Reinvention or Evolution?

The notion of reinventing oneself has always had a glamorous association for me. I’m not sure why, though. In practical terms, it seems more courageous than glamorous.

Looking back through the last few decades, I see and remember moments when I did things that felt like reinventing myself. When I quit my studies at Carolina to play music, it felt like a risk but never like a mistake. I experienced life at a very young age that I might never have experienced had I not done that.

Keyboardist for The Amateurs

At 26, I started my own business in sales and became a “Mary Kay lady.” It surely was a different persona for me, but as I often say, it was “the right thing at the right time” for my little family.

Mary Kay Sales Director, official portrait

Answering the call to enter seminary in 2009 was yet another moment of reinventing; although, what it really was, was a moment of full commitment. It began a season of carving away things that did not serve my identity in Christ well. My submission to a call from Jesus to serve His Church requires ongoing submission to a process of transformation.

Rev. Sandy Stillman-Alvin

And, as I enter yet another turn in life, taking on a new iteration of my career and dreaming up new ways to serve communities in my sphere of influence, I see these changes less as my own reinventions and more as the evolution of my self as I was created by God to be. These are merely the tangible expressions of God’s transformation process in our lives.

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, NRSV

What is Necessary

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability.

I think and look back during our current pandemic, rising to its heights in the US during this Holy Week, to previous seasons of Lent. I really only started paying attention to Lent over the past 16-ish years. We didn’t observe Lent when and where I was raised, so, I don’t have that many seasons to remember.

As I learned to practice Lenten disciplines, I started simply. Of course, I’ve given up the standards over the years: soda, sweets, etc. During one of the earliest years, I gave up pork and beef; honestly, I haven’t eaten either since. I’ve also tried the add-on approach, adding a spiritual discipline during the 40-day season. Those are also meant to become lifestyle changes.

This year’s Lent has been unusual to say the least. Our congregation shared practices for each day that offer ways to give and receive love. Beyond paying attention to our in-house schedule of loving deeds, I haven’t been very intentional about my Lenten focus. Maybe because being under a “shelter in place” order feels a lot like working through spiritual disciplines.

For now, my most pressing focus is the daily process of deciding how to answer the question, “what is necessary?” as a guide to what I must do in order to support my household while being a good citizen. I’m a very conscientious soul, so you won’t find me walking around any of the places that do remain open. I try to order everything we need for our time at home to be delivered. If it can’t be delivered, I order for curbside, zero-contact pickup. Then, I obsessively wipe off items with alcohol or bleach wipes, quarantine pantry items to a certain section before folding them into use, bring no boxes or plastic bags inside, wash all produce, and, of course, wash my hands many multiple times throughout the day.

From The Jungle Book; “The Bare Necessities”

But there remains that question of what is necessary. It’s clear from this experience that I have not lived as simply as I thought I did. I’m used to getting whatever I want, whenever I want it, frankly. And not everything I want is necessary. Granted, I have done lots of internal work over the years, taming what I refer to as my “wanter.” Still, I’ve had to catch myself, every single day, and redirect my own thoughts and behaviors away from what I want towards what is necessary. And this is coming from a person who lives quite simply in comparison to our cultural standards. I can imagine how challenging it might be for someone who has never considered a simple life as any sort of goal or standard.

Answering the question of what is necessary has implications during this time of global pandemic far beyond a typical Lenten fast. When we choose what is necessary, we face potentially deadly consequences – not just for ourselves but for those we love most. We don’t know how we might be affected if we are infected … it’s a gamble. The odds are good that we’ll be ok but the risk is steep. If I blow my Lenten fast and eat chocolate, no one gets hurt. If I blow the shelter in place order and get sick, the potential for my own hurt as well as posing a danger to others, including my own child, is too great a risk.

So, I look forward to Resurrection Sunday and all that it signifies for those of us who love and follow Jesus: victory over death, an assurance of eternal life, promises of Christ’s reign and our co-inheritance in His kingdom … We have nothing to fear and everything to celebrate! And I will celebrate with my congregation by conference call this week. Because, while Jesus has already ushered in the kingdom of God on earth through his own ministry, death and resurrection, we, the Church, remain in this in-between time, waiting for the full restoration of creation.

