My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
Over the years, the simplest and best prayer practice I've found for healing our image of God and teaching kids how God loves them is based on a prayer found in Matt, Dennis & Sheila Linn's book, Simple Ways to Pray for Healing.
In that book and in a previous book, Healing Our Image of God, they reiterate how we become like the God we adore! So if the God we worship is critical, judgmental and condemning, guess what? We're going to be critical, judgmental and condemning! If the God we picture is stoic and distant...you got it...we're going to be stoic and distant. And this can be passed along from generation to generation.
One way to heal our image of God is to realize that God loves us at least as much as the person who has loved us most.
Take a moment to consider your image of God. What words or images would you use to describe your view or understanding of God? Would you like others to describe you in these ways? If not, your image of God may be in need of healing.
Or perhaps parts of you have a healthy view of God and parts of you do not. This prayer has been instrumental in the on-going healing of my own image of God. My inner critic can often have a very sanctimonious sounding voice and when I'm vulnerable I can easily mistake it as God's until I bring to mind a person who has loved me most. This immediately exposes the false god and I am able to not only receive God's love but let God join me in my vulnerable place (which is transforming).
After facilitating this prayer with countless people, I've tweaked it from how it appears in the Linn's book, like adding the love of a pet because some people cannot recall a person who has loved them in a healthy way. Or sometimes a pet is how God wants to best communicate love to us at a given time.
Here's the prayer for you to try:
Receiving God's Love through the Person or Pet Who Loves You Most
I hope you'll try this prayer for a week and see what happens! A bonus is that it makes us even more grateful for the person or pet who has loved us so well...and what happens then? We cannot help but love them back! It becomes a love circle of giving and receiving (which is exactly what the Trinity is)!! Now that's a beautiful image of God!
I am grateful for freedom.
And to those who have made my freedom(s) possible.
I am grateful I have the right to vote and worship God how I choose. I am grateful I got to marry who I chose. I am grateful I do not live in daily fear in or outside my home.
And yet in the midst of all of my gratitude this July 4th, I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's words about peace in Wishful Thinking:
"...we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of real peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of other people, whether they live on the streets or under our own roof-and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them-we can never be fully at home anywhere."
I think the same can be said about freedom. Can there even be real peace without freedom?
Will you join me this July 4th in asking the question, "Who is not free yet?"
Who is not free to worship how they choose?
Who is not free to marry who they choose to?
Who lives in fear inside/outside of their home?
Who has no voice in religious, political, and business institutions?
It shouldn't take too long to identify at least one person if not an entire group of people.
Then with the voice of the Holy Spirit and the entire tradition of the Holy Scriptures urging us on, let's take the next step and do something about it. Like those who gave their lives for our country's freedom.
Then this will truly be "the land of the free and home of the brave."
Remember those moments of synchronicity I spoke about last week?
Well I had another string of "meaningful coincidences" I want to pay attention to and share. At the end of the class on the heart of Jewish spirituality at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, Rabbi Rami Shapiro was asked what practice he would suggest for all of us.
His answer was to enter more deeply into the "Sh-ma Yisrael," also known as the Shema, the prayerful recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Remember, another Rabbi's answer was the same...Jesus told others to live into the Shema, calling it the greatest and most important commandment of all. Here is the Complete Jewish Bible's translation:
4 “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; 5 and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. 6 These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; 7 and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, 9 and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.
Two ways of entering more deeply into the Shema that Rabbi Rami mentioned were the mezuzah and breath prayer.
While I plan on getting a mezuzah, I began that night to breathe in and out each word of the Shema. The next day my family ate at a local restaurant and two Jewish women came up to our table out of the blue to offer encouragement to me. Why? I have no idea. Curious. I joked with Russ that they could sense I had been praying the Shema!
Afterwards I went home, read a message from a friend who had asked me to recommend a Frederick Beuchner book. After recommending a few, I walked upstairs to my bookcase and spotted the first Beuchner book I had ever read, A Room Called Remember. The last time I read it had been well over a decade. Randomly I opened it up and what did I see? Staring back at me was Deuteronomy 6:4-7...the Shema! Under the Scripture, Buechner writes,
"'Hear, O Israel!' says the great text in Deuteronomy where Moses calls out to his people in the wilderness. Hear, O Israel! Hear! Listen! And not just O Israel, hear, but O World, O Everybody, O Thou, O every last man and woman of us because we are all of us called to become Israel by hearing..."
