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The Most Inspiring Person I’ve Ever Met in Real Life

“It’s a new dawn/ It’s a new day/ It’s a new life/ For me, yeah/ And I’m feelin’ good.”  –Nina Simone

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When I was in college, I had a good friend who went through a really hard time.  We used to talk every day, and after nearly a year of hearing about how she was tired of smoking what she didn’t want to smoke, drinking what she didn’t want to drink, in relationships that she didn’t want to be in, I started to get exhausted.  I just didn’t know what to do for her–she seemed stuck.  She didn’t like where she was, but she didn’t want to change.

Shortly after classes finished, I went to Egypt for three weeks.  A few days after I got back, she came by to hang out and welcome me home.  I readied myself for the conversation that we had repeated with one another for the last several months–“for I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do, this I keep doing.”  And as she made herself comfortable and I braced myself for what I was about to hear, she very simply said to me, “I’m done with all of that.”

“All of what?” I asked.

“All of it,” she said.  The partying, the painful choices, the addicting habits.  “I’m finished.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I knew I couldn’t tell her what I was thinking, mainly because I didn’t believe her.  After nearly a year of listening to her cry and yell and laugh and sob about the life she was creating for herself; no way was that gone in a matter of days.  I smiled politely and I told her how great that was, and then silently started the patient wait for the conversation that I knew was coming sometime in the near future–that same conversation that we had so many times before about failed resolutions, forgotten goals, neglected foresight.

But that future never came.

She wasn’t deluding herself…or me.  She never went back.  She changed her friends, her housing, her major.  She created a new reality for herself in what seemed to be the very center of her being and put all of her energy into living it.  And, to the best of my knowledge, she never went back.  If she ever slipped, it never stopped her momentum.  The old life had gone–the new had come.

Not so strangely, she changed me too.  Forever.  Permanently.  I had never witnessed anything like it before or since–to see someone just decide who she wanted to be and then do it.  Just change.  It was like one of those miraculous stories that we read about in blogs and Chicken Soup for the Soul books (or, at least I think so…I don’t actually read those books), but it wasn’t a miraculous person who had done it.  It was just my normal, messed up, broken friend.  It was the most extraordinary thing I have ever seen an ordinary person do.  And it changed my perception of this life forever.

At the center of the Christian message is the message of the necessity of change.  “The Kingdom is near…,” “On earth as it is in heaven,” “Repent!” (which literally means “turn around!), “I have come so that you might have life to the full,” “the old has passed away; look! the new has come.”  Throughout the centuries, this message of change has become cliche to many.  “New life” has come to be understood by some as “restricted life.”  “Life to the full” has been translated by others as Christian isolationism, filling our calendars and concerns with Christian labels to such an extent that we have not left room for life outside of those labels.  But that doesn’t alter the truth of that original message of Good News: Jesus came to change us.  And not just once, but continually.  Permanently.

New life is ours to have, so long as we really want it.

I took my friends example to heart that summer and I haven’t set it down since, both in regard to myself and in regard for the church.  As church after church asks me about how to change, how they need change to survive, how they must change to “reach the world,” I pose them the same question I pose to myself:

Do you want to change, or do you just want the world around you to change?

Because if it’s us we want to change, it’s as simple as a decision and a prayer.  And if the results of our lives aren’t different once we’ve changed ourselves, chances are we haven’t changed ourselves much at all.  Lamenting how the world has changed around us is more than just nostalgia…it’s and admission of our guilt in not living the Good News.

We have the opportunity to be the most inspiring, ordinary people–in fact, inspiration is in our calling as believers.  So the question lays not with “how” in “how do we change?,” but instead in “when?”

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”  –Mahatma Gandhi

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Posted by on April 5, 2013 in New Life

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 46: Roots

“They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”  Jeremiah 17:8

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I grew up in East Los Angeles County where triple digit temperatures were not uncommon in the summertime.  I remember, as a child, playing at a friend’s house one summer day and standing glued to the window, eating a popsicle in the air-conditioning, watching tree surgeons work carefully to take out some old orange trees from their back yard–the only reminders in our suburban neighborhood of the acres of groves that used to press up against the foothills.  They had taken out three trees and had just moved onto the fourth and final one.    A man climbed through the full, leafy branches to secure a rope before making the first cut.  And as they pulled on the rope to make sure it was secure, the entire tree fell down toward them.

