Learning to Enter Oasis

I shared this message at Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership Training during Wednesday morning worship. This is my flustered and hopeful attempt to look at oasis in a new light so I may one day be bold enough to enter it. 

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Before Christmas break, my colleague Les asked if I would be interested in giving a message for morning worship during our School for Leadership Training conference. I quickly agreed, looking forward to another opportunity to use my gift of preaching (and to hear myself speak for a nice ego boost).

A week before the actual event, Les told me my topic: celebrating the oasis.

I instantly regretted taking on this gig.

Why did I have to talk about the oasis? What business did I have engaging the topic of rest and restoration? I’m a perpetual worrier, and I never feel like I “deserve” those rests. I can talk about the desert all day. I feel better in the desert. Maybe it’s because that’s what I think I deserve. I enjoy feeling busy and “useful” instead of lazy and “useless,” and somehow I’ve equated oasis with the latter.

But according to a note I wrote on Facebook about 7 years ago, when I was a freshman at Bridgewater College, I briefly understood the Oasis.

One March morning, I woke up around 8 AM with a mind full of thoughts and no way to get rid of them, so any further sleep on that dreary Saturday morning was out of the question. My solution? Go running.

I got my shoes, sweats, and sweater on, found my (even for its time) ancient iPod, put my earbuds in, and started running towards Wildwood Park, a place that I often went to for meditation and time away from the hustle and bustle of collegiate life. I ran (and walked) until I reached the park, and for some reason I decided to start walking back once I reached the park entrance. Other plans were in store for me, though. As I went to switch to the next song on my iPod, I realized it was frozen. Since I was and still am such a dunce with technology, I had no idea how to fix the problem, so I decided on a silent walk back.

I took a few steps, then paused, wondering if this was one of those moments of silence with God of which I should be taking advantage. I had been journaling and doing devotions on a daily basis, but now that I was in a secluded and quiet place, I felt I owed it to God to at least try to appreciate the silence.

I listened to the nudge and turned around to make my way to the area behind the waterfall. On my way, I saw ducks and geese waddling around and sleeping peacefully with their little heads tucked under their wings. I found a spot right on the bank and took a seat on the most comfortable looking rock. I gazed out at the water, the wildlife, the waterfall, the trees, everything that wasn’t school or friends or homework or relationships, and I felt content.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a verse from Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Psalm, popped into my head: “He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.”

Here I was, sitting next to a bank of completely still water, and I got it.

This was a very pivotal year for me. Between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I lost childhood friends and gained new ones. I entered my first serious romantic relationship and had my heart broken in the process. It seemed, at the time, to be the spiritual equivalent of taking one step forward and falling down the whole flight of stairs. Some of those broken relationships have, graciously, achieved some form of restoration, but at the time, the raw pain of loss permeated my everyday life. At the time, I believed that this moment by the calm water of Wildwood Park was God’s way of showing me that no matter how chaotic my life is, when I take the time out to spend it with this Mystery, I am lead to these quiet, peaceful moments of tranquility so that I may remember that Presence is always there and will never leave my side.

This note gives me hope, because today, almost 7 years later, I’m having a hard time with the concept of oasis. Actually, if I’m being honest, my 7 years younger self had a hard time with it, too. The me then and the me now feel hopeless with how little we have done and how futile our own efforts seem. Anytime we find ourselves approaching an oasis, we panic at the prospect of being there and take long detours around it. There’s still so much more to do, we’ve wondered aloud. I can’t possibly stay here. I haven’t done enough to deserve this. The world around me has so much pain. There’s racism and sexism and hunger and poverty, and my family and relationships aren’t as good and strong as they should be, and there’s personal and educational work I still need to do, and if it’s not done yet, I can’t afford to stop, because if I stop, everything else will fall around me. I haven’t done it all yet, so why should I rest now? We’re hard on myself, you see. And we’ve made the mistake of confusing the oasis with the Promised Land.

After all, it took a broken iPod to get me to sit down and actually be present. And it’s the broken iPod that gives me hope today.

I feel trapped in mental and emotional valley of the shadow of death, but in this valley, I have faith that my iPod will break again, that I will glance out of the corners of my eyes and notice the ducks resting with their heads under their wings, and that I will finally rest. I have faith that God will wake me up to rest, because even though I don’t want to be vulnerable, even though I don’t want to lose control of the world around me that I’m obviously exhibiting so much control over, even more than that, I don’t want to lose my soul. I don’t want to burn out, or cut myself off from God and others and the world around me, and the faith within me that is tinier than a mustard seed reminds me that I’ve been to the oasis before, in my most desperate times where I needed God’s restoration more than ever but still ran away from it.

