Knowing the Festal Shout

14   Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne; *
love and truth go before your face.
15   Happy are the people who know the festal shout! *
they walk, O LORD, in the light of your presence.
Psalm 89

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of LOVE.

I feel like pilgrims were slighted this year, because of the way the calendar worked out, the candle of love only gets a few hours of special attention before we light the Christ candle tonight. It doesn’t seem right, it’s the backbone for all the other candles it forms the promise that grants us hope and it enables us to live in peace when the waiting is too long. It’s the strength that brings us joy and leads us to worship in all circumstances. Given that John explains to us that God IS love, glazing over this candle for only a few hours on our way to Bethlehem is a serious tragedy.

In the book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris says on the topic of God’s love, “We praise God not to celebrate our own faith, but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and to let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us into his own.” Before we know this is true, we crave  it.  We want to be known, loved, and saved. We want to know God is with us, day in, day out, in our messy stables, our smelly fishing boats, and our Zacchaeus trees.  We all wrestle to discover if this promise of sacrificial, unshakable love is true, and accepting it is scary. We know the love will save us, but it will also change us. It will prune and refine, and sometimes that will hurt. But the promise is so good, we exalt when we finally accept it.

If we are lucky, there’s a few times in our own lives where we get to share this godly vow of love with other people. Maybe it’s in front of friends and family at a wedding, or through clenched teeth during the labor pains in a delivery room, or while holding the hand of an aging parent. The divine love we give to each other – the one that requires more than we are able to give, that stretches us thin and reveals the weaknesses in our carefully polished exteriors- that love is the glue that holds us together as a civilization. It drives us towards progress, peace treaties, and charity. It keeps us from turning dysfunctional family reunions into the final chapter of Lord of the Flies. It’s the closest thing we have to scientific proof of that God is with us.

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These vows are life changing, and we enter into them trembling, with equal parts awe, excitement and terror. I think back to these moments in my own life, and wonder what it was like on the way to Bethlehem. Surely Mary was bursting with it, as Joseph said he would help her raise the baby, and later as the first contractions struck her with the reality of raising a savior. I’m certain that Joseph tried to comfort her in those last moments with his own excitement, but I’m equally sure that his eyes betrayed the overwhelming fear and uncertainty that lingered in his own heart. And what about the other living things of the earth, the ones without consciousness of good and evil, the plants and the animals?  Could they sense the anticipation in the heavens that was stirring, ready and waiting for the moment to burst forth and proclaim the glory?

When I was a kid, my family would travel with friends to their cabin in Canada in the summer. Even in August, the air temperature rarely rose above 80, and the water was always frigid. It was a primitive cabin, with no running water or showers, however there was a sauna. For a proper bath the tradition was to sweat off all the nastiness and grime of the day in the sauna, and then run down the dock as fast as you could and jump into the lake. It had to be done this way, because if you stopped to dip a toe into the water, or tried to ease yourself down the ladder, you would not get in. The cold would be too intense and you would lie to yourself, saying you maybe didn’t smell that bad.  Maybe that wasn’t really dirt and fish grime on your legs, it was possibly just a nasty, uneven tan. But really if you were to get clean, you must run down the dock and jump, holding the fear and thrill in equal parts to the last airborne second before you submerged. The water was always an intense shock, and it felt like the icy chill sunk deep into your soul as it washed the grime off of every single cell in your body. Everyone that bathed this way would kick back up to the surface and let out the perfect primal scream, so loud that everyone still inside the cabin could hear. It came to be known through the years as “the festal shout.”

Mothers know this festal shout quite deeply during labor. It’s the last cry given, after the crowning, but before the birth. It burns with pain and jubilee, part curse and part exultation. It holds the knowing, but not knowing how the grandness of new life will change you forever. It holds the pain as the great reservoir of love inside you cracks wide open and overflows, but leaves you with an open wound in your heart that will be vulnerable forever.  I imagine that Mary was no different from any other mom in this way, that with her final push she cried out too. The difference was that in that moment the whole earth echoed her shout, and continues to do so to this day, because the promise was that unto all of us the child would be born.  We share in Mary’s last cry of anguish and elation as we open up the vulnerability of our souls to his love.  In our baptism we know it, as we come up shocked and gasping for air, but also crying out hallelujah because we are so loved.

We are the people of the festal shout.

*     *     *

Today O Lord, despite our trembling, and our reluctance to let You look into the deepest, most brutal parts of our soul, we are happy that we know this shout. We sing, dance and cry with elation that your love saves, changes and creates. Shine Your light on us, we pray, that we may walk in it, and let us join together with all of heaven and creation in the chorus of exultation, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

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Embracing JOY

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:1, 10-11

 

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Today we light the pink candle on the advent wreath, the candle of JOY.

My kids were in their first Christmas pageant this year, starting this right of passage, as almost every small child does, by singing in the angel choir. It may have been a misstep in parenting, but I also chose to read them “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” at bedtime in lead up to their own participation. I had never read the book as a child and knew nothing about the plot, but it is crazy! I filled their head with all sorts of ways to be disruptive.   

