Lion and the prodigal

"Does that mean," asked Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"

"Not at all," smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

William Paul Young, The Shack

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, photo: Andy Bruner

Canyonlands National Park, Utah, photo: Andy Bruner

This weekend we watched the movie, Lion, on Amazon.

Lion is the based-on-real-life story of a little boy in India who's part of a loving family, gets lost, and can't find his way home.  He ends up on the streets, then in an orphanage, and finally is adopted by a couple in Australia.

As a young adult, he begins to search for his birth family, and with the help of Google Earth (God works in mysterious ways), finds his way home to his mother, still living in the same neighborhood he was lost from years before.

I was so grateful that I waited to watch this on Amazon rather than in theaters. I would not have been adequately prepared to deal with my catastrophic weeping in public.  It was a three-box-of-tissue event.

The young man in the story, when he finds his way home, is the same age as my sons.  My level of adoration for my children is a well-documented fact of life, and as I watched Lion, I was overwhelmed by the thought of losing a child.

And then the joy of finding that child again?

It was just too much to hold inside.

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

This story, though, the story of the lost son who gets found?  

It's been around for thousands of years.  Jesus told this story, and we call it The Prodigal Son.  We've read it, we've heard it.  But I think maybe we stop hearing it after a while.

It seems, I don't know, ordinary, that the Father leaps up and runs to his child.

Somehow Lion made it all so real to me again: the desperate sorrow of a child who's lost, the long search, and the infinite joy of home-coming.

I've been thinking about shame a lot lately, and how shame keeps us from true home-coming, from true healing, from the true abundant life we're meant to have.

In Jesus' story, the prodigal accepts the robe and the shoes and the ring and the party.  

How many of us, instead, refuse the Father's generosity?  

How many of us Yes-BUT the Love of God?

Yes, God loves me, BUT.

There's this sin I have to shake off before I'm really welcome at home.

Yes, God loves me, BUT.

If I don't keep doing everything just right, I've lost fellowship.

In the end, we make our BUT bigger than the Love of God. 

Our own unwillingness to release our shame horribly misjudges Love.

We are so consumed by our shame that we'll live, hungry and cold, in a ditch rather than enter the warmth and welcome of Home.

Maye we've heard the story so often that it doesn't seem possible, doesn't seem real, that Love could really embrace us just as we are.

Maybe we need to look again, and see what human love has to say about God's Love.

Imperfect though we are, we can't imagine turning away a lost child, for any reason.

And if we, in our imperfect love, know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we would go down any road to find our child, how much more would God do for us? (Luke 11:13)

I think we know the answer.

I think we know the truth.

Living in that truth requires that we release our shame and trust in Love instead.

We're not perfect, and Love never lets us go.  

It's as simple, and as complex, as that.

We stop making ourselves and our sin into the most important thing that ever was.

We accept that Love is the whole story: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

No more "yes-BUT."

Just YES.

Just YES, and welcome Home.

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Love is the center

I grew up in a bounded-set religious tradition: 

"A bounded set is where we create a boundary, a theological border, a doctrinal fence, and separate those who are inside the fence from those who are out. It is an “us” versus “them” mentality where everyone on the inside is accepted, loved, and welcomed, while those outside the fence are kept away until they can change their beliefs and behaviors to fit the entry requirements."  (Source)

The essence of my faith-shift has been toward a centered-set orientation:

"In a centered set, there are no boundaries. There are no walls. There is no fence. There is no dividing line between 'us' and 'them,' no rules or guidelines to determine who is 'in' and who is 'out.' Everyone is loved, welcomed, and accepted, no matter what. Everyone automatically 'belongs.'

"But how is this different than just a random mass of people randomly milling around? Because of what is at the center. A centered set has no boundaries to keep people out, but it does have something compelling at the center which pulls people in. There are no gatekeepers turning people away, for everyone is on equal footing, being pulled toward the center."  (Source)

God is Love: that is the Center.

Labyrinth Center, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe NM

Labyrinth Center, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe NM

There's a story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer.  When a student complained that her mind wandered 10,000 times in a 20-minute prayer session, Father Keating said, "How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!" (Source)

The idea of endless welcome, of truly unconditional love, makes people nervous about "cheap grace" and "loving too much."  Just a few days ago, I heard that when someone's done wrong, they need to have a "sufficiently painful" experience so that they won't do it again.

But the thing I've found in my own life is that the welcome of Love is so powerful, so transformative, so unlike anything experienced anywhere else, that when you've had that experience of dropping the shame and receiving the Love, it sparks a magnetic attraction to the Center which allows you keep re-centering, re-aligning, re-turning.

Ten thousand times, turning back to Love.

I remember writing in my journal years and years ago, when we first moved overseas, that all the things that felt safe to lean on were falling away.  

I was terrified.  Literally having nightmares, the fear was so severe.

I realized, and wrote in my journal at the time, that the things I leaned on were the bars of a cage, and I was being set free.

Even though I understood that I was being set free, I still loved the fence.  And watching it fall was terrifying.

If I'd known at the time how free indeed I was going to be, it would have scared me even more.  I probably would have sat inside the ruins of that cage, trying to rebuild it.

Fortunately, the journey is one step at a time, each step at the right time.  

We are always exactly where we're supposed to be, and Love is always with us.

Long ago, I thought the whole thing was about the fence, being safe inside the right fence, and making sure everybody else I cared about was safe inside the right fence, too.

