fed 5,000. He wasn’t being proud or arrogant in offering what he had. He was just holding out the thing he possessed, with an understanding that it wasn’t enough, but he offered it anyway. When we are faced with need in the world, when we come up to a problem or a situation that needs our input, we don’t have to do everything. We just humbly give what we have and let that be combined with God’s grace and the obedience of others. We can trust God to be faithful to take what we have to give and use it for the kingdom.

There is a great children’s book by Max Lucado called Your Special Gift. It tells the story of a town of folks who have a special relationship with their creator. One morning they all wake up to find they have been given gifts. These gifts all have a function, one gets a hammer, another a pallet and set of paints, the Baker gets a spoon, the Florist a beautiful vase, you get the picture. Later that day, a family limps into town, their wagon broken, their spirits low. They had an accident while on the road to meet the creator. Everyone in town gets to work to help them, but they all just do the first thing they see. The mayor’s wife tries to cook the family a meal, the Baker tries to fix the wagon wheel, someone brings clothes that don’t fit. It’s a disaster. Everyone is yelling, nothing is working, the food is burnt and cold. Then they all start again, each one using their gift to help. The tailor uses his needle and thread, the artists paint the wagon, the Mayor’s wife tells the children a story, the Baker brings them food, and the guy with the hammer fixes the wheel.

The story comes to it’s peak with these words spoken by the creator: “Just do the most what you do the best.”

So much of our ability to make a difference hinges on our ability to know what our unique part is. Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ. It is one of his most used analogies for what it means to work together. He says that we can’t expect everyone to be exactly the same or serve in the same way. We are all different and have different roles to play, jobs to do if the body is going to function. How are we going to know what our role is if we can’t look objectively at our strengths and weaknesses? If we want to make a difference, and we want to be able to do that well, we need to start practicing humility so that we know where we fit!

Humility is a pre-requisite for both Justice and Mercy.

Without humility, our attempts at Justice and Mercy turn into well-intentioned ego boosters. We find ourselves engaging in justice and mercy because it makes us feel superior. It stokes our pride.

When we try to practice Justice without humility. We can find ourselves walking into a situation where things are out of balance, and we instantly become Judge, Jury, and Executioner. Without humility, we have no empathy or compassion. We are instantly above it all. It is up to us to solve the problem, without asking for help, without asking those in the situation what needs to happen.

When I talk about this, trust me I have experience. I have been a parent for 13 years. I am currently parenting a teen, a tween, and a preschooler. You can’t know how many times I have walked into a room where things were happening and immediately brought the hammer down! Without asking questions, I assessed the situation, I knew who the culprit was, I knew what they had done and how much time they would do as a result. And you don’t know how many times I have been dead wrong. It happens to the best of us. Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe you won’t ever have kids. That is great. But you may still find yourself in a situation like this where you have authority and need to use it wisely.

Humility is what allows us to practice the Servant Leadership that Jesus calls us to when we are in positions of privilege or authority. Jesus said “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

If you want to make a difference, it means setting aside making a name for yourself.
Paul tells the church to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, seeking the good of others over our own. He says, Look not to your own interests, but instead to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

We need to serve others, but we need to make sure we aren’t doing it for ourselves. We have to be careful not to swoop into the room as the Rescuer! Acting in the role of rescuer puts all the focus on us and how we will save all those poor, poor people who can’t save themselves. When it is about us being rescuers, we totally pass right over the resources of people who we label “victim.” I have a very good friend, Sue, who told me a story a couple of weeks ago. She was at the post office and there was a man in a wheelchair who needed some help with his stamps. She took them and peeled them off their backing, placing one edge of the stamp on each of the envelopes, leaving the rest of the stamp for the man to stick down on his own. She recognized that he had the ability to smooth down the stamps and only needed help getting them in position. The man was tearful with gratitude that she recognized his ability and allowed him the dignity of doing what he was able.

If I were in her shoes that day, I would probably have stuck the stamps down and maybe even put them in the mail slot. It would not have occurred to me to leave him a job to do. Sue has an advantage over me, in this regard. She raised an autistic son, and works in advocacy for autism awareness and support for parents of special needs children. Sue helped me see that our good intentions don’t save us from making people feel like we don’t value them.

Humility empowers others.

One way to avoid making a complete wreck out of a messy situation is to take a step back and ask some questions.

