the good news for seminarians

In the weeks before finals, when you are wrung out, too often the litany of bad news reigns. But it seems today is my day to have faith for all of us; so let me shout for you the good news.

Isn’t it easy to believe, here in the springtime, that the world is shot through with miracle? Count your miracles, friends, as if your life depended on it, for surely it does – depends on earth, wind, water, depends on food become effort become muscle, depends, God knows, on coffee and midnight slaphappy laughter. Count the cheap microwave life that you’ll miss in fifteen years and find yourself crying, why me? How did I earn such riches?

I hope it is easy, here in the springtime, to know the world itself is good news, this most extravagant festival of beauty. That even if God were always and only a child, fashioning bright baubles in space and dropping them behind – never to return – it would be right to give God thanks and praise.

And yet we have found God with us, with all of us, murdering brothers and exiled slave women, idolaters, grumbling nomad-people and mourners of a defeated nation. Always God remains one more day, weaving the threads of ruined lives into something that looks like hope. Even if these were only marvelous stories from a far-away people in a time of magic, do they not speak beauty and mystery enough to keep us secretly searching for signs of this God? Are they not just strange and startling enough – transcending their own culture in all the oddest places – to convince us non-believers? Somewhere in our ancient child-hearts, we still know wonder.

But you will say I have meandered into glibness. What if, you will say, the great God dies? What if your country, your people, the land from which you were formed, become occupied by God’s own enemies? What if 400 years pass without a prophet?

I don’t know. For the suddenly light-drenched, here in the springtime, it is too easy to tell the still winter-laden to wait. I suppose I would say to get up again tomorrow, make your little breakfast, and say the prayers anyhow. Tell the old stories over and try, only try, to wait, for I AM will be with you. God will be with you. God loves you too much to stay out of it. God is too big not to care for all the little things; and at Christmas, God joined the project for once and for all.

Do you ever wonder why Jesus wept? If he knew he had come to fix this Lazarus-dying business, why stop and cry? Yet he arrived at Bethany, he collided with the grief of Mary and Martha, and suddenly the ice-cold truth washed over him: Lazarus is dead.

What if Jesus found himself doubting, there at Bethany? What if everything he said to Mary and Martha about faith, he was really saying to himself? I wonder if he did not discover finitude in that moment, in the really true death of the one he loved – shut up behind a rock together with his spirit, his laugh, the way he whistled in the mornings and spoke his sentences slow, brow furrowed, when he was thinking. All gone, just stolen by disease, no sense to it; I wonder if Jesus, encountering the magnitude of this thing, was not stricken with a sick fear: I am a lunatic after all.

He was perturbed. “Take me to him,” he said; and he wanted to stride confidently ahead of his disciples, but he found himself stumbling through his tears, desperate to make his way to his best friend. “Take away the stone,” he said, only because he had thought this was why he’d come so late.
“But Jesus…” Martha spoke gently, in her sensible way –
“Take away the stone!” Jesus said, driven on by Spirit’s mission and the mad fire, fighting helplessness, in his eyes. He prayed as they struggled against the rock: “Father, I know that you hear me. I know that you hear me. Hear me.”

They finished with the stone. Did the stench she had spoken of roll out over them all? Did Jesus look into that black cave, trembling, staring down the darkness that had swallowed Lazarus with such indifference? Fists clenched, desperately, Father, hear me, then, “Lazarus! Come out!” – his lurching, strangled cry of grief silenced the murmuring crowd.

And Jesus waited. He had done what Spirit had brought him to do, and now the command was out of him. He stood before the blackness; he began to feel foolish and another rising sickness battled the fast-waning hope inside him.

Until, by the grace of God, Lazarus came out.

Before the crowd could be confused, could be frightened or appalled at this prank, Jesus’ dying hope heard the footsteps first. “Unbind him!” Jesus shouted. “He is free”, Jesus wept.

I think Lazarus was freed by Jesus’ compassion. We are all freed by Jesus’ tears; there is no pain God has not felt. Creation is God’s wound – she weeps for the abused, for the sick, the hopeless, the tired. She weeps for mountains leveled by greed for coal, for people hollowed out by lust for money, for those who have lost their best friends. And dare I say that God has felt the pain of the small – that God can weep, too, for lost teddy bears, college rejection letters, homes we loved – all the things we think we should be bigger than? I think this is grace, that God has been small with us.

Seminarians, you are not so big. And that is OK. The voices that tell you you are not big enough, not good enough, not politically correct enough, not suspicious enough, not worried enough, not smart enough, not busy enough – they are not humble. They are not grace. Grace does not shame. Grace gives gifts.

It is true that God wants holiness. It is also true that God gives holiness. Holiness is grace; it is freedom – freedom from the patterns of this world. Yes, it takes courage, effort, discernment, and time. But God has lots of these, and you have only a little. Will you keep trying to muster them, or will you simply ask for them? Will you let yourself be small? Will you let others carry these burdens with you? If you cannot let yourself be small, you will never excuse others their smallness.