As I mentioned last week, synchronicity beckons us to pay attention! The word "Shema" means "Hear!" and this isn't just the gathering of sounds which can go in one ear and out the other. Watch the short animation below for a fantastic word study on "Shema" by The Bible Project. Given the meaning of the word and how it keeps coming up, clearly I'm to hear something! Perhaps there's something here for you, too.
You may have read Adonai translated as LORD, but it can also be translated as The NAME, or Ineffable. Why? Watch the second short animation for a great explanation of the word's background. In addition, not only was the Divine Name so sacred that it was not to be pronounced, but some Jewish scholars taught that YHWH was ineffable because it was not a pronounceable word at all...it was the sound of breathing! This would go along with the name's etymology, God's Name does not indicate a being but Being itself. And this is beyond words! You might muse over God's Name, breathing and existence for a little while...
Now for the breath prayer. If you've never heard the words of the Shema spoken in Hebrew, you can listen to them being read and sung here. Practice silently saying the words with a slow, relaxed inhale and exhale.
In breath- Shema (pronounced Sheh-MA)
Out breath- Yisrael (Yis-rah-EL)
In breath- Adonai (Ah-do-NAI)
Out breath- Eloheinu (Eh-lo-HEY-noo)
In breath- Adonai
Out breath- Echad (Eh-KHAD)
As we regularly breathe the prayer, the hope as Rabbi Rami points out is to help one's consciousness to shift so one sees God in, with, and as all reality and one's interactions with others are marked with compassion. May it be so.
The day after school ended, my kids and I headed out-of-state to visit friends and family. I was tired before this trip down memory lane began so I really needed to engage the Fruit of the Spirit (patience & gentleness don't come easily in such circumstances)!
I tried breathing in and out each fruit, dwelling on those especially needed. However, being out of my normal exercise routine, this didn't suffice...my whole body wanted to join in on the practice.
So I found myself revisiting the prayer postures that my daughter and her yoga teacher, spiritual director, and author of Holy Listening with Breath, Body, and the Spirit, Whitney Simpson, put together to remember and receive the Fruits of the Spirit. Together we wrote a blog series for Ministry Matters in 2014, found here.
With the celebration of the Holy Spirit's presence & power happening just two days ago on Pentecost Sunday, I thought I'd take another trip down memory lane by reminding us all of these prayer postures and the devotionals that go with them. Come taste and see...
Holy Trinity, as we allow ourselves to feast on the fruit of You in our lives, may we become what we eat. May we embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control, and truly become the Body of Christ in this world. Amen.
Good Friday is coming in a few weeks and with it, some theology I simply cannot stand anymore.
It's found in many worship songs like Jesus Paid it All, In Christ Alone, One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails) and more. It's called substitutionary atonement or penal substitution in theological language. And it's heard so often, you might even think it's the only show in town when it comes to explanations and understandings of the cross.
Richard Rohr, writes in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, “For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus 'died for our sins'— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033–1109] and has often been called 'the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written')..."
I could not agree more. No matter how sweet sounding the music, the image of God portrayed by such lyrics is a petty, powerless and/or blood-thirsty tyrant requiring some kind of payment or transaction before those He's created can be forgiven, loved, and rescued from eternal damnation. There are lots of problems with this theory. One major problem is that if we read the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Psalms and Prophets, we discover a long-suffering God who was forgiving and willing to forgive long before the cross occurred. Rather than a belief that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary to change God's mind about us, we can see how Jesus' life and death invited us to change our minds about God. Jesus was simply following in his Father's footsteps of relentless, sacrificial love. I have a problem with lyrics and theology that proclaim the opposite.
Given this theology is taught through song and sermon in many churches (I taught it years ago as a youth pastor!), we're not apt to actually stop and think through it ourselves. It took me a while to admit that something seemed "off." There would be songs that seemed fine up until the "wrath" or "debt paid" lyrics showed up affecting the whole song. As I questioned this dominant cultural voice in American Christianity, I realized there were others experiencing the same internal dissonance. I also discovered there were other views about the crucifixion (always have been) besides substitutionary atonement. And that one no longer represents my viewpoint...
