musings of a saint and sinner

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sometimes I feel like a failure

The past week and this week as well have been horrendous weeks. Unbelievably busy, with no entire day off either week. I have been stressed to the point of tears. I did get some time at home in the afternoon yesterday and then this morning I decided not to come in to the church until 11 AM...after all, all I needed to do was plan my confirmation lesson and briefly run over the Lenten service for tonight.

But when I came through the door, our usually good-humored secretary was in a state. I've never seen her so upset. She jabbed her index finger right at me when I came in the door and I knew I was in trouble. And with good reason. I had promised to give her my sermon title and the revisions to the bulletin by this morning...and in the stress of things I had promptly forgotten. Somehow our office list of phone numbers was M.I.A. so she was unable to get in touch with me. And without the information she needed, she was unable to print the bulletin (her task for the morning).

I was tremendously disappointed in myself for treating her time so lightly. I've worked in a support position in a church office before and I know how utterly frustrating it is when people give you information at the last minute.

I really did understand why she was upset. It must have been really frustrating for her this morning. Consequently, I have walked away all day feeling like a slack-off...a poor employee...I've been trying overly hard to please everybody here today. I'm so upset at myself.

It's at times like these that I wonder why I can't give myself the freedom to just be human and make mistakes. Of course what I did was wrong, but why can't I admit that and leave it at's like I am inwardly compelled to be perfect...and any failure at all just levels me.

Clearly, I still have some things to learn about God's grace...

what's love, anyway?

I can't help it.

The heart will do what it wills.

We just couldn't stop ourselves.

All of these are sometimes heard as statements that reflect our ultimate cultural idea of what love is. Love is a passionate feeling that compels you. And usually starts out that way. We fall hopelessly in love with the splendid attributes (and perhaps splendid behind?) of our beloved. All the world is spring. Our heart sings. We will be happy forever!

But then you get married. And your husband throws his socks on the floor...repeatedly. Or your wife doesn't get all dressed up anymore. Everyday life sets in. And you think back to the days when you were single and everything was an exciting discovery. You might wonder, what have I gotten myself into?

But it is at this time (when your feelings are challenged with reality) that love really has the opportunity to set in. Our culture tells us that you know you're in love when you feel it. But I would contend that real love starts when you have moments when you don't feel it. In those everyday moments, the most precious parts of love can develop. I think the most beautiful aspects of love that I have seen have been also shot through with pain and reality. One spouse caring for the other who has Alzheimers. Spouses who love even when they are tired and weary. Growing old and wrinkly together.

And the good news is...when the feelings go...they will return again. I married, fully expecting days when I "wouldn't feel it." It's still newlywed time, so those days aren't too fact, when it happens, it doesn't tend to last more than a few hours. But I know that times will come that are difficult and trying. I know times will come when I will be tempted. I know times will come when I will be frustrated. The good news is that this does not mean the end of love. Rather, it means the beginning of its maturing. And if I hang in there, the feelings will return...perhaps with greater depth and richness than the whispy, perfumy springtime of love.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

My battle with Lent

In theory, I see Lent as a phenomenal time to exercise self-discipline, grow, work on chipping off some of my rough edges, and do all those good Christian things that I intend to do all year.


That's in theory. When it comes down to it, I find myself revisiting a past that is filled with anxiety about whether or not I have performed well enough for God. Have I done enough for Him to accept me? I think it probably comes partly from being a child of divorce and remarriage and divorce. That messes with your sense of self in all kinds of ways. It would be convenient to blame all of my trouble with God on fundamentalism (and I'm sure some extreme aspects of fundamentalism contributed), but the reality is there were many factors that contributed to my skewed view of the world and of God.

When I got into my teenage years, I was at the height of obsessive needs to be the perfect Christian. My mental image of God was Him up there with a big stick, ready to whap me one if I didn't perform well enough, if I wasn't a good enough Christian. If you had asked me, I would have said that salvation was by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. But that didn't change my feelings about God, feelings that I never quite matched up to His standard (which of course none of us do, but the truth is that He loves us anyway and sent Christ to restore us to Him in spite of our mess-ups and brokenness). So, during my late teen years, I decided to try hard, to try as hard as I could to be the perfect, submitted to God Christian. I threw away everything I deemed "not pure" (once a person starts obsessing, imagine how much stuff that can be!). I tried to confess every sin, every stray "impure thought." I tried to "hear God's voice" (but I often just heard echoes of my own self-condemning thoughts).

Later, when I read about Martin Luther and how he had been that way too...trying to be the perfect monk and please God in every way, I paid attention. I thought, "This guy knows what I'm going through." But then Luther actually read the Bible instead of taking only the word of the religious authorities of the time. And he read a verse that changed his life. It said, "The righteous will live by faith." In other words, our righteousness or goodness does not come from our good works, but from having faith that God will give us righteousness, stamp us with it, though we do not deserve it. And all this is because of Christ's gift of His life for us. He bridges the gap between what we deserve for our failures and sins and God's desire to be merciful to us.

So...Luther's discovery changed his life. He started letting go of the many ceremonial works that the Church required when he found that many of them were not required in Scripture. He found freedom. And although I knew that salvation was by grace through faith in Christ alone, somehow in seeing this man who had struggled as I had find the message for the first time enabled me to find it as if for the first time. Grace broke out in my soul...maybe not all at once, but in bursts again and again. It was freeing me from my obsessiveness. Freeing me to know that I no longer need to do "one more thing" because Christ has already done all for me.