So, how do we honor God best during this global crisis coinciding with our Christian celebration of the defeat of death AND the defeat of the FEAR of death? I think this is precisely where we are … Jesus rose from the dead and our day is coming. For now, though, we see our loved ones die. At this moment, we are seeing way too many beloveds dying at an alarming rate. We hear folks saying “faith over fear” as a motto. This doesn’t imply that we should test God by behaving in ways that risk lives during a known, deadly pandemic. It means that we know that death is not the end and we don’t live in fear of it. Life is precious. We humans are a peculiar mixture of resilience and vulnerability.

We can prove our resilience without testing one another’s vulnerability. Faith and grace and hope and love are our soul’s champions in this time in-between. We must employ them in all of our thoughts and prayers and behaviors each day for as long as this trial lasts – and beyond. These godly characteristics are as necessary as anything that might draw us away from home or that we might have waiting in our online shopping carts. But faith, grace, hope and love are necessities with something none of the items we scramble to buy will ever have: eternal value.

Deadly Denial

Watching a pandemic unfold was never on my list of things I expected to experience in my lifetime. As this global Covid-19 tragedy has unfolded, we all have witnessed the best and worst of human responses and reflexes.

The best responses have been thoughtful, based on true and identifiable patterns, and inevitably include a heavy dose of firm but kind guidelines. These are the first responders, enlightened leaders and caregivers who have learned that faith and fear coexist in tragic times but they know how to feed faith while facing fear.

The worst responses have been reflexive, impulsive and resistant to guidance by experts or authorities. These represent our most egoistic selves, wanting to distance ourselves from anything that might ask us to change, to say no to our wants, or to put others ahead of ourselves.

At the heart of our reflexive and impulsive responses is a fear of losing control or other personal/perceived losses. More pointedly, our most negative responses are based in denial, which in other circumstances, might serve us well by buying time for us.

But in the context of global pandemic, our tendency toward denial is, very literally, deadly.

I understand denial. I was trained in it, groomed in it, conditioned for it, and have lived in it and fought my way out of it for much of my adult life. It’s insidious once it becomes a default operating mode.

Denial has a breaking point, though. In relationships, it becomes unsustainable when something happens that reveals the truth in a way no one can deny any longer. There is a very fine line between holding out hope for the best outcomes and resisting the truth when it makes itself known. Denial – resisting the truth – is, at best, a ticking time bomb.

Horses for Sources website image

In our current crisis, we do not have the luxury of time. Denial – whether from elected officials or from spiritual leaders or from each and every one of us just trying to live our lives – is deadly in this context.

In the days ahead in this 2020 Lenten season, as those of us living in the United States witness staggering losses and grief that none of us were prepared to face, I challenge those among us who are predisposed toward denial to snap out of it. If you practice giving things up for Lent, add denial to your list of things to give up. Face the grim truth of our circumstances and make the commitment to make the difficult decisions that will force you to change your plans. Allow this time of massive disruption to CHANGE YOUR MIND. Be transformed into a lover of truth, even when the truth is HARD. Be responsible to your neighbors and people you don’t know, even when it means your life is made less comfortable.

As people of faith would anticipate, God is at work in this global pandemic. God is at work through people and in ways we cannot predict. Our responsibility to love our neighbor as ourself has never been more evident than during this time of ordered stillness. Choose to be a life giver, not a ticking time bomb, as you make choices that acknowledge our reliance on the best of human responses as a matter of life and death.

Blessed are the peacemakers

I am asked to preach more often these days and I appreciate the opportunity. Not for the opportunity to “tell folks something” (as my was-band accuses me of liking to do so much,) but for the opportunity to study and grow. I approach sermon-writing like research … I do lots of studying and comparing and observing and praying and listening to the text first before I try to write anything.

The Lectionary text for this weekend comes from the opening verses of Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” in the Gospel of Matthew. Preaching from a sermon preached by Jesus is an exercise in unpacking … and an exercise in packing-in as much as possible within a 20-minute sermon.