For those of you who also have not read it, the story centers around a group of siblings known as the Herdmans. They are dirty kids, four boys and two girls, who live in a garage with a pet that is rumored to be part bobcat. They bully everyone, steal whatever they want, smoke cigars (even the girls) and burn things down for fun. They certainly are not your typical church people, but lured by a rumor of cookies and candy, they find themselves there on the same Sunday that they’re giving out parts for the annual Christmas pageant. Imogene, the oldest girl, decides she wants to be Mary, so they bully their way into the main parts, threatening to plant pussy willows in the ears of anyone else who would try to audition. The Herdmans have never heard the Christmas story, but they find themselves reflected in the Holy Family, living in unsuitable housing, a baby sleeping in a makeshift bed, dirty and without allies. They become protective over the baby, and they bring him a ham, because it’s a better gift than perfume.

The highlight of the story for my kids was Gladys. She plays the angel that came to the shephersa, and is the only one with a line in the whole pageant which is problematic because she’s not angelic. She shouts and snarls, “HEY! Unto you a child is born!” at the shepherds and then chases them to the manger, and they are legit terrified of her. As soon as my kids put on their own wings, they started tearing through the house shouting this line at each other and they’re little brothers.  They acted out her part perfectly, with equal parts mischief and glee, but little did they know they had actually latched onto one of the most profound truths of the story.

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It was terrifying. It is still.  Sometimes good news is that way, because it’s change, and it comes in ways we don’t expect, which overwhelms us.  We receive hope, and it sounds amazing, we’re excited. And then we wait, and we feel silly for having been excited. We need peace, and slowly as we grow we become okay with waiting. But then, slap out of nowhere, SHAZAM! Someone comes along to tell us God is here. This very day, and it’s a little bit terrifying.  Dare we even go see? Dare we actually stand in the presence of our fulfilled hope? Can we handle that joy?

Gladys wasn’t so different from Isaiah. After bringing and sharing the good news, Isaiah is exploding with it himself. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD. My whole being shall exult in my God.”  He’s overflowing with the power of it, calling on every decent metaphor he can find to exhort and encourage the people. He tells them righteousness and praise will shoot up like sprouts in a garden.

Good news brings rejoicing, but it also brings change. It means being ready to leave the mantle of our faint spirit in favor of the mantle of praise. Paul pushes us into accepting it though, “Rejoice always, Pray without Ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”(1 Thesalonians 5:16-18) it seems like an impossible task! But the good news that we celebrate is threefold. First that Christ came as Jesus and second that he is coming again, but the life changing news for today is that he abides with us here and now, too. We are not alone in anything, and his spirit is a gift to lead and comfort us as we grow. He’s not asking you to be a sunshiny, goofy smiled, person all the time, or to ignore that your life is not perfect, just to acknowledge that when you draw into his presence nothing else will matter. Our whole being will exult. He urges us to press into that truth continually.

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to a new church since we moved. We visited a lot of places and finally settled on one, but I feel out of place.  I’ve moved almost 20 times in my life, but we had been at that particular church for seven whole years. It was a record length of time for me to be investing in one community. I miss that. I miss the sense of belonging somewhere, and the security that feeling brings.  It’s been hard to sit through sermons occasionally and awkward making conversation afterwards, but my good news has been that none of that matters during worship, because of the overwhelming sense of joy it brings. I know in worship that I’m with God. It hasn’t mattered if I was 40 years younger than everyone else, if the sermon was about dinosaurs instead of the bible, or even if the lady leading worship was playing an out of tune piano and singing three octaves too high. Being in God’s presence is the only renewing source of joy, no matter how dysfunctional the setting.  

The encouragement for us mortals in this season of penance is that no matter how bad you’ve messed things up, how beaten up you’ve been, or how stressful your circumstance, you are not alone, and this is not the end.  Abiding in that truth will bring you joy. You will rejoice.  You will have the good vision to give thanks in all circumstances. Listen to that pushy but excited angel shouting at you, and don’t dare doddle behind because it might seem scary. Go be with God. Receive the gift of joy.

HEY! Unto YOU a child is born.  

Waiting in Peace

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.” 2 Peter 3:8-15

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today we light the candle of peace.
We need this candle because we suck at waiting. A few days ago, I had to go to the bathroom the same time that one of my kids decided he needed lunch. In my mind, my need was more pressing than his so I asked him to wait, but the entire 3 minutes I was using the loo he sat outside knocking, asking if now could I make him lunch.
Now?
Now mom?
Now are you done?
Now can I have lunch?
NOW?
By the time my hands were washed we were both impatient. Him for food, and me for him to be able to wait, which is such an irony of parenting- being impatient for your kids to learn patience. But really after 4 kids and a decade of parenting, I just want to be able to pee in peace.

We love the idea of hope, but we hate the waiting. When we know something is coming, but we don’t know when, we get all up in God’s business like a five year old knocking at the bathroom door. These stories are as old as the bible, like Abraham sleeping with Hagar when he was waiting for an heir, Jacob scamming his way into a blessing, or the Israelite’s building an idol when they were tired of waiting for Moses.
What a wonderful gift hope is, but as time ticks by, and we long to know when!? Did we hear Him right? Maybe we didn’t understand. Maybe He decided we didn’t really need what He promised after all. Or maybe He wants us to take responsibility, maybe He wants us to do something.

Advent is as much about looking forward to Christ’s second coming as it is remembering His first. Peter was writing to people who were frustrated that Christ had not yet returned. They were tired of waiting, but he was trying to explain that time for God is not how we see it.  It was a long time for the world to wait for the first Christmas, and in that we take comfort, that we are not alone in our impatience as we continue to persevere towards the next.

