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differing graciously

Last night, Ricky and I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren speak with Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in DC, as part of their Compelling Conversations series. Brian’s books have had a meaningful presence in our lives for quite a few years now, ever since our friend Heath lent us his copy of A New Kind of Christian. I didn’t know at the time just how much I would come to appreciate progressive Christian voices, or how much of a lifeline they would be for me.

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The conversation centered largely around the tension between evangelical American Christianity as it’s more commonly practiced and the folks who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with it…emergents, progressives, post-evangelicals, or whatever else you want to call them/us. I had to laugh when Brian mentioned that when people accuse him of heresy or falling down the slippery slope, he can only respond, “it’s much worse than you think.”

It’s been painful but liberating to realize I’ve spent most of my life entrenched in two types of Christianity that tend to fancy themselves the only type of Christianity: fundamentalism as a child and evangelicalism as a young adult. Those systems are not all bad or all good, of course, but there are good things outside of them. There are other ways to be faithful, to seek, to serve. I think that’s good news for all of us.

I’ve realized something big lately–I desperately want to be understood, especially by my friends who are still “in” systems from which I’ve stepped out. This desire grew so much over the years that I wanted to scream out my thoughts sometimes. Brian spoke some words last night that helped me to see how I might handle this better.

He offered this suggestion: when a friend, family member, etc. says something that you disagree with, maybe even find wildly offensive, say this: Wow, I see that differently. Then, leave it alone. If they ask you to explain, do so at another time, but not right away. In this way, you show that you’re willing to speak up but you don’t have to try to convince them of anything. It’s refreshing, and it opens up some space for dialogue. I think my favorite line was this: it’s really a gift when you can be different and not uptight about it. I have some work to do in that area.

In the same vein, he spoke of what an African theologian once told him: “Have the courage to differ graciously.” Brian noted that because this man approached theology from an African perspective, it might be called African theology, as when a woman approaches theology it might be called feminist theology, or when a gay person approaches theology it might be called queer theology, but a white European-based male approach is simply called theology (probably with a capital T). People approach theology differently, but some think their way is the way. We differ, meaning we are able to voice our disagreements, but we do it graciously, not defensively, not to prove a point, but as an effort to build something over time.

Not everyone can or will acknowledge their own bias and influencing factors. We should try to, and we should have grace for those who can’t see it yet. We should have grace for all the things we haven’t realized yet, too, as well as all the obtuse things we may have said in the past (yeah, that would be me).

I think I need to work on contentment with this: I am understood well by a few people. That is a gift, and it is enough.

Listen is my word for 2014. I’m learning that there’s nothing passive about listening–it’s a daily choice to acknowledge that whoever I come into contact with has a point of view that their life has given them, and to treat that gently. It doesn’t mean hiding my disagreement, but it does mean seeking to understand, and discerning well when to speak and when to refrain.

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The Peace

It’s a special day on the blog–I get to share some of my husband’s words. Ricky is my favorite person to talk to, because he tells the sometimes-uncomfortable truth and asks the Good Questions (the ones we all want to ask) and looks people in the eye, and isn’t afraid to introduce the elephants in the room. I could write a long list of the things I like about him (let me count the ways) but here’s my favorite thing: when he asks, “How are you doing?”, he’s really asking. I’m so grateful for him, and the way our conversations have helped me move forward many times. And, since what he’s written about for today’s post is a journey we’ve shared to a large extent, it’s quite meaningful to me. I hope you enjoy it, too.

It was late summer in southern New Mexico.  I walked across the parking lot, from the door of my car to the door of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Las Cruces.  As I entered, there wasn’t a familiar face; after all, I was only there because some out-of-town friends, James and Deborah and two-year-old Edmund, invited me.  I didn’t normally set foot in mainline churches, and I’m sure asking for instructions didn’t help me blend in either.  As the service progressed my friends arrived, I fumbled through the scripted service, and I smiled as sippy cups and hard plastic toys rolled on the ground.  We sat in the back near an African family with three kids.

