Finding Life In The Commas

“The best lives are riddled with ambiguities and lined with shadows. Each of them is a story about grace.”

~Marilyn McEntyre

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Life is lived in the commas, among dashes and eclipses, but many of us prefer the period.

We like clear resolution and a definitive end.

  • I am right. She is wrong.
  • They are evil. We are good.
  • You are at fault and need to stop whining, so we can wrap this up and go home.

Wielding periods, we can slam doors, burn bridges, and shake the disgusted dust off our feet. How satisfying to stamp Mystery Solved, Case Complete, Game Over, The End to our drama, our questions, and our doubts.

But the truth unfolds in the commas.

  • In some ways he’s right, but not completely.
  • She may be wrong, but is on the right track.
  • We are all sometimes evil, and we are all capable of great good. The line goes through, not between us.

What are we learning when resolution eludes us? What growth takes place as life’s sentences run on? Commas must be feared if the world has no author. Truth feels slippery, lines quickly blur, we all stumble along, waiting for our worst fears to come true.

Waiting In The Commas

In the season of Advent we wait, and remember the ancient rumors have turned out to be true. There is an author in charge, the perfect end even no unfolds, and we’ve been handed the plot line–not a list of pious opinions, but a person to follow.  Jesus. Our light in the darkness, our guide through the chaos, our power to love when surrounded by hate, he promises to redeem, restore, transform even our most dreadful mistakes (if we let him) into breathtaking beacons of hope.

One day the period will be put to all evil, death, and misery. For now God waits, patiently moving through the good and the bad, wasting nothing, giving up on no-one, desiring that everyone on earth run into his outstretched arms.

But, remember, he uses our arms for the job. He demands that we love others the way we long to be loved, even when our punctuation is out of sync.

It’s not easy.

Flourishing in the commas requires humility (I could be wrong, because there’s more to this than I can see), hope (God is not absent just because I’m tempted to despair) and habit (I will keep my heart open, continue to love, especially the people whom nobody else will love).

1 Corinthians 13, 2 Peter 3:8-10

Where do you see the love of God at work in the commas?

 The quote at the top is from Marilyn McEntyre’s lovely new book, Word by Word, A Daily Spiritual Practice. A perfect stocking stuffer for your favorite reader.

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The Magnificent Messiness Of Mercy

I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand. ~Linus

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Mercy is messy, because no one deserves it. Judgment is the less confusing path.

We find it far easier to stand smugly at a distance and judge another’s suffering. “Stop whining, you made your choices. It’s nobody’s fault but your own.”

From our comfortable perch we can mourn over abstract principles and cultural symbols without having to love the people they represent.

Listen to us! We loyally defend inanimate  ideology, while ignoring the cries of the living.

We rally for a cause, we complain about the system, while avoiding a stranger’s outstretched hand.

We adore nature while carelessly despoiling it, we sentimentalize children we’ve no intention to help, and shed tears for victims we would never allow into our homes.

Compassion doesn’t occur in us naturally. Most of us find it easier to embrace what is distant, theoretical , and simple, over the messy, unpredictable tangibility of earthly need.

In this, we do not resemble our Maker.

Mercy Is God’s Heart

“The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9). The Hebrew word for mercy here is also the word for womb. How does a protective mother feel about the child she bore? Even more fiercely does God love everything he has made.

The New Testament identifies God as the “Father of mercies” (2 Corinthians 1:3), for “he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35). At the heart of Jesus’ teaching we discover a counter-intuitive command. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Be merciful to those who hate you, curse, and mistreat you, who steal from you, demand things of you–how much messier does mercy get? And what is our motivation to obey?

That we, the unmerciful, receive the mercy of God every single day.

Learning Mercy

Pause for a moment and consider God’s handiwork, the target of his compassion. (See Genesis 1 and 2 for a complete listing).

Now ponder what is not on that list, all that is of human, or inhuman, construction. What are the symbols, the institutions, the idols, the rituals, the traditions, the assumptions–yes, even the pious beliefs–you are tempted to cherish instead?

