Category Archives: Douglas

Sitting

Facebook has opened up opportunity to connect with people’s grief in new ways and with greater scope. As news of my “friends” trickles past me at points throughout my day, there is almost always an update about someone’s loss, someone’s sickness, someone’s tragedy. And I have been drawn near to grief that, in reality, is quite relationally distant from me simply by reading posts or following links and facing the heartbreak of others from the very safe distance of my sofa.

Recently a friend posted a link to one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl that shows the love of a community for someone who is grieving. As one of the women explains her presence (and casserole): “That’s what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.”

I remember stepping off an airplane in Portland, Oregon after a ministry trip to Chicago turned into a week-long stay mourning the tragic death of a young man I had loved dearly. My roommate and friends met me at the airport with words of kindness; they got my luggage and drove me home, and later that night I found myself alone in an empty house. I recall walking down the stairs from my bedroom and crumpling part-way, and there I sat for some time sobbing on a middle stair.

Later that evening there was a knock on my front door, and as I opened it, I was surprised to see Doug standing there alone. We were nothing close to romantically involved at this point, and I don’t remember what he said or if I spoke; what I do remember is the wet of his raincoat surrounding me as I sobbed like a child.

“After a tragedy, those of us on the outside often wonder what to say. We look for the escape hatch of a platitude or a verse. Or we are tempted to think we need to offer a reason, find a purpose, or defend God. We shouldn’t. A simple, “I’m sorry,” is appropriate. God doesn’t need us to be his PR reps, and people in midst of calamity aren’t asking questions, at least not yet. Usually they’re simply trying to keep going, take the next step, and figure out how to live this new, strange life.”

After a while, Doug asked if I had eaten anything and I answered that I had not. He asked me what a comfort food was, and I must have answered tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, because I found myself walking the block to what was then the un-Safeway and going through the motions of buying groceries. We returned to my house, Doug fixed the food, and we sat and ate together.

“The ‘I’m sorry’ won’t feel like enough. There is a tension in suffering, a stress in its very existence, even if not our own. When something horrible happens to someone we know, for a moment, we realize this terrible thing is possible in our world too, and that’s scary. It’s the rare friend who is willing to hunker down with you in the mystery of deep sorrow—knowing full well it could be their own.”

I read this today at Scot McKnight’s blog, and when I think of the many faces of grief I encounter, I am reminded that while online words of encouragement are meaningful and good, it is the act of “sitting with” that moves us most from the death of grief into life.

“To remember someone in this way is to be a part of their healing. To respond to a person’s cry of lament, ‘Remember me!’, is to live in solidarity with that person in their struggle and pain; to tell someone that we will not forget them offers hope and reassurance in the midst of loneliness and despair. In pastoral ministry, not only do we remember who we are as God’s people, we also ‘re-member’ one another.”

“You eat. We came over to sit.”

Yahweh

I am trying to get to know my way around a new computer, and as I was figuring out how to search within my emails, I stumbled across an old email (Doug regularly harasses me for keeping volumes of old emails, which I persist in doing) from Doug that had one of his papers from a Fuller class we took together attached. I stopped and read a portion of it and decided to share a few of the closing paragraphs. The paper was a reflective assignment and the class was Writings, taught by John Goldingay. Doug writes:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are describing Aslan to Lucy, Peter, Susan and Edmond:

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”

Is Yahweh in the Writings a safe God? No, not safe, but good. And if creation is built upon the character of God, I can also say that life is not safe, but good. There are no safe places: not Jerusalem or Babylon, dispersion or kingdom. Faith cannot be put into any of the things on earth. There is nothing safe under the sun and the only good is from Yahweh. And in life, even when things are terrible, I would still rather have a good God than a safe one.

Brueggemann has made the argument that Psalm 1, with its dependence on God’s faithfulness in ordering and sustaining the world in predictable and coherent ways is intentionally placed at the beginning of the Psalter. He argues that this is done because Psalm 1 is obviously ignorant of the realities of life but gives us a clear picture of what life should look like if we live obediently. He then states that Psalm 150 “is the most extreme and unqualified statement of unfettered praise in the OT” and that “it is located theologically at the end of the process of praise and obedience, after all of Israel’s motivations have been expressed and no more reasons need be given.”

