Prayer Beads, Bloody Knees, and Learning About Jesus

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I was seventeen. She was at least seventy-five.

I was a Nazarene pastor’s kid. She was a devout catholic.

I had an easy life. Her scars sang of a life of toil and pain.

She knew Jesus. I had never really met him.

Growing up in the Nazarene church (much like other churches, I assume) spring break mission trips were the norm. Raise some money, take a week, fly somewhere impoverished, and make people’s live better by building something, painting something, or putting on some sort of church program.

These things are all fine and good. I think exposing teenagers to other cultures and a life of simplicity, rather than their life of excess and opulence, is a healthy thing. It does a lot of good for a lot of people.

I went because it was spring break, it was Mexico, a few friends were going, and I was the pastor’s kid. Seemed like a no brainer.

We built church classrooms, hung out with kids, poured concrete, you name it. It was great, hard, sweaty work. We felt accomplished though, like we had done something incredible for the Kingdom. And honestly, I still believe that we did, we just didn’t understand it at the time.

As cliche as it sounds, that trip changed my life. Just not in the way I had expected.

Towards the end of the trip, we had an off day. Some of the local pastors had decided to take us to see one of the more “touristy” attractions in Oaxaca, La Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman, known to the locals as “the church of gold.”

This former monastery and catholic church had been fully restored, and the interior consists of over sixty-thousand sheets of gold.

Breathtaking.

I remember when we were there, the sun was pouring in through the oversized windows, causing the interior of the church to glow, literally.

We walked around, snapped a couple photos, bought a postcard, and were ready to go, congregating in the courtyard of the church

Then I saw her.

At first, I didn’t know what she was doing. Begging maybe? Asking for money, maybe food?

She was draped in a thin, almost see-through, dress, if you could even call it that. Rags, really. She was on her hands and knees, clutching something, and her knees were bloody, leaving little stains on the cobblestone courtyard.

Then it hit me.

She was crawling towards the church, clutching her rosary beads in her frail fists, mumbling to herself. Little prayers, audible only to her, offered up in reverence.

I asked one of the pastors with us about her, and what he said will be with me for the rest of my life.

“She lives on the outskirts of town, and once a week she comes. She crawls here on her hands and knees, clutching those beads, to pray, and to confess.”

I have never to this day, known or seen devotion to anything, like that little frail old lady showed me.

I complain if I have to park too far away from church. I complain if the coffee isn’t brewed the right way. I complain when the music isn’t right, or a visiting pastor is teaching on something I don’t like or don’t agree with.

She crawled on her hands and knees across filthy streets, across God-knows-what, and up the cobblestone courtyard, to offer her prayers to her creator. She was frail, old, weathered, and absolutely beat up. Her knees were bloody scabs, probably just healing by the time she left the following week for the church.

I learned more about Jesus in that moment than I ever had before, or ever have since. I learned what devotion looks like. I learned what sacrifice looks like. I learned just how fickle and feeble my faith is.

I don’t know her name. I don’t know anything about her. But I know she loved her God.

Maybe some day I’ll love my God like that.

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The Power of “Me Too.”

My good friend Micah said something last weekend that I’ve been mulling over. Something that has given me an incredible sense of hope. During his talk at the Faith & Culture Writing Conference, he said,

“Sometimes all you have to say is ‘Me too.’ Say it anyways.”

I wrote it down, tweeted it for posterity, and went about my day. To be honest, he said so much other incredible stuff the conference that it slipped my mind.

Then, on Monday night, as I was going through all my notes from the weekend, I re-read it, and it resonated in the deepest part of me.

There is beauty in knowing that we’re not alone, isn’t there? There is an incredible amount of comfort and family in knowing that we are not walking through this world by ourselves.

You’re not sure if you believe in God this week? Me too.

You can’t remember the last time you opened your bible simply because you wanted to? Me too.

You can’t remember the last time you prayed and felt God speak? Me too.

You love God, and hate him, and are angry at him, and are amazed by him, and adore him, and can’t stand him, all in the same breath? Me too.

