The Hundred-and-Eighth Letter: In the beginning was the Word

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Dear Daughters,

In the beginning was the Word.

In the beginning, God created.

In the beginning, God spoke words.

We have a small canvas in our dining room that your uncle painted about twenty years ago. It kind of looks like a dark cliff with a reddish brownish sky behind it, and there are words painted across the bottom in such a way that they run off the canvas. It looks like this

In the beginnin—
        God cre—

To be honest, it’s not excellent art. Even your uncle would say so. But it fits well up there among the abstract paintings you’ve both painted over the last few years and some of my early handlettered canvases.

I like it because it lets the creative act be in process—perpetually in process. 

Yes, in the beginning, God created.

But in the now, God is still creating.

And CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, points to God’s ‘eternal now’ existence to show that our “today” is as present to God as that first day of creation was/is.

So in the beginning, God created.

And right there with God, was the Word.

And the Word was God.

***

We just wrapped up our second year of homeschooling. The year before that, during our foray into this new season, we learned the first seven verses of John 1 in both English and Latin. I can still say them and sing them. Who knows if you can.

Here are verses 1 through 3:

In the beginning was the Word.
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God.
This was with God in the beginning.
All things were made through Him.
And without Him, nothing was made, that was made.

What does it mean that the Word was God? That the Word was with God? That Jesus is the Word?

Because that’s of course how the church has interpreted these verses, that Jesus is the Word of God. And Jesus is God. And the Trinitarian God is eternal, so from before the beginning.

Goodness, it can hurt your head if you let it, trust me.

But what about this idea that Jesus is the Word?

Well, let’s see. Creation is spoken into existence. (Or sung into existence, if you’re reading The Magician’s Nephew.) And Scripture tells us that all things were created through Jesus. Through the Word.

Without Jesus, nothing was made. Without the Word.

Without words.

***

Now, I get that I’m a writer, and a handletterer to boot, so I have a particularly high view of words. Of the written word, the spoken word, the crafted word.

I love words.

And I’ve been thinking about what difference it makes to my own faith journey and to the Christian church as a whole that we attest to Jesus being called the Word of God.

I’m teaching a weeklong class this summer on worship and hand-lettering, and I’ve called it “Worship, Welcome, and the Word.”

I chose that title last fall when I decided on the theme for the class, and back then I wrote up a blurb to explain the theme, but it wasn’t until recently that I really sat down and started thinking through and preparing for our class time discussions.

What does it mean to our worship services that Jesus is the Word, and that the Word was with God from the beginning—that the Word was God?

When we talk about churches we attend, Christians in general—or at least evangelical Christians—tend to talk about preaching and about worship style.  Why do we do that? Why do we choose churches based on this criteria? But that’s what we do. Is the preaching good? we ask. What’s the music like? 

I want to move beyond that. And I think we do that by the middle W in my class title—Welcome. 

Thinking about Jesus as the Word, and thinking about worship through the lens of words, can really open up our discussions of worship and the role it plays in welcoming others into the Kingdom.

We are quick to put Jesus at the center of our services—which is, of course, important!—but we tend to focus on Jesus as the way to heaven, or Jesus as teacher, or Jesus as shepherd, or Jesus as the suffering servant. All good things. All important.

But what about Jesus as the Word?

I’m still working out how this matters, because I have this hunch that it does.

Our worship services are full of words, aren’t they? Preaching and praying and singing and making announcements and reading lots of words from the 

Bible, the Word of God, we call it—it’s a very wordy faith. We hang words on our church banners, print them in our bulletins, and post them on our Facebook pages. Words, words, words.

The Gospel message is more than lowercase w words.

It’s about the power of the Word and how that transforms the power of our words.

The words we use when we talk to one another, yes, within the walls of our church, but even more so when we are outside of the church being The Church. Yes, maybe in those moments and conversations and relationships most of all are when the words we use reflect the Word.

