Often, when I am reading sacred text, I find myself wondering: what does God *actually* sound like? As in, if I had been *there* at *that moment* what would I have heard? This is especially true for me when it comes to the prophets, because they are so often tasked with unenviable task of mediating God’s words to God’s people. So they receive something, and then they share it.
I can relate to that. As a pastor, one of my most visible tasks is to pay attention to scripture, to receive it, and then to help my people see it as something worth paying attention to. Ancient texts are deceptive–there is a lot of context and back story that is often invisible to us on the page which makes the task of understanding just a little bit harder. We miss the ancient jokes, the word play, the allusions that make our modern conversations come alive.
Over the past few years, I have found that biblical storytelling has been a way for me to help make scripture come alive for my community. Biblical storytelling pays attention to the words, and the context, and what we know about the ancient world, and then it helps the community to hear it fresh. The magic that happens when academic study and creative proclamation are brought together is incredibly refreshing.
But there are choices that have to be made, such as, What does God sound like? This week, I found myself asking that question with respect to Jeremiah 23. I could say a lot about it at this point, but the general gist is that the book of Jeremiah is bitter medicine. Bad news all around for the people of God. The young Jeremiah knows it, God knows it, and nobody is particularly happy about it. And there are other prophets out there, whose message is more popular, *maybe just maybe* because it is a lot more hopeful and positive.
By the time we get to Jeremiah 23, God is fed up with these false prophets and is laying into them. To me, God seems beyond angry. God is at that point where God is almost amused by the ridiculousness of it all. I imagined God breaking into our worship on Sunday, lounging in the front pew eating popcorn and saying what God really thinks of (waves hands) all this.
Earlier this year, I deleted nearly a thousand friends off of my Facebook page. I say that not to brag, mind you. I have been on Facebook for 15 years, long enough to accumulate a small army of friends, acquaintances, and honest-to-goodness strangers. It was an arduous process, and yet it felt necessary, like setting down a weight that I had placed upon myself and then had proceeded to forget was there. At the very same time I couldn’t bring myself to step away entirely, and for weeks I wondered if I would regret this decision to unburden.
I did not see this coming. In the early days of social media, I found the connections made possible by facebook and its like thrilling. How exciting, I thought, to so easily be able to connect to my friends! Back then, our cell phone plans charged by the text, and then suddenly the internet provided a way to make late night coffee plans for free. Even now, Facebook will sometimes surface a “memory” from those early times, detailed plans to meet at a landmark at a particular time, or terrible college jokes that have not aged, and I cannot help but pause to examine these technological artifacts, missives from a distant time when the world of social media was comprised almost entirely of people with whom I already spent my days.
As I have grown older, I must confess that I have struggled with a sense of dis-ease regarding the role that social media plays in my life. How can something so incredibly vulnerable also be so utterly impersonal at the same time? I cannot conceive of another space quite like it. Where else can one shout the deepest truths of themselves into the void of their scattered friendships, preserved in the amber of source code so that others whom they cannot see or touch or speak with can answer? It is as though one had written a letter that was then copied again and again, shared with friends and strangers alike.
And where else can one feel so crowded by other souls, and yet so…lonely… at the same time? On social media, little green dots tell me who is also there, swimming in a sea of photos and comments and tiktok videos, and yet I cannot see them, or know their lives clearly at all. No wonder we post over and over again. We send up our flares into that algorithmic sea, whose current to us is a mystery, hoping that someone will notice. And then we wait and watch for signs that we have been found–we wait and watch for the reaffirming ding of likes, and hearts and comments to validate our fear that our worth is to be found in our being noticed by others.
I confess that I find the whole experience both terrifying and thrilling. I want so badly to be seen and accepted as I am, to be known and loved. And all the while I agonize over the perfect framing of the picture, the right combination of words to convey with precision the sentiment I am holding within me that will convey the right combination of light-heartedness and seriousness, levity mixed precisely so with wisdom. In the process I lose the very thing I crave, for I control and contort myself into something that I believe will be more palatable than. the person that I actually am. In seeking to connect, I end up obscuring myself. It is like peering through a glass, dimly. The shape resembles the truth, and yet, I cannot be certain that I am seen as I am.
What I really want is to draw near to the people I care about. Not the false nearness of instagram, or Facebook, or any other number of applications that (so often successfully) vie for my attention. I want intimacy that is personal, the thrill of a real voice with a beating heart and sinew behind it, a soul that knows a real, living version of me, not some Potemkin village that I have hastily constructed for others viewing pleasure. I want to swim in the delicious pool of being fully known by someone who knows me, seen by someone who sees me, free of the artifice of a perfect frame or filter.
