When the heart breaks

Someone I love is going through a crazy difficult time. Several of us have gathered around her to try to show our love and support. Honestly, before this crisis, none of us were all that close. We used to be, and then over the last few years, so many things came in between us. Something about the pain of this situation though, the sheer desperation in her voice, the feeling of survival-mode kicking in has made us all drop our opinions and differences, and just move towards each other in love, support, and compassion.

On Easter, I shared the story of a wise teacher and his student studying the Hebrew scriptures together. They were discussing the passage that says, “put these words upon your hearts.” The student asked the teacher, why does it say to place these words UPON our hearts and not IN our hearts. The wise teacher said, “All we can do is place these words upon our hearts, and there they stay, until one day when the heart breaks, and these words fall in.” 

When our hearts are breaking, everything changes – with ourselves, with God, with each other. When I am in a comfortable place of confidence and pride, it is easy to be a know-it-all, a fixer, a person who vilifies my perceived enemy. It is easy to see “Us versus Them,” and to get on my high horse about how right I am. But when our hearts break – for ourselves, for each other, for the world – all of that tribe-making, division-seeking seems silly. 

Hearing scripture from the brokenness of your heart changes everything. 

It is no longer about mastering information. 

It is no longer about justifying a battle with a perceived enemy.

It is no longer about winning a culture war.

It is no longer about seeking proof. 

It is more like desperation. 

It is more like survival. 

It is more like thirsting for water in a desert. 

Hearing the stories of scripture with a broken heart humanizes everything. 

It is much more about desperately throwing ourselves upon this grace, this mercy, this way of self-sacrificing love. 

It is much more about transformation than just information.

It is much more about receiving mercy, grace, and love than fighting an enemy or proving a point. 

It is much more about spreading love and seeking the common good than seeking a proof text or researching the evidence that demands a verdict. 

So we place these words upon our hearts — because our hearts are often closed — and there these words stay, until one day when the heart breaks and these words fall in. These are words of life, they are words of resurrection life. These are words of self-sacrificing love. These are words of reality. These are words of nondiscriminatory, revolutionary love. This is what faith expressing itself in love looks like. 

This is resurrection. 

When St. John of the Cross talked about the “dark night of the soul,” that’s in part what he was trying to teach us. There are these moments in life of inconsolable despair, of hitting rock bottom, where we must give up our ego’s plan AND where we must give up even our images of God, give up our illusion of being “better than” another, give up the pursuit of holiness, and then, with those stripped away, God appears. 

That’s what happened with Jesus on the cross. His last words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, we know that God had not forsaken him, but Jesus calling out shows us that in that moment of surrender, God became known to Jesus beyond even his own imagination. The God of Resurrection broke through. Jesus’ surrender of his limiting view granted an entirely new inbreaking of the Father’s love. 

So, if your heart is breaking today, may you know the breaking heart of God alongside you, and may you emerge more like Jesus from this pain. 

The Gardener

As we read the gospels, we see that when the early followers encounter the resurrection of Christ they are filled with a new vision and they begin to practice resurrection. They begin to live in a way that does not compute. It is bold and without fear. And the same is still true today. When we meet the risen Christ, we are filled with a new vision to make the world a better place, wage peace in this world with God, and break down dividing walls of hostility.

Mary, when she sees the man in the garden, assumes he is the gardener. Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?” She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Sir, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.” Jesus said, “Mary.” Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!”….Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.

It is so fascinating that Mary mistakes Jesus to be the gardener. On one level, she was obviously wrong, but on another level — as one commentator NT Wright points out — she was right, because Jesus Christ was a gardener, ushering in a new creation in our world.

In the opening pages of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, we read of Adam the first gardener in our world, in the paradise of Eden. But then Paradise was overcome with thorns and thistles and hard ground. On Easter, we meet Christ as the new gardener, who comes into the world to remove the thorns and the thistles, to break up the hard ground, and replace it with trees, with flowers, with the harvest.

See, in a mysterious way, when Christ died on the cross and rose again, he was breaking the power of death and evil and unleashing the greatest life-giving force the universe has ever known. It is the force of revolutionary love. It is a self-sacrificing, non-discriminatory, revolutionary love. 

May we follow this gardener Jesus today.

What do I do with my anxiety?

