Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Messianic Message of Willy Wonka (and a rock)

We stopped in Rockaway, New Jersey at 14:10 yesterday, Saturday, May 29, 2010. It was our first stop after packing the van full of my belongings and leaving my beloved Union, my beloved NYC, the life I had fought to make for myself, a life I love. I feel as though I am starting all over, building something new. A new life that I will come to love in time, I am sure.

In the meantime, I put my right hand in my pocket, and realized it was empty. I no longer had keys to a home. I mentioned to my parents that my pocket was sad, that my pants felt homeless. It was a moment later, following my father's response, that I realized I wasn't really joking about my pants. I was talking about myself.

My dad pulled a rock out of his pocket and gave it to me. "That's a loan." I was touched that he would give me anything to put in my pocket, but his adamant declaration that he was going to get it back was a little disconcerting. Then, he explained to me that the rock came from a Lenten service this year. "That represents the cornerstone of the church."

"Oh! Jesus is the cornerstone. This rock is Jesus!" I exclaimed. Suddenly, the gesture meant the world to me. My pants aren't homeless--they have Jesus in them!

Terrified of the unknown future, especially the immediate stay in Iowa, I am trying to focus on my next steps, hoping for California, trusting God, but still afraid. The stone reminded me that I am not homeless--I have Jesus in my heart. I'll be okay.

Dad tries to so hard sometimes his efforts can feel inauthentic to me. This gesture was effortlessly, thoughtlessly compassionate. And it connected with me. It spoke my language.

This reminded me powerfully of the way that Willy Wonka loved people--effortlessly, just by being himself. By giving what he had. He didn't try to love people. He just loved them. And it connected for so many people--McGiffert 1, UTS, my friend Tom at the park, Lawrence the guy who works in the parking garage. Pretty much everyone who ever saw him. Not all of them, but most.

Like Jesus. Something in people connected to him, too. He spoke their language. And he loved them--effortlessly, by being his genuine self.

I sometimes try so hard. It often seems the more I try, the less effective I become. Something about this seems very wrong to me. In reality, not everyone is going to accept me or my gestures. (They did not all accept Jesus, or Willy Wonka. And God know I struggle at times to accept my dad and his gestures). By and large, if I'm working that hard and being that ineffective, something in the relationship needs to be addressed, either interpersonally or internally, because it means I do not feel safe to be my genuine self.

I want to be like Jesus. When I remember Willy Wonka and how he loved people I hope I remember that he loved people the way Jesus loved people--that Willy Wonka is an example from my contemporary context which I can emulate.

And I hope my dad lets me keep his rock--or finds one for me that I can keep as a reminder that sometimes, I want to be more like my dad, who was his genuine self, effortlessly compassionate and in so doing, spoke Jesus's love to me. And I'm pretty sure he didn't even know it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Surprised by Love

I had always planned to return to Union to finish my M.Div. I did not want to return. I no longer felt called to ministry, I hated God, and felt New York City and Union were the least desirable places in the world to be. I came back to finish my degree because I feel a deep need to finish what I start; to complete the tasks I have undertaken; to do so, when possible, in the place where I began.

So it was that I returned to Union with the intention of spending nine months in slavery to my obsessive need to finish, certain I would be miserable the whole time, fearful at the outset, determined to "get through it," believing that the sense of accomplishment at the end would be worth the pain I was sure to experience in the process. I returned to a place I feared, to be surrounded by people I did not know, to finish a degree I no longer felt passion for, that was supposed to prepare me for a vocation I no longer felt called to, because I was no longer on speaking terms with the God who had called me in the first place, and I hated the Jesus of Mark 5.

Recently, I have been blessed by others. This surprised me. It was surprising because it was so unexpected. The most I expect from others is to be treated with dignity and respect. Anything more profoundly touches me.

What's even more surprising is that I have come to feel a deep love for others.

People have told me that I'm a loving individual. This may be true.

I delight in blessing people. There is little in life that gives me such joy as being able to bless another. It delights me.

Perhaps my motives are profoundly selfish--blessing others because I delight in the process. I often choose to bless others, in word or deed, simply because I love to do it, and not because I have any particular feelings of love for the other person. This is the case with dinners. I love cooking, and I adore being able to share my gifts in the kitchen with others, so I hold dinner parties and feed my friends; or I make a batch of fudge to bless our facilities office because I appreciate they care they take in maintaining our living space; or making May baskets for friends and neighbors because I like making chocolates, and life is always brighter when you share.

Or telling my friends how beautiful they are, or how gentle their spirits, or what a blessing they are because they've spoken Truth to me... I do this because I have a deep conviction that people need to hear that they are appreciated and to know how their actions have affected others; because blessing someone by telling them a truth about themselves, and seeing their response, delights me.

Some people have told me that I'm the most complimentary person they know, and that I come across as totally genuine when I do compliment others. This may be true, in the first, and is certainly true in the second. Spend enough time with me, and people begin to realize that while I may be effusive with my praise for some, I never give an insincere compliments to anyone. (There are some people I see regularly whom I have never complimented; I'm hoping to change this, as I believe everyone has some praiseworthy quality. They are, after all, made in the image of God).

Much as it surprises me when others bless me (because I experience being well-loved by them), what has surprised me most is realizing that I have come to love others.

