What does grace look like?

A few weeks ago, a strange convergence of faith-related things happened in the public eye.

Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died in hospice care.
Mark Driscoll, outspoken writer and pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, posted a public apology letter for some of his actions in leading his church.
World Vision, a Christian child sponsorship and world relief organization, changed their hiring policies to open employment to those in same-sex marriages...and then promptly reversed their decision.

I could spend many words on any one of those three events. We have the death of a man who led his congregation in truly hateful acts, picketing and protesting funerals of soldiers and celebrities, standing outside public events with damning anti-gay signs. We have an apology letter and a "signing-off" of social media from a man who has said terrible things about women, and especially women in leadership, though his apology seems most aimed at his own actions within his own church. And we have a relief organization who, whether you agree with their methods or not, does much good in the world, who opened the doors to more just hiring practices, and then, under pressure from donors, closed that door, and in the process still managed to lose much funding...funding that is crucial to saving the lives of children and families around the world.

What has been most interesting in watching these stories unfold is the gracious response to all three stories by those who, if we're being honest, were most theologically inclined to engage in a bit of Schadenfreude.

I watched Christians of all stripes pray for Mr. Phelps's peaceful passing, and for comfort for his family and his congregation. I watched progressive Christians offer up support and kindness for Marc Driscoll. I watched Christians in support of same-sex marriage say things like "if we think it is wrong for Evangelical organizations to pull support for World Vision when they opened up their hiring practices, then it is equally as wrong for us to pull support when they closed them."

And I was amazed at all this grace.

For as much as I believe I am a compassionate, caring person, I also know that I am stubborn. And when I get into the thick of things with those with whom I disagree, I can become oppositional for opposition's sake. And it is in times like that when I need the Holy Spirit, or my conscience, or someone who knows me well, to gently tap me on my shoulder and whisper into my ear, "Grace, Melissa. Grace."

And when I slow down enough to take a breath from my own stubbornness, then I find myself doing things like rooting for the underdog (or at least feeling empathy for them), taking seriously the real hurts of others (even if they are caused by inaccuracies or misunderstandings), looking for the best in others, and taking seriously the notion that even those with whom I disagree are often also working out of deep-seated convictions and good intentions.

I preached a couple weeks ago about God's call for us to seek loveliness in one another and in our world, rather than setting our sights on one another's sins, limitations, or brokenness. I am thankful for all those in my life who model grace; who look for the holiness in one another, who remember that God has called us all "beloved."

So what does grace look like? I think it looks like taking each other seriously. Taking each other at our word. Looking for points of agreement rather than disagreement. Listening often and listening well. Being bound to one another by our shared humanity, by our shared neediness, by our shared salvation. It's like compassion plus empathy plus being self-aware enough to realize that you aren't right all the time and you certainly don't always need to "win."

May you see grace in one another today, and feel grace extended to you, and be graceful and grace-filled in the people and places you touch.


Alive, I promise


Yeah. It's been quiet around here.

It's not that I don't have a lot to say.

Really, for starters, let me be embarrassed that I didn't even stop in here to post something big and important (that you probably figured out, if you can do math, and that you probably figured out if you are on Facebook or have spent any time near me or my extended family in the last three months):

Welcome to the world, Samuel Tyler! 
(Err...welcome to having spent three months in this world already before your mom got around to posting anything about you here...)

Here is a quick photo timeline - brand new through three months:

Yeah. We think he's pretty adorable. I don't need to litter this blog with incessant baby talk; if you're curious about Sam, his birth story, and random tidbits month to month, feel free to get your baby fix over at Laughing with Sarah.

I'm a month into being back at work, and Sam hangs out here in the office with me every day. It makes for a very full existence. For good and for bad. :) For instance, I have a crying, angry baby on my lap right now, and he's full, and I just changed his diaper, so I really have no idea what is wrong. Which makes me frustrated. And crying baby does not equal amazing productivity. I spend most days alternating between entertaining him (and getting very little done), and then rejoicing when he falls asleep for a nap (and rushing to get as much done as possible in a one or two hour window).

Matt is teaching a course at Luther College this semester, in addition to his regular human resources consulting job out of Chicago, so he is just about as busy as I've ever seen him. Maybe as busy as he was in law school, even? But I hope that he's finding the opportunity fulfilling, and not just stressful. And maybe it will open new doors for the future!

Let's see. What else...

It's cold here. By "here," I don't think I mean Iowa. I think I mean the midwest. But either way, brr. Lots of days below zero. And lots of snow. Exactly what winter should be, in my estimation. But the icy roads and the inability to spend any time outside (lest my face fall off) are starting to get a little old. And so I've been drinking a lot of coffee and hot chocolate to keep warm. And cheating a little and wearing jeans to the office some weekdays, because it is just too cold for skirts or for flimsy dress pants.

I have all sorts of things I want to write about soon: thoughts on family, thoughts on community, thoughts about the spirituality of repetition and routine...so look for more writing on the horizon. Hopefully I can also find the time and energy and organization to start posting my sermons again, because it's nice to have them out and about beyond just the walls of the sanctuary.