Growing up I memorized 1 Peter 5:7, which says, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Sounds so simple right? Just throw it on God; let God take your anxiety. 

But let’s be honest, sometimes that wisdom feels like it needs some “feet to the street” as preachers sometimes say. What does that really mean? How do I actually cast my anxiety on God? 

I don’t know about you, but anxiety has been my friend my whole life. It ebbs and flows, but it is a constant companion. 

Over the years I have come to realize that it is not just about getting rid of anxiety. In fact, sometimes when I really resist anxiety and too harshly judge it, not only does it grow stronger in me but I also miss the gift it is trying to give. Anxiety can be a reminder to my mind, body, and soul that there are limits to being human. I, in fact, am not God and cannot do it all. 

So, rather than asking, “What is wrong with me!? Why can I not just deal with this?! Just suck it up, buttercup?!” and going down that spiral of shame and self-condemnation, what if instead we were more gentle with ourselves and simply asked, “what do I do with my anxiety?” What if you created for yourself your very own anxiety toolbox. A box that you open up when you feel anxious or afraid, and inside are your tools for responding to anxiety?

Inside this toolbox you might keep some tools like I do, things like: 

  • Deep breathing – I know everyone says this, but seriously it is the first place for me to start. Every. Single. Time. 
  • Meaningful mantras such as, “I am safe and I belong, right here, right now, with these people, in this place, at this time.” or, “I live in the strong and unshakable kingdom of God, that kingdom is not in trouble and neither am I.” or, “Be still and know that I am God.”
  • The Dwell Bible App: lately this one has been such a gift to me at night! If I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back to sleep, I will put this speaker headband over my ears (so as not to wake up Tim), and sync up to the Dwell Bible app which reads scripture to me. Having the words of scripture read to me has been like a washing over of peace, and it helps me stop ruminating about whatever my mind is ruminating over at 3AM!

What is in your toolbox? These are the practical ways in which you cast all your anxiety upon God, knowing that God cares for you. 

A single qualification

I remember years ago, sitting in a therapist’s office, feeling broken, ashamed, and discouraged when I was asked this question, “Is it ok for Susie to get a C-? Is it ok for you to be a mere mortal like everyone else?” It was the right question at the right time. Oh, the power of the right question, posed in love, from a safe space, at the right time! That question really did shift something in me. It was a turning point inside. Sometimes it is hard to explain or put language to moments like this. It was like repentance. It was like making amends with my own heart and with God. It was like penance. 

There really is just one single qualification for people to experience God. Jesus only calls sinners. Good people are out of luck. Perfect people are out of luck. Posturing, posing people are out of luck. God will not meet us in our false selves. God does not even recognize that self. We do not come to God by doing it right, we come to God by doing it wrong. The only qualification is our sin, our shame, our need. When we bring the truth of who we are to God, there is more than enough mercy, grace, and forgiveness every single time. The only thing standing in the way is usually my willingness to lay down my false self with all its performing and posing and posturing. 

Isaiah was a prophet, and he was granted a magnificent vision of God. Yet Isaiah feels disqualified; he is broken, he does not feel worthy. Then an angel takes a hot coal from a fire and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. After that moment of confession, repentance, and the hot coal of healing, we read this, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Only after Isaiah admits his sin, receives the touch of fire, can he experience this call. 

It has always been this way. God only works through sinners. Jesus only calls sinners. Sin — your sin — is the gateway to God. Shame — your shame — is the front door to mercy and the welcome of the Father. The moment we turn towards God, God runs towards us. 

May we be ever more eager to admit our sin and shame so that we might have more and more of God’s mercy and grace made manifest in our lives. 

Blessed is the one

Blessed is the one

    who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

    or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

    and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

    which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!

    They are like chaff

    that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

— Psalm 1

In this passage, we are struck by the either/or nature of the text. It seems to be saying, blessed are these people, and wicked are these other people. I don’t know about you, but that sort of either/or-ness rubs me wrong. I like to think of myself as a both/and thinker. I like to think that I try to see nuance and try not to get stuck in black and white thinking.

But here is the thing, if we read this text moralistically we would interpret the first 3 verses as talking about the “good people,” and the last 3 verses as talking about the “bad people.” And if we do that, we miss the point of the passage and the point of the gospel altogether.

