Thursday, April 30, 2015

Here's to the Girls

As soon as they announced that my 20th high school reunion would be a "girls night out," I told Justin he was off the hook and made plans to travel all by my lonesome to Chattanooga. I knew it would be a great night because what happens when a bunch of pushing-forty-women get together without men or kids or any other distractions?  We become girls again! We laughed and talked and cried and remembered all the years we spent racing head first and oh-so recklessly towards adulthood together.

Fact: Everyone looked the same and none of us are getting old. 

"Remember when we...?"


"Did we really do that?!"

"Did we really wear that? (Socks and Birkenstocks!?)"

I've worked very hard to dig deeper into God's grace over the last few years. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I've begun to see that God's love is not an abstract idea but a real, tangible, sweet and overwhelming thing - like oxygen and water and light and all the things we simply can't live without. I finally really get what Paul meant when he said, "In Him we live and move and have our being."

But that is now. What about then? Was God looking at me with the same love-filled gaze back then? God loves me now but did God love her, the girl I used to be? The awkward girl? The headstrong and stubborn girl? The girl with a long list of mistakes just waiting for her around the corner? The girl I tried to pretend I never was?

Every time I saw that girl looking back at me in yearbooks and photographs over the last twenty years my instinct has been to look away.  But this weekend I decided to do something different and for once, I let myself just love her.  No judgements, no embarrassment, no regrets. I saw her as the beloved girl she was and is. I saw the Grace. Grace that watched her to make bad choice after bad choice but still led her to a life with more beauty and love than she could have ever imagined. Grace that turned her broken heart into a heart overflowing with joy. Grace that took her weaknesses and grew strength.

I realized on my long drive to Tennessee this  weekend that I can't accept God's love for me now if I don't believe God loved me then. I can't see my beauty today if I don't see the same beauty God saw in me then.

When we say God's love is eternal, it means it is without beginning and without ending, the same yesterday and today. That means God loved me when I was a mess. When I wore Birkenstocks and socks and thought true love could be expressed in a mixed tape, God smiled and kept loving. When I was that girl who felt painfully out of place, God offered an abundance of grace that I could not see then but is overwhelmingly clear to me now.

So here's to the girls- the girls we were and the girls we will aways be. Ladies, may you each discover what I believe to be true: all these years God has been gazing on us with a lot of love and maybe a little amusement, (because, well, Birkenstocks and socks.) Throughout all these years that steadfast gaze of love did not waver with our failed marriages, failed pregnancies, failed careers, or our failed attempts to outrun the past. Because, to quote Fr. Gregory Boyle, "God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval."  Thank you for helping me remember this truth.  Let's not wait another twenty years to be those sweet, amazing girls again.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pulled Pork and Holy Conversations

I asked him if it was very hard to travel away from his monastic community in France.  “Do you experience culture shock when you visit America?”  Brother Emmanuel smiled and said, “I’ve learned how to adjust but I stayed in TaizĂ© for twenty-two years before I ever traveled anywhere alone.  The first time I was asked to go on a trip by myself I refused.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to renew my love relationship with God each day.  Every day I fall in love with God again and renew the commitment I’ve made.  How would I be able to do that away from the order and silence of our community?  I soon realized that one minute with God on a subway and another minute with God in an elevator can add up to many minutes with God throughout the day.  This is how I stay in love with God when I travel.” 

We were standing in line waiting for barbeque and I had asked a simple polite question to pass the time.   I wasn't expecting to dive right into deep conversation because, well, we were waiting for barbeque. 

You mean that every day you fall in love with God all over again?  Every day you renew your vows?  Not once a year or once a week?  Every day? 

I told him that it was hard for me to find time to be alone with God.  I try to get up early in the morning before my husband and children start their days.  I love those times when the house is quiet and I drink my coffee, read scripture, and talk to God.  But I don’t get up every morning.  Sometimes I just press snooze.  Falling in love with God every day just doesn’t seem possible when you have three kids and a job and you know, all those things to do.

“You can learn to love God well while you practice loving your children and your husband and everyone else you meet each day.  God is in them and God is in you and you learn to love God by loving God’s beloved children.  Loving God also helps you love your children.  It goes both ways.”

That is what he said while we filled our plates with potato salad and coleslaw. 

Isn’t this how the Spirit works?  You jump in line for barbeque and the next thing you know God is pounding on your heart saying, “Did you hear that?! Love them well and you love me well!!” 

 We can’t separate the mundane from the holy.  Simple tasks like sharing meals with strangers can be the very thing that brings us closer to God.  You really never know when God might show up and stop you in your tracks.  I thought I was just going to have dinner at a friend’s house with a few of the TaizĂ© Brothers who were visiting Shenandoah this week.  I didn’t know I was going to have big important life altering things dropped into my heart while I waited for pulled pork.  And all the saints said, "Thank you, God, for barbeque."

