In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

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The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.” 

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Good Grief, Friday

il_340x270-897371198_rvyaYesterday, along with another young woman interning at my church, I carried a seven-foot-tall, thick wooden cross (literally an “old rugged cross”) down the aisle of the sanctuary.

Today, I have a scrape on the palm of my right hand to show for it. I wash my hands, and the scrape stings just a little. I see it standing out from the smoothness of the rest of my hand, and I remember that I’ve carried a cross.

“Take up your cross and follow me” is an awfully painful command, friends.

It’s a painful command in our religiously and politically charged culture, in which a great many people think we’re taking up our crosses and following Jesus — and we all mean something different by it. When crosses hang around our necks as we reject, insult, gossip, curse, betray, threaten, or abuse.

I wonder if many of us who have come in close contact with religion have a scrape or two to show for it. If we, too, try to wash our hands of it, and the scrape still stings just a little — or more than a little.

I wonder these things especially after reading Jen Hatmaker’s vulnerable blog post yesterday, entitled “My Saddest Good Friday In Memory: When Treasured Things Are Dead.” Hatmaker writes:

“Good Friday is about death – even a necessary death – and that makes more sense to me now than maybe ever. It speaks of a dark day and broken hearts, unmet expectations, mob mentality turned brutal. When I consider that day now, in 2017, it all feels insane, blood-thirsty, the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.”

Jesus knows about those dark days and broken hearts. Jesus knows about unmet expectations. Jesus knows about the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.

So, maybe Good Friday is about good grief. Because good grief is exactly what Jesus knows. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:5). Grief over the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, a way of life, a way of thinking. Grief over whatever it is that once brought comfort — and now brings only a cross.

I think of the 5 stages of grief famously identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and as I go through the sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, I hear signs that Jesus understands this grieving process:

DenialJesus might not have denied his fate. But everyone else, notably Peter, sure did (Matthew 26:31-35).

Anger. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Bargaining. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

Depression. “I am deeply grieved, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38) and “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

Acceptance. “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Did Jesus check off each of these stages as he moved through them, neatly and in order? No. Do we? Not at all. The point is that Jesus knows about grief.

Truly, blessedly, Jesus knows about hope too. But, honestly, in the death of Good Friday, in the silence of Holy Saturday, and for some of us lasting onward into the foreseeable future, grief is where we’re at.

Grief that is fully understood by Jesus, fully carried by Jesus all the way to the cross and tomb and through to the impossible dawn of resurrection.

 

Jesus, Tired Out

If you’re a lectionary user, you know this morning’s gospel lesson (about Jesus and the woman at the well) was a particularly long, rich passage. There’s much that could be said about this story as it unfolds — but my spirit barely made it past the second verse.

“Jesus came to a Samaritan city called womanatwellSychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.” – John 4:5-6 (emphasis mine)

Jesus? Tired out by his journey?

It would seem so. 

As if that’s not enough, verse 6 observes: It was about noon. Mid-day. As though Jesus took a lunch break in the middle of his work day. A spring break in the middle of his semester, so to speak, as I’m currently wrapping up doing.

Jesus, tired out by his journey.

As I heard this Scripture read aloud, a little girl in the pew behind me brandished her sippy cup in the air and asked quietly-ish: “Does Jesus want some water?”

I’m not sure what her parents said. But, I hope they said yes.

Fully God and fully man, Jesus wants water and is water (John 4:10). Especially as we journey in the coming weeks to Holy Week, recalling Christ’s sacrifice of death on the cross, we will recall that Christ said so powerfully: “I thirst” (John 19:38). Our Savior gets thirsty. Our Jesus gets tired.

And, when this happens, he takes a lunch break not just to watch Netflix and eat pizza as I would probably do. He takes a life-giving break, not a mind-numbing break (a distinction which, when I realized it existed, revolutionized my life and my use of time off). Jesus takes a break to be fed, to feed another (the woman at the well), and to be fed by feeding — a spiritual dynamic that’s remarkably replicable as we share life with others and find ourselves blessed by that sharing.

So, today, I’m encouraged by the empathy of a Jesus who got tired out by his journey (just like we do by ours). And I’m inspired by the compassion of a Jesus who got rejuvenated by serving others on his journey (just like we can on ours). Self-care is important, Jesus says to me here, and so is caring for others. You can’t have one without the other.

Finding Freedom From Shame

This was originally posted on the blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.


A therapist once pointedly suggested that I was experiencing shame. I promptly suggested she was wrong.