Jesus came to show there is only one who is good – and that is God. We don’t come to God by doing everything right; that is moralism; that is religion. We come to God by doing things all wrong and then falling upon His mercy, grace, and forgiveness available in Christ Jesus over and over again.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. There is perishing and there is life. These are dichotomies. There is the person who is planted by the spring of water and there is the chaff who gets blown away. But the difference does not have to do with anything we have done – the difference has to do with the grace we have received.

Best Places to Live

I am always drawn to those articles online that announce “Best Places to Live.” I like to click on those links and read those articles. I like to look at the pictures of small towns and big cities and read about why folks think those are great places to live. Every year, the UN asks this question about countries. In 2021 Norway was number 1, Ireland was number 2, and Switzerland was number 3. Every year, Money Magazine also asks the same question about cities and towns in the US. This past year they ranked Chanhassen, Minnesota number 1, Carmel, Indiana number 2, and Franklin, Tennessee number 3. Forbes does a similar assessment, and each group has its own set of criteria for determining the place that wins. 

The ancient wisdom of scripture says the best place to live is in love. You can move to the best place to live according to Forbes, but if you do not live in love there, then you gain nothing. On the flip side, you might be called to live in the slums — the worst place on earth from Money magazine’s point of view — but if you live in the house of love there, you will be rich. 

Love has some enemies. Of course, there is hate — which is an obvious enemy of love — but perhaps more common enemies of love are fear and control. 

Imagine if one day you are driving down Colorado Boulevard (as our children’s church director was!) and you see some people holding signs outside of King Soopers, and you sense God’s spirit whisper to you to go talk with one who seems especially down…but then you think to yourself “what if they don’t want to talk to me, what if they reject me, what if they blow me off?” Do you notice what happened? Fear just became the enemy of love. 

Imagine if you and your partner begin to sense God is leading you to grow your family through adoption, but then you start to realize just how much will be outside of your control. You start to realize that the child you will call your own will have been outside of your care for a certain amount of time before coming home to you; that there will likely be some hurdles in attachment that will need to be addressed and overcome, perhaps over a lifetime. What if you not having control of that journey causes you to back away from God’s call? Control just became the enemy of love. 

May we live in the house of love, no matter where we live today.

The Power of Money

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

— Matthew 6, The Message

When I was in junior high, my mom and I started having what we coined, “special time” each week. Every Thursday night, it would be just my mom and I doing something fun together. It was our “special time.” Usually, that meant going to the mall and walking around. I remember one time we were at the mall, and my mom did something surprising. She bought me a pair of designer jeans! My parents are frugal people and do not spend money flippantly. But on this particular night in the middle of my junior high years, I was really wanting some “Guess” jeans. Yes, my friends, this was the late 80’s. Typically, my mom would say ‘no’ to such an extravagant purchase, or she would tell me to save my money for them. But to my surprise, she splurged and said, “oh, let’s just buy them!” It sticks in my mind because it was out of the norm; a spontaneous act of generosity. 

There was an energy released that night through money.

When we first launched Platt Park Church, I remember we did a year-end Christmas offering. Just after the email went out with the fundraising goal, there was a person in the church who emailed me back immediately and said, “I am sitting at the computer crying as I type this note to you. I feel God is asking me to give this amount to the year-end giving goal.” 

There was an energy released in our church through the gift of money that day. 

I can remember looking longingly at mountain houses, and then having the opportunity to go to a lovely mountain home with another family. My dream was their reality. The picture-perfect house looked like a scene I had studied in Mountain Living magazine. They had what I wanted. Yet ironically, they were unhappy. I watched as they were busy thinking and talking and scheming for something different, better, more. Despite living in what was a dream home to me, there was an unhappiness in them: a tension, discontent, and strife in that house. 

There was an energy released through the money used to buy that home. 

Half of the parables Jesus told are about money. Jesus spoke more about money than almost any other topic except the kingdom of God. Money has power. It has the power to reveal our hearts. This is why Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There are, of course, all the facts and figures of money: what you can afford, where you invest, how much you have or do not have. There is wisdom in considering our patterns of giving, saving, and spending. But, beyond the logistics of the facts and figures, there is another aspect to money. It is the spiritual dimension of money — the animating story you tell about money. The things you believe about money. The desires you have with money. Money has the power to tell you something about what you treasure most. 

