What Do You Mean, “Christian”?

Let’s start with a little honest self-disclosure: in case you hadn’t noticed, I do identify as a Christian, a white, evangelical Christian woman, of a “certain” age. I’m often afraid to say that, not because I am ashamed of being a Christian, but because so many people immediately jump to conclusions about what that means: Does that make me a Republican or a Christian Nationalist or what?

When I say I’m a Christian, what conclusions do you jump to? I know what I used to think: “those Christians” were judgmental, finger-wagging people who always believed they were right and everybody else was wrong, and whose only interest in me was to get me to realize the error of my ways, repent, and then start sending them money for their private jets and air-conditioned dog houses. 

And now I am one (and how that happened is a story for another time). But not one of “those.”

“Christian” means someone who follows Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is supposed to mean we do what he tells us to do. And when a student of the Law asked him, exactly what is it that you really want us to do, he boiled it all down to exactly two things: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Let’s start with the easier one: Love your neighbor. In Hebrew, the word “neighbor” carries connotations of proximity and relationship: next-door neighbor, fellow Israelite, friend, acquaintance, even kin. But human beings have been looking for loopholes for millenia, so of course the lawyer asks Jesus to define his terms: who, exactly, is this “neighbor” I’m supposed to love? And Jesus responds with one of his now-famous parables, the story of the Good Samaritan.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this: a lone traveler is ambushed, robbed, stripped of everything of value, even his clothing, and left for dead on the roadside. We don’t know who this man was; he could have been a Jew, or a Samaritan, or Greek, or maybe even a Roman soldier somehow separated from his unit. I think Jesus was deliberately vague on this point for one reason: it doesn’t matter. This was a human being, created in the image of God, who found himself in a difficult situation. 

A Jewish priest, walking down the road, goes out of his way to avoid the bloody wretch. A Levite, a member of the tribe devoted to serving God and helping the priests, also avoids the victim. The “good guys,” the ones who work at the church and exhort others to love God, do nothing.

And then along comes a Samaritan, a citizen of a neighboring country, one of the people that good, god-fearing Jews loved to hate. Samaritans were the mixed race offspring of Jews left behind after the exile five hundred years earlier. They had their own mashup version of religion that wasn’t pure Judaism, they worshiped at their own temple, and they were often feared as being dangerous to the way of life the religious establishment had been working so hard to preserve for those last five centuries. Jews traveling through that part of the world would detour miles out of their way just to avoid walking through Samaria-—and the feeling was apparently mutual.

So it’s this representative of a feared and hated class of people who shows compassion above and beyond what might be expected: he cleans the guy up, dresses his wounds, takes him to a nearby inn and gives the innkeeper a couple of days’ wages to care for the man. This man, Jesus says, was being a neighbor to the victim.

Notice that Jesus does not make the Samaritan the victim. I imagine that would have been so much easier for his audience to swallow—someone from a lesser race being treated badly, probably by his own lawless people, rescued by one of “us” (because, after all, we are better than they are). No, this was one of “them” doing something totally unexpected (for a modern-day parallel, imagine you are the one being rescued in this story from the summer of 2020 about black men saving the life of a white counter-protester at a Black Lives Matter protest).

Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero, in stark contrast to the people who gave the outward appearance of being religious but chose to avoid direct engagement with the very real and immediate needs of a fellow human being. 

Notice also that loving your neighbor is not a passive thing. The Samaritan didn’t just offer his thoughts and prayers for the victim as he passed by. He stopped, right there where the bandits had attacked the man, where he could just as easily have been the next victim. He offered first aid, transported him to a safe place, then paid for his convalescence, even promising to pay more, if necessary.

If I want to call myself a Christian, I have to start by loving my neighbors, all of them, especially those who are different from me, who don’t do things the way I think they should do them, who may even look down on me for the ways I live. I have to love everyone, regardless of race, religion, political leanings, gender identity, immigration status, or any of the other excuses we use for drawing a line between “us” and “them.”. Like the Good Samaritan, I have to love my enemies, and be ready to do them good, even if it’s messy, inconvenient, or costly. There are no loopholes here. 

When I say I’m a Christian, I hope you will assume that I am someone who will see you, in all your glorious beauty and diversity as a fellow human being, created in the image of the same One who created me, that I will look at you through the eyes of that Creator, love you with the love of Jesus, and do my best to meet your needs. And I hope you will do the same for me.

That’s what I mean by “Christian”—the same thing Jesus meant.

What Difference Does It Make?

I was telling someone the other day about my nephew, the one who died of AIDS in 1994, and how I used to be so outraged when people felt compelled to ask, “How did he catch it?” If I was feeling kind, I might have said, “I don’t know,” which was technically true, but if I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that, more often than not, my response was a snippy, “What difference does it make?”

