Getting your Hands Dirty

getting your hands dirty

Bearing good fruit into the world demands that we get our hands dirty. Creating something from nothing, or building on something to make it better, paving a new road, establishing a novel idea, are never easy or smooth…because life isn’t supposed to be easy or smooth. The dirt under our nails, whether it is metaphorical or actual grime, is a testament to what we are willing to sacrifice to bring something to fruition. When ministry became my chosen profession, God gifted me with many opportunities to get my hands dirty in ways that were humbling and well, sometimes even gross, like unwanted interaction with bodily fluids. Serving Christ demanded I roll up my sleeves and get messy. More than anything, I learned that bearing fruit in a sterile environment is impossible.

I know I’ve said this before in different ways, but you can’t skip the middle of cultivating any dream by bypassing the dirty work. Too much of the final product is predicated on the will, imagination and effort necessary to struggle through mire in order to achieve success. While frustrating, it is perfectly normal for people who are in the middle of any pursuit to wonder if the difficulty will ever end, if it is worth it, if the fruits of labor match the effort and expectation. The road yet traveled can be a daunting proposition. For me, that is why faith is so important to the process. We don’t have to be alone in our pursuits. God is the ultimate safety net, and is ever present even in the muck. And, it is often amidst the muckiest of muck where true revelation lies. Always keeping your hands clean, or the process sterile, kills growth and can mean you miss the best lessons life has to show you. The best fertilizer for the greatest fruit is sometimes noxious. It’s a testament to God’s great sense of humor that shit is one of the greatest ingredients for growth…both literally and figuratively.

So, I say, life is not sterile. Some of the greatest fruits come from mud, even seeing more clearly.

John 9:1-11

“As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see. His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “(So) how were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.”

The Year of Bearing Good Fruit

bearing-good-fruit

I was inspired by the readings for the second Sunday of Advent, with a tone of reconciling opposites. From Isaiah 11:1-10

On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
a spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
but he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.

And also in Romans when Paul wishes that we have harmony with one another, but most importantly by the admonition of  John the Baptist in Matthew’s gospel: “Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” That’s it. That’s my resolution for next year. While my year of clarity paved the way for wiping illusion away, next year will the year of bearing good fruit. I won’t be blind to the troubles of the world, but there is too much good that goes unnoticed. So, I will find the fruit bearers and celebrate them and hopefully create a ripple effect. It brings me hope in this season to bring light to the darkness.

In the Most Unlikely of Places

 

holy-light

I’m writing in the darkness of my house, except for the twinkle lights from the Christmas decorations I finished putting up. I am a sucker for the beautiful respite this season brings to the darkness of winter. In the simple power of a few twinkle lights, a burst of hope shatters the darkness. In the most unlikely of places, among animals and shepherds, our faith is born. In the most unlikely of places, a seemingly untenable situation of a woman giving birth in a barn becomes our sacred event. In the most unlikely of places a starry night brings hope and guides kings with gifts to mark the occasion of the exact point in time when heaven’s greatest light comes into the world. And now our journey this advent season begins. Now, gifted by grace, we are the heavenly light that must shine in the most unlikely of places.

Do not go gently into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light

me-and-dad

This poem by Dylan Thomas is loved by my father who is in hospice care right now. It pretty much sums up his attitude toward living…never idle and always in a continuous fight for light it its many forms. Whether it was the light of intellect (he has four degrees), the light of truth (his involvement in politics, from school boards to general elections), the light of faith (a devout Catholic and when he retired from teaching, a second career as a deacon), the light of love (married to my mother for 60 years and with her raised 5 very different and exceptional children). A jack of many trades, he was always planning the next great thing and the reality of Alzheimer’s and cancer has altered those plans, leaving the many in his stead whom his light has touched to continue to rage against darkness and be champions of the light.