There is much to unpack in these 12 verses of “blessings” pronounced by Jesus. These pronouncements give us perspective on living well in the kingdom of heaven – a life that is beginning for us even as we live here on earth. How are we to reconcile the traits – poor in spirit, meekness, pure in heart, merciful – with what we are told are necessary to “make it” in the world into which we are born?

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For instance, “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God:” how does peacemaking square in our culture today? Here is a paragraph from my sermon on this particular subject:

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they will be called children of God.  Peacemaking is a different thing from avoiding conflict, by the way. Peacemaking is an intentional and ongoing decision to work toward peace and then maintain it. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it as “showing people how to cooperate instead of competing and fighting.” Peacemaking involves actively confronting thoughts and actions that would destroy lasting peace. Peacemaking is a work of justice – recognizing the sources of conflict and making things right. In a world that lusts for power and wealth, blessed are the peacemakers, for in the kingdom of heaven, they will be called children of God, known this way because they express the character of God.”

What is the American Christian ethos when it comes to peace-making? Are we seekers and builders of peace? Or are we eager to fight and compete? Do we support unjust systems that breed ongoing conflict, or do we seek to shine a light on corruption and land in places where true peace can develop and grow? Peacemaking is HARD WORK and too few of us are following Jesus in earnest in this regard. Dare we call ourselves “children of God” when we rush toward conflict, war or violence against our neighbors in any of its many manifestations? Does this express the character of God as modeled through Jesus, the Christ?

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they will be called children of God. May we all, prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to enact PEACE in our corner of the world, today and every day, as a testament to our commitment to Kingdom principles above any principles taught and promoted in this world. And may we be given wisdom to see and know the difference!

 

 

Can I Stop Now?

This is for all of us “weary ones” who do far more than we should because to stop “doing” would mean to start “being.”

Can I stop working multiple jobs in order to have a supposedly comfortable living? When I started this pace over twenty years ago, no one told me the toll it would take on my ability to rest. No one warned me that I might forget how to relax and have fun. Surely there are better ways to ration your days.

Can I stop doing things for my child that he is perfectly capable of doing for himself? Can I stop that now that he is entering young manhood? I haven’t seen that it leads him into any reciprocated acts of service. It merely trains him to expect me to do everything. What would happen if I just stopped? I’d lose some aspect of my sense of purpose, that’s what. I need to lose it, though, and find better aspects of purpose. His own senses of adequacy and purpose require me to stop.

Can I stop feeling guilty for the ways I might have chosen poorly in my past or acted without any thought at all towards consequence? I have adopted a hyper-responsible persona to cover up that side of myself … my history … but I don’t want to always be the responsible one. I don’t seek or endorse recklessness. But I do seek freedom for myself and for those in my sphere of influence. Can I stop being repressively responsible now?

Can I stop fearing loss now and start using all of my resources fearlessly? I’ve lost things I can never get back. I cannot remake my firstborn son, though I wish with my whole heart that I could. I cannot return to my youth and fix any of the things I broke. While I sit, empty, feeling the weight of my losses, slowly but surely I forget all the treasures I’ve hoarded or hidden away, the gifts I’ve been given that are surely meant to be of great value to me in this life. Can I stop fearing loss now and boldly put all of my gifts to full use?

Better yet, can I stop chasing “improvement” or “success” and find contentment in merely being, whether I accomplish any more accolades in life or not? Can I let go of dreams of how life was supposed to be and embrace every day enthusiastically for what it offers?

Jesus not only gives us permission to stop these behaviors. Jesus invites us into the way of rest and contentment:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:28-29 (NRSV)

Can I stop?” is the wrong question. Rather, the question is, “Will I go in the way Jesus invites and teaches?”

Weary friends, we can’t afford not to.

Terra Incognita

In the world of cartography, terra incognita refers to lands or territories that have not yet been explored or charted. For any adventurous spirit, the concept extends itself in every direction imaginable. It intoxicates the scientific explorer like nothing else.