He was sick. He was suffering. He was going to die. His parents were going to have to bury their only son and carry that grief for the rest of their lives. All of that seemed so much more significant than how the virus entered his body.

What difference does it make? Is his suffering any less worthy of compassion because of how he caught the disease? Do we grieve less because he “got what he deserved”? 

Of course not. 

When the AIDS crisis became very real and personal, it broke my heart open. I couldn’t see AIDS patients as “those people”—at least one AIDS patient was my people. The line between me and “them” began to blur and fade. I sat with my questions about people who were different from me for years, letting the answers percolate. I moved way outside my comfort zone as a chaplain resident in San Francisco, both working alongside and doing my best to minister to human beings whose sexuality differed from mine, people who would be welcomed in my church (but would not be allowed to get married there). 

And just when I was beginning to think that my heart had settled because God’s capacity for love is way bigger than mine, I learned that someone I know and dearly love now prefers to be called by pronouns other than the ones I have been using all these years.

I can already hear my uber-liberal friends celebrating, while the conservative ones are insisting there is something terribly wrong here, and I’m right back to, OK, what do I really believe about all of this? (Which is a question we all need to be asking ourselves on a regular basis anyway.) I’m not yet ready to celebrate a new-found identity that may or may not be the answer this person is looking for, nor am I at all interested in judgment and condemnation. 

I always start with the assumption that we have all been subject to the destructive influences of this broken world since conception, maybe even sooner. I believe, as the Psalmist says, that “in Your book were written all the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” God knew exactly how I was supposed to turn out. And then life happened, literally. From the moment of my conception—maybe even from the moments the individual sperm and ovum that merged to produce me were formed—genetic, hormonal, environmental and other forces waged their battles in every aspect of my rapidly developing and highly vulnerable being.

I have a grandchild whose genetics went awry, leaving him with a very distinctive countenance that in no way reflects the kindness in his heart nor the keenness of his intellect. Yet he has suffered for decades at the hands of unkind and insensitive children and adults who stare and tease and bully anyone who looks different. 

I have a friend whose grandchild drew a much crueler hand in the great genetic lottery, a young child whose life will be ended, horribly, over the next several years, due to a genetic defect. I can’t even imagine the grief the parents and grandparents must have felt as the doctors explained the inexorable progress of the disease: blindness, seizures, cognitive declines, physical deterioration, increasing pain and death. There is no cure, there are no life-prolonging or symptom-mitigating treatments, nothing they can do but watch the nightmare unfold, and all because of that one little hiccup when the inherited DNA was busy splitting and recombining.

Things go wrong. As I said in an earlier post, when our grandchildren get to heaven, we will be able to see them as God intended for them to be, free from the constraints imposed by their miscreant chromosomes. But meanwhile, they, and so many others, live with differences that they did not ask for and would not have chosen for themselves. So what makes us think that we can draw a line at any point along the continuum and say, these things are inevitable and therefore acceptable, while those things are obviously choices that we disapprove of?

When someone experiences a disconnect between who they are supposed to be and who they feel they are, does that mean the body turned left while the psyche continued on course? Or were there forces that drove the heart and soul in a different direction while the body continued full steam ahead? Was this person intended by God to be the gender their body would proclaim, or were they originally intended to be someone their body is not? 

I can’t answer that, and neither can you. Building a human being is so incredibly complex, and there are so many ways things can be derailed, it’s almost surprising that so many of us are pretty close to “normal.”

What difference does it make? Absolutely none. I love this person no matter what pronouns they want me to use. I don’t know why they are choosing to identify differently, nor do I need to understand it. My prayer for them is that they find the peace they are seeking, and that they come to know they are a precious child of God, beautiful and beloved beyond all understanding, as they continue to discover who they were created to be all along.

If God lets him into heaven…

Did you ever think there might be people in heaven that you really don’t want to run into? 

I had a moment, some number of years ago, when I heard a rumor that someone who had done a lot of serious damage to people I love had found God and was in danger of changing his life for the better. I had so much animosity towards this person that, without any more information, I immediately jumped to an absolutely ridiculous conclusion: “Oh, hell no. If God lets him into heaven, I’m not going!”

I’m such a spiritual woman. 

I’ve often wondered if my mom felt the same way about my dad. He was also a violent alcoholic, most likely with mental health issues, who routinely sent my mom to work with bruises and black eyes. When he finally committed suicide, we were all assured that, because he was clearly not in his right mind, he was forgiven, and would eventually wind up in heaven (after he’d served out his sentence in purgatory, of course). Meanwhile, in this life, whenever anyone mentioned his name, my mother’s jaw would set, and her face would cloud over, and then someone would rush to change the subject. 

What would happen when they encountered each other? Would she feel the same way I did–”If he gets to stay, I’m leaving!” Would she ask for a transfer to the other side of the cosmos?

It seemed to me that Heaven could be a very awkward place–until I realized that I had it all wrong.