Oh, and Saturday I had the best conversation with Shane Claiborne at my kitchen table over pancakes and orange juice about the death penalty and Christians standing up for justice.  I think that holy conversations often surprise us in their ordinary surroundings.

My crew with Brothers John, Emile, and Emmanuel

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Praying Mama's Manifesto

Should I have let her watch that movie? What do I do when she wants to start going on dates or wearing makeup to school? 

Are all these Johnny Cash songs he's obsessed with going to turn him into a whiskey drinking shoe shine boy who thinks its ok to shoot a man in Reno just to watch them die?  

How will they handle the first offer to have a drink, take a puff, or God forbid, to try just one small hit off a needle?

What will they say the first time they hear, "Church is just a place for judgmental hypocrites!" or better yet, what will they do when they realize that the church really is a place for hypocrites. When they figure out that hypocrites, thieves, and child molesters are all sitting near them in the pews. Will they walk away from her in disgust? Will they say, "What's the point? I'm done with church!"  

What happens when they start to think that God is not listening? 

Will they decide that the cosmos is too big for God? Will they believe the lie that it's either Darwin or Genesis, but not both?

What if they watch someone they love suffer and die?

What if one of them suffers? or dies?

These are the questions I have asked God at least a million times. These are the worries that fight for a front row seat in my mind almost every day.  

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible about a Shunammite woman who is faithful to God and shows kindness to the prophet Elisha.  Elisha tells the woman that as a reward for her faithfulness, she will give birth to a son. One day, her God-given son becomes ill and dies suddenly. Instead of falling into a pit of despair, this woman gets on a donkey and goes to find Elisha.  When Elisha offers to send his servant to try to heal her already dead son, the scripture says she "grabbed Elisha by the feet" and demanded he go to her son himself. So Elisha goes to her house, lays on top of her son's dead body "his mouth on the boy's mouth, eyes on his eyes, hands on his hands " and prays for God to raise the boy back to life. My favorite part of this story is that the Bible says "the boy sneezed seven times and then opened his eyes."

When the Shunammite woman grabbed hold of Elisha's feet, she was saying to God, "I will not let go until you deliver my child from death. You aren't getting rid of me without answering my prayer."  I believe this woman  is every mother who has ever prayed to God, "Deliver my child from..." (you fill in the blank).  

She is me when I fall on my knees early in the morning before my little ones start their day and plead to Jesus, "Just watch over them today. Be with them wherever they go. Protect what they hear, what they see, and what they do."  

She is my mother who certainly prayed me through my teen years and beyond. 

She is my grandmother who could be found at any hour of the day or night calling loudly for God to deliver someone's child from some type of sickness, addiction, or sin. 

She is you when you cry out to heaven for your own child to be healed, protected, or just brought home.   

When mothers pray, we are grabbing hold of Jesus' feet and refusing to let go. 

But this is a hard and painful truth-
If the only thing we do is pray God's protection over our children, we are falling short by a mile and then some.  

"The women were frightened and yet very happy,  
as they hurried from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples.  
Suddenly Jesus met them and greeted them. 

They went near him, held on to his feet, and worshiped him.  

Matthew 28: 8-10

The first people to witness the risen Christ were women. What did they do? They fell down and grabbed hold of his feet! They would not let go of Jesus until they had a chance to worship him.  These were the women who had likely washed his feet every day as they waited on Jesus and the other disciples. His feet were as familiar to them as my children's feet are to me. I wonder if they were trying to make sure he was not an apparition but was truly alive again, flesh and blood, dusty feet and all.  

When we pray, we are also the women who first saw the resurrected Christ. We hold onto his feet as if to say, "I will not let you go until I have worshipped you. I will hold onto your dusty feet until I know that I know that I know that you are alive again." 

Here is where my heart has been sitting these last few weeks.  I wrestle with the instinct to shelter my children from every bad thing that's out there while at the same time knowing that the world will catch up to them eventually.  What most parents don't realize is that their children need Jesus, not Christian values.  They need to know God, not rules.  When we focus all of our energy on teaching our children to "guard their hearts" are we sending them a message that says "don't wander too far, you might not make it back."  Instead shouldn't we be telling them, "You are the lost sheep that God will always go find. There is no place you can go, no mistake you can make that is too much for God's grace."

If there is one thing I am sure of as a mother, it is this: all of creation is broken and marred by sin and no matter what I do and how hard I try, my children are also part of this broken messed up world. They will know sin and death and suffering and there is nothing I can do to stop it. They will doubt and question and will likely even turn away from God for a season. Most of us have and I don't expect my children to be a any different.  This realization, that my mistakes are there just waiting to be made by them, is what sends me to my knees in prayer more often than not. 

