The Sixty-Fifth Letter: Enough to Go Around

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Dear Daughters,

Last fall, my women’s Bible study group at church began working through the Gospel of Mark together. I particularly enjoyed reading N. T. Wright’s Mark for Everyone commentary, guiding the group’s discussion, and unpacking the tricky passages.

I’ve read Mark before, both in snippets and straight through in one sitting, and I’ve certainly heard a lot of sermons preached on it. In fact, Pastor Bob preached through the book of Mark over the course of one liturgical year in recent memory. Your dad even translated it when he was studying Koine Greek as an undergraduate.

So it’s very familiar to me. And at 16 chapters, it’s the shortest Gospel. It’s all in a rush, it seems, especially when you read straight through it.

But reading Mark as a group this time, especially with all of the summarizing and re-hashing of the themes every week last fall, really illuminated the Gospel for me in a way that caught me off guard. It’s not just short and speedy and simple. Nope, it’s downright radical, girls. Seriously. It’s upside-down Kingdom, challenge the status-quo, packed-full-of-symbolism radical. This is powerful stuff, this Word of God.

It’s always good to be reminded of that.

My group took a break from Mark to read a different book this spring, but we picked it up again during Lent, starting with Mark 10. To kick off our discussion, I asked my friends to think back over the first nine chapters of the book and reflect on what stood out to them.

I’m sure it was no surprise when I told them the three things I had been carrying in my heart these last months because, quite honestly, when I’ve got something on my heart, I preach it. All the time. You’ll know this about me someday.

The first was the radical pull-back-the-veil, reveal-things-as-they-really-are nature of Jesus’ baptism scene. How radical would it be for us to hear God’s message to Jesus as a message about our own calling as God’s beloved children? “You are my beloved child,” God says. You are. YOU.

The second was the Gerasene demoniac’s healing. This has always struck me as a strange one, the focus often on the demons requesting to go into a herd of pigs—talk about crazy stuff in the Bible! —but N. T. Wright points out something I had never thought about before. This man, this Gentile who had been tearing his body apart because of possession and illness, is not just healed by Jesus, but commissioned by Jesus. Jesus tells him to go back to his community—most likely a Gentile community, given the location—and tell what God has done for him. This man, this nobody, is actually the first apostle to the Gentiles. How powerful is that?

And then, lastly, the bread. Oh, the bread. I’ve been preaching about the bread every time I can.

God’s message throughout the Gospels is a message of abundance and provision. It’s the message throughout Scripture, of course, but it comes up powerfully in the life of Jesus.

Here in Mark, the disciples see Jesus perform radical miracles of the body and spirit, they hear him teach and explain a radical Kingdom of God, and they are sent out and tasked with doing miracles themselves. Mark tells us they do it. They actually cast out demons without Jesus there with them.

Then they witness Jesus doing another crazy thing for a crazy big crowd of people. They even help him do it. God transforms a measly amount of bread and fish into enough food for over 5000 people, and there are twelve baskets of bread leftover. Leftover, post-miracle abundance.

But then, and this is what stays with me: a little while later, the disciples are freaking out when a storm comes up and they’re on a boat without Jesus. But Jesus, once again being his radical self, comes walking out on the water to them. Mark says Jesus “intended to pass them by,” which evokes a lot of things, including Moses being permitted to see the full revelation of God from behind as God passes by him in the cleft. The disciples here are seeing something they cannot believe, and it scares them. When things calm down a big, Mark says, in passing, that they were scared and confused because “they didn’t understand about the bread.”

They see God in the flesh, but they did not understand about God’s provision. They saw bread multiplied for the masses, but they did not understand that God had sent the true Bread of Life who was big enough, strong enough, enough enough. They were themselves able to cast out demons, but they doubted the ability of God to cast away their fears.

If only they had understood about the bread.

If only they had understood about God’s provision.

If only they had understood about God’s abundance.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few months.

Do I understand about the bread?

Do I recognize the message of abundance the Gospel announces to the world? This is not a name-it-and-claim it abundance. This is not a reward-for-good-behavior abundance. This is not a give-and-you-will-be-blessed abundance.

This is the sheer, undeserved, over-the-top abundance of grace.

And it is for everyone. Not just you, girls. Not just me. Not just other pew-dwellers.

This abundance is offered to the most ornery of political leaders.

This abundance is offered to the shut-in across the street.

This abundance is offered to the registered sex offenders in our neighborhood.

This abundance is offered to the mom of the kid at preschool that kind of grates on your nerves.