Instead, it turns out, the whole thing is about being invited on a great adventure that unfolds before each of us individually, always turned toward True North, the Center, the Love that is set like eternity in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

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shift happens: a booklist

We've been faith-shifting at our house for a while now.  Three years, give or take.  

From the first scary days of wondering what we were possibly thinking, to the peaceful, grateful present it's been quite a ride.

A year ago at this time, I was having panic attacks in church parking lots, and last week I went to a contemplative prayer service on a Wednesday night.  

Seriously, who is this girl?!

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

I talk to quite a few people these days who are faith-shifting in one way or another, and it's always interesting to hear how it happens.

Many times, there's some kind of painful or difficult event that sets off an eruption of questions that challenge the status quo: the death of a loved one, being the victim of abuse, walking with a friend who's suffering, living in the United States in its current political and religious climate.

The way we process the faith-shift itself varies from person to person.  

I'm a big-picture person, completely satisfied with the bumper-sticker theology I came up with three years ago:

If it's mean and stupid, it ain't Jesus.

To make it sound more legit, let's call it a matter of Occam's Razor, a problem-solving tool used in philosophy: "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."  (Source)

I can carve "not mean, not stupid" even closer, down to one word: LOVE.

Love, and everything else falls into place.

I think I have good Biblical support for slicing it this way: "Love the Lord your God, Love your neighbor as yourself; the whole Law and all the prophets hang from this one golden thread."  (Jesus, in Matthew 22:40)

Andy, on the other hand, requires more information.  And so we've learned that there are many, many smart people exploring many, many questions and coming up with many, many interesting answers.  (They all show that if it's mean and stupid it ain't Jesus, but in more smarter ways than I can tell you.)

If you're having questions about the faith you grew up in, here's an Andy-approved booklist to help answer some of the FAQ's we hear.

What in the world is happening to me, and when will I stop freaking out?

How can I read the Bible without losing my mind?

Can I still love Jesus?

Why is the church acting so crazy right now?

What about hell?

  • Hellbound (documentary film)
  • Love Wins, Rob Bell
  • Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, Brad Jerszak
  • Guess what?  It's not what all those scary tracts said.  In fact, anybody who tries to scare you into believing is probably selling something besides the peace that passes understanding.

Can science have anything to do with God?

What about the LGBTQ question?

  • Torn, Justin Lee
  • Unfair, John Shore
  • Perfect love casts out fear. 

Remember:

If angels and demons can't separate us from the love of God (Romans 8), then some questions about faith systems are highly unlikely to have that power, either.

One of the things I hear most often is the intense fear that faith-shifters experience.  It's so common that I've started to realize the fear itself is often part of the old religious system:

  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of hell
  • Fear of God's wrath
  • Fear of abandonment, isolation, excommunication from families and faith communities

Why do religious systems employ fear?

One simple reason:

Fear is the easiest way to control human beings.  

When fear kicks in and the amygdala revs up, the upstairs "thinking brain" goes completely offline, and we're susceptible to the people who will tell us how to control our fear.

While fear generally does its job of keeping us inside religious fences, it also makes us extremely vulnerable to mistreating others in perceived fits of self-defense.  I think this is a terrible consequence that religious fear-mongers routinely rationalize away.  As long as their salaries get paid, they're willing to let immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community suffer.

I'm a person who doesn't like to say "the Bible clearly says"--but when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, and even loving our enemies...well, it's hard for me to read those words any other way.  

If our religious experiences are making us so afraid that we can't Love, if our religious leaders are telling us we must fear and exclude others, I think we have enormous, systemic religious problems, and huge questions that MUST be adequately addressed.  (See booklist!)

In order to get back into using the whole brain, in order to jettison fear and open up space for Love (and actual thinking so we can answer these vital questions):  BREATHE.  

I mean this literally.

BREATHE.

Three minutes of good, mindful breathing is enough to produce positive brain changes, so put on your favorite calming song, close your eyes, and do deep belly-breaths or alternate nostril breathing all the way through.

If you need a mantra to help you, here are some good ones:

There is no fear in Love. I John 4:18

Perfect Love casts out fear.  I John 4:18

God has not given us a spirit of fear.  2 Timothy 1:7

Power, Love, and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7

Nothing separates us from the Love of God.  Romans 8:38

God is Love.  I John 4:8

God is present everywhere, big enough to contain all our journeys.

Don't be afraid.

Explore.

Love.

Receive Love.

Give Love.

Be filled.

Be emptied.

Be filled again, and again, and again.

There is more than enough for us all.

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflowers, photo: Andy Bruner

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i am successful. Anne Lamott says so. (notes on self-publishing)

The other night, I happened onto Facebook while Anne Lamott was doing a live session, following her brand-new TED Talk.  

If you click on the link to her TED Talk, you'll notice one thing right away: this is how desperate TED was to get Anne Lamott: they let her have a lectern.  

Nobody gets a lectern at TED.  Brene Brown does not get a lectern at TED.  Glennon Doyle Melton does not get a lectern at TED.  Anne Lamott got a lectern at TED. 

I make note of this now, because I want you to realize how important Anne Lamott is.  This will become critical quite soon.

So I'm watching this Live session, and the second or third question, as always these days, is about self-publishing.  Anne says what she always says: that if she were starting out today, she'd probably self-publish.