My father has always been quite the orator. Whether it was Shakespeare or the Gospel, his voice commanded the moment, his inflection amplified and diminished words in perfect measure and cadence. Once, after he was done reading the Gospel at church, without thinking, I naturally started clapping instinctively as if it were a performance. Of course, I was embarrassed when I realized that I was the only one clapping, but I knew by the gentle laughter that I had done what everyone else had wanted to do in that moment. Words matter to my father, he required good grammar and for us to speak intelligently. Ignorance was simply unacceptable, as was the cruelty of gossip and unfounded innuendo. He held high standards for his children and his students because he had the uncanny knack of recognizing other people’s potential even when they, themselves, could not. That is the greatest gift he could give us as a teacher, to help see ourselves in the fullest light. He wasn’t always successful, but always maintained hope. Even as his cognition wanes, I still see the light he sees in me, reflected back in his face whenever he looks at me.

My parents and I have often sat around the dining room table and talked about theology and the world at large for hours. In fact our whole family has spent many hours around a table laughing and telling stories. Those kinds of conversations began by having dinner at the same table all together growing up. We all shared an appreciation for the absurdity of our human condition and the hilarity of these moments gave us stomach aches from laughing so hard at all our escapades. Our dinner table was as much a place for talking as it was for eating. Dad, at the head of the table, was the inspiration for much of the conversation. I think I picked up my sense of humor and storytelling from that dinner table. I remember him telling stories of reciting Macbeth in a Swedish accent, or all his English classes wearing orange on St Patrick’s day (you Irish Catholics can figure it out) and the stories of his time in the Navy, or growing up down the street from Charles Schulz who wrote the Peanuts cartoon. He had as many serious stories of intervening to help students, parishioners, and many who struggled. The best advice I ever got before I started teaching was from my dad. He said: Be prepared, never raise your voice, always look them in the eye, never talk down to them, and always hold them to their highest selves and more times than not they will rise to the occasion.

In a recent conversation about heaven he had with my younger sister, he contemplated whether he had done enough in his life. While surprising, given everything he’s done, I understand what he meant. My father always knew there was so much more to do, that the Kingdom of God was hardly finished and he wanted to be there to see how it all turned out. My prayer is that he will have a front seat to all the action, to celebrate and guide us from above while we continue to refuse to walk gently in this life and carry on his legacy of fighting for the light.

Rumor Has It

RumorsYou know what I find so troubling? I find it troubling that the internet/social media, while doing so much good to connect people and help them access information, also does a lot of damage in making it easy to rip people apart without any real consideration for the truth, or what it does to someone’s spirit, and, moreover, what it does to the often faceless, feckless, and feeble-minded people who perpetuate damaging rhetoric. It will never make you a better person to disparage someone anonymously or behind their backs. I have seen first hand what it does to people, nipping away at one’s soul, in varying degrees perhaps, but adding to the darkness nonetheless. I’ve posted before regarding an important lesson I learned, that no one can hurt you without your permission…a wonderful and freeing exercise that saves me everyday. However, I also think its important to address what it does to the one who doles out the damage. It just builds up the anger and angst.

Perhaps people are truly unaware that what they say or do has any affect on another, and that if they knew how hurtful they were being they may actually feel bad about it. I know, I’ve unwittingly hurt someone before, it is part of my process to rectify the situation any time I’ve been made aware of it. That’s why face to face conversations are so important, except the internet often makes it impossible to know the direct effect someone has on another…it is just too easy to click, send, or post, without ever looking someone directly in the eye and never face the repercussions of their actions. Ignorance is never an excuse, because the damage occurs anyway. My last post spoke about letting your light shine. But know this truly, when you condemn, disparage or judge another darkness spreads. Jesus speaks very clearly about this:

Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother or sister’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye. How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me remove the splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye. You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother or sister’s eye.

None of us is perfect. And we are all in this together. So let’s focus then, on what we can do to spread light and not darkness. Looking in the mirror, with humility and grace and judging by the measure with which we want to be measured is the place to start.

 

Stripping the Light

light

The first thing that popped into my head on the day of the Orlando shooting? This was a tortured man, most probably gay, who lived within a culture who condemned who he was with such ferocity that he grew to hate those who freely and joyfully embraced who they were, so he took their light in one horrible action. Then, in a last ditch effort to cover up who he really was, claimed to be a martyr for the religious extremists who condemned him in the first place. As more information came out, I feel, sadly that my assessment was correct. Since then, beyond the empathy I feel for the LGBT community, the deep sadness that comes with yet another mass shooting, and the anger for those who are using this tragedy for their own agendas…I am, yet again, standing on the precipice of a darkness that wants to swallow us whole.