Peter says, “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.” A promise is easy to hold and exciting at its beginning and at its fulfillment, but the long, unending middle stretch requires the gift of peace. We need a tender touch to let the promise lead, grow, and fulfill the way it was meant too.

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The main thing I learned hiking with a toddler this fall was the importance of peace while waiting. A hike is not so different from a promise, you start with the excitement of a destination, and then a long time wondering if you’ll ever get there, how many more switchbacks, and how much further up the hill, and you’re thrilled when you finally arrive. The hard part is that toddlers don’t actually hike, they wander, and wandering behind them when you’d rather be hiking is maddening. They can go on for a long time in this manner though, and for quite a distance. If I don’t push, my toddler and I might walk 5 miles before the sun sets, but if I grab his hand and try to make him skip over all the amazingness at his eye level we will barely walk one. Maybe two if I have a pocket full of candy to offer up as a bribe.

You can’t force God’s promises to come true. We can’t push our spouses into a role we think they should fill, or rush our kids into His plans for their future.  We shouldn’t hustle our way into more money at the expense of our relationships, or give up waiting and entrust our joy to any of the old, regular, earthly idols.

 

Last week we prayed for hope, but Lord, this week we ask for peace. That we could hold that hope and trust it with our future, our joy, and for the growth of those around us. We pray to receive patience as salvation, and for the peace to hold onto our hope with endurance. Amen.

The Unintended Consequence of Hate

This was a horrible craphole of a week to be a grown up, I’m guessing you probably felt the same way. At first it was just horror about real world leaders behaving like they’re in the Butter Battle Book by Dr. Suess. But today it’s just turned to shame and pity. How can I look my kids in the face and assure them that love wins, when people were marching through the streets just 80 miles south on behalf of racism and hate?

I had scheduled a post for today, before any of this hit the news, to post pictures of flowers and butterflies. I felt like it was important over the summer to address issues surrounding addiction and alcoholism, but it’s so depressing. I wanted to thank you all for taking the time to read and engage in conversation with me by tempering the despair with some beauty, but today it feels weird. After people have been mauled and wounded, it seems absurd to post pictures with a cheerful theme and palette. People are angry, and scared, and with good cause. It’s not okay to pretend like everything’s fine.

This summer I had the privilege of hearing one of my favorite artists, Makoto Fujimura, speak at a writers conference on the topic of an artist’s role in the church. The essence of the talk was that artists are as important to spiritual development as intellectuals, they’re the poetic Mary to the practical Martha, the ones who show us how to sit with the mystery of the gospel. He shared that it’s an artist’s job to stand under hope, and that to him, hope is the primary medium that we create out of. This is costly in most circumstances where we would normally react with fear, but it is worth it. The artist’s job is to cultivate people’s imaginations toward this hope, and then past it, toward love. The temptation he said we face, is that we are in constant danger of being not actors on this mission, but reactors. When react, we miss out on the entirety of the hope that’s possible; we only share our emotion which is as fleeting as hope is eternal.

He told the story of being in New York city on 9/11, and taking his son to school that morning a few blocks away from the twin towers. He shared about panic and fear that suddenly became tangible. But then he shared about the children who experienced it. His son remained friends with the kids in his class that day, even though they all grew up and went to different high schools. He said that all but one of his those friends was pursuing some form of the arts as an adult. The terrorists were sure that day that they were planting seeds of revenge and hate in the children who witnessed that tragedy, but what they created were artists, and it was the spirit of hope in the city that enabled the radical transformation of fear.

Another timely thing I heard this summer was a Ted Radio Hour episode on tolerance. The point they made was we put too much emphasis on being able to tolerate one another. At it’s core, it’s too easy because if you tolerate something, you can still hate it for as long as you can ignore it. For example, our neighbors dog barks day and night. We hate it, but it’s not worth the energy to create conflict with our neighbors, so we refrain from repeatedly calling animal control. There’s no reconciliation, empathy, or even open discussion, and it’s a half step above what we saw yesterday. I think that half step we’ve created around tolerance is not enough space, because we lapse in our self control, we’re by default intolerant and adding to the harm done in hatred’s name.

The episode explored so many touchy conflicts, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, pro-life vs. pro-choice, and Palestinian vs. Israeli, and found inspiring examples of people who were reaching beyond tolerance toward something greater. They embraced humility, listened, empathized, found common ground, cooperated, and humanized conversation. Today, it doesn’t seem possible, that we could be a society that chooses to embrace rather than threaten its minorities, but these are the values that will walk us away from that mindset. These were real stories of actual people who were able to overcome their prejudice, past the point of tolerance to something stronger. This is what artists have a higher calling to explore, and in turn what parents are called to share with their children.

Tonight and every night, as I put my kids to bed, I’ll read them good books about kind people and hopeful things. Even though it is a simple thing, in a culture full of fear and hate, it is an act of defiance. To read to them about love, as an act of my love for them, teaches them about holiness. It helps them see that’s who God really is, and gives them the discernment to see white supremacy as the opposite. Today we were already planning to go to to the Hirshhorn to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit about political prisoners. This too is an act of defiance, to share hope with my children.  The exhibit shows how standing up for love and freedom is costly, but still heroic and necessary. The act of raising up a generation, leading them toward hope through the arts and giving them the tools to create on their own, is more powerful than we realize. The arts are the language kids are most likely to understand, we see this in the way that fables and fairy tales have endured for centuries, but they only remember our lectures for about 15 seconds.  The arts are also our promise to them- that despite what they see on the news, there is a promise of something better. May their inspired imaginations, writing, music, visuals and drama be the unintended result of this weekends rally.