He makes it sound like there is a journey to be had between Psalm 1 and Psalm 150 and that this journey will be hard. But once we arrive to the place where Psalm 150 is we will have made it to the place of unfettered appreciation of God. When I read the Psalter today, and take the journey from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, I must conclude, with the help of the Writings, that Psalm 150 is not praise refined and perfected. It is the words of a people exhausted from trusting in things other than Yahweh. And year-by-year these ‘things’ in which they have put their trust have let them down and faded away. Yahweh is all that remains. Yahweh is all that has survived.

For Job, Yahweh was all that mattered in the end. In Ecclesiastes, Yahweh is all that retains meaning. In the psalms of lament, Yahweh is the one addressed even when Yahweh is the reason for the complaint. The Writings say, “trust God or doubt God but make sure it is this God.”

On a more personal note…

This week I have my first meeting with a therapist. The last five years have been filled with many great joys and incredible gifts from God, yet they have also brought with them some very deep pain, trauma and loss. The events leading up to Elijah’s birth, in particular the incident with the taxi cab in Chicago, brought me to some sort of breaking point where I felt something change or snap deep within. I have been waiting for a while now to “feel better” or “be myself” again, and it has not happened.

Elijah turned one a few weeks ago, and I realized I had subconsciously given myself this past year to sense some internal change and when I saw that the change I hoped for had not come, I knew that it was time to seek out someone who could help unravel the knots inside of me and help me progress in some form of healing.

I am grateful for a recommended, generous counselor who is making some sacrifices so that he can work with me; I am grateful for an employer who is so supportive of my doing this; and I am so grateful for a husband and friends who have encouraged me steadily.

I have always appreciated the kindness and prayers of so many here that I felt good about sharing this news with you and asking for your continued prayerful support.

Happy Day

In the span of just over a week, our family will celebrate my birthday, Elijah will turn one, my sister’s new baby’s will be born, and Mercy will turn four. It is a bit of a marathon, really, but what a reminder of how very much I have to be thankful for.

I am heading out in a few minutes for a night of celebrating with dear girlfriends, and I am wearing make-up, cute shoes and jewelry. Doug gave me dresses and a marvelous gift card for four spa massages. Wow. And our sweet cell group celebrated me last night with gifts and cake and a family-friendly party. Sweet.

Tonight life feels very, very good.

Going once, going twice…

The back of my van is full of new diapers. They are for a newborn, and I have been trying to pass them along to someone who could use them for a few weeks now. A good friend was thoughtful enough to pass them along to me, knowing that I had friends who had just recently had babies, and I took them eagerly knowing I could share them with someone who would put them to great use.

The day that I got them, I stopped by one friend’s house, with all three kids in the van, and unloaded them only to be turned away by the tired new father: “He isn’t wearing size one yet. We wouldn’t be able to use them right now.” Their baby is indeed tiny, so I took my bags back and loaded them once again into the back of my van.

The next week as I was loading kiddos into the double stroller for the walk to church, I once again unpacked those bags of diapers and stashed them in the bottom of the stroller (I am pretty sure that doing this is the reason why my under-stroller basket no longer secures properly) to give them to another new mom in our congregation. But she and her husband and new little one were not there that Sunday, so once again the diapers got re-stacked in the back of the van.

At this point, I am weary of trying to give these diapers away. It has taken far too much energy, time and physical effort and I am tired of them cluttering up our van. It should not be this hard to bless someone; to give a gift away.

I wrote last year about Doug trying to buy me a dress and how persistent he was in seeking to bless me. I realized that I need more of this kind of persistence; it is just too easy to make a couple of good tries then, justifiably, to give up.

When our church founders moved into this neighborhood many years ago, their central pursuit was to know and love their neighbors. One member tells the story of going door to door to meet his neighbors, and of one particular neighbor who would at first ignore his efforts completely, then would open only the metal security door, and then finally one day opened both doors to meet this persistent young man who simply would not give up. In light of the racial history of this community and of the general fear and suspicion that still hovers over our streets, it is not altogether strange that this neighbor stayed inside and refused our friend’s efforts.

It took months for each barrier to soften and fall, and our church founder refused to give up. I can imagine he was physically tired and emotionally weary of stepping outside of his comfort zone and knocking on that same door over and over again. But because of that persistence, the two neighbors eventually stood face to face and learned each other’s names.

I want to pass along the diapers in my van. I want to share them with a new mother who would be blessed by the gift. I would like for gifts like this to always be this easy, one-stop transaction, but they so rarely are. It seems the norm is a much messier, drawn-out scenario that tests my endurance at every step. The diapers themselves are not really the big deal here: it is my willingness to continue to extend myself, and whatever limited energies I feel I have on a given day, to seek to know and love my neighbors here.