The movie, Gran Torino, on the other hand does. Spoiler alert, if you haven't seen it and want to, you may want to stop reading, go watch it and come back later. And be aware, there's violence (although let's be honest, there has to be if drawing any kind of connection between it and Good Friday). Back to the movie, I did not see it coming, the ending of Gran Torino. In fact, I imagine I got a taste of being stunned the way the disciples might have been stunned on that Good Friday long ago...they simply never saw it coming. Yet the Gospels tell us Jesus did (and so did Clint Eastwood).
If you saw the movie but cannot remember the ending, go check out a Youtube clip of the end. The final scene is so rich in symbolism, I'm not even going to get into all of it (plus it would take away from your own disturbances and observations). All I know is that Gran Torino gave a pretty good glimpse of my view of Jesus' death on the cross in less than 5 minutes.
A quick overview of the movie...gruff Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a recently widowed Korean vet. He's fairly estranged from his own family when he gets drawn into the drama of his Hmong neighbors. Young Thao tries to steal Kowalski's Gran Torino after being pressured by his cousin to join the neighborhood gang. You know that Eastwood is not going to let that happen! This event leads to Kowalski developing a relationship with the family and getting an inside look at the cycle of violence and poverty experienced by the Asian community in his neighborhood. He sees how his well-intentioned advice to Thao to get a decent job and stay away from the gangs simply doesn't work, no matter how hard Thao tries, he and his sister cannot escape the brutality and injustice. It requires something more to liberate Thao and his sister. And that's where we start seeing Kowalski's single-minded intensity and there's no mistaking he is planning something. What he's planning, we have no idea.
Although we know something is about to take place when one night he shows up at the house where the gang members hang out and begins to yell in order to provoke them. One by one they come out with guns drawn. We're expecting "an eye for an eye" moment thinking Eastwood will whip out a gun and give them the justice they deserve by picking them off all in a row. What we're not expecting from the foul-mouthed Kowalski is "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) And yet he does. And on purpose. His stunning and creative act of solidarity and sacrifice releases Thao and his sister from the cycle of violence. They were "saved" by his blood.
In a perfect world, the prison system would reform the perpetrators and they'd be "saved by his blood," too. It's not a perfect world and Walt doesn't rise again in three days, so there's only so far the comparisons can go but I think it's worth noting the image of Christ found in Walt's sacrifice.
First, let's admit that Walt himself could be a stumbling block for some. In which case, I ask us to ponder what one who "walks in the way that leads to Life" really looks like. Is it being a nice, moral citizen who tries to avoid or point out sin (but can have a habit of ignoring the cycles of violence and systemic injustice in his own "neighborhood")? Or might one resemble Walt, a crass, politically incorrect "sinner" who not only notices the violence and injustice, but steps into a Christ-like path which will set his neighborhood free? Setting his face like flint, he walks right onto that sidewalk for an act of love which will rescue his neighbors from being held captive by a cycle of violence they are powerless against. Sound familiar?
Jesus knew his message would provoke the authorities. He knew that such ire would inevitably turn him into a scapegoat (a person or people group on whom we unfairly pour out our wrath, making them "pay"). He knew it is human nature to look for a scapegoat. So much so, it becomes a religious necessity for nearly every culture (some even beating literal goats to death as the name suggests)! One can see how Jesus' bold message about what to do with friends and enemies does not fit, but in fact destroys both the necessity for and violent cycle of sinful and superstitious scapegoating.
Bigger isn't better in Jesus' view (even when it comes to God). Being the stronger bully or in the bully's gang never leads to the kind of life Jesus invites, it only adds fuel to the cycle of vengeance. However, many Christians have no problem with this because the image of God passionately sung about is a fickle, vengeful one (and remember, we become like the God we worship). Plus if we agree that Jesus paid it all, we're safely on the winning side. However, in the cycle of violence, there is no winning side. In a stunning reversal of what we would expect from a winning "savior," Jesus chooses solidarity with the suffering of the scapegoat and dies.
Jesus knew the pull of scapegoating loomed large. After his resurrection, knowing some of his disciples had a propensity for zealous anger (once they knew they were safely on the "winning team"), he headed off any plans to go after the ones who had killed him. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus meets his disciples in the room they were hiding in, breathes on them, tells them to receive the Holy Spirit then talks to them about forgiveness (20:21), a topic he talked to them about at the Last Supper and even voiced from the cross.
