The wonderful inconvenience of love

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

I love this day so much because this is a day when we can celebrate and praise God for the gift of the strongest force in the universe: love!

Love is the foundation of Christian living. Love is what drives us disciples to do what the world may not ever understand. Love is wonderfully inconvenient. We forgive. We embrace every new person in our life. We abandon our schedules and travel across miles to be present to the hurting; to tell people we love them. We hope for the best for our enemies and pray that they may be well. We run into battle zones, toward the sounds of bombs, if we know a child is in danger.  We lay down our lives for our friends, our neighbors, for strangers we meet along the roadside who are in desperate need of help. We protect and welcome the strangers who are crossing borders, who are fleeing oppression and poverty. We rally in the streets and carry banners that announce love even while folks scowl. We visit the smelly and imprisoned. We give away our food and open up our homes; we share with all our might. We fast and pray for the sake of strangers, for peace in general, for liberation from any power that doesn’t help others feel love. Love is bold and wild and a verb.

Photo Credit: www.freeimages.com/
Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/

Over the years many people have turned to me and said that they have never felt God’s presence, that they don’t know God. To this very real heartache I often respond with a question: “Have you ever felt love for another person?” To that, the response is usually “Yes, of course.”Then,” I respond “you have experienced the presence of God without knowing it.”  

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith lives is that we tend to put God in boxes; we expect God to be as small and containable as we are. The truth, though, is that God is beyond measure; God is abundantly good and infinite mystery. We must allow this mystery to surprise us, to move through us, to be revealed in ways we would never imagine.

Once we allow God to be in charge of who we are, we will find that love has us doing all sorts of things that don’t make sense, that will be contradiction to the ways of the world. I love the way Courtney E. Martin describes this:

Just as our lives — especially white, economically privileged lives — have suffered from over-privatization, our notion of love has suffered from an over-interpersonalization. We hear love and we think marriage. Worse yet, in the age of dating apps, we hear love and we think swipe. The commodification and Tinder-ization of love isn’t just bad for our romantic relationships; it’s bad for our nation. We think of love as solely intimate, as tumultuous, as something we choose to bestow or withhold based on someone’s capacity to earn it and keep earning it.

But real love is radical because it cannot be earned or unearned. It is tied to inherent dignity. It is unconquerable because it is dumb in its own way — determined to keep loving no matter what the counter forces, no matter what scarcity small men try to message, no matter what fear they try to sow. It’s blindly trusting, also positioned as stupid in our overly strategic society. It’s inefficient, a sin in our efficiency-obsessed time.

It is perhaps most clearly understood as maternal. Just as mothers have, from time immemorial, loved without condition, we must now love this nation like mothers. We must parent it into a new maturity. We must not give up on it, no matter what. We must be prepared to be surprised at how beautiful it will be. We must do all this without knowing what form it will take, but knowing that whatever it becomes will be rewarding if it is shaped by fierce, unending, active love.

(An excerpt from “The Twin Forces of Love and Resistance” by Courtney E. Martin at OnBeing.org)

On this day, may we embrace the wild power of active love. May we allow love of God and neighbor to take complete hold of us and move us into zones—uncomfortable and cracked—where we never thought we would tread. May we learn what it means to really lay down our lives and experience love’s rising power and imitate Jesus Christ.

I love you all and I thank you for joining me in this wild activity!

 

From farm to city and back again: Listening and loving on the margins

Decades ago, as a child growing up in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa, I would daydream of simpler times, of the days when people were pioneers and steadily establishing their families and homes and building communities upon frontiers.

My younger sisters and I would gather in groves of cedar trees tucked into the hills and pastures and play “Little House,” inspired by the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I would thumb through books tucked into my parents’ shelves, books like Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills and 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, and ponder what it would have been like to live in the “olden days.”

On steamy, sunny days in July, my younger sisters, cousins and I would put on pants and long-sleeved shirts and carry buckets half our body size into the deep woods. We’d crawl underneath berry bushes, pluck juicy deep purple blackcaps off thorny branches, rapidly fill our buckets, and scratch up our arms. Later we’d…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"In Wisconsin's Northwoods" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“In Wisconsin’s Northwoods” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Toddler Tantrums and the Kingdom of God

By Guest Blogger Nicole Wooldridge.

It was one of those moments every parent dreads: my two-year-old had worked herself into an ugly public tantrum, and I had to abandon our planned activity in order to haul her thrashing body out to the car. Frustrated and embarrassed, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “Seriously, Jesus? The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these?”

Jesus, however, called the children to himself and said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  –Luke 18:16-17

Before I was a mom, I never really pondered the Bible passages in which Jesus encourages His disciples to become like little children. I assumed He was extolling children’s innocence and telling us to return to the purity of our youth.

But now I know better.

Little children are far from innocent. They are impatient, volatile, jealous, and unreasonable. They are, as it turns out, younger versions of the human species, and the human species has only ever produced one perfect human.

So why does Jesus hold these tiny tyrants in such high esteem?

