Do you believe your life has choices?

A couple of weeks ago, a girlfriend of mine reminded me of a fun trip we took together over 10 years ago.

We were in our carefree 20s and living the dream of cheap motels, eating crackers for lunch and save our money for proper dinners with good bottle of wine and buying a train ticket the next day to somewhere fabulous.

It was a privilege to be able to travel of course, but a gift to ourselves and our friendship that we both worked hard to make happen.

Over text, we reminisced about our ease of being together on that trip and all the experiences we shared and then she said we should go back.

"Of course!" I replied. "When do you want to go?"

"Maybe for our 60th birthdays?" she offered.

"60th? Really. That seems so depressing! We're not going to travel again till we're 60?"

"Ok, maybe our 50th, then? Maybe our kids will be well situated by then."

(I'm still in my 30s, you know. Deep sigh).

Of course, I get it. We're not in our 20s anymore. Our lives are filled with more bills, kids, family obligations and of course work.

I've come to believe in the wisdom of "Your life doesn't really change when you get married. It changes when you have kids."  (Or I might add it also changes when you add in major responsibilities).

For it's true in this season of my life, I can't do what I want to do when I want to do it. Any trip out-of-town (or even just a night out past bedtime) is a well-organized and executed planning process. All of this on top of the financial demands of life as a parent when another human being is dependent on you. So, I get it. Life is full, for my friend. And for me too even as much as you love your life at home.

BUT, here is something I know for sure no matter what stage of life you're in.

We all do whatever we want to do.

We all can make anything we really to do want to do a priority.

Even if we have to save our money a dollar bill at time . . .

Even if we only have 5 minutes to give . . .

Even if our we plan adventures on a low budget . . .

None of us need to wait 10 years or 20 years to really live our lives (because who says any of us have 10 or 20 years to live?).

For every day, we get to say with our time, our money and our expressions of care what is important to us. And of course, when we're in a busy or stressful season of life, it's true, we might have fewer choices. But we still have choices.

We have the choice to be intentional about how we care for people (if we want to).

We have the choice to bring about good in the world with our money (if we want to).

We have the choice to care for our body (if we want to).

We have the choice to show up the moments that count for our children, our friends, our family (if we want to).

We have the choice.

I believe in our go, go, go, overstimulated, you better answer that email before tomorrow, knowing each other by our Facebook statuses alone, has taken from us the gift of intentional choice making.

As much as the texts of Advent, invite us right now to "stay woke" . . .

With our cell phones constantly in hand, we’re awake to everything. So, we're not really awake to anything at all. 

We've forgotten that we're co-creators in our own life stories. And our choices matter. Our daily choices and apps we most visit on our phone tell a lot about what matters the most to us.

Instead could we make more intentional choices?

Choices like: could we make person relationships a priority?  Instead of only text-based ones.

Choices like: could we give ourselves pockets of time for rest and reflection in silence? Instead of being thrown about based on ebbs and flows of today's news cycle.

Choices like: could we teach our children how to say yes and no to activities with care?  Instead of approving of an after school schedule based on what all the other kids do.

Choices like: could we manage our money carefully so we can give to others who need it more than we do? Instead of simply nursing our retirement accounts.

Choices like: could we invest in community-building in centers like our churches as essential parts of our week? Instead of attending when we don't have a better offer.

Intentional choices, my friends.

Our intentionality is our spirituality.

Oh I know the ease of the "I can't" crutch, playing the victim card in your own story.

But I want to say again, even in the worst case scenarios seasons-- you and I have choices of how we live.

We have the choice to put relationships over our own achievements. We have the choice to give back. We have the choice to rest in place.

Or as a friend of mine recently tweeted, "Stuck is a choice."

If you find yourself stuck and can't seem to get out of a life pattern, might I offer three suggestions?

  1. Find a friend to talk to about where you are. Often we think we don't have support around us, but we do. Trusted peers can help us find our way through the hards bumps of life. Just talk to someone about how you feel.
  2. Make a commitment this week to do something that you normally avoid. I don't care if it is as simple as taking out the trash before someone asks you. Do it. Discipline breeds discipline.
  3. Get outside. Often times when we're stuck and deep in the mess, we say indoors. But the popular wisdom of fresh air cures many ills is so true. Breath deeply. Take a wake. Move.

If you missed the first three installments of Good for the Soul, check them out here: hospitality, beauty & travelSimplify

When you read the title of this post, you might immediately think this blog is about cleaning out your garages or downsizing your wardrobe or even streamlining your schedule. You might think I am going to share stories about setting clearer intentions around your shopping. Or even advocating for better time management.

And while such practices would be great to write about (for another day), I want to take just a moment and talk about the simplicity of relationships.

Or in other words how in our social everything world (hundreds of Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers), the simplicity of  our relationships really does matter.

For I believe, it is good for our souls to think carefully about the people we let in our lives.

I recently read an article by sociologist Martha Beck entitled, "Don't Give Up the Ghost" in which she writes that human beings are only capable of a certain number of relationships. Our brains are not equipped, she says, to keep up intimate connections with every person we met, knew or talked to from elementary school on (though Facebook thinks we need to).