Or should reflect The Word.

Words can welcome.

Words can exclude.

Words can wound.

Words can warm.

Words can draw boundaries and lines in the sand. (Jesus literally drew lines in the sand one time—remember what happened next?)

Words can offer safe spaces for vulnerable conversations, me-too words saying you are welcome here in this space, and yes, I know it is hard.

Girls, I really think words matter. How we write them, how we say them, how we feel them deep inside when we’re struggling to pray. All of this. All the words. And they matter because Jesus is the Word.

The Word now. The Word from the beginning.

This matters.

And when there are no words, there is still The Word.

In the beginning.

Now.

Love,

Your Momma

The Eighty-Ninth Letter: Juice & Crackers

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Dear Daughters,

One of my favorite vignettes from Anne Lamott’s memoir Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith is this passage:

Our preacher Veronica said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken—those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room, until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.

You bring them juice and graham crackers.

I was thinking about the life-as-trauma-unit-waiting-room again this morning as I wrote a letter to God, working through the weight of the world I was feeling. I wrote about my friends who are in dark seasons, in despair and crisis, illness and loss, sadness and frustration.

When I make prayer lists, there is no shortage of concerns to jot down. Everywhere I look, it seems, every time I pick up my phone to catch up with a texting conversation, there is a burden to help shoulder, to help lift, to come alongside.

And in striking contrast to those struggles and suffering is my life of relative ease.

That’s what I was writing about this morning: life isn’t fair.

My day was bursting with accomplishment yesterday because I crossed off myriad items from my to-do list and even did a few extra things I’d been wanting to make space for but hadn’t managed to in weeks. I was light and joyful and grateful. But my phone buzzes every hour to remind me to pray for my loved ones. And, in addition to those interruptions, my mind kept drifting to the news I’d received yesterday morning of a close friend’s loss and sorrow.

So my day kept swinging back and forth between helium balloons floating into the sky and boulders rolling off the edge of a cliff.

Those are strange metaphors, I guess, but that’s kind of the point. I struggled to process the paradox of life and grace in this broken and beat-up world. And I was still processing it this morning when the juice and crackers quote came to mind.

It doesn’t seem fair that my life is full of good things and opportunities to use my vocation and glimpses of the holy in the ordinary while my friends are struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

It doesn’t seem fair that I can write about beauty in this life and seeing grace in the clutter of childrearing and homeschooling and writing creatively—and really see it and feel it and know it—while my friends are processing death and illness and the NICU and hospice.

I am not more deserving of grace.

They are not more deserving of suffering.

This I know for sure.

So how am I to live in this tension of grace and suffering, being attentive to beauty while also coming alongside dark and difficult journeys? What right do I have to speak life into seasons of death when my commitment to writing about the sacred butts up against the lived reality of so many of my friends?

Well, girls, this morning as I remembered Lamott’s trauma unit metaphor and jotted it down in my notebook again to try to inspire myself to be one of those “more or less OK” people who shows up to “sit with people,” who brings “them juice and graham crackers,” I thought of something I’d never noticed before.

Juice and crackers are communion.

The body and blood of Jesus.

When we show up, we don’t just bring ourselves.

We don’t just bring snacks.

We bring Jesus.

How have I never noticed that before in all the times I’ve referenced this quote?

We are Jesus in those moments, those moments when he seems the most far away, when we feel like all we are doing is showing up and waiting, the body of Christ is there already.

And it is sufficient.

And as if that weren’t enough of an epiphany for one day, girls, you helped me connect it back to my sacred ordinary life, outside of metaphor, a few hours later.

You asked for graham crackers for your snack this morning during read aloud.

You called them the “yummy crackers.”

But I knew what you meant, even if you didn’t.

You meant Jesus.

Because he’s here, too.