How should I pray for them? Do I plead for my children or praise God for the hope that is theirs in Christ?

The cross, the tomb, the resurrection and the forgiveness of sins were for their sins, too. My children are part of God's redemption story, too. 

Is my sheltering really just doubt in disguise? Doubt that God can redeem my children without my help? Doubt that God can do for them what was done for me?

The truth is that God will redeem them in spite of all my best efforts. 

Mothers, this is what I believe:  When we pray for our children, we have to use both hands. With one hand, like the Shunamitte woman, we must grab hold of Jesus' feet and plead deliverance for our children.  But with the other hand we must hold onto the feet of our resurrected Lord, and rejoice that death, even our children's death, has been defeated.  This is the already-but-not-yet thing we do for our children. We fall prostrate before the Lord, day in and day out. We lift our children up in prayer and praise God that their redemption story has already been written, even if we don't know the ending.  We do all of this as we hold on tight to the feet of Jesus with both hands.

With both hands, we petition and we praise. We hold on tight and we know that there is no letting go until our daughters or our sons are sitting there beside us, holding fast to His feet, too. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

For My Fellow Pharisees

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 
“Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’  
 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”   
-Luke 18:9-14

This upcoming week we are going to celebrate some big days in the Christian calendar. On Friday, we will remember the day that God hung on a cross, when God suffered, and when God died. Two days later, we will sing songs of resurrection, songs of new life, and songs of triumph. Mixed within these narratives are stories of people who got it all wrong. The disciples thought Jesus was going to be a triumphant messiah, leading Israel into an era of political power. The Jewish leaders thought Jesus was a heretic, and that killing him would end his dangerous and subversive message of mercy. The Roman leaders thought Jesus was an unimportant nuisance, and why did it matter if an innocent man was crucified?

Lots of people who knew Jesus got it wrong, not just a little wrong, they missed the mark by a mile. Even after Jesus was resurrected, his earliest followers thought he would return any day. “He’s coming soon!” and “Be ready for Christ’s return, it could happen at any time!” are messages scattered throughout the New Testament. In the beginning, Christians thought and lived their lives as if Jesus would be back any day, ready to bring about a new order to creation.

I think we forget that this was the message of the early Christian church. We either forget, or we pretend it doesn’t matter that the primary belief of most of the first Christians, that Jesus was returning imminently, simply ended up being not true.

We don’t want to think about the first Christians being wrong because that inevitably leads to the next question…what if we’re wrong, too?

When it comes to our belief systems, there is a lot of room for error. Any Christian who tells you that their theology is 100% correct, is 100% wrong. Since the beginning of time, we have all been muddling our way through this complex Divine-Human relationship. We have all been getting it at least a little wrong. Abraham got it wrong when he believed he needed Hagar, not Sarah, to fulfill God’s promises. David got it wrong so many times it's hard to pick just one. Peter got it wrong on land and on sea. Mary got it wrong over something as silly as wine at a wedding… you see where I am going with this? We are humans and limited and flawed and we see dimly with eyes that are broken by sin. Yet God kept reaching. God kept using all of those imperfect people to speak words of truth.

The first time I went to seminary, I was terrified of learning the wrong things. I was literally afraid that I would be taught to believe something that would somehow move me further away from God. I had to think the right things about salvation, grace, creation, and sin or else I would not be in the group of God’s favored right thinking Christians. I seriously believed that thinking the wrong thing about God, having the wrong theology, would push me away from heaven.

Then I became a doctor. I watched people die. I held their hands as they took their last breath. I saw brave warriors fight addiction. I heard women weep because they knew they were about to give birth to another child that they could not afford to raise. My heart broke as young girls told me stories about years of abuse and rape. I met a thirteen year-old girl who was incarcerated because she had figured out how to pimp out all the younger girls in her neighborhood. I watched an eleven year old boy whose body was ravaged by cancer tell his family, “You need to pray now, something is happening,” just seconds before he took his last breath.

A lot of doctors lose their faith. It is easy to think that God cannot exist when you are surrounded by nothing but suffering and death. People think that doctors lose their faith because they are intoxicated by their own power over life and death. If anything, the opposite is true. Our powerlessness to save lives leads to hopelessness and doubt that a good God could ever exist. Doctors live in the vortex of every theodicy question ever raised.