Maybe there is space for art in the world on a morning after a disgrace like this. It’s our reaction to not feel like it, to feel unworthy of it, but if we are intent on defying things like the KKK, maybe even something as simple as butterflies will show how deeply we disagree with them. Maybe it shows that you don’t have to be flawless to be beautiful, or that no one can truly lay claim to land, or that innocent beauty is the true essence of God’s creation and not a bunch of tikki torch carrying assholes. I was originally going to offer hope, that the Shenandoah is not close to, nor could it ever be overrun by addiction. That despite whatever problems we have as people, the beauty in nature will not fade from these mountains because God is with us. Or maybe that the purity of creation has incredible power to refresh the souls of the weary.

We confess the sins that have brought us to this point. Yesterday was domestic terrorism committed by white supremacists, we know because we have behaved this way many times before. Despite what people say, this is us. Some days people march, and we know where to throw stones, but most days we’re satisfied with tolerating one another, and both attitudes need forgiveness. We condemn racism and supremacy, but we do so as an action of hope, not as a part of our surprise or disgust. We trade in our tolerance for compassion, openness, forgiveness, reconciliation and most of all love. We dare to hope for something greater than what binds us now, and we extend that hope in every art form that we know how-books, movies, plays, music, paintings, photos, sculpture, anything, to inspire one another and to free our children from inheriting these sins.

If you’re not able to look at flowers and butterflies today, it’s understandable, I’m not quite there yet either. They seem insignificant compared to the grief we feel over what one human is willing to do to another. But I’m posting them anyways because I know my kids and I need this beauty.  And to acknowledge that while my heart is filled with the same emotions as yours, this is the truth we must hold onto: the hatred and fear that evil incites can be radically transformed by hope into love and beauty if we let them.  Possibly the transformation will be so startling that the white supremacy movement will shriek and shrink up in horror like the wicked witch of the west, and evaporate into our history books forever.

 

Searching for Mercy

This infographic from Utah Senator Mike Lee(R) shows the length and sequence of the opioid problem. I’m not tech savy enough to get the gif to transfer here, so please follow this link and watch as it spreads. Visuals like this help people realize the scope and the depth, and why opioids are the key poltitical issue right now…

The map begins to really grow in the 1990’s, when deaths were increasing in California and Border states, we even see the first bit of red in New Mexico. This reflects a group of enterprising farmers in Mexico making black tar heroin, and the rise of a franchised distribution ring they created to sell it over the border. Their network would eventually make its way all across the country, to rural communties that knew nothing about heroin, but during this time period they remained mostly in the southwest.  In 1997, when the map starts to turn red, marks the release of OxyContin. Large chunks of the red begin growing especially in areas where people opened pill mills, first in the Appalachians and then in Florida, where there was almost no prescription regulation to prevent addiction.  The rapid red growth at the end reflects people turning to heroin as it has become more difficult to get an Oxy prescription. It shows batches of drugs being laced with more potent opioids, like Fentanyl, causing mass overdoses wherever its sold.

What’s almost as troubling as the map were the comments people shared about it on social media.  So much anger and misunderstanding. Everybody had someone to blame, and very few accusations were based on anything factual. I know that’s the beast of social media, but it breaks my heart to see people being so careless with an issue as painful as this.

Whose fault is the epidemic? Everybody’s. Democrats and Republicans together have passed power back and forth over the last 20 years. They’ve both created policies, some that fueled the epidemic and some that helped to slow it. Meanwhile the rest of us said nothing about it, in debates or at the polls, and most of what happened was buried in beauracracy.  We enabled a culture of based on materialism, seclusion, and averse to pain; a place where the option to numb yourself to death has become more enticing than enduring the struggles for life and love. We embarrassed the people who needed help. We threw them in jail, labeled people with addiction as weak willed, immoral criminals, and shamed the parents that raised them.  We were stingy with jobs and second chances, ignoring our own mistakes to focus on theirs.

Oh Jesus.  Please let humility and cooperation triumph here. Please help us resist the temptation to become self-righteous and search for a place to lay blame. We’ve squandered so much of our blessing to pursue sin, but still we ask you to have mercy on our souls and our mistakes. Save us from our greed and pride that grew this epidemic.

Lord have mercy on the people who continue to write unnecessary prescriptions, and the people seeking them out to escape depression and frustration. Have mercy on the people whose prescriptions ended in addiction, who turned to heroin out of desperation. Have mercy on those living with chronic pain, that can’t get out of bed without a pill in the morning, but also can’t convince doctors that their pain is real. Have mercy on the child who took them at a party, not fully understanding the power of the drug they were comitting their life to.

Have mercy on our divided and spiteful politics, which are more interested in winning fights and being right than cooperating to help people. Have mercy on our tendency to despise the poor of spirit, the broken and the weary for not behaving in a manner, or making choices, that are acceptable to us.

