God of Surprises

Easter Homily April 20, 2013

Peeps

We know the story well enough by now, don’t we?

Two days after their teacher, their friend, their brother, had been killed

The women closest to him went to prepare his body

And they found the stone at the tomb had been rolled away –

Matthew’s gospel says they feel the tremors of an earthquake –

And the tomb is empty.

What do they make of it?

Where do they go from here?

An angel appears and tells them that he is risen…

And they must have – mustn’t they?

They must have doubted it,

They must have been completely perplexed.

How could this possibly be?

But inside their hearts that had prepared for a solemn, heavy task,

The bubble of excitement, of joy

dared to enter.  A little flutter at first, but there it was.

And when they go to tell the others, as the angel has commanded,

Jesus meets them on the road, blocking their path,

Asking them not to be afraid,

Telling them to carry on, to tell the others that he will meet them in Galilee.

And by the end of that encounter,

where they feel his feet and know that this is no ghost,

but the real Jesus they knew in his life on earth –

that joy that has the same palpitations as fear,

the trembling kind of joy that could just about burst anyone’s heart

must have been awfully close to the surface.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

 

Now you know that this is a church for people who believe a little,

and a church for people who believe a lot.

People who believe a lot get baskets full of candy on Easter morning –

Do we have any of those kinds of believers with us today?

People who believe a little, or not at all, might be tempted to see around every corner,

try to figure out the trick of it all.

Do we have any of those kind of folks with us today?

 

Well, Easter is a day for all of us together, friends.

If our hearts are full of doubt, if our eyes roll at tales of miracles

and we can’t even imagine that there could be such a thing as a bodily resurrection,

this tale is one that offers us just enough doubt in our doubtfulness that we might want to pause and give ourselves over to wonder, at least for a moment.

In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan, who is a scholar of religion and a Muslim challenges a lot of the traditional thinking about the life and role of Jesus as a historical figure in his time.  He says that claiming to be the Messiah was not something particularly unusual; having a faithful following who share tales of your healing miracles also hu-hum at the time.  Most aspects of Jesus’ story are pretty run-of-the-mill for fringe Jewish sects of the time.  So why did Jesus’ story stick?  What made it significant enough that people told and re-told it, and eventually grew a whole separate faith tradition out of it, in his name?  All he can figure is that something truly remarkable must have happened after his death.  Something unforgettable.  Something so extraordinary that it set him apart from and inspired an awe and wonder that even the least believing had to bow to.  He stops short of saying that the bodily resurrection is real – no one short of those true witnesses and those of great faith could say for certain – but the nonbeliever, the historian, has to own that there was something extraordinary that took place in the days and weeks after Jesus’ death.

 

The God of Easter is not interested in how much you believe, you see,

or whether you use the word god at all.

The divine presence we’re reminded of today, that we invite into our midst and celebrate,

is one who wants to feel us close and know us in the flesh,

who knows us when we are deep in doubt and suffering and stands by us,

suffers with us,

and still calls us not to be afraid

of the new life,

the great joy

that can still visit us

even after it has seemed all as been lost.

 

This is the god who is willing to surprise us

not with parlor tricks,

but with the real, full-hearted presence

of a fresh start

of a new story that can be brought to life

from the embers of the scorched earth of our mistakes,

of our betrayals,

of our misfortunes and our griefs.

In the midst of the mysteries of why we have to suffer so,

This is the holy spirit of joy that enters our lives

And lifts us up on wings of crazy, wild celebration,

Of impossibility that makes no sense

Until it arrives at our door

and we have no choice but to let it in.

This is the invitation

to move past belief and unbelief altogether

and simply know

that love, the love of God,

the goodness that dwells within and shines out from all who know this truth

is always waiting at our door.

No matter how grim the future looks,

No matter how cold our hearts have grown,

The door can always be open,

The question is always there…

Will you let me in?

Will you let this love transform you,

Open you past your own suffering

And let you connect with others –

Will you share the good news you have found,

Will you share your hardest story

And let both your suffering and your celebration connect you to the web of creation

That is woven so fine

We can commit the sin of forgetting it?