Love,

Your Momma

The Eighty-Third Letter: The Stranger Is Jesus

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Dear Daughters,

I woke up this morning with the weight of a nightmare still hanging around me. I was glad it was nearly time to get out of bed because there was no sleeping to be had after that point. I had dreamt that one of you had gotten abducted out in front of our house. It was strange to watch the whole scene unfold in my dream, and as I woke I was determined to talk to you about stranger danger. I got out of bed, went to the bathroom, headed downstairs, squeezed a lemon into my water, and I was still thinking through the best way to approach the subject with you without making you afraid.

The thing is, I don’t want you to be afraid.

I don’t want you to think every person you don’t know might kidnap you.

I don’t want you to fear the stranger.

This whole stranger-danger thing? I’m just not convinced it’s a good way to raise you, even as my nightmare tapped into one of my own deepest fears–not being able to keep you safe.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being honest and forthright with you about the struggles of life in our broken world. In our house we talk about injustice and poverty and racism. But there’s always a pressure in my chest when I think about trying to talk to you about stranger danger.

And I’ll sound a little preachy on this point, but it’s because of Jesus.

The narrative of scripture reinforces that idea that the stranger is Jesus. From the old Testament story of Abraham welcoming the angels, to Jesus talking about himself being served when we clothe the poor, visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, it seems to me that the vocation of Christians is to love even in the face of potential dangers. That when we welcome those who are other, those who are different, those who are most in need of hope, we welcome Jesus.

I’m convinced this is not a metaphor.

Today in Sunday school, we talked about the last chapter of Luke, the resurrection appearances of Jesus, including one of my favorite narratives of all of the Gospels: the road to Emmaus. There is such richness to the story, which reads like a parable because it is so full of meaning. The two disciples are met by Jesus on a 7-mile journey, but they don’t recognize him as the risen Christ. Still, he walks along with them. Jesus asks them why they are sad and discouraged, and they respond with surprise,

"Are you the only stranger 
in Jerusalem who has not heard...?"

Are you the only stranger…?

Today, when I read this passage aloud, I heard this line differently than I have in the past. I heard the irony of the question.

Because, of course, Jesus is the stranger.

And then a few verses later comes the revelation of his true identity. How, how is it revealed?

Girls, it is only because the disciples have insisted on being hospitable to the disguised Jesus! They insist on him staying with them because it is late, they welcome the stranger, and then they let the stranger be the one who breaks the bread.

They let the stranger become the host.

They let the stranger offer something to them.

And the stranger is revealed as Jesus in one miraculous moment of bread-breaking. That means bread-sharing, girls.

A shared table. With a stranger.

The choir sang a rendition of O Holy Night today in church as part of the cantata. The line

Chains shall he break, 
for the slave is our brother

gets me every time.

It’s so radical because the slave is the complete other, right? Someone at the bottom, oppressed, at the mercy of captors. It is a good reminder that someone we would recognize as completely other than us is our sister. That the vulnerable is our brother. That the poor is our sister. That the broken and abandoned and lost is our brother. That the lonely is our sister.

That the stranger is our brother.

The stranger.

Jesus is our brother.

Jesus is the stranger.

You know what else is a refrain of scripture, right up there alongside the stranger being Jesus? The command to fear not.

Fear not.

And get this, Jesus had to say that to his disciples, his friends, even when they did recognize him. Because he was showing up in ways they didn’t expect.

Think about that for a minute.

 

Truly, He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

So, yeah.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of love, rather than fear.

I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of kindness, rather than distance.

Girls, I’m going to teach you to fault on the side of welcome and hospitality, rather than avoiding the stranger.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fifty-First Letter: Love vs. Fear

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Dear Daughters,

Three or four months ago, I had a conversation with friends who are a few decades older than I am. Politics came up, because it always does. I made the comment that, although I realized the political situation seemed dire with so much at stake, I was pretty confident that in the scheme of things, the turmoil of this moment too would pass. And, I continued, no matter the outcome, it wouldn’t end up being as dire as it seemed right then.

