No Justice, No Peace

Sorry this is late, Reader; I had half an entry written yesterday and then left work early to sleep because I was exhausted on every possible level.  I napped for a good chunk of the afternoon and then slept ten hours last night and I’m still tired to my very bones—but I’m working on it.

I did take the time, however, to get up last night and go to a gathering in support of Black Lives Matter here in the Land of Pilgrims.  I would say sorry, this is a blog about living into Christianity and I’m going to detour into politics, but that would be untrue.  Living into Christianity, I’m learning, is politics.  I’m not saying that we all have to declare a party, but I am saying that we’re doing something wrong (or not doing something) if we sidestep politics, especially if it’s so as not to upset people.  Jesus was an upsetting dude; He rattled the cages of a lot of folks in His day simply because He understood Himself not to be bound by the conventions of His leadership.  We as His followers have to step into the uncomfortable places where we find injustice to be light and salt and all that other stuff that would be much easier if it didn’t involve pushing other people’s buttons.

So I went to this thing because seriously, enough is enough.  I cannot in good faith—literally, in my faith—continue to say “oh, what a shame” and then pass on the opportunity to put body to voice.  Facebook rants are not enough.  Interpreter tossed this my way, indirectly, so I moved some other plans and roused myself to go on a steamy Friday night to listen.

That, actually, was my main purpose:  to listen.  This was a gathering where folks who are black could speak their piece and not have anyone talk over them, not be told they shouldn’t be angry, not be told that it wasn’t that big a deal.  I stood in this park and listened to rants, to slam poetry, to raps, to pleas, to stories of persecution and pain and loss, to exhortations, and to sorrow stretching hundreds of years because this was not a place for me to talk.  I’m white, and regardless of my feelings about that it is a biological fact.  I can’t speak to the black experience in America because I don’t have a clue about it, so I went, and I listened.

I’m glad that I did; some powerful things were said.  It was in a sense even more powerful because a family member had texted me as I was on my way over to tell me something and asked where I was going.  On my response that it was a Black Lives Matter rally, she responded that white lives matter too, that all lives matter.  They do not matter equally, I said, one white person to another; if saying that Black Lives Matter makes you defend your own racial value as though there is a limited number of resources that their assertion is taking away from you, then no, not all lives matter.  It’s an imperfect world, she responded; as long as we treat others as we want to be treated, that’s all we can do.

Wrong.

God has not called us to try, Yoda that He is.  God has called us to do, on a systemic level.  If you love your neighbor as yourself but see that they are wounded by another and do nothing, where is your love?  If you patch up a wounded man at the side of the road but don’t take him to an inn for long-term treatment, do you still get to claim being the Good Samaritan?  If we as people of faith content ourselves with simply being nice on a person-to-person level, then change will only happen on a person-to-person level.

I’m not saying that that’s bad or that that can’t change the world; it can, most certainly, and it is on that individual level that change happens at all.  But looking at the imperfections of the world and saying it will always be that way is saying that I don’t need to build the Kingdom because it’s not meant to be here on earth.  False!  We are called every day to be ready for Christ’s return; we are called every day to do something with the gifts that are given to us.  If we are just burying them in the ground and saying the world is frightening and imperfect, do we truly think Christ is going to be pleased with that?

So that was an awkward conversation.  But then I was at the rally and listening—and then I was marching.  The organizers decided to shut down one of the main shopping areas downtown with a long march of these hundreds of people to say that we are here and we are not going away, and I must say I was very unsure of whether or not I’d stay.  The police were out in force, several counter-protesters gathered with their American flags and their hatred, death threats had been made on the event’s Facebook page.  I’m moving soon, I need to avoid things like being arrested or shot.

Then I realized I was thinking that and that that was why I needed to stay.  Walking away is an option for me; if something had gone down, my being a white churchgoer would be a source of great protection for me.  My fellow gatherers of color likely wouldn’t have that; so I marched with them, clapping along to the chants—-but often being unable to speak them.

Here’s the thing:  I’m not into groupthink at all.  I also think words carry great power.  So it was hard for me to shout things like, “No justice, no peace!” because I want peace.  I have no desire to start a fight.

But am I not already in one?

