Facing Fear in the Concrete.

I’m fairly comfortable with things in theory. For example, in theory, fish is good for me and is tasty; in practice, I can’t get myself to swallow the slimy meat or purchase Omega-3 supplements. In theory, I could stop drinking coffee at the drop of a hat, but in practice, I’d get awful withdrawal headaches and would miss my friendly pal named Caffeine.

In theory, my fears seem pretty conquerable, but in practice, my stomach does somersaults, my fingers get tingly, and my instinct is to run away – and as quickly as possible.

My rational mind tells me, “Of course, Laura. You can definitely drive without fear. It will be a-okay.” But when I actually get behind the wheel and behold the on-ramp before me, my fear to spin my wheels on the highway becomes incredibly concrete. Everything in me wants to avoid merging into a steady flow of traffic, frightened that there might not be room for me. I’m scared I’m going to miss my exit, be absentminded, be unprepared, or miss something in one of my blindspots. I know God is with me in my fears – that is, I know it in my mind. But what will it take for it to take root and blossom in my heart, especially when I need it most?

So, I ponder: How does God’s perfect love work its way into our fears, not only “in theory,” but in everyday practice? It’s easy to say, “God has not given me a spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7) or to sweetly croon the Gaither classic, “Because He lives, all fear is gone.” But what do we do when all we know in the moment is a visceral reaction of panic?

To be honest, my reader, I’m still trying to figure this out. It’s all very theoretical to me, especially as I prepare to drive on the highway to church tomorrow morning. I’m trusting that God’s peace and His comfort will shield and guide me – not only in my mind, but in all of my being. I’m trusting that my head knowledge of God’s presence will saturate my heart, also, with the reality that “a spirit of fear” has no place in this dearly God-beloved heart.

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So, fellow God-beloved heart, is there a fear in your life you feel that you just can’t shake? I invite you to ponder with me what it might look like for you to trust in God’s peace and comfort as you navigate this area. Remember that He knows and cares and sees this struggle, and that He will not leave you alone with it or in it.

The Cruciform Life.

One book that’s been particularly formational for me the past three summers is Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis. This book is the only novel I’ve ever re-read, and reading it truly is – in the words of Jo March – like “being home again.” I don’t want to spoil any elements of this book for you if you haven’t read it; however, I will say that it’s about pilgrimage – a journey closer to the heart of Christ through looking at the life of St. Francis of Assisi. As I have visited and revisited this book, I find I’m on a pilgrimage of my own. This pilgrimage is one of deeper trust, transparency, and authenticity. It’s one of learning to live an unprotected life, one that’s open to loving others with the love of Christ.

Here’s one segment of the book that speaks deeply to me, an interaction of a Franciscan friar with the main character:

“Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it the ‘radically unprotected life,’ a life that’s cruciform in shape,” he said, opening his arms to mimic the posture of Jesus on the cross. “It’s to live dangerously open, revealing all that we genuinely are, and receiving all the pain and sorrow the world will give back in return. It’s to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?” (71)

An unprotected life. Sounds risky, right? It sure does to me. I prefer to have control over who I am, how others perceive me, and how I allow myself to be perceived. It’s easier to minister to some individuals over others, and if I have the choice, I’ll choose to be present to the individuals I’m most comfortable with. I like to know that in ministry, I’m going to be comfortable and set at ease and that the Holy Spirit will draw me to those familiar spaces. It’s in these spaces where I feel most prepared and able.

However, I’m quickly learning in the hospital setting that there are many situations where I feel uncomfortable in providing pastoral care. I’m often with individuals I would probably never cross paths with in my everyday life – people I would never know how to relate to or talk to. It’s vulnerable, scary, and very uneasy. In these moments, sometimes I just want to flee the hospital room because I feel too young, too incompetent, and too ill-prepared for the task at hand. But the Holy Spirit compels me to remain present. I don’t have the words to speak, so I absolutely must pray for Him to direct my speech and even my silences. And as I open my mouth to speak, I absolutely know that my outward ministry is coming from the heart of God, not from my own effort or ability.

I firmly believe that before one can be truly vulnerable to others, he or she must be vulnerable to God. For He’s the One who formed our hearts and continues to form them. And He formed the hearts of all who are made in His image – all those He calls us to reach with His loving arms.