Anyway, consider this post a re-entry. Life is busy, and finding uninterrupted time to write is tricky (Sam loves to be held, and I'm terrible at typing one-handed!), but writing is good for me. It is normalizing. It centers me. It keeps me connected.

So watch for more to come. I've missed it here.


Daylight Savings Time

I'm keeping warm with a scarf, a baby belly, and slippers.
My knitting sits on the coffee table, waiting patiently.
Emme claims the blanket on the end of the couch as her own.
This is what happens when the afternoon turns gray.
It is 3:34 p.m. here in Iowa.

I just turned on lights in the living room because it was getting dark. Hard to tell whether the darkness is due to last weekend's time change or whether it is due to a thick, gray mass of clouds that have settled in over the town.

It always takes me a few days to adjust to the time change in the fall. Mornings, instead of looking like dark nighttime, look instead like faintly-lit gray hazes that make you wonder whether it is morning or evening; early daytime or late-afternoon cloud cover. Afternoons turn dark sooner than expected, and night falls earlier, fooling you into thinking that the day has come and gone more quickly than you expected. It takes me a few days of this to settle into it, to get to a place where I don't feel so disoriented and unsure of the time and rhythm of the day.

And then, as I settle in, something switches in me, and I get it. I remember what winter is like, and I understand the new feel of the day, and I remember the parts of my own self that get tucked away when we spring our clocks forward in March.

In other lifetimes, I gave myself an October threshold for listening to Advent and Christmas music. These days, I hold out until at least the start of November. This year, for whatever reason, I didn't even start thinking about it until last week, when I started loading up playlists onto my iPod in preparation for labor and delivery later this month, and I programmed myself a copious amount of Christmas music for those forthcoming hours.

I forget that we've passed Halloween already, and that Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away. My usual rush to embrace autumn feelings and flavors has been a little slow this year.

Perhaps because while the seasons change around me, and the time changes, and the sun sets earlier in the afternoon, my mind is not on the seasons themselves, or on holidays or traditions or even the bits and pieces of nostalgia that late fall and early winter dig up in me.

For the whole span of time we've lived in Iowa, time has been pressing ahead toward only one thing: the birth of this much-loved, much-awaited hedgehog of a baby, whose due date is just two weeks away. Thanksgiving this year will either be a celebration of a very new newborn, or the last few days of a very very uncomfortable pregnant lady. Christmas feels like forever away, because something as big as HAVING A BABY needs to happen between now and then. The whole fall has been a time of talking about this eventual baby and making initial plans and preparations, except that we are now in the last days, and the things that needed to get done "sometime this fall" now need to get done today and this week and as soon as we can manage them.

Today, though, Daylight Savings Time finally caught up to me in a useful way. As I sat here on the couch, watching the grayness of the afternoon creep in through the windows, I felt this urge for something to happen. Tired of waiting, I felt ready for a holiday, or ready for some nostalgia. Ready to knit and make soup and do autumnal things. Ready to scoff a little less at the Thanksgiving and even Christmas commercials on TV. I am ready for something to happen. Ready to meet this baby, or to eat some stuffing, or to start sorting through the Christmas decorations that we might put up right after Thanksgiving with family members who will be coming to see us. I'm okay with the wind blowing outside, and with the fact that it might be time to pull out my winter coat, even if I can't zip it up right now. I am ready for something to happen. Babies, holidays, families, cozy nights, anything to reclaim a space for myself that is no longer a space of mere waiting, but a space of anticipation and joy and movement.

Maybe being nine months pregnant makes me a bit of a crazy-lady. Because I'm not sure how a gray afternoon can somehow make me excited rather than depressed. But maybe the weather just reminds me that the seasons are again changing, and that nothing actually stands still in life, and when the quiet of waiting starts to drive you a little nuts, even the world outside can remind you that change is always on the horizon, and those things that you've been waiting for will indeed come, and all the days that you've been counting will indeed lead to something new and interesting and beautiful.


20 Pentecost: Faith enough

Mustard Seeds
"Mustard Seeds" by BGDL, on Flickr
Luke 17:1-10
Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive."

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

Every time I read this gospel, a hymn-verse leaps into my head. The disciples say "increase our faith," and my mind goes to the communion hymn, "Thee We Adore." Maybe you know it. The third verse goes like this:

Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God,
cleanse us, O Christ, with thy most cleansing blood:
increase our faith and love, that we may know
the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.
(Thee We Adore, O Hidden Savior, ELW 476)

Increase our faith and love, that we may know the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.

It's a prayer that many of us have likely prayed, in so many words, just like the disciples who cried out to Jesus, "increase our faith!"

It was October of last year. I was lying in bed at night, processing the news that our third attempt at IVF had failed. And for the first time in our many years of trying to have a baby, I finally got fed up. I laid awake in bed, praying...if you could call it praying. Mostly, I just said angry things to God. I said words inside my head that I’d never say out loud, in polite company or otherwise. I was hurt, I was angry, I was tired. And I wondered whether I had faith enough to keep going, to keep trying and hoping.