I know there will come a time when God finally gets me out of my head and says, “Rest, my child, please, because the journey is long, and your cup is overflowing, and you have no reason to die out here in this desert because I am here and have more than enough to sustain you if you’ll just see it and partake of it.” I know there will come a time when I finally see the oasis right in front of me, and I will sit in its shade and drink of its waters and eat and be refreshed. And I know there will come a time when I sprint past it out of my own ill-founded self-righteousness, but it will always be there, and God will always get through to me.

Friends, I need help. I need help realizing the oasis is good. I need help letting go of my own Messiah-complex and living into this new identity as a little Christ but not Christ himself. I need help differentiating between complacency and rest, to walk out of the paralyzing power of fear and run into the arms of the One who called me to keep doing the next little right thing. I need help entering the oasis with you.

The Parable of the Scandalous Father

There once was a man who had two sons. The father loved his sons dearly, but by the end of this story, you begin to wonder why the father keeps letting his kids get away with such behavior.

In the beginning of the story, the younger son tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance

The Dad obliges his son, even though what his son asked of him results in extreme shame for him and the family.

The son runs away and spends all the money on…well, whatever it was, it wasn’t anything about which he would write home.

While this son is squandering his wealth, the older son remains at home, obedient to his Dad’s every word and an all around good kid.

The “bad” son finally comes to his senses after almost starving to death, and as he literally turns away to go home, he concocts a plan: If I humble myself and ask only to be a servant, my Dad will let me come home.

This Dad, whose son dishonored him, watches for him day after day, and when he finally sees his son approaching, he dishonors himself again: he runs to greet his filthy, disgraced child, clothes him like a prince instead of a servant, and throws a celebration instead of giving a lecture.

The “good” son, who obediently worked out in the field while this all transpired, finds out that his nasty little brother has returned home…and he throws one righteous hissy fit when he discovers how their Dad greeted the twerp with a party.

You can’t tell me if you were the older son, you wouldn’t be pissed off about this.

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And yet, with which son do most people choose to identify?

I personally like to identify with the younger son. I’m a kid with an easily guilted conscience, so I always assumed that when Jesus told stories about people who ran away, I was supposed to identify as that person. For a long time, this image still resonated with me. Sometimes I like to think it especially impacted me because of the scene where the Dad runs to greet his long-lost son, something I envisioned happening between me and my absent Dad, but in a much different context.

Then my professor gave me and my New Testament class this text to read for an assignment, and she told us to read it as if it were the first time. When you’ve grown up in church and heard this story multiple times, the task is much easier said than done. Even though I was supposed to approach the text with new eyes, a part of me still assumed I’d identify with the wayward, younger son, because I figured that was still the whole point of the story.

This time, though, I felt in my gut what my professor hoped we would all eventually feel: the fierce, righteous anger of the older son.

It doesn’t help that the professor assigned this text as I mourned with much of the Christian community when World Vision revoked their earlier revision to employ married same-sex peoples. I mourned because of the impact the culture wars had on my LGBTQ friends and the poor and needy people around the world.

When I read the story of the two sons with these wounds still fresh in the Church, I felt the older son’s anger. If this is a story about how God has grace for every single person, no matter what they’ve done or how badly they’ve screwed up, then this is a story in which God has just as much grace for me as he does for all of those people who threatened to and actually did withdraw support from their sponsored children if World Vision didn’t revoke their revision.

I’m going to be honest here: this grace pisses me off.

In class we talked about how this story was probably written to a community struggling with the full inclusion of “less righteous” Jews in the post-Temple days. This was a big issue for the community, something that built barriers instead of bridges and threatened to destroy the group. In the midst of this tension and conflict, Luke includes this very beautiful, very controversial story. In this story, the Dad keeps heaping shame upon himself to bring his kids to their senses and seat them at the same table. This Dad’s love is greater than any shame that anyone can throw at him.

I don’t get it. I really don’t understand this grace. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t accepted it for myself and still assume that God only accepts me based on being a “good kid.” I don’t know if it’s because I’m a very judgmental person and assume that anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. I don’t know if it’s because I’m that insecure.

I honestly don’t know how to go forward with this image, because this God is a lot more gracious than I think I’ll ever be.

How do you keep going back to people who have shamed you, who have dishonored your name beyond any possible means of repair, who have broken your heart and stomped on the pieces?

How does God continue to call the feminist and the patriarch, the former slave and the former slave owner, the abuse victim and the abuser, the LGBTQ community and the conservative evangelicals, the oppressed and the oppressor to the same table? How does God continue to love us all and dream of nothing more than gathering her children under her wings?

I don’t know how God does it, but for some reason, he keeps leaving his high seat at the table and walking out to plead with us to join in the celebration. He continues to risk dishonor to remind us to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Every day, God calls every single one of us to the Table. This is offensive, controversial, messy, and tension-filled Love, and this is the reality that God dreams for Creation. God came to Earth as Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” He didn’t come to the Earth as “God with just us Christians,” or “with just us Americans,” or “with just those victims,” or “with just those in power and privilege.”

