Archive for March, 2008

There’s a lot of talk out there about baggage.  Not the kind that you pack to take a trip to Bermuda or even to spend the night at Grandma’s.  Real baggage.  The kind that someone – most of the time, a lot of someones – pack for you.   It’s heavy and awkward.  It’s what makes us the weary and heavy-laden Christ beckons come.

The problem with baggage language is that too much focus gets left on the baggage itself.  The suitcase doesn’t deserve the attention.  The attention belongs to what got packed, the trip you’re taking it on and what you’re going to do with it all when you get there.

I used to think of all the stuff in my baggage as dirty or stupid or irrelevant or a liability.  In general, it was all crap, so I kept it metaphorically in a dark, dingy, duct tape-clad, well-locked 20-year old American Tourist suitcase someone dug out of a dumpster.  I managed to keep it hidden under the bed and simultaneously make it the elephant in the room.

But then one day I got the gumption to open that suitcase up and wade through all the things packed inside.  I found the things I was most afraid of – stained sheets, torn clothes, a brown leather belt.  And there were things I wasn’t sure of – a prom dress, some sheet music, an apron, a tie.  Then, once I had it all laid out, I realized there were things in there that I loved – gym shorts, blue jeans, a swim suit, a book.

Mostly other people had packed that suitcase for me, handed it to me, said it was mine to carry.  So I carried it as a burden.  With it fully unpacked, I could for the first time see that it wasn’t all crap.  Even the dirty, torn-up and bloody stuff wasn’t total crap.  And because it wasn’t all crap as I’d led myself to believe, it couldn’t/didn’t need to stay jammed into a suit case under the bed.  Or be left out in the open for others to uncomfortably ooh and aah over.

The suit case was emptied and now the things had to be put away.  Some things were left out, they were more than worth wearing.  Others were hung towards the back of the closet, within reach but safely, respectfully tucked away for the right occasion.   And yes, some things did go back in the suitcase because that’s simply where they belong.  But this time, I threw the American Tourist back into the dumpster it came from and put all of my precious suitcase-worthy belongings into the glamorous Prada they belong in.

Suitcases aren’t for hiding things.  They are for carrying the things we love from place to place, protecting them and keeping them safe.  They are for our precious things, the things others may have told us to be ashamed of, things that they shoved into the big ugly American Tourist with all it’s duck tape glory.  They are for our pearls, the things we will not cast before swine, the things that make us beautiful.

For the things we shall carry with style and grace.  They are the things I pack in Prada.


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I will never be a very good Protestant. Or maybe the better way to put it is that I’ll always be a little bit Catholic. Namely in the way of sacraments. Especially in the way of communion.

After my first Protestant communion experience, I watched in horror as college kids tossed the bread around the sanctuary and then made plans to go home and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of it. Since then, I’ve had a few positive communion experiences, but I’ve also had to bear witness to Protestants holding hands, text messaging and talking while they waited to receive communion.

Anyway, Protestant communion has left a very bad taste in my mouth and even though I am preparing to be an ordained Protestant minister, I avoid non-Catholic communion whenever possible. This avoidance includes the weekly communion service at my seminary every Friday.

Today I was finally able to tangibly show people why I am so uncomfortable with/annoyed by the way so many Protestants handle the Lord’s Supper.

After chapel everyone gathers for coffee, bagels and other snackish things for purchase. Much to my horror, a shallow dish containing the left over communion was sitting on the same table as the bagels, coffee and cream cheese. Seriously, the pieces of unleavened bread could have been Doritos.

Come on people. Would you use Doritos to serve communion? Well, then what on earth makes you think it is appropriate to treat the communion as if it were Doritos?