I think, though, that what saved my faith was realizing that I never had all the right answers in the first place and I never will. I accepted that I wasn’t going to get it all right. I embraced the God who dwells in mystery and chaos and is eternally unknowable. I learned the lessons of Job and heard God say, “Were you there, in the beginning, when the morning stars sang and the angels danced with joy?” The God of the Universe doesn’t need defending or explaining by anyone, least of all me.

I stopped being afraid of thinking the wrong things and decided to believe in a God who loves us anyways. I placed my faith in a God who suffers for us and with us and decided that everything, everything hinges on a cross and an empty tomb.

“But God demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

That is where my life begins and ends. Everything else can sort itself out.

Human beings are by nature crusaders for a cause. For millennia we have fought and died for ideas. Freedom, power, faith, …the list goes on and on. It is easy to get caught up in a movement for or against something. We like to define ourselves by the things we support and the things we oppose. `

Are you pro-life or pro-choice?

Pro-Israel or Pro-Palestine?

Pro-welfare or pro-go-out-and-get-a-job?

Pro-LGBT rights or pro-traditional-marriage?

Pro-vaccine or pro-babies-getting-deadly-diseases?

It is easy to jump onto a cause that we believe in and let it define who we are. We find people who agree with us and they become our tribe of believers while those who disagree with us become our enemies. Us against them. Always, us against them. The real inconvenient truth is that Jesus said we have to love our enemies. The only way to love your enemy is to admit that you may be wrong and they may be right. Otherwise you are just patronizing your enemy and condescendingly offering them your friendship. You are not really loving them.

I have to remind myself of this over and over again. It is easy to feel moral justification for the stands we take against all the wrong we see in the world. It is easy to think that our theology has to be correct in order to gain God’s approval and therefore I am going to heaven and they are not because I think correctly about this and they do not.

That is when you might as well tattoo a big sign on your forehead that says, “I’m a Pharisee.”

I looked into the mirror of my heart recently and saw that sign. I saw my pride and the judgment I place on those who are different, mostly those who think differently than me.   I literally sat at the breakfast table in front of my kids and cried during our morning devotions when I realized, “I’m not the tax collector in this story. I’m the Pharisee.”  The truth is, those of use who preach "mercy over sacrifice" are often the most unmerciful of all, looking down on those we deem too judgmental and close minded and priding ourselves in our own inclusivity.

Hello, my name is Alethea, and I am a Pharisee.

I struggled for a long time with the irony of it all, with realizing that I was back where I started years ago- placing moral value on thinking the correct things.  Only this time,  I wasn't thinking "What if I'm wrong?"  I was thinking, "I'm glad I'm not wrong."  The big question is, once you realize your own pharisee-ness, how do you stop?  How does a pharisee become a tax collector?

Then I remembered the God of chaos. The God who hovered over the deep and spoke the world into existence. I stepped back into the place of uncertainty and realized that being unsure is not the same thing as lack of faith. We all miss the mark by a mile. We all have no idea what we are talking about. Even me with all my platitudes.

Lord have mercy on me, a sinner, who just keeps getting things wrong.

Abraham was wrong about a lot of things, but he still believed that God’s promises are true. Moses was wrong many times, but he still followed God’s call into the wilderness. Mary missed the point sometimes, but she still said, “Here I am.”

This is the week where we, the Church, get to be all on the same side.  This is the week when it doesn’t matter what side of “pro-“ you land on. This week, the Church gets to stand together as one and declare to the world, “Look at the cross! Look at the stone that was rolled away! Look and see what God’s love for you looks like!”   We get to all be truth speakers. This week, as we celebrate a cross and an empty tomb, there is grace for us all, even the Pharisee in me.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

For Living Stones- both big and small

“Do you want to go to Israel with me in the spring?”

I looked at my mom like she was crazy.  I couldn’t go to Israel in the spring.  We were getting ready to bring home Carter.  I had spent the last year walking in the direction of that little boy in China.  How could I plan to just go off on a trip to another country just ten months after we brought him home?  Besides, if I went anywhere it would be back to Brazil and the people of the Amazon.  My last trip there had changed my heart so much and I really wanted to be on this year’s boat with the Shenandoah nursing students.

Fast-forward several months.  We were home with Carter and he is amazing and our life with him is blessed more than we ever expected.  I decided things were going well enough to do something completely extravagant and selfish and take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity to travel with my mother in the Holy Land.  I thought it would be a fun, relaxing chance to have quality time with my mom, the woman I admire most in the world.

Boy was I wrong.  This trip was fun but it was anything but relaxing.  I did not know that I was essentially tagging along on a trip planned by Lynne Hybels and Shauna Niequist for women much more important and accomplished than myself.  Women who are real writers and real bloggers and have ministries and fans and literally hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers.  I suppose it is a good thing I didn’t know, or I would have never gotten on the plane.

