The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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Unity of Spirit

Genesis 22:1-14 | Psalm 13 | Romans 6:12-23 | Matthew 10:40-42

A month or so ago, Krista Mays contacted me, politely asking if I wanted to use Track 1 or Track 2 for our lectionary. Wisely on her part, she mentioned that Track 1 does include the bit about Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. I grimaced. No one likes that story. What kind of first sermon would it be that mentions human sacrifice at the command of God? (Even though it doesn’t happen.) These are my first split-second thoughts. Then I remembered what I asked Rachel Held Evans at the Insight Lecture at Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock just days before Krista called, something like: “What stories do you find you have to lean into when you really want to ignore them altogether?” So I paused, sort of girded up my loins, and said for this new beginning, we would start with Track 1. I wouldn’t shy away from the difficult. And so we begin our relationship with the lectionary we have today.

Our collect this week asks God to join us “in unity of spirit” by the teaching of the prophets and apostles but chiefly of Jesus Christ. We will spend every Sunday, if not every day we spend in Scripture, gleaning the teachings of our ancestors in the faith. But today, how fortunate we are to have some foundational principles that will guide us in our life together individually and as part of the body of Christ. Especially as we look forward to and imagine the future of All Saints’ . . . we have to know who we are and whose we are. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess what this means. We have a tradition already firmly established in the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles.

In a church whose tagline is “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”, we get the Gospel message today. Our Good News is that whoever you are, wherever you are, you are welcome in this place, you are welcome at God’s table. Given the number of times I think we will have to extend hospitality to each other and the commitments we have made to reach out to others, I know All Saints’ understands the imperative of this teaching to extend welcome to all, to receive one another in the name of Christ, whether we are devout children of God or wandering seekers yearning for something we just can’t wrap our mind around. The graciousness of Spirit that Jesus showed us in his life with all the people he came across, especially the marginalized, that is the graciousness of Spirit we are to embody in our daily lives in whatever way we can.

That’s where the apostles and disciples come in: they show us that the most ordinary folks are acceptable in the eyes of God and that we’re meant to be a motley crew. Last week we got a list of the twelve apostles, but we know there was an even larger band of misfits with them, male and female, young and old, rich and poor, though mostly poor. The apostles teach us that it’s okay to doubt and ask questions. It’s normal to get uncomfortable, especially when Jesus gets excited and breaks yet another social norm, let alone when he starts flipping tables. And they show us that it’s okay to be completely surprised when we do something remarkable in the power of the Spirit. The apostles and disciples show us that if we are full of ourselves, how does that leave room for Jesus to shine through? Only when we’ve given ourselves over to God, become slaves to righteousness, only then can God fully work in our midst, only then is the kingdom of heaven at hand. All of this sums up to living a life in faith and righteousness to the best of our human ability (because we know none of us is perfect).

So we have what we often call the radical hospitality of Jesus and the faith and righteousness of the apostles and disciples. That leaves us with the prophets, and I promised I wouldn’t neglect Abraham.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally think of Abraham as a prophet. Father Abraham, yes. Prophet? Of course he is. He gets a remarkable call from God from the beginning to leave his people, and he goes. He’s told he will be the father of nations, though his wife is barren. And when he does finally have sons, one he is told to send away, which he does, and the other he is told to make a sacrifice, which he sets out to do.

Now, if you want to read a remarkable book on Abraham, I commend to you David Rosenberg’s book Abraham: The First Historical Biography. After I told Krista I would do Track 1, in my conversations with the Rabbi in Hot Springs, I asked him nonchalantly, “So, anything in particular I should be mindful of about Abraham if I were, hypothetically, to be preaching on the sacrifice of Isaac?” “Let me think about it,” he said, and the next time we met, he gave me a 300-page book on Abraham, being the good rabbi and Hebrew studies scholar that he is.

