Grace upon grace

In her commentary on the Gospel of John, Dr. Karoline Lewis uses a phrase that has become a mantra of hope and encouragement to me:

“Grace upon grace…”

What does grace upon grace sound like? It sounds like when you are deader than dead and you hear your name being called, by the shepherd who knows you and loves you, and you are then able to walk out of that tomb, unbound to rest at the bosom of Jesus. Dr. Karoline M. Lewis, John: (Fortress Preaching Biblical Commentaries.) © 2014 Fortress Press. Minneapolis. p. 160.

These last few weeks I have needed extra touches of God’s Grace. With our church, Twinbrook Baptist, making the decision to sell our building, and gift out the proceeds rather than spend down our resources, there’s been a mixed bag of feelings. At times, my joy has been “deader than dead” but then God’s grace appears and restores me.

I’ve watched my friend and pastor, Jill, and our church leadership respond with honest, heartfelt feelings – but also serve with open-hearted kindness and grace. We have embraced hope. We’ve laughed. We have worshiped with joy. We have reminded ourselves that we are Resurrection people. We have hugged and reassured. We’ve bitched (a little — just human!) And we’ve cried. When I took the last boxes home from my church office on Sunday after worship, the tears flowed down my cheeks.

But grace… Grace has never been far away. God has shown up in a number of grace-filled ways.

I found this photo this morning, snapped unintentionally by my smartphone as I headed home from working out last night. I totally missed it at the time. I was intent on getting a shower and doing some charting. This vista, this contrast of light and dark brought hope and encouragement. The beauty is there, ready to proclaim God’s glory. Do I notice?

“Grace upon grace…”

To provide a backdrop for a sermon on hospitality by Pastor Jill McCrory, I brought this quilt, a family heirloom, to use for the communion table. Its presence on the altar immediately provoked stories and sweet memories by congregants. Who knew this “grandmother’s flower garden” would provide joy and comfort for our last regular worship service? I just pulled it out as a whim. God knew.

“Grace upon grace…”

 I tried to have a healthy snack and boost to my lunch today, so I stopped to get a protein smoothie. Banana-strawberry. Mmmmm… Except the lid was not on tightly and it decorated my white pants! The employee who served my smoothie was embarrassed because she saw what had happened. I frantically tried to clean up the splotches with napkins. She ran to the back of the store and came out with a stain remover pen. “Here! Take this!” I went to my car, mopped up the stain, and brought it back, profusely thankful. She wouldn’t take a tip. So I told her manager how grateful I was and that she needed a bonus.

“Grace upon grace…”

I’m sure there will be more examples. Now I’m more aware of what the Grace of God can do in my boring, everyday, grumpy life. Maybe yours, too?

I’m being intentional. Mindful. Looking for grace every moment. Focusing on the things that show love and joy and faithfulness. Taking a short, private cussing break when the feelings overflow. (Like I said… just being real!) Looking up to see… God. There. Always.

Lauren Daigle wrote a song that is on my “repeat” playlist right now. It’s keeping me going… a love song from God reminding me to Look Up Child.

Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. Hebrews 12:14-15

So may it be.

sdg

Forgiveness and Alligator Shoes

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EPhoto Credit: “Alligator Shoes”, © 2014 Robert Sheie, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

It was quite a shock to run into this man. I was getting some charting done with an eye on the clock, hoping to squeeze in one last patient for the day. I did not expect to see a nemesis from my past in a nursing home’s administrative suite!

At first I didn’t know for sure… for he always was a person who had a bit of swagger and bravado. He was a  man of high-priced, tailored suits and fancy alligator shoes.

And this man? He was looking desperate, slightly shabby, and selling photocopiers…

Really?

I blinked. Glanced over at him again…

Nope. That was the guy, all right. Could I leave without him seeing me? Maybe if I kept my head down and my focus on the charts…

Our eyes met. Crap. I smiled and went into my “public face” mode. (I confess. I acted polite, all the while dying inside.) We exchanged pleasantries. I managed to escape moments later, bemused by the emotional journey I traveled in just a few seconds. I was shaken at how all those feelings came boiling back up…

It was not a good memory. The feelings were slightly raw. Still.

He had lied about me to our superiors. Lied about me to our peers. Made every veiled, misogynistic remark he could about women in ministry. Put me into tears on more than one occasion with his snide remarks about my weight. Or judging me because I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom. Or smirked at my age. I felt self-righteous anger begin to rise…

And God said, “Forgive him.”

Lord, are you kidding me? After all I went through? And people were fired… And…

“Forgive him.”

I stewed about it the rest of the day. And then… I began my studies for an upcoming sermon, and read through the verses for Holy Week, including the Crucifixion. The passages on demonstrating forgiveness, from the heart, hit me… hard.