And then came the Sharing of the Peace, the part of the service when people shake each other’s hands and say something like, “Peace be with you.”  First, James turned to me and smiled over some of God’s Peace.  Then, Deborah and Edmund managed to flash some quick Peace before diving for the sippy cup again.  And then strangers walked over to me and initiated the transaction of passing me the Peace.  I tried to reciprocate, but I found it difficult.  I couldn’t seem to manage passing Peace to anyone.  I faked it.  I didn’t have any to give.  Instead, I clumsily accepted the orbs of Peace handed to me.  I cried.  I didn’t know why.

I think I do now, though.  I needed people who didn’t know me, and who looked nothing like me, to be willing to accept me and wish me well.  I needed to witness that that still happens, because it had been so long since I had.

Every time in recent history that the American Church has assembled itself on the national stage, it hasn’t been to call attention to what makes Christianity beautiful—grace and genuine good will.  It has been to dutifully emphasize the boundary which defines who’s in and who’s not, to clear away the smudges in the line and remind us that, really, not all are welcome or deserving to participate in our community.  It steals from the playbook handed to middle-schoolers on how to efficiently create cliques, and it squeezes out those who are just different enough: single unwed pregnant women, thinkers, homosexuals, Democrats.  It fights to maintain a dominant “Christian” culture, enforcing compliance through the legal system.  It fights to be in power.  This is not what I understand Christianity should be.

Jesus gives us some good words for this:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

How can we see clearly enough to pass judgment on the single, unwed mom if we haven’t felt the weight of responsibility of figuring out how to maintain a full-time job and give birth to a baby, all without a partner to lean on?  Or how do we point fingers at the young man trying to figure out if he is gay if we’ve never had to choose between living a lie and being cast into exile?  Living life in community with people who are different than we are is messy and complicated, but the Bible says we are supposed to try to put up with one another (Ephesians 4:2).

Since moving to Maryland I’ve tried to pass Peace to new people I meet.  I smile at them and look them in the eye; I try to remember something about them and wish them goodwill.  Usually, they’ll pass some Peace back to me too.  I like to think it is a welcome interruption given the faster pace of life.  The Lutheran church my family and I have started attending is simple and allows for different sorts of people to make up its membership.  My kids are loud and think it is silly to spend the first 15 minutes of the service with the rest of the adults, but as the adults walk around and pass Peace to one another, they also pass Peace to my kids.  That is precious to me, and if there is ever a time when my kids need some help finding Peace, I think will be precious to them, too.

Ricky is an engineer and appreciates all things technical.  He likes playing music, watching his kids sample new foods, and an occasional, lively political debate.  He lives in Columbia, MD with his wife and three beautiful children.

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Lead Me On

Today’s post is from my delightful friend Erica Pelzel. Erica and I met during our college days, and I’ve admired her ever since for her energy and creativity. She taught me (and many others) to crochet, has the best laugh in the world, and once, when my then four year-old son greeted her at the door (in his underwear, it should be noted) with an ecstatic “I just went poop in the potty!”, she didn’t miss a beat and congratulated him with equal enthusiasm. That’s just the sort of person she is. She’s gracing this space today with some real talk about motherhood, tiredness in its many forms, a hard year, and hope.

I used to be an awesome quiet time haver. I had the perfect spot, my Baby Girl would sleep for hours, I didn’t have a care in the world… but as Baby Girl grew, that disappeared. As I sat with my open Bible this morning I just stared– intimidated by where to start and struggled to work past my terrible reading comprehension until I could get just… there. To the place where all in my mind and heart is calm and my ears are tuned into the frequency of His voice. After reading at least three Psalms and not remembering a single word, it was as if these words jumped straight off the page to me– as if they were raining down in sweet drops to my desperate and hungry soul:

“Send Your light and Your truth; let them lead me.” -Psalm 43:3, HCSB

I am comforted by the word “send” for some reason.  Maybe because it says to me that if He sends something, all I have to do is receive it.

I’ve always been a good girl, a super-passionate Jesus-chaser and churchgoer… until this year slapped me with a weary reality. Over the past year, I’ve felt like I’ve been barely hanging on.  I’m great at acting– superb in fact– I can pretend my way through any situation and put on an “I’m fine” face like nobody’s business.  But that’s the thing– I haven’t let it be anybody’s business that I’ve been drained and tired.  I haven’t let it be anybody’s business that I’m hurting.  I haven’t let it be anybody’s business… not even Jesus’.  And that’s my fault, really, not His.  In the tornado of motherhood, marital issues, sickness, hospitals, bills, more sickness and pretending to have it together I found myself with the open Word this morning, yearning to let my business be His.