Lord have mercy, for we are as lost in our complacency and apathy as these dark red counties are lost in their despair.  Teach us to understand the difference between needs and wants, and to be compassionate with our resources. Show us what love means, and how to extend it to those we are not naturally interested in loving. Teach us to do your will, to love kindness, show mercy and walk humbly with you.

May all your people be of one mind. Open the lips of preachers, pastors and leaders to unite in action and in prayer on behalf of the communities they serve.  Stir the holy spirit fires to break people out of their upper rooms, lead them into the streets, speaking the languages  of the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the unholy, the criminals, the recovering and those stuck in addiction. Break through all our fears, and empower us to fight this evil. Teach us to shine your light brightly so this is a culture where people would choose to engage, to be led from the temptation to just exist.

Oh Jesus, have mercy on us all.

And may all God’s people say, Amen.

Supporting Foster Care

Substance abuse is an important issue to me personally, because of my own experiences and those of friends and family, but in my opinion, it should be for everyone.  Because as we’ve seen with heroin and crack, a drug problem has the ability to devastate a community rapidly. Also because 1 in 10 Americans struggle with it, which means it’s probably a personal issue for you too.

May is National Foster Care Month and if you don’t care about the problem of substance abuse for any other reason, care about it because of this.  Because while not all children are placed in foster care cases are due to an addicted parent, it is often the precipitating factor.  The number of children in foster care has been rising over the past 5 years, mainly because of an increase in drug use. (Addiction Epidemic Creates Crisis in Foster Care).

According to a government survey, in 32% of foster cases, drug abuse was the listed reason for removal from the home. Neglect was the number one reason, and caretaker inability to cope and physical abuse were numbers 3 and 4 respectively, (AFCRS report, 2015) but that statistics is misleading because neglect, inability to cope, and physical abuse are often a result of a parent’s addiction. Some statistics estimate closer to 61% for infants (Parental Substance Abuse, p2).

Last winter the Wall Street Journal wrote a horrible but informative article, “The children of the Opioid Crisis.”  We can imagine that people who are high won’t be able to properly care for their children, but knowing there are kids living in houses with buckets of vomit everywhere and feces smeared on the wall is unacceptable. It’s also important to remember that substance abuse is a much bigger problem than the current epidemic.  This 2014 article, “Substance abuse a top reason children are removed from homes” focused on the influence of Meth on the Kansas foster care system.  Before that there were the same horrible stories about crack, and before that it was heroin again.  Through all the epidemics, alcohol has always been the substance most commonly abused, and though it is legal, it is equally capable of destroying a family as any hard drug. The fact is, if more people were sober, there wouldn’t be so many kids in foster care.  We wouldn’t be worried about a shortage of foster parents, or a generation being raised by their grandparents, or the psychological fallout that these children are suffering from due to abuse and neglect.

If you think you’re community is immune to these problems, you’re wrong. Statistically, Virginia is one of the states that has been least affected by the increase in drug abuse, but even in the beauty of the Shenandoah things have become worse.  According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition the amount of children in Foster care due to parental substance abuse in the  Winchester area soared from 5 cases in 2012 to 42 in 2015.  (Northern Shenandoah Substance Abuse Statistics). One local foster care agency told me that parents who have been recently trained all have children placed with them already. That it only took a few weeks for her to be desperate for more parents to be trained.

During the month of May, please commit to praying for these children. Focus on the Family has compiled a prayer guide to help people understand the needs and problems of foster care and how to you can pray for them here: Foster Care Prayer Vigil  

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Pray for the children to feel love and to find homes that will accept them unconditionally.  Also for the caregivers who are under stress, and for the birth parents sobriety. But also we can pray for the many people behind the scenes working with and helping these families: those providing respite care, the caseworkers, people recruiting and training foster parents, police officers responding to calls, churches who support these families, counselors, teachers, and the communities leaders and government officials overseeing it all.

But don’t just pray for the people already involved, pray for your part too.  It could be as big as opening your home up to a child, or as thoughtful as helping with the cost of clothing, school supplies, or Christmas presents. Many Grandparents that have kinship care are overwhelmed, now trying to raise their grand kids when they were ready for retirement. Offer them help, bring them dinner or babysit for free. Foster children often struggle in school because of the trauma and instability, so if you can tutor, offer your services. Or if you have weekends free, volunteer with the state to provide respite care. 

Speak up for this issue in your church and with your friends, because together we can do more to support the families that take kids in.  Pray for it as a community, and for how you can support their parents recovery, so that the family can have hope of being reunited. Fight for these children, because these kids need it, and our communities need them.

Good Friday for Parents

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV

 In her book, Operating Instructions, Ann Lamott said that parenting leaves you with a wound.  “Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could destroy me.   Terminal cancer would certainly be a setback, but I actually thought I could get through it…but now I am fucked unto the Lord. Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam.”  This wound is the root of all frustration, all tempers lost, all misguided attempts to control their futures.  We just can’t bear the thought of losing them, or even seeing them suffer the consequences of their actions. 

The weird thing for me this Lent was to notice how parallel the Old Testament is to Parenting.  If God is the Father, the Israelites are the child that learns every lesson the hard way.

It starts blissfully in the garden, creation abounding with the glee of newborn innocence.  In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin.  They rest like babies on a mother’s chest, breathing in sync. I bet they even had that sweet untainted breath, and the delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.