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Confession: The Gift We’ve Abandoned

“Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness.”
– Lee Strobel

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In a world where disagreeable ditches outnumber beneficent bridges, confession is our only hope.

Without confession, we are lost in a fog of angry bewilderment. Why am I so messed up? Why don’t people act the way I want them to? Why is God so distant?

But today we fight for our lives in a “no regrets” cultural arena, where only the weak admit error, only the cowardly apologize, and irrational certainty  has replaced gentle humility in the face of the frightening unknown.

Families, communities, nations crumble around us. But we, individually and collectively, would rather die (or pay exorbitant legal fees) than to squeeze out the words, “It’s all my fault, it’s my wrong decisions, my selfish, thoughtless bent that contributed to or caused this mess. Please forgive me and allow me to make it right.”

Confession is no picnic. By admitting our complicity with all the ugly and un-right, we voluntarily stand naked before a critical crowd. How do we find the courage to confess?

First, we stop pretending.

A still-wet oil painting rests on an easel in my kitchen. As I chop vegetables, or unload the dishes, the canvas “talks” to me, mentioning too-hard edges, confusing brush strokes, or muddied color.  My embarrassing mistakes transform into helpful reminders as I tackle the next fresh surface. The desire to create better, more beautiful art turns out to be more important than pretending I already have.

In the same way, the practice of confession increases my desire to lead a better, more beautiful life, instead of pretending I already am.

Confession: A Daily Inventory

So, I attempt to inventory each day before the God who made me, loves me and sees me as I am. The steps are simple: What am I grateful for? How was I unloving today in my attitudes and actions? Forgive me, help me make it right with those I’ve harmed, and grant me your grace and wisdom for the new day.

Imagine if confession were a collective practice, if heartfelt gratitude, contrition, and hope dominated our gatherings?

What if, like God, we handed each other a daily blank canvas, trusting God to paint something new?

From the Book of Common Prayer

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

Amen.

Why not make a habit of daily confession? You’ll find it to be good for the soul.

Have you experienced the restorative gift of confession?

 

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The Unconventional Weapon of Good

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.”
Leo Tolstoy

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Let’s make America good again. Only then will we be called great.

Are you heart-sore from seeing hateful spittle splash daily across your screen? Self-serving pretensions elbow outraged hypertension–is it any wonder we divide?

How will you respond? How should I?

We will either heal, or harm. Our weapons will deepen the darkness or usher in dawn.   There is no neutral position. We will either play this sick game, or bring hope to its exhausted players. We will be overcome by evil, or overcome evil with good.

With every single response.

But, you rightly argue, the word “good” is subjective–applied so confidently to our particular point of view. We’re more comfortable comparing our best days with the other side’s failures than admitting we have little good of our own.

Jesus claimed that “only God is truly good” (Mark 10:18). Perhaps he was warning us, busily inventing our moral hierarchies, to take our eyes off each other and admit we’re together in the same boat. To cheerfully acknowledge that, in an unaided swim from LA to Lahaina, some of us might prove more buoyant or athletic than others, but we would, every single one of us, drown.

Left to our own devices, we all fizzle. Yet, admitting our helplessness opens us to the rush of Greatness through us. The small and the humble are handed the mightiest of tools.

Don’t believe me? Turn off the relentless punditry and study history with eyes wide open. It has been and always will be the cunning wielders of mercy and justice who truly change the world.

The Unconventional Weapon of Good

In Romans 12, Paul lays out the strategy:

  1. Abandon your faith in any human institution or political ideology and allow God to have his way with you. Become the loving nonconformist we are secretly longing to see.
  2. Thirst for justice, but resign from your position as the judge of others, letting God do his (far better) job.
  3. Determine to live your life as a “we” not a “me,” giving yourself away for the sake of the great goodness God has planned for this world.
  4. Seek no other acclaim except that you remind people of Jesus and the world is brighter because you are in it.