It seems the disciples had a choice (and so do we). Be chained to the cycle of violence or have hearts and minds freed up to carry out the mission Jesus began.
What is that mission?--a completely different way of being in the world (which includes the religious one!). It's the subversive, dangerous and life-giving way of loving God and our neighbors (whether they be Hmong, Muslim, Mexican, Irish, disabled, poor, or LGBT+) as we love ourselves (which includes parts of ourselves we like and parts we'd like to treat as scapegoats). It's that kind of love that frees. It's that kind of love that Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., the young Palestinian girl Malala Yousafzai, and Walt Kowolski knew would cost them something, perhaps even their lives.
If someone wants to write a song about that, I'll gladly sing it.
"What's the ego?" my 6-year-old son asked me one day.
"Oh good question," I said, "We need the ego. It's important because it helps us survive. It's the part of us that makes choices and decisions based on looking out for ourselves."
We talked a little about some of these choices and decisions helping us survive and better ourselves. Then I asked him a question in return, curious as to his answer. "What happens if we only live from our ego, the part whose only concern is protecting and looking out for ourselves?"
His answer was immediate, "We don't ever love."
"That is exactly right! " I exclaimed surprised and humbled with how clearly he could see, "That's exactly what Jesus told people."
In Matthew 16:25, Jesus says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
The life Jesus is talking about losing is the one built, shaped and ruled by our ego. While safety precautions, preferences, expectations, demands, aspirations, goals, knowledge, social acceptance, emotional reactions, and such are necessary for survival, none lead to the "way of Jesus." And Jesus reminds us that we find this way or "Kingdom" by becoming like a child.
For apparently a child knows that unless we let these go, "We don't ever love."
If you're anticipating tension around the table this year, here are 7 ways to invite (or perhaps choose) life to be your table companion.
Begin by offering yourself hospitality. When we welcome every part of ourselves, we lift the burden of demanding others to give us what they may neither be willing nor able to give. So in your mind's eye, give yourself the look of approval or hug of acceptance you need!
Do away with the “kids table” this year. Allow them to join the “grown ups.” Sure, they may spill the gravy, but their simple presence may open our eyes to the Kingdom and hand us the keys. If you're hosting, you'll find it's worth the messy table cloth.
Let humor pull up a chair. Here's where kids at the table are helpful once again! When it's not at the expense of anyone else, laughter can be common ground (like enjoying good food).
Keep Jesus' meal of thanks in mind. Around Jesus' supper table was a member of the radical Zealot party, a tax collector, some fishermen, a beloved disciple, a doubter, a hot-head and a betrayer...if these were Christ's table guests, what do we expect?
Remember the broken Body of Christ. Breaking bread together can be a tangible reminder that we follow a God who works through brokenness. Just as love flowed through the broken body of Jesus, love can flow through each of us, the broken Body of Christ. Be on the lookout to receive love from a broken person and to be a broken person through whom love shines through.
Leave or give others permission to leave. Jesus gave permission to one of his followers to leave the table. Rather than continue the charade of authenticity he said, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). In his case, he was about to betray Jesus. Did Jesus withdraw his love in that moment? No! He never stopped loving him, but he recognized when Judas was putting on an act. You or others may be itching to be somewhere else, unable to truly be present (in a life-giving way). No need to force yourself or others to hang around in misery (or make others miserable)!
Know that love is messy. Much messier than spilled gravy. The love of Christ isn't a pecan pie-gooey kind of love. It requires healthy boundaries and sacrifice. Both may not look or feel like love to you or others in the moment. That's okay, the book of Luke (12:51-53;18:29-30) warns that Jesus-followers must be prepared for family relationships to not reflect a Norman Rockwell painting. The path of and toward life rarely looks like it. But it's worth the journey!
A prayer for all who are gathering at a table this week:
God, may we welcome our family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers to the table as we welcome ourselves. May we recognize that not only do we have brokenness in common but we can find common ground in food and laughter. May we not shy away from awkwardness or tension but enter in with childlike curiosity. Give us discernment. Remind us of the permission we can give or receive to leave (without shame or shaming, without blame or blaming) on behalf of love. Thank you for the ways You join us at the table disguised as our own lives. May Your love be present in and with us as we break bread together.
In Christ's Name, Amen.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.