Then she went on to say something that blew my mind.  (She always reminds us that no amount of books sold will ever fill our souls or make us well and whole, which is something we need to hear over and over and over. Also, she says all authors now have to work on pot farms to make ends meet.  Not true for me, but tempting some days.)

She was talking about how tough it is to sell books, and how we fall into the trap of thinking that if you didn't make the New York Times Bestseller List with a million copies sold, it's just more confirmation that you're not much of a human being.  

Here's what she said:

"If you did GREAT--if you sold like 15,000 copies--it's like, oh well, better luck next time.  Well, 15,000 COPIES OF ANYTHING IS AMAZING."

Guess how many copies of As Soon As I Fell are circulating out in the world?

10,000.

Okay.

Perhaps we haven't hit the "amazing" threshhold just yet.

But SUCCESSFUL, you guys.

SUCCESSFUL.

REALLY SUCCESSFUL.

By Anne Lamott's standards.

Lectern and all.

The average self-publish sells 150 copies, because there are literally millions of books out there and selling lots of books is tough.  

Cat memes are easy.  Books are hard.  

I remember my friend Katrina, my long-suffering editor, asking what my goal number was.  I said, "Well, if it ever sold 1,000 copies that would be awesome."

So I've looked at the numbers and said, "WOW" lots of times.

But until I heard Anne Lamott say, "15,000 is amazing," I didn't quite understand that I've been pretty successful.

I'm a successful writer, y'all.

MIND BLOWN.

Lately I've had a few questions about self-publishing.  Since the lady with the lectern made me feel successful, I think it's okay to say what I know.  (If you have more questions, the comment section is your friend.  I'm happy to chat with you there.)

I need to preface all of this by saying that every good thing in my life has happened by accident.  It's a bumble.  I don't sit down and prepare a business plan and then execute it perfectly.  That's not how things go around here, AT ALL.

I started this blog during my counseling internship, in a fit of frustration, when I couldn't find enough counseling work to keep myself busy.  I'd spent all this time and money on my master's degree, and I felt like I could probably help people, only I couldn't find a place to do that.  So I started blogging.

Pretty soon, the blog drifted away from information and advice (which bores the heck out of me) into personal processing.  I made a few forays into story-telling, got good responses from that, and decided it was finally time to take the bits and pieces I'd had floating around for 20 years, and get my story into a book.

Voila.

I'm now going to give some advice, which I find boring, but people ask these questions. So for anyone who's thinking about dipping their toes into the self-publishing world, here you go.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE PREP WORK.

  • Be an English major. (First time any of us ever heard those words, huh?)
  • Read Anne Lamott's wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.
  • Read it over again.
  • And again.
  • Read a ton of great books in the genre you want to write in.  
  • Start a blog and write regularly.
  • Join a writers' group in your community.  Invite them to critique your work.  Make edits.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE WRITING PROCESS.

  • Anne tells you to write a ton of shitty first drafts.  Do it.
  • Anne tells you to put your butt in the chair and write.  Do it.  
    • I saw clients two days a week and wrote three days a week when I was in the process of putting As Soon As I Fell on paper.  I went to Target for school supplies in August 2013 and didn't go to Target again until it was time for stocking stuffers in December.  I wrote and revised that entire school year, until the kids got out for the summer of 2014.  Andy did all the production work over the summer, and we launched in September 2014.
  • Get a good editor.  
  • Listen to your editor.  
  • Make revisions as your editor tells you.
  • Make more revisions.
  • Make more revisions.
  • Make more revisions.  (At this point you'll hate your life. Sorry. Part of process.)
  • Let your writers' group read it, and take their comments under advisement.

DON'T SKIMP ON THE PRODUCTION PROCESS.

  • Hire someone to create a wonderful cover.  Call us shallow, but this is who we are: we judge books by covers, and a bad cover will kill your good book.
  • Get help on the formatting.  If you use Amazon and Create Space, there are services available.  Order one paperback copy of your book and check to see that everything turned out okay.  Make changes as needed.

GET HELP WITH PUBLICITY

  • Don't listen to any of my advice on publicity.  My advice sucks.  People say "build a platform;" I say, "I need a nap."  Twitter parties, thunderclaps, it's all way too overwhelming to me.  (This is why publishing houses exist and self-published books sell an average of 150 copies.) There are lots of great blogs by people who've built amazing platforms, like Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey.  I think they're probably incredibly helpful for those who don't get panic attacks while reading them (I'm yoga breathing right now).  Google and enjoy.

HOW DID WE GET TO 10,000 COPIES WITH SUCKY PUBLICITY?

I'm not sure.  When in doubt, sing a Disney song.

These things might have helped, though:

  • We gave a bunch of books away before the launch and asked people for an Amazon review.
  • We got connected with the target audience.
    • Once the book was out and people were liking it, I got connected with the initial target audience (missionaries) through two blogs, Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas.  Both these blogs were built by teams who probably listened to Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey.  God bless them.  I used to feel a little bit guilty about using the platforms they built, but I've given away a ton of my writing in those spaces, so I think it's okay that they did what they're good at, and I do what I'm good at.
  • We gave it away a whole bunch of books, and we keep giving books away.
    • After the first year or so, we figured we'd played out the missionary platforms, and book sales were slowing.  When I turned 50 last year, Andy wanted to give the book away for free for my birthday.  I said, "Cool!  I bet we could give away 50 copies for my 50th birthday!"  He said, "NO!  I bet we can give away 500 copies for your birthday!"  Somehow we ended up giving away nearly 5,000 copies in three days.  Like most things with big numbers, it's a mystery to me, although I'm sure Google analytics could help us out.  It got seriously shared someplace, that's all I know.  We did a giveaway again this year for Andy's birthday.  It's fun!
    • A funny thing happens after every giveaway: a sales bump.  It's no longer free, but a bunch of people will buy it anyway.  Go figure.

HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE.

Writing is my jam, I was trained as a writer, and I've been writing in one way or another my whole life.

Everybody worked hard at their tasks.  It's a well-written book, well edited, well formatted, with a very pretty cover.

People liked it.  They shared it.  Here we are.

I think the time had come for a book like As Soon As I Fell, which told stories that have been kept secret in the missionary world.  

I wrote As Soon As I Fell because I needed my book when I was going through hell in 2003, and it didn't exist.  I didn't want anyone else to feel as alone and abandoned as I did.  I'm still getting letters all the time from people who tell me that As Soon As I Fell helps them feel less alone.  Mission accomplished.

I continue to write because I love to write.

This gig is NOT about money.  

For me, self-publishing is about writing a book that needs to be written, and getting it out into the world in a way that doesn't slay my soul in the process.

I remember telling Katrina, "It's fine if this book changes somebody else's life, but I don't want it to change mine.  I love my life just the way it is."

Almost four years later, this is still true.

And that feels like the truest kind of success.

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theology in a time of tornadoes

Once again, it's springtime in Texas, when we are reminded of two things.

One, the earth is merely a frail barrier between us and the fire ants, which are living bits of the molten lava we've been told is in there.  (If you've ever encountered one, you know I'm right.)

Two, it's tornado season.

Saturday, it was about 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. The sky was a nasty yellow all day, and the air looked like poisonous fog. 

Sunday, it was gorgeous: 70, sunny, breezy, and clear as a bell.  The perfect spring day.

As those two radically different weather patterns encountered one another, a series of tornadoes tore through Canton, Texas, about 2 hours east of us.  One of the tornadoes was on the ground for something like 35 miles.  Homes and businesses were leveled, dozens of people were injured, and four people died.

Sunday on Facebook, I came across a survivor reporting that right before the tornado had hit, they'd prayed and God had spared their home.  

"God is so good!  He answers prayer!" the survivor said.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Tornado season is a challenging time for theology in Texas.

(It's almost as bad as Wrath of God week, right before Easter.)

Because, what about the neighbors?  

Didn't they pray?  

Didn't God like them as much?  

Or wasn't God as good next door as he was right here?

We have friends who lost their house to a tornado last year, and through a series of debacles and plagues of Job-like proportions, including but not limited to insurance, builders, city codes, ill health, unexpected surgeries:  our friends are still without a home, and their finances are almost totally depleted.  

Someone suggested to my husband that God is "trying to get their attention" with all these misfortunes.  Andy doesn't get mad much, but he came home pretty cheesed off that day.

And let's face it: tornadoes are just the tip of the iceberg on this planet.

What about cancer?

What about infertility and miscarriages?

What about fatal car accidents?

Are we hoping that we'll be able to say just the right prayer in just the right way at just the right time, in order to avert whatever disaster comes our way?

And if we believe that's true, then what happens when the tornado DOES hit, regardless of our prayers?

Speaking from my own experience, I'll just say that it was a long, long drop to the bottom of the canyon when I prayed and what I desperately needed didn't happen.  I didn't even realize how deeply I believed in my own ability to control disaster by prayer and righteous living, until it didn't work.

Of course there are better, more reasonable ways to think about this topic, besides magical thinking about prayer and our own holiness.

I think Jessica Kelley's book, Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God's Role in My Child's Death is a great exploration of these questions.

We may be able to make reasonable theological arguments for ourselves.

When we aren't in the middle of trauma.

Once the trauma hits, though, the good arguments rarely matter.

When trauma hits, our brains go into survival mode, which essentially takes our thinking brain offline.  It takes time, safety from the trauma, more time, rest, lots of yoga, and maybe medication, to get back to a place where our brain chemistry can deal with "rational" thinking again.

In the chemical shitstorm of the moment, what we need is SAFETY, CARE, AND COMFORT. 

Later on, when we're ready, we can try to work out what we think about what just happened.

I was talking about this recently with a friend of mine who's had some pretty sad stuff happen.

Repeatedly. 

Repeatedly.

Repeatedly.

She's super-smart and knows The Right Answers.

But The Right Answers aren't helping at all.  Like they never do when you're traumatized.

She told me that she couldn't believe that God is love anymore.

And that makes sense to me.

How can a loving God stand by our pain and do nothing?

Is God really just playing video games in the sky?  

Joy-sticking tornadoes across East Texas, and steering around the people who remember to pray the right way while the freight train bears down?

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

The sermon series at church right now is about the miracles of Jesus.  

I had my doubts about this series, I'll be honest.  But so far, this miracles series hasn't sent me screaming into the parking lot, and that's a big improvement over where we were last year at this point.  This may be a minor miracle in and of itself.  It definitely helps to be listening to a progressive speaker, I know that much.

Here's what stuck with me from Sunday's sermon: "YOU are the miracle."

This what we're here for: to be the miracle that other people need.

WE are here together with each other.  WE see the needs of the world.  

WE have the cup of cold water, WE have the time to visit the sick and suffering, WE have the resources to feed the hungry, WE can reach out to embrace the widow and orphan.