Don’t take my word for it. Read Romans 12 as the non-negotiable command for anyone who claims to follow Christ. Read it again and again, until your heart begins to hope.

Let’s tap into this felicitous but formidable firepower so we will be the good in America again and again.

Are you aiming to be great the good way?

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Unpopular Virtue

“Freedom is to be like thee, face and heart; to know it, Lord, I must be as thou art.” ~ George MacDonald

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Vice may be more widely celebrated than virtue. To be free, we’ve come to believe, is to abandon restraint and quiet character, to embrace what is brash and rude, selfish and crude.

“I don’t care what you say, you aren’t the boss of me,” is our new, yet painfully unoriginal, national motto.

And, what was once considered virtue is now held up as vice:

  • Patience  has become a sign of weakness–we demand swift retribution and instant results.
  • Chastity, the ability to restrain or deny sexual appetite, has become a condition to be snickered at, not admired.
  • Charity, the determined desire for the good of all humankind, falters in tribalistic preference–we love and are concerned only for our own.
  • Humility seems pathetic and cowardly, ill-suited to moral outrage and image management.

Thomas Merton wrote half a century ago of the political, religious and relational vices we embrace today. He describes one characteristic of “the devil’s moral theology” as…

“…the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another find the truth. On the contrary…the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong.” *

Sound familiar? We have become whiny prisoners of our own shadow self that demands the world bow to our whims.

An unpopular virtue

Only one virtue, unpopular though it may be, will set you free. Only one virtue is a sure sign a person is right with God. What do we call it?

Surrender.

What feels like death, allows us to finally live, as we allow the owner of the blueprints roll up his sleeves, and remodel us into his image. What is that image?

“The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all he has made” (Psalm 145:8-9).

You will know you are truly free when you can honestly say, “Every day, in my thoughts, words and deeds,  I am becoming more gracious, more merciful, less prone to anger, and better known for my faithful, un-self-conscious acts of love for all who cross my path. A new desire grows, the longing to bestow goodness on everyone, without distinction, empowered by God’s deep compassion and concern for every living thing.” **

How are you doing, in becoming the real you? You won’t be transformed by your own wishful thinking. Instead, surrender everything–the good, bad, and the ugly of your willful yet wondrous self–and declare to Jesus, who is virtue personified, “I care only what you say, you are the boss of me.”

By this you will change the world.

Are you taking the time to listen to the only voice that matters?

 

*Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), 96.

** See also Galatians 5:22-23.

Photograph by Melanie Hunt
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The Fearless Power Of For

“Let mine be a merry, all-receiving heart, but make it whole, with light in every part.” ~George MacDonald

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True power belongs to those who are for.

For love, for light, for life.

Beauty from ashes, the triumph of truth, goodness turning the tide–this is the plan set in motion from the dawn of human history. The Creator is for his creation.

Are you?

Don’t listen to the lie–that all is lost, that child-like trust in God is for cowards, that brute and crude power will prevail. Boastful hubris is as old as the Fall, the discordant rant of small-hearted fear. Those who choose to be against, choose blindness, choose to create hell right where they are.

Some of us have lingered in the dark doorway for too long, lulled by the bitter, beguiling wailing within. The drumbeat beckons, the dissonance croons, “be against, be angry, trust no one but your own kind. Blame them, hate them, bomb them, fear them, send them all away.”

Repent! The only voice worth heeding has already spoken. “Forgive, forget offenses, forbear the failure and limitations of others, and of yourselves. Forgo self-interest, embrace the forlorn. For I will never forsake you, I am with you.” *

The momentum of history is always forward. God brings us through the frightening present, and never circles back to placate our dim-eyed nostalgia. “Behold I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) is not wishful thinking, but daily signposts to the future even now unfolding.

The Power of For or the Power of Fear?

The news is forbidding, the odds seem impossible. You are sickened and dismayed by the poison you’ve inhaled. Throw open the windows! Breath in the fresh air of the Real!  Be for what God is for.

Reject

  • rigid ideology
  • political polarity
  • religious pretension
  • and cynical despair,

before you lose the only thing that, in the end, will matter.