And so I struggle. I reach out my hands to the people who have my heart, and at the same time I construct a beautiful picture in the hopes that they will notice. I put myself out there, and I am tempted to control the narrative. Welcome to being human, I tell myself. There is nothing simple about it, is there?
Earlier this summer, NASA released images from the James Webb Telescope (you can find them here). The pictures are awesome in the oldest sense of the word, in no small part because they reveal, as one colleague put it, that “the universe is vast, incredibly old, absolutely unknowable in its entirety.” It can be so easy to forget just how utterly…small we are. We can get so wrapped up in our own concerns and passions, so convinced that everything depends upon us, and what we do (or what we don’t do). And then we look to the stars, and remember that we are just one small speck of dust in a vast creation. The Psalmist says it thus:
When I look up at the heavens, At the work of Love’s creation, At the infinite variety of your Plan, What is woman that You rejoice in her, And man that You do delight in him?
When we get out of our own heads for a second, that question takes on new life:
Why does God care about something as small as us?
My own life experience tells me that we have done nothing to deserve such consideration—we humans are nowhere near perfect, and the witness of God’s Word makes it clear that this is a feature, not a bug, when it comes to the problem of humanity.
And yet, here we are. Loved by our Creator. Made in God’s Image, even. For a purpose. The Psalmist again:
You have made us co-creators of the earth! Guardians of the planet! To care for all your creatures, To tend the land, the sea, and the air we breathe; All that You have made, You have placed in our hands.
We don’t have all of the answers, but trust me on this one: We don’t need to know why in order to do something that contributes to God’s vision for this broken, hurting world. We just have to care enough to try. At our best, when we trust in God, we are capable of so much good. So look at the stars. Contemplate with gratitude the gift of being small. And then go out and share your love with the world this week. I will be right beside you, doing the same.
What do you think is the purpose of church? Certainly Jesus never expressed an opinion on the subject of pews, or hymnals or proper orders of worship. No, His approach was far more informal:
“Wherever three are gathered in my name, there I am.” “Do you love me? Then Feed my Sheep.” “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Sometimes I find myself wondering what Jesus would think of the multiplicity of rituals and traditions and rules that we have made for ourselves up over the two thousand years since he walked this earth. I wonder whether he might not chuckle under his breath and say to himself, “Humans, am I right?” And yet, at the same time, there is something deeply soothing about the rituals of our faith. The liturgy of our worship has the power to draw us closer to God, even surprises us sometimes with its ability to reveal to us fleeting images of the grace of God. The moment of communion has the power to transform us as the body of Christ becomes a part of us.
That word, liturgy, I think, is key. It is from the greek leitourgia, a word which translates as “the work for the people.” It is a reminder to us that the power of our worship is not in the words themselves, or even the order of our movement. It is in the very fact of the people with whom we share it. The person beside you, the shoulder ahead of you in the pew. It is the gift of God for the people of God. In some mysterious way, when we gather our bodies together for worship, we encounter the body of Christ in each other, and our bodies–broken, suffering, crying out for affection–need the comfort that only other bodies can provide. Our worship is a reminder that we cannot be Christians alone. We need the fellowship and peace divine that comes from gathering with people, not just the ones we would choose, or those whom we like, but everyone–the angry, the heartbroken, the joyful, the full crush of humanity that is possible every time we open our doors on Sunday.
Anyhow, that’s how I see it. And every Sunday, it breaks my heart open to learn it again, as if for the very first time.
When I was a child, love often looked like an empty plate. “Eat! Eat!” my loved ones would say, as they pushed all manner of gastronomical delights towards us. Nobody ever told me to stop eating. Nobody ever told me that my appetite was too much. They simply delighted in my delight. Because they wanted me to grow.
But you know the story. At some point, there was a shift. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, but the message was crystal clear to my young self: somewhere around 15, it became evident that my appetite exceeded the space that others were willing to give to it.
This wasn’t just about food, mind you. I was simply “too much” for many of the people in my life, especially my peers. I was too loud. Too opinionated. Too naive. Too unguarded. Too hungry.
What was once a delight became a source of shame. A problem to hide and deny. A monster to punish and constrain.
What happens to us, that turns so many of us into deprivation machines? Why is it that so many of us (myself included here) came to the conclusion that our appetites are shameful? That we can not trust our own hunger?
For over ten years, I raged with a hunger that could not be filled, could not be filled in part because I would not let it. And I would not let it because the world whispered at me that this self-denial was the only path to happiness for a good girl like me. I grew accustomed to living with less than my body needed–less food, less love, less attention, less passion. I settled (GOD I hate that word) and told myself that it was enough.