If Jesus sent things solely on the basis of how  “good” of a Christian I’ve been… I’m afraid to say that I deserve no such package as His light and His truth.  But today– today I felt a glimmer of hope begin to illuminate my cold, protected heart.  Like the first gleam of dawn, I feel hope that this season will pass and that His joy really will come this morning; He is sending His light and His truth to lead me.

I’m not sure where and I’m not sure how, exactly, but I feel thrilled knowing that He has already sent it.  The more I say it, the more I believe it and the more it washes over my mind, my ears, my thoughts, my heart.  He’s sent me His light in this dark season.  He’s sent me His truth.  And through this confusing time somehow… somehow He’s led me.  I won’t pretend to know how or try to explain something I don’t understand, but here– in the stillness of this moment– I know it is coming.

I know it is here.

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Erica Pelzel is a wife, mother, and creator of beautiful things. Check out her projects and musings at ericapelzel.com.

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Like a Child

Today I’m grateful to be sharing a guest post from James Stambaugh. James and his wife, Deborah, are dear friends of ours and some of my favorite people  to talk with about theology and its tangible effect on our lives, usually while drinking something interesting. We don’t see them nearly enough, and as I always learn something from our conversations, it’s a treat to hear James’ thoughts on the decision to baptize their son Edmund as an infant, and the ways children teach us how to approach God. 

Baptizing my son as an infant was a difficult choice.  I mentally accented to the doctrine.  I read the pertinent theology.  My wife and I worked through the information given to us by our parish, and met with the Christian education director.  We set a date to have Edmund James baptized, and chose godparents.  But there were complications.  These decisions are rarely only about theology.  Christian practice is messy.

Psychologically, it was hard to overcome twenty years of being told that infant baptism was wrong; that a person must choose for his or herself to be baptized.  I was baptized when I was nine after making a public profession of faith in Christ.  I don’t exactly remember choosing anything.  I remember it though, cold water on a January night, and value the memory.

The Anglican tradition, which I came to in young adulthood, affirms the value and the choice of baptism for older children and adults.  Since I began attending the Episcopal church I have seen many persons “of riper years”—as an old Prayer Book called it—get baptized, and it is always beautiful.  But, infant baptism is the normative practice of our church.  More by intuition than by dogmatics, I felt it was right for my son.

Some of our close family warned us before Edmund was born never to let them know if we baptized him as an infant.  They acted as if just knowing of an infant baptism in the family would cause too much shame and disappointment to bear.

My wife and I were faced with a decision between what we felt was right and what was normative in our faith community on the one hand, and what we were taught growing up and what our family wanted us to do on the other.

In the end, we went with our gut.  We brought our child to the font.  We promised in front of God and everyone to bring him up in the Christian faith, and help him to grow into the full stature of Christ.  We spoke the ancient words of the baptismal covenant, and our voices were strengthened by the voices of the whole congregation.  The priest poured water on his head, and anointed him with oil.  We received the light of Christ: a candle burning with Pascal fire.

That was two years ago.  Edmund is almost three.  Most Sundays we take him out of the nursery in time for Holy Communion.  He calls it “Jesus bread time.”

He points to the colors in the stained glass, listens to the rumbling organ, and says parts of the Lord’s Prayer—mostly just “Our Father” over and over.   Then we line up to go to the altar rail.  When he was younger we would take the wafer for him, break it up, make sure it all ended up in his mouth, but we don’t worry too much about that anymore.

Now Edmund kneels by himself.  His chin rests on the top of the wooden rail polished by a century of communicants.  He reaches up, palms open; absolutely committed to expectation.  He wastes no time shoving the whole wafer in his mouth.  He smiles as it melts on his tongue.  Once he grabbed the priest’s vestment as he walked past, and asked, “more please.”  The priest gave it to him.  Another time he begged a piece from the man kneeling next to him.  This man broke his wafer in half and gave it to my son.  As a member of our congregation, that gentleman also made a promise the day Edmund was baptized, and he took it seriously.

