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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Narrator: L was not, in fact, done, and she and God were not, in fact, through…

We’re closing in on three years since I sat in my vehicle, in my driveway in Indiana, and uttered these words to God, as I made the final decision to make the move to Boston:

“Fine God!  I will go do this thing, but if I lose my kids over this, I’m done, and we are through.”

2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year… maybe even a cesspool…

It is difficult for me to adequately express how devastating this year has been for me, primarily because even though it has been horrific, I know it has still been worse for others.  But I’m not a real fan of competing to determine whose pain is greatest, and I think it is vital to recognize grief and loss for what they are, regardless of quantifiable size.  So, if you’re reading this (and I guess you are), please understand that I fully recognize my own experience as nothing more or nothing less than merely that… my own… neither in direct nor indirect competition with your pain.

Confession: I was already over 2020 by late February.  Without divulging details, let it suffice to say that people who know and love me were already looking into my face, eight weeks into this mess, and saying things like, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know how you’re still standing.”  In another two weeks’ time, I would find myself staring through exhausted, blurred vision, waiting for my luggage to magically appear on an airport carousel, wondering if it had been incredibly stupid to pass through 8 cities via air, over 16 days, when reports of a deadly virus were emerging and growing by the hour.  Five days later, I threw in the towel on my youngest child’s indoor soccer season, even though some people thought I was being overly dramatic.  Two days after that, I stood in a pulpit, not knowing that it would be the last time for an undisclosed number of months, instructing people to distance themselves and to refrain from remembering their baptism… at least, with the water in the font.  I walked back into my house, I shut the door, and I proceeded to have zero contact with the outside world for the next 32 days.  On day 32, I had to make an emergency visit to the police station.  On day 55, a dear friend of mine sent me a package of handmade masks.  On day 68, I had enough guts to drive thru at Starbucks.  On day 70 I ventured out for an “elective” surgery that had fallen off the books, precisely because of the pandemic, but that my doctor was able to essentially sneak me in for, because the word elective is pretty widely used to describe things that are not really elective.  I stayed home again until day 107.  And it’s not that I got lazy after that, but it was a little easier to be creative during the summer months, and the curve was flattening here.  So… socially distanced trips to the beach… running, and running, and running… plenty of carry out and drive-thrus… orders to pick up outside the store… etc.  We also had to engage in some of the regular rhythms of life like yearly physicals and a trip to the ophthalmologist.  And then I stopped counting the days, because this became the new normal.

I’m a pretty big fan of New Year’s Eve, in a quiet, stay at home and eat appetizers and watch the ball drop with my family sort of way.  For years now, I have picked a word of the year, and I was so excited 366 days ago (remember, 2020 was a leap year, so we even got an extra day in this already unbearably long trip around the sun) when I chose “envision.”  Not only did this word represent what I hoped for in 2020, but I thought it rather clever, as well.  At this writing, 2020 is almost hindsight…  read that again, backwards…  and I feel as if “envision” was the most inappropriate word I could possibly have chosen.  “Survive” was more like it.  When I took this picture, I just didn’t know:

I didn’t know a lot of things, but I sure didn’t know this low quality, cell phone selfie type image was going to become one of my favorite moments of all time.  I didn’t know it was going to be a before/after marker.  I didn’t know I was going to revisit that ultimatum to God, this year, and I was going to have to make a decision about whether or not I meant it.  Was it a faith crisis?  An identity crisis?  I don’t know.  It didn’t feel like the deconstruction of my 20s or the reinvention of my 30s.  Instead, it was a more subtle question, posed largely to myself.  Am I going to do this thing called life with God or without God?  In the end, I decided with God is better.  Understated, I know.  It’s just that so much of this year has been melodramatic.  Maybe we all just need something steady.

Because I remain a hopeless random selfie taker (one year I even made a resolution to take less selfies, but it didn’t go well), in my quick photo flip through the year, I came across one from early September that I like a great deal (there are also countless terrible selfies that should just be deleted and a large number of sad ones).  I hope to greet the new year with the tenacity of this arbitrary shot, with the fire in my eyes and the fire in my bones it represents.  My word for 2021 is “RELENTLESS.”  Because somebody poked the bear, and I am in this to win it.