One of the only places where I felt like my hunger was welcomed was in the church. There, I met people who told me it was holy to hunger and thirst for righteousness. I found people whose appetite for fellowship was unbounded. Who talked too much, drank too much, loved one another too much. I closed out diners in Cambridge with dear friends as we shared a vision for a new kind of church and shared a communion of stale chocolate chip cookies and grape juice. I made a home with fellow radicals in Philadelphia who dreamed of a city where the poor and the rich shared a table piled high with good food together, and then we did it. And when I became a pastor, people celebrated my “too muchness” because it turned out that passion is infectious.
As I experienced the satisfaction of being more of myself, I have started to wonder what is holding me back in my personal life. If God accepts my too muchness in the company of fellow travelers, why would God not embrace me if I were fully myself in the rest of my life? And what would that even begin to look like? I have lived a constrained self for so long, I suspect it will take time to figure out what it feels like to embrace the freedom of simply being me. But when I look back to my childhood, I am reminded that the answer will likely put delight at the center. Delight in my body. Delight in myself. Delight in the experience of being created in the image of God.
I never thought of myself as what you might call a “tortured soul.”
As a child, I lived a rather boring, ordinary life. My parents were (for the most part) very happy. The worst you could say about me, if you could say something, was that I was far too competitive (incidentally, things often came easily to me and I was encouraged at whatever I did, which may have been related). And so it was that I was a good student, an accomplished musician, and dedicated athlete. I didn’t get into much trouble, either. I was pretty much a model kiddo.
Except the fact that, no matter how much I succeeded, I always had this nagging sense that, deep down, if folks really knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me all that much. Strip away my “doing” self, and I figured that what was left would send the people whose affirmation I most craved packing. I don’t know where that feeling came from, but it was there, from very early, convincing me that my only value was attached to what I could do. Whispering that the love of my family and friends was in some sense conditional.
When you think that way, it can lead you down some pretty strange roads. You can convince yourself to make all sorts of compromises. You can tell yourself that the only way to survive is to abandon yourself. And you can convince yourself that denying yourself is normal, that it is healthy, even. You can find these messages everywhere– in pop culture, in religion, and often in the way that families talk about (or don’t talk about) success.
And so early on I set to work contorting myself into a shape I thought people wanted me to be. A shape that appeared pleasing. Competent. Good. Sure, I was loud, even bossy sometimes, but almost always in the service of “acceptable” (let the reader understand: culturally approved) goals.
But every time I did dare to be loud, or silly, or “too much,” I knew I would spend the next 24 hours second-guessing every choice I had made. No matter how many groups and activities I added to my resume, the suspicion would linger– is it enough? Will they love me?
My sister would probably tell you that there were times when I was completely insufferable growing up, and she is almost certainly right. I was insufferable. But I was also suffering. I spent so much time trying to be what I thought the world wanted me to be that I ended up neglecting to ask the critical question: what do you really want?
Things got bad enough that at one point I started engaging in harmful behaviors, all in the service of the story I was telling myself that the world would only love me if I appeared a certain way. I struggled with safe boundaries because I was afraid that if I said no, I would be abandoned by those I most wanted to accept me. I kept myself from drawing too far outside the lines, because I had been told exactly what the picture was meant to look like.
What a perfect life, right? Doesn’t it sound wonderful? The worst part of all this is that I did this to myself. My little soul convinced herself somewhere along the way that this was the best it was going to get. That I better settle down for a lifetime of this way of life, and learn to enjoy it.
My biggest rebellion, in fact, if you could call it that, was becoming a pastor. Church was a place where I saw a future for myself, a glimpse of something real, even thought I don’t think I understood that fully at the time. Church was also a place that was mine–I chose it, and when the rest of my family moved on, I held fast to it and ultimately gave my life in service to Christ because I believed in the fellowship and community made possible inside its walls. And while I still believe with all my heart that the church is capable of great things when it holds fast to Jesus, I have learned to be skeptical of those who claim to have figured it all out.
I wish I could sit my young self down and tell her exactly how Beloved she was in the eyes of G-d. That there was not a hair on her head that G-d herself didn’t know and cherish. That yes, childhood can be brutal, that the desire to be a part of something can eat you alive, but that she would find her people, eventually. That there would be a community of broken-hearted people who could handle her dumb, silly antics, and even love her for them.
It took a long time to start believing in myself instead of my accomplishments. To start letting go of the compulsion to hide behind what I could do and instead embrace who I am. I am still learning this–every day is a lesson, an opportunity to start over again.
One partner in my current reflections is the book of Ecclesiastes. It has been on my mind this week as I have pondered the excellent ministry of biblical storytelling that some of my people shared last week at the Network of Biblical Storytellers conference. And one of the themes of Ecclesiastes is the question of meaning. The author struggles to find a purpose “under the sun,” and one thing that frustrates them most is the recognition that no matter what you do (or don’t), or what you have (or don’t), how smart or dull you are, how known or invisible, your fate is the same:
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all….
