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.

Time to say: Enough!

Enough2

Last Saturday, I stopped in traffic behind a car that displayed gun decals and a bumper sticker that depicted the “Hello Kitty” character with a bullet hole. The bumper sticker said: “Goodbye Kitty!”

I was appalled! How many children in other cars would see the sick caricature? How twisted is our society when people consider that funny?

The next day, a man with a gun and a grudge walked into a church in Texas and committed our latest massacre. The sickness in our society confronts us again, mere weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas.

Another day of darkness.

Honestly, I’d rather write about anything except another shooting, but we can’t ignore it. The massacres will keep multiplying and the body counts will continue rising until we do something to change it.

It’s time for each of us to say: Enough!

Things that matter

Say it firmly, prophetically and persistently. No more of the #prayers cop-out. Our silence, our fear and our indifference have helped create a culture in which there’s another worst-such-shooting every few weeks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Individually and collectively, we must say: Enough!

We need to be a light in the great darkness that has overtaken our land. We must challenge our culture’s worship of weapons, violence and war.

How do we do it? Here are a few suggestions.

— We resolve that we will never again be silent. Silence enables the sickness to grow and makes us complicit in the evil.

— We reject the notion that nothing can be done. The onslaught of guns, bullets and murders isn’t inevitable. Our society is the only one where these things happen on such a scale.

Instruments of peace

— We remind ourselves what courage can accomplish. In the last few weeks alone, many brave women have pushed back against the notion that sexual abuse is ingrained in our culture, so they might as well stay silent and accept it. Their courageous words have already started making a difference.

— We push back against those who say the bloodshed has nothing to do with the guns. They blame “evil” or “human nature” or “mental illness” to distract us. Such dishonesty must never go unchallenged.

— We educate ourselves about the many aspects of the problem and the possible responses. We can’t have a productive conversation about solutions if we’re not knowledgeable.

— We talk to those who disagree with us, bringing an open mind and a respectful heart to those discussions. That’s how we forge common ground and make progress.

— We respectfully but firmly challenge those who insist the only appropriate response is more weapons and more violence. No, we don’t need more “good” people buying more guns and shooting more “bad” people. Enough!

Let’s not forget that it goes beyond guns. It includes challenging violence in all forms – bullying, shaming, verbal attacks, abuse of any sort. None of it should be considered acceptable, under any circumstance.

Enough!

There’s one more thing we must do. We must resolve that we will not support any person or any organization that considers these massacres acceptable. Our endorsements and our votes must reflect our determination to stop the carnage.

The world needs prophets, Jesus says, while in the next breath reminding us that they’re never popular. They do get results, however. They stir things up. They get a backlash from those who benefit from the status quo and want to preserve it.

Peacemakers and prophets have the courage to stand up and advocate for a different way. They change the world. It’s on you and me to do it, prophetically and persistently. It’s time to become instruments of God’s peace and heal our sick society.

Enough!

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.

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.

Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.