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In which heaven breaks through

We lit the candles after supper on Sunday, the table covered with the remnants of spaghetti and meatballs. The tinies bickered over who gets to blow out the candles at the end, and we were all “BLOWING OUT CANDLES IS NOT THE POINT OF ADVENT” and I read our devotional off the laptop screen. Evelynn kept interrupting, wanting to talk, too, and so we shushed and quieted and started over and over and over. Moment of peace and reverence, indeed, I huffed. But then Brian asked a few questions, and their eyes were big as they answered: this candle is peace! this one is hope! this one is joy! it’s because Jesus came to give us those things! Yes, indeed, I guess we’re getting it together, heaven forgive me for not noticing it. God, the mess and the reverence all gathered together is so beautiful.

Earlier that day, I had pulled up the school gymnasium and flung open the car doors: run! run! go to the music room! you’re late! Anne and Joe were off like a shot, galloping in their boots for the last kid choir rehearsal before their performance at 10:30 that morning. I parked the car and followed them into the dark gym. It was filled with empty chairs and Christmas lights, and there in one far corner, a gathering of parents stood smack right in front of the risers filled with children in their Christmas best. We bundled like penguins, shuffling shoulder to shoulder, iPhones up to record the actions, DSLRs set on automatic settings clicking away, our feet tapping with the songs we had memorized along with our tinies. I stood in the dark, hugged a few friends, snapped blurry pictures with my iPod because I’d forgotten my camera, sang along “doo-doot-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo it’s Christmas” and became the full sense of sight, drinking the sight of them standing on the risers right into my frazzled soul. God, they’re so beautiful.

We sang for nearly an hour and a half. Oh, there was other stuff, too – a spoken word poem, a dance, a choir, the kids singing, but we sang and sang and sang in the darkness, packed in beside each other with all of the grandmothers and grandfathers and in-laws who came to witness this moment. God, we were so beautiful.

Near the end of the service, a loud hum kicked in right above our heads. We looked up and fake snow began to fall through the blue lights while the girl on stage danced and twirled. The machine kept humming and spilling fake snow onto the low stage. The last song was a loud and boisterous celebration and all of a sudden all the kids, as one, without prompting, just began to head for the scaffolded stage, climbing the step and they began to dance. Joe and his buddies stomping and jerking, trying to imitate the break-dancers, Anne and her friends twirling and leaping in the back, Evelynn and all the toddlers flapping their arms and grinning. It was chaos and it was beautiful, the blue light illuminating the children, the grown-ups clapping along and singing at the top of their lungs while the snow drifted down through the darkness inside to gather in our hair. God, that moment was so beautiful.

My friend’s husband negotiated freedom for wrongfully imprisoned women this week. We talked about it, about the real tangible moment of Jubilee happening right this blessed second – captives! released! exiles returning home! – and we cried together for these women. God, my friend and her husband are so beautiful.

Someone told me about their church holding a Blue Christmas service for those in their community who are grieving and longing at Christmas, unable to fathom the joy perhaps, and so they make space for prayer, for communion, for quiet, to hold each other, to light candles for their grief together for just an evening in the midst of the shopping and the wrapping and the bright tinsel. God, what a beautiful way to minister to each other.

Our Legacy Project in Haiti is still going strong. We’re filling backpacks with hope for a Haitian community and even right now at a busy Christmas season, people are clicking and giving their money away, sowing seeds that will last for generations. We’re already at 50% of our goal. God, generous people of hope are so beautiful.

A hundred times a week, in the small daily moments of my life and the big borderless world of believers, one lighted candle after another, here are the moments when heaven breaks through.

Sometimes every one can see it, sometimes no one sees it but you: the light is breaking through.

I love the phrase “heaven breaks through.”

I love it because it means that we’ve set up an outpost for the Kingdom of God, it means that the God-way-of-life has been established for even just a moment here on earth, it means that for just a while there we saw the way we were always meant to live. Redemption, wholeness, beauty, love, peace, goodness.

It means that for a second everything fit into wholeness and we caught a glimpse of true intended humanity. It means that something rises up in our soul when we see it, and we offer the only response: God, that is so beautiful.

