Sunday morning, on mercy and uncertainty

I’ve been away this weekend on a retreat in the mountains. The program has been centered on quiet, and on the works of Flannery O’Connor. And so, I re-read “Revelation” this weekend, and I am reminded of just how treacherous a trap it is to believe that you have sufficient good judgment to sort people into the deserving and undeserving. (If you haven’t read “Revelation,” you should.)

Recently, I eavesdropped on a debate my friend Jordan got involved in on Facebook. He astutely argued that if you’re interested in building a political party that can win elections, you should stop thinking of people as existing on a binary scale–you’re either a good person or a bad person–and instead think of each individual as a person who does a good thing, or a person who is currently doing a less good thing,  and even a person who is doing a bad thing.

In “Revelation, ” the protagonist Mrs. Turpin reasonably observes that she is fortunate to be middle class, but credits herself for responding appropriately: She is stewarding the resources given to her. She has manners. She isn’t rude, even to people who don’t really deserve her kindness. She’s a respectable, decent person by all commonly held standards of the time. But despite being a good woman, she is also, as a girl she encounters says, “a wart-hog from hell.”

The story is not about how someone who thought she was good was actually bad. It is about about both/and. Mrs. Turpin is both good and bad. She is herself and a wart-hog from hell, too. As are we all. Continue reading “Sunday morning, on mercy and uncertainty”

Early warning system

Last week, I worked at Welcome Table, a twice-monthly free dinner at my church, open to the public. Early in the evening, I went from table to table with a pitcher of lemonade, offering drinks to guests waiting for dinner to be served. At a table in the back, I spoke to no one in particular as I asked, “How are you tonight?”

As I poured lemonade into a plastic cup, the man to my left said, “Much better now!”

“Good!” I smiled. By the way the other men at the table laughed, I knew that he wasn’t talking about the lemonade, but I pretended he was.  I filled the glasses and moved along to the next table.

Later, I circled the room to help those who’d finished their meals, scanning for spills to clean up or for dishes to clear from those who’d finished their meals. Each time I approached that table in the back, there was more laughter. Probably just enjoying each other’s company, I hear an inner voice say.  The man called me over, even though I’d already bussed that table.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You already did, honey.” More laughter. Keep smiling. Keep working.

Continue reading “Early warning system”

The prayers of the people

img_0412.jpgI wrote this for church this morning, where I led the portion of the service called “prayers of the people.” Happy Easter!

So I interrupt your regularly scheduled joyous Easter program to bring you: the prayers of the people. Seriously—as I prepared these prayers, I worried about being huge downer. There’s a section of the prayers of the people where you’re meant to pray for the world, and nations, and leaders—and it was hard to edit down that list to a manageable size.

It wasn’t yet Easter—I was writing and praying during Holy Week: on Thursday, when Jesus was betrayed and arrested. On Friday, when he was crucified. And mostly on Saturday, when his followers scattered in disbelief and grief and hopelessness. On Thursday and Friday and Saturday, so many things in our world seem so far from what we thought God was going to be like. There is so much suffering.

But I remembered: part of the beautiful mystery of the cross and the empty tomb is that suffering is not evidence of the absence of God but that God is present— even and maybe especially—in our pain. The love of God is stronger and more certain than it maybe appears to be on Saturday— I remembered that as followers of Jesus, we must bear the good news to people living in a Saturday world that Sunday is coming!—in fact, Sunday is here! Christ is risen!

And so we can bring our suffering to God with confidence, and hope, and even some inexplicable joy. Continue reading “The prayers of the people”

Be cool, brain.

It is not a thought, it is an energy: It starts right at the center of me, just under where my ribs meet, and swells upward through my chest, buzzing into the base of my throat. It is a mix of anticipation, possibility, fear, excitement, and nausea. It is the millisecond at the top of the high dive between the moment you’ve really committed to the jump and the moment you begin to fall. It is in me but is not me. Every time I have followed that feeling, it has led me somewhere holy.

I felt it while I wrote that essay about my mom a couple of weeks ago. When I followed it, it seemed like the words were formed somewhere else, and all I had to do was write them down.