Humility is required to listen, to learn, to see through the eyes of another. If we want to take real action that leads to justice, and improves the lives of others we need to take inventory. What do we really know about the situation? What do we still need to learn? What are our strengths? What is beyond our ability? What is missing?

We need to talk to those we are seeking to empower. What are their strengths? What do they bring to the table? Where do they need help? One big clue is: Where are they asking for help? Too often, we walk in with a solution in hand and never bother to ask those we are trying to help about their ideas for solutions. If we will do this simple thing of taking inventory then we can begin to piece together a picture of how our strengths might overlap with their areas of need. Then we can understand how we can work together and encourage or empower them to use their own resources. It takes humility to empower, cooperate and not simply rescue.

Robert Lupton wrote a book called Toxic Charity, in it he takes apart our typical Western Christian approach to helping those who are in need. He talks about why we often rescue instead of building relationships. First of all it is easier to swoop in with a solution and swoop out again. Second it makes us feel good about ourselves. The one we help is often left with no long-term plan to maintain what we’ve just brought into their life, and are left holding the bag when whatever help we have given runs out. Relationships have to supersede our instinct to rescue. It may require more of an investment on our part and it will take more time, but it will also produce more and better fruit in the long run.

Humility recognizes that our resources have limits, we have our own weak spots.
Do you remember Jesus’s story about the man who was concerned about his neighbor? She had this problem, there was a speck in her eye. The man was so worried about her, about how the speck was affecting her family, her church, her community involvement. He worried about it night and day, until he decided to go help her. He took over a first aid kit with antibiotic drops and tweezers, surgical gloves, the works. When he rang her doorbell and told her his plan, she slammed the door in his face. He had a bigger problem, he had a tree branch stuck in his eye.

We all have areas of our lives where things are not right. We need to seek healing for ourselves before we can truly help others. When we discover areas where we need to seek justice or empowerment for ourselves. Just like before we need to inventory our strengths. What can I do about my situation? We need to look around and see who is near me that I can recruit to help? Have you ever been in a situation where you needed help and you were too afraid to ask for it? Why was that? Why are we so scared of admitting we are not perfect? Usually it is because we don’t want people to think poorly of us. It takes humility to admit we have a need and ask for help!

Without humility, it’s all about us. It’s all about ego. It’s all about pride.

Humility is the bedrock of mercy.

When we talk about mercy, I don’t know if we have a good understanding of what it means. In some cases, mercy refers to a person in a position of power not punishing a person who deserves it. In other contexts, mercy refers to binding up the wounds of the injured and tending to the sick. The definition really encompasses both of those meanings when we use our position and strengths to help others regardless of the reason they are suffering.

Many times when we think about mercy, we immediately associate it with forgiving those who have wronged us. When we have been hurt by someone, it is so easy to shut down the relationship or to become martyrs to try to save it. Neither one is healthy. We need humility to see the situation as it is. Humility helps us recognize our part in conflict, and to recognize what is not our part. If we can’t distinguish between what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for, we can find ourselves taking on way too much or way too little of the blame.

It takes humility not to hate. When someone has wronged us, it is so easy to write them off and never talk to them again. But cutting someone off does not heal our hearts. Forgiveness recognizes that what they did was hurtful and wrong, but by forgiving, we decide not to make them pay for it. Sometimes we do have to put distance between the other person and ourselves, especially if there is a pattern of abusive behavior. We can still choose to forgive, but we also choose not to put ourselves in a place of being repeatedly abused. We can’t fix other people. It takes humility not to enable.

Humility is also required to seek forgiveness and mercy for ourselves as well. We have to step back and recognize that we didn’t handle that conversation, that interaction well. We need to apologize and ask forgiveness of the one we wronged. It is easy to come up with a list of things that other person did to provoke us, but as I tell my kids, just because they were in the wrong does not give you the right to join them.

Mercy toward the hurting requires humility in order to be healing.

Practicing mercy without humility can turn us into the martyr. Martyrdom looks really good from some angles. It looks really selfless, but reality sets in when we find ourselves talking about how much we’ve given up, how many sleepless nights we’ve spent tending to the needs of others. We may even brag about how we have worn ourselves thin and what we’ve sacrificed. When we do this we guilt everyone around us for asking for help. We guilt others over their sacrificial service that is less-than-ours.