***

I’d love to hear about a moment or two when you found heaven breaking through in your life. Look forward to reading about it in the comments.

Oh, and to donate to Backpacks of Hope, which is part of the Legacy Project in Haiti that we helped to fund last year, you can click here for info.

 

Continue Reading · advent, christmas, church, community, family, Haiti · 27

In which I am still hopeful because….

Sarah and Anne

Over the past month, I’ve been talking to people all over the country and across the United States about my little yellow book. And people always ask me, how can you still be hopeful?

Pastors, preachers, bloggers, professors, students, random questions from the audience, interviewers, friends, readers, reporters, podcasters, they want to know: how can I – me, who knows better! who hears the truth every day! who is the target of a lot of vitriol and push-back at times! –  possibly still be hopeful?

After all, I know the stats and stories. We all see what’s happening in the world. We all see what’s happening in the Church as a resurgence of “true womanhood” and “true manhood” gains steam in some vocal enclaves. Women have been wounded, not only by the secular remnants of a patriarchal culture, but the ways in which the system is practiced within their churches or faith communities.  That’s the problem with bad theology: it has consequences. The interviewers pointed to the apparent popularity of writers and pastors and theologians who baptize secular patriarchal systems in sacred language and then preach the gospel of headship, power, and hierarchy. They point to Jonathan Merritt’s exposing post on the sexism that is practiced by many popular leadership conferences

In my own town, there’s a gigantic church that has, in just the past couple of years, changed from affirming women as pastors and elders to forbidding it entirely. I have spoken to several women who had to leave the church – and the ones who chose to stay – and it’s a tragic thing to watch a body of believers strip one another of dignity and vocation and calling in the name of God. And yet this church continues to grow even after this gigantic step backwards: I drive by on Sunday mornings and the parking lot is full of cars.

Whether it’s something major like the fight for something as basic as an education for girls in the developing world or something seemingly minor like major Christian bookstores who won’t stock my book, people want to know, aren’t you discouraged by this? 

There’s the danger of a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly put it. But there is also the danger of listening to just one side of the story. I think we need to be able to hold both in our hands: the stories that hurt and wound and discourage us AND the stories that breathe hope and whisper of a new world and bring light to our souls.

I think one of the most important things I can hang onto as I walk through this world is hope.

I’m not always hopeful. Sometimes I’m downright discouraged and angry, wanting once again to just peace out and leave the crazies behind. Sometimes the idea of starting a commune somewhere in the Interior where I can spin yarn, homeschool, and make my own soap all while having my fingers stuffed in my ears sounds pretty good.

Yet I am overwhelmingly hopeful. I am even more compelled to learn, to listen, to stay, and to remain engaged.

If I am intentional about holding space for the stories of pain and despair and wounding, I am also intentional about holding space for the hope and the victory.

I have hope first of all because of, well, you knew it was coming…..Jesus. (Everything always comes back to him for me.) Because I believe in the redemptive movement of God, moving the story of humanity further into God’s purposes and heart for us, one story at a time. Because I have faith in the soon coming King, because I believe we know how the story ends – all things restored, all tears wiped from our eyes, love wins – and because of the millions of places where Heaven is already breaking through on earth.

But I also have hope because of my tender-warrior mother. Because of my strong and brave sister. Because of my father and my husband. Because of my beloved son and daughters. I might have given up, over and over again, if they weren’t there with me. My husband and my sister plotted a surprise book release party for me last weekend and, in addition to the beautiful evening, they made space for my parents to come up and pray over me, commissioning me and sending me out with their blessing. It was a sacred moment for me.

Jesus Feminist_Surprise Party 69

I have hope because of Idelette. And Kelley. And Tina. And all of my girls at SheLoves who are scattered around the world.

I have hope because of Micah. And Grace. And Nish. And all of my friends and our readers at A Deeper Story.