The obedience of Abraham, as with all the prophets who eventually accept their calls, is the main teaching that stands out to me today. (Maybe it’s because I’m so close to this most recent transition in my ministry.) But Abrahams’s obedience–particularly related to the near-sacrifice of Isaac–bears particular significance in lessons for our lives in faith. The translation Rosenberg includes in his book has Abraham responding to God not with “Here I am” but with “I am listening.” Not only is Abraham present, but he is actively receiving the Word of God. And Rosenberg describes Abraham’s actions, as the text does, as very physical, very tangible, yet in a dream-like state. There is something at work here beyond the natural realm, but very much in the natural order. For Judaism, God cannot cross to interfere in the natural world because then He would not be trusted ever again. But the boundaries have to be tested. Boundaries like between life, the affirmation of continued existence, and death or the fear of extinction. Isaac is the one upon whom the continued identity of a nation depends. This situation, Rosenberg says, is a “biblical nightmare” because God is testing Abraham with threat of cultural extinction. We realize how incredibly vulnerable this young nation is, a small family in the midst of strangers.

We might think God interfered directly, but Abraham awakes from his trance-like state from the voice of heaven, not entirely unlike the voice of our conscience. Probably with tears streaming down his face as he holds the blade above his son, both of them showing their devout obedience to God above all else, Abraham hears the voice and says, “I am listening.” And he’s told to stop, for Abraham is shown to have “an integrity dedicated to God,” not just fear of God. I love the translation that shows a father of nations to be filled with humility and integrity dedicated to God. That is the kind of obedience we are to show. Not false humility or empty martyrdom, but a complete devotion in knowledge of our strengths and of our faults that we will do nothing but our best to live into the commandment of our LORD. Every day we are listening, we hear the command to love one another as Christ loved us.

Hospitality. Faith and righteousness. Obedience.

The teachings are spelled out for us, but it is up to us to figure out what they look like in practice, what the process of becoming a holy temple will be like. What makes us worthy of the name Christian in the eyes of God?

So I have my sermon prepared by yesterday afternoon when I checked my email and saw the letter from the Bishop about the Little Rock mass shooting early Saturday morning. I had read about it not long after I woke up and thought, as I’m sure many of you did, “How horrible. How senseless.” Like our state leaders, we probably sent up our prayers to the victims and their families. And I went about my day and wasn’t even going to mention it in my sermon . . . except I read the bishop’s letter that challenged us to think about how we can be life-giving when so much of society condones violence as a solution. How hospitable is it for me to look away shaking my head just because the Power Ultra Lounge isn’t my scene and I’d never heard of Finese 2Tymes before Saturday? The victims at the concert were people’s children; the youngest wounded was 16 years old. If it was gang violence, these are individuals looking for belonging in the only places they think they can find it. How faithful and righteous is it for me to ignore or look away from that which is not pleasant and painful? How obedient is it for me to pretend that this doesn’t affect me or us? Because we are all connected. If I’m going to say my prayers matter, then another person’s pain also matters. We can’t turn away or pretend the situation didn’t take place any more than we can pretend that there aren’t some deep-seated issues in our society that need to be addressed for what they are . . . issues that make a place especially susceptible to fatal violence. I don’t expect us to come up with a response for the bishop right away, but he poses questions worth asking ourselves. Keeping our foundation firm in our teaching, we can engage the questions and embark on the arduous journey together.

It will take time, but I aim to meet with everyone here. Don’t be alarmed when I call you . . . consider this your advanced notice, and please let others know who aren’t here. I’ll not show up unexpected, though you are welcome to surprise me. (I’m a big fan of scruffy hospitality, so be at ease.) I want to know how live into your baptismal vows, what keeps you curious about a faithful life, how you see Christ at work in our midst. Together we will discern how we live into these teachings that give us a sure foundation in all we do because no one of us is at the head, save Jesus Christ. When we serve meals, it is the light of Christ we share first. When we visit jails, it is the presence of Christ we bring first. When we pray, it is the voice of God we listen for, surrounded in the presence of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.

In everything we do, how and who are we welcoming?

Are we doing it in good faith and righteously?

Are we being obedient to God’s will, or has our own will obscured our way?

The rewards of our practice, of our being Christian grounded in these teachings, is not spelled out in our Gospel today. But allowing the creativity of Spirit to craft our rewards accordingly encourages us to be aware, to keep looking for the glory that awaits us. It won’t necessarily be gold stars or even stars in our crowns, but it will be something like the glory of God manifest in the world around us. Something like that taste of joy when we are aligned with God’s will. Something like the smile of a loving father or mother who tells their child, “Well done, good and faithful one.”