At the end of the day, the thing that draws me to is not perfect theology, eloquent sermons, or the right answers. It isn’t people who have all their ducks in a row, and have their crap together.

The thing that points me to Jesus more than anything else is admitting my doubts and struggles and fears, in painful vulnerability, and then hearing someone saying,

“Me too.”

 

I Am Not a Tool

 

I spent the majority of this past weekend at a writing conference. It was my first, and I was somewhat apprehensive about attending. I’m fairly introverted by nature, and hanging out with people I had never met, but only knew through twitter/blogs seemed daunting, and a little weird.

But I went.

One of the keynote speakers for the weekend was a blogger and author named Sarah Bessey. Sarah wrote a beautifully disarming book called Jesus Feminist. If you haven’t read it, I would highly suggest picking up a copy. She is quiet, but profound. Shy, but bold. Introverted, but a prolific speaker. I found myself crying 4 times throughout the course of Sarah’s words. She was incredible.

During the closing session, Sarah asked the crowd’s permission to pray over us. Shockingly, none of us objected. And then Sarah said some of the most beautiful words I have ever heard spoken:

“Thank you God, that we are not tools to be used by you, but co-creators with you”

I came undone.

The theological implications of this concept run much deeper than I am qualified to explore, but I believe what Sarah said to be absolute truth.

I am not a tool. A tool is mindless. A tool has no desires, no passions, no wants, and no longings. A tool simply does what it is forced to do. It is tossed in a drawer, thrown around, dragged through the mud, and then put back away once the person using it is done.

The need for a tool suggests the inability of the tool-user to accomplish their task. A hammer is used to pound a nail because we are unable to use our bare hands. A screwdriver is used to turn a screw because we lack the dexterity for that task. A jack is used to lift a car because we are too weak to do so ourselves.

To suggest that we are tools to be used by God, I believe, maligns and cheapens the character of God, suggesting that God is impotent and unable to accomplish what he desires. I don’t love my screwdriver. I don’t love my power drill. I love my children. I love their art, their ramblings, their sentences that are verbose and overcomplicated. I love it when they are exactly who they are.

That old adage, “God doesn’t need us,” I believe, rings hollow. Does God need us? In a way, no. God is God, and God gets to be God. We don’t.

But does God limit himself to a degree that compels him to rely on us in some way?

Absolutely.

To suggest less relegates us to being tools. To simply being a means to an end.

You are not a tool. You are a co-creator with God.

I don’t believe God uses us. I believe he partners with us. God is relational, not dictatorial. I believe that in a very real sense, God needs us. God needs you. God needs you to create art. God needs you to write. God needs you to make beautiful films. God needs you to write plays, poetry, paint paintings, take pictures, and everything else that gives your soul hope.

Thank you Sarah. Thank you for speaking words to my heart that I needed to hear. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not a means to an end. I’m beloved. I’m enamoring to my creator. I’m captivating to his eyes. He is proud of me, and he is proud of what I create.

And he is proud of you as well.

You are his beloved.

Could This Seriously Happen?

This weekend, I’m pitching my memoir (although it sounds pretentious for a 30 year old to have a memoir) to a literary agent. 

Pieces: A Memoir of Shattered Faith, and Impossible Restoration

Holy crap. I can’t believe I’m going to do this. But I have a story to tell, and I believe it’s worth telling (most days.)

If you’re the praying kind, say a prayer. This will get written with or without an agent/publishing company/etc. But it sure would be nice to have some professional help. 

Commence freaking out 

Vomit at 1AM

I still remember the most heartbreaking thing that I have ever experienced as a parent, and yes, it involves vomit (a lot of parenting stories do. We’re kind of like a frat in that way.)

It was roughly 1AM (because kids never do anything during the day. They wait until you’re asleep.) I was sound asleep. Like so asleep I probably had the pillow lines on my face. Sleeping hard.

We had just been in Avery’s room to put her back to sleep, so needless to say, I wasn’t in the best mood. She starting stirring again, making little noises in the monitor. Not enough to wake me up, but just enough to prevent me from falling back asleep (kind of her, huh?)