I love science shows (like Nova) and am fascinated by current explorations and theories about matter, dark matter, energy and dark energy. In it, I always see first the story of God and try to piece together hints of Christology. What a massive, elusive, wild, unfathomable and divine universe we exist within!

We all have “lands” we’ve heard of that, for us, remain uncharted territory. What new territories and adventures are in your heart to explore this year? Leave a comment and turn a dream into a goal by writing it down!

You get what you ask for

I’m not always good at asking for what I want, nor saying much of anything directly. You should have seen how long it took me to write that sentence.

I’m a dreamer, that’s for sure. My dreams usually pertain to creating something or otherwise improving something. I believe dreamers can change the world – at least dreamers who aren’t afraid to fly. But, my wings were effectively clipped years ago.

Over my lifetime, I explored some things my heart was drawn to explore whenever I escaped the margins of my tiny, enclosed, inherited world. But not until fairly recently did I explore without looking over my shoulder, fearing some form of retribution.

I was raised not to gamble, or play cards for that matter. Life was framed in terms of avoiding a long list of behaviors, words and activities deemed either sinful or else unbecoming. As a teen, I had to sign an agreement to be “prudent and circumspect in my behavior at all times.” Expectations were high for behavior but low (or at least unspoken) for achievement. These days, I’ll buy a lottery ticket now and then, but only if the payout is exceptional. I won $2 in the last one for $1 billion, so I broke even.

It took me a really long time – several decades – to break free from some of the weight of unnecessary chains of fear that I inherited. I’ve grown away from a theology that sees God as Supreme Punisher of bad deeds to a theology that sees God as Love and Mercy and Grace that I could never adequately describe but revealed in and through Jesus Christ. I don’t think God’s love is withheld if or when we behave badly. The goal of God’s love is not my suppression, but rather, my fullness and freedom to be all that I am. If I respond well, then I’ve received Love well.

Part of the difficulty I’ve had in asking directly for the things I have wanted includes the fear of being rejected. My experience in childhood and young adulthood was to be rejected when I did things that were deemed unacceptable. What I thought and felt was often in conflict with what was acceptable for me to do or be. That cycle would manifest itself as me seemingly not knowing what I wanted. But the truth was less that I didn’t know what I wanted and more that I couldn’t reconcile what I wanted with what I was allowed to think, say, be or do. I was afraid, and I still fight that conditioning on most days.

In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus had a quick and ready answer: “Rabbi, I want to see!”

If Jesus were to ask us the same question, I expect many of us would have to ponder it much like we would ponder the 3-wishes offer from a genie, or what we’d do with our winnings if we won a lottery. What do we really want? And further, what do we want God to do for us?

Bartimaeus, it seems, knew what he was missing by losing his sight. Several translations indicate his request was not only to see, but to see again.

Nothing can clear away years of false walls and chains like an identity-shattering loss.

No one wants to suffer. And no one who has experienced great suffering wishes it on anyone else. However, speaking as someone who has experienced great suffering, I can suggest that it is, perhaps, the most effective catalyst for spiritual growth. Suffering can be fertile soil for our faith to grow – and not just in the sense of increasing, but also in the sense of correcting false ideas and beliefs.

Are you someone who has difficulty in expressing what you want – either to God or to others with whom you are in relationship? Until you experience a faith that believes in God’s goodness and unchanging love, you may remain unable to clearly express what you want or need, producing frustration within you as well as around you.

May your fear be replaced with confidence in God’s love for you, and may that confidence lift your wings to fly toward the desires that have been planted inside your heart! Beyond that, may you grow in all of your relationships in such a way that allows you to express plainly what you need from God and from others, based on a faith in the love that connects us all.

Beckoned

I’ve been on vacation for the past ten days, working limited hours yesterday and today. Tomorrow, I’ll return to our typical, busy schedule.

So, today, I just wanted to do a few things I rarely or never have an opportunity to do. Of course, I started with a trip to our local Whole Foods store. A few items off of the Paleo bar and a lemon cayenne probiotic drink later, I began the process of sorting out where to hang out. My go-to would be our art museum, but they’re closed on Mondays.