Working in the church, I see this happen, and what it breeds is bitterness, resentment, and a sense of entitlement. This last one is really dangerous, because it leads to well-intentioned people making really bad decisions on how they will spend church money, how they will use church resources, and what vices they will indulge in because they have worked so hard, been so unappreciated, and they deserve a break. Service that should be done out of love becomes a score board where everything we do is measured against everybody else’s service, and whether we get enough recognition and applause.

These score boards show up in other ways when we try to practice mercy without humility. We find ourselves broadcasting our good deeds. Jesus talked about it by referring to men who would literally throw a parade with trumpets to announce when they were bringing their offering to the temple. Humility means not tweeting out that you are being generous. No Facebook posts or Instagram pics of our awesome service. Let’s face it, our service may not be much, but we will make sure everyone knows about that $5 we gave to the hungry or the hour we spent at the soup kitchen.
Once again, it becomes all about us, all about ego, all about pride. We need humility so that our service can be genuine, out of love, out of concern for the needs of others and not our own reputation.

When people are hurting around us, we desperately need to be humble. Have you ever been suffering and had someone say something that was just so insensitive? Don’t be that person! I can tell you from personal experience that when you are hurting it is better for others to say nothing than the wrong thing. I’ve experienced pregnancy loss three times. People say things like “God needed another little angel in heaven.” Or they say “If the baby would have lived, it would have had disabilities.” None of those thoughts are helpful. It takes humility to say, “I have no idea what you might be feeling.” Or “I have no idea what you need right now, but I want to be here for you.” We need humility not to be trite or patronizing.

When we say these things, it is usually because we feel awkward and we’ve heard someone else say something similar. But patting people on the head and telling them everything’s going to be alright doesn’t make anyone feel better, except maybe ourselves. It is so much better to simply sit and say nothing. Just be there. It’s not about whether you have something brilliant to say that will make their pain better. It’s about your presence.

Humility is not a matter of putting yourself down. It is a matter of seeing yourself with the eyes of truth. Humility gives us the ability to practice radical honesty about who we are, about where we fall short, about where we excel. In every job interview you ever attend, you will be asked two questions: What strengths do you have? What weaknesses do you have? If for no other reason than this, you need to learn to look at yourself with some level of objectivity.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
― Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

If you are going to make a difference in the world you need to know who you are. You need to have a radically honest conversation with God, with those close to you about your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t do everything. No one can do everything. But you have something that you do well. What do you have to offer the world? When you answer this question, you can raise your hand to volunteer with confidence. You can say no to things that do not fit with your skills and talents with grace instead of excuses. You can take your unique talents and by playing the part designed just for you, you might just change the world.

An open heart in the face of grief

Pregnant women experience spotting all the time, and everything turns out fine. The voice of denial did it’s best to keep panic at bay. I struggled through prayers of bargaining, and anger at my body for the biggest betrayal I’d ever experienced. All the stages of grief cycled again and again, but I always came back to denial in those early days.

Not denial of facts, but denying myself the experience of emotions I was sure would overwhelm me. My heart was locked down tight.

What else could I do? I had just announced to my church elder board that I was pregnant the week before. I had responsibilities at church on Sunday. My family of three was headed out of state on Monday to our Pastor’s Retreat, which I still felt strange attending as just an associate pastor.

I didn’t have time to fall apart. I didn’t want to feel all the pain, and loss, and grief. Other people needed me to be strong. And it felt as though God wasn’t answering my prayers. I wasn’t particularly interested in anything He had to say, either, so I guess it was mutual.

The bleeding continued as I packed the car, as I preached in church, as we took family pictures of all things. One of the Elders, a woman, noticed something was wrong and asked me if I had lost the baby. I nodded. She cried. I didn’t.

We went to our Pastor’s Retreat, I pasted on a half-smile and determined not to talk to anyone about anything serious. Keep it light. Skim the surface. Bury it deep.

I’m not sure why it was that I wandered out into the common area during our free time. Husband and toddler napping, I thought I would try to journal a bit. As I sat, a woman I’d never met struck up a conversation. I don’t know how it happened, but I told her everything. Not sure what to expect, I certainly didn’t think she’d tell me that she had also suffered pregnancy loss, three times.

It was a comfort, knowing I was not alone, that life really could continue. When I went back to my journal, there was a prompt in my spirit that I needed to grieve. I desperately did not want to do any such thing. The impression was unmistakable “If you do not grieve this loss, you claim that it had no value.”