"Increase my faith and love," I prayed, in far angrier language, "that I might know hope and peace in this struggle."

Have you ever had nights like those? When you lie awake wondering if you really have faith and strength enough to press forward? When your doubts and fears seem to outweigh your faith? When the calling set before you by God seems to be just too difficult to carry out?

Throughout this season of Pentecost, the green season of growing in faith and discipleship, Jesus has been telling his disciples, over and over again, about the struggles of faith and discipleship: To be a disciple, you give up the comforts of home, and you put the concerns of the kingdom of God ahead of your other priorities. Being a disciple means carrying the cross, giving up possessions, and recognizing that the cost of discipleship is your very life itself.

Today, Jesus again instructs the disciples to do some hard things. “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and don’t give in to temptations to stray from working for the kingdom. Follow me in protecting the vulnerable. Follow me in confronting sin and injustice. Follow me in forgiving one another, and forgiving one another over and over again.”

Like the disciples, we are no stranger to the reality that faith and discipleship sometimes ask us to do very difficult things. Public things, like feeding the hungry, forgiving as we’ve been forgiving, putting the needs of others ahead of our own needs. And personal things, like moving forward through grief or confusion or tough personal circumstances.

Any one of these things has the power to keep us up at night, whether we are heartsick over the needs of our world or paralyzed by the needs of our own souls. And in those awake-at-night moments when we feel overwhelmed by the paths life has set before us, we, with the disciples, cry out, “Increase our faith!”

Because maybe, we believe, maybe if we had more faith, all the hard stuff would be easier. Maybe, if we had more faith, we could be better people. Maybe, if we had more faith, we could actually do good in the world. Maybe, if we had more faith, we’d have more answers and more certainty. Maybe, we think to ourselves, there is this certain level of faith, a certain volume of faith that needs to fill us up before we have the courage and strength to go forward in whatever God calls us to do or endure.

Everything else in life seems to function this way. You need a full gas tank before you can head out on a road trip, and you need a certain level money in your savings account before you can buy a house, and you need a certain number of years in your current position before you can earn a promotion, and you need a certain level of education or training before you can do certain tasks. We're used to this idea that you need a particular amount of something before you can benefit from it.

And so we look at faith the same way. Either as a practical concern or a matter of desperation. "Increase our faith!" we cry out to God, because it's hard for us to ever believe that we have enough of it.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it turns faith into a commodity rather than a gift. It turns faith into a bargaining tool, where we think we can trade a certain amount of faith for some outcome that we desire from God. It turns faith into a weird mystical protein shake that we drink to bulk ourselves up before we do the heavy lifting of sharing the gospel with the world.

This "increase in faith" mentality makes faith all about us instead of all about God; all about our needs instead of all about God's faithfulness.

This is where Jesus steps in with the reminder that even a speck of faith the size of a tiny mustard seed is plenty. More than enough.

Because the thing about faith is that it really isn't about us. It's about God. In our dark nights of the soul, it’s not actually the quantity of our faith that gets us through, it is the whole and complete faithfulness of God to us that sustains us. And when we are called to do hard things like forgiving and reconciling and feeding and healing, it’s not the strength of our faith that helps us carry out those tasks, it is the whole and complete faithfulness of God to us that empowers us.

Jesus tells the disciples that the tiniest speck of faith is enough to answer God's calling. That even the teensiest scrap of faith is plenty to act faithfully in the world. Hence his little discourse on slaves doing only what they ought. He’s telling the disciples that they don’t need superhuman faith to answer God’s call to act faithfully in the world.

Because there is no rule that says you have to have all of your own baggage figured out before you can offer a listening ear to a friend in need. And there's no prerequisite that you have to have forgiven yourself before you can forgive others around you. And you can feed the hungry even if you are still feeling spiritually hungry. And you can tell somebody that God loves them even if you aren't quite sure that you yourself are so loveable.

Jesus calls the disciples and us to follow in his way of mercy and love, but he doesn't tell us that we need to be spiritual giants before we can do that.

Instead, he assures us that a speck of faith the size of a mustard seed is plenty of faith to live as disciples. He reminds us, deep in our hearts, that a taste of bread and a sip of wine and a droplet of water are more than enough to carry us through each week.

Because even a tiny, feeble faith can cling to the promise that God is faithful, and loves his whole creation; that there is nothing, not height or depth or anything in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that by God's grace alone we live and move and have our being.

Friends, God is bigger than all of your fears, all of your doubts, all of your hesitations. God is faithful, even when we aren't. Even your smallest seed of faith in our faithful God means that you have the strength to face tomorrow, and the power to live faithfully for the sake of the world. For it is indeed by grace that you have been saved and will be sustained, through faith, whether big or small, and this is not your own doing, it is the doing of God, who promises always to see you through each new morning, for each day is a new reminder of resurrection, and a new sign of hope for you, for me, and for all creation.