This is radical abundance. There is enough to go around. It won’t run out. And offering it to others does not lessen the value of it, the generosity of it.

We Christians say we believe in the grace and love of God, but I worry that we don’t act like we believe in it.

I don’t think we act like we believe that it applies to others, that much is darn sure as far as I witness Christian behavior in my own community and on my own Facebook newsfeed, but I also don’t think we act like we believe it in our own lives.

And still I wonder:

Do I understand about the bread of heaven? Do I understand that this life is not my own? This house is not my own? That you are first and foremost daughters of God more than you are my daughters? Yes, I think that is the message of scripture.

This world is not ours. Our lives are not ours.

Everything we have is undeserved. And there is enough to go around.

If only they had understood about the bread…

I don’t know, ya’ll. I might still be preaching this message when you’re grown-up and reading these letters.

If I’m not, remind me.

Love,

Your Momma

The Sixty-First Letter: Why Not All of It?

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Dear Daughters,

I’m a stickler about a few things.

One of them is tithing.

It is not a cool thing to talk about, especially not in my circles, but I was raised to take tithing seriously, and so I do take it seriously. When I was little, I’m pretty sure I was made to tithe off of my allowance and even off of the money we got in birthday cards. Yes, growing up, there was a strong sense of this money not being mine to begin with and so we gave back to God a portion, a tenth, in order to remind ourselves that it really all belongs to God, that none of it really belongs to us.

In today’s world, I think most of us could use a little more of those reminders that what we have is not really ours. That it is all gift. That we deserve none of it.

It might help us stay away from the what’s-mine-is-mine mentality that not only keeps us from helping our neighbors but also makes it difficult for us to see them as equally deserving of our own way of life.

It’s not polite to talk about money though, so I don’t say these things out loud, don’t say them in public.

But let me tell you a story.

The eldest has been joining us for “big church” for some time now, and I was reading an article recently about the importance of children seeing their parents–literally seeing us–give of our time and our resources. The article specifically mentioned letting children see their parents put money in the plate at church, if the family attends a church that passes the plate. It talked about the potential correlation between children who witness their parents giving of time and talents and tithes on a regular basis and those who grow up to be regular givers themselves.

After reading this article, I realized that it probably didn’t send the best message that I was often passing an empty plate. As I said, I do tithe, but I write a check once a month, because it’s our habit, instead of once a week. So the majority of weeks, we don’t drop something in.

As a result, I decided, if it’s a symbolic gesture for you anyway, I’ll start giving you a little bit of cash to put in the plate yourself. In the past, this always seemed a little silly to me.

And that brings me to the story for today.

On Sunday, I had grabbed some cash from my wallet that was all folded up on itself. I pulled two dollar bills off of the wad–there was only ten dollars in the wad, but it looked big to you–and I handed you the two single bills. You saw that I was putting the rest back in my wallet.

“But why not all of it?” you whispered to me.

I tried to shush you.

“WHY NOT ALL OF IT,” you whispered louder, assuming I hadn’t heard you the first time.

I tried to shush you again, and gestured toward the plate as it approached.

You really didn’t want to let it go. “But why? Why not all of it?”

And it was about that time that I heard those words in a new light, not as a literal question about that wad of cash, but a question to me about life and what it means to offer ourselves to the Kingdom of God.

Why not all of it?

Why are we not willing to give all of ourselves?

Why are we so quick to pull the two easy dollars off the wad and toss them in the plate and assume we’re good to go, that we’ve done our part?

God isn’t asking us to do our part. God is asking us to give our lives.

Why not all of it?

When we get mad about politics, we think it’s enough to start calling our representatives. But God wants all of us, not just our phone calls and emails.

When we get frustrated at broken institutions like our school systems, we think it’s enough to just protect our own interests and make sure we (and ours) succeed. But God wants all of us, not just our feeble attempts at safety and provision for our own families and neighborhoods.

When we look around at our empty sanctuaries, we think it’s enough to lament the absence of young people and resolve to make our services more relevant. But God wants all of us, not just our work to make Sunday morning more fun. God wants us to to be loving people, offering our whole selves to our relationships, inviting people into our lives, not just our sanctuaries.

When we look around and see that all of our friends look just like us and live in houses just like us, we think it’s enough to go serve in a soup kitchen or donate our leftover and used goods to a local shelter. But God wants all of us, which might hurt a bit. Actually, it will hurt a bit. I promise. It might mean selling that house. At the very least, it means inviting people who are different from us into that house and joining together over food and fellowship. It will take all of us.