No. God comes to ALL of us. Now how in the world are we supposed to live this?

I am a bigot.

I believe that everyone should see a good counselor, because sometimes they tell you things about yourself that you never realized. And most of the time, they’re simultaneously the things you didn’t want to see in yourself yet need to know.

Last Wednesday, I sat across from my counselor Anne as I do twice a month. In the homey comfort of her office, with her comfy couch and peaceful silence, with the space heater turned on to prevent us from freezing, I unpacked the events that had happened in my life between our meetings and turned them over in my hands for her, hoping she could find some hope and growth within their depths. I even brought up the topic of a paper I will be writing in the next month for my Christian Tradition class. I had come across two topics about which I felt pretty excited but was torn over which one to choose. One was about a black female pastor named Jarena Lee, who, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, had a life-altering conversion experience which empowered her to blaze a path to the male-dominated pulpit.

My second choice was John Calvin and how his doctrine of predestination has been used as a source of elitism to control society, in a way that named clear distinctions between those who were “in” and those who were “out”.

If you couldn’t already tell by how I described the topic, this is something I have some strong and conflicted feelings about, and I sensed that I had some deconstructing to do with Anne regarding this.

Here’s the thing: I have wrestled with many ideologies, theologies, doctrines, and other big fancy concepts throughout my faith journey. And in my years of wrestling, I have made peace with, among other things, women in leadership and even the doctrine of predestination. While I have strong convictions that God is all-embracing, all-loving, and all-empowering,  I have come to a tentative state of peace with the fact that opposing doctrines exist in the world, and I have generally tried to look the other way when these arguments come up to “maintain the peace,” so to speak.

Here’s the other thing, though: While I’ve made peace with the doctrine, I have not yet made peace with the people who embrace it. The cold, painful truth is I still hate Calvinists (and others who hold tightly to the doctrine of predestination).

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite qualities about Anne is the way she pushes and challenges me to take an honest yet graceful look at myself instead of patting me on the head and saying “There, there, you poor thing.” So, in traditional Anne-fashion, instead of shaking her head and agreeing that I had every right to hate such backwards people with such an awful theology, she smiled after I made my confession and said, “I see. You’re bigoted towards them.”

Which was not exactly the answer I was expecting to hear.

Of course, this was news to my perfectionist ego, and my mind immediately flipped to defense mode. Who was she to say I was the bigot? I was in seminary. I was learning more about white privilege in two semesters than I had in my entire 23 years of life. I was part of a congregation that did its best to live by its creed, “Everyone means everyone.” I coordinated a mentoring program that worked to build relationships with the “at-risk” kids, the ones everyone else looked at with disdain and suspicion but I looked at with love and hope. Didn’t she realize that these people were the ones who were bigoted against me, against the people they didn’t believe were elect? How dare she lump me in the same category as them? How could she get this twisted?

But then the examples of the times I’ve lumped people into groups of “us” versus “them” computed. When I remembered the times as a child that I stuck with those I called “friends” and avoided those I deemed “not friends,” when I was a part of youth group but still labeled “the Super Christians” and “the backsliders,” when I went to seminary and started labeling those who held my convictions as “the progressives” and “the ones who love everyone” and those who opposed me as “the bigots” and “the ones full of hatred,” my own bigotry reared its ugly head at me.

I knew Anne brought this to my attention for good reasons. But I want to be perfect. And I couldn’t get over the fact that I never will be perfect, because the whole facade of me not being hateful had imploded in her cozy office.

My perfectionist tendencies and the cold, hard truth of my humanity have always been at war. I’ve tried to make myself think better and be better, thinking that if I can just fix myself, I won’t be full of hatred anymore. Then my humanity knocks me down a few pegs when I read another article by John Piper or someone at Bed Bath and Beyond gives me a hard time because their As Seen on TV product didn’t perform as expected. I feel the tension and weariness of battle in my body from trying to be saint over sinner.

Another awesome quality about Anne is that the minute she calls me out on my own shortcomings, she calls out her own. After she reminded me of my bigotry, she followed it up by explaining, “Everyone is a bigot to someone. I have my bigotry, you have yours, everyone else has theirs. But the way to growth is by admitting it.” She told me how she tenses up when people call her to set up appointments but say they need “a Christian counselor.” She knows this about herself, she catches herself doing it, she accepts that she does it. She also accepts that while she can’t fix her attitude, she can control how she responds. And she does her best to choose openness over exclusivity.

So I guess I’m not alone in this battle, and I guess that’s what makes all the difference.

I realized that Anne called me out on my bigotry, not so I could beat myself up about it, or even try to make me “better.” She told me this crucial information about myself, and humanity in general, so I could learn to be gracious, first to myself, and then to others, the ones I love who will inevitably fall off of the pretty little pedestals I built for them, and the ones who outright piss me off. She told me because like me, she is also on a journey, one that involves joy and despair, steps forward and steps backward, one that no one can take alone.