I know that the Roman Catholic church has a much different sacramental theology than any Protestant denomination. As does the Orthodox church. And there are even lots of differences in the Protestant world. But in what I believe to be both legitimate Reformed and Catholic theology, the sacraments are an outward sign of inward grace, a means of experiencing God’s graces and a mark of the covenant God has drawn us into. Whether the bread and wine become literally Christ’s body and blood is a mystery I feel no need to analyze, agree or disagree with. The whole point, transubstantiation aside, is that the elements bear God’s grace, grace given to us to satisfy and sanctify. And God’s grace is not snack food, bird food or any other kind of food.

Even if I were to follow a more Baptist route and say that the sacraments are meant to convey our faith in God and to remember what Christ has done , I think I would still say that communion is a special, sacred thing. They may not carry grace, but that hardly suggests the elements should be treated the way you would treat anything you make breakfast out of or that is flavored with nacho cheese.

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Lamentations 2:1-9

Sometimes things fall a part. Sometimes the rug gets yanked out from under us. It takes us by surprise, or maybe we see it coming. A father walks away. Radiation doesn’t work. The vodka’s burn is too good. The ice is black. A baby is conceived but her parents never get to hear her cry.

Life happens. It happens to us and as those called into ministry, we are keenly aware of life happening to those around us. But with that awareness come the burdens of sympathy and suffering. How do we empower others to carry their pain? What do we do with the weight of our hearts in the face of another’s suffering?

The most unfortunate turn is taken when the weight in our own hearts either leads us to flee the scene of disaster or it compels us to tidy everything and everyone up as quickly as possible. I don’t know for certain, but my bet is that the second path is the more destructive of the two.

We meet the daughter whose dad left or the mother who’s dying even after cancer took everything that made her a woman. We stare into a pair of blood shot eyes or look awkwardly at floor beneath a man’s newly acquired wheel chair. We search desperately for something better to say than there are angels rocking her in heaven. We meet these people. We are these people.

Together, we arrive at a place where the flame has gone out. It doesn’t matter if it was extinguished by a mighty wind, a drop of water or the gentle breath of a grandmother. What matters is that where we are, the flame is gone.

It is easy to overlook the emotional and spiritual plight of the Israelites when you have insight into their culture, know the stories of their disobedience and the warnings they had. We know that it was Babylon that destroyed Jerusalem. We know the people were told it was going to happen.

But none of that matters. We are listening to the cries of people who feel as if God has torn apart their lives. We are hearing the account of people, once attended to by prophets, now experiencing the deafening absence of God’s voice. The flame was gone. For them, in that moment, that’s all that mattered.

When we arrive in a space where the flame is out, it doesn’t much matter why or how we ourselves or another soul got there. What matters is the flame is gone, God’s voice cannot be heard and it is time to cry out and grieve and lament. Yes, it is important to process and reflect, but those and all other methods of understanding are meant to help one grieve well, not get the grieving over with faster.

Despite what we might think, we are not menders of broken hearts, the solvers of life’s great problems or the healers of really anything that ails. God’s given us all our own unique MacGyver like spiritual skills to contribute to the profound and powerful Trinitarian mission taking place in each of those areas, but God has not called us or equipped us to successfully complete those missions on our own.

If we choose to live into that reality, we will find real relief. It’s not that we can’t mend, solve or heal. We don’t have to. We were made, saved and called by a God who is big enough to handle the accusatory cries of his children in Jerusalem a few thousand years ago and God is big enough to handle the anger, accusations, fear, humiliation and hopelessness that flow from grief stricken hearts today. He doesn’t need us to do it for him.

When it comes to grieving, God does not operate in the ways some of us may have experience grief and loss in our families. Our God will not say, let me give you something to cry about. Our God will not call the teacher or coach or our friend’s parents to try fix our problems for us. Our God will not stay in the bedroom so you can’t see her crying. Our God is big enough, whole enough to handle whatever it is anyone is feeling when they find themselves in a place where the flame has gone out.

God is big enough. God keeps us safe. God will not let the grief destroy anyone. The grief is safe. It doesn’t have to be avoided, or explained away, hurried through or fixed. Instead, it needs to be fostered, tended to, waited on.