I’d much rather cross my arms over my chest (and figuratively over my heart), putting up my guard, allowing vulnerabilities to be well-controlled and curated. But Christ calls His people to live life just as He lived – a life in the very shape of the cross. A life that is open to others, arms outstretched. This is the horizontal life. But without the vertical life – the relationship between God and self – the cross-shaped life is incomplete. Jesus had close communion with His Father, allowing the Father’s will to shape His earthly ministry. Only when Jesus was connected with the Father in unity could He share the heart of the Father with others. His vertical life informed His horizontal ministry. And as humanity hurled loads of pain and sorrow at Jesus, He gained strength from His Father to respond with compassion. When we’re in the trenches of being present with others’ pain and sorrow, I believe with all my heart that the Father gives us that kind of strength, too – a strength to respond with lives of compassion.

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I like how J. Davis describes the cruciform life as “the life of Jesus taking shape in us.” How might the life of Jesus take shape in you this week? What are some practical ways for your life to be lived in vulnerability towards God and others? 
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May our lives be lived in the shape of the cross. May we “be real because we know the Real.”

Affirming Dignity.

Already, I could write so much about my experience of being a chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) for the past seven weeks. I hope that in the days and weeks ahead, I can share what’s been percolating in my heart. For now, though, what’s been brewing (might as well extend the coffee metaphor, right?) is the concept of dignity. Specifically, I’ve been asking myself, “How am I seeking to affirm the dignity of others, not only in the hospital rooms I visit, but in my day to day life?”

I firmly believe that each individual – every God-created soul – is made in His very image. And because we are made in His image, we have inherent worth and value. We have God-given dignity. And while it’s often easy to believe the image of God is present in individuals who are most like us – most familiar to our life experiences – it can be a little harder to recognize the image of God in those we disagree with, dislike, or even those we fear. 
Dignity has been personified for me in some specific ways throughout the past few weeks.

About three weeks ago, I visited a middle aged woman. When I walked into her room, she was seated in her bed, trying to reach behind her back to tie up her patterned blue hospital gown – the kind that is open in the back when not securely fastened (often called a ‘johnny’ here in New England). Before I could introduce myself, she asked me if I could help her to tie up the back of her gown. As hard as she tried, she could not do it on her own. For her, in that moment, dignity meant being secured within a paper-thin gown. As I tied up the strings in a bow, her demeanor changed. Her distress transformed to a peaceful countenance.

And affirming dignity struck me again just recently when I was present with a patient who was anxiously waiting to be seen by her doctor. All she wanted to do was bolt from the hospital and to go home. While my initial internal response was to issue a condescending “there, there,” instead I felt compelled to ask if I could hold her hand. After a few brief moments, she gave me her hand. By establishing human contact, I understood a little bit more what it means to be present to another’s experience, not just an observer of it.

In another visit, affirming dignity looked like holding a patient’s hand as her blood was being drawn, reminding her that she isn’t facing her pain alone. Still, in another, it looked like sitting with and listening to a patient’s wife after lonely and discouraging days of her sitting by his side.

This exercise of looking for how the Holy Spirit is leading me to affirm the dignity of others has been rich, challenging, and eye-opening. It’s brought my before-hidden biases and snap judgments and selfishness to the very surface of my ministry. But I’m learning to lean into the tension of these personal areas of growth instead of running from them, allowing the Holy Spirit to sand the rough edges of my heart, drawing me into how God sees others as precious, valuable, full of worth.

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Where in your life and workplace is God drawing you to affirm the dignity in others? What does that look like in your day-to-day life? 

Grappling with an Evangelical Identity.

When I was growing up, I can’t say I ever identified as an ‘evangelical.’ ‘Pentecostal,’ absolutely. But ‘evangelical’? It just wasn’t a familiar or even a relevant term to me. As a child, I didn’t quite understand how I fit in with the larger body of Christians around me; while I felt a strong identity to fellow Pentecostals, I had no idea how I connected with the Baptists down the street, the Lutherans across town, or the many Catholics in parishes all over the south suburbs of Chicago.

In college, too, denominations other than my Pentecostal tradition seemed a bit ‘foreign’ to me. Since I grew up in this denomination, I thought that any understanding outside this denomination was lesser-than (particularly regarding the Holy Spirit), that is until I discovered Anglicanism (I’ll write about this journey some other time). In Anglicanism, I found a tradition that delighted in being part of the Church universal, joined to all Christians past, present, and future. When I learned the Nicene Creed, I began to feel connected to the Church – its baggage, yes, but also its beauty. And while I’ve maintained my Pentecostal identity even in my transition to Anglicanism, exposure to both denominations has made me increasingly appreciative of the diverse body of Christ.

