It’s just a few days prior to his death, and he knows it’s coming along with betrayal by those closest to him, mockery, and agony. And yet he ties a towel around his waist, fills a basin with water, and stoops close to the ground and the filth and the earth to wash the disciples’ feet.
If that doesn’t fill you with awe, I don’t know what will.
In her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott writes, “Even though I remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that God has met Her match–a child dies or a young father is paralyzed. Nothing can possibly make things okay again. People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family. Time passes. It’s beyond bad. It’s actually a nightmare. But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.”
Lamott could easily have been writing a prayer of the help or thanks genre, but she’s actually describing the wow. The wow is not that bad things don’t happen, because they do. The wow is that “people don’t bolt” during the “beyond bad.”
Last night my husband and I went to hear blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, speak on the Princeton University campus. He told his story of working for justice in China, his famous escape to the U.S. embassy, the lesser told tale of his family’s continued persecution, and the gory details of his nephew’s beating and imprisonment following his asylum in the United States. While the reality of human rights abuses in China is rife with suffering, fear, and pain, Mr. Chen’s family, other activists in China, and many around the world haven’t given up.
Over the last few days the internet has been flooded by photos of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention facility. The new pope’s far from perfect, and his actions might not change the world, but the images move us because they speak of what it means to regard the humanity of one another in situations that are “beyond bad.”
When you really think about it Holy Week, so artfully named, was “beyond bad.” There was really nothing good about good Friday, and there is nothing more nightmarish than the death of God.
But even in death God hasn’t met Her match. Sometimes we forget, though, that it came to that–that death was gory for Jesus, that it was pain, and the earth plunged into darkness–that simply put, we can’t have the resurrection, the wow, the shoots of grass, without the “beyond bad,” the nightmare of the crucifixion that delivers us from sin and death.
And with all that was yet to come, he went willingly to his death. Yet, before doing so he took their feet in his holy hands and scrubbed them like a servant. That’s what our savior did with some of his last moments on this earth.
A month or so ago I heard an academic who’s written well-respected books, gotten tenure, traveled the world, and shot films say if she had it to do all over again she would have realized that her life wasn’t waiting to start after the dissertation, after she graduated from associate to full professor, after she got tenure, etc., etc., etc., but in fact, “your life starts now.”
This phrase isn’t just relevant to the academic world where we trick ourselves into thinking life and all that is good is marked by dissertations and tenure-track positions, but in all vocations, and the ministry that happens betwixt and between. The words of those faithful brothers and sisters from my church this past weekend, proclaiming that they’d always been a church made me think about my own ministry, and the ways in which, I’ve always been ministering.
Now it doesn’t always look like archetypal ministry, but I’m guessing yours doesn’t either. I’m guessing most ministry happens in snippets and soundbytes and sewers, not in pulpits and with pastors or priests. We minister wherever we are and with what we have to one another, and the efficacy of that ministry isn’t dependent on our education, our status, or even our resources, but rather our reliance on the Spirit.
But there’s another lesson in counter-cultural living, right?
Sometimes when people ask me what I’m really going to do with my life, when I finish these Ph.D. studies, or what the dream job I’m really aiming at looks like, and I can’t answer them, I feel afraid, embarrassed, and anxious. But I’m learning, slowly but surely, to be so grateful and so secure in what God has given me in this life and who God is that I can live without certainty about the next step or a linear trajectory, and yet with great faith that God will provide for me and for others and nurture my call.
When my mother took me with all my heart problems to Mexico with the youth group in high school, she had reason to believe she should leave me home. But if she had, I wouldn’t have felt the Spirit move in my heart in a familiar way but toward unfamiliar places, calling me to ministry on that US-Mexico border during college, and to Puerto Rico, Washington, DC, Princeton Seminary, China, and Princeton University. My mother showed me first what it means to have faith in who God is rather than yourself, someone else, or logical processes and trajectories.
Living as though your life starts now often appears irresponsible, because the steps of your path are connected by the movement and provision of the Spirit rather than your own professional progression or enrichment. But when you realize how much you’ve been given by that Spirit, how faithfully that Spirit has provided, and how meaningful it is to surrender the control we delude ourselves with, you get really grateful, glad, and confident.
So I’m learning when people ask me that snarky question, so what are you really going to do with your life? to smile with blessed assurance and to say confidently, “this is it, I’m doing it.” There’s ministry enough for all of us if we can just find a way to live by the guidance of the Spirit, to live as though our lives start now.