I have hope because of the women I meet in church basements and coffee shops all over North America, and the ones I hear about in the UK and Ireland, in Australia and South America, in Dijibouti and Burundi and Holland. I have hope because of my own pastor who, when he asked me to preach on a Sunday morning, flat-out told me that I didn’t have to preach a message about why it’s okay for women to be up there. I didn’t have to “earn” my place on our platform, it was already settled as far as he was concerned, and so I could just get up there and preach like anyone else, no need for a “lady-sermon.”

I have hope because of every single person in this video:

I have hope because of the young women who are entering seminary with such motivation and hopefulness, and the women who are already there and have blazed a trail for the rest of us, and the churches who are eager to hire them and are changing their job descriptions to include female pronouns. I have hope because in the middle of that list of conferences who ignore or marginalize women’s voices there was the Wild Goose Festival as a stark contrast with nearly 50% representation. I have hope because of the Q Ideas conference about women. I was watching the live stream on and off all day and I watched as woman after woman presented beautifully and prophetically about vocation and calling. And then I watched as Gabe Lyons lead a panel discussion among a couple of the husbands about what it means to have two callings under one roof and how they navigate that. I listened as each of those men – pastors! white men! in nice suits! – spoke so positively and lovingly about their wives’ callings and vocations, about how they work together as a team to see mutual support manifested in their homes, and it was a breath of fresh air to me.

I have hope because of Christena Cleaveland, Carolyn Custis James, and Austin Channing Brown. I have hope because of Rachel Held Evans and Shauna Niequist and Lynne Hybels. I have hope because of the Junia Project and Christians for Biblical Equality. I have hope because of Diana Trautwein and Christine Caine. I have hope because of Kathy Escobar and the Refuge Community. I have hope because of Her.meneutics and D.L. Mayfield and the Livesays.

I have hope because of my own beloved church and community and the thousands of other healthy and imperfect local churches all around the world (I am a local church girl, can’t deny it). I have hope because of Mercy Ministries of Canada and Heartline and Help One Now. I have hope because of Jen Hatmaker and Deidra Riggs and Nadia Bolz-Weber.

I have hope because of Malala. Because of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Because of Maya Angelou and Madame Curie. Because of Aung San Suu Kyi and Brené Brown. Because of Arundhati RoyFawzia Koofi, Adéle, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I have hope because of Katie MakkaiSabatina James, Anne Lamott, Sheryl Sandberg, Lauren Winner, and Leymah Gbowee.  (We haven’t even begun to talk about the men whose names should be here, too. This list is already rather long.)

I have hope because we’re all so different, and yet we’re uniting.

I have hope because I believe in the power of the grassroots, because I believe in the little ones and the little ways.

And perhaps most of all, I have hope because of the hundreds of unnamed and unnoticed and uncelebrated disciples who simply get on with it. Far away from the blogging and the slick websites and the fancy microphones, they are engaged in the reality of living out the hope of glory in their real, right-now lives in the trenches. The ones who are serving their communities, teaching kids to read, taking meals to the elderly and sick, inviting immigrants to share their Thanksgiving table. The ones who are leading Bible studies in prisons and praying for the sick and rescuing girls from brothels in Thailand and passing Kleenex across the kitchen table.

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! – Hebrews 12:1-3 (The Message)

I asked on Twitter and Facebook about who gives you hope. Your answers have overwhelmed me.

Here are just a few from Twitter:

And over on Facebook:

Sharideth Smith: When I was a child, my father’s best friend left his family for another man. When my dad’s friend was dying of AIDS, my father sat by his bed holding his hand. When “Bill” asked my dad if God would let him in, my dad’s only response was, “I will see you when I get there.” That is the best example of grace I could have ever asked for.

Jennifer Lee: Pastor Liz Moss, from the Reformed heart of northwest Iowa. First Reformed female pastor (or one of the first) in Sioux County. And now, very active in the Ethiopia Reads program. Amazing woman of valor.

Abbie Kampman: Carl Medearis, Ann Voskamp, Bob Goff, my husband, Mary (sis of Martha), a couple we support serving in Saudi, and countless others.