I felt it once at Costco when a lady browsing the same giant stack of sweaters as I was answered her phone and broke down into tears and shouted at the person on the line, and I wasn’t really listening, but whatever it was seemed bad. She hung up and hung on to her cart, which held her up as her legs looked unstable, and she made a noise that wasn’t really crying but was more like gasping for air and moaning in pain at the same time. It was at that sound of grief that the feeling rose in me, and I followed it and it led me to her. She told me her son was sick, her son was mentally ill, and he’d been arrested and they were trying to find him a bed at a hospital that could treat him, and they were supposed to hold him until they found a bed but now they called and said they’d moved him to jail and she was here and not there and there was no bed yet, and he needed medication that the jail wouldn’t provide and what would happen to him there?

“Oh, God! I don’t know what to do!” She was looking at me even though she was crying out for something better. And I realized that I was saying the same thing in my head. Oh, God! I don’t know what to do!  Continue reading “Be cool, brain.”

Third person, limited

When my parents moved in with us last year, I expected there’d be adjustments. I knew we’d have to set expectations about how often we’d eat together, how we’d handle shared household expenses, what temperature to set the thermostat. My dad was already ill, and I knew it would be difficult to see the healthy picture I had of him replaced by his sicklier current self. I thought my mother and I might clash occasionally–the last time we’d lived together for more than a few weeks at a time, I was sixteen, and there was plenty of clashing. I didn’t know the half of it.


When my family gets together, we tell stories about when we were kids. They are familiar and funny, but they are not just entertainment–they’re designed to tell us something about who we are to each other. I love these stories and their secret meanings. I love the way they let us love each other through our most annoying spells and most irritating qualities.

We tell about that time at the beach that I licked an ice cream treat straight from the dry ice chest and got it stuck to my tongue. (Translation: book smart doesn’t always mean smart-smart!)

How once, Tracy joined my friends for a  Pictionary game and drew a monster with TWO eyes for “cyclops,” or the time she gave the following clue at Taboo: “Please, sir, may I have some more?….but my leg is broken!”  (Translation: endlessly lovable but not great with the literary references!) Continue reading “Third person, limited”

Saints, fools, and angels

heart-32834_1280Today, I read about a man in Los Angeles who cares for terminally ill foster children. At a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is everywhere, it is especially beautiful to read about how Mohamed Bzeek’s work was sparked by his wife’s passion and is sustained from his devout Muslim faith.

This week, a friend shared Laura Gilkey’s blog. Laura’s 9-year-old son Benji is dying of leukemia. Laura documents their journey toward Benji’s death: his bravery, his brother’s stalwart companionship, the millions of medical decisions required to give Benji the most comfort and the ability to be his Benji-est each day. I do not know her, but I read her updates daily, in tears and amazement at how this woman is doing the impossible.

But then, that’s the rub. It’s not impossible. It happens every day: children get sick. They die. Our hearts crack with admiration and grief and sympathy. We comment with disbelief:  “I could never do it.” “I couldn’t cope.” “He is truly one of a kind.”

We think this is work for saints or fools or angels. We think it is someone else’s work. Continue reading “Saints, fools, and angels”

The Long Con

Like most parents, we struggle with the right level of access to all things digital. At our house, all the computers and cell phones have passwords, but we have to change them fortnightly. Nine-year-old Nathaniel is both observant and stealthy, a deadly combination for household password security.

Mostly he just wants to watch hours and hours of other people playing Minecraft. I’m told this is no different than spending hours watching other people play football or golf, but it feels different to me. First of all, these videos involve both the annoying game soundtrack AND a guy screaming “Whooooaaaa! Siiiick!” over and over again until you want to cry.  Second, at least when watching sports, someone breaks a sweat at some point in the process. Not so with the screen within a screen.

Why we don’t just set reasonable limits–a half hour of access a day, or something like that? We have learned the hard way that Nathaniel is an all or nothing kid. For Christmas 2015, I made the shockingly stupid decision to buy him a Kindle Fire, lulled into complacency by reviews that talked about the fantastic parental controls. It “got lost” after about a month because I could not tolerate the constant bidding and begging about getting more game time.  A half hour is merely a toehold from which he will try to wrest an hour or two or three. A half hour is the launching pad for a million negotiations. Continue reading “The Long Con”