Surprised, we all ran out to look and see what had happened–to try and figure out what would have caused this beautiful, healthy tree to fall without suffering even the most preliminary cut.  But finding the cause didn’t take any time at all: the tree’s roots had grown around and around themselves into knots.  Rather than spreading out, pushing down and across the yard like their counterparts, this tree stood like a shallow pillar into the earth, only feet from their house.  I was six or so at the time, so I don’t remember much about the cause, but I do remember the surprise of the surgeons, and the fear and relief of my friend’s parents, that this tree–which had toppled so easily with the tug of a rope–had not fallen earlier, possibly taking something precious with it.

There is only one thing that I, not being an expert on trees, know to be true about roots: roots determine the success of the tree. And the success of a tree is not only in it’s  appearance (fruit, leaves, branches), but also it’s stability.  And, as I learned at that young age, a tree can look full and beautiful and healthy, and at the same time, be completely unstable and, therefore, entirely unsuccessful.

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“Storms make trees take deeper roots.”  –Dolly Parton

This Holy Saturday, today, commemorates the darkest day in Christian history.  It is the day after the Messiah failed.  It is the day where promises were shattered and hope was lost.  It was the day where years of dedication were proved to be fruitless for those who followed Jesus.  It was also the last day where death was assuredly and irrevocably considered to be irreversible, but no one knew that yet.  Friends of Jesus scattered and fled.  The movement looked torn and tattered.  But here we are–over 2000 years later–still talking about it.  Still remembering this Holy Week.  Still celebrating the permanent end of Saturday (and the world as it was always known) as Sunday comes.

As we sit in Saturday–in the failure and the depression and the confusion–I wonder about the state of my roots.  So much of popular Christianity (and, consequently, so many Christians) looks so pretty on the outside.  Is there fruit?  Not always.  But things seem green and healthy.  We use Christianese fluently.  We sing songs to organs and guitars.  We lift our hands in worship and nod when the preachers nod.  A lot of Christians look pretty from the outside…but can our roots weather the storm of this Holy Saturday?  Could our faith withstand the shock of Good Friday if we didn’t know that Easter was coming?  Are our roots stretched out far and deep into this earth, or are we just completely wrapped up in ourselves?

Today, Saturday, we still don’t know if Sunday will come.  Heck, the way things were going that first Holy Saturday, perhaps no one would be surprised if no more days came at all.  So, how solid do you stand?  Regardless of how pretty your branches are…can you withstand the tug of the rope this day, of all days, as a person of faith?  Or is your faith wrapped up only in yourself?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 44: Cup

“When you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for, when nobody needs you, that’s when I think life is over.”  –Audrey Hepburn

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Today is Maundy Thursday, the day that we as Christians remember the last time that Jesus hung out with his friends, reflecting on his last moments of leisure and freedom and affection.  Of course, in the church, we remember these moments in Jesus’ life on a regular basis whenever we celebrate communion (or the eucharist.)  We break a loaf of bread and remind one another that Jesus did this.  We tear the loaf completely in half as a symbol of the complete brokenness of Christ.  We pour out grape juice (or wine) and remind one another that Jesus did this too.  And we pour out the whole amount of juice from the pitcher into the cup as a symbol of Jesus’ complete sacrifice–that he held nothing back, but gave all of all he had.

The understanding is that Jesus poured out his life as a complete sacrifice in order that our lives might be overflowing-ly full.  In Christian-ese, we say this in the term “our cup overflows” with God’s grace, and justice, and love.  And I think that vision is significant and meaningful: that Jesus poured out his life until it was empty in order that our lives my be over-full.  That our lives might have more than enough meaning.  That our actions might be more powerful and significant.

Which makes me think about those who stand at the corners along State St. with empty coffee cups silently held in front of them.  Or the empty cups of children in war torn, disease ridden countries that wait for clean water.  Or the tin cups that prisoners drag back and forth across the bars of their cells in old black and white movies.  Too often, I settle so easily into appreciating my own cup of life, overflowing with family and warmth and safety, that I forget that I am supposed to be filling other people’s cups too.  And not just with a token, or a pittance, or an honorable show, but to overflowing.