WE CAN BE THE MIRACLE.

And isn't that how the Vine and the Branches should be?  

No separation between us, One Love flowing through us all?

Maybe we're not sure about God's love right now, but I think we can be 100% convinced about the Love we experience from one another.

Most of that consists of just showing up for each other, and trying not to say anything too stupid.  

LIFE HACK:  any theological explanation is likely to be too stupid at this point.  

Remember: SAFETY, CARE, COMFORT.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

When my friend is in pain, and doesn't know if God is good or loving, that's okay.

BECAUSE I CAN BE GOOD AND LOVING.

And while I've never seen my love and care solve any problems like the wave of a magic wand (let's be real, I haven't seen God do that either), I have seen Love flowing out of me to grow hope and light and peace and joy in places where only sorrow and darkness and anxiety used to live.

I know for sure that Love is making miracles out in Canton this Monday morning, cutting through storm debris with a chain saw.  Passing out bottled water.  Loading up trash bags.  Listening to the stories, weeping with those who weep.  Because that's what Love does, every single time.

Love is the miracle.

I am the miracle.

YOU are the miracle.

Love in US,

the Vine, the Branches:

that is the miracle.

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

Fort Worth Botanic Garden, photo: Andy Bruner

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used cars, used religion, Christianity Today, and Audre Lorde

My son Matt has a car with over 300,000 miles on it, a 1999 Honda Accord.  

Matt's granddad drove that car off the lot, brand new, and meticulously maintained it through the first half of its life.  Next, it came to us where wedidthebestwecouldandweapologize.  When Matt graduated from college and needed to upgrade from riding a bike, the Accord passed to him.  

It's been a great, great reliable car for so many family members, but these days we wonder when it will come to the end of its useful life. 

When it gives up the ghost, we will be sad.  We'll gratefully remember the places that car has taken us, the conversations it sheltered, the convenience it gave us.  

But when its useful life has ended, we'll let it go and find new means of transportation.

Capitol Reef National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

Capitol Reef National Park, photo: Andy Bruner

This past week, Christianity Today published an article titled: Who's In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?   

It turns out that the article was actually only about one side of the Christian blogosphere: the female side.  The author, a female Anglican Church of North America priest, never talks about who's supposed to be the boss of the boys.  

Nope, it's only about who will get those darn women under control.  

The sarcastic responses just boil up out of me:

First they told us we couldn't talk in church.  

Now they're saying we can't talk on the internet, either!

Lord only knows what will happen if you give a woman a blog!

Next she'll have the right to drive!

The right to vote!

The right to own property!

The right to an education!

The right to divorce her abusive husband!

Oh wait.

We have all that...

And you know what?

We also have the right to speak, given to us by the God who gave us brains with vocal cords attached.

I don't know about you, faithful reader of this totally rogue completely unapproved writing site, but I no longer listen to people who use the rules of religion to silence, shame, and oppress anyone, including myself.

Instead, I listen to voices like Audre Lorde:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.... What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.

I began to ask each time: "What's the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?" Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, "disappeared" or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Next time, ask: What's the worst that will happen? Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it's personal. And the world won't end.

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don't miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 

― Audre Lorde

I'm sure that listenting to Audre Lorde is exactly the sort of thing that Christianity Today would like to prevent.

However, it's too late for that now.  Gutenberg made a printing press.  I learned to read and write.  Al Gore invented the internet, and here we are: Pandora's Box all over again.  

I know what I know, and I can't unknow it.

I worry about you, though, dear reader!  

What will happen to you if I say something wrong?  

Who will save you from too much Love here at the Kay Bruner blog?

Oh wait.

You have a brain.

You'll use it.

You have a mouse.

You'll click the unsubscribe button.

Oh.

Well, then.

Carry on.

Meanwhile, that old used religion has clearly come to the end of its useful life for me.  I'm glad I've long since been able to let it go, and I'm endlessly grateful for the Love that springs up into new Life instead.

Utah wildflower, photo: Andy Bruner

Utah wildflower, photo: Andy Bruner

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the year we ditched Easter

"Well, there's the Easter bunny," Andy said as we emerged from the Cactus Hill motel, and a little rabbit sat in the gravel driveway, looking at us.

Neither of us ever remembers missing an Easter Sunday service before in our lives.  But this year we did.  We wanted to visit all the National Parks in Utah that weekend, so we just took off and did it.

I had hoped to be at Delicate Arch for Easter sunrise, having some deep spiritual experience, but the drive had proven too much for us the night before.  

It was one of those moments to let go of hopes or expectations, let the little seed fall, and just see what came up.  

So we figured we'd just enjoy the drive and whatever hikes happened, whenever they happened, and not worry about Easter spirituality so much.

I did, however, put on The Brilliance on shuffle as the soundtrack for our drive.

A couple of miles into our drive, Night Has Passed began to play.

"Night has passed, and the day lies open before us," the song says.  And then, "We rejoice in the gift of this day."

And the sun began to come up over the horizon.  

So we drove and we sang and I cried at the beauty of it all, and I said, "Who needs Delicate Arch anyway?  This is perfection."

We came to an overlook, where we stopped to take this photo.

As we returned to the car, shuffle brought up what's turned out to be my theme song of the past few months: See The Love.

"I want to see, I want to see the Love, all around you, all around you; I want to know, I want to know the Love that's all around you."

So I had to dance.

There on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere Utah, just the two of us, we experienced "the relentless circle of affection" that Paul Young talks about.

