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.
“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.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my visits to Russia, once when it was the USSR, and once after it dissolved. I was reading through my journals about the trip the other day, and I thought I would honor that young girl by first sharing some of her insights about the trip. I was the youngest member of a delegation of the National Council of Churches, being only 24. I had to study extensively before hand as well as attend briefings for days at Columbia University in New York City before we left. It was 1984, and there was still a cold war, but I believed that this opportunity was a God-given one that I couldn’t pass up. There are so many more stories that I can’t print here, but I want to offer some of the insights that shaped my future thoughts
Notes during our briefings
Like America, there seems to be a big difference between the people and those in power. The big difference is the sense of futility of the Soviet people feel in overtly doing anything about the injustice they are forced to live with. I was also amazed at the structured and networked way people work around the system. I’ve always believed things are not always what they seem to be, that we live in a time of Olympic level charades-the feeling that things are not what they appear to be. In the USSR it must be overpowering. Again, the difference between the two countries is not just ideology but one of survival. All the bullshit in America is who can get ahead-who can accumulate the most. The feelings in Russia are to survive, to beat an unfair system-yet Hedrick Smith says they’re very generous people-they love to share gifts with people. We are not allowed to bring any denim and the woman have to wear skirts or dresses. Clothes of the west are a hot commodity. They asked us to bring pins to share, I am completely unprepared.
about the Olympic boycott
I’ve just heard about the boycott of the Russians to our Olympics. I’m sad that our two countries keep egging each other on.What will this do to my trip? I’m beginning to realize the seriousness of what I’m about to do. I’m nervous because I don’t know what to expect, but don’t want to push any preconceived ideas into my thinking.
On the the trip
After our city tour, we went to a small village church. The pastor’s name was Basil and I know what will have been the highlight of my trip was the children, it was wonderful! There is no way I can explain it in words…just freedom. Fr Basil took us to his “home” where we had another “gala” dinner-we made many toasts (too much vodka). During one of the toasts by Fr Innocent (irony of the year) I started to cry, partly because I’m tired, but mostly because of the double speak, the secret language of the heart and the language of the mouth, or party line, which I’ve had pretty much enough of by now. My eye contact with people has become quite piercing…and they don’t like it, not at all. But you see, you have to look so deeply for the truth and when they deceive and you’re looking deep into their eyes, they can’t hold your gaze. It started having a bad effect on people…not speaking but just forcing eye contact. I hoped my eyes say “I see YOU”. It was when we visited the collective farm I wanted to scream “Do you really think we’re that stupid?” It doesn’t matter to me that you’re trying to impress me, what I want is the truth…a rare commodity here. I’m tired of the press, people taking our pictures and the presence of the KGB. Do they think I can’t tell the difference between a real seminarian and a Soviet officer, especially the way they look me up and down?
Celebrating the high holiday for Russian Orthodox-Pentecost, at Zagorsk, which is their equivalent of Rome was beyond words. When our many buses drove into the monastery, there were thousands waiting to greet us. Walking through all those people just staring at us made me realize that we were definitely on display. The whole experience was beautiful and breathtaking and yet completely freaked me out.
The cantata at the Baptist Church
There was quite a bit of excitement at the Baptist Church. They had prepared a special cantata for us and it was really beautiful. But after the music was over, some people held banners over the balcony claiming in English that many pastors of Baptist Churches were being imprisoned. I was astounded, everything had been so “perfect” until this point. Our leaders avoided it and we were basically told from everyone, what you saw, you didn’t see. Afterwards, I could see one of the wives giving an interview with journalists. I am impressed by her determination and guts and will pray for her protection.
Gala Dinner Menu (one of many)
Cocktail/Salad: rolled ham stuffed with eggs, stuffed hard boiled egg with tomato, salmon and white fish, tomatoes, and breads with caviar. This served with vodka, also for toasting.
First course: crepes and black caviar. Served with red wine.
Second course: Chicken Kiev, with vegetables and rice in a puffed pastry. Served with white wine.
Dessert: Ice cream and filled cake. Served with Champagne.
Coffee: biscuits,cheeses. Served with cognac.