In 2007, I began a seminary field education placement that would lead to a part-time ministry during my Ph.D. coursework with a pair of multicultural congregations in North Jersey. One is a biracial congregation whose integrated demographics had survived the Newark Race Riots and welcomed a few African and Caribbean immigrants in recent years. The local community, however, had been in transition, and the church’s numbers dwindled as more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants poured into the area.
The other congregation meets in the sprawling building’s chapel and boasts members from nearly twenty Latin American countries. Forty-eight years ago they were established as a mission of the presbytery and they worship in their native Spanish, enduring the challenges of leaving families behind in unstable, impoverished, and war-torn countries, and navigating new immigration processes, jobs, schools, and life in a new country.
This past Sunday, members from both congregations gathered in the stately, hundred year-old sanctuary to celebrate something new: the Spanish-speaking congregation became a chartered and organized church of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We worshipped for three hours in Spanish and English, led by the youthful chorus of the praise band and the words of former interns, church members, local pastors, and even the moderator of the PCUSA.
For Evan and I, despite our Caucasian backgrounds and our recent two years in China, it felt distinctly, like coming home.
This was the place where my own call to ministry had been nurtured by these generous people who allowed me to pray for their struggles that I could often hardly fathom, who welcomed me into their homes, and who dismissed the jumbled Spanish of a gringa woman in their midst. I hadn’t realized until I looked around that multi-colored room this past Sunday what a powerful a witness these two little congregations in North Jersey had made.
I’d been the fourth in a long line of seminary interns, but the first who wasn’t from a Latino, Carribbean, or African American background, and yet, they’d hardly made me aware of that difference. They’d welcomed me when they had every reason to look at the color of my skin and hear my accent and find ample reason to keep their fellowship insulated from the America which often doesn’t show them anything like hospitality, equality, or dignity. They’d taught me when they had every reason to be suspicious of my willingness to learn or my ability to leave the privilege that had gotten me to halls of higher education and power at the door of that little chapel. They’d ministered to me when they had precious little, the English-speaking church few members and resources, the Spanish-speaking church little funds or time to spare given their busy lives caring for children and working several jobs.
But as we celebrated on Sunday, as ministers struggled to characterize the length of their struggle as forty-eight years in the wilderness, as waiting on the timing of God, the members of the congregation who got up to speak subtly, yet confidently proclaimed the truth that despite the importance of what was happening that day, they had always been a church. They didn’t need (and hear I sound like a bit of a Presbyterian heretic but I’m willing to take that risk) the approval of their denomination, a piece of paper, or a service full of pomp and circumstance to allow them to minister, because they’d been doing it, for those in the community, those in the church, and people like me, for forty-eight years.
Their ministry reminds me that when we take what little we have and we put it into God’s hands, far greater things than we could possibly imagine come to pass. The trouble is, we’re usually so hesitant to trust, so hell-bent on recognition for our service, and so afraid to believe. It’s counter-cultural to take everything that you have, especially when you don’t have much, and faithfully thrust it into Jesus’s hands, it’s counter-cultural to minister without much recognition to communities in need, and it’s counter-cultural to admit those to your fellowship who don’t look much like you and in fact, represent a lot of the power structures that give you hell on an everyday basis.
Over the years this Spanish-speaking mission, now chartered church, has trained sixteen interns and raised up twelve candidates for pastoral ministry in the PCUSA. Those are stats that congregations with three times their size and three times their history only dream of. But somehow along the way this little church has understood that miracles don’t happen by our own muscle, but by God’s grace, and that faithfulness is not for the in between times, but faithfulness is what life is all about.
They have always been a church. They have always been ministering. Thank you, Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, and United Presbyterian Church, for always ministering to me.
I had a week off from teaching last week, which I’d made plans to fill with rest and dissertation-writing. And then people started showing up in my life in tears, in shambles, wanting to talk, and asking for my help.
In some ways the hardest part of these conversations wasn’t the real suffering in the midst of this world, but the ways in which each person couched their requests with, “I know you’re just as busy as the rest of us, but…” or “You must be so busy, but…” But the fact was, for once, I wasn’t all that busy, I had space and time, more ample than in any other week, to listen, to soothe, to pray, to drive someone around.