As my daughter approaches her third birthday, I have a few thoughts on the matter (insert requisite disclaimer that I am not a biblical exegete… just a mom who has observed her kids for the past few years): Though they are not innocent, per se, young children are exceptionally transparent; their flaws and failings -be they fits of anger or refusal to share a toy- are out there for the world to see. Even their occasional attempts at deception are laughably obvious (ie: my daughter announcing from another room, “Mama, I didn’t make a mess!”). If they are angry with you, they do not subtly contrive to tear you down –they simply throw a fit.

When children misbehave, they do so with glorious flagrance.

And that, I think, is what Jesus was driving at: whatever children do, they do it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. So, in those wonderful moments in which our kids are not humiliating us, the face of God shines brilliantly through their wide-open eyes. A seemingly insignificant activity, like playing in the sprinklers on a summer day, is a downright awe-inspiring experience for my daughter. She does not guard herself or her emotions, but runs headlong into the adventures of each day.

It’s easy, then, for me to picture the little ones of Jesus’ time as they ran toward Him, laughing and jostling one another in their haste, completely oblivious to the impropriety of their gusto. In those days, children dwelled in the periphery of society, their immaturity excluding them from full membership in the community. Yet despite their lowly station, these children easily recognized and sought out the loving power of Jesus (as did so many of “the least of these”).

photo by Nicole Wooldridge
“Crying Baby” photo by Nicole Wooldridge

Nowadays, we afford children more respect than did the ancient Jews, but the fact remains that our kiddos are wholly dependent upon us to meet their needs. Amazingly, this relative powerlessness does not burden them with feelings of unworthiness or insecurity (as it likely would you or me), but instead frees them to experience life with a passion that knows neither limits nor shame. When my daughter belts out “Jesus Loves Me,” she doesn’t apologize for her untrained voice… And she doesn’t doubt for a second that the words she sings are true. So why do we?

We are all of us imperfect, but perfectly loved anyway.

I sometimes wonder how much deeper my relationship with Christ would be if I ran toward Him with as much unbridled eagerness as my daughter runs toward me: arms outstretched, grinning or sobbing, unself-conscious of anything other than our mutual love. How much more loudly would my life proclaim the love of God if I were unencumbered by an instinct for self-preservation? How much more devout a disciple would I be if I could not hide my own brokenness behind an exterior of apparent self-sufficiency?

In other words: how much worthier of the Kingdom of God would I be if, rather than pretending at nonchalance or stoking the fires of silent resentment, I followed my daughter’s example and just threw an undignified tantrum once in awhile?

 

Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia who lives near Seattle. She is the mother of an almost-three-year-old and a 1-year-old, and she considers herself lucky to have only had to abandon a public place due to a tantrum once (so far…).

People watching and categories

I have a confession to make. I’ve noticed something about myself while I have been bopping around Chicago the past few days.

Here goes: I tend to be really judgmental. There, you have it. What an ugly admission.

Let me explain. As I walk down streets, go through crowds and sit at train stations, I try not to ignore people. Basically, I do a lot of people watching. As I watch people, I try to be open to whatever interaction I may have with them.

"People Watching Zone" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I play a little game as I people watch. That’s where the judgmentalism comes in. I guess what categories people fall into and what their life might be like. I imagine stories about the characters I encounter based on a few clues: what they are wearing, what’s in their hands, and their body shape.

I am totally jumping to conclusions and trying to read a book by its cover! This all happens exclusively in my mind, simply for entertainment or as a distraction from the studying I ought to be focusing on. It’s like I have a habit of playing a little traveling game, meeting people and then making up stories. I am just not sure that it’s a good habit.

I hope it’s not mean or un-loving. But, still, I realize it’s judgmental.

I know I am not unusual for noticing things about the people I meet and making guesses about them. I am pretty sure I am not strange for categorizing people and things.

The thing is, I am learning that it’s not necessarily helpful or holy to categorize people into different types of groups.

For example, this was in my reading for the moral theology class that am taking:

“We can neither divide the morally relevant features, the related moral norms and principles, nor the people involved into neat little compartments labeling the “good” white, the “bad” black, and/or the “ambiguous” grey. Life and therefore morality are not monochromatic, and any moral evaluation that would seem to suggest such a simple dichotomy should be suspect. Our moral analysis has to capture a wide variety of colors, textures, and hue, while trying to weave together from an assortment of loose threads a tapestry that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise.”                                            

 – Bretzke, James T. (2004, p. 145) A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press p. 145 

I’ll admit it. I frequently oversimplify my intake of the world and people around me because of my bad habit of categorizing.

In order to inspire appreciation of how our Christian lives need to “capture a wide variety of colors, textures and hue … that really does promote the flourishing of all people and give God praise” I have created a little photo mediation. Enjoy!

