Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.

 

All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
 
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
 
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
 
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
 
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
 
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
 
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
 
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
 
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
 
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.
 

#MeToo

Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
 
It’s long past a time for change.
 
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
 
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.

A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.

Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

How do you act if you’re wearing this costume?

Jesus costume2

While checking out the spooky things at a Halloween store, I noticed an aisle of religious garb that included the Jesus costume shown above. I took a photo and brought it to church for our weekly youth group discussion.

First, I showed pictures of other costumes and asked the young people how they would act if they were wearing that outfit. What do you do if you’re wearing a zombie costume? You shuffle and groan. A superhero? You stretch your arms and pretend to fly.

Then I showed them the photo of the Jesus outfit and asked: What about this one? How must you act if you’re wearing a Jesus costume? One young man answered immediately.

“You have to love everybody,” he said.

Sometimes, young people get it better than we do as adults.

It’s fitting that we talk about costumes. Jesus talked about them. He warned us to be wary of wolves who dress in sheep outfits. He said many “religious” people with shiny outward appearances are nasty and decaying inside.

He reminded us to see the person inside the costume. Don’t assess by words or outward appearances. See how someone acts. Pay attention to the values they live. Don’t just assume that because a person is wearing a costume, they’re living what it represents.

Look beyond the clothes

So, what about the Jesus costume? How do we act if we’re wearing that one? Well, I think wearing that costume means …

  • We must love everybody. The young person nailed it. Jesus said people will recognize someone as his follower by their love, period. We can’t refuse to love anyone because we consider them a horrible sinner, unlike ourselves. We can’t exclude, judge or cast stones. We must love even the one we consider an enemy. If we’re not doing that, we’re out of costume.
  • We must reach out to everybody. We need to wear the costume in public. Jesus went public with his love. He sought those who were deemed unworthy by the self-righteous people, and he loved them in a way that transformed them and reminded them of their great worth. He said his followers should do the same – we can’t be a light hidden under a basket.
  • Finally, we must be the kind of person who brings healing everybody. Whenever Jesus sent his followers out to represent him, he told them to heal. Wearing the Jesus costume means healing the broken, the needy, the struggling. It means bringing peace into conflict, hope into despair, and love into every aspect of life. We serve and heal everyone, no exceptions.

Jesus’ attitude was that when we do those things – love, reach out, heal – then we’re fulfilling the job description. We’re fitting the costume.

And if we don’t do those things, people recognize that, too. They see that we’re as phony as the thick, black beard in the costume on the store shelf. They can spot #FakeJesus from far away. Many people have given up on religion that doesn’t speak, live or love like Jesus.

Just love. Period.

Finally, we must constantly remind ourselves that the Jesus costume doesn’t come with accessories. We never wear a crown of any sort. We don’t carry a stone to throw at anybody for any reason.

The Bibles we tote, the crosses we wear, the religious posts we make on social media — none of it matters if we’re not living in character.

Jesus’ spirit of love was woven into everything he did. He wore his love on his sleeve, and so must we. It’s part of the costume.

Just love everybody. Period.

We need more builders

building

What happens when you build something with a young child? You stack the blocks as high as you can, and they can’t wait to swipe their little hand and knock it down. And then you start the process again.

We seem to have an affinity for building and destroying. And as we outgrow childhood, we tend to go in one direction or the other. We become more of a builder, or we turn into more of a destroyer at heart.

Some of us make our lives’ work about building things – families, neighborhoods, faith communities, nations, relationships, systems that promote justice. Others put a lot of their energy into tearing down people and tearing apart whatever doesn’t suit them.

We become a builder or a destroyer

It seems we’re at a moment in time when the destroyers have louder voices in our world. They’ve taken to their podiums, pulpits and bullhorns to spread division, mistrust, fear and anger – the main tools for destruction from within.

They’re not trying to improve anything. They’re marauders who create chaos that gives them the cover to plunder. They want to knock everything down and rule over the rubble. They get their thrills from toppling what others have built, but have no interest in building something of their own.

One of the destroyers’ biggest cheerleaders is Steve Bannon. He’s been outspoken about his intention to unleash destruction. As he put it during an interview with The Daily Beast in 2013, he wants “to bring everything crashing down.” He’s even trying to topple his own political party and the White House he helped assemble.