I was so grateful to God for filling that break with ministry, for using my time so much more wisely that I would have, and it’s led me to think whether this “I’m not busy” thing could become a way of life. You see, I started to like the way the words felt on my lips, the way the extra time, space, and the whole mentality made me a more careful listener, a more gracious friend, and a willing servant. In the end, I’m pretty much convinced that there are only two ways to live this life: “being in control,” which amounts to swimming desperately upstream, kicking ferociously against all that we’ve been given, or well, going with the flow.
What’s so interesting is that we, in all our foolishness, often call this gasping for air and feverish kicking, living. We call it busyness with self-important sighs and cluttered calendars, and we trick ourselves into thinking that it’s some pinnacle of achievement. But when we retreat to our homes and our families and our friends who actually know us, we find that “being in control” is inordinately heavy. These calendars and commitments– they weigh us down, sapping the life out of us, one forced smile at a time.
These past two weeks, I was forcefully reminded that I don’t want to be in control of my life, because God has other plans. As people of faith, we are invited to experience the opposite of control, we’re invited to feel weightless, in that we’re to collect burdens for one another and cast them all onto Jesus. Of course, it’s an idealistic vision of this life, but it’s true–it’s what God wanted for us. We Christians are so passionate about ridding the world of sin, but perhaps it’s no wonder that feels so heavy and so busy and so burdensome when we take it all upon our shoulders. We hardly have hope of weightlessness when we’ve become so competitive about who’s carrying the heavier load.
Now it’s possible you’re reading this today and you’re feeling out of sorts, because I’m talking about lightness and your load is heavy: you’ve got three mouths to feed and two jobs, or family members facing cancer and death, or uncertainty and pain in your marriage, or children doing drugs and hurting themselves in heartbreaking ways. I’m not in your shoes, and I can only imagine how hard, unjust, and stressful any and all of those real life situations can be.
But I’m also not hoping to turn being available, open, and free (like being busy) into a competitive sport either. The fact is, if you’re working two jobs because you’ve got three mouths to feed, or your thoughts, prayers, and time are with a family member who’s sick, a spouse who needs you, or a child, life probably is pretty heavy right now, and you’re probably right where you should be. In fact, what I’m proposing is an economy of mercy, where we who are choosing to be busy and distracted, stacking up appointments and zillions hours of work a week, might hear and honor the people in front us who need us in these real life moments. And someday they’ll do the same, and we’ll all be a little more aware that we need Jesus and forgiveness and grace, and that’s the stuff life’s really all about.
For me, one week of really not being busy turned into a second week of believing it. Many times when I said, “Oh I’m not busy,” people didn’t really believe me, and at first, it felt awkward and trite. They thought I was mocking them, which is sad, because even when I was full of joy I think the reason they couldn’t believe me is because we’ve all made connection and caring and time slaves to our schedules.
But I kept at it, I kept believing that God had brought my friends to me and God was going to be faithful to worrying about those details of scheduling, dissertation writing, lesson planning, and proposal writing, if I could just be present with that person in front of me. And I could tell that my friends knew I meant it at some point, that it wasn’t that I’m not busy, that I don’t have things I could be doing, but that I was exactly where I wanted to be, and that when we’re there for one another, this world gets a little bit more graceful and that little bit is God in us and with us.
So I’m proposing a mini-revolution of sorts, a big screw you to the idolatry of calendars and appointments and modern life, and an invitation for you to tell someone this weekend or this coming week, “I’m not busy.” They may not get it– after all, you may be the busiest person they know, and then it will probably mean that much more.
But the best thing will be that when they see that you’re really serious about not being busy, that you’d rather listen to them than do anything else with your time, they’ll not only feel free, but so will you. You’ll find that God is faithful to carry all our burdens and so much more, and somewhere along the way, you won’t actually feel busy anymore. Even though you still have a million things you could be doing, you’ll feel so miraculously weightless, and best of all, you’ll find God leading the way.
I remember that moment in my college studies when it was pointed out to me that history was hardly static and that periodization, the act of splicing history into reasonable, succinct bites, necessarily altered the meaning of those events it sought to contain.
The stories of our own lives, our own journeys, are told and retold. We re-imagine the significance of certain events in light of others, and every once in awhile we feel blessed to look back and see what we believe to be the hand of God. That type of perspective is other-worldly, not because God only blessed us with bite-sized intelligence, but because God and life only lends each moment with bite-sized grace.
If you’re like me, you try to gobble grace in bigger bites. You get really gluttonous and really greedy, and you think you could live life a bit better, certainly more faithfully, if God would just give you that kind of landscape, big-picture, historic panorama vision. I feel like this most of the time.