I know we have hard work before us, for Jesus assures us that living as disciples isn’t easy. But our foundation is sure, and our prayers are set for the glory of God. I am blessed to share this journey with you, in unity of spirit, as we fill our community with the light and love of Christ.

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On the Edge of Knowing

 

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14


That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.

Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.

Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.

After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?

What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?

Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.

But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.

So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.

It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.

 

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Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

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Nowhere in Particular

Stairs to nowhereCamp Mitchell Stairs to Nowhere

they seem to be

in the early afternoon sun

where everything looks like a silhouette.

I almost missed them,

so loudly distracted

walking through

the crunching

crashing

multitude of leaves,

mere skeletons now,

void of the autumnal vibrance

of weeks ago.

Had there been a cabin here?

Was this would-be/had-been stoop

discarded?

Could I stand perched above

and take the next step in faith?

Maybe,

if I could see where I was going,

what came next.

(I’d probably fall.)

Even the leaves are still

and quiet

Except for the ones

whispering,

still attached

at greater heights,

closer, maybe,

rooted to something

deeper than I can comprehend.

(Eventually, they’ll fall, too.)

I continue on my way,

clamouring among the bones

once more,

not knowing where

the path may

lead.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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God’s Grace, Our Mission

The Scripture texts for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B:
Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

From our turkey slumber, hours of travel, shopping frenzies, or overtime work–
whatever our past week has been filled with – we all meet this morning with the one call to “Keep awake!” We have good reason to be alert today, and we need to set our intentions well, for today begins the church’s new year, in case you missed the silent transition. Just like that we turn the page and begin again, returning to the lectionary for Year B, following the season, and waiting again with expectation for our Lord and Savior who has already come and revealed to us God’s grace.

It would be easy to miss this new day, our new year. The weather has been so
erratic, our schedules so packed, the news full of strife, and the stores signaling Santa’s arrival since before Halloween. But every Sunday morning we mark the day on the hymn board or on the bulletin or on the calendar in the Godly Play room like a slow clock counting the days instead of the hours. We have to pause and think about which day it is. We pause and think about the year, what season we’re in not only in nature but in the church year, too. I like to imagine these four weeks of Advent stretched a bit, creating a small inner loop of the church calendar like an exit ramp or detour—seemingly buying a little time. In this time, we can think about what is going on around us and within us and shed the residue that builds up from too much screen time and air time and general busy-ness that blocks the way for the soul to claim time, too.

For if we heard our soul, it might sound like the prophet in Isaiah, calling for God
not to be hidden from us, to remember that we are all God’s people. Or it might sound like the Psalmist who calls to God to hear us, shine forth, stir up his strength, and help us. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved” (Ps. 80:3). The people were crying out for God. For these ancient Jews, their temple was destroyed by the Romans. When the world we know is falling apart, don’t we all cry out?

As we give ourselves time this morning, we are privy to Jesus’s conversation with
Peter, James, John, and Andrew. Jesus, too, withdrew to an inner circle and sat and talked with those who had been with him the longest. What he said seemed a bit prophetic and kind of apocalyptic yet also made sense of some of the past events. The disciples did not know it was Jesus’s farewell discourse to them. They must have listened with wonder as Jesus told them things like “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31) and “what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk 13:37).

When our suffering is real and crisis surrounds us, it can seem all is dark.  Sickness and death has been coming to those close to my grandmother, among her friends and the elderly in my extended family. Perhaps you, like her, have risen one morning and found it hard to give thanks for all that you have received because what you have is a lot of complications, impossible responsibilities, and a heart weary with sorrow. With faith, we grasp for hope.

I found my thoughts expressed in a commentary on Mark, when R. Alan Culpepper writes that

“what separates believers from nonbelievers is whether one trusts in a God who is working purposefully to redeem humanity.”