Then, it hit me. Hard. With a lump-in-my-throat conviction, I was beckoned to the prayer labyrinth of a sister-church in town.

The garden setting was beautiful: well kept, smartly designed and effective in its spiritual purpose. I was alone, but keenly aware of the noisy birds, buzzing bees and frisky little squirrels all around me.

The walk itself felt both measured and free. I used the patterns to alternate my speaking and my listening. I really wanted only to listen upon arrival, but found my heart bursting with thoughts and feelings to share. My heart cried literally and figuratively. Arriving in the center of the design, I was humbled and grateful in my spirit, eager to hear my God speak.

As I made room for listening, there was much being said. Much to ponder. Much to remember and much to compel me as I unwound my path toward the exit.

This particular prayer labyrinth is located on the grounds of Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh.

If you’re local, I encourage you to make a visit. If not, I encourage you to seek a location that may exist where you live. Regardless of whether you choose to use such a tool to guide you through the spiritual discipline of prayer, I encourage you to allow time to speak and to listen as a regular pattern in your prayer life.

Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,

for in you I trust.
Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.

– Psalm 143:8

Continue reading “Beckoned”

The margins of privilege: a lesson in justice, mercy and humility

As I was driving today, I was putting thoughts together to write a piece about human perspectives on privilege. I thought I might opt for another term, like inherited advantage, since the term “White Privilege” has been used and misused and misunderstood to a point where those with said privilege have conditioned themselves to dismiss it as propaganda.

The thing is, I received a call shortly after arriving at work that my son’s gravestone monument is ready to be set in two days. Something like that will interrupt your thoughts. Makes you stop what you’re doing. Makes you remember a beloved life lost. Makes you remember things you thought you had forgotten.

The movie, “The Jerk,” starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters came out in 1979. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first movie I ever went to see with friends. It opened with Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, stating, “It was never easy for me. I was born a poor, black child.” Well, I was born into a white, relatively middle class (for rural America) family. I am a female, so that created its own set of issues related to power, safety, protection and vulnerability during my formative years in the late 20th century. As a woman, I’ve experienced sexual molestation and physical violence from men I thought loved me. As a white woman, I’ve experienced rejection and abuse because of my relationships with men of other races. I’ve experienced homelessness and isolation and marginalization from some advantages of having been born into a white family. I’ve been terrorized by Klan-minded church members, more concerned about my relationships than my safety. That’s my experience, but not my whole message.

When you are born with advantages that you did nothing to earn other than arriving here on earth by way of your birth parents, you don’t understand what it’s like not to have them. How could you? Why would you even try to imagine it? It would be very hard to convince someone who is born into a white American family with a sufficiently large home – maybe two – who graduated college without paralyzing debt, who landed a great spouse and a great-paying job and who enjoys plenty of food and vacations without being questioned or harassed that those lovely things aren’t due to his or her pious living, belief in God, and otherwise-perfect choices over the course of a lifetime. Very hard. As hard as leading a camel through the eye of a needle. Especially if going through that eye means having to let go of some of those unearned trappings to which we feel attached and for which we feel entitled.

I think “choices” is a great place to pause. Because not everyone has the same array of choices. The very heart of being privileged or having advantages means having a wider, better assortment of choices. Of course, not everyone with advantages makes great choices. I’ve made some pretty rotten choices myself. But sometimes, a bad choice is the better of two pretty awful choices.

My son died by suicide last year. It was a bad choice in my estimation, but I suspect he felt it was the better of his limited array of perceived choices in that moment. He had some advantages: he was smart, good looking, had a decent job, had a family who loves him, had talents and skills that were still developing. He also had disadvantages: he wasn’t able to complete his college degree due to issues surrounding ADD; he was biracial with green eyes and was often mistaken as coming from a nationality or culture that people in America fear post-9/11; he fought mental illness/depression; he had a job with terrible medical benefits that could barely be called benefits at all; and he had limited financial resources due to the types of jobs he was able to secure and a lack of saved resources coming from a single-parent/absent father household. This week, I’ll witness his gravestone being set in place. That shouldn’t be happening according to natural order, but I don’t have another good choice.