Edmund feasts on the Sacrament with unadulterated joy.  When he breaks free of my grasp and runs to the rail giggling, I see what Jesus meant when he told us to approach His kingdom like a child, with innocence, joy, and expectation; with careless laughter.  At the rail, receiving the Eucharist with Edmund, I know that baptizing him was right.  He is a member of the Body of Christ and participates in the life of the Church in his own, completely legitimate way.  And who cares that he approaches donuts in the fellowship hall the same way? [1]

Edmund is teaching me that children intuitively understand the Incarnation.  They make no distinction between sacred and profane, between spiritual and material.  They worship just as truly with sticky hands full of cake as with prayer book and hymnal (though the combination of all three is not recommended).

Some will still argue that children cannot worship, or be baptized, or take the Eucharist because they don’t know what they’re doing.  But do any of us really know what we’re doing?  Regardless of how ripe in years we are when it happens, we are all infants at baptism.  The extent to which we think we are spiritually mature is usually inversely related to how mature we really are.  If we do not approach the Sacraments as a mystery—with the spiritual discipline of expectant unknowing—we are in grave danger.  Children don’t have to worry about that.  God grant me grace to be like them.

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James is in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest and will be attending seminary in the fall of 2014.  Right now, he lives in Albuquerque, NM with his beautiful wife and darling children.  He occasionally blogs at cynoceph.wordpress.com.

[1] Who can deny the sacramentality of coffee hour?

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Grace to Show Up

Today, for A Feast of Crumbs’ inaugural guest post, I’m thrilled to be hosting my lovely friend Norissa Lears. We met when I was in college and she was in graduate school. I’ve found Norissa to be a person who chooses her words carefully and tells the truth: if something is hard, she says so. She’s navigating the early motherhood years with honesty and truly, grace. I appreciate her voice so much and consider it an absolute honor to share her words here.

I feel like I keep failing the Sunday morning test. The one where I’m supposed to get myself and the two kids ready and out the door for church without yogurt smears on my skirt or sweet potatoes caked in their hair, and without going all Crazy-Mom on the four-year old when he strips his pants and underwear off to go potty and will not be wrangled back into them 20 minutes past our departure goal. The one where I’m supposed to show up on time.

The one where I’m supposed to show up, period.

Sometimes, showing up seems downright impossible.

And I guess that’s what I’m learning from this particular struggle. That it is impossible, but for Grace. And I’m starting to think that’s a lot of what Grace is: the ability, as well as the opportunity, to show up, trailing behind, empty-handed and broken, stained with the efforts of trying to please others, grimed with the remnants of attempting to satisfy my cravings, with the jagged holes and dark places, hair unkempt and no make-up. All of it showing.

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Showing up was the last thing I wanted to do on this particular Sunday. Given that my husband had a rare break from playing the piano during the service, we could all go together as a family. But I was tired, disgruntled and frustrated about several circumstances, and wanted to just stay home.

The only reason I acquiesced to attend was the lure of an interesting biography. The Sunday morning before All Saints’ Day, which my church observes in conjunction with Reformation Day and with a carnival for the children, the sermon always features a past saint–not in the sense of someone holy in and of themselves, or someone who performed miracles, but in the sense of being a follower of Christ, an ordinary person whose life was transformed by an extraordinary God-Man. Though many a sermon has washed over me in the same time, I can list the subjects of each of the past 7 years’ biographical sketches from memory. This time, though, not even a narrative could vie for my attention as I nursed my anger and disconnection.

At the end of this service, though, my attention was riveted during the concluding hymn, when the instruments dropped out of the last verse. I don’t remember the words, or even the song we were singing, only that all of a sudden, everything changed. Instantly, voices became distinct around me: the operatic soprano, whose voice sailed from across the other side of the sanctuary; the smile in Catie’s bright descant behind me; my husband’s unpolished tenor beside me; the baritone plodding the supporting tones in front of us. And I could hear the catch in my own voice as it wobbled, the hardness I had built up over the morning starting to crumble.

Suddenly, I felt seen.

“(He) will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17

In that moment, without the usual instrumentals blanketing the singing, each individual voice became to me a lifeline, a note in the Creator’s Song of Grace.