My friends disagreed.

This was dire, they said. We are in desperate times, they said. So much is at stake, they said.

They made it sound end-of-the-world apocalyptic-ish, and these are not apocalyptic-predicting folks. (Trust me, because I know some of those kind of folks, too.)

Well, girls, let me be candid. When I read Scripture, that’s not the message I read.

Recently, your children’s Bible poignantly paraphrased Jesus’ words to his disciples after he calmed the storm. Jesus asked his friends, “Why did you believe your fears instead of me?”

I heard your dad read that question out loud, and I’ve heard it dozens of times before as we’ve paraded through these stories, but for some reason it really settled into my heart that night.

Why did you believe your fears instead of me?

I’ve been trying to avoid writing anything political in any sort of public place, and though it is an impossible task, I’ve tried to avoid reading what people I love are saying about politics. Because these well-meaning, Christian people whom I love dearly are saying some very unloving things (or at least sharing links to words that are very unloving).

The thing is, I am blessed to be friends with folks of all political convictions, people who hold their convictions tightly and have well-thought out reasons to support the political parties they support. It’s good to have friends with varying perspectives and life experiences. In fact, I feel fortunate to have friends with whom I disagree, because it does help me to think more objectively about difficult issues.

But lately, in trying to be honest about their own convictions, many of my friends have said unkind things.

Girls, they are saying these unloving things because they are afraid.

They are saying these unloving things because they believe that much is at stake. Too much is at stake. It seems they think everything is at stake.

And yet I read the gospel, and I am studying the history of the early church, and I hear Jesus saying to me, “Why are you believing your fears instead of me?”

I remember being taught as a young evangelical child that the basic message at the heart of the New Testament was to love God first, neighbors second, and ourselves last. JOY was the pneumonic used to drive it home. I’ll probably teach it to you, too. Jesus. Others. Yourself. JOY.

As an adult in this season of life, raising children in my thirties, being a leader in my church, sending down roots in this place we call home, every single time I open the Gospels, I am convicted that I am not loving others enough.

I am convicted that the call to serve Jesus and serve the Kingdom of God is a radical and difficult journey of love. Love is hard. All the time.

That journey of love is one of vulnerability, not security. That journey is one of hospitality, not fear of the stranger. That journey is one of healing, not sowing division. That journey treats all life as sacred, even those we see as dangerous, those who seem threatening to our way of life.

That journey of love? Well, it challenges our way of life.

Because that’s the point. There shouldn’t be any “our” in what we are trying to protect.

This life was never “ours” to begin with.

And so I ask myself frequently, what is the way of life the Kingdom has called me to, still calls me to?

What I know is that it is pure grace that pulls me along to see in scripture, to see in my neighbor, to see in your bright eyes and compassionate souls what I know to be true even when I am tired and scared and worried about your future.

What I know to be true is the gospel.

It’s a gospel of hard, vulnerable, compassionate love.

It’s the gospel of this-world-is-not-your-home.

It’s the gospel of nothing-is-as-dire-as-it-seems.

It is the gospel of the-least-of-these are at the heart of the Kingdom.

I hope you see this radical love at the heart of the gospel message, girls.

And I hope you don’t believe your fears instead of Jesus.

You’ll have fears, girls, lots of them. I know I do. But that’s when I turn to the words of Jesus. It sounds so cheesy, but there you have it.

In the life I see him leading, I can’t find any reason to make excuses about my safety, my financial security, even the safety of my family.

It’s reassuring to me to know that you won’t read these letters for at least another decade. By that time the crazy political season of 2016 will just be a blip in the history of our country. You might not even be able to remember who the candidate was that lost the election. (This is hard for me to imagine, but I’ve been amazed at how little the current college students know or remember about events that seem so pivotal in my own memories. Then again, they were your age when the Towers fell in 2001.)

Yes, I am confident this election’s anger and hostility and everything-is-at-stake chaos will fade.