In his lovely novel The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis suggests that, in order to enter heaven, we have to be willing to let go of our own shortcomings. We cannot carry our addictions, our need to control, our unforgiveness and bitterness, our anger, or our false idols into the presence of infinite love. We need to jettison everything that is not part of who God created us to be. Because we are redeemed and restored by Jesus himself, our physical, emotional and spiritual deformities are all made new, in the twinkling of an eye, if we are willing. If there is a purgatory, if there is a hell, these are places we choose to occupy as we continue clinging to our self-protective mechanisms and our own self-righteousness.

If my mom and my dad have chosen heaven, they have both been restored. They are both able to revel in who God created each of them to be. Perhaps they spent some time washing each other in forgiveness and love as they reminisced about the qualities that drew them to each other in the first place. Perhaps they reflected on their five beautiful, resilient daughters, and the grandchildren and even great grandchildren that now grace this planet because of their union. Or maybe they are both more focused on the Source of their love, aware that their human connection was just a grace note in that grand symphony.

I don’t know. But I have come to understand that if God lets him into heaven, I’ll be glad to see him there, because that means he will have been restored and released from the torment and brokenness that made him so hard to love here. He will be the incredible, unique, made-in-God’s-image individual that he was meant to be.

And so will I.

Just the Other Day…

running into a brick wall...

Once upon a time, there was an introvert who wanted to share her thoughts with like-minded (and other) people. Just the other day, she was writing testimonies for the church bulletin and short stories for her community college creative writing class. Just the other day, inspired by the encouraging feedback, she started a blog, and posted a few articles. 

And then, just the other day, life happened, and she stopped posting. Fear, busyness, surgeries, career changes, family emergencies… So many things got in the way. She found herself writing research papers for her master’s degree, case studies for her chaplaincy residency program, and documentation for hospital and hospice patient visits. 

Just the other day. Has it really been almost six years?

Since that “other day,” I’ve learned that earning a master’s degree in theology leaves you with more questions than answers (and that’s probably as it should be). Pursuing a pastor’s license does not make you any more spiritual than you were before (although it does tend to constrain one’s more colorful vocabulary choices). Theology and doctrine are necessary, but not necessarily sufficient for being hammered into a fledgling chaplain; being a “trained professional” is equally helpful-but-not when the patients are family members facing life-threatening situations.

I have a lot to talk about. I promise not to wait so long next time.

It’s Not What You Do; It’s Why

There is that old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over thinking the results will be different. I know that feeling, that vain hope that if I am just a bit more convincing, if I find exactly the right words to say, if I just try a little bit harder, I will get what I’m hoping for.

It’s like hitting “Replay Deal” on the solitaire app, because I tell myself that if I play this card instead of that one, I might win the game this time.

Am I the only person that does that?

Eventually I hit the wall. I get to the point where I am tired of trying; where I have to acknowledge that everything I’ve been trying to do hasn’t worked, and I start looking for a way out—for an escape route—and my prayers start to sound like, “God, get me out of here!” Get me that new job; get me out of this relationship; fix this situation because I am going insane. I’m done, I can’t do this anymore, I’ve tried as hard as I can, I’ve done everything I know how to do, and it’s not working.

Don’t tell me you’ve never been there. more “It’s Not What You Do; It’s Why”

What’s Wrong with Saturday?

It’s Saturday. For those of us who have Monday through Friday jobs, Saturday represents time off, freedom, the chance to do things with family and friends, catch up on the laundry, mow the lawn, wash the car… It is a day relax from the demands of jobs and careers and focus on nurturing ourselves.

But there was that other Saturday, two thousand years ago, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the in-between day that is hardly even mentioned in Scripture. Nobody was looking forward to that Saturday.

People had followed Jesus for some or all of the past three years. They had seen the miracles—healing, deliverance, people raised from the dead—they had listened to the teachings, and they come to believe that He was the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God who would rescue Israel and establish God’s Kingdom.

And then there was Good Friday, and then there was Saturday. What the hell just happened? Did they really kill Jesus? What about the miracles, the healings? What about Lazarus walking out of the tomb? What about the Kingdom?

My Saturday also came just before Easter. All mom said was, “Daddy died last night.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell us that he had purchased a gun at a pawn shop and tried to shoot her before putting the gun to his own head.

Had I been a few years older, I probably would have asked, What the hell just happened? But I was ten.

Memory is funny. I remember my aunt taking us to Leask’s in downtown Santa Cruz to buy something we could wear at the funeral and on Easter Sunday. I remember standing in a dingy section in the back of the store while my aunt and my mother rifled through the racks of little girl clothes. I remember the pale gray suit with the round white collar. My mother told me once that I cried so hard at the funeral the front of the jacket was soaking wet. I don’t remember that.