Brandi Goff McElheny: Soooooo many people. The women I walk with who are leaving abuse inspire me to remember wholeness. The authors who give us permission to be broken and not have all the answers, but to seek the kingdom. Kathy Silveira Escobar and the work at the refuge as they seek to live and love in the margins. The folks at Oasis India and their work in the red light districts of Mumbai and how they continually bestow dignity on the women they walk alongside. James IndianRescue Mission and his team who investigate brothels night after night and who’s eyes shine with tears over the little girls they see. Akwango Anne Grace who started Beauty for Ashes Uganda and now has 850 mamas in our program – and this is her volunteer work on top of her full time job! And the two people who stay at the forefront of my mind to keep me going in the work of redemption are: 1) Adeke Loy – a mama in Uganda who faces horrific abuse and is slowly seeing beauty and redemption & 2) Reeshma, a 12 year old girl who I met while on investigation with Indian Rescue Mission. Her virginity was on the market and when I get tired of this work in the margins, fighting for justice, I remember her and how very worth it she is.

You can read everyone’s answers or contribute your own over on Facebook.

Or you can let me know in the comments. Who gives you hope?

All photos in this post are by Tina Francis Mutungu. You can see a few more from that book release party over here.

Continue Reading · church, community, Jesus Feminist, journey, women · 27

In which we’re not afraid of you

I’m the one who gets on your nerves, the one you wish would go away, I know. Maybe I embarrass you. Maybe I worry you. Maybe I anger you. Maybe it’s a bit of insecurity? jealousy? fear? Or maybe, just maybe, you’re afraid of people like me.

So.

Go ahead and say that I’m going to hell because I’m a charismatic woman, because I speak in tongues, because I believe in the mysteries of God. Go ahead and call me a heretic and a blasphemer, a wielder of strange fire, if it makes you feel better.

Go ahead and say I don’t love the Bible because I believe women are people, too. Tell me I’m in sin because Jesus is the head of our home and we submit to one another, and we both preach in church now and again.

Go ahead and say that I don’t have a right to write a book because I don’t have the proper letters behind my name, because I didn’t study in the ivory halls with that theologian you like to retweet, because I don’t have a properly footnoted thesis to back up the truth I know and practice in my life. I’m not worthy of being listened to with respect because I am a layperson, sure. Just because I love Jesus and can turn a phrase doesn’t earn me a place at your table.

Go ahead and say that I’m one of those grace people, one of those ones who forgets how to speak the truth, just too accepting. It’s all bit too loosey-goosey for you, it’s time for some authority to be exercised here. You like orderly boxes, ticked off boxes next to a list of position statements, I know. We’re starting to let this freedom stuff go to our heads.

After all.

I’m the happy clappy kind of Christian, oh, yes. I’m the one who speaks in tongues and lays on hands. I’m audacious enough to believe God is still speaking, still moving, still alive, still loving. I’m the one you warn the others about – stay away from that kind of mystic, you say, it’s a slippery slope. I’m the crazy one who worships with her whole body in her whole life – you might find me on my knees on a cold gymnasium floor with all the other renewal-ish people around me, or you might find me in a cathedral during Eucharist with my palms quietly up on my knees, receiving, always receiving, or you might find me in a field ringed with pine trees while I pray and pray and pray. I’m the dreamer of dreams, the speaker of visions, the heart-beating-faster with words of knowledge and unafraid to speak.

I’m the happily married mother of three who calls herself a feminist. I’m the one who grew up completely comfortable with female pastors. I’m the one who was raised to believe, live, and advocate for mutual submission, for full equality. I’m the one who dares to believe that women are people, too.  I’m debunking all your labels and accusations and fear-mongering with my very life. I’m the one who knows the Bible tells the story of wholeness and restoration, the Spirit demonstrates it, the community affirms it. I’m the one who believes that life in the Kingdom of God starts now: I’m setting up my little bonfire, a little outpost on the shore. This is my light and I’m going to let it shine: you are loved, you are free.