We hear much bad news in seminary. And it is sometimes important to know. But only God can absorb all the world’s bad news. And only God can transform it into good. For creation is God’s million wounds, and yet it is, ten times over, her delight. She holds it; she sings over it; she sings over you with joy in all that you are, for you are hers, and she is with you. Even before we finally see life rising out of the darkness and death, God is with our shrinking doubting band of faith-in-resurrection people.

The good news – the reason you are here, I hope – is that I AM made the universe, and God loves it, and God loves you. I AM is with us, healing us, and God will make all the small things new.

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future employers STAY OUT

*psst* this is my name if you met me at church and can't remember and we've known each other too long for you to ask again because it's awkward.

*psst* this is my name if you met me at church and can’t remember and we’ve known each other too long for you to ask again because that would be awkward.

In a moment that managed to combine great thoughtlessness with great prescience, my parents gave me a name that sounds like several other names and then they spelled it like they wished we were Welsh. They have apologized for the ensuing confusion.

But really they shouldn’t have. Sure, I have a hard time introducing myself to old people; but my parents had me a little too early to recognize the genius in what they were doing, which was in fact making me extraordinarily Google-able. Once people figure out who I am, that is.

If you Google me, you will quickly find several pages that are actually directly related to me, along with other mentions of less-important Lyndsey Graves-es. It helps that I’m a fairly active participant in the Internet (in fits and bursts, at least).

Having, like most twentysomethings, little else to manage and interface with and delete emails from, I indulged in one such fit; yesterday I joined tumblr (find me so I can follow you!), and today I joined LinkedIn. I only wanted to follow people and save hipstery photographs (tumblr) and use other people for my own professional advancement (LinkedIn).

But that LinkedIn account sent me into a minor identity crisis here at my desk on Tuesday morning. I don’t know how to author one of those! I know how to write a résume – describe my mostly-adequate experience and accomplishments with aggresively grandiose jargon, prioritize experience most relevant to job applied for, and keep it out of the hands of people who actually know me. I also know how to write a blog post – be honest, and always include some run-on sentences (those are especially honest). And my Facebook profile is a hodgepodge of shared social justice articles and all the one-liners I’m going to put in my mockumentary someday.

Inviting my friends and teachers into my fledgling professional life, though – that’s something I’ve hesitated to do, and writing my profile I remembered why. THEY DON’T BELONG THERE, that’s why. Or, to be more accurate, I’d really just rather not have to combine the two. Where my LinkedIn profile says “Young Adult Ministry,” my friends have all heard me say “young adult ministry… whatever that means *snort*”.

The only reason I got an account is because I’m so Google-able. The care and keeping of one’s work life, online-writing-hobby life, and real-world-relationships separately is a quaint but unhelpful notion anymore. A savvy employer will find  me. I won’t get to print my information onto expensive heavy paper and hand in that version of myself. They will see all my snark, earnestness, controversial opinions, and personal celebrations, in descending order by popularity measured in page hits; and that will be the same picture whether they’re at a university, an online writing venue, or whatever coffee shop employs Ph.D.s in theology.

Every little piece of ourselves that we tether onto a corner of the internet becomes a dot that others can connect to form a picture of us – in most cases, an indelible dot. Another quaint but fairy-tale-ish notion from the past? Moving across the country and “starting over”. The activity from your past is recorded; your current whereabouts are in the searchable White Pages; and your online identity is a cloud made of thousands of tiny water droplets – every tweet, every like, every friend and “connection”.

Which makes it all the more difficult, even if you’re doing your best to be intentional about creating that identity. My coworkers are disconcerted that I wore jeans and only jeans in the winter, but have started dressing up in the summer. They need me to stay in one place once they’ve got me figured out. But it’s difficult, impossible even, to project a consistent image across multiple platforms, so they’re going to have to live with the uncertainty of knowing a dynamo like me.

In the end, though, I think I’m hopeful. I may never be able to convince a hiring manager that I’m a straitlaced, whitebread, grown-up individual with absolutely no slightly Communist ideals. But then again maybe all that overblown résume language, when it served to identify me, was actually as bad for my soul as it felt.

Maybe I am glad that where my LinkedIn account says “lead volunteer, Havenplace”, my friends are standing by, perhaps remembering the tears I cried over those kids and the ways I was changed by those kids. Maybe some of my connections will be those kids.

Maybe it is good that my name forces me to stand out a little, and I can choose to rise to that serendipitous, unlooked-for occasion. Maybe, even if I discover that everything I ever posted in my twenties was a gigantic appalling mistake, I’ll not forget that humility is the rarest and most endearing quality an academic – or a human – can ever possess.

Maybe the internet, this weirdly ephemeral medium that once flooded the world with concerns about anonymity, will finally make us better people by exposing us so.

May my own Facebook photos reveal integrity – a life actually lived the way my blog claims I hope for.