It’s conflict, chaos and destruction 24/7, and a lot of people are cheering the damage. That’s what destroyers do – they attack nonstop. They’re temperamentally incapable of anything else.

Destroyers lack the patience, persistence and open-mindedness that’s required to build anything of value. Their egos leave no room for the compromise that is required to create. They have no interest in doing the hard work required to improve upon what exists.

We’ve seen this so clearly in the health care debate. Many people want to level the health care system. They have no interest in doing the challenging work of studying many alternatives, building a consensus over time, and enacting a plan that would benefit the most people.

Instead, they throw out half-formed ideas and try to get something – anything – passed into law as quickly as they can so that they are free to move on and wipe away something else. They ignore warnings that the way they’re going about it will hurt a lot of people.

That’s not how you build a stable society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a builder. He sacrificed for his dream of a nation that lives up to its founding ideal and treats everyone as created equal. He rejected calls for violence and hatred. He helped to build a coalition that overcame racial, political, social, religious and ideological differences and moved society forward.

That’s what builders do.

An assassin thought he could destroy the dream with a bullet, but he was mistaken. Builders continue bending the moral arc and improving the world a little more each day, even as destroyers seek to topple the gains and make everyone start from scratch.

That’s what builders do

MLK drew inspiration from a rabbi who also was known for building. Jesus worked to build the kingdom of God, a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. Religious and political leaders thought they could destroy him and his kingdom, bury them in a tomb and be done with them. They were wrong.

The building goes on. And each of us needs to be part of the never-ending construction project.

The only requirements: commitment and persistence. And love, a lot of love. Every word, every interaction with another person must build up with love.

Builders also need resolve that they’ll avoid getting sucked into the acrimony that destroy people and movements from within. We can’t play into the marauders’ hands. It’s difficult to resist getting pulled into their drama, but we must.

The destroyers have found their voices and their followers. It feels like our society is tottering. We need more of those other voices now to stabilize us. We’ve been through times like this in our history, and we know how it works. We can always build and rebuild.

We need more builders. Someone like you.

What’s your recurring bad dream?

Fears

Gloria and I were eating at a cafe by the side of the trail, enjoying a warm September evening after a bike ride. Our server was a young man named Phillip, a recent college graduate who is adjusting to his new phase in life — and new nightmares, too.

“I’ve started dreaming that I’m headed to class, but I don’t know which class or where it is,” he said. “I’m lost.”

We laughed with him and reassured him that’s a universal dream that stubbornly refuses to go away long after you’ve left school. It spans generations and haunts our sleep.

And not just school dreams.

A minister friend recently posted on Facebook that one of his recurring dreams for many years had him standing in front of a congregation with no sermon prepared. When I started as a sports writer, I’d dream that I was covering a game which just ended, and I didn’t know what had happened so I had no idea what to write.

It’s funny how so many of those dreams involve being lost or unprepared.

I’ve had other types of bad dreams.

When I was a boy, I’d dream that something was chasing me and I couldn’t run – my legs wouldn’t move. Or I’d dream about falling from a great height. When I got older and started flying as part of my job, I’d dream that I was on a jet coming in too low for landing, darting between narrow buildings.

The scary things that chased me never caught me, the plane never crashed, but the dreams left me unsettled when I woke up.

Our subconscious fears don’t stay locked away at night. They find the key to the cell door and escape. We get visited by ghosts of things that we regret from the past, fear in the present and worry about in the future.

Universal fears come out at night

Sometimes, we think that we’re the only one with bad dreams, especially when we wake up in the middle of the night and feel alone. Others on the block are having the same toss-and-turn moments as well.

It’s universal. You just have to raise the subject of bad dreams to find that out.

I’m glad Phillips had the courage to share his frightening dreams. One of the best ways to deal with them is to talk about them, bring them into the light of day, confront them and laugh at them.

That’s one way to break their subconscious grip on us. The alternative is to let those below-the-surface fears run our lives.

I wonder if we’ve become so divided and alienated lately because we’ve stoked those fears and let them direct our decisions. Our fears become driving forces in our politics, religion and society.