Beck then cites the research of anthropologist and psychologist Dr. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University about our capacity for social connection. Consider these numbers:

150- that's the number of people we can handle having in a social group (i.e. the people we could send Christmas cards too)

50- that's the number of friends most of us could invite to a party (for a special occasion) 

15- that's the number of people who know about what's really going on in your life  

5- that's the number of people who have access to your secrets (the real stuff) 

(And for some of us these numbers would of course be less)

I found this article and these stats fascinating especially in light of several conversations I've found myself in lately about how relationships from the past drain us and how much time we spend online or texting.

Beck offers an alternative to relationship overload: ghosting.

Ghosting, she says, is the process by which "a person gradually withdraws from a relationship-- ignoring phone calls, being mysteriously unavailable for social engagements."

Or in the words of comedian Steve Harvey we show with our actions, "I'm just not into you." We live authentically.

Beck points out is that "Confrontation is actually an intimacy skill, a way to resolve issues with people you really want in your life. . . . You are not obligated to offer this level of effort to every coworker, acquaintance or stranger that follows you on Instagram."

It sounds so horrible doesn't it? Ignoring people. Who publicly admits to this?

But we've all ghosted and been ghosted, haven't we?

We've let our silence speak for us and our changing priorities.

And I believe this kind of simplicity is good for the soul.

If you have any people pleasing genes in you (like I do) simplifying your investments in friendships can feel so cruel (almost unbearable sometimes).

But the truth of the matter is that you and I don't have time for everyone we know (or even sort of know). We just don't.

We all have limits of who we have the capacity to really love. Our hearts can't give to or trust everyone. And it's ok.

Here's the benefit of it all: when we let go the "shoulds" in our lives something amazing happens, I believe. We have time, energy for the people who build up our spirits. We find ourselves surrounded by powerful voices that can encourage us.

We ARE KNOWN.

Our lives are full of meaningful connections.

So if you're up for it, take a moment before you click on to something else and take an inventory of how you've spent your time lately. And ask yourself, how do I need to simplify my friendships?
Scriptures-on-Joy

Within my first couple weeks of seminary at Duke Divinity School back in 2003, I attended a weekend retreat.

It was designed for women a part of the free church tradition (i.e. Baptists, Free Methodists, AME, Pentecostals, etc).  And, coming from the Baptist tradition myself, it was a perfect match to fulfill the required spiritual formational credit for graduation.

I loved how the retreat connected me to the theological and racial diversity of the school and brought me new friends. But there was one weird part.

The closing song.

i-need-you-so-muchMy classmates and I were asked to partner up, look into one another's eyes and sing "I Need You To Survive" to a gospel anthem by Hezekiah Walker with full gusto! I have to tell you, I'm all about the feelings but such an exercise was too much for even me. These were some of the words:

I need you, you need me.
We're all a part of God's body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We're all a part of God's body.
It is his will, that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
You can you can listen to the full song by clicking here

Ironically, Abby who became my best friend at Duke (and still a great friend and colleague today) was my partner. If anybody was grading us, we would have gotten an F for our participation because couldn't stop laughing! But obviously something about the experience must have stuck because here I am 11 years later writing about it.

For when I think about how God made us to relate to one another in community, it's really so true.

I need you. And you need me. 

Yet, most of us live on the sidelines, contact people just when we need a favor, or wait till a birthday or a Christmas card to say hello. But when we do potentially amazing relationships fall just in the "OK" category because we aren't willing to say:

I need you. You need me. 

There's a lot of intentionally and vulnerability involved in this process and of course rejection sucks if the other person is not all in.

But what I most want to tell you today is don't let fear of rejection keep you from showing up.

I don't know about you, but I want to live a life full of joy. I want to live a life that isn't pained with unnecessary loneliness or without the encouragement I need to stay the course.

There are so many people in my life I would love to tell right now (if you were sitting beside me as I write): I need you. You need you. I love you. I need you to survive. I'm all the better because you are in my life. I am under no pretenses that I can be all I am called to be without your help!

But what does this look like in practice?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to a Christmas party.

It was an invitation like many we all receive this time of year. It came at the last-minute from a person I would consider a friend, but not one of my best of best friends. I waffled on whether or not to go. The traffic to get to her house would be annoying. I'd had a long week already. Why stress myself out if I didn't need to?

So when I tried to gracefully bow out, my friend said in a roundabout way, "I need you. You need me. And it would mean the world to me if you came."

Well, then. 

So, I went. Because she was right. I need this friend in my life and she needs me. And showing up for people who are in our community is no small thing. It's worth 30 minute searches for parking spaces.

This kind of living is NOT about having upper hand of "being needed" all the time or someone owing us a favor constantly. But it includes looking loved ones in the eyes and saying: "I need you" (which is MUCH harder). And letting them help us.

So these days I'm thinking that retreat leader was really on to something.  She was giving us life wisdom: "I need you. You need me."

Though it might feel weird or make us feel more vulnerable than we would like, here's the truth:

I need you. And you need me. 

Few of us intentionally set out to hurt those we love.

But we do.

Angry words come out of our mouths.

Jokes that seem funny to us, offend.

We forget birthdays.

But even worse than this, often our exclamations of joy can rub deeper wounds into a loved one's pain.

I know I've been guilty of such.

But, the clash of pain and joy is not something you learn about early in life.