Love doesn't have anything to do with where we are, geographically.  

Love has nothing to do with what we've done or left undone.

Love is not about us.

Love is.

Present everywhere.

Always. 

And on Easter, more than any other day, we should know that this is true and can be trusted.

We might ditch Easter.

But Easter won't ditch us.

It won't.

It can't.

It never, ever will.

This is our deepest and truest reality: nothing can separate us from Love.  

Life, death, things present, things past, angels, demons--nothing.

And if we are deeply, truly connected to that Love, if it's the vine and we're the branches, Love constantly flowing through us, as an integral part of our true Selves, then Love is not something we need to hoard. 

Love is not a way of life we have to defend in endless culture wars.  

Love is, instead, "a life we enter, a Love we share, the ground in which we are rooted" (John Shelby Spong) and something we can give away, freely and fully, knowing that we'll be endlessly filled as we empty ourselves.

This is the story of Easter: 

Let all the seeds fall, and watch new life grow.

Empty completely, and be filled totally.

Open, bloom, shine, light the darkness.

Love is.

And where Love is, fear is not.

Make me an instrument of Your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is darkness let me shine light and
May Your love cause us to open up
Cause us to open up our hearts
May Your light cause us to shine so bright
That we bring hope into the dark

All that we do without love
It means nothing
Grant us the courage to give
As You’re calling

Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
Hope for the hopeless, Your love is
Strength in our weakness, Your love is
May we love, as You love
(As only You can love, oh God)
May we love, as You love

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Epic Utah trip: 5 National Parks in 4 days

We just spent Easter weekend hiking the 5 Utah National Parks in 4 days.  

This trip happened because Andy said, "I have a three day weekend!  Let's go somewhere!"  I said, "I read this blog that said you could do all the National Parks in Utah in a weekend!"  And so we were off.

We were out of Dallas on the first flight to Las Vegas on Good Friday morning and we arrived back in Dallas on the last flight Monday night.  (We added Monday to the weekend because Easter Monday should be a thing in America.  Until it is, we'll just make it so.) 

In between those two flights, we drove the scenic route all the way across southern Utah and back again, about 900 miles round-trip.  

Pretty sure those words--"the scenic route"--were invented for Routes 12 and 24 in Utah.

We managed to put our tennis shoes on about 20 miles of trail in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.  

While we were walking this weekend, Andy and I were recalling some of the great places we've been able to hike in the past: the rainforests of Papua New Guinea and Kauai; the olive groves and rocky coves of Cinque Terre in Italy; the mountains around Banff and Jasper and Vancouver in Canada.  These hikes in Utah were right up there with the best walks we've ever taken, anywhere.

So, if you, like me, are a freak for natural beauty but have to ration your vacation days like a boss, here's how we hit the highlights of all the awesomeness of southern Utah and still made it back in time for work on Tuesday morning.

Our plan was to pick one good hike at each park, and then drive the rest of the park while stopping at overlooks and getting in any other short hikes that looked interesting.

Zion National Park

We arrived at Zion just after noon on Good Friday.  It was, unbeknownst to us, the end of Spring Break week in Utah.  This meant that Zion was EXTREMELY CROWDED.  We had to park in the town of Springdale and stand in lines like we were waiting for a roller coaster to get aboard the shuttle up into the park.

But it was worth the wait.

The famous hike at Zion is Angel's Landing, but we knew we didn't have time for a 5 miler with an elevation gain of 1,488 feet that's supposed to take 4-5 hours.  

Instead, on the opposite side of the canyon from Angel's Landing, we hiked Hidden Canyon, 3.2 miles with a gain of 1,128 feet.  We still got to climb along the side of the cliff, hanging onto chains, but it only took us an hour and a half.  

At the top, we scrambled up to where we had this overlook all to ourselves.

Then we had time to catch the shuttle up to see the rest of the canyon, and back down to stroll Lower and Middle Emerald Pools, where the trail takes you behind the waterfall.

Having seen the canyon, we thought we had seen the park.  We shuttled back to our car to drive on to our AirBnB for the night.

And then there was The Drive: the big rocks, the tunnels, the wildflowers, even a herd of buffalo...

The next morning we headed out before the sun was up, driving along the Sevier River valley.  We'd climbed into some elevation during the drive up from Zion, and it was 25 degrees with patches of snow still on the ground and a serious windchill.  

This was definitely the day for the fleece-lined tights I'd packed after reading that there could be big temperature differences between the parks. However, I'd been so hot at Zion the day before that the fleecies were still in my suitcase and I spent most of the day shivering in capris instead.  I was grateful for the packable down jacket I'd added to my suitcase at the last minute. Gloves and a beanie would have been welcome, as well.  Here's my little memory device for next time around:  Bryce Ice Baby.

Bryce Canyon National Park

In contrast to Zion, Bryce was nearly deserted when we arrived at 7:30 Saturday morning, and it never crowded out like Zion, even though it was a free admission day and a weekend.

This meant that we hiked among the hoodoos from Sunrise Point to Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop, to Sunset Point and along the Rim Trail almost in silence.  It was heavenly.  

2.7 miles, this hike took us 2 hours because we took so many pictures along the way.  I've heard this trail called the best 3-mile hike in the world.  The photos almost do it justice.

As we drove the rest of the park all the way out to Bryce Point, stopping at view points along the way, First Aid Kit's Hard Believer offered us these lyrics:

"It's one life, and it's this life, and it's beautiful."