Dancing, and most were a bit drunk…Cheers to my Irish tolerance (and I did toastes with water, not vodka)
Leaving the USSR
I’m in the Moscow airport ready to board the plane for Amsterdam. My feelings are mixed. I’m sad to leave because I feel like I haven’t seen enough-but the tension of this society is so oppressive that I can’t breathe. I’ve also felt disillusioned about this trip. It seemed to be so much media hype for our Leader—– I don’t like to be part of diplomatic niceties which I feel most of this trip was, especially near the end. There were times when I felt like I was on the mountain being tempted by the Devil with all the fanfare, pampering and “gala” dinners. Everything. was. just. too. nice. It makes me wonder what the results of our trip will really be. Will all the frosting hide justice? i.e.the women at the baptist church.
The lay over in Amsterdam was a needed break. My wild side came out, and I’m sure a bit of repressed anger too. I waltzed some of the ministers down to the red light district..he he. Their faces as they looked at the prostitutes in the store fronts doing their best come hither, is something I will never forget.
They said everything was a perfect success. I began to panic because I knew I had to tell people about my experience-that was part of the deal. While going to the USSR was a dream, I had to borrow against my next year salary to do this, with the little I make working with the church it was such a risk. I thought I would be making a real difference, and now I wonder. One of the youth group members committed suicide just as I was arriving home. Physically her life was nice, like our peace mission. Nice isn’t enough, it just can’t be. Christianity can’t always be nice. Peace should be defined by more than nice. It means pain, sacrifice, being vulnerable, being scared and letting go in the face of it. I didn’t get that from the leadership of either country. I felt those things personally and I’m angry that those feelings were never supported by a group speaking in my name too.
We Americans and the Soviets are different, I accept that. I accept protocol and diplomacy are very important. We depended too much on behaving “appropriate” and not enough on being Christians. Our connection was our mutual faith. The Church’s route just has to be different than a political one, it has to be. Politics is rooted in a struggle for power, Christianity is rooted in the spread of the gospel and love. Human beings have proven through history that they are incapable of bringing about lasting peace by their own initiative. It doesn’t matter how good and noble the intentions are if they become egocentric somehow.
Because I am young, the youngest that went by far, my insight and intuition isn’t quite as keen as it will be some day. God has blessed me with much potential, though. So I will listen to how deeply disturbed I feel. There was so much going on in the Soviet Union on a completely different level. I could tell by eye contact, body language, atmosphere-the shadow language. It was all very subtle, but clear enough to demand attention, because when added to the whole picture, my impressions were radically altered. My struggle will be to create an honest picture without embellishment.
Afterwards, I was relieved when a journalist called to get my opinion of the trip. Excited to tell my truth, we talked for a long while. When the article came out in a national paper, not only wasn’t I mentioned, but it “nice.” In my mind, I had been censored and rendered insignificant. I became depressed and disillusioned after that. I spoke three times about my trip, the bare minimum and I continued to worry and pray about the baptist ministers wife and what the truth really was….so I went back, four years later……
Let me begin by saying this post is indeed political and may indeed seem polarizing, but it has nothing to do with political parties or the election per say. As part of my year of clarity, which is almost at an end by the way, I remain committed to see the world as Christ intended when he said blessed are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Having come so far, I certainly am not going backward now. In many ways, this year has been a torturous stripping away of every illusion, every chain and old belief that I held onto as an appeasement to my fears, insecurities and those beliefs that limit my personal evolution. I never anticipated what asking for the eyes to see and ears to hear would do to my life. It was upended. Be careful what you pray for, I’ve heard. And as much as I had no idea how naive my request was, I remained stalwart through every point of this journey, sometimes to the detriment of my health and personal psyche. I also want to say, while not everyone is a Christian like I am, I hope you will appreciate the conclusions I’ve come to anyway. Today, I am Peter, when Jesus was walking on water:
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified, “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Even after all I’ve learned and how deep my faith has become having answered Jesus when he said “Come,” now that I am here standing amidst the turbulence, I am trying not to be afraid, trying not to sink into the depths. I have the benefit of hindsight that Peter didn’t. I already know Jesus response, “oh you of little faith, why did you doubt.” In this moment of such turbulence, I will not let fear falter my journey. That doesn’t mean that I won’t be afraid, I just simply reject the doubt so I don’t sink. I will walk on water regardless of my fear. I will respond to Jesus command when he says come. So what does that even look like? This may take a moment, so please bear with me until the end.