From where I sit, I believe, it's often a lesson that tackles us in our 20s and 30s when age no longer equals simultaneous activity with our peers. College, relationships, birthing, etc all come (or not) at a unique pace.

My first hint of this lesson came when I visited a mentor's house while home on a college break.

My friend suffered from depression (though I didn't have any idea what this meant back then) and toxic friendships. She really needed a friend to sit and hear her pain. It had been a tough week.

But she was my mentor, so I wanted to tell her my stories before any of that.

So, I charged right in.

I pulled out a photo album I'd put together and started showing her what I'd been up to. Pages after pages of posed pictures and happy faces. I was so proud of the new college friends I'd made.

But I could tell as we neared the end of my "show and tell" hour that sadness found its way to her face. Though I didn't have the courage to tell her what I noticed, the truth was this: my joy rubbed against her pain.

*******

A year ago, I sat with another friend, a peer who was visiting my home for the first time.

I was so excited that she'd come to visit that I was eager to share all those things you can only see when you are in a person's home. I gave a tour, especially of our new basement remodel. I showed her the framed pictures in my office. Hours later I pulled out old pictures from the upstairs bookshelf including my wedding album. On auto pilot, I told her the stories.

But again, the same thing happened.

As much as my friend tried to engage what I told her about the happy day in Southern Georgia when I became a Hagan, by the last couple of pages she was done.  My friend loved me, but she was single. She didn't want to see any more pictures of me in a white dress.

Whereas my wedding album told a story of a fulfilling union for me, my wedding album to her said, "You're alone."

My joy rubbed up against her pain.

*******

I've been on the other side of this conflict too.

Friends have gone on and about their babies, and then sent more emails about baby #2 and #5.

My Facebook feed is full of ultrasound pictures (even some in 4D!)

And invitations to baby showers fill the mailbox.

It's joy rubbing up against my pain. It's a stomach sinking, crappy feeling that I am learning how to endure.

Because at this juncture of the Hagan household, children in the home is not something we can have (though we want).

Every time I hear stories after stories of pregnancy and "the cutest thing" my child said today from a well-meaning friend, I want to be happy and supportive. Yet, my heart aches.

But, I believe in community.  I believe in sharing in the joy and pain other's lives. My faith gives me this desire.

Is there a way to be better and ask others to be better in return?

There many not be easy answers. If any answers at all.

Our world is full of both joy and pain.

All I know is this: "I'm sorry" and "How can I be a good friend to you? with a spoon full of self-awareness is a good start.

IMG_5588These weeks in Tanzania and Kenya, my eyes and ears have been overwhelmed by many things:

Children who walk miles to school without shoes.

Children without access to clean water in their community.

Children who grow up without parents.

Leaders who take advantage of their people, ignoring the needs of their children.

Knowing that God's heart aches for justice.

It's so easy in experiences like this to become angry, to blame, and to disengage.

It's not that there isn't a time a place for righteous anger, a time to stand up for what is evil . . . even Jesus modeled this for us when he turned over the tables in the temple, when the rebuked the overly righteous and welcomed the untouchable.

But so often we stay in this place. We exchange hate for hate. Hurt for hurt. Rejection for rejection.

This has often been me.

But, this week through lessons from a dear teacher, I've learned again that love is the only way.

We move forward in love because as Christians it is the life that God has called us to, and nothing else.

IMG_2643This is not to say that love doesn't have boundaries.

This is not to say that love doesn't have cost.

And most certainly it doesn't mean that love doesn't hurt.

But we love anyway.

We love those who see the world in hues different from us.

We love those whose actions we deem disgraceful.

We love those whose belief systems clash against our values.

We just love.

Why? Because it is how Christ shines through us.

And though we feel vulnerable and though we may feel crazy (I mean, who really loves their enemies?), we just love.

I've been challenged by the words of Brene Brown recently who writes in her book, Daring Greatly: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love . . .  If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Vulnerability is the open door in which love has the ability to walk through.

And in vulnerability, we walk with others just as we are, even if loving is difficult for us.

We walk with others with an open heart, ready to receive whatever gifts come our way.

We walk with others not taking ourselves too seriously, remembering the One is in control most of all.

Not to sound overly clique but my word for this week is love is the only way. If you want to know the way forward in your life, start here. IMG_1471

Recently, I've found myself in circles of people where the word "prayer" is not often used in conversation. No one seems to talk much about actual talking to God or Jesus. They just promise to hold one another "in the light."

I'm not quite sure what it means other than sending good energy toward a person in a difficult or challenging situation or a desire for good things to come. And while I don't think any of us would refuse such an intention in our direction (who doesn't want a good life?), whenever I hear it I wonder where is God? What is the person hoping between me, God and my understanding of the Divine?

I believe such an intention sets up a light vs. dark dichotomy Light is good. Dark is bad.

Good happens in the day. Bad happens in the dark.

We are living close to God when we are living in the light. We are far from the presence of God when we are in the dark.

All the buzz in theological circles I run in these days is Barbara Brown Taylor's book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

(Here's my 5 second commercial: It's SO good I tell you. You. Must. Buy. It. Soon. It's a book that Christians will have in their collections for years to come because the theology is just SO good, SO fresh and SO timely for so many of us).

According to Taylor, we need not to be afraid of the dark. Dark is not the absence of God.  Think of all of the Biblical characters who encountered God at nighttime or in a cloud of smoke. Remember Abraham, Jacob and Moses?