So there I was, on a bus traveling around Israel with amazing women learning about a land whose stories and problems are heartbreaking and unsolvable.  All day, every day, our fearless leader, Todd Deatherage from the Telos Group took us to meet people with unbelievable stories to tell.  Stories about displacement, conflict, hurt, loss, and grief.  Stories about forgiveness, friendship, hope, and reconciliation.  We met Israelis.  We met Palestinians.  We met Jews.  We met Muslims.  We met Christians.  Each person we met has lost something or someone in the wars that have ravaged their land over the years.

"We Refuse To Be Enemies" sign at entrance to the Tent of Nations

I began to feel small.  Tiny and cosmically inconsequential.  What do I, a mom and a  small town doctor, have to offer this issue?  I have no political clout.  I have no cultural influence.  My Instagram followers are mostly a bunch of Camdyn’s middle school friends.  I wondered why I was even on the trip in the first place.  Why wasn’t I getting on that boat in the Amazon?  At least there I would have a role that mattered and there would be a purpose to my presence.

Bethlehem where we met with the amazing Sami Awad

Here is the entry point of grace in this story: it just so happened that while I was waiting to board my plane for Israel, I read this scripture from the Lenten lectionary:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
 has become the most important one;
this is what the Lord has done,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
Matthew 21:42

We like to call Jesus a carpenter, but the Greek word used to describe him, tekton, really translates as craftsman.  He built things.  Most of what was built during the first century was made from stone.  Walls made from ancient, well-hued stones that were expertly selected and put together by master craftsmen are still standing today.  I saw many of them on this trip.  I placed my hands on the remnants of the Temple, what some call the “Wailing Wall,” and thought about those stones.  Perfect. Strong.  Huge. Used for something Important.  Jesus himself would have chosen such stones for the cornerstone of the buildings he built.  He would have inspected them for cracks, looked closely for flaws, and cast aside the stones unfit for building.  He knew the value of symmetry and power.

Jesus also knew that he, himself, would be measured and would be declared unworthy by his own people.  Jesus, the craftsman, knew he would be the rejected stone.  The perfect stone would be cast aside and proclaimed weak, flawed,….unimportant.   Yet Jesus chose to become one of us, one of the broken and rejected stones.

Looking out to the Sea of Galilee from the ruins of the ancient synagogue in Capernaum

This verse went round and round in my head during our trip.  Over and over again it would come to mind.  I think God was showing me that in many ways peace has already arrived among the living stones of the Holy Land.  It’s like he was whispering to my heart,  “Look! Look at what I am doing here.  Grace is abundant in the land.”  I began to see that it’s the women who are slowly but surely changing things.  The women who are tired of fighting, tired of burying their children, and tired of waiting for someone else to find the path to peace.  The women are there building bridges, cooking jam, sharing their grief, bearing the burdens of their enemies, and speaking peace.  Step by step, Israeli and Palestinian women are marching together towards an end to the conflict.

Among the world’s living stones, the women of the Middle East are “the stones that the builders have rejected.”  If not rejected, they have been dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant by outside observers.   Women are many times the forgotten ones in the realm of international politics.  On a geo-political perspective, they are often powerless and their voices go unheard.  They live unseen behind veils and burkas and in hidden places like kitchens and gardens.

Making jam with women from the Parents Circle Families Forum

What I came to see on my trip is that of all the living stones in the Holy Land, these women have become the most important stones of all.  The Lord is using them to bring about a “peace that surpasses all understanding.”  They are Kingdom Builders.  Every act of forgiveness, every gesture of kindness, and every hand reached out in friendship is building God’s kingdom here on Earth. The women I met in Israel are strong and courageous.  They are fierce and tenacious.  When peace comes to their land, it will be because they have stood hand in hand, Israeli and Palestinian together, and spoken love against a fire-wall of hate.  While the rest of the world isn’t watching, the women of Israel and Palestine are indeed becoming living stones, building bridges between enemies.  This is the Lord’s doing and it is amazing!

My mom with Robi Damelin of The Parents Circle- you can read her incredible story here.

I’ve always loved this beautiful prayer that Lynne Hybels once wrote called "A Creed for Dangerous Women":

Dear God, please make us dangerous women.
May we be women who acknowledge our power to change, and grow,
and be radically alive for God.
May we be healers of wounds and righters of wrongs.
May we weep with those who weep and speak for those who cannot
speak for themselves.
May we cherish children, embrace the elderly, and empower the poor.
May we pray deeply and teach wisely.
May we be strong and gentle leaders.
May we sing songs of joy and talk down fear.
May we never hesitate to let passion push us, conviction compel us,
and righteous anger energize us.
May we strike fear into all that is unjust and evil in the world.
May we dismantle abusive systems and silence lies with truth.
May we shine like stars in a darkened generation.
May we overflow with goodness in the name of God and by the power of Jesus.
And in that name and by that power, may we change the world.
Dear God, please make us dangerous women. Amen.