For that last few weeks, I have pondered, and worried a bit over Jesus words in Matthew 10 when he describes the world they, as disciples, would venture into:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’ Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more that me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his/her cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his/her life will lose it, and whoever loses her/his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he/she is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous person because she/he is righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of theses little one’s to drink because he/she is a disciple-amen, I say to you, surely he/she will not lose their reward.
Life as a disciple is often life shattering. It is an ultimate test of loyalty and faith. If we succeed, we can walk on water. Call it whatever you will, a metaphor, a means to make the unfathomable, fathomable…I really don’t care. What I really care about is that regardless of the fear that holds many of us paralyzed right now, we must keep walking, we follow Jesus command to come. We refuse to doubt and be one of little faith. We do what seems at the moment to be the impossible. Because with God, all things are possible…right?
Now, here is where it gets tricky for me. As many of you know, I have friends who are democrat and republican. I embrace and accept that different ideologies exist. We’ve all walked different journeys and have embraced our own conclusions about what we’ve seen. I have friends who are religious and non-religious alike. So, my beef isn’t about that, hence the latter scripture that speaks about peace vs the sword. Here is my beef. Political ideologies, in essence, belong to Caesar (see last post), and we give to Caesar in our own way. How we express those ideologies most definitely leaks into giving to God what is Gods. So this is when the fear grips me most deeply. When you use an ideology to set others apart, to demean or demoralize them, to treat them disrespectfully you are not a being a disciple of Christ. When you cross the line in defaming your opposition, someone who doesn’t support the candidate you do, you are not being a disciple of Christ. That doesn’t mean the conversations about ideas won’t be difficult and painful. Where it became appalling to me in this election cycle was the deeply vicious and slanderous way people shared their opinions and almost never to anyone’s face. I always thought that to the people who know me, they know I’m a good person and so would listen to things from my perspective as well as their own and that they wouldn’t dismiss me or talk about me behind my back because I thought differently than they did, or get angry when I expected truth beyond salacious innuendo. I am not a bad person because I voted a certain way. Winning this election doesn’t give you God’s stamp of approval, God doesn’t give a shit about who won this election. But losing this election doesn’t give you the right to give up all hope or hate the other party either, God has clear opinions about those kinds of judgement too.
Being immersed in an environment that often is diametrically opposed to my most core beliefs has at times been difficult for me, but I’ve adapted because I’ve learned to see the deep goodness in the people who surround me. It has always been my prayer that others would offer me the same accord and it grieved me when that didn’t always happen. This year of clarity has given me freedom from that concern. I don’t care if you judge me, because my journey is sacred. I’ve said this before, that until you walk in another’s shoes you can never understand or judge their journey and I’ve worked hard to try and do that. So I implore people to listen to, and most importantly actually see those who are hurting right now and try and understand why. Sometimes seeing life through another’s eyes isn’t pretty, especially since it challenges our assumptions. There are people of color, sexual orientation, ethnicity, different levels of education and economics, who are devastated by the situation they are in today and the implications they may face come with deep feelings often times fear and rage. But when you take time to really see them and hear them, and break the confines of a limited perspective, fear diminishes and the walk gets easier, kind like gliding on water.
And yet to those who remain convinced that the problems we face are someone else’s fault, or that your “side” has the license on righteousness or God’s imprimatur, or that the answer lies in one person’s judgement against another, I choose to stand against you, whatever side of the aisle that puts you on. To refuse to recognize that we are all of us together, citizens who should all enjoy the the same self evident truths that are the cornerstone of this great country: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is simply unacceptable to me. So, as a Christian, my sword will be lovingly raised, and wielded in every moment the Spirit deems fit. Go ahead hate me, reject me, whatever. I choose to answer the call and walk on water.
I have to say, this one is a tough one to write. It’s tough because I am, at heart, an eternal optimist. Maybe its the way my brain is wired, or faith, or experience, or insight…or delusion, or any combination of therein. My life has not been easy or tragedy free. All I know, deep in my gut, my core is that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. So it is hard to admit, given how I’m wired…why I’ve struggled with pessimism lately.