For example, when you say, “I will never be able to afford that!” you are speaking from an animating story. Perhaps it is a story of scarcity, or a story of fear, or an assumption that you know what the future holds. “I will never be able to afford that…” speaks to your belief that you know the future is not going to be good for you. Or, when you see some kind of goodness come into someone else’s life, and you say to yourself sarcastically, “Must be nice for them” you are speaking from an animating story. Perhaps it is a story that is more about you than it is about them; more about your heart believing goodness comes to others more than it comes to you, or not noticing how the goodness of God has come to you. Or, when you run the numbers over and over to determine the exact day when you can stop working and retire, you are rehearsing a story. Perhaps it is a story about security, or freedom, or control. 

Sometimes pastors will say, “God doesn’t care about your money, He just cares about your heart.” That is absolutely not true. God cares about your money and God cares about your heart. In fact, the two are linked. Often it is our desires, stories, and beliefs about money that give us the greatest insight into the actual state of our hearts. 

The MLK Dream

“Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t like to rock the boat.

I prefer to smooth things over.

I like to keep the peace, and not ruffle feathers.

I am also a mom.

I am a mom to 2 kids: one is white, and one is a person of color.

I am seeing the world through new eyes.

You might say I’ve had a racialized conversion.

Or maybe I am just a mama bear.

Before adopting, many people told me, “kids don’t see skin color.” My daughter was only 3 when she started talking about skin color; noticing, and commenting. First pointing to my skin and her skin, picking out colors of crayons to draw our family, and commenting on how many more Chinese people were at JFK than at DIA when we traveled. She was 7 when she had a best buddy at school say to her, “I am going to be friends with Ashley (name has been changed) now because she is not Chinese.” I cry just revisiting that memory. She was too young (so, so young!) to be excluded because of her skin color. Yet, she was. I can recall other experiences like this; stories that are hers to tell, not mine; times where I was seeing the world through new eyes – through the eyes of my love for her.

When Covid-19 first started I overheard my kids playing in our backyard with other kids who announced that covid was all China’s fault because they eat bats. Later I was on a Zoom call where I had to mute people I dearly love because of their insistence on “China started it” theories and I didn’t want my Chinese American daughter to hear them blaming the place she was born.

She crawled up into my lap and asked me sheepishly, “am I black?” when she overheard people she loves disdain the Black Lives Matter movement.

She has overheard someone mimic an Asian accent in front of her and her beloved Chinese nanny. She has overhead people talking about “black on black violence” and “the problem with Somali people.”

Of course, nobody intentionally meant to be hurtful, they are good people, but it still hurt.

I have always wanted to think that we do not judge each other based on the color of our skin but on the “content of our character” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught, but my experiences as a mom have shown me there is still so much work to do. So, so, so much work.

Racial justice is a gospel matter. It is near and dear to the heart of God because God loves all people. He cares for the seen and unseen pain of his children. We join with God when we see the image of God in all people and when we care for the places of each other’s pain. Each one is precious in his eyes. It takes all of us to fully image God. Jesus came to tear down the dividing walls of hostility that exist. We participate in the gospel of Jesus when we join God in tearing down dividing walls of hostility and building up His beloved community.

God’s heart for racial justice was clear to me long before my journey as a mom, but my journey as a mom has given me new ears to hear just how far we still have to go. My love for my daughter has given me new eyes to see how far we have to go in seeing God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven when it comes to matters of race and justice. When one of God’s children is hurting, we are all hurting. Jesus teaches us to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, to love my neighbor as myself, to work to build a better world.

I wonder what it would be like if I had the same mama bear instinct and love for each story I hear? I wonder how I would be if I were to love strangers like they were my own child? How might I show up in the world? Would I listen more closely? Would I have deeper empathy instincts? Would I seek first to listen and to understand?

It is hard for some folks to understand what is happening in my heart.

I have rocked the boat.I have not smoothed things over.I have ruffled feathers.

I’ve made mistakes along the way, too. So many mistakes.

How can they understand?

I still wish they would try.

I imagine they wish I would try to listen and understand them better too.

I wish I would listen better. I want to understand.

So, we miss each other again and again.

This is a painful reality. It is an ongoing struggle.

I think I understand (at least in part) that we enter the conversation about race for different reasons.

For some, it is more political.