These are the women I met in Israel.  They shine like stars and overflow with goodness.  They are the dangerous women that will change the world.

The Path to Peace Mosaic on the Gaza border wall

I left home for Israel facing equally unsolvable problems here in my small corner of the earth:
a heroin epidemic that is ravaging the people of my community…
babies born addicted to drugs….
children with unexplained bruises….
mothers with a complete lack of hope for their child's future….
grandparents, aunts, and uncles who are overwhelmed by the burden of raising children whose parents are in jail or lost to the abyss of addiction.

Every day I feel powerless to fix my patients’ real problems.  Many of them need so much more than what I have to offer and the scope of my ability to make things better for them seems like never enough.  So many times I ask God what can be done to fix things.  What can anyone do to make all this poverty and addiction better?  What can I do when I am just a small piece of a big messy puzzle?  But while I sat on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, I realized a beautiful, God-whispered thing-

Amazing grace is this- God reaches into the pile of rejected stones, the rubble of forgotten and unimportant ones and chooses us.  He holds us up to the light of His love and in spite of our flaws, our weaknesses, our smallness, He declares us perfect.  We are all chosen by Him to be Kingdom builders, to be one of his precious, beautiful, “living stones.”  God delights in his ability to use the broken ones, the forgotten ones, …the irrelevant ones.  This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that in our weakness, Christ is made perfect.  In my weakness, Christ is made perfect.

 I am just beginning to believe that it may be true, even of me.  In my weakness, in my smallness, and in my flaws, Christ is made perfect and Kingdom building can happen.  If God can use the women of Israel and Palestine to do amazing things, then certainly in ways unseen to me the Lord can use me- my smallness, my flaws, my imperfections, and even my weakness to build his Kingdom here in this place he has called me to labor.  A place mixed with so much beauty and sadness.

After this trip I have begun to think that maybe, God is making me a dangerous woman.

This is what the Lord is doing, and it is amazing to me.  

Sea of Galilee

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Dear Pastors: Three Reasons You Need to Talk About Vaccines

Dear Pastor,

I know you went to seminary so you could preach amazing sermons about grace and redemption.  Perhaps you imagined becoming another Billy Graham where every sermon brought hundreds of people to Christ.  Maybe you preach by working your way through the lectionary, Sunday by Sunday.  You want to be original but profound.  You want a message that will be remembered by someone after they walk out the door.  Maybe you have your sermon series planned through Easter.  You have a theme and a trendy title and a catchy logo and the songs for each Sunday are already planned.  And you can’t change the music once it is planned, because let’s face it- everyone knows the cardinal rule of pastoring is not to upset the music minister.

I also know you didn’t learn about medicine in seminary.  I sat through all those theology classes, too.  You can talk for hours about atonement theories, inerrancy, and the filioque clause.  If you were lucky, you may have had the opportunity to take a bioethics class.  You might have read something from one of the Neibuhr brothers or Stanley Hauerwas. You probably talked about just war theory, stem cell research, abortion, and ecotheology.   I doubt you talked much about vaccines.

You don’t have to be a doctor to know that we have reached a crisis point in our country over vaccines, or rather, over people choosing not to vaccinate their children from almost eradicated and highly contagious diseases.  Most recently, an outbreak of measles originating from a single infected person visiting Disney Land has led to over one hundred cases around the country.  I am not going to go through all the details of this event, nor am I going to expound on the danger of diseases like measles.  There are plenty of conversations about this taking place all over cyberspace.  What I would like to share are the reasons why I believe this has become a crisis about which faith leaders and pastors need to begin speaking to their congregations.

Here are three reasons why I believe you, dear pastor, need to preach about vaccines.

1. This is not a matter of scientific debate. It’s about faith.

Scientists don’t agree on many things.  In fact, they agree on almost nothing.  The medical community is still debating whether or not lowering your cholesterol will prevent a heart attack and if routine mammograms are actually of any benefit in saving lives.  We love to form opinions and then change our opinions.  The fact that vaccines are not only safe but essential to public health is one of the few things we all agree about.  In the medical community, vaccine safety is considered a non-issue.  Vaccines have been tested, tested again, and then tested one more time- every study has shown that the risk associated with vaccinating children is negligent compared to the risk of a child driving in a car, taking a bath, or eating a hot dog (things which kill children every day.)  Let me say this again, vaccines do not cause autism and the risks associated with vaccines do not outweigh their overwhelming importance. 