Or, let’s take it to the real, everyday annoyances of life. Because that’s where we can really get uncomfortable. It’s too easy to shrug off the general, big problems.

What about when I get frustrated at the frequency with which the neighbors’ dog has been escaping their yard? I want to think it’s enough to put him back in the yard and grumble about it to your dad. But God wants all of me, all of my relationships, all of my time, not just my mediocre attempts at community.

What about when I lose my temper with you? I think it’s enough to say, well, that’s the way life is with young children, right? It’s tiring and exhausting and mind-numbing, and you really should have just listened the first time. But God wants all of me, not just my good days and prayer times and Bible reading. We should be growing in those tough moments too. We should be learning grace and offering grace.

What about when the stranger walks by our house in the middle of the day, when the kids with heavy backpacks get off the bus down the street and look discouraged, when the neighbors have forgotten yet again that it is trash day: am I just doing the minimum? Or am I offering my whole life?

Why not all of it? you asked.

And I guess what I’m trying to say is this: you’re asking a good question.

The Gospel requires all of us. 

Love,

Your Momma

The Thirty-Third Letter: On Being (Not) Afraid

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Dear Daughters,

The truth is, it is easy to be afraid.

A little over a year ago, a talented, vibrant young woman who graduated from our local college was brutally murdered while serving overseas. It was an absolute tragedy that shook the community. An incident like that is like a weight on your chest that you can’t shake off.

In the wake of that tragedy, I tried to write a letter to you about how fear feels different as a parent. I thought about your futures, all the things I can’t control, and wanting to keep you safe. But I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t get beyond the notes I’d jotted down quickly, a list of things that seemed worthy of parental fear: diseases, child predators, kidnapping. Social media, bullying, pornography. Rape, domestic violence, rampant drug use in our community. The list went on and on. There were too many what-ifs, too many potential tragedies, too many sadnesses and risks.

It’s so easy to be afraid.

The other day, I couldn’t see the toddler in the yard and the preschooler didn’t know where she was, so I began to search frantically. The driveway. The front of the house. The side of the house. Looking down the street. Hollering her name. Within a minute or two, I found her, happily in the corner, behind a bush. She was fine. I was sobbing. Why, oh why, was my first instinct that she had been kidnapped?

It doesn’t make sense, except that I was operating out of worst-case-scenario, TV-drama fear.

Listen to me. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a smart instinct, this fear, that it’s protective, that those gut reactions to distrust others or suspect the worst in others are good because they keep us safe.

I’m sorry, but noI do not believe that.

I stopped watching crime drama many years ago because I found that it was making me see every stranger as a potential predator. That is not hospitality, girls. That is not “welcoming the stranger.”

We have become too afraid.

I hear it in my friends’ voices. I hear it in news reports. I hear it, perhaps especially, tossed about by our political leaders.

Fear people who are different than you.

Be afraid.  

There is not enough. Save your money. Stock the pantry. 

Protect your own. Build walls. Close your blinds.

“Stranger danger.”

I’m so tired of these messages. So tired of the politicians’ preying on our fears. So tired of hearing people I know acting as if these fears are natural and good and help to keep us safe.

No.

Sigh.

I guess what is prompting all of this is just how frustrated I’m feeling about the underlying message of political conversation these days. Normally, I ignore politics as much as possible and, because we don’t watch television, I never even see campaign ads. But the primaries of 2016 have been over-the-top attention-worthy–I can only imagine what your history books will say someday–and I’ve felt compelled to read about what is happening, what is being said, what is being believed.

The bad news is that much of what I hear and read is based on fear. Ill-informed, selfishly motivated, circle-the-wagons fear.

The good news is that this fear is so over-the-top, so exaggerated and obvious, that it has helped me to put my own fears in perspective. I’m serious. When I inwardly accuse politicians (or would-be politicians) of fear-mongering, I feel compelled to consider whether I myself operate out of fear.

And I’m afraid I do.

Sunday is Palm Sunday. Next week is Holy Week.

Do you know what the message of our faith is, girls?

It’s so different from the message of the politicians. It is so different from the message of the 24-hour news cycle. So different from a message of fear.

It’s this:

Love.

Do not be afraid.

There is enough.

Give your lives away. Be vulnerable. Welcome the exile, the widow, the orphan.

The stranger might be Christ.