 

 

He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to Yahweh.  (Proverbs 17:15, WEB)

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Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Another.

We don’t really talk about shootings anymore, we talk about another shooting, another bombing, another loss of what could have been.  Our hearts fill and our stomachs empty at having another death before we’ve truly internalized the last one, before we’ve pulled our flags back to the tops of their staffs, before we’ve understood what happened.  Our hearts are hardening, thicker than Pharaoh’s as we hear the tears on 24-hour loops until we cannot hear anymore, we cannot cry anymore, we cannot know any more.  Our hearts have broken so many times that the pieces no longer stay together, even with the strongest glue, the hardiest tape.

How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?  (Psalm 13:2a)

I have no more answer for these, no more energy to refute those who say that black lives cannot matter unless we bury them under the suffocating banners proclaiming that all lives matter, that surely proclaiming love of everyone means that everyone is loved.  I cannot continue speaking when my throat is dry, my voice rasping from saying that I am not anti-police for being anti-police-brutality, that I can mourn the five dead officers from Dallas even as my sorrow burns into anger for Philando Castile, for Alton Sterling.  I do not understand how better to fight a system from which I benefit, in which I am uncertain of what to change but certain that change must happen.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.  (Psalm 13:3-4)

Yet to You, o God, I return if only because I have nowhere else I can think of going.  Interpreter opened the sanctuary today for a prayer vigil and I took lunch to go because I wanted that safe space to grieve, to massage my hardened heart back into feeling.  Few lights were on, allowing the sun streaming through the stained glass to provide illumination, allowing shadows to linger on the edges of the room.  Monastic chant played quietly as he lit one candle for the shooter(s) of Dallas for that person, too, is God’s creation.  Only a handful of us were able to come to this space and we lit candles for the officers, for the survivors still fighting, for the civilians.  The lighter proved difficult and so we used one of the acolyte candlelighters, bathing bruised souls in the old, old traditions of the Church and the shifting drops of flame.  We wept and prayed for all that is not changing, for the courage to continue believing and acting as though change is truly possible.

Oh that my head were waters,
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
    for the slain of the daughter of my people!  (Jeremiah 9:1)

There will be no post next week, Reader, because I am going back into the world of camping to act as counselor once more with middle schoolers.  Prayer is most welcome for me and how much counseling costs me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, but also for these kids.  How do I spend a week assuring them of the love of God when we all wait with shortened breath for when it is our loved ones, ourselves who die?  How do I tell them of God’s power and presence when our streets are not safe, our wars have crossed the seas to nestle in our beds and minds, our fears of those who are Different Than Us cause us to deny our own eyes and say there is no problem, there is no injustice, there is no reason to say that some lives seem to matter less than others?

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  (Psalm 13:5)

I preached last week on the places we expect God to give us great miracles, show-stopping spectacles of power in proof of the movement of the Spirit; I preached on how we cannot make God fancy, how ours is sometimes a God Who is not in the wind or the thunder but in the still, small voice.

Reader, sit with me a moment that we might breathe together, that we might listen for that quiet Presence, that we might remember hope when it feels there are only bullets and pain, that we might light a candle to guide our way.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow—
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
 (Great Is Thy Faithfulness, stanza 3)

 

 Thus saith Jehovah: A voice hath been heard in Ramah, the wail of very bitter weeping,—Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are not.  (Jeremiah 31:15, DARBY)

Jesus Made Me a Gryffindor

Sorry, Reader; end of fiscal year + end of summer term + sermon writing for Sunday = late post.

So if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, I apologize right off for how many references this post is going to have that you won’t understand.  I am definitely part of the generation that grew up with Harry, so my geekery is pretty strong for that.  This past week, new information came out about the North American school (since Hogwarts, where Harry goes, is in Britain and we can’t all go to Britain) Ilvermorny.

Now if you don’t know, Hogwarts has four houses (since it’s a boarding school) and each new student is sorted into one based on his/her personal characteristics.  Ravenclaws are generally The Smart Kids; Slytherins are generally The Cunning Kids; Hufflepuffs are The Loyal Kids; and Gryffindors are The Brave Kids.  Of course each house has its downsides as well as its lauded attributes, but we fans have for years aligned ourselves via various online quizzes with our own houses.  I consistently get Sorted (that’s the choosing process; it’s done by a hat and you seriously need to read this series if you haven’t, Reader) into Gryffindor, which always surprises me.  I think I’ve said it before, but I’d consider myself brainy way before I’d consider myself brave.