God is not ONLY found in the light. God speaks and dwells and abides in the dark too.

So as we seek to know the Divine, the dark nights of our soul are not just annoying times to somehow "get through" but opportunities to more fully Know.

Consider these words from Chapter 2:

The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting half way where it will not interfere with one's bright fantasies of the way things ought to be. . . . Those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprise when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the splendor of God.

So, maybe there are more helpful ways to pray than holding each other in the light. Could we consider holding one another in the dark too? 

And it's true isn't it? Our lives are lived as much in the light as it is in the dark. As much as we know what we know, we also don't know a lot.

So, then to pray for another to live in the light is to keep from one another the possibly some of the best (though painful) experiences of the Divine possible on earth.

What if the next time someone comes to us in crisis we promise to sit with them in the dark?

What if we helped one another embrace the dark by reminding each other not to be afraid, to keep walking baby step by baby step even if we have no idea where they going next?

What if we prayed for the moonlight to be tender and the howls of the darkness to be full of some comfort as our night journeys tarry on?

These are the kind of prayer utterings I want around my life.

Not Pollyanna promises of all will be well. Not pep rally prayers of "cheer up sweetheart." Not even more light send my direction. I don't want that.

But if  the darkness is where I am or where I need to be then come be with me there.  Remind me that God is not absent, even when I feel that way. Hold my hand, keep showing up in body and spirit and let's navigate through this darkness together. Let me tell you want the darkness is like. Be my darkness companion.

Don't let me not miss out on the smoke, the fog, the clouds of what I could behold . . God who shows up in darkness too.

It has been almost five weeks since I've felt quite right and since I've posted any new content. If you've followed my blog for a while, you know that this isn't normal.

But, here I am on a Saturday night to say "I'm back!" And I'll tell you why I've been gone.

And no, it is not because the dog ate my homework or any excuse like that. . .

Over a month ago, I found myself in a Oklahoma hospital preparing for emergency surgery. I hadn't been feeling well for quite some time, but I seriously thought it would pass. But, after going to the doctor finally, the reason for my troubles came to the light. But I must insert here that the truth took 2 different misdiagnosis and 2 ER visits to come out.

Before surgery, there was a bit of a scare that my illness could have come from cancer: not cool! But, when the pathology report came back from the lab afterwards it was determined that my painful condition was not a long-term problem (no cancer) and the surgery had cleared me of infection. It was just a freak event. All of this was great news, but simultaneously, I faced a couple of months recovery process.

Life certainly took a different turn than I expected in August and September. And my October plans have been altered too.

When folks have heard what I've gone through I've felt a lot of pity. "Oh, my God. I'm so sorry" has been the most common response. So, I tell you all of this not to seek your pity or well wishes (honestly, I don't find comfort in a person's pity), but to focus on the positive and say that this time has been life-giving in its own way. And, I have a lot to be thankful for:

Most of all, I'm alive and don't have cancer.

Without much time to research doctors or hospitals, I felt like I got great care where I landed on August 21st. I was in good hands with the surgeon given to me.

Kevin was not out of the country when I got sick but by my side the whole way (even sleeping at the hospital on a cot for a couple of nights!). He doesn't just run a large non-profit, he's my husband and an amazing one at that!

Help came when I needed it the most: my mom flew in from Tennessee and one of my best friends flew out from several states over to Oklahoma too. They were gifts to our household especially as Kevin still had to work and I wasn't ready to be on my own.

The flowers I got from Feed The Children employees, DC friends and other folks made my hospital room and then our small apartment smell amazing. (And made the hospital staff in particular keep telling me-- you must be loved).

Dear ones became even dearer to me these past several weeks-- a friend from Africa called me every day just to talk me through the loneliness, friends from all over the country called to pray for me or let me cry when I needed to process how scary this entire ordeal was, and my one Oklahoman friend Susan brought the actual presence of joy to our apartment with her visits and often brought yummy food that Kevin enjoyed (even if I didn't feel like eating).

I even got one of those amazing Washington Plaza Baptist "get well" cards that I had signed for countless other people during the years I served as that church's pastor, but this time it was for me.

And now as I'm able to get up and move around a bit more, I'm more grateful than ever for the gift of life's simple pleasures.

Driving my car is a big accomplishment of the day, not a chore.

Being able to shower and even shave my legs (finally) by myself is a joy, not one more thing to do in the morning.

Having enough mental energy to write words on this computer screen is not mundane task, but one full of delight.

Gaining enough strength to fly on an airplane to my home in DC was not just an average day, but one to be celebrated!

Why? Because I simply could. A couple of weeks ago I could not.

Early on, I needed help brushing my hair, dressing and getting propped up in bed. I could not go to the bathroom without being watched. I could not eat food without asking permission. In all of this, I received lessons in being served by loved ones and strangers alike.

Prior of all of this, I was eating well, taking vitamins, and working out, doing all of the things a doctor says "healthy people do" and without any known medical conditions. But all of a sudden, I wasn't well. My illness came on strong. And I was out. I hardly felt like texting or talking either-- two of my favorite things.

Most of all this is what I learned: never let age keep you from being grateful for your health. This 33-year-old named Elizabeth Hagan is excited about her recovery and feeling strong again. And maybe one day I'll write more about it.