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25. NIV

Yikes.

I prayed for this man, asking God to bless him (and knowing that he will never know). I prayed for my attitude. I prayed for my anger. And, true to the promises of God, I felt my burden of hurt lifted from me.

I have a focus and purpose in the Work of God in this world… and I am moving on to do it. God is merciful.

Blessed be.

Dragon Repellent (And other ways we face our fears!)

Many, many years ago, one of our daughters would wake up in a full-blown panic, calling for us:

Mommy! Daddy! Dragons! Dragons!
Mommy! Daddy! Dragons! Dragons! 

Tears on her face, she would curl up against us, while we tried to soothe her. She didn’t want to sleep WITH us, as much as she wanted the dragons to ‘go away.’ We had little success in persuading her the dragons had left until she fell back asleep.

This happened on and off for a couple of months. It was exhausting for all of us. Nightlights. Music. Aroma therapy. Stuffed animals. We would go a couple of nights and then… BAM. Her pediatrician noted it and said that it was a part of brain development. She wasn’t sleep walking.  It wasn’t night terrors. It was probably just “bad dreams.”

Except, these were not dreams from her perspective. There were dragons under the bed. And they hid when we came in the room. And they only came out at night… At one point, I even tried opening the window and shooing out the dragons before bedtime. (Yes. I was desperate. And pregnant.)

Funny thing, there’s nothing in parenting books about “dragons”…

Finally, I had a fit of inspiration. It was after we had come back from a camping trip and we used a lot of insect repellant. And there were no dragons. Hmmmm….

Before bed one night, I produced a can of “Dragon Repellant.” (It was actually a room deodorizer spray with a conspicuously hand-written label on it. Whatever. She was 3 and a half. It worked.) I sprayed the room and then under the bed and announced that the “Dragon Repellant” would keep the dragons away.

And, it did!

Since those early days of parenting, there have been other fears and tears that no amount of “repellant” would keep away. Gradually, we have all learned a lot about conquering fear. Or rather, allowing the Spirit of God to be a source of confidence, courage and coping. We read verses and learned songs. And mostly, we admitted when we were afraid and needed God to help us.

Isaiah 41:10 (Common English Bible)
Don’t fear, because I am with you;
don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
I will surely help you;
I will hold youwith my righteous strong hand.

Joshua 1:9 (CEB)
I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Romans 8:14-16 (CEB)
All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children.

There is a healthy kind of fear. It allows us to retreat and evaluate our safety. That can be healthy and life-sustaining. The fear that God battles for us is very different. It is the kind of fear that paralyzes and causes us to retreat from growing, or pushing past personal pain.

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The fear that God conquers is a fear that limits us.

It is a fear that binds.
It blocks.
It takes away our willingness to try something new.
It puts up artificial boundaries.
It creates barriers between us.

It’s been a constant growth experience as I face fears of different kinds. Of learning what kind of courage it takes to speak my mind. (Or to be silent and pray.) To express an opinion. (And to stand up to opposing ones.) To ask hard questions. (And to accept that we won’t agree on the answers.) To take a risk on a new venture. (Or use wisdom and decline.)

What’s so funny about all this as I face my own fears is that people have told me that I inspired them to try something new. And I laughed. Because, well, in the back of my mind, I am quaking in fear, praying, and fearfully spraying “Dragon Repellant” at all of the things that worry or scare me. I’m trying to have faith that conquers these fears.

And even in my fears, God hears and answers. In the saddest, angriest, darkest, most fearful moments, God has been there. I am grateful.

The Light dawns. Hope returns. Blessed be.

Blessed be the Name...
Blessed be the Name…
Matt Redman wrote a worship song years ago that reminds me…
Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name.

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise.
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say
Blessed be the name of the Lord…”

Forgiven as we forgive…

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During Lent my church is thinking through The Lord’s Prayer. It has been very meaningful and thought-provoking. This week the focus was on “forgiving our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

It was Providential timing.

When I got home from church, I read in my newsfeed that Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of Westboro Baptist, was near death. The man who has led his church in picketing the funerals of war veterans and LGBTQ events now faces the end of his life. Should we show up at HIS funeral with signs that say, “God hates Fred!”? Various punsters and commentators have made smart remarks suggesting this. And part of me, quite honestly, understands that sentiment. When people dump a world of hurt on others, it is really hard to be empathetic.

But then I remembered our study Sunday morning… And my daily Lenten reading included these words of Christ from Luke 6:

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”

Let’s be clear. I do not condone the actions of Rev. Phelps or the church he started. To me they are the antithesis of demonstrating the saving love and grace of God. Their words have hurt many families of veterans. They have been brutal in their verbal attacks on GLBQT individuals and groups. It is far too easy to condemn their actions. I ponder why it is, even with the Spirit of God living within us, that we can be so mean and evil to one another in the name of Christ.