So I took a quiz on these new houses for this new school because hey, why not?  And I got Thunderbird, the soul of the school and the house claiming the adventurers.

Wait, what?  I’m not adventurous any more than I am brave.

Yet for all my introspection, I’m apparently not paying attention to myself at all.  I had lunch Friday with my friend Prudence and had an incredible conversation with him about who we are and who we’re going to be as our lives are no longer intertwined with my moving and whatnot.  He’s a beautiful soul, but he’s also a guy who told me I was brave probably five times over the course of the conversation.  And people regularly tell me I’m adventurous, what with wandering off to Scotland without a whole lot of preparation or driving all over the country for weddings or wading into Church politics.

But the thing of it is that none of that is my natural inclination.  All of that comes out of leaping into the places God pushes me.

People have been joking with me about my going off to seminary and how the location and requirements are going to be outside of my comfort zone and I want to say to them that every time I leave my apartment I have left my comfort zone.  My comfort zone is my church and my house and that’s about it, and even those are negotiable to a certain extent.  But God continually calls me to more than those to places—and to crazy things within those two places.  Interpreter talks sometimes about God’s desire to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” so it makes perfect sense in its own way that God challenges me over and over to go into the world that doesn’t make sense, that is filled with heartbreaking things, that both frightens and depresses the crickets out of me.  We as Christians are not called to be afraid of the dark but to bring the light to a shadowed world—and that takes a shit ton of bravery and no small amount of adventurousness.

This isn’t to say that the other houses, either American or British, are less than Gryffindor or Thunderbird.  It is, however, to say that I am not in either because I am inherently brave or adventurous.  I am in these (make-believe though they are) because I am being changed, I have been changed by a God Who needs me to be brave and adventurous in order to do whatever She has in mind for me.  I don’t know what that is—oh, how I wish I did!—but I do know that wherever I am sent, I will be equipped.  Whatever courage I need will be given; whatever shape my spirit needs to be in will be remolded.  And slowly, slowly I will take on these attributes so they are who I am, so that they do become my response because I have been cheering for my House long enough that I mean it and can see those aspects of me in Christ’s service.

The next thing, of course, is to campaign for actual house competitions.  What house are you, Reader?  (Of either country.)  What attributes does that give you?  How does it—or doesn’t it—surprise you?  How do you translate that strength into God’s service?  I would love to know.  After all, lions are just big cats, and cats are curious creatures.

 

 

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance.  The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”  (Deuteronomy 31:7-8, NIV)

Step Back, Breathe, Reengage

Oh, Reader, what a day.

It will be a feat of heroic proportions if I can make it to the end of this work day in one piece because I’ve been ready to go home and curl up in a blanket fort since I got here.  (This is unfortunate.)  Part of that is that I simply don’t like my job and so want to go home every day (not necessarily to a blanket fort), a dislike made so much harder to bear with every new sortie into pieces of the Church because I see what gives me life but I can’t have it (yet).  That was thrown into sharp relief this week because of Annual Conference (which I posted on last week and about which I will post further next week) and the moments of being mad as hell at the Church and loving it still.  To come back to a job where I do not fit, where I watch myself becoming someone I don’t like out of frustration and disenfranchisement, is a quiet form of torture.

But it is also that this week follows Orlando, this week holds the ninth-longest Senate filibuster, this week has been my heart breaking over my country once again saying that we are more afraid of our government than our weaponry, more determined to protect our right to have guns than our right to continue breathing with lungs not torn asunder by hot lead blasting through our bodies.  I have been unable (not that I’ve tried very hard) to keep myself from continually getting into this conversation—not out of a desire to antagonize but out of sheer befuddlement that this is still happening.  Again and again I have been asking how this works, why even the smallest steps of gun control are shunned outright, and to their credit my more conservative friends have responded.  We still don’t understand each other, but it has mostly been civilized.