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell, ” Jesus warns us in Matthew 10:28.

Do you understand what he is saying? The only One with ultimate and complete power over you is the God who sent his Son to die for you.  The cross demonstrates God’s unfathomable, unfailing determination to rescue us from the only thing he has set himself against–the already-defeated, hell-bound usurper we mimic when we refuse God’s “compassion on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9).

The redemptive power of Jesus or that ancient anti-everything deceiver–in this fear-mongered, formidable hour, which will you choose to resemble?

Embrace the fearless power of for, before it is too late.

 

*See, for instance, Matthew 6:14, 16:24-25, 28:20; 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Galatians 5: 19-26

Photograph by Melanie Hunt
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Unfollow The Lie

“Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake.”~ H.L. Mencken

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The lie has made us ugly.

But still we inhale, scrolling through the wireless marketplace where once ideas flourished. Now bullies hang about, kicking over common sense, sending kindness crashing, leaving decency in shards.

What is the lie? First, answer this:

Since when is the vulture our national bird? The predators cheered, the broken hearts jeered–what Kool-Aid has made this okay?

To identify the lie, I’ve peered in the darkness, a virtual entomologist lifting every rock. I’ve squinted through the screen at the trolls, the truth-less, the paranoid, resentful self-pitiers before me. And in me.

I think I know its name,  the flattering and infuriating falsehood in the room.

The Lie:

You are superior, you are worthless. You are a god, but you don’t matter. The others must defer to your offended opinion, while you grovel for crumbs of esteem.

What a sea-sickening pendulum of un-grace we swing on. May I offer a humbling cure?

You are little and you are loved. You are limited yet you are empowered. Your life was given to be given away. When you open your heart, you will find what you’re missing. When you humble yourself, your way will be clear.

But first, unfollow the lie.

“Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your life in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don’t accrue any interest that way but become less and less interesting every day.” ~Frederick Buechner

“And Jesus said: Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3

Have you been sickened lately by the lie?

 

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The Peril of Perfection

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…

~Anne Lamott

I awake from a dream about color, vivid slathers of oily orange resting beside cerulean blue. In my sleep, my brush is masterful, my palette true, I paint with exquisite perfection the tropical  hues, the radiant mix only the Creator could compose.

Rubbing my eyes, I wander into the kitchen to the smell of fragrant coffee. I’m itching to begin, my dream a hopeful omen for this stunning, sultry day.

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I lay out my paint supplies on the lanai and respectfully fasten my 6×8 to the easel.  Deeply inspired by the sun-lit scene before me, I take a breath and begin.

I fail… in slow motion. As the distant waters purple and the sand-warmed shallows turn to green, as the sun-kissed patio below me dazzles with cadmium, ochre, and magenta, my brush-stokes pile with clumsy, muddied confusion.

The Peril Of Perfection

In moments like these I’m tempted to quit, to believe the goal of art, of life, of existence, is to be extraordinary, to surpass all previous attempts. I compare my worst with another’s fine-tuned best, I contrast my flawed attempts with photo-shopped perfection, and lose courage.

Perhaps you do too.

Has our battered self-image ever been so ruthlessly under review? Have we always been required to justify our existence, to prove our value before the stone-eyed gaze of a virtual crowd?  Public humiliation follows one viral posting, personal rejection from one withheld “like”. Social media provides an ongoing beauty pageant, a hall of fame or shame, depending on the whim of your followers.

Yet, the struggle with perfectionism grows from ancient roots. Our anguish and often anger at a world we cannot mend, the burden of our simultaneously high and humble calling, is not new. To be human is to bear astounding potential within a leaky vessel, to find ourselves able to soar near the sun the same moment our wings begin to melt.

We Participate In Another’s Perfection

The same God who designed Hawaii also created me. I sense him at my shoulder, pleased when I notice the light in the shadows, the way the waves tease the shore, but whispering, “well done,” when I mix on my palate his compassion and kindness for the people I’d rather ignore.

