Unity with Ourselves

mirror image(A small talk given during Lent 2012 at FUMC Denton)

The focus of tonight’s gathering – my assigned topic – is ‘Unity with Ourselves.’  When I mentioned that to my husband, he laughed.    Isn’t that a given?

Well, for some people, more than others, I think.   Less so for me.

I know too well the mess that sits between my ears . . . and more between my head and heart.

I understand too fully Paul’s dilemma, when he says in Romans 7, “I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”

Why does that happen? I’m not sure I can answer for Paul, but I have some sense of the seeds of my own predicament. Growing up, I wanted to be the good little girl – and from the outside, I think most folks would say I was . . . That set me up.

The first lie I can remember telling was to my Sunday school teacher. She asked me if I was a ‘daily Bible reader’ that week. I said, ‘yes.’   I told that lie more than once.    Good little girls should be able to say yes to that question, I thought. But, I was not a daily Bible reader most weeks, even though I often managed a few days each week.

Had I been honest – there would have been grace. But I wasn’t looking for grace; I was looking for honor.  I was trying to hold the ‘goodness’ within myself.    That’s not where goodness dwells.

So I began to create a pseudo self. The good girl, the competent one, the righteous one. It reminds me of an essay by Anne Lamott, who talks of her delight that on Halloween we get to see folks as they are – as rascals and heroes and divas and such – instead of all dressed up in the costumes of everyday life – the suits and uniforms that represent the roles we try to play – the power ties and high heels we wear to divert attention from our shaky knees.

You can feel pretty lonely and impotent, trapped behind that everyday cardboard mask. Yet you are afraid to put it down. People might really see you.

Not that they don’t already see you, of course. I’m really the only one fooled by the game. I’m the only one really surprised – and horrified – that I am not perfect – that the good little girl, herself, is a lie. And so I bear my cardboard shield . . . and all it does is keep me hidden from myself.

Well, that’s not actually all it does. It also robs me of the opportunities for grace and connection. By upholding a false sense of my own self-contained wholeness, it keeps me from finding the wholeness that is real – the one that comes through connection – with Christ and with each other.

Paul saw it, too. He says, from the midst of his quandary,

‘Wretched man that I am, who will rescue me?’ and then he answers,

‘Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’

There is now no condemnation, but deliverance.

No need to stand on my own, but in the spirit.

So, here, during Lent, I find myself before the mirror of God – a mirror that will reflect only the truth.

Join me here, in your imagination, if you will.

We stand before that mirror, and the mask is gone. It’s pretty scary. When we lift our eyes we can see ourselves as we really are – but what we also see – in a way that washes all the fear aside – is the Christ, whose eyes are fixed upon us and filled with deepest love.

The me – the real me – is the one that Christ so loved. There is no ‘good little girl.’ There is, instead, a woman – full of aches and holes – but also gifted. Gifted in just such a way that my part fits with yours. That my words, through grace, might warm your heart and your heart, through grace, might move your hands toward justice – might hold a child, might feed a hungry one, might speak comfort to a friend, might work against the powers that oppress. That your lips might sing out a song of assurance. And when I see your love lived out, it warms my heart in turn, and moves my hands, my lips, as well, and shores up my resolve. There, before the mirror, there is, at last, a wholeness – a wholeness woven through us all by the love and grace of God.

It makes me smile. I don’t really like high heels anyway. Deep down I know that I’d rather be a part of a whole that pulls me into the bigger vision of God, rather than some small complete package on my own – even if that were possible.

So, as we round this corner of the year, as we live the season of Lent, let us look into that mirror. Let us realize that this season is not so much about eliciting some sense of mortification in ourselves – that was already there, behind our masks. It is, instead, about remembering to drop the mask and let the grace of Christ flood in. It’s about embracing the love that makes us part of the greater whole. It’s about the coming power of the resurrection, which, even as it is already here, is growing stronger in us all.

It’s realizing, with Paul, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – not even our masks. It’s realizing that the unstoppable power of God is on the rise – and that we are invited to be a part of that whole, wonderful, loving reflection of truth.

[photo by onn aka “Blue” Aldaman per cc 2.0]

Growing in Faith

flower[From a talk given on Laity Sunday, 2000]

Its Friday morning after a really long week and I’m struggling to wake up. I can barely open even one eye at a time to find the coffee pot in the kitchen. I sink down into my corner of the couch with my coffee and my muddled head and try to find a way to face the day.

Then Tim comes in. He’s been up at least an hour. He’s dressed and ready for work and he leans over the couch to kiss me goodbye and he says, “I love you.” And he is out the door.

It’s not the coffee that makes the morning. It’s the kiss.

We go on youth mission trip and we spend – what? – maybe 12 hours in a bus. By the time we get where we are going our clothes and our spirits can be pretty rumpled. Often, when we go on these trips, we sleep on the floor in a space made for half our number and 50 of us share a couple of bathrooms and then go out to sweat in the sun.