Even when my newfound “liberalism” makes them question my faith.

Reader, I came to Christ in college and fell into a beautifully loving country Christian church with all the insularity you might expect.  God, guns, and the American way are very important in that church; gay folk are sinners to be loved, divorce isn’t spoken of, women don’t become pastors, and abortion is an abomination against God.  Even then I disagreed on some things but I was loved there, and I will spend the rest of my life pushing against the stereotype that people who think these things are horrible human beings without hearts.  They were my family, they were my support network, they quite literally fed me and gave me a home after I finished college and realized I had no idea what I was doing next.  I worked part time there, I built the foundation of my faith there, and they wept with me when I left.

Since I’ve moved away we have all changed, and though that love is still there we are far more prone to seeing the places where we disagree than the places we are family.  So for some to question my advocacy of gun control and my stance against violence and my blatant feminism in the frame of lovingly correcting me in faith and steering me back to Jesus…God, Reader, it breaks my heart in half.  I see still their compassion and understand that they believe wholly in this gentle remonstrance, but I cannot stand by and accept these tenets anymore.  I will not wash my hands of this gunpowder and blood, especially not when a life of professional, pulpit-based ministry beckons me forward.  But this…this is my family who look at me in concern and sorrow.  These are the people who taught me what love looked like in the first place, and every rift between us hurts that much more precisely because I cannot mend it and (to the extent that it would mean walking back my beliefs) will not try.

Add to this, then, betrayal by my very body.  Perhaps one of the cruelest things the Church has done in terms of doctrine is to tie women’s menstruation to Eve’s sin, ’cause damn, this shit sucks.  (If you’re uncomfortable with talking about this because you think it’s gross, skip to the next paragraph.  Then go apologize to all the women in your life whose bodies and voices you’re denying by refusing to acknowledge this as a biological reality.)  Beyond that fact that it can feel like someone is attempting to pull out your spine through your abdomen while twisting the surrounding muscles in an unpadded vise, going on your period really can and does screw with your mental state.  I realize it’s a social stereotype to show the wigged-out woman eating a pint of ice cream and crying at nothing in particular, but seriously, your chemical balance is getting thrown off and you can’t stop it.  So it’s been a legit intense week and today my brain is magnifying everything a thousandfold because its busy trying to overhaul its entire hormonal state.  Once I figured out that was a factor it made the day slightly easier because I can tell myself to step back, breathe, and reevaluate the way I was reacting to people, but before I got there I thought I was losing my damn mind today.
The spiritual implication of all that?  We are not only spiritual.  I would love to be, trust me, but we are living in mortal, political, social, emotional, and physical plains as well as the spiritual one, and that is a hot mess sometimes.  And somedays—many days—we carry the grief of the world on top of our own and we shudderstep underneath that weight.

Good think God keeps telling us to give it to Him.  In so many ways, Lord, we pray for healing.

 

 

“Teach me and I, for my part, will be silent;
explain to me how I have been mistaken.
 How painful are honest words!
But what does your reproof prove?
 Do you intend to criticize mere words,
and treat the words of a despairing man as wind?”  (Job 6:24-26, NET)

Having My Head Examined

I feel part of this journey into ministry is the act of sharing it with those around me, both demystifiying and humanizing the “transition” from laity to clergy.  It’s a fascinating process, if exhausting and bizarre.  In my tradition (United Methodist), there are a great many steps toward ordination.  One of them is quite possibly the least pleasant part:  a psychological report.

There’s, first, a battery of some four or five psychological assessments that you have to sit down and take, among them the MMPI-2.  This is 567 true/false questions meant to chart your overall psychological map (anxiety levels, relationship with your own health, cynicism, self-esteem, familial relationships, etc.).  There’s also a fill-in-the-blank test that measures your mental health by how you respond to certain prompts (“I wish my mother would…,” “My biggest challenge is…,” “When I don’t know anyone at a gathering, I…”).  And there’s another true/false set-up of another 400 or so questions, and then a 200-question test…I took most of them right in a row (in retrospect, perhaps not the wisest thing to do but I did so want them over with) and it took me about five hours to get through everything.  (One other test didn’t have to be proctored by another person, so I took that home and did it while lying on my floor and wondering whether the Church was seriously worth seven hours of intense self-examination.  So the joke some folks make about I should have my head examined for wanting to be a pastor?  It’s not funny anymore.)