But for now, I'm going back to the couch to keep "doing my time" in recovery to be good as new soon. And when I am, certainly know I'll be even more grateful.

I grew up in the type of Christian community that would frequently say things like:

"Work on your relationship with God above all else."

And, "If you let anything come between your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is off track."

For while the intention of such teaching was probably was something like, "Make your faith life as a priority" (which is probably something that would come out of my mouth, even today) what I heard in my head as child was, "You can't have friends who you'd count closer to you than God."

As if friendship was some sort of divine vs. human competition . . .

It was as if God could not be present to us in my friends. . . .

But as much as I grew to love the divine presence in my life as teenager and college student-- sometimes Jesus' presence (in a spiritual sense) wasn't enough for me.

I needed friends. I didn't think Jesus made me to be so lonely.

I'll say it again: I needed friends. Having Jesus in my life didn't take this from me as hard as I tried to believe it would.

But, the church seemed to keep saying "Pursuing close friends would make Jesus jealous."

When I was in seminary and the relational bolts within me began to shift, I had a spiritual director who provided a light bulb moment. She kept noticing how uncomfortable I became when friends got too close to me. And she was right, I didn't like the vulnerability that it required. I was scared in fact. I thought, was I somehow cheating on Jesus if I really loved my friends? Would people really like me if they actually knew me?

But then this was the sticking point that she offered: "You can only be as close to God as you allow yourself to be to other people."

Of course this is not an "always true" statement (for there are countless faithful folks called to the ministry of monastic life or even hermit life for the reasons of prayer and un-interrupted communion with God), but I think there's great wisdom in it.

We can only be as close to God as we allow ourselves to be with other people.

There's power in community isn't there? In deep and abiding community with others the real stuff of our life comes out.

And by this I don't mean community with friends you have dinner with causally once a month or friends from the bleachers at your kids' soccer games-- I mean authentic friendship: those who know what makes you afraid, those who have seen you cry uncontrollably and vice versa, and those who can look in your eyes and know you're stewing about something even without you having to utter a word.

With people like this, there's no hiding. There's no major missing puzzle pieces as to what makes you tick held from the other. There's no shying away from the most unlikable parts of our personalities. It's really honest living for sure.

And when we get this honest-- I believe, our God who is the author of all truth shows up!

Roberta Bondi in her book, To Pray and To Love writes this: "The fulfillment of our deepest purposes and profound longs for God can never be separated from our love of God's own images among whom we live."

We learn about God, she is says, as we abide in relationship with those closest to us. In fact, we are MISSING out on parts of the personality of God when we don't get close to others.

Bondi even goes as far to write that the lack of intimacy many of us have in prayer occurs because we've never really learned how to talk openly and honestly to others. If we can't talk honestly with another human being, how could we talk honestly with God?

Bottom line is this: one of the most spiritual acts you and I could pursue right now and in the weeks to come is deepening our friendships. It might be the single greatest thing we could do to learn how to be closer to God.

It has taken me many years to shake off the baggage of my childhood in this regard. But I'm so glad I'm in the process of re-wiring all of this within me.

In friendship we both get to learn about and practice what it means to abide in God's love. So anybody got a friend they need to call today? Or meet for lunch soon? I know I do.

image copyYou are never too old it seems to go to youth camp.

. . . even when you are not a youth minister bringing kids to camp.

. . . even if you're not a pastor of a particular church.

. . . even if you haven't sung a praise song on a screen in years.

. . . even when your cabin for the week is nowhere near the bathhouse and you aren't sure you are going to find it with ease in the middle of the night.

If you are a friend of Son Servants, the mission wing of Youth Conference Ministries, you are always welcomed. You are never too old to serve alongside them as I did in Chattanooga last week.

I came without a defined role-- other than the unofficial camp pastor. Soon I began to call myself captain of all things miscellaneous.

In this, I led a few devotions for the adult leaders and taught a group Bible Study at one of the mission sites last Tuesday. But other than this, I moved coolers. I washed tables. I went on errands. I supervised middle school kids cleaning bathrooms.

I struggled at first-- saying to myself, "I'm too old for this" and "What am I doing here? I could be doing something that uses some of my better skills..."

But the more I got into the daily rhythms of last week, the more I realized youth camp for this pastor in transition was a wonderful place to be.

image copy 2I began to marvel at the joy and enthusiasm of the 19-year-old summer staff for their work (thinking, wow, I'm old! I used to be them!)-- their presence reminded me to not take life so seriously as I naturally do.

I got to learn new worship songs-- songs that I'd never sung before all part of a particular culture of church ministry I'd maybe long written off, but still has much to teach the Church as a whole.

I got to live the Son Servants mentality: "To love is to serve" as there was never a task too dirty that ANY of us would not be asked to do (cleaning toilets was a daily part of my job)-- and I loved it strangely. Work of the hands is good for the soul!

I got to spend quality time with a dear friend, entering into the deep waters of life that only experiences like going to Sam's and Sam's again and again can provide you.

After a couple of days, my frustrations of "What am I doing here?" were turned into exclamations of thanksgiving for being in such a place of love and acceptance-- something I've really missed in our family's transitional life for the past six months.