So, if we were to demonstrate love to the Phelps family, what would it look like? Meals for the family? Donations in their name to a HIV clinic? A scholarship in Queer studies? Picketing with a sign that says, “For God so loved Fred that He gave His only son…”

I ponder these things, and consider the hurts that I have experienced from the words and actions of others. I am no better than Fred, if I am honest. I have been harassed. I have been hurt by the misogynist remarks of those who do have insulted my Call and ministry. And I have retaliated by angry, mean-spirited remarks and actions of my own. No, I haven’t picketed a funeral. But I’m still no better.

The question that God asks me is this: Would you go and be a chaplain to Fred?

Yes… I would, much as I would find it distasteful. Or I would try to, anyway. If they would not accept my ministry to them, I would find a quiet room for them to grieve privately and make funeral plans.

Martin Luther King is quoted as saying:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

As I reflected on this situation and read over the verses from Luke 6, I began to pray. It’s a simple prayer… but heart felt.

There’s a world full of darkness out there.
Lord, let me be Your Light…

Every secret, every shame, every fear, every pain
Live inside the dark
But that’s not who we are
We are children of the day

So wake up sleeper, lift your head
We were meant for more than this
Fight the shadows conquer death
Make the most of the time we have left

We are the Light of the world
We are the city on a hill
We are the Light of the world
We gotta, we gotta, we gotta let the Light shine

We are called to the spread the news
Tell the world the simple truth
Jesus came to save, there’s freedom in His name
So let His Love break through…

Mr. Henry’s Wild Ride: Or… what happens when the chaplain is sleep-deprived

Last week was one of those weeks where sleep deprivation did a number on me. I had to take my car in to our mechanic for servicing, which required that I ride the bus home. I am normally a functioning adult and have no trouble picking the right bus. However, due to the creeper factor (creepy mid-day bus riders who are not professionals coming home from work), I left the bus shelter too quickly and boarded the wrong bus. I realized this, of course, well into the bus route that was quickly winding far away from my neighborhood.

I felt a little sheepish. I had reacted out of instinct – Get away from the creeper. Board a bus. ANY bus.

Exactly what I counsel my daughters not to do… Sigh.

I claim sleep deprivation as my excuse, since Wednesday was a short-night of sleep and Thursday morning’s commute home took twice as long. I did get a short nap before driving my car to the mechanic. But it was not enough to be quick on my feet.

When I found common sense returning, I pulled out my phone to verify where the bus route would terminate (at a Metro station), rode back to the original Metro station where I first started my crazy journey, and boarded a bus (the correct one, this time!) to Bearded Brewer’s office. It was a happy coincidence that he was ready to go home anyway.

IMG_3281When we got home, we realized we were minus a cat. When and how it happened we don’t know, but Henry managed to slip out some time between Wednesday afternoon (when I was working in the back yard before I went to work) and Thursday morning (when the back door was open and the screen ajar). I worked Wednesday night, and other than noting his absence that morning, we were both clueless.

We went through every crevice and hidey-hole in the house. No Henry. The other cats paced. We worried. No sign of him all night. We searched the yard and the neighborhood. No sassy boy cat. We sent out prayer SOS bulletins. We went to sleep, worried. Somewhere around 4 am, Henry was mewing at the back door.

We petted him, thanked God, and fell dead asleep. Henry roamed the house, nervous and ill at ease. His caterwauling was music to our ears! He got a visit to the vet for his troubles the next day. (And while we were at it, we took Tiria along for company and her shots.) So ended another tale of Mr. Henry’s Wild Ride.

While it took me a few days to process all this (remember I was sleep-deprived) I finally did reach some conclusions. Here’s what I’ve decided…

There are times we all get going in the wrong direction. And most of the time, we come to our senses and get a do-over. It took a while for me to connect-the-dots on my errant bus ride and Henry’s little adventure. I’m guessing that by the time Henry realized he was on the wrong side of the door, that he wished mightily for things to change. It took a while to sort things out, but eventually, he was inside again.

There are also times we take off on our own, determined to strike out on a new adventure, only to realize it was a terrible mistake. And like the Prodigal in the Bible, the door is always open and we are welcomed home. More times than I want to remember, God’s love and acceptance welcomes my rebellious, stubborn heart home where it belongs.

There are times when the best thing we can do is sleep on it. And then, with a few more REM cycles in our pockets, reconsider what we need to do to make things right. That goes for politics, people, and pussycats.

Thanks be to God.

Pork and Prejudice (Apologies to Jane Austen)

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
Jane Austen,
Pride and Prejudice

The last several weeks, I’ve cringed. A lot. The number of “somebody done somebody wrong” news briefs in the Paula Deen case makes me want to become a Luddite. But that’s not the world I’m called to serve in, nor the people I meet in my role as a chaplain.