As time passes, curiosity trumps obedience. With curiosity comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes pride.  They bit into the apple, and suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier, He had warned them it meant death.  He could have chosen to smite them on the spot and start over, Adam 2.0, but He loved them.  What parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child  rebels?  He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it., that someday He would reconcile it all and everything would be restored.

But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost, and as it is with toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme. He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but being nice is hard.  Too hard.  I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that less drastic actions are enough to set safe boundaries.  In their sin His anger raged, but far above it all his love remained.  A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And more promises were made. Promises that outnumbered the stars in the sky.

Finally the day came when they were ready for elementary education.  Many knew the law already in their heart, that obeying God was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone, elaborated on, something to study.  Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won.  A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart,  led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience.  Later a temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty.  Wisdom was not only given, but also received.  People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.

If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for elementary age children will only be ruled for so long before they want to test their knew knowledge.  As they grow, the crimes become bigger, the consequences more serious.  The lectures last longer and the punishments grow more severe.   No matter what’s said, their hearts are increasingly their own, and they are no longer easily swayed.  And so it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and other idols.  They didn’t always want to be set apart, because sometimes it was hard. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy.  Sometimes they just wanted to be normal; to eat, drink and be merry like their more ordinary neighbors.  

After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to for a larger consequence.  No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled.  Like a grounded a teenager, their city was emptied of  treasure and privilege.  We understand His anger.  How could they be so ungrateful? After everything God had done for them, how could they be so careless with His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.

It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time.  He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but maybe more faithful.  The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry.  At first, things were glorious.  They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not a penitential child anymore.  Something was different now, more self-righteous.  They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise.  He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices.  They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, part of them always would be.  His hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love. He would crush their enslavement to sin with sacrificial love, and those willing would truly be reunited. But the time was not yet right.  He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could.  

It went this way for 400 years when the time had finally come.  He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand.  But he also knew all the hairs on Israel’s head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan.  Just one crazy guy to announce it, someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. Also a humble virgin, not yet wed, but betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 uneducated followers that mostly smelled like fish.  He would need others to support the twelve in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore able to accept the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. They were lowly people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town.  But God knew they were ready.

Our Father foresaw every detail, but His plan was brutal.   In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word, that was there in the beginning.  ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)

* * *

It is hard to fathom as a parent.  The story is so understandable up to this point.  The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth.  Parenting is a vulnerable endeavor, and that’s terrifying.  We try not to live in fear, but their futures are so uncertain.  The time will come when they’re young adults too, and our feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make a decision to follow God or the world, or maybe they’ll try to do both.  There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. If God refused to control the hearts of the Israelites, would we even really want that control over our own offspring?

God asks all of us to trust him with our children and with their stories, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places.  Most days it feels like too much. How could God ask that of parents? 

As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away, but of course His mother was still there.  A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the entire world.  I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions too.  This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family or yours. We were supposed to have happy endings.

As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.

“Woman. Behold your son.”

He knew. It’s an unparalleled experience for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold?

Behold.
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues throughout the history of humanity.  Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and continue to walk away.  It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less.  It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray.  Because after that much painful heartbreak, who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son?

Parents, God knows your fear and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still, even after all the times you messed this parenting thing up.  Because He loves your children, no matter how they’ve disrespected you or Him, or even themselves.  As He looks down at the cross, He says to behold. Because every ounce of fear, frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me. 

Maundy Thursday: In the Face of Hatred

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:19

It’s not in our nature to endure hatred. Every particle of our soul burns for acceptance, for love.  It was the very thing that led us to Jesus in the first place, the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8:38-39) The world offered us many things, and they were good, though sometimes fickle gifts: admiration, acceptance, respect, belonging, even family, but not that.  Not the unshakable love of God. DSC_1341But it’s in His nature to be hated.

“This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law,” He says. “‘They hated Me without a cause.’”  John 15:25 

And when we realize that, everything in our being tries to flee.  We’ll break the promises we just made, three times over. We’ll keep silent because we love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We’ll testify falsely because we can’t handle the fear. 

It’s not always that we don’t believe or that we don’t love him that keeps us from following.  It’s sometimes that we can’t bare to be hated. We’re terrified of what the mob will do to us, so we hang back in the safe spaces. We whisper about the injustice to other friends, but only to those who we know will agree.  We hide our testimony, because we’re terrified they will make space for our cross too.  When He catches our eye from a distance we’re suddenly humiliated by our weakness. We hang our heads and sob, but still, we don’t dare step out of the shadows.  

He warns us. He wakes us to pray. He knows we will not endure the condescending looks and snide comments. He knows that standing without him we’ll begin to doubt. Was any of it true? Did we just hear and see what we wanted to? Was he ever really the savior we thought he was?

DSC_0789But he promised that night not to leave us orphaned in our pain.

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.  John 14:16‭-‬17 NKJV

Something that would save us from this shame. That would push us out from our hiding places and out of our sanctuaries, able to fight their hatred with the truth.

The Spirit of truth…

His word in our hearts like a burning fire

Shut up in our bones.

We would weary of holding it back,

And we would not. (Jeremiah 20:9 NKJV)

But for now, as the hour of temptation is at hand, we break the bread and drink the cup, remembering our weakness before the cross, when everything we hoped for seems to be ending.  We try to remember his promises, his traditions, his mercy.  Tonight we rest in the protection of the prayers he says on our behalf, that we should be kept from evil, sanctified, continue his work, and be united (John 17:15-21).  Because of this we know, despite the anger and burning resentment in the world around us, despite how awful the predicament seems, we are still loved.