Let it in,

The Easter story beckons,

If only for a moment,

Lay down your cynicism,

Unroll your eyes just as the stone was rolled away –

And let your heart be freed for joy.

Let the kin-dom of heaven be known right here on earth,

in the good news

that love always wins,

and death is not the final answer.

Believer or unbeliever,

Can you let that in?

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It’s Not Just A Good Idea

Christmas Eve homily, 2012

We know the story so well by now that it is easy to breeze past its power.

The pregnant youangelschristmas002ng woman, her older husband, a donkey, a long journey late in pregnancy. A full inn, a crowded stable, a birth cry, barnyard creatures looking on, a star overhead, angels appearing to shepherds in their fields. Distant Magi follow the star to arrive and pay tribute to the birth.

The thrill and the terror of the story are woven fine: firstborn male children are to be killed, this family has no means and few choices, and a star hanging over your newborn child can only be presumed to be a liability if you plan to keep his existence a secret. But there is the awe and wonder too: the promise of new life, a king who will send the powers of this world running, a liberator and a hope for peace greater than any we have understood before. There is a choice in the story, a choice every time we hear the story. Will we be silenced by the fear or have the courage to look further into the hope?

Hope certainly wins in the sentimental observances of Christmas: celebrations of love and generosity and kindness in a harsh and despairing world. For many of us, this is the season of re-visiting the old classics and having our heartstrings touched again, enjoying the cathartic feeling of the tears rolling down our cheeks as we identify with the George Baileys and the Bob Cratchits and look for the ways that the honest, good people can indeed win the day. It’s a place of yearning and hopefulness we love to visit in these weeks, but have a hard time holding onto once the ornaments have been put away and the lights are down. Why is that?

Many years ago, I remember seeing a slogan on a T-shirt that made me laugh out loud. “Gravity” it said “It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.”

Yes, it appealed to my admittedly nerdy sensibilities. But it also speaks to something we humans are awfully good at in general: turning away from the truths we know are operating always, treating them as if they are optional, simply a matter of preference or opinion.

The love born anew in the nativity is one of those eternal truths.

It is with us all the time, like gravity, and we ignore it at our peril.

But unlike our reflex to move out from under falling bricks, obeying the law of gravity, the consequences of scoffing the law of love aren’t always as immediately apparent.

The invitation of the Christmas Story, of all those sentimental films, the invitation of our hearts that are open to wonder and to sadness in a special way in these dark nights, is to treat the insane possibility of divine love — love that is born among us and lives within us and could save the world — not just as a good idea we cozy up with on a lazy night in December, but as a real, active truth.

A law worthy of our respect, all the time.

We can make it just a sentimental thing, but you know and I know that if you’ve ever gazed with eyes of love upon another being, there is more than sentiment at work.

Parents, think of that moment you first held your child in your arms: the heartbreaking beauty of this young being, the panicked feeling of being entrusted with another’s life, the chasm of the unknown future ahead of you, the blessing of the gift of a bond you could not account for and would spend the rest of your life vainly trying to comprehend.

Lovers, too, feel this, whatever may happen to the relationship down the line: the moment of realizing another’s beauty, of fully appreciating their depth, their struggles, their quirks and realizing you want your life to be bound up with theirs wherever that journey may lead.

This is the kind of love that breaks through what we thought we knew of the world, the illusion of our control and autonomy, and sets us on the course of deepening connection, plops us right into the lap of the divine, takes our breath away with its power and asks us to live into its wisdom.

It has nothing to do with the size of the diamond you bought or at what age your child got a cell phone.

It only asks you: will you have the courage to follow me where I take you?

Whatever the status of your current relationships, if you have ever known the kind of love that shone through the eyes of Mary as she gazed

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upon the infant Jesus, if you have ever felt that kind of gaze upon you as the child of your parents, as a lover realized you were the one, that is the love that brings us great tidings of joy for all people.

It is the fierce, terrifying and world-turning love born into this world on Christmas, waiting to be made real.