In no way do I wish to detract from the need for mourning over the loss, grief, and pain of 2020, but neither do I wish to rehash it all in a public forum.  Heaven knows I have sat with it in silence and solitude, and that is crushing enough.  I recognize that turning the page to a new calendar year is not a magical act, and I suspect that 2021 will carry with it both joy and sorrow, as most years do.  As is, perhaps, the greatest example of this, a dear friend of mine gave birth during this pandemic.  Over the course of our many texts, this year, I have sometimes exclaimed, “2020 sucked… except Joseph…”  Her response is always, “2020 mostly sucked.”  And then I laugh.  But this makes the point… there have been highlights…

And so, a highlight reel…

In 2020, I reached the halfway point of my Ph.D. program at Boston University.  I bought a vehicle.  His name is Fred.  I love him.  I ran several virtual 5Ks, including The Wizard Run (with Seth, Grace (via FaceTime), and Caleb) and the Donut Run (with Ian), as well as a 10K that only almost killed me.  I co-taught a preaching class in BU’s D.Min. program and a worship class in BU’s M.Div. program and facilitated a spiritual companioning group for mostly 1st year M.Div. students.  I enjoyed weekly trips to ENC and the ocean to visit Seth, who absolutely slayed his first semester there, and to write.  Many donuts, pizzas, coffees, and grocery runs were involved.  I celebrated my oldest three children beginning to make their way into the workforce (Seth at Amazon; Grace at Kroger, along with a variety of music related positions at Olivet and the most recent announcement of her commissioning to write an entire musical; Caleb at Dunkin’ Donuts).  I had the privilege of participating in the mostly virtual, but occasionally in-person, worship gatherings of South Walpole UMC, where Phil has navigated pastoring in a pandemic in incredible ways, and where Caleb, Ian, and Miah have served weekly as tech support, ushers, and acolytes.  I had a chapter published in the book, Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love, and have been asked to write again for an upcoming project.  I was asked to serve on the NRSVue review team.  I took on responsibilities as a co-chair for Wesleyan Liturgical Society and as the chair for Theology and Education with Wesleyan Theological Society.  Flip Flops, Glitter, and Theology quietly flipped over 100,000 pageviews at some point.  I have had ample time to read fiction with Caleb, Ian, and Miah.  I have coached Caleb, Ian, and Miah, along with their teammates, at a number of virtual Bible Quizzing tournaments, where we have represented South Pole (locally) and the New England District, as we continue to be blessed to be a part of the ENC Field.  I have met with friends and colleagues (masked and socially distanced) in parking lots and at parks to celebrate new babies and completing semesters. I helped my parents to set up Zoom on their Kindle (this might be the biggest accomplishment yet).  I am still here.

It's a different kind of mining of joyful moments than ever before, to be sure, but if we dig deep, we can still find them.

My prayer for all of you is that the joy will outweigh the sorrow in 2021, but that even if it doesn’t, that there will be people to sit with you and to hold you and to love you well, because we still belong to each other.

With Much Love and Many Blessings,


P.S.  If you haven’t already seen it, here is our belated Christmas greeting:

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Mary, Did You Know?

Full disclosure: I have a higher opinion of Mary than most Protestants.  And so, it is with a bit of trepidation that I entered into this piece.  I have things to say, but first, let’s let Mary’s words speak (or sing) to us:  

Luke 1:46-55, New Revised Standard Version: Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’”

This Advent season, I have noticed an extraordinarily high number of complains rising against the classic (sort of) Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know,” penned by Mark Lowry (lyrics) and Buddy Green (music) and originally released by Michael English on his self-titled album in 1991.  I don’t know if almost 30 years is enough to make something a classic, but I digress.  The question seems to be, did Mark and Michael mansplain Mary, and, if so, what should we do about it?  After taking a careful look at the lyrics (which I probably could have quoted, but I wanted to cover all the bases), I decided it’s about a 50/50 wash.  Yeah, Mary knew some of that stuff, and she didn’t know some of it, and maybe the question was rhetorical.  At any rate, I don’t think the song was intentionally degrading, and I’m probably going to go ahead and keep it in the rotation (but maybe the Pentatonix version).  I’m thankful for the controversy, though, because it caused me to think deeply about Mary… her knowledge… her faith… and her heart.  And that’s really what this post is about.

I love the Magnificat.  I love to read it.  I love to preach it.  Honestly, I just love that it exists.  I love young, faith-filled, faithful Mary, who consents to carry the incarnate, embodied child of God in her uterus.  So, when the songwriter asks, Mary, did you know “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God,” I think the answer is abundantly clear…  yes, yes, and yes.  