And then Lent comes around. And as much as the Lutheran Church does not look at it as a time of making ourselves acceptable for salvation, but instead as a time of deepening character and opening our hearts to repentence...still, I find myself hearing in it the old emotional messages of "do one more thing." Maybe I'm just lazy and self-consumed...I suppose that's part of it...but another big part of my resistence to Lent is the desire not to let go of the good news to which I hold for dear life. Maybe someday I will be able to see Lent for what it is supposed to be...but until that time, my participation in the acts of denial it calls for is minimal at best.

This year, instead, I have found myself resonating with the wilderness theme. Lent is not just a time for self-denial, but it is a time for facing up to facts about our human condition of sin and suffering. And so, as some of my deepest brokenness has started to now emerge with the help of a skilled counselor, I am choosing to walk into the wilderness of that pain and just let it be what it is. To face up to it, and by being honest about it, seek to let God heal it.

To me, that is perhaps the spirit of Lent...even if I am not abstaining from desserts or red meat.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

how to talk to a liberal?

I'm a conservative. I'm of the ilk who is predominately pro-Bush (while still acknowledging he is human and makes mistakes just like the rest of us). I see some benefit in the war in Iraq. I'm against abortion. I think that the appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court is a good break that many Christians have been praying for for a long time. I think it will save many innocent lives. I think homosexual marriage is a bad idea, but I don't hate homosexuals. I believe in keeping government programs to a minimum. I happen to like the fact that the President prays, though he is sometimes a bit too dualistic and sometimes identifies America's agenda too much with God's agenda. I think the Gospel should lead to the church ministering to social needs, but I don't believe that social justice equals the Gospel.

But I spend a lot of time with liberals. My denomination (the ELCA) is made up of primarily liberal clergy--although a lot of the people in the pews are conservative (unless we are talking about St. Paul, MN!). And in their eyes, there is fear. They frequently make doomsday predictions that would put Tim LaHaye to shame. They declare the President "Hitler." They make him into almost an Antichrist figure.

I don't know how to talk to them. Occasionally, I open up and remind them that there is a conservative in their midst who is still a thinking person (wonder of wonders!). And they try to be courteous, but they always sink back into their gloomy view of the nation in light of the Presidency of George W. Bush.

Ann Coulter has her take on how to talk to liberals, but (although in my most frustrated moments, a little bit of sarcastic humor can defuse things!) I don't like the idea of just insulting people we disagree with (Coulter's favorite option!). There's got to be a better way.

But I feel like such an oddball, sitting amongst these liberals and not feeling an impending sense of doom as they do! I don't see a bleak future because of President Bush. I don't agree with everything he ever did, but....c'mon, as I reminded one woman with fear deep in her eyes...God is still on the throne! Even if liberals do think Bush is the most corrupt man on the planet (which I think is ridiculous), God is still in charge. I wouldn't want a religion where I thought the President was more powerful than God. God will prevail at the end of the day. That's what faith is all about...believing in One beyond yourself, stronger than yourself, wiser than yourself. I think liberals need a little dose of faith.

But then, I needed that myself during the Clinton years!

ash wednesday

There's no question about it. I am a little bit weird. Ever since I entered the Lutheran church, Ash Wednesday has been one of my favorite days in the church year. Maybe it has to do with coming to the Lutheran church when I was going through a profound depression as a teenager. Maybe it has to do with the sign of the cross on our foreheads that links us Christians together as we go back into the world. Maybe it has to do with using a physical sign to convey a truth.

But I suspect that the main reason I am so attracted to this day is its honesty. You know, we walk through our lives, making small talk and speaking platitudes, talking about the weather and the White Sox, but when it comes down to it, there are very few moments that are fundamentally, deeply honest.

We feel this inner drive to be nice and sweet and look on the bright side. And sometimes that is really good. After all, being positive helps us in many ways. But at least once in a while, we need to get serious and admit our frailty, our pain, our neediness.

I think sometimes we cover up our pain thinking that God will not love us if we reveal who we truly are underneath the shiny paint. So--like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden--we hide, hide from the voice of God, from the nearness of God. We dare not let Him get too close.

That's why Ash Wednesday is such a breath of fresh air. It is maybe the one day in the whole year when we can get honest with ourselves and with God. It is the one day in the year when we can say, "I am a sinner and I am going to die." Those are the two things that are hardest to admit. But when we admit them, as Jesus said, "the truth will set us free." Admitting our brokenness means God can finally get in there to work some healing. And the first step of healing is knowing that despite every disgusting, ugly, despicable thing about us, God loves us. We may be dust, but we are dust that God loves. God can do amazing things with dust. He after all formed the first people from dust. And when we die and become dust again, He is able to raise us and make us new all over again.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Paul begs us, "We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." He then goes on to tell us that God made Christ sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. In other words, Christ wants to heal you, but in order for that to happen, you have to admit you have a problem. You have to admit the truth of Ash Wednesday: "I am a sinner and I'm going to die." Only then does Christ reach in and say, "Alright...finally you admit it. Now I will take that brokenness from you and give you all that is mine." Think of it like a marriage: When you get married, you move in and bring all of your separate stuff together. What is the husband's is now the wife's. What is the wife's is now the husband's. That's how it is with Christ. What is yours is sin, brokenness, death, the power of the devil. That is Christ's now. What is Christ's is God's righteousness, healing, and resurrection...and that is now yours.

Christians are people who have faced up to the fact that we have a problem...sin and death. And we are people who know Christ will one day do away with all of that and make everything new. But in the meantime, we have many trials and pains. Ash Wednesday is about that too. It is deciding that instead of walking away from your pain, you are going to walk through it. The people of Israel had to go through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. Jesus had to go through the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness before His ministry. Paul and the apostles had to go through tremendous trials in their ministry. And yet, with them, we look honestly at the worst this world has to throw at us...we face up to it...and then we say with faith, "This is not all there is!" With Paul, we say, "(We are) sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything." For in Christ, we have everything.

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