Imagine what it would mean for our world if each of us felt and knew that loving gaze was upon us all the time, calling us home, making us whole, giving us hope.

What if it was the source of our courage to do the hard work of making peace and living justice?

Cornel West has famously said that justice is what love looks like in public.

What if that love was indeed not just a good idea for you to carry home with your candles tonight, but a law we could live all year?

Imagine that loving gaze upon you not from a human source,

but from an infinite source of love beyond all knowing.

Imagine feasting your own eyes

on the loveable-ness of each and every one you encounter

and when you come up against the limitations of your own heart,

simply rest in the knowledge that the same loving gaze

falls on us all.

How might the world be made new by the simple awareness of that loving gaze?kinglovejustice

The truth of “the living splendor woven of love by wisdom, with power”*?

Let our hearts rest in that heaven this day and open ever more to its saving truth.

Love. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.

*from Father Giovanni Giacondo, letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas 1513

 

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Mother and Minister

Charge to the Minister from the Installation of Claire Feingold Thoryn
Follen Community Church, Lexington, MA November 17, 2013

I am so delighted to have been asked to stand with you today to offer every minister’s favorite part of an ordination or installation service: the charge to the minister. It’s a favorite because first, someone else has already given a very fine sermon, so the pressure is off – what a relief! But most importantly it’s a favorite because this is where we get to give the advice we most need to hear.

We share the delight and the responsibility of being the settled minister of a congregation while parenting young families. And while women make up the majority of our ministry these days, models and companions who have walked this road of motherhood and senior or solo ministry are still not all that common, and in our larger world the journey of combining a professional life and motherhood are the subject of many studies and many emotions, notably the fun ones: grief, anxiety, shame and regret. All of those things apply when we combine the vocations of ministry and motherhood as well.

These dual roles can often feel like dueling roles. What they have in common is that in neither vocation is there a clear roadmap. The world is rife with terrible tales of both bad ministers and bad mothers, and both vocations are subject to images of goodness idealized to inhuman proportions. Short of setting ourselves on sainthood – which is particularly unrealistic in a tradition that abandoned that notion a couple of centuries ago – we have to find other ways to live in the very large landscape between perfect and terrible. The charge I have to offer you this morning is to live in the power of these roles at least as much as you live in the fretting over each of them.

But how? First you – we – must befriend disappointment, both our own and others, and mine its lessons for spiritual wisdom.

That sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? I know I experienced it that way in the first few years of balancing ministry and motherhood. Heading out the door to another evening meeting with the screams of my toddler begging me to tuck him in ringing in my ears, it felt as if there was no decision I made that wasn’t disappointing someone.

Thank God for male business scholars, then, especially Ron Heifetz who gave us the great insight that “leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.” And from Jeffrey Miller (the author of The Anxious Organization) the truth that “life is an endless series of no-win situations if what [we] mean by winning is making everyone else happy.”

As pastor and as parent, as spiritual beings living imperfectly in a flawed world, we have to remember that our job is not to make people happy, our job is to help ourselves and others grow.

While your heart may often be torn as you decide between being there for every soccer game and being there for the unforeseen funerals and pastoral needs of the congregation, know that whatever, whomever you have to disappoint will also be offered an opportunity for autonomy, for resilience, for living into their own power and purpose.

As someone who has to say no – to being present

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for everything, to destructive behavior, to the internal or external expectations that we do everything perfectly – you will also have the chance with each thing you turn away, to get in touch with the greater thing you turn toward. Behind each disappointment, each no, is a greater yes. Not every time, but over time, let yourself continue to stay in touch with that deeper yes and let its bright star guide you.

So as your charge I also offer you some of the things to which I would have you say yes:

Yes, to the fact that you are held in a love greater than you could ever imagine.

Yes, to that love which shows up in the moments of joy with your family and with your congregation, as alive in church basements as on playgrounds.

Yes, to that love that shows up also on the days when nothing has gone right and you resent that you decided to be with an ungrateful bunch at home when you could have been in the adoration of the church community, or vice versa.