Tomorrow is Good Friday.  Tomorrow we remember how Christ was torn and emptied.  But let’s not do that without remembering today what he was emptied for.  Let us not forget whose cups are left full…and whose are not.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 42: Light

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”  –Plato

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I’ve always understood “light” to be inspiration.  I know that other people may interpret light differently, say, as “truth” or “hope” or something.  But for me, I have always understood light to encompass those things, and then provide more–to also provide the promise, and the creativity, and the courage to pursue that truth or rely on that hope, that those hopes and that truth might become a tangible reality.  Inspiration provides the spark of action for those who are ready to be ignited (and sometimes for those who are not.)  It’s why Jesus says he is “the way, the truth, and the light”–he encompasses not only the journey and the direction, but also the momentum that carries us forward.  

Inspiration comes to me in my life from two major sources: that which is completely unknown to me, and that which I know better than anything.  I find inspiration from new books and new people.  I find inspiration from new poems and new sermons and new thoughts.  The newness reveals perspectives held from vantage points that I never even imagined existed, let alone personally witnessed.  The newness of the unknown provides vast opportunities for courage, and hope, and action.

But so does the known.  And by “known,” I mean the kind of known that is studied, treasured, revered, and thoroughly examined.  The book whose pages are softened and bent by years of examination and study.  The music whose crescendos and staccatos connect to our bodies, emotions, and souls.  The person whose breath and mannerisms reveal depths of histories, growth, pain, and grace.  Further study of the known always reveals new light for me–a second examination almost always provides a renewed inspiration.

But I never find inspiration in the mediocre.  Those things in life where all is known at one glance–where there is no journey, no depths, no exploration to be had because all is exposed at once.  It’s the dance club when all the overhead lights come on, or the movie or book where all is predicable, neat, and tidy.  It’s the music that never strays from the same three chords, or the preacher whose tone soars and sinks around words that are flat and lifeless.  And yes, who is to say what is mediocre to me may be inspiring to you…I know.  But that doesn’t change my point.  Those things that I perceive as mediocre, bland, or shallow hold no light for me.  

Sometimes I find myself so surrounded by these mediocre things–bills, and instant pasta sauce, and shallow conversation–that I forget that I should be looking for inspiration.  I forget how important it is to be seeking hope and light, and so I just settle for what is around me.  Because, for as uninspiring as my bills are, they do keep the house running.  For as bland as Ragu is (sorry, Ragu-lovers), it keeps me from being hungry.  These mediocre things keep me sustained, even if they don’t reveal the light of inspiration, and it’s easier to be sustained than it is to be inspired.  Because if I make that complicated bolognese, I might get hungry while waiting.  Because if I learn that new piece of music, there will be a period of time where I will be confused and frustrated.  Because if I pick up a book filled with new stories and new words, I may feel dumb for not understanding.  

But inspiration is important.  And, really, it’s what the church should be about–because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light.  And if we are supposed to be acting and looking like Jesus, then we should look inspiring too.  We should ignite hope and the spark of action.  And we should resist the desire to just exist as a sustained entity.  

“Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”  –Mother Teresa

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” –Edith Wharton

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 40: Blessed

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In the Bible, Jesus talks about what it looks like to be blessed.  Christians call Jesus’ comments on those who are blessed “The Beatitudes,” which comes from the Latin meaning “happy, fortunate, or blissful.”  His list looked like this:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

“Blesed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”  (Matthew 5: 3-10)

In other words, blissful are the people who focus on love and humility rather than force and coercion.  Happy are those who believe the ideal is worth striving for and dedicate their lives to practicing them.  Fortunate are those who make compassion for others more important than their own pride.