Pessimism, you weigh heavy on the world like a thick blanket, and rightly so I suppose, given the circumstances, be it depression, disease, violence, poverty, isolation, ignorance or evil, it can be overwhelming. I have to remind myself daily, no hourly, and sometimes minute by minute that being an optimist doesn’t reject those bad things in the world, it simply means that you decide not to be defined or defeated by them. Life is, at times, hard and depressing because that is its nature. Hardship often presents the greatest lessons and growth, the most poignant evolution. And while my rational mind scoffs at this obvious conclusion, my emotional, more intuitive side stamps its foot at the difficulty and discomfort of it all. It’s at this point of the book when I want to skip over the hard and scary parts and jump to the conclusion and see how it all ends.
I know my life and movement is tethered to the many, that my single commitment to optimism is doomed if others can’t be swayed to jump on the hope train. The reason is that my faith demands that I be part of a larger body and help make it work. I am not alone, and yet I feel alone a lot of the time. There is unrest and anger that inhibits the function of the larger body I am part of. There is fear there too, paralyzing fear. Fear that is covered up by institutional mandates and paranoia that on the surface state that they are there for our own protection, but really serve no other purpose but to cut out those parts of the body that are felt to be less honorable. Remember what Paul said:
those parts of the body we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety. Whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Being an optimist does require embracing at the most fundamental level that the dynamic gifts of each person on this planet are essential to keeping the body of Christ functional in transforming our world to make it better. So to all you pessimists out there, if you can’t embrace the dynamic gifts of those you hold to be less honorable, then you doom us all. Your pessimism halts the function of the body. It makes it weak and susceptible to the very evils that were vanquished by the death, and resurrection of Christ.
I am vague on who the less honorable are, because they are different for every individual. You may hold gay people as less honorable, or transgender people, or straight people, poor people, or rich people, or powerful people, or famous people, or beautiful people,or the sick, the dying, the imprisoned. It doesn’t really matter who. What really matters is that you, pessimist, with your inability to see that each person is essential in God’s eye, limit the power and function of the most powerful body in existence. A body that has the superpowers of Grace and love, and a gospel of instructions on how to make the body move. It would be easy for me to tell you to get lost, find another body to be part of, but then I would be no better than you. My anger would keep me from recognizing your value, your part to play. So let me say this: my optimism trumps your pessimism. I do know the ending to this story, and I win. So win with me, say over and over again that all things shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, and soon your eyes will be open to the world I wake up to every day. As dark as the world may seem, know that the battle is won. When God is with us (and I mean all of us) who can be against us?
Being an optimist begins with you, it means embracing this truth: you are an essential ingredient in maintaining, sustaining and transforming our human evolution. It means that you have impact and worth regardless of any feedback. You act, because you know on even the smallest level that you can move the world forward. Let it bring a smile to your face, a confidence that you have never had before. No one, not even the most pessimistic hater can ever take that away. Let me honor you, celebrate you and share your joy. And if you can’t, know that I will suffer with you, and pray for your transformation.
There is such a distortion of truth these days. There is no discernible difference between what someone perceives to be true and what is true. The effect, in essence, is that illusion has a greater hold on our daily lives than actual tangible reality where one loses the ability to discern what is up and what is down, what is good and what is bad. Not to get all existential here, but we seem to be living in a time when if you repeat a falsehood enough times, call someone a liar enough times, state publicly that something is what it is not enough times, the actual physicality of the world shifts and what was once false becomes true.
While I understand that perception has the ability to shape our understanding of reality, I think there is enough strength in the school of thought that would also argue that when a cloud of illusion becomes big enough, it will eventually lack the substance to sustain the lie and it collapses.. While that may seem like a likely scenario of simple karma, i.e., what goes around comes around, we don’t live in a vacuum. People in leadership positions can entice and then destroy millions with their delusions.
Yeah, I know, what else is new. A lot, actually. We are living in a wolf in sheep’s clothing kind of time that Jesus talked about. The uncanny and diabolical way in which what is truly good is being painted as bad, and the truly insane are being portrayed as almost messianic is as shocking to me as inspired. Never in a trillion years, (hyperbole inserted here just to show they can still exist in all this insanity) would I ever have believed, in my worst dystopian nightmare in a world in which many in the public eye enthusiastically spew such misguided and diabolical nonsense. Give me the four horseman of the apocalypse anytime, at least they are recognizable.
Like I mentioned before, truth is tough. As enticing as lies can be, our world will never be sustained by them. Regardless of what you believe, unless those beliefs can be held up to the light of truth they will never be real. You have to do the work, you have to decide if your perceived reality is all it is cracked up to be…if not, it’s time for a change.