Yes, when it shows up in the form of a jar of homemade jam on your desk at the end of a day of meetings that made you fear not just for the fate of your congregation but for humanity itself.

And Yes, when it shows up after long weeks of juggling care of sick children

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with getting the sermon written and the staff evaluations done in the simple drawings of a pre-schooler who proudly shows her teachers Mommy in a flowing robe saying words of peace.

Yes to the fact that though you may feel the scrutiny of the eyes of the community, they are not looking for your perfection, but for how you find your way back to grace when you have faltered.

Yes to the people and practices that keep you grounded in humor and humility, brought to life by calls to justice, and held in your own private struggles.

Yes to this glorious calling that uses every part of who we are and invites us to bring it all to the altar of overflowing love that reaches out across chasms of our imperfections to make ever more goodness real.

Yes to the pleasure of finding many and varied companions along the way, and at the end to rest in the joy and laughter and song that life itself has given as abundant gifts to all people in every time.

Even in your longest days of having to say no,

Let yourself be claimed by each and every yes.

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After the Oscars

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God of all people, of every land and culture and type of body and gender and way of loving and moving and learning
If we keep telling our stories, stay curious about each others’ being, open our hearts to each others’ welfare, learn to hold the complexities of the noble and the petty in ourselves and others… if we can hang on and grow up and reach out enough, may we one day reach the moment when a young African American girl being honored for her achievement can count on the respect she is due. May we live to see a day when humor will be possible – and funny! – without resting on stereotypes that demean everyone present. Let us spend as much time assessing the stuff on the inside of folks who walk that red carpet as the stuff on the outside: their courage and wit and heart and foibles at least as important as their Harry Winston and Armani Privet. And in the mean time, for

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those of us who enjoy the spectacle as it is even while we wince and bemoan its shortcomings, let us not forget the work that is ours to do.

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A day of unrest

This sabbath day, one on which I actually am free of regular church duties, I am sitting with the dissonance of worlds. This week was the third in a row that brought with it anxious speculation in my sphere about whether or not church would be happening due to predicted winter storms. The concerns we have about canceling

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church open for all who can come. We believe worship should be taken seriously and the gathering of the community should happen if at all possible. And yet we don’t want people to abandon good sense or safety in order to be here, and feel the responsibility to let people off the hook so they can stay home and worship privately if that is the most sensible choice. All well and good. All well worth conversation and consideration.

YorkU_snow_storm_toronto_Feb6_2008 In the New York Times this morning was an article about how long and far people travel in parts of Africa to arrive at the church for succor: a meal, a safe place to rest, a prayer for healing. I think of the folks who are working to keep body and soul together after losing their homes and their jobs in the U.S. I think about the people of Syria, who are overflowing refugee camps in Lebanon, and how NYTSyria delighted they might be to have the sole challenge of the threat of a snow storm to contend with as they struggle to keep their families and their faith intact. I don’t think these facts should make us risk life and limb to make it to church on Sunday mornings in our bubble of privilege and prosperity, but I wish they could give us a growing sense of urgency for what the purpose of the church and ways we might use the formidable resources we do have at our disposal.

And so I pray:

God who works in us and through us, whose love is known to heal and to save, whose creative power is always at work: Help us to remember that the worth of all this gathering and praying and singing is to enact some transformation in our lives. Church means nothing if it’s not inviting us to realize the greater goodness that wants to be seen and known in our world, the conspiracy of your grace that is active when we let ourselves be its vessels. As we fret over whether we will be able to shovel our driveways in time for worship and whether the parking lot will be plowed and how much ice will be on the roads, let us be at least as aware of a grander invitation: to make a commitment in every season to harness the gift of this privilege toward digging out from the perennial and devastating storms of poverty and war and imprisonment. Let us find ways to stem the tide of lives lost to the havoc wreaked in our world by human hands. Help us live the call to be partners in this ongoing creation, and keep our eyes lifted to those hills from whence help does come.