The rush to judgment (sans jury) is pretty scary, though. Particularly when large sums of money and big piles of self-righteous posturing seem to be center stage. Is there ANY way for ANYONE to come out of this feeling good about themselves? I don’t think so…

Here’s the ugly secret: we are all guilty of this.

Guilty of superiority. Guilty of prejudice. Guilty of posturing. Guilty of fears that we won’t be as awesome as the next person… and so we build up wall of anger, pride and superiority.

In our own little worlds, fiefdoms, blogs, work cubicles… we look at one another and make these mud-slinging comments. If not under our breath, in private (aka gossiping — let’s call it what it is) to close friends. We feel more secure when we divide the world into us-them categories…

joggers vs non-joggers
organic foodies vs junk foodies
bottle vs breast
disposable vs cloth diapers
stay-at-home vs working
leaning in vs giving in
parents vs nonparents
singles vs married
stirred vs shaken (OK, that was just to see if you were still with me. 🙂 )

There’s security in boundaries. There’s comfort in knowing who “ticks all of our boxes” theologically, politically and personally. And when they don’t… we do our best to chop them down.

The biggest problem? Let me take this to a personal level because I know myself all too well…

The very things that have happened to me, I turn around and let them happen to someone else. I don’t push past initial rejection or disagreements because, well, I have been hurt before and I’m not up to feeling hurt again. (Especially when I see the train wreck coming. It’s easier to just sit back and then say, ‘I told you so.’)

Then there’s the question of consistency… I may succeed spectacularly in one area of my life, and totally stink in the next moment. Why do I struggle when I read stories about the Paula Deens of the world? Because I know that if you were to dissect my life, there would be many stories on my “front page” too.

I’m not exactly proud of that fact. But I’m honest about it… So whether it’s pork ribs or theology, there’s really no room for prejudice. None. Zero. That’s not being politically correct, by the way. That’s trying to live the way Jesus did – showing others the way to be FREE INDEED.

What was that promise on the cross at Calvary?

Confess the Lord and the truth shall set you free (Yeah)

Create in me a clean heart, O God

Renew a steadfast spirit within me…

Walking the fine line

Today has been a serious study in the art of “walking the fine line” —  

— between who I am (as a result of my parents, my choices and my call) and what “people think”
— between what I prefer and what is kind
— between what is necessary and what I can give up
— between being particular and specific about what I think is best, and being labeled as, well, “a Gretchen.”

Let me clarify that I love the looks that Gretchen put together for the Project Runway Season 8 finale. But I also noted that it was not her design esthetic that got her labeled as much as her mouthing off and her deeply held opinions. I feel her dilemma.

Do you sit and tolerate being re-cast as someone you are not? Or do you expect only the best from yourself? Do you keep silent and compromise what you see and have come to understand as being wrong… even if it seems easier to not speak up?

I have pondered a lot today. And I don’t have the answers all that clearly defined, but I have come to some conclusions.

Mostly, I have re-examined some very personal and core values at the heart of how I listen and care for others, and how I have learned from my life’s journey. I am incredibly lucky to be supported by my family, encouraged by my friends, and have some amazing companions on this journey. It makes “walking the fine line” much, MUCH easier!

So if you find me mouthy – I’ll plead guilty. But if you listen, and I mean really listen to my words and watch me move through life, instead of thinking you “know” me from my Myers-Briggs or some “encounter game” then I think you will discover me. The person I am created to be is not going to gloss over what I see as so much — um — fertilizer. I will challenge. I will struggle. I will try to take everything you tell me and consider it, but I will reject the stuff that is “your” stuff and is not “mine.”

I tried forcing myself into a mold that is not “me” and it did not work. At. all. Instead, I am beginning to hit my stride, not in terms of getting it right, but having a vision of where I’m meant to be in this world. And it may not fit your picture of me, of chaplains, of pastors, or of women in general. 🙂

It reminds me a lot of learning how to conduct. Over and over, our professor told us, ‘sing the score. SING the score!’ He wanted us to know every nuance, every phrase, and then take our knowledge of it and make the combined melodies, rhythms, articulations, and phrases into our interpretation of the “new” whole. Ours.

He would also tell us that when we finally got it to where we loved it, there would be people who would hate our point of view. He told us to stand by what we saw — to feel, know, and live the score. And then it would be our work alone.

I’m still listening to the music, so to speak, in many places and venues of my life. But my intent is to remain true to my score – to the One who fashioned me, this Unfinished Symphony I live in. If you’re looking for Vivaldi in me and I’m coming across as Linkin Park, sorry.

I promise I’ll listen to you. And then? I might decide to listen and adjust my interpretation. But I just turn the page and move on.

~ Fine ~