I'm so glad my life schedule allowed me to say "Yes!" to this opportunity to go back to youth camp last week.

image copy 3I'm so glad I received the challenge of being pushed in my life toward new patterns of eating, work and prayer.

I'm so glad to have been wrapped up in the blanket of Christian community that only a camp setting like this can provide-- if even for only 8 short days.

I AM SO GLAD that in my life that God's gracious leading is often about circles. Circles that take me back to physical places and emotional spaces where I still have more to learn-- even if I could boast saying "I'd been there and done that. . . " Nope (not true!) in fact, I still have so much to learn!

You're never too old for youth camp if you are a part of the Son Servants family and I'm very proud to have been welcomed by them again last week.

Today I'm still thinking a lot about what it means to wait . . .

My friend Sarah and I were catching up the other day on the phone. We’d hadn’t talked to each other in months so we quickly got down to the essence of what is going on in the ups and downs of our lives (I love these kinds of chats). In catching up I realized that we’re both waiting in different seasons of life for what is not yet and what we don’t know. While it was nice to make this connection that we're in a similar place, it's really not a fun state to be in at all.

For all of us who are waiting for something, we know how this feels.

The frustration of waiting can easily turn to anger, despair and life crippling anxiety.

When we wait, we can feel stuck.

When we wait, we can easily feel forgotten.

When we wait, we can feel like God is not close, but very far away.

A long term season of waiting can often turn us inward to the point that we think we’re the only person on the planet that has every waited for x.

But, we aren’t. We know this of course, but accepting it in our hearts is altogether different matter.

Yet, ultimately, waiting and hoping and not knowing in our waiting is a part of what it means to be human.

Nothing ever happens instantaneously. Often nothing good in our life comes without pain. Suffering through waiting finds us all.

We are not ever as alone as we feel.

Waiting in fact, can be a spiritual discipline that has the power to re-focus us on life-giving practices that sustain.

Waiting can turn our spirits toward other wait-ers—those who we might not otherwise encounter so deeply.

Waiting can humble the hardest places in us, even the place we didn’t think were hard at all.

Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that waiting is hard, hard work. It takes faith—faith like none other to sustain your spirit in a time like this. It takes sticking with yourself, even on the days when you think you can’t make it one more day. It takes trust: that the bigger picture is indeed worth the ride.

To my fellow wait-ers out there—whatever it is you are waiting for—know that you have a friend in me. This is the best gift I can give today.

I’m waiting with you, as I know through your reading of this post, you are waiting with me.

I hear your pain. Your struggle. Your longings. Your cries.

I know that sometimes there’s no other way to put it than to say that waiting sucks.

But, in community may we keep the faith. May we not loose heart. May we hold each other accountable to keep on waiting as the Hebrews writer spoke of faith: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."

I hear it from clergy all the time: it's hard to worship when you are leading others.

One of the joys of my Sabbatical time so far has been the opportunity to visit to other churches and consider again what church means to me as a participating worshipper.

But learning how to be a worshipper is harder than it might seem.

On this past Sunday morning I found myself at a big steeple church with a friend in my hometown in Tennessee. It was her home church and for this reason I was glad to go alongside.

But, when we pulled up to the congregation sometimes known in the community as "fortress," I was a little afraid.

And rightfully so. I was back in church compound land. Such a big model of doing ministry is not what I believe the church is nor is how I've I practiced it in years.

Was I going to have to make small church talk with strangers around the coffee pot before church? Was I going to have to sit in a classroom circle staring at other well-dressed folks who appeared to be more excited about study than they actually were? Was I going to want to pull my hair out at the fluffy theology coming forth from the lips of leaders? None of these are my favorite things, as you might imagine.

Furthermore, fear came up in me because I'm not a fan of churches without a lot of racial diversity. (We need our churches to LOOK like the Body of Christ.) I'm not a fan of churches that don't include voices of the poor (I mean, what is a good service without a distraction from a homeless person coming in?). And, I know a church is not for me if the American and Christian flag are proudly displayed in the sanctuary (Can I say idolatry of nationalism has no place in God's house?). Most of all, I want to know that when a church says, "We welcome all" they really mean it. I want to know that a church's doctrine doesn't hurt people.

But, then we arrived. Ready or not, I went.

Getting out of our car, I gazed up at a large dark stoned building that takes up several blocks in the neighborhood. It almost felt like something out of one of the Harry Potter movies as I walked through wood carved archways inside to get take a flight of stairs down to a well-kept Sunday School classroom. Asking questions on the way in, I learned that the membership is mostly made up of those who would be named as upper middle to upper class folks-- at least 2,000 in worship on Sunday. And most of it members are white-- even though some of the young families have adopted church from other countries. And there is one paid African-American soloist in the choir. Need I say more?

I could have easily spent the next two hours rolling my eyes and thinking "better than" thoughts in my head.

But, I have to confess-- I was wonderfully surprised.

Walking into Sunday School-- a room filled with well-dressed, well-to-do looking folks, about 20 of them in all, with a woman in a black sweater, red beaded necklace, pencil length grey skirt, and black boots standing behind a pulpit on a desk, I found an open mind. We sat in rows not a circle. And then, what came forth from this teacher's mouth was well-prepared, engaging truth from the Word.