I’m the non-academic, yet another somewhat “pop” blogger with a book deal, another sign of the end of everything you hold dear perhaps. Blogging is dangerous because there is no gatekeeper. What will the people do without The Proper Authority to vet and approve the voices unleashed among the community of God? When else in Christendom would a woman like me have a voice or a platform or a book published? But isn’t it time, I say, isn’t it time for the everyday followers of Jesus, the ones who are wrestling, the ones who are living it out in our neighbourhoods and communities, isn’t it time for us to be heard, too, imperfect as we may be? The academics are worth listening to, so are the pastors, so are the older white men and traditional gatekeepers, absolutely: but make no mistake, you need to be listening to the rest of us, too. You need to hear and honour the voices and experiences of the non-academic, of the non-professionals, of the working class, of the middle class, of women, of the elders, of people of colour, of sexual minorities, remember the global voice, too. We are here, we are not voiceless, and we’re not waiting for permission to speak anymore. We got on with it long ago, we’re not waiting for you to notice us anymore.

I’m a big wide and messy orthodoxy. I’m the one who found Jesus in community centres and cathedrals, pubs and living rooms. I love the Presbyterians and the Mennonites, the Baptists and the no-names, the preachers of L.A. and the practitioners of the simple way, the megachurches and the house churches. I am a recovering know-it-all and I’m planted in the house of God, I love the family of God even when they drive me batty.

I’m not worried about boundaries and litmus tests, I’m not afraid of a slippery slope. I’ll lavish grace and invitation and proclaim love love love without fear. I don’t serve a God of Not-Enough, I serve a God of More-Than-Enough, More-Than-You-Can-Ask-Or-Imagine, a prodigal God, a lay-down-your-life God. You can warn me that I’m too generous, my arms are too wide open, too inclusive, as you draw your circles smaller and tighter until at last you’re the only one standing inside, alone. Narrative of scarcity or narrative of Christ’s abundance set before us, we give from what we have.

I get it.

If you can dismiss people like me, you don’t have to listen to people like me.

If you can dismiss me because I didn’t go to Yale or Fuller, because I’m a non-American woman, because I’m a lady-preacher, because I’m charismatic, because I still love the local church, because you don’t like my tone or my face or my age or my race, because I’m too much into All That Grace Stuff, then I’m not worthy. If you can dismiss us, you don’t have to listen to us regular little ones with small voices standing here along the shoreline.

Maybe you’re afraid because you know that I am one of many. And I am.  We’re the pew fodder, the grassroots rising up, the refugees from your systems and institutions, the subversives who stay, the ones slipping beyond your grasp. I’m one of the many outside who don’t care to sit around your tables anymore, we don’t play by your rules, we don’t need your  justification,  we’re not really longing for your approval, we’re beyond the reach of your tiny boxes and narrow constructs and boundary marker believership.

If you can discredit us or downplay us or disrespect us, you don’t have to listen to us.

And that’s just fine.

You don’t have to listen.

But I will speak the truth, even if my voice shakes. I will sing in the woods. I will stand here in the wilderness, head up, unashamed, following in the footsteps of Jesus as best as I know to do it, loving him into every corner of my existence, because, at last, at least, I am not afraid of you.

 

 

Continue Reading · church, faith, fearless, journey · 125

In which I explain why I like going to church

Because we drive by the farms on the edge of town and the tinies watch for sheep.  Because I almost always consider pulling over on the side of the road just to take photos of our Sunday drive: the crisp blue sky and the sharp green rolling hills, the turning-red blueberry bushes squatted across the fields, the rise of the mountains in the haze of morning, but how can you Instagram the rush of cold air in your lungs and how it makes you feel so beautifully, so fully, alive?

Because we walk in and Pat will hug me while she hands Joe the bulletin. Because after a week of Facebook and school pick-ups and drop-off lines, a week of writing and laundry, a week of working and to-do lists, I hear my name called out in the lobby and, maybe for just a moment, someone sees me.

Because we laugh with one friend, ask how another one’s health is doing, figure out who needs a meal this week. We exchange quick hugs as placeholders for the conversation that might unfold this week or next, maybe next month. We engage in all the small talk that precedes the heart-talks. I hear about a dear young couple whose baby might be coming home soon and now I’ve got a little tunic to knit for a beloved and longed-for baby to cast on later this afternoon.