And that’s when I decided to go to an interdenominational seminary. I longed to know more about other traditions. I had many questions, such as: “What makes Presbyterians distinct?” or “Do we really need to sacrifice Catholic spiritual disciplines in our pursuit of Protestantism?” or “Can the Holy Spirit actually inspire the hearts of believers whose mouths haven’t been filled with tongues?” In my seminary classrooms, I began to gain answers to these deep heart questions, answers that led to my conclusion: I really am part of the Church universal.

In Protestantism (or at least in the circles of Protestantism I’m in), a popular categorization of this community is ‘evangelical.’ Honestly, I hadn’t heard this term until seminary. Like I mentioned before, the term was never on my radar. When I learned it, I essentially assumed I was one. After all, if I can be part of a cross-denominational categorization of Christians, shouldn’t I jump right in?

After all, in its purest definitional form, ‘evangelical‘ highlights Scriptural authority, salvation through proclaiming Jesus Christ alone as LORD, and answering Jesus’ Great Commission to share the Gospel to all who do not know him. Check, check, and check. I believe all three of these things. So, I gladly put on the warm and cozy coat of evangelicalism, wearing it proudly as a sign of my devotion to such beliefs.

But then the election hit. In the news, I heard the term ‘evangelical’ being thrown around, inseparably connected with allegiance to the President (then candidate). Suddenly, the term ‘evangelical’ carried indescribable heaviness for me. The evangelicals supporting the President did not represent me. While I absolutely value the sanctity of life (on all levels), I felt like my Christian faith – and my deeply held conviction that Scripture is the authoritative word of God – were completely incongruent with the President’s views – as well as evangelicals touting the belief that morality had now returned to the country with his becoming leader of the United States (more thoughts on that here). I took off the coat of evangelicalism and hung it up in my closet, not discarding it just yet, but not sporting it so proudly anymore.

In recent weeks of my hospital ministry, I’ve learned that the term ‘evangelical’ carries more weight than I even personally realized. To some, ‘evangelical’ means pushy. To others, it means intolerant and inconsiderate. Still to others, its roots are closely tied to fundamentalism. This label carries some serious baggage. How ironic that a term used to describe Gospel-sharing individuals has actually become a barrier to the actual sharing of Good News.

Thus, I’ve come to some conclusions in my life, in my everyday ministry:

(1) It’s not my role to defend evangelicals. No, my role as a Christ-follower is to embody His love and light to those around me. And I will refuse a title or a label that prevents others from seeing Christ more fully. I am a disciple of Christ alone. And if others cannot know I’m a Christian by my love, I have failed.

(2) While I love my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are a family, not a non-profit organization or a political action committee or a coalition. I will not be a politicized Christian who is known by my candidate endorsements or speculative eschatology.

(3) Evangelicalism can sometimes seem like such an exclusive subculture that even if an individual were to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, I honestly think it would be hard for them to distinguish between following Christ and learning the culture of ‘evangelical ways and decorum.’

(4) I will gladly take off the coat of ‘evangelicalism’ and will send it straight off to the thrift store if my doing so will help others see God’s love more fully in my life. After all, it’s summertime.

Holy Silence.

{I recently found this poem that I wrote in May 2016, as a reflection of my retreat time at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. The photo below is the visual that inspired my written words. Feel free to click for a closer view.}

My cotton blanket was an altar,
Green grass its ornamentation.
The call-and-response came from opposing sides of trees –
Some light, some dark,
With disparate harmony but equal parts.
I felt I could not properly sing along,
For the song was unfamiliar.
“Holy, holy, holy”
In notes not fitted for scale or staff.
The gnats, though intrusive to my altar,
Sang along; they knew their part.
As the sun shone its rays upon the sanctuary,
The stained glass of my heart also shone,
Illuminating the color of my prayer
That could only be expressed in awe-filled silence.

Scaffolding & Scales.

As this second semester of seminary has begun, the words and insights of Henri Nouwen have continued to speak truth into my heart, especially as I’ve journeyed to invest in what it means for the Lord to access all of who I am – without disguises and without facades.