Finally, I couldn’t handle it. I walked into her room, and rather harshly said, “Avery, you need to go to s….” Before I could finish my word, I smelled that overwhelming odor that I knew all too well. 

I turned on the light and there was throw up everywhere. Walls, floors, crib, stuffed animals, hair, everywhere. And she was eating solid food now, so it wasn’t milk throw up, it was food throw up (again, very much like a frat in that way.)

She had it caked in her hair, and as I bent over her crib to get her up to change her, she looked at me, and with a single tear rolling down her cheek (of course) she said, in her high-pitched little voice:

“Daddy, I need help.”

Yup. My heart fell through the bottom of my feet. It was the most frustrating moment, (hello, i’m cleaning up vomit at 1AM) and yet one of the most tender moments I’ve ever experienced as a parent. She was relying completely on me. She was completely helpless. If I didn’t clean her up, she would wallow in that stink for God knows how long.

I try not to over-spiritualize too much, but it taught me a lot about Jesus, the vomit night did. It taught me that I am helpless. That Jesus looks on me with the same kind of compassionate love that I had for my daughter that night. I wasn’t mad at her for puking again. I wasn’t mad at her for making a mess. Whatever frustration or tension I had melted when she looked at me and said, “Daddy, I need help.”

I feel like maybe I should say that to God more. Daddy, I need help. I feel like maybe far too often, I think I have it together and figured out, when in reality, I’m just a sweaty mess, covered in my own vomit. And the only thing capable of cleaning me up is Dad. I could try myself, but I’d just make it worse. His hands are the the only ones that can get me truly clean. His hands are the only ones that can truly restore me. His hands are the only ones that can pick me up, clean me off, look me in the eyes, and say, “I got you. Let’s clean you up.”

Am I Good Enough?

There is snow on the ground outside. Schools are closed, and in a “when pigs fly” moment of amazing fortune, the Nike WHQ is closed. So I’m home.

Both girls are snuggled up next to me watching Sesame Street. I have a hot cup of coffee on the table in front of me. Life is perfect at this moment.

Thirty minutes ago, however, was a different story.

Avery, our oldest, wakes up like her dad. She pops out of bed. Wide awake. Ready to go. So when she woke up this morning, the first thing she wanted to do was to make a card for her mom. So precious. She thought it was her birthday, and was so confused as to why we didn’t’ have cake in the house for mom’s birthday.

I was sitting on the couch, reading my bible when I heard her call for help. I walked in, asking her what was wrong.

“I want to draw a heart on my card for mommy, but I don’t know how. Will you show me?”

Of course I will Avery. I’d love to. I drew a heart on a piece of paper, and told her, “this is how it looks, just copy this shape.”

I went back to my bible reading, and a couple of minutes later, heard intense crying coming from her room.

I walked in to see a half dozen sheets of paper, red shapes all over them, littering the floor around her art table. She was sitting at the table with a marker in one hadn, her head in her other hand, weeping.

“Avery, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“I tried to make a heart for mommy, but I want it to be perfect, and I just can’t do it. I want it to be a perfect shape for her and I want her to like my card.”

So much to learn about Jesus in those tears.

How often am I like that? How often do I stress about getting everything for Jesus just right, not even realizing that at the end of the day, I think what Jesus wants is our attention and effort, not our perfection. The fact that we care enough to want to give Jesus our best is indication that we’re on to something.

I explained to Avery that her mom would absolutely love the fact that she was trying so hard, and that no matter what shape made its way onto the paper, her mom would think it was beautiful. She asked me to help her draw a heart, so I put my hand around her little one, helped her draw a card, and here we are now, card finished, on the couch watching Sesame Street.

Remember, Jesus doesn’t demand your perfection. Jesus doesn’t say to you, “if it’s perfect, I’ll take it.” Jesus looks at us like a mother looks at a card drawn by her daughter, scribbles and all, and sees it as beautiful. The beauty is in the effort, not the outcome.