On every test there is the admonition to “be honest” and not try to answer the questions the way you think the Church wants you to answer them.  You know those kinds of questions; it’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on which Avenger you are.  The ones that slant toward Iron Man are pretty obvious and you’ll pick those if you want to be Iron Man.  But the Church wants (or says it wants) who you really are, and that is TERRIFYING.  I’ve done psych evals, I’ve been through therapy; I know what it looks like when I answer certain questions certain ways.  I know that this is not the “right” answer, that this is going to be a flag of some color in my mark-up.  Perhaps the hardest part of the tests was not the taking of them but the allowance for myself to be honest about the places I’m not all that well adjusted yet.

Once you’ve done the tests, they are sent to a psychologist who reviews them and also sits down with you for two hours to get a measure of who you are when you’re on the spot.  If you think the tests are fun, than this part is a rollicking party.  Said psychologist gets to ask anything he likes—and you can refuse to answer, of course, but that is itself an answer.  Again, the hardest part for me wasn’t necessarily the conversation but resisting the very strong temptation to shape the interaction so as to make myself look tremendously healthy and awesome.

Armed with the tests and this interview, the psychologist writes up a report about you and (after talking it over with you to see if you see anything egregiously incorrect in its representation which he may or may not change) that gets sent on to the various boards of the Church for their review and then FOLLOWS YOU FOREVER.

So do other reports, so it’s not like this is the end-all-be-all description of who you are.  But it is part of it, and it is unnerving as all get-out to have a nine-page (in my case) breakdown of all your insecurities and faltering places that complete strangers get to read.  Complete strangers who get to decide whether or not to support my call to professional ministry.  Complete strangers who get first this statement of clinical detachment from who I am and why I do things and how really, I’m not so bad once you get to know me.

I didn’t react well to this report at first, as you might imagine.  How could I?  It’s a hell of a thing to feel…well, to feel so very exposed.  I realize this is a hilarious thing to come from a weekly blogger, but both you and I know that I control how much of me you see, Reader.  I don’t lie to you, but neither do I come even close to telling you the whole truth—because you don’t need to know it.  And you do the same in your life; no two people hold the same information about us.  It would be silly to try that because our spouses should never be in the same kind of relationship with us as our parents or our bosses—but our spouses should know us deeply and truly and in the places where we cringe against the light because those aren’t beautiful.

So to have Church officials see those kinds of places?  Tough.  I don’t want them to see those, I don’t want to be that kind of vulnerable because it’s so easy to see the (constructive) criticisms and hear not that I don’t do well in this area but that I am bad, that I as a person should not do ministry; having your fears and anxieties and history on display like that is hellishly intimate in a very public kind of way.

But as I was striking out against that report in anger driven by fear and frustration (about which I’ll say more the week after next—which, oh, there won’t be a post next week because I’m off to be in a wedding.  I’m sorry I almost forgot again!), I realized God sees this all the time.  God doesn’t have to wait for a typed report to tell Him that I pull away from some situations, that my anxiety levels are not healthy, that it’s far easier for me to walk away from relationship than to stay in.  He knows that; He’s always known that.

But He loves me fiercely and He calls me to His service.

Whom then shall I fear if God sees infinitely more than psychological assessments and yet still values me as His daughter?  And what right have I to believe that I am less because of these imperfections when He continually makes me more by His love?

 

 

Lord, you have examined me;
    you have known me.
You know when I rest
    and when I am active.
You understand what I am thinking
    when I am distant from you.  (Psalm 139:1-2, ISV)

People of the Books: Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Hullo, Reader!  Thanks for your patience with me in my not warning you I’d be dropping off the radar last week; I had a conference last weekend (and also confirmation at church), so I wasn’t able to get to this.  But I’m back now (albeit a day late)—happy Saturday!  Have a book review!