Eyes closed, I pictured the pared down worship of pioneers absent an organ or piano, of believers in underground churches today on the other side of the globe, of the first followers of the Way. Saw myself as part of a body, broken and fumbling and in need of restoration as it is. Connected, if only by the strains of a harmony in this moment, to the ones immediately surrounding me as well as those across town, across the world, and throughout the centuries, across the divide of time and eternity. And the Divine Voice, rejoicing over all of it– the mess, the broken, the Redeemed.

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Photo credit: Monica Lau

Norissa Lears is a wife, mama to two small boys, and writer who blogs at Gracewritehere.com, where she attempts to record the incredible, radical Grace she’s experienced, and create some beauty out of the messy, imperfect moments of life.

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resolving to listen

Yesterday, I shared the results of my 2013 resolutions, as well as my new resolutions for 2014. Today, inspired by the OneWord365 campaign, I’m sharing my word that I hope will describe 2014 well. I deviate from their mission a little in that I’m still a fan of resolutions, but I love the idea of focusing in on one word.

In 2014, I want to listen. It’s timely, for me. Social media is wonderful in many ways: it’s a fairly easy venue to express creativity, it connects us to like-minded people, and it helps us know we’re not alone, particularly during a shift where we feel less connected to a specific community than we once did. I believe that, in many ways, social media saved my faith. However, for all its good qualities, it doesn’t seem to encourage much listening.

Everybody find your tribe, everybody defend your tribe, everybody talk about why your tribe is the best. From what I’ve seen, this could be the slogan of the social internet. It’s not all bad, either: it feels good to belong to something,  and if I’ve chosen a tribe, it’s probably because those within hold the same things to be precious.

But sometimes, one tribe decides that another tribe is stupid, or wrong, or oblivious, and the arrows go flying.

I was going to give some specific examples, but we can probably all think of plenty without help, and I certainly don’t want this post to be about some hot-button issue instead of what it’s supposed to be about. Can we just pause for a collective sigh, though? Is anyone else tired of it? I am.

And so, I resolve to listen, especially when it comes to social media, but in person as well. I’ll voice my opinion when it’s warranted, but I hope that it’s only ever with a healthy dose of humility.

When I hear a statement and immediately think that’s outrageous! I’ll take a moment longer to listen. I’ll give people a chance to explain. I’ll do my best to assign positive intent, if at all possible. Then, and only then, I’ll offer my thoughts. My resolution to listen has nothing to do with timidity, but it is an attempt to resist the high of outrage.

And so, in the spirit of listening, I have a happy announcement to make.

Earlier this year, I asked a group of people ranging from acquaintances to close friends if they would consider writing a guest post here on the blog that described a “bread crumb” moment for them. Many of them responded; enough to host two guest posts a month here, starting tomorrow!

I have a confession to make, though: initially I only wanted to ask people who fall along the same political and theological lines that I do. It seemed like a risk otherwise: what would people want to say on MY blog? Would I censor it? Maybe I was setting myself up for incredibly awkward situations. And then I felt so, so convicted. It’s embarrassing to admit: I was thinking of asking people to share something quite intimate: a moment of spiritual clarity that was sacred to them, and then I was thinking of who might say the right sort of thing. Isn’t that the very thing, the very lack, that’s broken my heart; that almost drove me away from my faith?

I seemed to have forgotten, in my zeal for a particular tribe, that we have much to learn from each other. It was this realization, among others, that led me to choose listen as my word for 2014.

One of my favorite lines of literature comes from Jo March in Little Women. “I should have been a great many things,” she says, when someone notices one of her strengths and comments “You should have been a lawyer, Miss March.” She’s speaking mainly about opportunity, I think, but her words have another meaning. Each one of us already is a great many things, and we shouldn’t be defined solely by any tribe or affiliation. I’d like to take this year to remind myself of that, as often as possible.

And so, we’ll be hearing from people of faith with a broad range of views, because that is what Christianity actually looks like as a whole. I don’t know to what extent their views will influence what they choose to write about, and honestly I’m not expecting anything very controversial. It seems like a good way to practice listening, though. To practice not dismissing. These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, not to mention fellow humans, and I’m beyond excited to hear their stories and be reminded of all that we have in common.

Happy New Year to you! It’s a bit of a wild hope, but maybe this year we’ll listen better. Maybe we’ll hear each other.

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