One of my dear friends here at Gordon-Conwell, Shannon, is also a Henri enthusiast. In one of my first conversations with her in September, she mentioned that she was moved and blessed by Henri’s notion that we allow our “scaffolding” to be removed when we are in the Lord’s presence. He sees us for who we really are, even when we are unaware of what lies beneath the layers of protection we have tried to establish to impress Him and others (and even ourselves).

I encountered this quote about scaffolding once again at a discipleship retreat I attended this past weekend, and again, this concept struck me deeply.

Here’s what Henri writes:

In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding; no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. (from The Way of the Heart).

Truly, my time at seminary has been filled with more opportunities for solitude than I have ever before experienced. While I’m sitting in my bedroom, all alone with the Lord, my mind wanders to so many things:  a realization of my loneliness, all the homework and studying I need to get done for the semester, the possible ways I could rearrange my room, all the laundry I need to get done, the places I need to vacuum, all the ways I’m discontent – the possible list could go on and on.

While I’ve been proud for many years of my introversion and even my enjoyment of solitude, the truth is that sometimes I’m scared-to-death of being in solitude. I’m nervous that if I really allow the Lord to see all of me, that He will not continue cherishing me as His child. I’m frightened that when I’m really alone with myself, I will be overwhelmed at the baseness of my humanity and the ways that I have offended God in my daily life.

These fears make me feel like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when his greed has caused him to turn into a fierce but lonely dragon. He cries because he doesn’t know how to become a boy again. One day, Aslan comes up to dragon Eustace, telling him that he must undress to get rid of his dragon skin. So Eustace scratches and scratches at his scales, but as he painlessly peels off each layer, his scales grow back. Aslan gently instructs him that only he can be the one to help Eustace become a boy once again. So, with his strong paws and sharp claws, Aslan permanently removes the scales from Eustace, turning him back into a boy again; however, this process is extremely painful to Eustace. Yet even in the midst of the pain, Eustace knows that healing is occurring – a permanent healing that will transform him.

I long for the Lord to remove the scaffolding of my heart and the scales on my skin. However, I know that only when I’m laid bare before Him – only when I allow His Father hands to gently aid in the removal process – will the removal process be effective. Yes, this work may be painful, but it will be lasting.

Living from Belovedness.

This past semester, I wrote a research paper on the life, theology, and ministry of Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, writer, and psychologist, who blessed the world with his kindness and his seemingly endless insights. As I read his writings, I fell ‘in love’ with his explained concepts of Belovedness – specifically, living Beloved as God’s dear children. His thoughts have reworked and reframed my most basic ideas of God’s love, and while my paper is complete, I know that I will spend a lifetime chewing on Henri’s sweet insights of the Father.

Essentially, living as God’s Beloved helps us to identity with Jesus, find our hearts’ true home in the Father, and value the life of our neighbor.

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, when John the Baptist immerses him in water at his baptism, a voice is heard from Heaven. It’s the voice of the Father. He proclaims over His Son, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Henri suggests that this proclamation is not merely an affirmation; rather, this proclamation is the very strength from which Jesus drew his earthly ministry. Jesus’ very identity was found in the beautiful, cosmic, and earthy Love of His Father that fueled his love for his fellow humans.

Because we are God’s children, we are Beloved by God, not because of anything we have done or will do; no, we are Beloved because we are made in His image. Though culture and media blare loudly with promises that one’s identity must be found in what he or she purchases, wears, and consumes, it’s oh-so-easy for identity to be found in those places. But that identity is not lasting; this identity is not our hearts’ true home. Henri writes:

Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests” – the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light. I have heard that voice. It has spoken to me in the past and continues to speak to me now. It is the never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love whenever it is heard. When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear (Nouwen).

Only when we live with an awareness that we are God’s Beloved will we have any security at all. It’s in this Belovedness that we can live into sustainable ministry to others.

For, when we recognize our own Belovedness, only then can we see the Belovedness in others. We see this not by personal comparison – tracking our highs and lows according to societal standards. No, we see this Belovedness when we realize that love is not truly received until it is freely given. When we realize how truly Beloved we are as individuals, we will desire more than anything for others to see their true value in the Father. And in this valuing, we can partake in authentic and beautiful community with our fellow human, knowing that he and she is the very valued child of God.

May you, my reader, nestle a little closer to God’s heart today and realize (perhaps for the first time or perhaps anew) that you are God’s Beloved.