So go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lotin life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Ecclesiastes 9:3, 7-10
For me, for now, I hear this as a call to let go of all the bullshit that has held me down for so long. To give myself permission to stop wasting my life worrying about what people will think about me, and to instead embrace the journey and the gift of life itself. We waste so much precious time worrying about making the one, right choice…but what if there are no right choices? What if there are only pathways forward, not a single one of them perfect, all of them choked through with possibility?
At least, that is what I tell myself today. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
It’s been a minute. 11 months to be exact, but the truth is that I haven’t been writing as much here at all lately. Over the last few years, time that I might have spent writing was instead handed over to the “realities” of daily life (translation: responsibilities to other people in my life). Rarely, if ever, have I been able (read: willing) to stop, take a breath, and to reflect on the simplest question: Am I happy? Is this the life I want for myself?If I could do it over again, would I make the same choices?
Would you? The most honest answer, for me at least, is no. One messy and inconvenient human truth is that most (ALL) of us are living a compromise. We have made choices, and those choices have set us walking a path before us, as well as carried us farther from other possibilities that could otherwise have delighted or sorrowed our souls.
Now, throw in a few companions on the journey, and, well, it becomes harder to change direction, doesn’t it? As someone who lives to please the people around me, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that often I will keep on going on a particular path because I don’t want to disappoint the people who have expectations of me (hi mom and dad!). And while some of my choices were worth every hardship, others are far more complicated, and the answers vary from day to day.
But what about disappointing myself? I don’t often ask that question. Do you? And how is that not just as important, perhaps even more important, than what others think of me?
It sounds so simple, and yet there is a whole cultural infrastructure built around keeping up our appearances. Our churches, our communities, our families would almost certainly prefer that we just “go along and get along.” They would prefer that we wear nice clothes, and say nice words, and tell pretty stories. Stay neat and pick up your trash. Carry on and whatever you do, pick up your mess before anyone sees it. Messy people rarely get to stay at the center of anything “important”–they end out on the edges quicker than toupee in a hurricane. (wouldn’t it be easy if we could just tell ourselves that wedon’t care what other people think? But we belong to these communities because they are full of people we love. We want them to accept us. And so we convince ourselves that this is the price of admission.)
It’s particularly fascinating to me that my faith tradition of Christianity is so fixated on this notion that we need to have our shit together. That in order for the world to respect us, we have to be….respectable. We make up our vision boards and imagine a solid foundation, and while we use lovely words and invent clever turns of phrase, invariably it looks like some variation of: money, resources, power. We tell ourselves that we want to pursue the mission of Christ, forgetting that his mission would ask us to forsake everything, perhaps even our own lives, for the sake of a world in which there are no edges, where valleys are flat and mountains are brought low, and not a single little one is lost.
But damn if can’t let go of our need for influence and power. Damn if we haven’t silenced ourselves because it might make us unpopular, or put us at odds with the people whose money we crave. We wear our need to be accepted and acceptable like a millstone around our necks, dragging it along like the filthy bag of trash that it is because “it’s the way we have always been.” We have been carrying that baggage around for a long time, heaving it from generation to generation and don’t even think to question it (because if you do,… well, that would be messy). It’s been there so long that we started to believe that the grooves that formed in our shoulders were a part of God’s plan, rather than deformation.
We’ve carried it, and in the process, we forgot that the Word of God is a story for misfits and fucked up outsiders. We forgot that the ancestors of our faith were a hot mess. That they made SERIOUS errors in judgement on the regular, and those mistakes (only sometimes) made them better people. And that God loved them in that messiness. Even more: God found a way through that messiness to sometimes help us do some really amazing things. Because all God wanted for us was for creation to thrive. For ‘adamah to embrace the truth of imago dei within it, recognize God’s image in their neighbor, and maybe be a little less trash in the process.
So why am I wasting so much energy worrying about what will happen if I am a mess? If I am broken? If I am “too much” or “not the right sort of Christian?” If I am embracing God’s love for me, and seeking to live as one who is prepared to die (thanks, Ecclesiastes!), then isn’t that enough? How can that not move mountains?
Just so we are clear: my people-pleasing-desperate-to-fit-in-and-be-loved self is screaming at me as I write this. She’s definitely not a fan. She’s convinced that I’m going to blow up everything, and that I will regret every mistake I make. She’s worked hard to make me who I am, and it is pissing.her.off that I want to blow it all up. She wants me to believe that it’s safer to avoid every risk. To push my ragged edges out of sight because what if people see them? What the hell would they think of that? I suspect she won’t shut up any time soon, either. But I’m trying to convince her that the person she should care about the most is the person I see when I look in the mirror. The person who desperately needs to feel alive, not just to others but to herself.