Do you know this? As a human being you are designed not for perfection, but for participation in a perfection you can’t achieve on your own.

His perfect love to redeem every hate-filled act.

His perfect truth to counter every person-demeaning lie.

His perfect beauty to remind you, no matter how badly your life has been muddied, the divine Artist has not finished his masterpiece yet.

 

Do you struggle with perfectionism? 

 

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Be Careful With Your Words, Be Careful With Your Anger

Humility must always be doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost.” Teresa of Avila

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Be careful, my child. Gather with care from the wind-borne moment what sustenance you may find.

Keep searching for truth, the sweet amidst the bitter. Be diligent, be sincere, be curious and undaunted.

But be humble. You are only one small laborer in a very large garden. There is so much more than what you see. There is so much less of you than you pretend.

Be careful, my troubled one. Learn to wait, to hover, to rise above the gusty winds of rash and shallow discourse. Tune your ear to listen for reason beneath reaction, for hunger beneath a smug and self-satisfied sigh.

Look deeper. It is not your quick retort, your flush of confusion, your clenched fist, or  your fleeting joy that will sustain you. It is not your solitary or collective understanding that will carry you home.

There is something more substantial beneath your feet, the pulsing life you did not fashion, the steady hum of being not of your own doing. The black-sharpie underline, the emphatic, unfathomable but rock-rooted foundation beneath you–what is it?

Love. Love that never fails, that will not be shaken. God’s glad and unswerving intention that all creation be healed, redeemed, and wondrously restored.

Be careful, then, with your words, for words can’t be unsaid. Be cautious with anger, keep it aimed at its only true target.

Be wary of superior and disdainful certainty. Reject the viral snark, the emotional and simplistic answers of this age. Be humble, be little, refusing to make your viewpoint and half-formed assumptions the interpretive key for all time.

Above all, be stern with your own sin,  your hidden complicity with evil. With joy, receive God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness, and let it spill over and ever upon your neighbor.

Where have you learned to be careful?

Photograph by Melanie Hunt
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The Introvert’s Dilemma

“Introverts treasure the close relationships they have stretched so much to make.”~ Adam S. McHugh

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It was my choice to come, but I’m not comfortable, here on the surface with you.

I’m uneasy with shifting currents, with bluster and gusting demands for attention, as voices dive and swirl overhead. If I try to speak, my words toss on the waves, or spray away with the wind–a salty rebuke, a briny betrayal of convictions too early exposed.

Why does it feel like conversation is a competition and I’ve left my weapons on the shore?

I don’t know why you glance away at my remark. I can’t detect the meaning behind your unfiltered words, your sudden distraction, your frustrated sigh. You probably don’t understand my frowning intensity, or my stammered, stymied replies. I can’t fathom your serial  selfies, you are amazed at my turtled retreat. You say a thing, and mean another, I say a thing and wish I hadn’t, because there was something so much better to be said.

But I won’t know it until you’re out of earshot. Until, in the quiet of dawn, my heart belatedly speaks.

The Introvert’s Invitation

The wild and windblown shallows are not my home–they are where I must come to find you.  But I wish you would know my Introvert world, how deep beneath the chit and the chat there is airy calm, the slow, weighted drift of ideas and wonder. There, where words can linger, one finds acceptance and patience for unfashionable questions, for half-shaped answers, for unspoken, subtle delight. In a quiet corner of this sub-marine cavern is a table set only for two.

Some have been willing to join me there. Will you?

A Postscript

I would laminate the words above and hang them around my neck if I thought it would make a difference. In the company of others I feel the need to explain myself, though no one has ever asked. Do you Introverts resonate? Can you Extroverts understand? I recently thumbed through a thesaurus and found this.

Extrovert: outgoing, unselfish, sociable, people-oriented, friendly, amicable, congenial.

Introvert: self-observer, self-absorbed, brooder, muser, shy, bashful, timid, wallflower.

I wonder which type wrote the book…

 

Photograph by Melanie Hunt
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