Indeed.

We loved Bryca Canyon so much that we thought about ditching the rest of the trip and staying right in this spot forever.

But we'd challenged ourselves to do all 5 parks, so we forced ourselves onward, via Scenic Route 12, which turned out to be a national treasure all of its own.  Crazy beautiful, all 111 miles of it.  This is where I just started dash-camming it.  

Capitol Reef National Park

We rolled into Capitol Reef about 4:00 Saturday afternoon.  This is a pretty small park, mostly a historic site where there are petroglyphs along the cliff walls, and restored pioneer cabins.

We drove out to the end of the road and hiked a ways through Capitol Gorge.  Up on the canyon wall, pioneers had carved their names as a register of their passing.  Slogging through deep red sand gave me a solid appreciation for the toughness of anyone who traveled this way before God blessed us all with 4 wheel drive vehicles.

That night, we backtracked west about 15 miles for our Air BnB.  Andy couldn't remember why he'd decided to backtrack, until we started driving early Sunday morning, and we realized there's 136 miles of amazing scenery, but not much else, between Capitol Reef and Moab, where our final two parks are located.

Arches National Park

When we arrived at Arches, we drove all the way out to the end of the road and hiked the Devil's Garden Trail out to Dark Angel.  There's very little shade on this trail, and I wouldn't want to do it in the summer.  For us, though, it was 6 miles in perfect spring weather.

With lots of rock scrambling, arch exploring, and lunch along the way, it took us almost 4 hours.

The first part of the trail is wide and paved, all the way up to Landscape Arch.

After Landscape, there's a rock scramble that winnows the crowd, then two more arches: Partition and Navajo.  At Partition, you can climb out through the arch and sit on the edge, overlooking this spectacular view.

After Partition and Navajo Arches, there's a bridge section of trail. challenging for those afraid of heights, fun for those invigorated by heights.  

The payoff on this trail is two more arches, a gorgeous overlook, and finally the monolitic Dark Angel, where we found ourselves completely alone for our lunch break.  

I think if I were visiting Arches in the summer, I would curtail the Devil's Garden hike and spend more time on the shorter hikes that would be less taxing in the full sun.  If you're visiting with kids, the area around Windows and Double Arch are fantastic: very close to the road and lots of rock scrambling and exploring available.

Delicate Arch is probably the most famous arch in Utah.  We opted to check it out from the viewpoint below the arch, rather than taking the 3-mile hike in for a closeup photo, because we knew we still had one more park to go before we slept.

Canyonlands National Park

The expansive views of Canyonlands (Island in the Sky district), it turned out, were the perfect fond farewell to our speed-tour of parks.  

Our final hike: 2 miles out along the canyon rim to Grand View Overlook.

We drove out of Canyonlands at dusk and found our way back to Green River and a motel bed.  Monday, we drove all the way across Utah, knicked the corner of Arizona, and arrived back in Las Vegas for our flight home, tired, full of gratitude for the endless beauty of the earth, and already thinking about "next time."

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it all falls into Love

What do we do with Easter every year?

How do we bring it down out of the clouds of pomp and ceremony and organ toccatas and overblown lilies, into the dark spaces of our hearts, where new life is so desperately needed?

What will all this Holy Week hullaballoo mean to us on the Monday morning after, waking up hungover from a hundred hallelujahs and too many chocolate bunnies?

How does this Easter thing ACTUALLY change our lives?

I've been thinking about what Jesus said: "Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds."

That's often quoted as a prophecy of what Jesus was going to do on the Cross: surrender his life, and in so doing, become the first born of many siblings as Romans 8:29 says.

If Jesus is the first-born among us, and if we're intended to obey when he said, "Follow me," then how do we follow our brother Jesus this Easter week?

I think about all the things I cling to, and wonder if I am supposed to release them.

The little seeds of things that seem like sustenance to me, because I'm hungry for so many things, and this little seed could feed me.  

I don't want to let it drop, I don't want to wait and see what might grow.  

What if the seed dies and nothing happens?  

What if I'm left hungry, with not even that one seed left any more?

Texas bluebonnet, photo: Andy Bruner

Texas bluebonnet, photo: Andy Bruner

This past weekend, I went to Albuquerque for a conference at the Center for Action and Contemplation, where Richard Rohr is the founder.  Father Richard, who's the author of one of my favorite books, Falling Upward, was speaking alongside Paul Young, the author of another favorite book of mine, The Shack.

I had pretty decent expectations of the conference, and I was not disappointed.

I cried so many tears and wrote so many notes, that no doubt I'll be processing for days and weeks to come.  

The very last note I wrote, the final word from Paul Young was this:

"When you deal with fear, there are only two options: control or trust."

Which seems like a pretty good thought to think during Easter week, when considering how we might try to follow Jesus.

The reason Paul Young could say at the end of the conference, here are your two options, and we didn't all get up and run out of the room saying "what a jerk!" is that the whole conference was about the Trinity and how the Trinity is not "two guys and a bird" but a circle-dance of Love, the constant infilling and outpouring of Love among the three persons of the Trinity, and how their great dance of Love includes you and me and all of Creation.  

So when we let things fall, they don't fall into nothingness--even though it may seem so at the time.

Instead, everything falls into Love.