Growing up as I did, belief in Jesus was often conflated with American patriotism, local privileges and cultural standards. There was a prosperity gospel element to it, equating poverty with immorality. There was, in my neck of the woods, a racist element, left over from the era of slavery, that equated being from a non-white race to being immoral. I knew something smelled rotten. I rebelled against it, even if I couldn’t properly or articulately identify it from within the context of the rotten smells. I separated myself as best I could.

“Nose-blind” they call it, when you can’t smell your own stink while it surrounds you.

Assuredly, following Jesus requires a complete rejection of those conflated ideas. These are interesting times in which we live. Much is being uncovered in terms of bad theologies that are unjust, unmerciful, unloving and not at all like Jesus’ example. I’m glad to see these things being identified and confronted.

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I’m also painfully aware that these core issues still surround us. In light of these previously-hidden-and-protected, and recently-spotlighted sins of our humanity, I recognize and acknowledge that I have more, better choices than very many of my neighbors. Some of that is entirely because of my appearance – something I had no part in creating. I’m not a wealthy woman in our culture’s terms, not by a long-shot. I’m still (again) a single mom working two jobs for pay and two more without pay, just trying to keep things floating. I’ve seen terrible things that have taught me where to look. I know how to utilize my advantages. I also know that, when you see others doing better than you in your most insecure and myopic view, it can make you hold on very tightly to what little you might perceive that you have, fearful of falling lower in esteem or losing traction in some regard.

But any response to others that is birthed in fear is probably the opposite of what you’re being asked to do by Jesus.

Choose to give generously to people outside of your social circle and sphere of influence. Expect nothing in return.

Choose to speak up when you see someone being mistreated, regardless of who the offender is. Offer help and encouragement to the one in harm’s way.

Choose to go out of your way for a suffering friend or loved one or stranger. Yes, go out of your way. He or she is likely unable to make a move toward you or any other help.

Choose to be a good listener and lay aside any defensive responses when someone says you’ve hurt them. Be willing to reconcile differences without attempting to make another person into some alternative version of you.

Choose to love people first.

These things are just, merciful, kind and humble. These are great choices that anyone can make.

A Changed Mind

On the first Sunday of Lent 2018, I was asked to preach for my congregation. It’s always an honor to preach, but I LOVE the process of exegesis, studying scripture and allowing it to speak its truth (as opposed to the way so many others approach scripture, using it to “prove” what they think or believe.)

This is an edited video, but still nearly-full-sermon-length. Will you take a few minutes to listen?

 

Our inherited understanding of repentance would teach us to focus on our sins, promise to stop doing bad things, go forth and do better and believe in the good news of Jesus. But there’s a disconnection there. And that’s because of what we just learned about the word actually recorded in Greek that Jesus used: metanoia. Jesus said to be of a changed mind (by way of baptism of the Holy Spirit.) There’s certainly a place for contrition for sin, but, for Jesus, walking away from sin was about a changed mind. And it isn’t something we do for ourselves – this is what God does in us! There’s a lot of room for failure in our concept of “repentance” because, well, humans. As stated before, with a changed mind and a new understanding of God’s relationship to mankind, our behavior will most certainly change also. We can’t hope to reflect Jesus in our behavior, however, if we are not first like-minded with Jesus. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit that brings us to metanoia.

So, if I could offer my amplified version of “repent and believe,” it would look like this:

Let your mind be changed (about the way you relate to God) and be assured that what Jesus’ ministry accomplished (relating to God according to the new covenant) is, indeed, good news for you and me and the entire world!

During this Lenten season, may I suggest that you focus on three things as you seek to allow the Spirit of God to change your mind?

  1. You are a beloved child of God. Let that sink in.
  2. You have a God-ordained mission. Seek to grasp it fully.
  3. As the Spirit of God leads you into your time of preparation, integrating your mind, body and spirit toward your mission, allow the Spirit to change you in any and all aspects of self.

Our Holy God, thank you for the good news that You do, indeed, reign, and help us to be of a changed mind, making us more and more like Jesus. Amen.