I lived in that Saturday for decades. I wanted daddy back; I wanted to be with daddy again; I wanted to wake up from the nightmare and get back to the way things were.

I think I know how the disciples felt on that Saturday. God, where were you? How could you let this happen? Where was my miracle? Now what?

You may be living in your own Saturday. For whatever reason, life did not go the way you planned. Things fell apart. The relationship disintegrated, the divorce is final. You were “downsized,” laid off, fired. The phone call came in the middle of the night. The diagnosis confirmed your worst fears. The pain you have been living with for so long has you so worn down that you wonder what’s left of you. You can’t imagine going on like this much longer.

It does not matter what your situation is, or how bad it is, or whether it is “worse than” or “not as bad as” anyone else’s. Saturday is Saturday, and it can seem like there is nothing we can do about it.

But Jesus’ story did not end on Saturday. Sunday came. Jesus walked out of His own tomb. He hung out with the disciples, ate dinner, worked a few more miracles, and then left again.

Do you believe that? Did that really happen? Is that even possible? Isn’t that just a story someone made up years later?

Easter Sunday forces us to make an outrageous, ridiculous, unbelievable, life-changing choice. We can choose to believe that there is a God Who raises the dead—dead hopes, dead relationships, dead futures, dead feelings—regardless of how illogical and impossible that seems. We can choose to believe that He has answers and resources and plans beyond anything we can ask or imagine, and that He is dying to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We can choose to believe that Sunday is coming, or we can choose to continue living on Saturday.

I can’t make that choice for you. I can’t tell you what difference it will make in your life. I don’t know what God will do for you. Did he bring my daddy back? Of course not. Will He give you the answer you’ve been insisting on? Maybe. Will He surprise you? Probably. Does He want what’s best for you, in spite of all the things that go wrong in this broken, crazy, wicked world? Absolutely. Are you willing to trust Him?

Here is what I know. After trying so hard to scrape together the shattered remnants of my broken heart by myself, I gave my pathetically few pieces to the One who promises to bind up the brokenhearted and invited Him to do what He does best. At some point in that process, I began to realize something about that area of my life.

It’s not Saturday anymore.

four words that change everything

I cling to a common illusion: I am an independent and self-sufficient woman. And then reality intervenes and reminds me I’m only independent and self-sufficient as long as nothing goes wrong—as long as my car doesn’t start making “that” noise, or until I need my husband’s paycheck as well as mine to cover the mortgage and the bills.

Does that sound familiar?

more “four words that change everything”

it’s like breathing

We were finishing dinner when the conversation took an unexpected turn. “I never would have imagined that you would be sitting here talking about church and God.”

Me neither, at least not back when we first met, all those decades (decades?) ago. Oh my goodness, how do I explain that?

I was never a true atheist. In college, I kind of subscribed to my own theology. I knew there was a God somewhere, and that he had set this whole thing in motion. I was sure he had a sense of humor, otherwise, he would have given up on the human race long ago; at the same time, I was convinced he was no more interested in me than I would be in any individual ant in my kids’ ant farms.

From God the Giant Ant Farmer to evangelical Christian. How do I explain the journey from there to here? I might just as easily explain why I continue breathing: I never think about it; I just do it.

I have always believed in God. Someone had to light the fuse on the Big Bang. I never understood how scientists who base their lives and their careers on evidence and experimentation could simply decide all of this just popped into existence from nowhere. That defies all logic. And it is only human hubris that insists there must be an answer—other than a Creator—that we, in our infinite wisdom, will uncover any day now. (Yes, I am being more than a bit sarcastic here.)

more “it’s like breathing”

God’s bonsai

One of my favorite short stories ever, “Slow Sculpture” looks, on the surface, like so many typical science fiction stories: beautiful young woman with incurable disease meets eccentric mad scientist who cures her, they fall in love and live happily ever after. But hear the metaphor author Theodore Sturgeon weaves through the story. The mad scientist has a hobby: he raises bonsai trees.


As he explains, caring for a bonsai tree is an ongoing conversation. The gardener looks at the tree, sees the potential and decides to encourage more growth here, less there. The methods are gentle at first: cover the roots, change the direction the light is coming from. If the tree responds, the conversation continues. If not, sterner measures might be necessary: using wire to bend a branch just so or as a last resort, pruning a wayward shoot.

more “God’s bonsai”

fighting back with joy

fight-back-with-joyI just finished reading Margaret Feinberg’s latest book, Fight Back with Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears.

It’s not an easy read. Margaret writes in raw, painful, moving detail about her cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation treatments – and her decision to fight back with joy.

I’m humbled. I cannot imagine enduring what Margaret endured, let alone choosing joy in the midst of all of that. And I’m inspired. When Margaret says it is possible to choose joy, even when every nerve ending is on fire and she is too weak to walk across the room, I have to listen.

more “fighting back with joy”