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Holy week part 3: Fighting Denial

There’s a story in this picture that only I can see. It’s evident in the calmness of the sea and the clarity of the sky.  It’s in the peace shown in the child’s steady gaze.  This was a story that almost wasn’t, and one of which the child is almost wholly unaware.  Many deny the power the power of how this story came to be, but I’ll never deny its truth. 

The ocean in this picture could have been choppy.  The home the boy lives in began in turbulence.  Crashing waves of alcohol and drugs relentlessly churned up mud and silt, so that most often the atmosphere felt murky and brown.

The sky could have been full of storm clouds, for the boy’s parent’s sins were generational. Growing up in a home with such turbulence would have put him at high risk for the same behaviors: anger, depression, and a wealth of poor judgement.  Even if he could somehow make it out of the house free from addiction, he would still always be followed by the cloud of emotional pain.

The look on his face could have been one of uncertainty and anger.  He could have woke every day wondering, what kind of mom would meet in the morning? The one who makes pancakes, with exaggerated cheer, like everything was better than normal? Or the one who’s still a bit drunk, but mostly hungover? The one with a pillow over her head, letting him know he needs to pour his own cereal and peel his own banana. On those days he would fume and wonder, why was this his lot? What did he do to be born to such broken parents?

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This was how the boys story was almost written.  In the years before his existence, his mom was in the worst kind of denial.  The kind that had given up on dreams, joy, and the possibility of God.  His dad was covered in a cloud of depression, and would do anything he could to escape its existence, only it followed too closely to ever be free for long.  Somehow, in their pain they found each other, and made their own home, a shelter from those who had hurt and disappointed them.  Their own safe place, just the two of them, together.  But a shelter is not secure when there’s a door open to drugs.  One day meth walked in and quickly chipped away at the little hope they had left.

In a last attempt at peace, they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas.  The mom missed her relatives, but more than that she missed the hope and joy their house was always full of.  She wanted to be near those things, but she was worried they would see through her charade. There might be lectures about behavior and the choices she had made. They would maybe break out gospel tracts and embarrass her with the offer of salvation, but they did no such thing.  In fact, nothing happened at all and if she hadn’t been seeking peace, it may have even seemed boring.

When they came home, the dad said it was the happiest he had ever been. She was shocked. Which part made him happy? The sitting around for hours playing board games? Or the women chatting endlessly about their kids and other people he didn’t know? It was so typical to her, the fact that it amazed him was probably the most depressing thing she ever heard.

That was the happiest you’ve ever been?” she asked aloud, filled with doubt.  After all the epic parties and surreal, all-night adventures, that was it?

“Yes.” He said. “That. And also that time I was young and went to church.”

Suddenly she was felt dismay.  She knew what he was aksing, and was also desperate for joy, but didn’t he know that church was what she had been running from all along? Despite the rage, and the fighting and the drama, she loved him still. If that was what it would take to make them happy again, she would do it.  It was the only one of the 12 sober steps she actually knew, and she knew that’s what they needed. She knew church well and for their sake, she could fake it. At the very least, she thought it might be better than the awfulness that they’d been stuck in lately.  She even kind of missed having friends weren’t all slowly dying. She agreed, and they googled ‘church,’ and went to the first one on the list.

As they rode their bikes up the hill that first Sunday, she expected stability, a new community, some new hope, maybe.  But she didn’t expect Jesus.  She didn’t expect that she’d be sitting there, crying in the pew, letting go of pain.  She didn’t to expect to meet any misfits like her, or people who loved Jesus more than anything, or anyone who would pray for her in the hallways or be willing to talk about God even after the sermon was over.  Sitting there in a pew, paging through the bible, she was disappointed to realize that she had read it for years without ever really listening to what was said.  Truth came blasting through.  Every page she flipped to spoke directly to her soul.  She could feel something entirely new being formed in her. She expected stability, but she didn’t expect Jesus.

The people sang about new mornings, life and mercy, but she had no idea that it would be literal. Suddenly everything was new.  New friends, jobs, passions and tastes. There were baptisms, a wedding, a baby, a new home and then more 3 more babies.  Before she could stop and fully marvel, they were a family of 6 living miles away on a literal rock atop a quiet mountain. 

DSC_0742In His last week on earth,  surrounded by people, Jesus yelled up at the sky. “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then the voice came from heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)

Her trouble is that someday she’ll have to explain this story to the boy.  It would be nicer to tell him that she was always as responsible as she is trying to train him to be. He adores and respects her now, but like all children, someday he will have to understand and forgive her weakness and imperfections.  What will she say? That it would have been better to been spared seeing the bottom in all of its ugliness? But then she would not be able to talk about all the things she’d seen.  The evil things working together for good.  The tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword being powerless against the bond His love.

What scares me is that even after people heard the voice, and testified that it sounded like thunder, or that maybe an angel has spoken to him…Even after that they still denied.  “… although he had done so many signs before them, they did not believe Him.” (John 12:37)

It’s the most disturbing part of Holy Week.  That even after everything that’s happened- after all the the signs, all the miracles, and even a voice from heaven, they still can walk away.  How could He be the Son of Man? He doesn’t fit the expectation, so they make excuses. He’s just a prophet. He’s a man possessed. Even after hearing her testimony, and knowing God’s hand in their story, will her children do the same? Will they think it was by her own might strength? That rock bottom will push people up regardless of the power pulling from above?