She was reminding me that I need to believe that the God who has grace enough for me and my story has grace enough for the people for whom I don’t show enough grace and their stories.

Maybe if we, hell, maybe if I, truly believed in a God of grace, maybe if we truly accepted this grace, it wouldn’t seem so difficult to give it away.

So I guess since I’m not alone, I’ll continue to unpack this, with Anne, with my friends, with my family, with my professors, with my church, with anyone willing to listen to me yammer on for a few minutes.

But first, I’ll try to show myself a little grace sometime this week, and try to show it to someone else, too. Because Anne has taught me, as have many others who have gone before me, that all I can really do is pray for Grace to inspire me to continue to choose love over fear and hatred, for Grace to continue to catch me when I fall, and for Grace to point out the imago Dei in me and the person in front of me.

Unexpected Lessons: My Journey with Sister2Sister Mentoring

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Tonight at Sister2Sister, we will continue diving into our  theme “You Are Made in the Image of God.” Tonight, the middle and high school girls will make collages of the “perfect woman,” and together, we will take those perceptions of beauty apart and see the differences between what our culture and the God who created us and called us “good” say about being human.

This couldn’t be better timing. Because on Tuesday night, during a routine chat with Bryce over Facetime, I realized that maybe I need to learn this lesson more than they do.

Because as we chatted through our iPhone and iPad cameras, I noticed my face. Specifically, I noticed my nose. The nose I never really liked because of its largeness and how it hooks like a beak at the end. The nose that is so different from the ones of my classmates and friends and family. The nose I apparently still don’t like. And I noticed how uncomfortable I still feel in my own body. And I felt ashamed and incompetent.

Because until then, I had been operating under the illusion that I had this all together. I thought I was confident and comfortable enough to lead this lesson. I thought I could lead these girls without having to work on my own stuff. Once again, I was proven wrong.

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When I first started my work with Sister2Sister, I expected to grow in my ability to discipline, maintain control and order, and teach life lessons. But I never expected to become more humble, more comfortable in chaos, and learn more than I taught. I expected to hear the girls open up about their struggles. But I never expected those stories to challenge me to confront my own life of pain and privilege.

You see, I expected to change lives when I became a mentor. But I never expected my life to change in the process..

But that is exactly what has happened. Because these girls have taught me that I can’t expect people to open up without opening up myself. I can’t expect people to grow without growing. And I can’t expect to lead and teach without others leading and teaching me. I can’t live in relationship with others if I’m simply seeking them out to make myself look and feel better.

If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that some of my greatest teachers have been the “high-risk” kids, the kids from the areas in town you’re “not supposed to go to,” the ones we’re supposed to “fix” and “save.”

When am I, and when are we, going to realize that maybe we all need saved from our own Savior complexes?

Because these girls continue to teach me, time and again, that I am not here to fix or save them, or to have it all together, or to be their best friends, or to have all the answers.

No. These girls have taught me that I am here to journey with them, to be with them as I am, to be their leader and companion, and sometimes to even say “I don’t know.”

And these girls have taught me that in so many ways, they are wiser than me, and they have so much to teach me, about love, community, and being a Christian who acts out of love, not out of a shallow need to validate myself in the eyes of God.

So yesterday, as I finally took time to work on my prayer life, I thought about my girls and all they have taught me and all the things they have challenged me to confront. I thought about this project we will be undertaking together, and I hoped and prayed that it would be every bit as transforming for me and my mentors as I hoped it would be for my girls.

And this is the prayer I prayed for them:

Thank you for my girls, for the ones that love me and challenge me, the ones that trust me and are uncertain of me. Thank you for teaching me through them, about grace, love, mercy, my own prejudices, my own ignorance, my own pain, my own weakness, and also my own gifts, my own strengths, my own leadership.

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Help me grow in community with them. Help me be quick to listen and hear. Help me be quick to embrace and be patient. Help me to open my arms wider. Help my heart to break more and be healed. Help me to keep my mind, heart, eyes, and ears open, and make my feet swift in action and my hands open, calming, and healing.

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You have given me a great gift in this community. Forgive me for taking it for granted, for seeking validation from my own Savior complex instead of through your Love. Thank you for your grace and love, patience and rebuke, strength and humility.

Thank you for reminding me that I learn and love through what I have and what I’m willing to let go. Thank you for showing me that leading is as much about humility as it is about being firm. And continue to fill me with love so that instead of seeking validation through them, I may instead seek to love them all the more, as they are and where they are. Help me to keep seeing and finding you.

Thank you for healing my blindness, making beauty from the ashes of the pain of my soul. Help me to heal from the inside out.

Help. Thanks. Wow. Amen.