But you know what won’t fade?

The way of love you are called to. The way of life I am called to.

And if you hear me in ten or twenty years making excuses about why I can’t love my neighbor as myself, you can remind me of that question Jesus asked his disciples, these friends who had already seen him feed the 5000, cast out demons, and heal the sick: “Why did you believe your fears instead of me?”

You can ask me that, girls. I will need to hear it.

Love,

Your Momma

The Forty-Eighth Letter: I Need Reviving

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Dear Daughters,

Tonight our church is kicking off a revival weekend: three evenings of dinner and revival services that culminate in our Sunday morning worship service and potluck after church.

Sigh.

I should probably say up front that I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I feel a bit ambivalent about these planned revival events in general.

Probably because of the charismatic strain of my childhood—in which we said we expected the spirit to move any given Sunday—it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around a planned-out revival. Though I’ve been told that these are totally normal things for a church such as mine, I’ll confess it’s hard for me not to be doubtful.

Over the last few days, though, I’ve been feeling a good old Pentecostal nudge about it. Here’s what that nudge is telling me:

We need reviving.

And, what’s more:

I need reviving.

Last week, during a meeting with one of our ministers, I broke down in tears because the church feels broken to me. Like we’ve got it wrong and I don’t even know how to change things. Like I don’t have the energy to even imagine how church could be different, how new life could be breathed into dry bones. (Look at me getting all Scripture-quotey.)

Hear this, girls. I’m not trying to be down on our particular local church. This is a community who loves you and teaches you and smiles at you and can’t believe how big you’re growing.

What I’m trying to say is that I have this gut feeling, this uneasiness, that the church as a whole is broken.

The way we tend to do church—and by “we,” I guess I mean everyone who has experienced church as I’ve experienced it, which certainly isn’t everyone, not even everyone at my own church, but I would guess is a lot of thirty-something Americans who grew up broadly evangelical—the way we do church doesn’t seem to be getting to the heart of Kingdom-of-God work. We make due with how church is because it’s always been like that. We are used to it. We don’t even expect it to be more, to be the place where we experience the presence of God. Yes, the presence of God. Look at me getting Pentecostal.

I think a lot of us do a lot of good in our individual lives, a lot of us have these hands-and-feet-of-Jesus convictions, but I rarely see faith communities living out being the body, being a community that draws people to God, that welcomes the stranger, that cares for the orphan and the widow, that feeds the hungry, heals the deaf and the mute. I don’t see us doing much of that literally or metaphorically.

Sigh. Maybe I just don’t have eyes to see. Or ears to hear.

As I said, I could use some revival.

I’ve been studying Mark lately, and Jesus is just so radical.

And so I was crying tears of frustration and sadness and broken-heartedness, because I want a community that selflessly and radically gives to one another and to the world, a community that is vibrant and happy to join together on a regular basis because we are Just So Darn Excited to be gathering and worshipping, to be learning and teaching, to simply be sharing in the presence of God.

That presence of God would call us to radical lives, girls, not just shuffling-kids-to-soccer-practice lives.

That presence of God would draw the stranger to us, and we could be welcoming angels without realizing it, rather than weighing the pros and cons of snappier music during our services. (Don’t get me wrong–I wouldn’t mind a little more toe-tapping myself.)

Sigh.

Here’s the truth. When I try to get you excited about church on Sunday mornings—yay! Sunday school! Yay! Nursery! So fun!—it’s a show. A show.

I don’t feel that excited on Sunday mornings, truth be told, and by the looks of most people in our church—the harried parents, the lonely widowers, the distracted businesspeople, the college professors, the worn-out staff, the kids running to get donuts—I don’t think most of them are excited about being present either (except maybe those kids who really want the donuts, you two included).

Most of us are there because we are there.

And so… revival.

Seems like a good idea to me.

Let’s go get us some.

Love,

Your Momma