Some people may, but I will not deny.  I witnessed a man lifted from the abyss of crystal meth to become a loving husband and dad.  I witnessed a woman bound by alcohol walk away from her endless party without a second thought.  For one purpose we survived, to testify. I will not look at this picture and deny the voice that came from heaven, and the authority with which it spoke.   

After a decade of constant growth and change, the people who meet me no longer sense that booze once flowed freely through my veins, or that my husband would stay awake for weeks at a time.  Now we look like ordinary people, with stable, ordinary stories. Raiding a child looking out at a calm ocean, ignorant of the fact that it used to be choppy. Standing under a blue sky, unaware of the storm that has been calmed. With peace, and a hope, and a future radiating from his face.  The power of our testimony demands that His name be glorified.  We cry out for Him to do so, and He shouts back to us that it has been, and that it will be again.

 

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Holy Week Part 2: Citizenship

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20

My boys are 2, 5, 7 and 9, which means the days here are filled with a lot of whining and bickering. Even when they’re playing well together, because of their ages and maturity, it’s a fact that at some point people will end up in time out.  It’s one of the most difficult things for me to tolerate as a mother, I used to think Jesus was incredibly harsh when he said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”(Matthew 17:17), but when all four of them are fighting over something as common as a single Lego piece, I totally get it.

It’s weird how the concept of time as a child is both fleeting and eternal. If I ask them to share a toy for 5 minutes they’ll pout and cry because it’s too long. It’s as if in 5 minutes, the whole world will have ended and their chance to play with it will be gone forever. But they also feel like they’ll be kids forever; they can’t imagine a day when they’ll be grown and fully responsible for themselves.  When the squabbling gets to the the point of parental intervention I try to explain to them how their perspective is too narrow; that in 10 years that Lego will be in the trash but their brother will still be here, so share…value the lasting relationship over the trash. They hear what I’m saying, and I think they even recognize it as truth, but their understanding of time won’t allow them to fully believe this wisdom.

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When I look at the kids, I see that they’re actually lucky to be fighting over something as unimportant as toys; I wish my conflicts were as petty as pee on the toilet seat or laundry on the floor.  As an adult,  I’m more capable to fulfill my desires, and far more severe to people who would stand in my way.  I can even make it look admirable, like if I’m fighting for something for my kids, or more time to pursue my dreams, or a fun vacation I worked hard for.  Armed with a good argument, I dare you to get in my way.

The constant debate throughout the whole country proves that no one is immune.  Between the political battles and the incessant media coverage, even the most peaceful people let somebody else piss them off last year.  Many people had excellent points, and were fighting for good things- high moral standards, peace, prosperity, justice, etc. Don’t we all desire these things? What sane person wouldn’t fight to make that happen? But through all the angry carnage, only stronger division was accomplished.

 

Today in the gospel reading (John 12:20-26) Jesus makes one of his harshest statements of all, but apparently of the greatest importance since he repeats it several times and all four gospel authors made note of it.  “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25) It’s verses like this that made a lot of people throughout history think Jesus was crazy.  It’s no wonder that by the time He got to the cross He was all alone.

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It has become so ingrained in our culture to love life, to seek the pleasure that it offers, that it’s become cliche- “live life to the fullest,” “seize the day,” “stop and smell the roses,” “live for the moment!”  It’s not that we should stop doing these things necessarily, I still believe time on earth shouldn’t be wasted. But maybe if we really understood how this world is not our citizenship, if we understood that we have an obligation to servant-hood and a life eternal, maybe we could rise above the petty conflict.

Like my kids, I know heaven is what the future promises, but I don’t understand it, nor can I fully imagine the promise that it brings.  When I deal with conflicts, I see them here and now, and if they don’t get solved I feel like I will surely die a miserable and unhappy death. Maybe even in the next 5 minutes.  And yet, at the same time, I also feel like I will be here on this earth forever and therefore ensuring my prosperity in it must be top priority.

People tell you all the time how fast parenting goes, and it’s true. When I look back to the beginning, I’m stunned that I’ve been at this for almost a whole decade. But the actual day in and day out feels like an eternity. Like they’re never going to grow up and be responsible and move out. Even though I’ve moved a lot, I still always have the feeling like these friends, these relatives, and this place will always be my home.  It’s this very human perspective of time that makes us cling so hard to the bits of joy when we find them and make us so ferocious toward anyone and anything that would try to rob us of it.  It’s hard to remember that there is joy eternal when your neighbor’s dog is barking outside your bedroom window all night long. Or that someday the dog will die, and there will just be you, not getting along with the person you were commanded to love.

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On this second day of Holy Week, remember your citizenship is in heaven, because too many people have lost their way to the cross by being caught in a petty argument over their citizenship here.   We’re following something eternal, and in ten years, or twenty, or once you’ve truly died and are hanging out with Jesus, will you still be glad that you fought so hard to get  your way? Maybe, in the light of what’s coming, it will be more important to be loving than to be right.  Maybe today it will be okay to lose out on the piece of this earth you’ve been clinging to, because He promised, whoever hates these things gets to keep following.