When we value things and lose them, we grieve. We may not like it, but that is the way life is. By refusing to grieve, we deny that what was lost had value. By refusing to be affected, we deny that what was lost had any impact on our existence. I could not allow that. This tiny life had lived for such a brief time, the only impact it could have was on me. I would not rob this life of meaning.

So I grieved. I opened the doors of my heart and let the pain in, and let the pain out.

And it was worth every tear, and sob, and sigh.

Brené Brown says that we cannot selectively numb our pain. When we shut down we shut out everything, including joy. It is better to live with an open heart and some pain than to live without pain and also without joy.

This pregnancy loss happened in May of 2005. I had a subsequent loss in August of 2005, and another over Memorial Day weekend 2011. Each loss was its own journey through pain, acceptance, and healing. I had to choose every time to open my heart and feel the loss when by my own habit and nature I would have avoided and stuffed those feelings down deep.

If you are experiencing grief, or if you never gave yourself permission to grieve a secret loss, give yourself permission to open your heart. You will not heal with it closed off, and you will find that joy is dulled and life loses it’s color. It will hurt. But it will not hurt forever, at least not with the same sting.

I still feel sad when I think of the losses we experienced, of wanted babies. It does not overwhelm me, though, with tidal force waves of grief. I have walked on, and I have delivered two healthy babies since that first loss, for a total of three. I have had 6 pregnancies, and 3 live births.

Not everyone’s story ends like mine. I have a beautiful friend who is expecting baby number 8 in June, she has her own stories of loss. I have a brave and wonderful friend who, unable to conceive, has chosen adoption. I know families who have chosen not to have children, those who have chosen adoption over producing biological children, and those who are still charting their course. Wherever you are on this journey of life and family, I hope you choose to walk bravely forward with an open heart. You may experience loss and grief, but you will also encounter moments of exquisite joy that you may have otherwise missed.

An Open Heart
ReFreshing

Labeled

We all do it. We categorize and define groups of people. It is human, we do it so that we can easily identify who is part of “us” and who is a threat. The problem with labels is that if we are followers of Christ, we are called to throw them away. We are called to love, righteous or unrighteous, friend or enemy, advocate or persecutor.

Jesus calls us to love like the Father, who sends rain on the righteous and the sinner and sends the sun to shine on both those committed to good and evil. Did you read that? Not just on those who ignore God, or those who disobey his commands, or on those who disagree with him, but God sends the sun to shine on the evil person!

Who springs to mind when the word evil is uttered? Maybe you have a person in your life, a political figure, a historical figure that you believe fulfills the definition of evil. But wait, God loves that person.

Bigger uh-oh, God wants you to love that person.

What does it mean to love someone who we believe to be evil?

That is a tough question. Here is a short list of what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean supporting or enabling their evil behavior. It does not mean holding our tongue or going along with their evil plans. It does not mean having warm fuzzy feelings about them.

It does mean that if they are hungry, you feed them, or in need of medical attention, you get them help. It does mean that you speak the truth to them as you are able. It does mean not wishing them harm. It means, on some level, wanting good things for them.

This is not an exercise in abstraction for me. It is something I have to actively pursue out of obedience and a firm belief that when I love my enemies, I become closer to Christ. I grow as a person. My world becomes just that much better.

I did this today with a group of fellow ministers as we prayed for our leaders in the coming year. I prayed for God to reveal himself in awesome, undeniable ways to our leaders, and to make them into people that would inspire admiration. I prayed these things for leaders I did not vote for. Some of the leaders elected in November scare me with their potential to create evil in the world. But I prayed for them to prosper anyway.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4

The funny thing is that I feel better. I told God honestly what I thought, then I prayed for God’s blessings, revelation, transformation, and presence to make a difference. I believe this will make a positive difference in the lives of those leaders. I believe it will make their lives better, and I believe it will make the lives of those under their leadership better, too.

When we label, and we will, if we are aware of what we are doing then we can act to make sure that our gut reaction doesn’t change the way we treat the people in front of us. We can act with kindness. We can act with respect. We can seek their good.

We can do all this regardless of whether our labeling involves sports rivalries, religious differences, cultural differences, or political differences. God doesn’t give us exceptions to the rule. Love them. Good or evil. Righteous or sinner.

When we love we may just find our labels fading into insignificance.

That would be ReFreshing!