The truth is, doctors, scientists, and public health officials can talk until we are blue in the face about the importance of vaccinating children, but it will make little difference to many people opposed to vaccines.  Why?  Because this isn’t about logic, or scientific evidence.  It goes much deeper than that.  People don’t vaccinate their children because they have lost faith in science and medicine.  We are no longer considered an authority, but are just one voice in a cacophony of voices that bombard parents daily.  Thanks to the internet, parents live in a world of conflicting messages about everything from how to feed your child to how to discipline them.  Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can become a self-declared child health expert.  All they need is an audience.

Here is where you, dear pastor, are important- faith and trust is what you do best.  You wouldn’t be doing the work you do if you didn’t understand how to reach the hearts of those in your faith community.  I’m sure you are aware that there are a few, possibly many, families who come to your church each week that don’t vaccinate their children.  Think about that for a second.  These parents have no faith in their doctors, or in well established medical facts, but they still have faith in God and they still trust you.  Their hearts are still open to the wisdom you have to share week after week, day after day.  Your voice is still heard and because of that, we need you to speak out.

2. The current vaccine debate speaks to the heart of our faith.

We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to care for the vulnerable in our midst, to protect the innocent, and to care for the sick- just as Jesus did.

“He taught in their meeting places and preached the good news about God’s kingdom.  Jesus also healed every kind of disease and sickness.”  -Matthew 9:35

Loving your neighbor as yourself means caring for their needs AS MUCH AS your own.  It means seeing the vulnerable in our midst and thinking that it is each of our responsibility to protect them.  It means saying, I would never want to be responsible for this child with cancer, this mother with lupus, or this grandfather with leukemia contracting a deadly disease from me, or my child, because we chose not to vaccinate.  All of these people are vulnerable because they can't be vaccinated for medical reasons or because their immune systems are compromised.  Infants under the age of 1 year can't receive the measles or chicken pox vaccines, either.  That's every baby in your church nursery.

The world is describing those who don’t vaccinate as being selfish and there is a growing outcry against the stance that many anti-vaxxers take which says, “I don’t care if my child puts your child at risk.  It’s my right.”   Beyond that, they are also sending the message that while they don’t believe vaccines are safe, they are willing to let everyone else take the risk of vaccinating their children, while they hide behind the shield of herd immunity.  They are saying to the world, “I believe vaccines are dangerous and I won’t give them to my child, but that’s ok because I’m expecting you to give these dangerous vaccines to your child, therefore providing herd immunity to keep my child safe.”   There is no other word for this other than selfish and selfishness is not a characteristic that Christians are allowed to have.  Don’t we believe in a God who emptied Himself of all His glory, took on human flesh, and willingly chose death so that the world may know eternal life?

“Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake and came to shore near the town of Gennesaret.  The people found out that he was there, and they sent word to everyone who lived in that part of the country.  So they brought all the sick people to Jesus.  They begged him just to let them touch his clothes, and everyone who did was healed.”
Matthew 14:34-36

Imagine if Jesus had said, “I can’t risk being exposed to all of your diseases.  I have important work to do.  If you touch me, I might get sick and that would not be God’s will.”  How absurd!  No, Jesus allowed himself to be touched by them.  He carried their diseases, he bore their burdens, and became their healing.  So, too, is the church called to stand beside those who are sick and be touched by them.  We are called to be a refuge for the sick and hurting.  The church can only do this if we are not simultaneously becoming a harbor of deadly diseases.  Know this, if your church fosters a culture that opposes vaccinating, you will become an entry point of illness for someone.  It is only a matter of time before a baby contracts measles in your church nursery or a mother battling breast cancer comes to pray for healing and inadvertently sits next to a child in the beginning stages of chicken pox whose parents so proudly declared, “My child is going to get chicken pox the old fashioned way!”  Chicken pox is not a benign disease and is deadly to those whose immune systems are weakened.  And don't forget that the measles virus is airborne and is so contagious that you don't even have to be in the same room with someone who has it.  You just have to enter that room up two hours later.  That translates into a single infected person coming to your 8:30 am worship service being able to infect a baby who comes to be baptized at your 10 am service!

Let me put this another way: You cannot be a refuge for those who need healing if you are allowing the very things that could kill them to spread inside your walls.  If we are to bear one another’s burdens, we must bear the burden of vaccinating all of our children who can be vaccinated.  There is no other way around it.

3.  “Perfect love casts out fear.”

It is easy to parent out of fear these days.  There are so many dangers lurking around every corner!  Parents are supposed to worry about plastics, GMO’s, non-educational television, and whether or not their car seat has been recalled.  Baby blankets aren’t even considered safe anymore!