I almost had tears well up in my eyes at several points as we discussed the passage from John 5 about the man whom Jesus asked, "Do you want to get well?" (Have there been spaces in my life the past six years when someone has taught me on a regular basis? No. Man, this has got to change, I thought. ) As I continued to listen, the teacher read commentaries from some of my favorite Biblical scholars, one in which I'd even known in seminary. The class members shared a richer theological discussed than I'd experienced in such a church in years. I found myself saying in the midst of the discussion, "I guess this is why people actually come to church-- they're hungry too to learn about their relationship with Christ." Because I did. I left refreshed.

Later in the service of worship, though the number of white faces were many and the flags hung beside the steps up to the altar, I tried again to not be so snobby. And, tears found me again. We sang robustly the great hymns of faith with the kind of full voices only a full sanctuary with pipe organ can. I found beauty in the liturgy of the prayers. The choir proclaimed a sacred piece that stilled any unsettling in me. The preacher, though an older white man, read and proclaimed the Word with jewels of encouragement. And, throughout the service, I felt the warmth of those around me-- many of whom I'd met before while visiting once before-- folks who remembered me, asked genuine questions, and talked to me about their prayer life.

I left with a conviction of my heart. One I'd been thinking about for a long while-- we've got to be less judgmental of each other in the Church. Pastors like me need to stop being church snobs. The Spirit of the Lord is not always in the places we expect. God's presence is in all black churches and all white churches and rich churches and poor churches. Church doesn't always have to be just the way we like it for worship to happen. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

I know this again full well.

Does the church still need prophets? Does the church need voiced raised that say, "Stop building altars to yourself and start serving?" Does the church need radical changes in its institutional life so that it can look more like the radical message of Jesus? Does the church need more integration and more theologically sound teachers? Sure it does. It really, really really it does.

But, in the meantime, can the church be the place where God's presence dwells, where lives are transformed and where individual faith can be nourished? To all of this, I say yes.

I confess, I've been judgmental a long time. This Sabbatical time is asking this ugliness in me to change. And, most of all this Sabbath is asking me to worship from the pews. And most of all to listen.

Advent 1: Jeremiah 33:14-16

stores-open-at-christmas-eveI’m proud of you for being in church today for the season of busyness is upon us. No longer in the causal days of fall activities, and not yet to the Sunday before Christmas (where everyone seems to feel the call stronger to go to church).  Seemingly it feels like a not-so special day. But, it is in this post-Thanksgiving, early December date that the excitement of the Advent season begins, the four Sundays on the liturgical calendar of the church where we stop and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.  This year, we are approaching Advent together as we “Wait With . . .”

Many of us have the “hurry up” part down. Maybe not the waiting . . .

We know how to get things done.

Many of us braved the crowds this weekend and headed to the malls to get the first or second round of our Christmas shopping completed like Kevin and I did. Oh, what insanity.

Many of us took that climb into the attic or on the top shelf in our garage to get our Christmas decorations down and have our house look like a disaster zone for many hours until it all started to come into order.

And, then some of us timed ourselves to see how many Christmas cards we could write before we knew the responsibilities of life and work got to us again this coming week filling our kitchen tables with stamps, address labels and cards galore. There always seems to be something to do this time of year.

But, wait?  That’s what we are talking about today?

This is not just our forte. By nature we are an impatient people. We like to have things OUR way, when WE want it, don’t we?

When will the train come? How long will this grocery line take? How many more miles till we get there?  When will my life get better? When will my husband or wife change? When will I get everything out of life that I wished for?

However, my desire for this Advent season both through the Sunday worship services and the Wednesday night worship services that you and I have the ability to redefine what it means for us to wait for Christmas.  And this year instead of focusing on the typical Advent words like hope, joy, peace and love—we’re going to stick with what it means to wait with others.

We’ll wait together for Christmas to come as part of our spiritual discipline of worship. We’ll hope to see this waiting period not as wasted time or meaningless time. We’ll hope to see this Advent not as punishment . .. “Can’t it just be Christmas already?” We hope this waiting period becomes an opportunity to feel in our bones the urgency of the season, urgency to position our lives through a posture of waiting to receive the love that is ours to have in the kingdom of Christ.

Today, as we begin, the exhortation scripture leads us to begin with is to wait with the prophets, in particular the prophet, Jeremiah.

Who is Jeremiah?

Jeremiah is known in Biblical history as the weeping prophet, an emotionally charged, unlikely spokesman who was called to ministry about one year after King Josiah of Judah began making his reforms in the temple—a key moment in the history of the nation.

I say an unlikely spokesman because Jeremiah was the least likely kind of guy to expect himself called to God’s service.

If you think throughout scripture, all the great leaders or prophets made excuses to God when they were called, some were too young, some were too old, some said they simply didn’t know how to lead. And the same was true of Jeremiah.

He told the LORD that he did not know how to speak, for he was only a child. But, scripture tells us that all of this changed when the LORD reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth reminding him that he put words in his month. There would be no excuses; Jeremiah was equipped for all that was to come.

And spoke Jeremiah did, calling the people of Israel to a life that pleased God.

For the next 40 years he served as God’s spokesman—though when he spoke, as it common with those with spiritual gifts of discernment and prophecy, few listened.  But he kept on keeping on.

One chapter prior to our text’s opening for today; we hear the banner statement over and over again throughout the book, saying "the word of the Lord came toJeremiah_by_Michelangelo Jeremiah."