And then there are the days when I sit in silence and listen for God, and I know, fully and with great freedom, that these seasons that supposedly lie in between that we all feel, these days of waiting, these are God’s, too.
I know this because other faithful people around me confirm it and live it, and they struggle, too.
I read a line on facebook the other morning that said, “Perspective: Abraham waited 25 years, Joseph 13 years, Moses 40 years, Jesus 30 years. If you’re in a waiting season, you’re in good company.”
What a comfort to know that we’re not the only ones who wait and wonder and…stumble.
Just the other day I mentioned to a professor that a paper I’d written and been proud of had become a stumbling block toward developing my dissertation. The realization of the fact was freeing–perhaps I could now move forward. She responded differently, jubilantly, with a line I’ve never heard or thought I would, “Oh that’s good, stumbling blocks are good!” she purred.
We can’t really learn anything if we don’t stumble, but we’re also remiss if we think we’re bound for a life where we stumble no more. This morning a friend of mine told me that after a loved one died, she was told there’d be suffering, followed by healing, followed by victory.
We began to muse together that, what if while we’re stumbling, while we’re waiting, there is also resurrecting? What if what’s in between is victory? What if this moment isn’t between what’s next, what’s holy, and what’s God’s, but this moment accepted, embraced, and faithfully swallowed is grace incarnate?
But all the while you’ll have been looking to the horizon, to the mountains, onward and forward, when God was right beside you offering a hand, a shoulder, and rest for your weary head. Friends, look around–you’re in good company, you’re already victorious, you’re being offered a sliver of grace.
So don’t miss the resurrecting in the waiting, the stumbling, in the seasons between.
Sometimes it seems as though the world is so saturated with pain and heartache and disease and fear that it might burst.
It’s in those moments that we put our hands together, we bow our heads, we bend our knees. If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes we do it less out of faith and more out of desperation and perhaps a little bit out of habit. We go to God to find solace from the scary world, to test that God is still there, to cry out to someone who we want so boldly to trust, cares.
If you’re like me, you may have circles of friends who aren’t people of faith. Do you pray for them, too? Do you tell them?
Despite my shoddy track record as an evangelist, I almost always do. I almost always tell them that I’m thinking of them, that I’m praying for them, and of course, being a former seminarian, I’ve wondered a bit about the theology in all that.
But I’m pretty sure God doesn’t. When we’re on our knees and lifting our friends in prayer, it isn’t theology that grounds us, but the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t merely speak the language of Christianity or faith, but the language of the heart. So the language of the heart tumbles out of us, knowing no boundaries, no colors, no sects, no creeds.
When I’ve told my friends who aren’t people of faith that I’m praying for them, I think they’ve found it meaningful, perhaps even more meaningful than those in the church. They don’t have to be Christian to know that interceding for someone is the work of desperation, habit, and perhaps a little bit of faith. They do it, too, in their own ways.
As I read this little book by Anne Lamott on prayer these days, I am reminded how simply prayer is about communion with God. I like how she believes that honesty before God, all of our anger, frustration, and fear, can actually lead us toward, rather than away from God.
And I wonder if we in the Christian community have spoken too often about what prayer isn’t, so that we’re hardly left with anything that prayer is. The funny thing is, my non-Christian friends want to pray, too. They sit there before a meal, waiting on me to bless it. They ask me when and why I pray. In fact, they’re not nearly as skittish about prayer as we Christians are sometimes.
And what if I leveled with them? What if I told them that I don’t pray because I have great faith, I pray because I need great faith? What if I told them, I pray to hear my own voice saying that God is there, because sometimes I myself have a hard time believing it? What if I told them that I pray because I simply wish I could feel God a bit nearer all the time?
When it comes down to it, I do believe that God meets us in prayer. But I also believe God intercedes when we don’t have the words, that God hears the prayers that ruminate in our minds whether we choose to speak them or not, so that prayer is not so much about what God is or isn’t doing, but our need for God.
But when the doors to the church are shut so tight, I’m pretty sure those outside can’t see that we’re actually just a bunch of needy people, people just like them. So this morning, I’m praying for friends, Christian and non-Christian alike, and I’m praying for God to shine brightly through my cracks, my weaknesses, and my neediness. May it truly be God who is glorified, praised, and honored…in prayer, in life, inside the church and out.