Just because it’s the weekend, I thought I’d put together a modern day set of beatitudes, borrowing some phrases from some of the most well known thinkers/artists of our time.  What ideals do these beatitudes project?  What kind of world is constructed of ideals like these?:

“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.”  (Albert Camus)

“Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.” (Freidrich Nietzsche)

“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” (Camille Pissarro)

“Blessed are those who give without remembering.  And blessed are those who take without forgetting.”  (Bernard Meltzer)

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”  (Jonathan Swift)

“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.”  (Thomas Carlyle)

“How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”  (Bram Stoker)

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Lent

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 38: Alone

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“Love is our true destiny.  We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone–we find it with one another.”  –Thomas Merton

“Language…has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”  –Paul Tillich

Sometimes being alone is literal, either by choice or by circumstance.  There is no one nearby and we, as solitary people, stand as the only human witness in a geographical space.  We stand free of relationship, free of commitments, free of burdens that are not our own.  We carry the weight of ourselves alone, and consider and interpret the vast circumstances around us with no other perspective to color our perception.  Sometimes we stand alone, literally, with no company to share that moment with (or that life with,) regardless of how we feel inside.

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“It’s better to be unhappy alone than unhappy with someone–so far.”  –Marilyn Monroe

“You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.”  –Wayne Dyer

Sometimes being alone is an internal state of mind.  It’s why even the most popular, the most successful, the most highly reputed people still suffer from depression and addiction, because it is entirely possible to be alone in a crowded room.  It’s entirely possible for the most liked people to not like themselves.  It’s been known for the most free spirited of people to feel trapped within themselves, chained to those secret perceptions that do not allow their hearts to soar as high as their public laughter.  Sometimes we are alone within ourselves and stand alone next to the people who love us most.

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“A man is born alone and dies alone; and he experiences the good and bad consequences of his karma alone; and he goes alone to hell or to the Supreme abode.”  –Chanakya

“I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.  I am free, no matter what rules surround me.  If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them.  I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”  –Robert A. Heinlein

Regardless of how alone we are, be it geographically or emotionally, we are always alone in our responsibility.  No one can force us to make moral, upstanding, good decisions (I know this for a fact as a mother of small children.)  No one can stand in our role in the world–no other person will be the kind of mother I am to my children, or the kind of wife I am to my husband, or the kind of pastor I am to my congregation, or the kind of friend I am to my friends.  We alone are responsible for our place in the world and for the decisions we make in it.  Perhaps that is why Paul urges Christians to so strongly resist judgement and blame–because each of us has enough to worry about considering our role of caring for ourselves, others, and the world…a role that is greatly increased when we claim the Christian faith.  We don’t have time to dictate to others their role in this life.  We alone can answer God’s calling for us.

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”  –Albert Pike

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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Lent Reflection, Day 36: Beloved

“Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life.  The thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.”  –Anne Hathaway

“A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.”  –John Adams

I feel really ill-equipped to write anything about “beloved.”  I’ve been trying to think about why I feel this way as I’ve gone about my morning and I still don’t have a very good answer.  The only reason I can think of as to why I have so little to say about “beloved” is that I struggle with feeling beloved–I don’t often feel like I’m someone’s favorite, even when I am.  And I know that sounds sort of sad (sorry about that), but I mention it because I feel confident that I am not the only person in the world who feels that way.  Feeling beloved is a desperate need for people for which, I also feel confident, there are few exceptions (and those exceptions, like sociopathy, are not desirable alternatives to being free from the desire to be beloved.)

This image struck me:

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Something about the way that all the things that negatively define who we are can be crossed out (or, more realistically, altered) by the knowledge that we are beloved.  Something about how being beloved is not necessarily more glamorous, or shiny, or flashy than truthful writing on a piece cardboard.

If we write out all the characteristics of what it means to be beloved, or how to care for someone’s beloved, the list would be exhaustively long and overwhelming.  But in reality, being beloved is just being someone’s favorite–beloving others is treating others like they are your favorite–and that is actually quite simple.  Not easy, perhaps, but simple.

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I think those are the two reasons why God calls all of us his beloved.  One, because being beloved changes what defines you and me, altering the ugly and focusing on the hopeful.  And two, because we as Christians are called to do what God does, and if God beloves people, then we must belove people too.  (Did I just make that word up?  Spellcheck says yes.)  Which means we must treat people like they are our favorites too.  It means we must treat people like they are God’s favorites, because the truth is that they are.

And so are you…and me.

“Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his heloved is that of overcoming self.”  –Francis of Assisi

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Christian love, Lent

 

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