And this was the context: corruption of the kings of Judah went from ok to worse after its good king Josiah. God allowed invaders to come in the country.  The fall was upon them.

So at this present time, already hundreds of Jerusalem’s residents had been forced by Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar into exile. Soon others would be forced to go as well as Babylon was growing stronger by the day.

We know that it was the 10th year of Zedekiah’s reign, another one of Judah’s kings known for his corruption. Though King Zedekiah had struck a deal with Egypt to hold off Babylon a little bit longer in the previous chapters, thinking he’d provided for himself the security he craved, this too would soon fail.

Above all, it’s a storm of confusion all around as they refused to listen to God.   However, the worst had not happened yet, but any person with common sense could see that hardships were even going increase.

But to everyone’s surprise: this is not the time when the weeping prophet wept.  Oh, to the contrary, at this seemingly impossible juncture, Jeremiah gives a word of hope.

Look with me again at verse 14:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness the land.”

It’s a promise. It’s a word of restoration. It’s word of the Lord that focuses their attention on their past and not just present that can have redemptive qualities, but on their future.

Seems strange, though, because the people were in mourning. Grief broke out across the land. They were grieving about what could have been. Grief about what will never be. In particular, this grief had everything to do with the loss of David’s dynasty, the history of this family generation after generations leading the people. They were sad to now be even smaller and less significant than they were before. But, to this grief, Jeremiah says, “Don’t call this a tragedy just quite yet.”

Why? Because a “righteous branch” is going to spring forth from David’s line.

If we read this as and Messiah prophetic text (i.e. pointing our attention to Jesus), we see that the one would later be born in David’s city, Bethlehem with Joseph as his father (from the house and lineage of David), then the prophecy came to be. Of course, it didn’t come as the people expected. It didn’t come in the lifetimes of the people who heard this word first. But it did speak for a God who would go with the people through the rocky places of their journey as individual and as a nation and never leave them without hope.

It is true that some prophetic words are harsh throughout scripture, or seem harsh to our ears, but ultimately HOPE is the real motive behind any true prophet’s message. Prophecy is a loving gift of the spirit enabling us who are walking in the darkness of life to see light at the end of the tunnel.

And our exhortation this morning is to wait with prophets like Jeremiah and all the other prophets of our day and time. To wait with expectant ears around those of us whose giftedness is to hear God’s call and then share it with us.  To wait in the coming month in celebration of this righteous branch being born! The fulfillment of the great joy!

We don’t talk a lot about waiting with prophets or even the modern expression of prophecy very much in church because when we simply say the word, prophet, we’re afraid. We’re afraid because of all of the negative experiences we’ve had with folks in our world claiming to know God’s plans, only to have their predictions fall on their face.  We’re afraid of the Kool-Aid, literally.

But what a shame this is. For I believe the false prophets among us have destroyed the good reputation of what is most needed in our time, those who are willing to tell us the truth. Those who are willing to look at what seems like a “bad situation” and give us hope, just as Jeremiah did with Israel.

Have you ever experienced a person with prophetic gifts? And by this I mean a person who told you the truth—not just in every day conversation, but truth-telling at a deeper level, truth-telling that cut to the heart of a situation you sought to hide or ignore?

We love to speak ill of prophetic types (as much as we like them) because it is true their role is to tell us what we don’t want to hear.  Or simply stated, prophetic types can be annoying. They are really good at cramping our style.

In college I had a friend full of these kinds of gifts, prophetic ones. She was a dear to me, however, I didn’t have thick enough skin for her honesty quiet yet. But I would have much to learn.

One afternoon in the middle of my junior first semester, well into the bulk of my education certification coursework, I sat in our shared apartment with this friend. I was practicing my handwriting for my cursive writing class and next up was cutting out letters for my bulletin board making assignment. And this friend took one look at me and the pile of art supplies around me and said, “You’ve got to get out of that major. You’ve got bigger things to do in the world than displaying good handwriting or pretty bulletin boards.”

It was hard to hear of course—I’d planned my whole life around being a teacher and to drop the major mid-way seemed like career suicide.  And not that there is anything wrong with being an elementary teacher, but it wasn’t me.

But, I knew she was right.  I needed her to tell me the truth. I needed to get off the couch and think about going to seminary. And you need those people in your life too.

Where would I be today without that friend? I can imagine, you’ve had prophetic voices that have guided you, re-directed you and  lovingly told you to listen to God afresh also. And without them, you wouldn’t be here today either.

What a great reminder, then this week of Advent is for us to wait with the prophets among us.  To give thanks for Jeremiah, his voice, his passion, his word of hope that we get to see fulfilled on Christmas Eve. And for us, to know that God’s word is alive and well and there are spoke people, given as gifts of grace that help us find our way. Because ultimately what Advent is all about is making more room for God in our lives. And, without prophets we might not know where to start cleaning out the spiritual closets weighing us down.

And, an opportunity to know God is here today—here at this table—ready for us to receive what was broken for us, not just for the sake of being broken, but broken so that God’s light might shine in us and in our dark, dark world. Let us gather and shift our hearts to taste and see that God is good beginning. Let us wait for this prophetic word which is the living bread given for us. Let us eat together in expectation of a God who always gives us hope and never leaves us alone.

AMEN