Then I see one of our kids running down a dirty street in a barrio, playing soccer with the kids from that neighborhood. They can’t really even speak the same language – but they are connected by the sheer exuberance of the game. Or you see them, late that night, doing some funky break-dance or playing a silly card game and you see the way they give each other the full freedom to be who they are.

It’s not that they don’t know each other’s faults and foibles — they’ve been together long enough to know those pretty well. But in their time together, their hearts have grown large enough to handle that. They hold within their friendship a grace that gives each one the room to grow.

You go to Sunday school, and week by week it doesn’t seem like much. You greet your friends and eat a donut and listen to a lesson and maybe duck when they ask for volunteers to teach next week. Then someone says something that opens a window to that very piece of reality that you were trying hard to ignore. Or two or three in conversation build an idea that resonates with more than logic – it rings true.

You have a group of friends you meet with regularly.  There is no real agenda to your meetings, except that you are together. You listen to each other’s stories and share each other’s hopes and disappointments. You simply enjoying being in the presence of consistent friendship. It shores up your soul.

And, when times get really tough, you find that the accumulated time together helps you hold the shattered pieces of your soul in place. When you can barely breathe for the pain, you find this fellowship, somehow, is breathing for you – they lend you their faith and hold you on.

So … just what is faith?

I’m not sure I can define it, but I can tell you what it feels like. It’s a mystery and a miracle – built upon the mundane. It’s life, peeking through the dailyness of our days.  It’s less about what is in your head, and more about what steadies your heart.

Now, I have to admit that I don’t think you can make faith grow any more than you can make a flower grow. But you can put a flower in the sun. We can put ourselves in places where growth is likely to be nurtured and then open ourselves to the possibility.

Of course, these kinds of experiences – the things that I’ve described, these chances to grow – can be found in many places. I don’t have to go to church or go on a mission trip or join a Sunday school class or a small group to touch these things.

After all, God wants flowers to grow. If they don’t grow, they wither. The Christ sneaks it in in every way he can. He is that interested in making the connection. He’s often comes in human form. Once fully, and many times in pieces, here and there. He is the sun, seeking the flower – he can make it grow.

But I have to tell you that there are places where it is not so safe to open yourself to whatever may come. There are places where the touch of other lives is not so gracious. There are those who would cut the flower to use it for their needs.

When you find a place that you can trust – it’s worth coming back to. And come back you must, for it is the coming, again and again and again, that provides the sunshine that grows your faith. Growing takes time.

So, I encourage you to look for a place where the flowers grow.

Look for the places where the soil is rich for the flower’s toes and where there is sunshine to kiss the flower’s cheek.

If you need some help to make it through the muddle of your days, look for these places, these times, these people. Take the time to dig your toes into the deep, rich soil. Turn your cheek toward the sun.

Remember, it is the kiss that makes the morning.

[photo by Steve Walker Photography per cc 2.0]

Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking

reflective moment(Originally developed for Incoming Honors Students at UNT circa 2007)

As you engage with other members of the university community in the vital conversations that make the university an engine of change, I predict that you will encounter a temptation. The temptation is particularly keen in universities because part of the process of education is to engage in critical thinking. You learn not to take everything at face value. You learn to question and look for motives, patterns, misperceptions and errors. You learn to think beyond the obvious.

Yet, I believe there is a very real difference between critical thinking and being critical. When you make that subtle shift from analysis to negativity you set yourself up for the temptation of cynicism.

A cynic is one who takes the view that things are unalterably negative and that only a naïve fool would think differently. A cynic’s goal is to be the first one to find the fatal flaw. And cynicism has its advantages. You can be thought of as brilliant without having to invest in finding solutions. If you go ahead and write off the possibilities you can avoid a lot of effort and forego the risk of failure. After all, cynicism makes it seem wise to stop trying.

That’s why, in the end, cynicism is a poison to progress.

So, is that the choice: naïveté or cynicism? Of course not. We do not have to neglect careful scrutiny and in-depth analysis to avoid cynicism. What we have to avoid is tuning our lenses to see only the negative. We can look for the resonance as well as the dissonance.  And if dissonance is found, if a problem has been identified, we must commit ourselves to go the next step, to finding its hidden lessons.

Analysis, after all, can help us see connections as well as disjunctions. When we identify motives, we can find ways to build alliances. The more you examine the underlying structures, the better you can make them work. You see, the world is intimately interconnected and the more you can trace the connections, the more you see how your work is a part of the whole.

Perhaps what I am advocating is a mode of critical thinking with an optimistic flair, one that looks for patterns that work. Perhaps I’m just encouraging you not to stop half-way in the critical thinking process. I’m encouraging you to take it all the way to its creative possibilities. Otherwise you shortchange your education, you shortchange yourself, and you shortchange the future we are creating together.

[photo by João Pedro Nogueira per cc 2.0]

Home for the Holidays

sepia-toned photo of christmas treeI have been trying to fix in my head an image of what “home for the holidays” means to me.   It’s pretty easy to remember what it meant for me as a child. I have lots of sepia-toned memories — you know the ones that have been pushed so far away by time that they are more memories of memories now. Continue reading