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Striving

ymca-of-the-rockies1I found myself at the local Y not once but twice today (only once to work out – long story). I love gyms but the Y in particular because of the variety of people I encounter. As I did my tedious time on the elliptical because the treadmills

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were all taken, I people watched, making up back stories for each person who came, offering a good wish for what I thought they might need based on their gait, their physique, their chosen form of exercise… you know, all the accurate measures of anyone’s soul. It occurred to me as I did this that it would be easy to think that we all were there working for the same thing: fitness. And that assumption might lead one to imagine that our yearnings were similar, if not in the global sense then at least for the moments that we were sharing that overheated space. But if I followed my imagined back stories for my fellow travelers at the Y, I realized even that would be a mistake. Though the same staff and equipment were meeting our needs, though we were sharing the space on the same day and time, our strivings were in fact for many things deeper than weight loss or heart health, physical strength or beach bodies.

Today’s prayer is for all the hidden strivings we express in very similar ways, for the channeling of our needs for love, for sanity, for endurance, for strength and forbearance, for release of anxiety and for integrity of being, into activities that on the surface look so simple (if not easy): weights, treadmills, spin bikes, circuit training and swimming pools. For all of the unseen, unspoken struggles we share as we sweat and grunt and groan, as we listen to iPods and chat with companions, may there be ears to hear and eyes to see our earnest work for relief. May our strivings not go unnoticed, in this life or beyond. May we find the deeper realms of wellness we dream of, and that we all deserve.

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We Are Family

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The Parsa Family Tree

It’s February vacation week in Massachusetts and I’ve taken my two boys to visit my parents. Today we had a massive play date with four of their second cousins and all of my mother’s surviving sisters. At one point a young voice called out “Grandma” and three women who

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probably never imagined this would be them all turned at once. Realizing what had happened, they chuckled for a moment before the needs of the kids took over again.

My father enjoyed circulating the room, the only adult male in attendance, holding a framed photo of me when I was about three standing proudly on the beach at the Caspian Sea. One hand clasped a shovel planted victoriously in the sand next to a bucket full of seashells. Can you believe who this is? He asked, and everyone enjoyed pointing out how easily that could be my three-year old son.

I am fond of speaking of the metaphorical, abstract, human family. You know, the interconnected one that is one body and one blood, children of God and all of those beautiful, wonderful things. And I mean every word of it when I do. Yet there is something almost more miraculous about realizing the literal family that binds us to genetic proclivities for illness and for brilliance, for beauty and for girth. Whether the tree we trace is biological or affectional hardly matters: that we owe our existence and nurture to people who age after age took care of each other, annoyed each other, saw each other for all that they were and also missed each other completely is amazing. That they still, through passion and betrayals, through droughts and epidemics, through long winters and cruel twists of fate somehow kept the connection alive to arrive at us is nothing short of astounding. That we will do the same through space and time until those of us who are now still getting used to being someone’s parents or aunts or uncles have found our new calling as elders makes me certain of grace.

Today, my prayer is one of thanks and praise for the people who I learn of in half-remembered lore by my father and “oh did I ever mentions” from my mother and the amazing fact that through the generations on two continents those families were joined by coincidence and fate and that I got to be, and because of similar fate my children will do the same.

Thank you, God of life, for the fact and the miracle of family.

 

 

 

 

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Thankyouverymuch

My three year-old is full of drama.  Though he has never seen Elvis, he does a mean impression, including a proclivity for ending any moment when he has held the attention of a “crowd” with a bow from the waist and the words “Thank you.  Thankyouverymuch.”

Though he is doing it for crowd-pleasing effect, the automatic quality of it is touching to me.  He’s not expressing some Great Thanksgiving from the tips of his toes, but he is certainly on to something.

Spirit of our every thanksgiving, help us to remember to pause in awareness of the attention and the affection that meets us in the smallest gestures.  Let us tune our awareness at least as much to those fleeting moments of acknowledgement: the exchange with the grocery cashier; the wave and nod to the neighbor; the ‘hello’ from a passerby on the sidewalk.  Let these moments of connection, however brief, however fragile bouy us through the moments of lack that too often claim our hearts through anxious clinging: the wrong thing said; the phone call not returned; the joke we didn’t know how to take.  Help us to orient ourselves to the “thankyouverymuch” of each and every encounter, and feel the blessings flow.