For me, it is more personal.

For some, it is revisiting a fight that started in the 1960’s.

For me, it is a mama bear instinct.

I’m on a journey. They are on a journey. We are all in process.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

God help us all. God help us all become the beloved community that Dr. King spoke of.

Treasuring Place

Postmoderns like me have been fond of saying that we can worship God anywhere. We like to think of ourselves as spiritual, but not religious. We underline the truth in bold marker that God can be encountered just as much in the mountains surrounded by trees as He can be found in a church building surrounded by stained glass. These values have brought some necessary correction to the notion that you can equate spiritual health with church attendance. I also wonder if sometimes, in not wanting to over-value weekly worship and the place of church in our lives, we inadvertently under-value it. 

Ancient people embraced pilgrimage to holy places as a habit of spiritual formation. I wonder what might happen if we re-embraced this idea of pilgrimage in our lives. 

Every summer we make a pilgrimage of sorts to northern Wisconsin. Tim has been vacationing “up north” his entire life and I have been tagging along for all 20+ years of our marriage now. The trek up north comes with the same rituals that grow in meaning for the sheer number of times we have repeated them. Our pilgrimage up north always includes campfires, s’mores, swimming star gazing, and supper clubs. It’s inevitable that at some point we start talking about the Grade family history, we always seem to rehearse the roots while up north.  That place has become important to us. It is one of those “thin places” as Celtic Christianity says, where the barrier between heaven and earth somehow seems thinner than in everyday life. The journey of going there each summer is like a family pilgrimage spanning generations now. When Tim and I were first married I didn’t really appreciate it. I was like a snooty city girl, kind of wrinkling up my nose at the humidity and mosquitoes and lack of amenities. But over time that place has shaped me and I treasure it now. 

Imagine if you woke up on Sunday morning and thought of your drive to the place called church like a weekly pilgrimage. Do you know what a pilgrimage is? “Pilgrimage is journey to places where divine human encounter has taken place.” It is a journey to a place where the holiness of God has touched human beings. It is a journey to a place where people have had an encounter with God and have responded to the voice of the Lord wholeheartedly. We make pilgrimage to places to remember God and how God interacted with humans there. Of course, we do not elevate any place to the level of an idol; we do not worship the place. We worship God in the place. In certain places, we remember how God has encountered us and others there. Of course, we know God can meet us anywhere, but he chooses to meet us in places and those places become meaningful markers in our lives. 

In his book A Christian Theology of Place, John Inge says,“Pilgrimage is journey to places where divine human encounter has taken place. It is journey to places where holiness has been apparent in the lives of Christian men and women who have been inspired by such an encounter and have responded to it wholeheartedly in their lives: it is travel to the dwelling places of the saints.”

That is what we do when we come to a sanctuary each week. We make a pilgrimage to a dwelling place of the saints. What a treasure!

Mental Health & Weekly Worship

Not long ago, Gallup Research Group did a study revealing mental health for Americans has reached an all-time low; the lowest it has been in more than two decades. 

Across the board, people reported doing worse than the year prior with a 9-point drop overall. Everyone reported doing worse….except for one group. 

The ONLY group that reported doing better? 

People who attend worship services weekly. 
Let that sink in for just a moment… 

Men say they are doing worse.

Women say they are doing worse.

Republicans say their mental health is down.

Democrats say the same thing.

Marital status….various age groups….various income brackets…all down.

But those who attend a weekly worship service were up +4 points from the year prior. 

I wonder if that is due to the nature of community in the body of Christ. We can sing from home, and that is good, but at church we sing together. We can pray at home, and that is good, but at church we pray together. We can worship God anywhere, and that is good, but at church we worship God together

If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it is that church is not just about hearing a sermon.  Honestly, we can do that anytime from anywhere: while driving, walking, eating, or while making pancakes in our PJ’s. (And it’s more time-efficient.)

Over the last 18 months, we have all become pretty good at taking in content online. That is not the same as community. Community is different. No matter how many Zoom meetings, podcasts, live streams, or FaceTimes we do, it is not the same as gathering together.  Gathering is good. Worship is good. And interestingly enough, it is good for your mental health too!

We are certainly still in a pandemic and so we are both gathered and scattered in worship, but we are here and when you’re ready, we always love seeing your face. 

[Read more about this here.]