I tend to see myself as lacking in essential love-feelings. It takes me awhile to warm up to people. I like most everyone I've ever met. Even those toward whom I feel nothing more than apathy or the few whom I outright dislike, I seek to treat them with dignity and respect in the interactions we do have. But most people, well most people I like just fine, and I enjoy spending time with them. I enjoy finding ways to bless them. Somehow, I'm often surprised to find that I my efforts have been effective or that my very presence has had an impact. I tend not to see myself as particularly adept at blessing others. I try, but often feel as though I've failed.

I see this sense of failure as being linked to my failure to experience feelings of love for others. (I sometimes wonder if I'm defective, if I've had experiences that have permanently interrupted my ability to experience feelings of love, despite the healing I have received). I think to myself, "If only I could make the leap from liking this person to loving them, then, surely, I would be able to bless them well." Somewhere deep inside, I doubt people when they tell me that I've blessed them.

I was surprised by love.

It turns out I love a whole lot of people in my life. I feel a deep sense of compassionate love for those around me. At some point in the past nine months, all those friends that I liked an awful lot, became friends that I love and deeply cherish. All those people I wanted to bless because I delight in blessing others became people I want to bless because I delight in them.

So it is that the place I was dreading returning to have become a place I do not want to leave. The place I feared has become a haven, a place that feels safe, a place that I love full of people I love. Strangers I did not know have become friends I want to know for the rest of my life. An experience I felt sure would be naught but misery was an experience in which I was able to be my whole and best self. The degree I no longer felt passion for became a degree I was desperate to have, because the call I no longer felt came back with a vengeance, as the God from whom I was estranged became an intimate friend once more. The Jesus I hated became a Jesus with whom I am head-over-heels, butt-crazy in love with; a desperate for more of, can't get enough of, want to spend my life with Jesus who blesses me every single day. The Jesus I was sure had abandoned me became the Jesus who rescued me, again, and again, and again; has loved me more deeply, intimately, passionately, genuinely than can I give words to; has walked with me every step of the journey, even if I can't always see it. Everything I feared returning to has become a thing I am hesitant to leave.

I felt sure I was incapable of loving people. I was determined to bless them, though, because it delights me. Who knew that I would discover and learn draw from a well so deep inside of me I never knew it existed.

I have been surprised by love.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bigger Salad Bowls

It was the summer of 2006. I remember that I had had a fabulous day. I was in an upbeat mood, and was at a church function that night. Suddenly, and for no discernible reason, I felt emptied of most of my joy. Depressed and confused, I headed home, and I prayed on my way.

A vivid picture immediately came to me. Two bowls, one a small salad bowl was filled to the brim with lettuce, the other a much larger serving bowl had only a small amount of lettuce in the bottom of it. I was standing there, looking at these bowls, when I realized that Jesus was beside me. "Which of these bowls has more lettuce in it?" Jesus asked me.

Looking carefully, I realized something. "They both have the same amount," I replied.

"That's right," he said smiling. "But the little bowl is full. It can't hold any more. The large bowl may look like it only has a little in it, but it doesn't. It's the same amount. What it does have is room to hold more." Jesus looked me in the eye and said, "Your joy didn't go away. I just upgraded your salad bowl. You had become so full, I couldn't fit anymore in. And I want to give you more. So, I gave you a bigger bowl."


Last night, Mr. M. Roger Holland, II blessed me. It was Union Theological Seminary's annual Gospel Choir Concert, and Roger sang a solo. It was a song he learned for me; it was a song he sang to me. It is my Jesus song--the song Jesus uses to love me, to tell me who I am and what His love entails. It is the song Jesus gifted to me after I made some pretty significant mistakes at one point in my life. East to West, by Casting Crowns.

Roger told the story of learning, last semester, about my struggle to enjoy music. Ok--he actually learned how much I hated music at that particular time, but how there was one song that I sort of liked, maybe just a little, and to which I listened every six months or so. When I told Roger this story back in September/October, he determined then and there to learn this song and serenade me (anonymously) at the concert. He recruited Chantilly Mers for guitar and back-up vocals and Emily McNeill for cello. It was divinely beautiful.

One of the best parts of this is that on Wednesday this week, I had considered listening to East to West and heard Jesus say, "Not today. Now isn't the time." I had no idea the time would come just two days later--and in such a profound way.

Roger sang Jesus to me. Last night, Roger breathed, played, sang, lived Jesus to me. Last night, Jesus' heart and love for me was made manifest in Roger's gift. It was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I am exceptionally well-loved. God has been so very good to me.

I have been so blessed to be here at UTS. My education here (very little of which was received in the classroom) has been transformative--changing my understanding of who God is, what God's heart is, who Jesus is, and who I am in Christ. My education has come in the Pit, the refectory, on the rooftop, at Broadway plays, in Ellen's Stardust Diner, in the embrace of my mentor, the loving arms of my friends, the conversations and creation of communal meals, the kitchens and the Quad, and in James Chapel--in the voice of a friend, serenading me. It was the voice of Jesus, singing to my heart.


This, more than anything, is how I know it's time to move on: My salad bowl is full. It is positively overflowing! I have been blessed more richly than I could ever have imagined, and have received more blessings than I can carry in my current bowl. I don't know where Jesus will take me next. I know that transitions are difficult for me--that I often feel as though my once overflowing bowl is now only half-full. But it's okay. I know what's going on. I've still got all of my blessings--I just have a much bigger bowl. Jesus wants to keep adding, and I need a bigger bowl to hold it all. Jesus is about to upgrade my salad bowl--I can feel it. And I can't wait!