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seven days of salvation

strangers grip palms, bond at bus stops

grins by glory, pilgrims unite

onward, hosannas and hellos true

buzz on the street: whisper, plot, might

centuries of destruction and war ring doom

age the days of tension, hoping

who can save us from our plight?

bright spring moon, free, feasting

friends wash feet; bread, wine multiply

garden ghosts stir; children play, pray

crowds of citizens chant, cheer “crucify”

believe deceive, turn Love a bloody way

nails, thorns, swords and thirst all killing

three men suspend on wood beams die

friends, followers help Love, crying

into tombs of time, sabbath, vigil, praying

God’s goodness shakes ground, surprise

into churches, candlelight, stories, singing

Jesus has come back! He Lives! Arise!

No worries, no joke, if the world ends, I still love you

“To all my Pharisaical law-worshiper acquaintances: if the “rapture” happens this weekend like you demand it must, let me just say: my house keys are under the back doormat, so help yourself to my guns & Bibles. Please be gentle, though, when you throw the hardcover one at each other.  I won’t be there to forgive you.” 

This was the Facebook status of my friend Jesse K.  yesterday.  Jesse and I worked together at a Lutheran Bible Camp in Iowa in the summers of 1999 and 2000.  He now works as the camp’s program director.  He knows some things about the Bible and Christianity and he’s a really smart guy.  As for his Facebook status regarding this weekend, he’s completely kidding.

Like me, Jesse doesn’t expect to be sucked into heaven on Saturday. I thought his satirical statement was hilarious.  I agree with its point too.  Believers need to remember the dangers of focusing on literal and legalistic interpretations of scripture, instead of the heart of the law of God: love.

You probably have heard that Harold Camping of Family Radio and his followers have been warning all of us that the end of the world is scheduled to happen on Saturday.  This is not the first time that this has happened.  NPR’s story about how Harold Camping compares in history to other doomsday “prophets” has helped me answer questions from my students this week.

I talked to my friend Hillary B.K., a Lutheran pastor, on Wednesday night.  She joked that it might not be necessary for her to write a Sunday sermon this week, but then she figured that God would probably leave some ministers for the people who are left behind.

I laughed and asked her what I need to do to get ready for the rapture.  She told that I needed to catch up on my repenting. I needed to get busy making a sackcloth and smear myself with ashes then wander around the city, fast and say I was sorry for my sins.  I laughed and told her I would go straight to the business district and federal buildings and loudly apologize for the destruction our social sins of greed and militarism have caused.

Really though, I am fascinated by all of the commotion created by the end-of-the-world hype.  I think it’s pretty funny and I wonder if I am unloving to those who take it very seriously.  Certainly, comedians and news-writers have had a lot of fun lately with the apocalyptic material.  I can’t say I blame them.  I am convinced God has a sense of humor and laughs right along with us.  As I laugh, I keep on loving and hoping the best for all people.

Yet, I  know I have had my own concerns about where the world is headed.  I even wrote my own little apocalyptic statement in 2008 after I learned about Peak Oil theory in 2005.  But generally, I am not guided by fear, just consciousness. I tend to typically choose trust in God and love.

Admittedly, I am no Bible nor Eschatology scholar.  Everyone’s guess is as good as mine.  I am only a woman who is trying to live the Gospel in the 21st century.

I know that I have met Christians who talk about the end-times like a cop-out or comfort.  I have actually heard Christians say things like:  “I am just glad that he end times is soon and I am saved.  I hate this world and this life.”  I bit my tongue and said a prayer; escapism instead of struggle for the sake of growth and loving seem unhealthy to me.

In my own family I have experienced the harm of rapture-focused fear-driven types of Christianity. One summer my youngest sister went to a different Bible camp than the rest of us because of a schedule conflict. She was 10 at the time.

During the middle of the night they had a “rapture drill” for the children. They woke everyone up and told them it was the end of the world then brought them to a party for those that were “saved.”

My sister says that camp was a paradise until she was asked if she was saved. Then she heard “Would you like to be? Why not, what’s your deal?  You’re crying? You’re crying because you have not accepted Jesus in your life.”  She cried with confusion. Now, 13 years later she still has a lot doubts and confusion and doesn’t really profess a faith.  She knows she is loved, however, so that’s good news!

Let’s tell the good news! We are all loved!  Jesus is all about love, not fear nor judgement!!  The gospel is about trust and faith and helping people know God through love by sharing, compassion, healing, service, prayer, and work for justice.

As far as the end of the world goes,  I want you to all know that I love you, no matter what.  And, I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to believe what Jesus says about the rapture, more than anyone else:

Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one deceives you.
Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he,’ and they will deceive many.
When you hear of wars and reports of wars do not be alarmed; such things must happen, but it will not yet be the end.
Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes from place to place and there will be famines. These are the beginnings of the labor pains.
But the gospel must first be preached to all nations.
If anyone says to you then, ‘Look, here is the Messiah! Look, there he is!’ do not believe it.  False messiahs and false prophets will arise and will perform signs and wonders in order to mislead, if that were possible, the elect.
Be watchful! I have told it all to you beforehand.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.
– Mark 13: 5-11, 21-23, 30-33