Have it Your Way

On a school field trip, band trip, youth group retreat or road trip in college, there was always the need to stop for food. I know that when I was driving my car full of fellow travelers I would look for the sunny yellow golden arches or the Burger King sign. Inevitably we would find them together. Sometimes across the street from each other – usually sharing a parking lot.

I could never figure out why they would do this – split their business in this way. Then a friend suggested to me that their sales actually increased. It was those buses: large buses of school kids with teachers not having to decide only on McDonalds or only on Burger King. If one of the fast-food chains stood independent from another it would often get passed by for those in a cluster that could cater to the individual tastes found in a large group or even among family members sharing a car.

Now it is clear that this phenomenon has had additional effects (to the benefit of the fast-food franchises). The question during the meal now has sufficiently been changed in fast-food nations from “Where should we stop for dinner?” to “Do you want a BigMac or a Whopper?” It is a triumph of the marketing industry that an eight-year old is allowed to run to the KFC while his parents sit down for a Subway and such an arrangement is not questioned.

I contend that actually agreeing on where to have dinner requires much more capacity to relate to others than parking in a lot shared by Subway, Burger King, KFC and McDonalds and sending everyone their own way. Both actions get people fed but what is lost in the process?

It must be admitted that these same trends can be seen in the church (not to mention every other facet of our lives). Trinity Broadcasting Network, the notion of “church shopping,” the standard way we consume in-formation in the church pew while struggling to take seriously a trans-formation of whole communities are a few examples. A professor friend of mine tells the story of a church that bought an old movie mega-plex and then, using only one of the theaters for their service, rented out the rest of the theaters to other churches.

Erika’s family has a small lake cabin that has been handed down from generation to generation. The lake population has grown over the years and while some growth is due to new people coming to the lake a significant portion has been the building of cabins to accommodate the growing families. Now, instead of the grandparents owning a cabin and welcoming in the whole family, each sibling has their own. This solves space issues, usage issues, and ownership issues by simply giving everyone the convenience of having their own autonomous space. But a significant underlying issue is the removal of the need to relate.

What I have admired about Erika’s extended family is that they get together to work through the calendar for the summer. Who’s coming when? How can we make sure all the cousins and siblings get together? What will our food needs be? Who can help where? In doing this they both practice and, as their children age and join the meeting, pass down the ability to relate.

If it is true that being Christ-like is at the least about the way we relate to each other, and society as a whole is quickly removing all encounters that require anything more than depth-less and commercial contact, is it any wonder that the gospel of Jesus Christ is seen as irrelevant?

Michael Budde in The (Magic) Kingdom of God offers us this thought to wrestle with:

“What is at risk is not any particular interpretation of the gospel or the tradition of the church but the capacity to think, imagine, feel, and experience in ways formed by the Christian story.”

The Butterpillar and the Caterfly

The caterpillar to butterfly transformation is a frequently used analogy to describe the conversion/transformation aspect of the Christian faith. Writers and speakers like to use this imagery to spark our imaginations and inspire us as we think about what it means to have new life in Jesus Christ. This imagery speaks of a transition that is one of totality.

In a recent conversation based on writing by D. Gelpi and ML Branson (italics added after initial post) on the “initial” and “ongoing” aspects of conversion, a friend described several different kinds of conversions that he had witnessed in people: affective (the emotions, emotional health, etc), intellectual, moral, socio-political (the move toward corporate ethical solidarity), Christian (responding to God on God’s terms), and church (moving from individualistic and fragmented practices to interdependence in a congregation). He reflected on how these conversions can take place at different times and how there is really no prescribed order for them to occur. For some it was a Christian conversion that prompted a moral conversion. For others it was a moral conversion that prompted a Christian conversion.

I found myself challenged by this notion that we can bring parts of us ‘to the other side’ of our Christian conversion as if our good morality or strong intellect could be brought over unchanged when we made the choice to follow Christ. Is it really possible to say that parts of our lives were Christocentric before Christ was at the center? Perhaps in our churches we have a bunch of Butterpillars and Caterflies running around.

C.S. Lewis writes:

“The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down…. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’”

Mere Christianity

Jeopardy in the Church?