But if we were to ask, Mary, did you know this kid was going to disappear in the temple at age 12, I think the answer shifts.  Y’all cannot tell me that she foreknew Jesus would be briefly misplaced, and, frankly, I’m not going to buy it if you suggest she wasn’t panicked and maybe a little bit pissed.  If you have ever lost a child on a trip, you know full well how the reunion goes.  You are a blubbering mess, tears streaming down your face, because you are certain your kid has been abducted and you will never see him again, and you are certain you are the worst parent who has ever lived.  But then when you do see that little face, all the relief and emotions come out in a tight hug and a lecture about how he had better never, not ever, disappear from at least your peripheral vision, really… ever… again!  And it doesn’t actually end when your children become adults.  It’s the reason for the requested text at the end of the night.  Please… please just push a few buttons, so I know you’re alive and I can get some sleep.  Because the panic of not being able to physically see them doesn’t fade. 

When the songwriter asks, “Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters,” I think the answer, with the understanding that Mary certainly knew the Messiah was kicking her just beneath the ribs, is abundantly clear… yes, yes, and yes.

But if we were to ask, Mary, did you know the savior of the world was going to have an attitude… at age thirty… when you asked him to replace some water with some wine, I think she might have balked.  Seriously?  For real?  What do you do with this kid, who’s like, “Mom… that’s really not what I’m supposed to be doing right now… at least not quite yet.”  I like that Jesus relents.  I like that his first miracle takes place, not because he planned it that way, but because his Mama asked him to do something, and even though he didn’t really feel like it, he acquiesced.  It’s one for the books!  Mary, did you know about the miraculous healings and all the ways in which they would take place?  Maybe not… but she sure knew she taught that kid to set the table.  And then he did…  over, and over, and over again… 

It gets a little trickier after that, because like many of the Jewish people awaiting Messiah, Mary most certainly did not know what it meant for her child to be the lamb. 

Recently, I’ve re-read and re-watched some movies and stories and found myself in different characters than usual, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Matthew 12:46-50 hit me a little different the other day:

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48 He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

It's usually one of those “Yay Jesus” moments or one of those “Yay disciples” moments, but as I read this, most recently, it cut deep as I thought about Mary.  Who is my mother?  Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my… mother?  Incredulous.  For, who might that be more than Mary, herself?  Point taken, family is indeed more than just flesh and blood (maybe Jesus even represents this very best), but I cannot get around this paragraph.  I’d like to say I cannot even imagine how Mary felt when those words stung like barbs.  As she stood outside waiting for an audience of her firstborn child and being met with his silence, I have to wonder if her hand brushed over the stretch marks… if she shifted uncomfortably, because she never took off those last ten pounds and nobody remembered what she looked like before they were a permanent part of her… if she thought back to the ridicule of those early days, when she’d just begun to show and her explanation was unbelievable (literally)…  if she peed herself a little bit, or if she just cried.  Mothers tend to have a lot of bodily fluids that just flow whether they want them to or not.  I am dissatisfied that Jesus does not answer her call here, but it’s not the end of the story…

I wonder if Mary thought back to this moment when she was standing at the cross and Jesus publicly recognized her as his mother and provided for her by exclaiming that his dearest friend, the disciple whom he loved, was now her son.  I think the temptation here is to jump ahead too quickly, proclaiming closure, proclaiming repaired relationship.  Maybe it reaches back to Jesus’ words about making things right at the altar before you offer your gift.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that there is no way any of that even mattered to Mary in that moment.  I know she would have traded places with Jesus in less than half a heartbeat, given the opportunity.  Given the chance, she would deliver him again… and again… and again, even if she knew “this child that you delivered [would] soon deliver you.”  I know this, because I am definitely not nearly as fabulous a mother or follower of God as Mary was, and I would spill my own blood over and over again, an unimaginable number of times, before ever accepting the abuse of any of my children as a simple fact I was wise enough to know and acknowledge.  And so, I have to push back on the idea that Mary knew… at least like that.  I don’t think she knew.  And it’s OK to admit that knowing isn’t the end-all solution to everything. 

There’s actually a whole lot of grace in recognizing that most of what we do, we do with limited knowledge.  At our best, we do what we think is right, given minimal details and perspective.  At our very best, we wake up and do it again, adjusting for all the things we got wrong.  And then again.  And then again.

Mary, did you know that being a mother was going to break you in every single way?  Spoiler:  Again, I’m going with no.  Mary, if you knew, would you still say yes?  I can’t actually answer for Mary, but I think so, because I would.