The fear of being lost, overlooked, alone, threatened, vulnerable, hurt, helpless – the plot twists for our bad dreams _ can settle into our waking hours, too, if we let it. We’re the ones who make our bad dreams come true.

By contrast, if we acknowledge our fear and talk about it, it loses some of its power over us. We begin to make decisions based upon hope and goodness rather than our nightmare scenarios.

A few days after our trail-side chat with Phillip, I drove past a local college campus. A group of students crossed at the corner. One backpack-toting student looked very young – a freshman, I assumed – and seemed to be very uneasy over something.

I thought about my first few weeks on campus – far from home, living with someone you don’t know, every part of your life turned upside-down. You’re challenged in ways you never imagined.

Keeping fear where it belongs

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Unfamiliar things are all around. And those fears begin to form in your subconscious like a sludge that sticks and stays and gums thing up.

That young man will start having those lost-on-campus dreams soon, if he hasn’t already. If he shares them, he’ll realize he’s not alone. Others are here to reassure him and help him live beyond it.

That’s how we keep fear where it belongs – only in our dreams.

The edge pieces of our lives

Puzzle1

Roddy glared at me with suspicion and defiance. He didn’t want me looking after him. Honestly, I didn’t want to be around him, either.

I was helping an inner-city church with its summer youth program. More than 40 kids from the neighborhood were playing games, reading books, and getting ready for lunch. I asked one of the program coordinators how I could help.

She motioned toward Roddy and said: You can look after him. He’s acting up today. He needs attention.

Sure, I said. And I soon regretted it.

I introduced myself to Roddy. He’s about 6 years old, African-American, from a poor family in the neighborhood. I’m a 60-year-old white guy from another place. We couldn’t be more different.

He knew I was going to try to ride herd on him – others had done it before. He’d have none of that. Roddy turned his back and walked away.

He went to a reading group in a corner of the room and started interrupting, glancing at me to gauge my reaction. The volunteer leading the group told Roddy he was welcome to stay and participate, but he couldn’t bother others. His response was to interrupt more.

I watched and wondered: What do I do now?

How in heaven’s name could the two of us connect?

Start with the edge pieces

I went over to Roddy and asked what likes to do. He mentioned puzzles. I got one, dumped it on a table, and started sorting out the pieces. Roddy came over and started helping. He didn’t understand the concept of using corner pieces and edge pieces – the ones with a flat side – to form the framework.

Roddy caught on quickly. He enjoyed the one-on-one attention. We started talking about our families, our favorite foods, our favorite sports.

The defiant eyes softened. He smiled. He was like a different kid.

When the puzzle was complete, he turned it upside-down and said: Let’s do it again! And again. We must have reassembled it a half-dozen times before lunch.

After we’d shared tacos and nachos, Roddy and the rest of the kids went home. As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He seemed so starved for attention and affirmation. The defiant, angry look in his eyes worried me.

How will Roddy’s life turn out?

Also, I wondered whether our time together would make any difference whatsoever in his jumbled life. He has so many influences tugging at him. Maybe he’d already forgotten about our time together and moved on.

Who knows?

I have no answers. I believe that showing kindness and love is worthwhile, in and of itself. If Roddy got nothing more than an enjoyable hour of doing puzzles followed by lunch, it was all good.

I also know that many people have intersected my life for brief moments and left a lasting impression, far more than they’ll ever know.

Grace works that way

There was the black man who drove my alcoholic father home one Christmas eve, showing me how compassion crosses color lines and other barriers. Then there’s the Greek woman who helped me find my way when I was helplessly lost at a train station in Athens, reminding me of what it means to feel kindness from a stranger.

Grace works that way. People come into our lives unexpectedly and show us things we need to see. Those people and those moments become edge pieces for us, if we let them.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that, especially now when we’re so divided and disconnected that we can’t even see the picture we’re meant to form. We’ve forgotten that each of us is a piece of something bigger than ourselves.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“God is giving us one to another like a puzzle actually. Individually we have such snaggled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together. … After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God.”

As Roddy builds his life, maybe I’ll be one of the edge pieces that frames things. Maybe our time together helps him see a different picture from what others will show him.

Or maybe not. In any case, it was worth the try. We all need our edge pieces. Better yet, we need to try to be edge pieces.