I believe that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are forming decisions out of love but they are also making decisions out of fear.  Their love and their fear have blended together and become paranoia.  As a pediatrician, I can answer their medical questions and calm their worries about many things.  In many ways I am a professional provider of reassurance.  Calming the fears of anxious parents is my job, but they need so much more than what their doctor has to offer.  They need to hear their pastor remind them of God’s love.  The love that casts out fear.  The love that is perfect and immeasurable.  The love that empowers us to live as people of the resurrection. The love that speaks peace.  When we stand as witnesses of the Gospel, we must assume a posture of confident love, not cower in fear.  

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son and whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.”
John 3:16

Everlasting life is life lived in the fullness of God’s grace.  Everlasting life is not lived in fear.  We do not clasp our hands around any gift, especially our children, and say- ‘They are mine and only I will choose what is best for them!”  Instead, we hold them out before God with open hands and pray that God will bathe them in grace.   We trust each day that when they walk out the door, get on the school bus, or jump into a swimming pool they are held in the hands of the unseen Spirit.   We tuck them in at night and pray for angels to stand watch while they sleep.  Like Hannah, we give our children over to God day after day, time and time again.

"My mother had heard the story of Hannah and Samuel, so she prayed that if God would give her a son, she would give that son to God. That was a perfectly appropriate thing for her to do, but as I observe, she did not have to tell me she had made such a promise. In particular, she did not have to tell me when I was six."
-Stanley Hauerwas

So, dear pastor, while you are planning your sermon this week, please think about the parents who are sitting in your pews.  Think about the ones who are afraid to vaccinate.  Think about the ones who are terrified their child, unable to be vaccinated, will not be safe when they leave them in the nursery.   Think about the doctors and nurses who are trying to mask their own fears of an impending measles outbreak.  We are scared, too.  Really and truly scared. We are all afraid and we need you to be brave.  Be brave and speak out in truth and in love.  Please don’t think that because you went to seminary and not medical school that you have nothing to offer.  You may be the very one who can save us all.

"Life is a battle between faith and reason in which each feeds upon the other, 
drawing sustenance from it and destroying it."
-Reinhold Niebuhr

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dear Baby Jesus

What they did really sucked.  It was a shitty thing to do.  It hurt so deep that you don’t think you will ever recover from the breathtaking pain of it all.  Even now, when you remember it , you have to stop whatever you are doing for just a second and catch your breath.

The worst part is that they want to pretend like nothing happened at all.  They want to move on and just get back to normal as soon as possible.  They want you to pretend with them that everything is fine and your heart was never broken.  They expect you to just play along.  They want forgiveness without having to acknowledge their crime.

They want a free pass.

Isn’t that what Jesus tells us to do?  To hand out forgiveness like candy?  Seventy times seven. Like we have an endless supply and can dispense it with glee like Oprah gives away new cars? “You’re forgiven! You’re forgiven! You’re forgiven!”

If there is anything I know about Christmas it is this- the message of Christmas is that forgiveness isn’t cheep and reconciliation isn’t easy.

Forgiveness is forged out of the pain and mess of a baby birthed on a dark, cold night, surrounded by filth and muck.  Forgiveness sent a young couple down a path of uncertainty and fear into a strange land as refugees without a home.  The narrative of forgiveness begins with the slaughter of innocent baby boys whose only crime was being born at the same time as God’s own son.  The narrative of forgiveness ends with that son’s agony and death, too.

So, you see? Forgiveness is more than a free pass.   Grace is costly.  When Jesus prayed, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sinned against us,”  I think he knew what that prayer would  eventually cost him, what it had already cost him.  He knew the price of forgiveness was great, but he prayed it anyway.

Maybe you will never get the apology you need.  Maybe they will never acknowledge what they have done.  But God sees your hurt. God knows how much you want to forgive.  God knows the cost of reconciliation and that is exactly why the whole messy Christmas story began in the first place.

The truth is, like Mary and Joseph, we are refugees, too, right now.  We’ve been a little lost and wandering ourselves lately.  We want to forgive, but we don’t know how.  Surely God knows our sorrow.  Surely God see our tears.  Surely God will walk with us on our own Bethlehem journey from darkness into light.

So, in the Spirit of Christmas, this is my prayer for you and for me:

Dear Emmanuel,  
       God With Us, 
              Beautiful six-pound tiny baby Jesus with a perfect newborn cry-
Be here with us in our messy hurting hearts.
Bring us out of the muck and mire.
Bring us home to that place of healing.
Where forgiveness does flow freely.
Where grace abounds.  
Where love is given and then given again.  
Help us to say, “Just as I am forgiven, so are you.”

You are forgiven. You are forgiven. You are forgiven.