Quo Vadis (which has apparently been made into a movie that I’m going to have to see now) is another of those books that somehow magically made it into my library when I wasn’t paying attention.  I have no memory of buying this or being given it, but I know I’ve moved it from at least one place to another with me.  In my great I Have to Read All These Books Before I Move Them Again project (yeah, it’s not going well; Reader, I own a lot of books) I finally decided to sit down with this one.

I must say, it was slow going at first.  Sienkiewicz doesn’t pull punches in how he sets up the story; he expects you to keep up as he throws you into 60s A.D. Rome under the craziness of Nero’s rule.  But stick with it; once you get situated in the overwhelming city (fortunately, my version had a map at the back so I could follow Sienkiewicz’s characters talking about where things were), you realize this is a pretty epic story.

The basic premise is that Marcus Vinicius, a nobleman of one of the ancient families and a decorated soldier now hanging about in Rome, falls in love with a gal named Ligia.  Add in the complication—Ligia is a Christian.  This is a time when Christianity was kept on the downlow because it wasn’t outright illegal but it definitely wasn’t liked, so Ligia’s faith is already questionable but also it’s a totally foreign idea to Vinicius.  He has all the power and wealth he could want; why on earth would someone want to follow a faith that tells you to give up stuff like that?  Foolishness.

So with this very simple plot, off we go.  Of course it gets more complicated; it’s set against the backdrop of Nero, who was batshit crazy and a half.  Petronius, Vinicius’s uncle, is one of Nero’s advisors (of a sort) and through his eyes we get to see the court falling apart as Nero loses touch with reality more and more.  The main punch of the book is when Rome gets set on fire, which Sienkiewicz described brilliantly, hauntingly, and horrifyingly.  For a city that large and that flammable to catch fire would indeed have been a sight for the ages, but the amount of people it displaced for the whims of a mad emperor is just staggering.

And then Nero blames it on the Christians—cue lions, torture, gore, and all of the awful debauchery that Rome could offer.  We of the 21st century are scary good at causing pain, but we have nothing on Rome.  They were terrifying in the amounts of ways they concocted to kill people; it’s even reflected in the language.  There are over thirty different verbs for “to kill” in ancient Latin.

I do try to correct folks when they think everything from Jesus to Constantine was lions eating Christians because that isn’t true.  Wide-scale persecution was relatively rare; most of the time Christians were mistrusted and ignored or simply thrown in jail for a while.  But sometimes they became scapegoats of epic proportions, and Sienkiewicz does a fantastic job of capturing how frightening and overwhelming that would be.  And one of the best parts about this book is that it makes you look at Christianity itself all over again.

Christianity is so completely embedded in modern Western culture we simply can’t look around without seeing it.  But when it was new and weird and secretive and still being ironed out—I don’t want to romanticize that at all, but I do love reading stories that make me remember it.  This is a time where there aren’t written stories but instead you would hear the Gospel from Peter himself (yeah, Peter and Paul have bit parts in this; it’s pretty awesome because I’m always ready to have them be ornery humans with their own doubts and fears, not knowing how much they would become pillars of the Church).  This is a time when there are the earliest of hymns, when people were still using the fish (ichthus) to identify each other, when books like Revelation make sense because people really did think Jesus was coming back any day because surely the world was tearing itself apart at the seams.

Sienkiewicz definitely has an angle—Nero bad, Christians good—but this isn’t at all a religion pitch.  He returns over and over again to how hard it is to be part of this faith and how different the early version of it was compared to what we know.  And the remarkable thing is that he was writing at the turn of the 20th century yet you can tell his heart is in the history of this rather than any attempts to convert the reader (of course, he would likely have assumed all of his readers would have been Christian already anyway).  Some of the characters don’t get Christianity and end the book still not getting it and yet being fully themselves, and five million points to an author who respects his/her characters enough not to try and force them into conversion moments.  My only real problem with characterization is in how Sienkiewicz talks about Ursus, Ligia’s bodyguard; a lot of the language there is very much about how this barbarian (they’re political hostages from a northern kingdom) is so very slow and more brawn than brains.  That caught me up several times because it’s so bald, but Ursus was still a real and marvelous character who actually stands in for the reader sometimes when we’re trying to understand what’s going on.  He also becomes a paradigm of loyalty and an example to be followed.