And may those two blog posts I tried to hide please dear goodness really stay that way.

when the homeless guy is me

“Middle class Christians talk of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It is a very orderly, sanitized process. Sin is when we are unkind in word or deed, repentance is when we say “I’m sorry”, and forgiveness is the expected response to anyone’s “I’m sorry”. There is no cosmic battle here, no spiritual warfare.”
Ministry With the Homeless, John Flowers and Karen Vannoy

But shouldn’t sin, repentance, and forgiveness be the wildest words in the world? Perhaps we are so bored and lackluster precisely because we are too prideful to believe our addiction to television or the grudges we hold against our parents are actually separating us from God and poisoning the world around us. What if we really saw ourselves in comparison to the life we were made for? Would we not understand our respectable, comfortable, over-processed lives to be the mud-wallowing, pitiful farce that they are?

We wonder how the homeless could get so comfortable with homelessness, with alcoholism, we wish they would dream bigger. But the “dream” we have for them – the acceptable minimum of an apartment and some groceries and the heat on in the winter – is not an objective reality of happiness or prosperity; it is nothing more than a cultural norm we’ve accepted as the standard for “success”.

In truth, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted person lives closer to reality than most of us, precisely because he or she experiences life as a cosmic struggle for survival; while the middle-class mediocracy has already lost the struggle. Neither person lives an abundant life. But the second, who simply settles for what is before him, doesn’t even know it.

And the point is not that this vanilla, moderately successful guy should be ashamed and try harder; the point is that he is missing out on an incredible gift, the life that is truly life. He is missing out on the kingdom of God, the restoration of relationships into their right order, all things made new, and the realization that every moment, every breeze, every person is an incredible gift. The God of the universe died for all these, and we count them as ho-hum occurrences? The God of the universe gives us the power to defeat death, and we cower in a corner, insulated from any risk?

This is what we cannot get our heads around, that we are all the most gorgeous, elegant, promising of creatures, and all have fallen short, all are truly worms when we see every selfish action for what it is – sin, horrible and insidious and life sucking. We cannot begin on the path towards life until we understand the tragedy of this, even though deep down I think we know it. Might it be that pity makes me so uncomfortable, because I have not come to terms with the fact that I should rightly pity myself?

For months, maybe more than a year, I lived in a haze of mild depression. It was never diagnosed, but now that I am on “the other side” I can see very clearly: I cried for no reason nearly every day, slept and ate too much, and withdrew into a shame and hopelessness I could not understand. Most people describe depression in surprisingly similar ways; it is like suffocating in darkness, and all the thrashing about you can muster only tightens the blackness around you.

Emerging from that pit was like a second salvation, when over the course of a few weeks I realized that I was finally and rather suddenly free. Simply feeling “normal” again was so foreign that there was a brightness to everything I’d never noticed before. For a time, I truly did see every breeze, every moment, and every friend as a spectacular and breathtaking gift, because I was free somehow to enjoy it. I finally understood what a monstrous thing it would be to waste any scrap of those marvelous things – ironically, at the very point when I felt free from the senseless guilt and shame I’d experienced. And there, in that freedom, the very greatest gift of all: that God’s gratuitous grace was ever poured out broader and deeper than my own infinite monstrosity, inspiring a gratitude that covered over all the rest.

But most of the time, I see myself as neither a very wonderful and beautiful, nor a very horrible and dangerous creature, when in fact I am in most moments both. Still I catch glimpses of both selves, even as I believe the Spirit helps me every day to tip the balance a little farther to the former side. I see my own brilliant potential when I am cooking a spectacular dinner or making a friend laugh, when I am completely present and completely grateful in those moments. And I see my shadow self, too, when I am being manipulative or petulant with my boyfriend, my family – or even the people I serve at the Friday pantry. The more aware I become that my own life is an epic drama, the more I do recognize these two realities at work. As I look back to my own past, or face new and humbling challenges in the present, I am reminded of my own proclivity to stray away from what is best towards my own selfish will. And as I trust God’s slow stirrings within me, I find the joy of sharing my best self with others.

The more I learn about my own incredible capacities for both creation and destruction, the more clearly I can see both in other people. And the more God’s work appears in my life, redeeming what I have destroyed and making me into a better creator, the more hope I have for others.

And this is why I, who have always enjoyed relative prosperity and the appearance of a squeaky-clean record of conduct, relate better most days with the addicts and the victims I find among the homeless than with the self-righteous and boring among the upper middle class. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve self-medicated with my own little addictions. I’ve never gambled my life away, but I’ve sure wasted some precious things. And I’ve never been physically abused, but I’ve dealt with my own kinds of wounds; I know what it is to need an understanding ear and a gentle challenge to keep moving forward. And here, over institutional food and a paper plate, is where I find the few people I know who are willing to be honest about how broken and childlike we all remain behind the band-aids and defenses.

So as I point people toward the clothing closet and the free clinic down the street, may I honor their wild humanity and their deepest needs by pointing them also towards the God who loved me beyond my own wounds and my own self-destruction. May I never dare to believe that they need my food or even my listening ear more than they need my Lover and his restoration into the kingdom that is coming. May I never dare to believe that anyone needs him more than I.

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