Amen.

 

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Leaning into Love

Today, my prayer is to remember to lean into love.

imagesThe kind of love that sees us for all of who we are: that gets our need for warm and fuzzy and “I see how well you mean” and because it’s so in touch with our goodness also is uniquely able to offer the kind of kick in the behind we need when we’re very far off the mark. It’s what I aspire to offer as a parent, in way it can be understood. It’s the kind of love I value most from my sweetheart, who can kindly tell me that last Sunday’s sermon wasn’t my best work, which I hear in the knowledge that he thinks I’m the bees knees, which then makes it possible for me to ask all about what didn’t work without (too much) anxiety. It’s the kind of well-rounded love that, when we lean into it, can help us grow into who we are most called to be.

God too big for any name, we know you as tenacious,fibrous, strongly-woven love. Surround us in our fondness for either/or, for love or hate, for war or peace, for right or wrong, and help us lean into all-that-is. Let us not be so blinded by thoughts of purity of deed and action that we fail to see your presence in those who have disappointed us, even (especially) our selves.

Let us see that our leaders can make awful decisions and still be made of good. Open our eyes and strengthen our spirits to share our criticism in

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ways that own up to the failures larger than any one person’s leadership or vision, in which we all play a part. Help us to lean into the troubling facts of this world and its complexity, and the ways all of us who have freedom to vote and to spend are complicit in those failings. And as we lean, keep us from throwing up our hands in a fatalism that absolves us of what we can do. Which is much.

Keep this before us too: We can offer those closest to us the kind of love that holds us to our aspirations, even as we see how hard they are to reach, and all the reasons we falter. We can keep talking about the kind of world we want to live in and the ways we want to be with each other in it. We can invite people who don’t already agree with us into that conversation. We can practice the kind of love that belongs to us all, that is not about agreement or disagreement but about connection. We can learn to tell each other the God’s honest truth: that each of us gets to be seen as beautiful and possible and good, and because of that beauty and possibility and goodness we are called to grow into more of it, stretch into the possibility of our connection, and figure tough stuff out together.

God of love, please make it true, though we are skeptics to the core, that if we lean into you the way will open. Though our parts may still be broken, we can be whole. Make this hopeful rallying cry and prayer true for us: Yes, we can.

Amen.

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Hearts and Fists

heartfist

Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving. Keep fighting.

I’ve always loved this poster/slogan, and was reminded of it today when several people shared it on Facebook. It’s absolutely apt for a year in which the first day of Lent and Valentine’s Day occupy the square on the calendar.

I am generally averse to Valentine’s Day because it holds

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up the notion of love I find the most false and dull. I am a fan of romance. I certainly can get behind the power of finding someone who can share your life and put up with your quirks and help you through the tough stuff, and

the miracle it is to be with that amazing person each and every day. I think appreciating that amazing fact has very little to do with bouquets of flowers and diamond jewelry and fine chocolates. Or greeting cards or grand proclamations.

What I feel in touch with on this VaLENTines Day is the need to keep fighting my way to the love that is there under and woven within and playing in the background of all the din of life that claims our attention all the time. The love that does not come in on a white horse to rescue us from the trials of life, but that holds us and has our back as we face them. The love that keeps a steady hold on us when we’re tempted to run off the rails with our fears of failure or the pressures of our success. The steady arms that show up as people who care when the losses we never thought we could bear jump onto our shoulders from behind and flatten us.

The fight I’m feeling called to this Lenten season is the one that invites both the heart and the fist to open, and to feel the grace that flows through the blood that is pumped and the fingers that are extended to feel and to bear all that this life is.

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It’s a fight against the world that says such openness is not wise, that there is no evidence for a God who might actually be there to hold us. It’s a fight for space for the soul that wants wholeness and needs space for weaving its connections.

It’s a fight that begins with the laying down of arms. Let it begin.

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