I’ll confess, these truths don’t typically guide my days. My days are, more often than not, too full of anxiety and discontent and worry. More than I’d like to admit.

But, still, I want my instinct to be fear not.

I want my instinct to be yes, there is enough.

I want my instinct to be the stranger is Christ.

I want my instinct to be love.

That’s Holy Week, girls.

Love,

Your Momma

The Twenty-Sixth Letter: The Family Circle

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Dear Daughters,

Occasionally when the toddler is quiet, I send the preschooler to go find her and report back to me what is going on. The other day, I was told that baby girl had found some pretty ribbon she wasn’t supposed to have.

Well now, we don’t have much ribbon lying around the house, so I knew I needed to go check on the situation.

That “pretty ribbon” was the innards of a cassette tape.

I’m not completely sure where the cassette had been stored, but she’d found it, and she’d pulled on the ribbon. And pulled. And pulled. And pulled. It was creased and knotted.

I was determined to save that tape. With a clicky pen, I wound and wound it back up, only to discover–when the cassette player kept eating the tape and rudely spitting it out at me–that I’d wound it the wrong way. After a texting conversation with your uncle Stephen about the engineering of cassette players, I persevered.

And so, after years of this cassette tape being hidden away in some box–a box apparently within reach of a toddler–I’ve been listening to some of my favorite old timey music again.

This is a Family Circle tape, girls. Family Circle.

My parents and aunts and uncles, in the 1970s, had some radical Jesus-movement-conversion experiences, or so I take it. And, coincidentally, they could all sing harmony. So they did what any group of vocally talented, excited-about-Jesus twenty-somethings would do: they started a traveling gospel music group.

The Family Circle eventually ended up with a painted Coach bus, complete with living space and multiple bedrooms inside, matching outfits for the adults, and kids who could sing off-key kids songs. After my youngest cousin was born, there were 13 of us in that bus.

I was born into the middle of that, bless their hearts.

On weekends and various vacations throughout the year, we travelled as far north as New Hampshire, where my grandfather owned a campground, down the coast to Florida, where he was a snowbird in the winter, and played at churches and campgrounds for love offerings. We had a dark green velvety tablecloth on the merchandise table–records, cassettes, eventually CDs were for sale. I don’t know why that very-seventies tablecloth sticks out in my memory.

Like many of my cousins, I had my own song for awhile, called “My Mommy Told Me Something.” But we kids mostly sang group songs like the old Gaither “I am a promise, with a capital ‘P,’ I am a promise, full of possibility…”

My nuclear family withdrew from the group when I was in elementary school because of my parents’ marital difficulties, but the Family Circle kept singing for many decades, even after all the cousins were grown.

They came out of retirement to sing at Pappy Sands’s funeral a few years ago. That was the last time I’d heard any of the old songs.

But gosh, I love the old songs.

What’s extra special about this cassette to me is that my parents’ voices are on it. I can hear my mom’s steady alto throughout. And on one song, I can hear my dad’s two-line baritone solo.

I could not believe the wash of emotions I felt when that tape began to play for the first time.

I’ve known these songs my whole life–every word, of every song. As long as I could sing, I’ve been singing this music.

But these last few weeks, I’ve been hearing these songs differently. I hear them and realize that all my aunts and uncles are grandparents now. Their voices are so young on these recordings. So clear and so young.

My cousins’ children are older than I was when we left the group, and yet I remember so clearly the conversations we had back then, young as I was, squished into the dining area of the bus. I remember sitting up beside my dad on the big red velvet navigator chairs. I remember my bottom bunk across from my cousin Justin. I remember watching movies in the back and getting foot massages from Aunt Diana, who was a reflexologist. I remember singing the Twelve Days of Christmas–each of us having our own day in order of our ages, so the kids all got to sing many times and the parents–my dad was the twelfth day–hardly had to sing at all. I was “two turtle doves.” Justin was the youngest then.

I’m glad I found this tape. I haven’t seen some of my cousins in years, and we won’t be traveling home to Pennsylvania at Christmas this year because of your dad’s job. But this tape reminds me how much I love these people, and how much I miss these people.

This is a special part of my story, and I hope you can feel how it is part of your story, too. Because that’s how our memories should be, girls. I want you to know my stories.

And I want you to know my songs.

Which is why I keep playing this tape. It probably doesn’t have many years left, you know.

I talked to my aunt on the phone the other week and asked if she had copies of some of the old Family Circle sheet music. I was thinking maybe I’ll find a way to sing it some day.

Maybe.

Love,

Your Momma