There is violence and sex and this is not for the faint of heart, Reader, but it is well worth the time, especially in this more modern translation (mad props to W. S. Kuniczak).  It’s a great story as well as a really well-written imagining of the early days of Christianity. I’ll definitely be keeping this on hand.

 

Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

 

Becoming a Born Storyteller

Oh, my dear Reader, guess what?

I preached for the very first time this past Sunday.

It’s still unutterably bizarre to say that simply because those who preach are other people.  I don’t preach.  I am not a preacher.  I felt this way when I was not a teacher but I taught, when I was not a writer but I was published, when I was not a runner but I completed a 5k, when I was not a soloist but I sang by myself in front of an audience.  It’s not so much that I don’t believe I’m capable of any of these things as I simply don’t see myself in those roles—don’t people realize I’m still an unreliable 15-year-old?  Surely I can’t be doing accomplished things; other people do accomplished things, people who have their shit together.

Except that’s not true at all; anyone who tells you they have their shit together only has their ability to lie together.  We are all of us tripping over our own sets of mismatched baggage, hoping no one else notices the duct tape on that corner where the zipper always slides open just a little bit.  So for me to say that of course I don’t preach when, in fact, I have, is kind of silly.

And Reader, you know what?  ….it was pretty awesome.

I don’t say that to ignore all the parts that weren’t awesome.  I preached three different services on Sunday and shook like a leaf through every one.  I woke up at 2:15 in the morning (the first service starts at 8) because I was wound so tightly that I simply could not continue sleeping.  My anxiety was through the roof as I imagined all the ways I would screw something up, let someone down, or—absolute worst of all—simply not say what God needed me to say and substitute my own words instead.

For certain I have much yet to learn, but I’m willing to spend a lifetime learning it because at the end of the day I was flat exhausted but content, happy to have been doing something that fit like a glove you know you’ll grow into.  And part of that was, as I said in the sermon itself, that I got to tell stories.

You may have noticed, Reader, that I love telling stories.  I’ve been telling stories since I knew how to string events together.  It’s my favorite thing, really—that and listening to stories.  I love hearing the stories that others tell of their first date, their favorite dog, the character they made up in the 6th grade, the dream they had when they were 25, the moment they found the right job, the reason they’re people of faith.  Some people are born storytellers, knowing every place to pause and all the right gestures to create a scene somehow everyone can see.  Other people grow into it, feeling out their own understandings of themselves and their narrative pace.  Still others never find their groove at all, getting lost in rabbit holes and tangents and never able to finish their tales.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have stories, though; just takes a different kind of listening.

The thing about preaching is that a huge portion of it is learning to tell stories.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been telling them for twenty years; preaching is telling stories for a new purpose to a new audience and also a fair amount of getting out of the way of the God Who has a much grander story to tell.  One of the hardest things I found when writing my sermon was letting go of the things I wanted to say.  I had all these stories I wanted to tell—but they didn’t fit, and I knew they didn’t fit, even if I couldn’t have told you what I was trying to make them fit into.  In preaching, I have to learn to craft God’s stories rather than rehearsing mine.

The constricted freedom of this blog is definitely part of learning that, Reader, and I thank you for coming along with me and for helping shape how I understand this kind of communication.  This weekly challenge to pay attention to the God-moments of my life is fabulous practice for listening, and your comments on how you connected (or didn’t) with my stories help me understand that I can’t talk just to hear myself speak.  I have to keep learning how to pull apart the extraneous bits to get at what needs to be said.

Today in the Jewish calendar is Passover, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt when the Hebrew people were “passed over” by God’s Plague of Such Desperate Measures that Children Died from It.  It is an annual holiday of Jewish people remembering who they are and challenging themselves to be something different—seder ends with “next year in Jerusalem,” that next year the Jewish nation will be together again in the land God promised them.  I get to go to a seder tonight at a local temple (srsly, I’m super excited) and listen to their stories, to the way they tell it for the first time and the fiftieth.  And that will likely make it into a sermon some day, because their storytelling will teach me how to tell stories, making me better at that craft.

Even though I was totally born with it.

 

 

And He told them a parable… (Luke 21:29a, AMP)