Indian paintbrush, photo: Andy Bruner

Indian paintbrush, photo: Andy Bruner

So whatever the seed is:

the admiration we want others to feel for us

a marriage that's been broken by abuse, neglect, or abandonment

a religious tradition that no longer nourishes our spiritual selves

our perfectionism, our performance, our control.

We can release that little seed,

let it fall into Love,

and trust that the act of outpouring is simply a prelude to infilling.

We don't know what comes next.

We just release.

No guarantees.

Except the only guarantee that truly matters:

Love.

And that one thing is, always and forever,

the anchor for our souls,

firm and secure,

and the fertile soil

for a new crop of beauty for ashes.

So we come into Holy Week with open hands,

letting all the little seeds

fall

fully

freely

into Love.

"Everything that passes away is reborn into the reality of God."  Richard Rohr

Wildflowers near Granbury, Texas, photo: Andy Bruner

Wildflowers near Granbury, Texas, photo: Andy Bruner

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when church says, "I love you, but..."

Back in 2013, The Barna Group decided to study the accusation that the church is full of hypocrites.  

They didn't look at the question of whether church people are perfect or not, because that answer is already known.  (Spoiler alert: you won't find perfection under any steeple, anywhere.)

Instead, Barna put together a poll that examined the attributes of Jesus against the attributes of the Pharisees and tried it out on self-identified Christians.

It turned out, according to Barna, 14% of Christians were like Jesus in actions and attitudes (e.g., God is for everyone, every person has God-given value), while the largest group, 51%, were caught up in self-righteous actions and attitudes like the Pharisees (e.g., I like to point out wrong doctrine and theology, the most important thing is following God's rules).

Rather than offering the unconditional Love of Jesus, Pharisees have a list of requirements that must be met before acceptability is achieved.

The attitudes and actions of Jesus can be summed up in this way: "I love you."

This is rest for our souls.

The attitudes and actions of the Pharisees add one fatal word: "I love you, BUT."

This is an exhausting eternity of trying to measure up.

San Antonio Mission Trail, photo: Andy Bruner

San Antonio Mission Trail, photo: Andy Bruner

So you're probably thinking about your church at this point.

Is it a Jesus-church, or a Pharisee-church?

I'm guessing that if you go there on a regular basis and don't completely hate it, then it probably feels fairly loving toward you, and restful to your soul.

Here's the thing, though.  

I have a feeling that most of my readers are like me: straight, white, and cis-gender.  If that's you, like it is me, the evangelical church in America was created just for us.  (If we'd happened to be male as well, we'd have that extra cherry on the sundae.)  

Lucky, lucky us.  

But what does church offer to the less-priviledged?

What does church offer to people who are not straight, white, male, and cis-gender?

Does church offer rest to the souls of the LGBTQ community?

Or does church say, "I love you, BUT you need to be straight/act straight before you can be a part of our community?"

Does church offer rest to the souls of people of color?

Or does church say, "I love you, BUT y'all need to forgive. Stop being so angry. Stop being so sensitive. Let's just all be reconciled and move on."

Does church offer rest to the souls of women?

Or does church say, "I love you, BUT you have to stay with your abusive/porn-addicted/neglectful husband, and why were you speaking anyway?  We do not allow a woman to speak."

Does church offer rest to the souls of the gender non-conforming?

Or does church say there's really only one right way to live out biblical manhood and biblical womanhood, and it just happens to look exactly like Father Knows Best crossed with tonight's UFC rage-fight?

Does the church offer rest to the souls of the neurodiverse?  What about those who deal with chronic mental illness?

Is church anything like Jesus to the marginalized and suffering?

Or is church more like the Pharisees: "We love you, BUT you need to meet our standards?"

The Embracing Cross, The Vatican, photo: Andy Bruner

The Embracing Cross, The Vatican, photo: Andy Bruner

A few months ago, I started reading The Fourth Gospel, by John Shelby Spong.  I've talked before about how Spong revolutionized my view of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Spong showed me that the disciples of Jesus, these old Jewish guys, stopped defending their racial turf, their religious turf, their gender turf.  They just opened the doors and let everybody in.

And it didn't just stop with the woman at the well.  They kept breaking the rules.  

The dietary laws: gone.  

The circumcision laws: gone.  

The temple regulations: gone. 

Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law, and this is what fulfillment of the law looks like: GONE.

IT IS FINISHED.

Jesus' followers got it.

I don't think we get it quite so much.

I think this is why 51% of us end up testing out as Pharisees instead of Jesus-followers.

We know this is true: it is so easy to follow a list of rules that says, "I love you, BUT... " 

This is also true:  it is so hard and scary to follow the Love that opens its arms completely and simply says, "I love you" without condition.

To truly follow Love, we give up control.  

We give up on outcomes.  

We stop being Right, even if the Bible clearly says.

We honor the free will of others.

We allow God to be God, because we are not.

We acknowledge that Love is at work in the lives of others, just as it is in ours.

We simply trust that Love is Enough for all of us.

As we approach the end of Lent, and the beginning of Easter, let us all consider:

What would be different,

in our churches,

in our lives,

this year,

if we all

followed the way of Jesus

out of the tomb of the law,

into the new life of grace and rest

for every, single weary soul?

I think that would be a miracle, all over again, the same kind of miracle that Jesus made in the lives of a bunch of old Jewish guys who somehow (I was blind but now I see) found that a Samaritan woman was someone to be celebrated as an equal.

If Jesus could make that kind of miracle for those guys, back in the day, he can surely do that for us, too.

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