You see the thing about true darkness is that we seem to be convinced that it must be fought against with guns blazing. We seem to be convinced that it can win. Darkness is dissipated by light, by love. Jesus lays it out clearly:

No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand so that those who enter might see the light. The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and not part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.

So how does the light in you become darkness? How about when you are told that who you are is a sin? When you are dismissed as unimportant and ostracized by a world that is obsessed with external perfection? Or when you are taught that you are of a special group and that unless you conform, you are condemned. Or when you believe lies that are perpetuated to feed the fury of fear. Jesus has an answer to that too, in what happened directly after his lesson on light:

After he had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, ‘Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you’

Give alms, meaning give charitably to others, whether it be materially or providing capabilities (like education). What cleans one’s inside is extending one’s light out to others. Nothing more. Just simple charity. And when the scholars of the law twist it into depriving you of your God given light? They doom you to darkness, a darkness that will spread to others by continuing the distortion of the law, ending in the death of the light. We see it played out in suicide and murder. Too many, everyday…when all we are asked to do is love the Lord with all our hearts, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. When you are taught to hate yourself, you cannot fulfill this fundamental premise of our faith. When you are taught to hate others, you serve the darkness.

He exposes these scholars for their hypocrisy and ends with this telling phrase:

You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter, and you stopped those trying to enter.

And what that key is, is that each of us is a light, each with a specific purpose and God given gifts to fulfill that purpose. When we subscribe to the belief that any light is not of God, and in any way large or small snuff out that light, darkness spreads. When Jesus died, and sacrificed himself for our transgressions, the key to everlasting life was given to us. The Kingdom of God, though, is within. And it cannot house fear, or hatred, condemnation, or doubt. So here I stand on the precipice of darkness and allow my light to shine, and pray that others will come to stand with me, trusting and celebrating their own light will do the same.

Dying by the Sword

fluer de lisAt the conclusion of the trial in a stabbing death in St Croix Falls, WI yesterday, I felt nothing but profound sadness. I feel sadness for the family of the victim, sadness for all those young men who will no longer be mentored and coached, and sadness for the community who will struggle with the loss of a friend, father and community member. I also feel deep sadness for Levi Acre-Kendall. So,let me say this to you young man: You will wake up every day knowing that it was by your hand that a man died. It was by your hand that five children are fatherless and a wife is without her husband. It was by your hand that a life that impacted many was cut short. Regardless of the circumstances, which by all accounts was a horrible example of testosterone, alcohol, and confrontation gone awry, and the legal result…which in all fairness, as an attorney, was decided as it should have been, there is much to be done to make this profane moment in time into a sacred one.

Yeah, I know, how is that even remotely possible? The choice between the sacred and profane lies in a choice to choose a path of light or darkness. To not choose one or the other isn’t an option. The inevitability of what path to choose lies in how much you can trust the power of God, of love, to work in this mess. Yes, a good man is gone, and a young man is still here. That is the place we start…with what is still here. If any of the words of Jesus are to have any meaning at all, it is in these moments that we embrace them wholly. We have to be the prodigal son story, we have to be the seed that bears fruit, we have to treat the lowest among us as Jesus would…and in this moment it means Levi. Levi, you still have a life to lead, and if it to be one of any legacy at all, you can never compartmentalize away this horrible tragedy. I, for one, believe that your destiny can be a good one and in order for that to happen, you should embrace the struggle of the road ahead because you have to be in those very words of Christ too. You cannot forget about what your actions did to the Kelly family either. Beyond a not guilty verdict, you killed a man and that will always be a painful truth for you. You have to become worthy of their forgiveness or your actions will eat away at you and limit your ability to be an instrument of the light in this world.

Facing up to the consequences of our actions and how to resolve conflict is never easy, and these skills are grossly lacking in today’s society . This is just one of too many examples of what happens when we live by the sword. Let us then, choose another option. Let us teach our children to resolve differences as Jesus taught us to.