My friend lost her fiancé to cancer. As part of his religious tradition, it is the role of the wife to throw the first shovel of dirt on to the casket. When the pastor or whoever it was handed her that shovel, she thrust it into the dirt and tossed a pile down into the hole. Then she did it again. And a third and fourth time. No one said anything. No one did anything. We just stood there, some of us staring at her, others awkwardly at the sky or ground. All of us crying. And she was shoveling. She was grieving. We were all grieving.

This piece of my precious friend’s story has a lot to say about grieving and grieving well. She was grieving, not thinking. She did what in that moment seemed natural. The rest of us, well, we recognized just how foolish, inappropriate and even mean it would have been to take that shovel away. We realized that what we were watching wasn’t something that needed to be fixed, stopped, rushed or dealt with. We realized that this grief had gathered us together to witness something beautiful. And even though this pain was tangled up in our guts and pouring from our eyes and noses, we realized the pain was safe. It would not swallow any of us whole.

My prayer for everyone here today is that we’d come closer to knowing pain won’t swallow us whole. That we can arrive in a space where the flame has gone out, willing to wait and watch instead of analyze or fix. And that we would arrive there convinced that God’s dependability is not subject to the presence of a flame.

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Baseline Killer

Or…Why I Love My Sister.  Or…Top 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Try a New Route at 2a.m.  Or…My Last Name is McAlpine, not Magellan.  Or…

This post could have at least 43 different titles.  But the title doesn’t matter.  The bottom line is that I have officially perfected my ability to get lost in Michigan.  The moral of the story is that I need to learn to stop and turn around as opposed to pressing on with what I consider to be an alternative route.

It was after 1a.m. when I finally got back to my car after flying into Kalamazoo Monday night/Tuesday morning.  Rather than heading north out of town, I accidentally went west.  I knew I was okay, knew what highway I needed to get off on, so I kept going.

Well, I missed the exit, but while driving 80mph down the interstate, looking at a map with the dome light on, I found another route only an exit away.  According to the map, there was a county blacktop that would head straight north right into Holland.  I was golden.

The county blacktop turned out to be a series of stops and turns and even a short stretch of gravel.  That might have frustrated some, but not me.  I pressed on.  Until I had to turn on to Baseline Rd.   You see, Arizona recently imprisoned the Baseline Killer – a serial killer who terrorized women on Baseline Rd. in the Phoenix area.  Sure, I was in Michigan.  And sure, the killer is in jail.  But still!!!!!

The moment I saw the sign, I said aloud, “Baseline.  Great.  This cannot be good.”

I was right.  It wasn’t.  Two miles later, I missed the next turn I needed to take.  I was attempting to turn around on what appeared to be a broad, slightly snow-covered shoulder when my car managed to get stuck on the only patch of ice around.  There I was in the middle of nowhere Michigan, trapped in what wasn’t even a ditch.  It was now 2a.m. and beyond being on Baseline Rd., I had no idea where I was.

I sat in my car and freaked about for 5 minutes or so.  Then I started calling people.  I was going to have to get out of the car and try to figure out where the hell I was and I wanted to make sure someone out there knew what was going on so that when the Baseline Killer came and got me, the cops would know where to start looking.

I finally got my sister on the phone and she guided me through the long walk from my car to the opposite ditch to read the road sign.  I had to hold my cell phone up to the sign in order to read it b/c it was so dark.  My sister used Google maps to pinpoint my exact location and then I called AAA.

The AAA lady couldn’t get someone to help me so she told me she’d hang up and keep trying; if that didn’t work, then I’d have to call 911.  Yeah, no kidding, call 911.  911 wasn’t going to do much good when the Baseline Killer comes.

So I called my sister back and waited and waited and waited.  She continued to Google and find me directions to get home once I was unstuck.  The tow man came around 3:45.  I got home around 4:30 and played Webkinz for 2 hours because I was too hyped up from my time in the ditch.

Anyway…I am now taking donations for an electronic navigational system.  Or a new car with On Star.

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