Tiny Dart Frog

Poison Dart Frogs are some of the tiniest and beautiful creatures on the planet; they are also incrediably deadly. So, why call this blog "Tiny Dart Frog"? It goes back to the old adage - good things come in small packages. We are all created exactly as God has intended - unique, strong, and beautiful.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

God is Good

About a week before Lent began I sat in my therapist's office* and said, "I think I am having a spiritual crisis.  God feels so far away."

I proceeded to tell her that the problem was, "Nothing is wrong.  Everything is just...ok.  It's just my faith life..."

We have an interesting relationship when it comes to spirituality.  She responded, "You know this isn't my area of expertise - it's yours.  But maybe the fact that you can even talk about there being a crisis and having hope that it will get better is a manner of 'faith' itself."

She's Jewish....but what a Lutheran response.  Faith is a gift.

The reason I tell you all this is because a week ago, I sat in her office again and wept.  Downright wept over the beauty of worship and over the closeness of God.

I wept for myself and my church.  I wept for the pain and beauty of faith.  I wept for the ways I let Jesus down and perseverance.  I wept for darkness and light.

By now you  may be wondering what happened?

We built carpets.

Let me explain.  

In Guatemala there's a tradition of crafting carpets ['alfombra' is the spanish word used to describe these] from the villages to the main city of Antigua during Lent.  Residents of the villages, families, churches all gather together and lay carpets down on the streets.  The carpets are made specifically to be walked on by processional parades carrying Jesus, Mary, and the cross.  

Now before you get the image in your mind of  them 'rolling out the red carpet,' let me explain that they make these carpets out colored sawdust, and flowers, and vegetables.  Every piece of the carpet is made from some type of organic product.

We gathered flowers which were donate to us by Trader Joe's, someone dyed 40 lbs of sawdust, and we made stencils and frames, and we got down on our knees a made a path for Christ to walk.
Images and designs covered our sanctuary floor.
The beauty of the whole things was overwhelming to me.

I felt as if Jesus would've been honored to walk on the carpets.
I felt as if my hands had been in the exact place where Jesus' feet were to walk.
And I hadn't felt that close to God in a very long time.

And so I wept.
In some ways I didn't want worship to end on Palm Sunday.  I wanted to stay in that place for a very long time.

Now, here's the thing....I started off by saying I felt so far away from God, yet everything was ok.  It was.  There was nothing wrong.  And that was the problem.

I've had these brushes with the Divine before - these moments where I felt so intimately connected with God that nothing could shake my faith.  But, many - maybe all - of my powerful encounters had been during tragic and painful times in my life.

In some ways, I clung so tightly to the idea that God is near to the broken-hearted that I had begun to only see God in pain.

Palm Sunday was just so 'good'.  That's what I kept saying over and over to anyone that would listen - "It was so good."  It was so good to know God in life.

It is distinctly possible, at the age of 38, that this Lent I may have had my first truly deep spiritual encounter with God through something that did not involve pain.  I think that's why I wept.  I think it's why when I start talking about it now, Easter came for me a week early this year.

God is good....not just good, but of goodness.  I think I had forgotten that part someplace along the way. Maybe we sometimes cling to heartache to feel closer to God...or maybe I'm the only who's ever done this, although I doubt it.

God was raised, for me, not from the grave, but from life.  And as theologically heretical as it sounds...I think that it's as true as being raised from the dead.

And I am reminded as I write this that the promise of God is, "It is very good."

*Yes, I see a therapist almost every week.  And I hardly ever talk about it, but I do here today, because for anyone who's ever been ashamed or afraid to find someone to talk to, I want you to know that it's the best thing I ever did for myself and it has been part of the way that Jesus has resurrected me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

If Heaven wasn't so far away

For five Sundays in Lent my congregation and I explored Heaven and Hell... and most of what I focused on was the fact that Heaven is often much closer than we realize.

Our topics focused on these truths:
~Being 'good enough' is not what Heaven is about...because none of us can ever possibly be good enough.
~Heaven and Hell are often found in shared experiences.
~God's judgment is merciful, despite the fact it is hard for us to be merciful.
~Jesus takes up residence in us, which makes us all little rooms of heaven here on earth.
~God's home is made among humans - not separate from humans..not in some far off place.

About three weeks into this series I heard a song on the radio called, "If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away," by Justin Moore.

"You've got to be kidding me, " I said to Carter (my 13 1/2 year old son).
"What?" he asks.
"This song...I've just spent weeks telling people this isn't true.  He's got a way better fan base than I do, " I respond.
"Yeah, too bad," he says...with very little sympathy for me.
"I'm going to write a letter to him and tell him this is just not helpful and it isn't even what Heaven is all about," I say back to him with a lot of 'grrr...' in my voice.
"I'm sure that will work, Mom.  He's making money; you're a pastor," he says with a fair amount of sarcasm.
"Well, I still may do it just because..., " I say.

At this point he sort-of looks at me like I've lost my mind, although he's 13, he always looks at me like I've lost my mind or he's embarrassed I'm still breathing.

So, I wrote a letter, but I can't quite figure out how to contact him via his website, so...this will probably do the trick.  Below is my letter - not because I think it will change anything, but because words do matter.  What we say influences how we think and I believe that in the discussion of our faith rests something very, very divine and lovely and for that, I am willing to write letters, talk to strangers, and go places I never dreamed I'd go.

I couldn't have rested or felt as if I was being faithful had I not written this letter.  And - I should also say - I love country music and I think the song has a lovely tune, I just think it is theologically insufficient.  Give it a listen and give my letter a read and hold them in tension...they are both dim truths and incomplete pictures.

"Dear Justin,
I am writing regarding your latest single "If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away".  It pulls at my heartstrings and I think the harmonies are enticing, however I felt compelled to write to you regarding the lyrics.

I am a Lutheran pastor who has just completed a sermon series on Heaven and Hell.  This sermon series was implemented because so many feel as if heaven is some far off place, which cannot be experienced today.  Additionally, many of us believe Heaven is just a place to get to someday in the future.  This, from a Biblical perspective, is not true.  Heaven, as Jesus teaches, is about all that is good and lovely and right coming to live here on earth.

So, for example, in your song, you sing about taking kids to see their grandpa if only heaven weren't so far away.  The idea behind this seems to be that the only way the kids could 'know' grandpa is to physically be present with him.  This, in my opinion, is not true.  Children and adults know many things through love and story, pictures and memory.

It is true that the song recalls memory and all those good times, but the recurring refrain of, "If heaven wasn't so far away," diminishes the power of lingering memory and that love continues in the here and now, even after death.

While I know this isn't possible, if I were to re-title your song, I would call it something like, "Heaven isn't so far away" or "Heaven lives in a Fruit Stand."  Because Heaven is always as near as our heartbeat.

A man named Jesus hung on a cross with two criminals and at one point one says to Jesus, "Forgive them [those who are crucifying Jesus] for they know not what they do."  And Jesus says, "You'll be with me in paradise.

Heaven is the 'with me' part...not the dead part.  That's what I so much want people to hear.  Heaven is not far away, because Jesus is not far away.

As I close, I want to also thank you for singing and writing about good, close, loving relationships.  That is important in a world where we often hear about fractured relationships.

Christine Stephan