Shame is for people who’ve done egregiously terrible things, I thought (which is kind of all of us, I now realize, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” according to Romans 3). Gradually, I had to admit that the therapist was right and that shame is buried in the hearts of so many people—people like me and you.

shame_resizedShame happens when you fail a test and fear you’re a failure. It happens when you lose a competition and label yourself a loser. When you tell a lie or hurt a friend or drink too much and let the guilt consume you. When every bone in your body wants to not tell anyone—or at least not make eye contact when you tell someone—about your secret shortcomings.

So, how do you possibly find freedom from such a burden as shame?

Named in Confession

Since shame is experienced largely by a desire to hide, it follows then that freedom from shame can be experienced largely through a coming out of hiding. In the Christian life, this looks like naming our sins as specifically and honestly as possible through the practice of confession.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about confession in his classic work Life Together, says this:

“You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are. He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that.”

Put more succinctly, I’ve heard it said that “shame is broken when it is spoken.” So, consider sharing what you’re ashamed of with a Christian brother or sister, campus minister or counselor, priest or pastor. It feels frustrating at first, like ripping off a Band-Aid to expose a wound, but so freeing in the long run. I promise.

Renamed in Christ

If you fear that naming your shame in confession will change what people—and God!—think of you, then consider this: If you are a Christian, your identity has been renamed in Christ. Take a look at Colossians 3:1-17, for example, and meditate on the adjectives you find there. You might even read the passage manuscript-style in true InterVarsity fashion and underline, highlight, or circle these adjectives. The apostle Paul writes to the Colossian Christians, who had fallen into heretical teachings and sinful behavior, and tells them that in fact they are:

  • “raised with Christ” (3:1)
  • “hidden with Christ in God” (3:2)
  • “renewed” (3:10)
  • “chosen” (3:12)
  • “holy and beloved” (3:12)
  • “forgiven” (3:13)

In Christ, you too, when you sheepishly open your shame to God and others, can have full assurance that God sees you as holy. Beloved. Forgiven. Where you have been hidden in a mask of sullen shame, God sees you as hidden in the cleanest cloak of Christ.

Because of God’s grace, I could eventually name my shame to that therapist I mentioned earlier and could slowly learn, with her help, to receive the truth that I have been renamed in Christ as his child, holy and beloved.

And you can too. I pray you can. Hidden in Christ, I know you can.

Jesus, Take The Wheel (Of My Prayer Life)

fall-foliage-road-trips-kancamagus-highway-jpg-rend-tccom-1280-960Some people take prayer walks. I’ve been one of those people. But lately, I guess I take prayer drives.

Day-to-day drives past joggers, bikers (of the Harley Davidson variety and the Lance Armstrong variety), construction workers, and panhandlers. Or longer road-trip drives like I took this weekend through the hills of rural Virginia.

Inevitably, I made observations about my surroundings. Miraculously, some of the observations turned into little prayers. And, suddenly, some of the little prayers turned into little slaps upside the head.

The GPS happened to take me a scenic route off the interstates, abounding in autumn beauty and lacking in public restrooms (unfortunate since I was drinking coffee the whole time).

I counted one “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and rolled my eyes. Then, something happened and I wondered what Jewish-Christian relations might look like if everyone who’s ever had that bumper sticker not only stood up for their Jewish carpenter boss but also stood up to modern-day anti-Semitism. Then, something else happened and I prayed for the probably-perfectly-nice folks in that minivan, for their faith and family and “traveling mercies” (to quote both my grandma and Anne Lamott, which is a funny thing to be able to do).

I counted two Confederate flags and cringed and prayed for black local residents or highway passersby who might be reminded of and affected by systemic racism. And then something happened and I prayed for white local residents, for the flag owners and land owners, community members and maybe KKK members.

I counted five Trump-Pence 2016 banners and two lingering Clinton-Kaine signs and sighed and prayed for those who have been hateful (which I hated to admit might be all of us) and for those who have been hated.

I counted couldn’t count all the churches. Some dilapidated, mostly lovely. And here’s my wish for them:

“Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.” (BCP, 816).

No matter what I prayed — whether for “local” or “foreigner,” “friend” or “foe,” “conservative” or “liberal” (all terms that I’m finding hard to define much less affiliate with these days) — these prayers felt tinged with tension amidst a recently hyper-politicized, hyper-polarized nation and world.

All I know is that Christians are absolutely, unequivocally called to sit with tension and pray even — or especially — for those whom we find hard to define much less affiliate with. To pray for red and blue. To pray for black and white. To try our feeble finest to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. Teachings like this:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:44-47 (RSV)

Trust me, it rarely occurs to me to pray like this. Liturgy helps. Accountability and prayer partners and spiritual directors help.

And God more than helps. God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, hears and challenges and pushes the boundaries of my prayers. All the way through rural Virginia today. All the way through life eternally.