“I’ll take ‘Threes’ for 1000, Alex,” says the contestant. Alex reads the answer: “Yellow, Blue, and Red.” Contestants frantically buzz in. The one with the quickest thumb responds: “What are the three primary colors?” And so the game goes. Jeopardy has been the most popular game show since its syndication in 1984 (24 years!). Its familiar format has reached beyond the TV audience. You find this on their website:

Jeopardy!’s unique answer-and-question format has become a popular motivational tool adapted by a variety of national educators. In 2002, Educational Insights premiered “Classroom Jeopardy!,” an affordable electronic version of the famous quiz show, which can be tailored by educators to suit their specific curriculum, while bringing the familiar sights and sounds of Jeopardy! (buzzers and all!) directly into the classroom.

Perhaps Jeopardy can claim that its “answer-and-question” format is unique amongst game shows but it isn’t unique in the real world. Almost everything we do can have a question behind it. Mercy and Aaron make it painfully obvious to us frequently that they are learning things from us that we did not realize we were teaching so thoroughly. “Coffee!” they yell excitedly every morning when Erika walks through the kitchen door to the table for breakfast. We taught them that the black liquid was coffee, that it was hot, and that it was only for mommy. But we did not teach them to exuberantly celebrate the precious morning ritual. That they learned by watching. If this scene were on Jeopardy maybe it would go something like this:

“Morning rituals for 1000, Alex,” Mercy might say.

“Coffee!” offers Alex Trebek. And Aaron, being the more dexterous, presses his button the fastest and exclaims “What is the drink that makes mommy mommy in the morning?”

Our lives are full of these sorts of things. As adults we have taken them for granted and moved on to more nuanced (even esoteric) understandings of our actions. But our children remind us that there may be more that we are teaching without even knowing it.

In my last post I asked the question about what our underlying grammar was in the faith community. That post was driving at one aspect of identity making and understanding. I wonder what in our churches we are teaching without reflecting on the fact that teaching is actually happening?

In my younger life our church on Jeopardy might have sounded like this:

Answer: “Middle-class white people who can afford to dress up on Sunday.”
Question: “Who is welcome in our church?”

or

Answer: “Organ and a choir.”
Question: “What is good worship?”

or

Answer: “Grey-haired white male”
Question: “Who is allowed to preach?”

These questions, of course, do not reflect our current faith community but the same reflective exercise would yield its own good and bad results. All of life is a learning community. What subtle and not so subtle things are being taught in our congregations? How are these sometimes hidden or unrecognized questions defining reality?

If you were to reflect on your present (or past) faith community, what is being taught beyond the sermon/teaching? Are you surprised by anything, good or bad? Are you willing to post and share here?

Sunday’s Grammar

John, an old friend of mine in love with the Old Testament, is often heard saying of the Psalms: “God is glorified even in the grammar.” What exactly is he saying? Grammar, according to Merriam Webster, is “the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in a sentence; a characteristic system of inflections and syntax of a language; a system of rules that defines the structure of a language.” In short, the grammar is the ‘decoder’ that allows us to identify the meaning, value, and purpose of the words that it contains. Without grammar, the actual meaning of words is impossible to uncover.

I think John was rightly on to something of which we should take serious note. In a recent meeting with a pastor friend whom I respect dearly, we were discussing the shape of our Sunday services and I was asking for feedback on something we were thinking of doing that was a little different than the norm programmatically: less music, more fellowship, less rows, more gathering in smaller groups…. The thoughtful response from my pastor friend was to be mindful not to change things too quickly. Congregants, he said, need consistency and we should be mindful about how quickly and for what reasons we institute change.

It got me thinking about change and what exactly we had learned was important in our worshiping communities. What exactly were we changing? The number of songs sung? Yes. Where people sat? Yes. The amount of sound equipment we were to use? Yes. The wise counsel from my friend implied to me that these things were of central importance, as change in these areas too quickly would set off alarm bells for the congregation that something was not right.

Said in another way: consistency in the style of music, the length of preaching, the bible translation used, the floor arrangement for seating, the attire of the pastor and other leaders, the flow of the service, are the grammatical things we learn as a community. These things are our identity markers. Change one of them and suddenly the community’s identity is ambiguous. Changes in these things are changes in our grammar. The removal of these things, or changes in them, has an immediate impact on identity and understanding.

In other words, if we don’t sing in a particular style, is it worship? If we don’t use a particular bible translation, is it authoritative? If we change the seating in any way, are people going to feel that they are even at church? Do we not learn this from a very early age? Do not even our youngest learn to discern between those who look like “us” in format and style (and thus are what they come to recognize as church) and those who are “other?”

What if we embraced the harder, deeper task of discerning “is God here?” rather than quickly looking for the organ or guitar, the suit or flip-flops, the showered or the dirty, the NIV or KJV, the old or young? What would it look like to change our grammar?