Because someone is always glad to see my tinies. Because these are their friends. Because my tinies head for the kid table of colouring pages and crayons just to offer up a high five to their children’s pastor, they are home.

Because we sit in folding chairs in a rather drafty school gym and our tinies sprawl on the floor at our feet or perch on our hips or stand beside us and watch it all, all, all, taking it in.  This is what we do on Sundays, we tell them, we live it with them, we gather.

Because my friend Tracy leads worship, she wears biker boots and sometimes her hair is pink. Because when she begins to stomp those boots on that wooden stage and when she stretches her arms out wide, tips her head back and cries out to God like she believes it, it makes me want to sit down and cry. Because the guy who play the piano sings old Keith Green songs, the same ones I used to sing to my babies in the sleepless nights. Because my son wants to sit in the front row. Because my toddler raises her hands up and warbles and hollers a song, she thinks she’s singing along, and no one gives her a dirty look. Because my eldest is twirling in the back with her best friends, eager for the worship dance class starting in November.

Because that couple over there just got married and that other one has been married for forty years. Because that dad has his arm around his teenage son and that lady took my exhausted friend’s little baby right out of her arms with a gentle smile and said, go on, you go on and sing or sit down, I’ll look after her for a little while, and I saw my friend’s eyes well up with thankful tears. Because this guy is in recovery and that guy is his sponsor. Because all these teenagers like to sing their hearts out and because I can hear babies and restless toddlers making noise without restraint.

Because I love to sing and where else in our lives do we get to sing communally anymore? Because I love happy-clappy choruses and sober hymns, because “I love you, Lord” sounds so beautiful in my own mouth. Because I love to worship with my people, and these are my people.

Because I chat in the always-long line-up for tea and coffee. Because I sit beside my husband and we whisper back and forth during the sermon, it’s the closest we get to date night some months. Because we know and love our pastors for their humanity, not in spite of it, for their expansive pastoral hearts that make room for all of us, because of the way they show up for us. Because sometimes it’s an amazing sermon and sometimes it’s, um, not. Because we pass the bread and the cup, and we give each other communion and there is room at the table for everyone in this room.

Because I’ll see this little group of people on Thursday night for our Bible study, and that is where we’ll talk about the real stuff, show up, be disappointed and forgive, love each other a bit more every week. We’re friends now, but I see the promise of a sense of family coming.

Because even though the phrase “going to church” kind of bugs me (we don’t go, we are), and even though it’s messy and imperfect, even though I’ve let them down and they have let me down, even though there are disappointments, even though I don’t agree with everybody and they probably think I’m crazy sometimes, too, even though I don’t think we need an official sanctioned Sunday morning thing to be part of the Body of Christ, because even though I think the Church crosses a lot of our self-made boundaries and preferences and gatekeepers, I keep choosing this small family out of hope and joy.

Because I want my children to grow up with the imperfect community of God like I did. Because I want to reclaim my heritage of faith as worthy of intention. Because I need to receive and I need to give. Because I want the tinies to know that however much I mess up, however much I fall short of my own ideals, I was planted in the house of God because this is where I practice it, learn it, start all over again. Because I want my tinies to know what my voice sounds like when I sing Amazing Grace.

Because at the end of the service, they practice the priesthood of all believers and anyone can pray for anyone else. Just go ahead and pray, go ahead. Talk to each other, you don’t need a sanctioned commissioning, you are already part of this Body so go on then. Because I need to be around people who love Jesus, too.

Because I know Jesus better when I hear about Him from other people who follow Him, too. Because I almost always encounter the Holy Spirit in a profound, sideways sort of way when we’re gathered together in His name. Because then I leave and I go back out into my world, my neighbourhood, my life, and there is always the promise of next week. Because some of my greatest wounds have come from church and so my greatest healing has happened here, too.

In a fractured and mobile and globalized world, intentional community, church, feels like a radical act of faith and sometimes like a spiritual discipline. We  show up at a rented school and drink a cup of tea with the people of God and remember together, who we are, why we live this life, and figure out all over again how to be disciples of The Way, because we are people of hope.

 

 

Continue Reading · church, community, faith · 30