When we are watching the world seemingly fall apart around us, if we
believe in the hope Christ gives us—that the Son of Man is coming in glory—then we have a future to look forward to. While it hurts and we suffer in the midst of the mess that is life, we persevere because we know that this isn’t the end. We begin again each time we are confronted with death or loss. We live into the power of the Resurrection that showed us that out of death comes life. When all is gone, there is still the Word.  The Word gives hope because the Word itself is eternal Love. The Word is Love, enduring all things, binding the covenant and promise, and giving forth life and fruit. Love, never forgotten. We are God’s own, to be gathered at the end of days “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

In case we forget how any of this is even probable, we can attend the words of
Paul: “the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ as Word, as Love, has given us the grace of God, and it is this gift that empowers us all. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says. We are blessed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism, empowered with spiritual gifts, and waiting for the Lord attests to our own hope and faith. Paul gives thanks to God, for it is God’s strength, faithfulness, and call that enriches, strengthens, and blesses the people. Vocalizing his prayer of thanks undoubtedly gives the Corinthians assurance to persevere, but he points all thanks to God, lest anyone think it is his or her own will that is glorified.  We all have work to do, gifts to use, and it is a good thing to give thanks and praise to one another where it is due—so long as we acknowledge that all thanks be to God.

Our work is hard, and most times it is thankless. It is easier to let these four
weeks fly by, exchange gifts with a premise of joy, shoot off fireworks with a round of “Auld Lang Syne,” and offer a toast to ring in the next secular calendar year. We can congratulate ourselves and one another on what a lovely holiday we’ve had and get back to our regularly scheduled program. We have a choice.

The alternative is to heed our message from Mark that someone is coming. If we
pay attention—being as attentive as a gardener is to his plants—then we will know the signs. If we accept this mission, we are to be watchful, awake, and aware. We are to be attentive to one another and to the world around us. We are to live into our gifts we’ve been given and live with hope and faith, certain of the Love and Grace we’ve received, even in times of trouble. This is our hard work.

We can step back and breathe in the magnitude of what the word gives us today
and in this season. We are all to keep awake. We cannot afford to go through our lives sleepwalking, unaware of where Christ is trying to break through in our lives to reveal the grace of God. We will miss it if we’re not paying attention. We will miss it if we expect too much, too little, or expect nothing at all. Our gift right now is the anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child, who is himself our greatest gift, God Incarnate. The ongoing excitement drawn from this greatest gift is in finding where Christ is made manifest every day, especially now when the darkness draws early and near. Our challenge is to take enough presence and wakefulness into our lives to give witness and testimony to Christ wherever he appears, whenever that may be.

Only we can proclaim when we see the Light break through and spill forth God’s grace.

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Said and Unsaid

A seminary education covers a broad spectrum of everything pertaining to the religious life, much of which is unquantifiable.  How does one measure love? wisdom? mercy? grace? good? evil?

We can talk about God, but how does one experience God?  How do we experience God when evil happens in our life or the lives of others?

There is much written and taught about prayer.  There are steps to follow and different styles to try, but the actual doing is up to the individual.  Each experience is unique, and no one knows how God will be revealed in any given moment.

But God was there.  God is here.  God will be forevermore.

That’s hard to teach.  It’s hard to learn.  That’s faith, right?

Sometimes there are no words, and the silence speaks volumes.  

These are the thoughts I had when I saw these photos, a tribute to Boston by Amanda Soule on the day of the bombings.

 

 

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Day 3

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

You’ve given me to be one of those people who get headaches, and I’ve had all kinds.  Dull, ice-pick, tension, stress, heat, sinus, barometric, migraine.

You’ve also given me a gift of healing.  Now, I know how that works.  The truth is, I don’t do anything.  I just call upon you.  I tend to practice this gift with others.  I’m not very good at using it for myself.  That seems to take extra energy, extra effort.  How quickly I forget that you are ever-present and that strength through you knows no bounds.

I’m reminded of your love and compassion in the faces of those who are guests in our country this weekend, especially in the one who is our guest in our home.  Their people have known suffering I cannot imagine, and she practices and lives in her faith and beliefs in a way I can only admire.  Somehow in her journey she has found part of Your Mystery, has reached a point of not understanding, and yet the trust in You is called upon and overrides any slightest hint of doubt, if, indeed, there ever was any.   She doesn’t falter; she does blossom.

I was asked questions, too, about my beliefs.  What it boils down to is that I have more to learn about the Bible, about our history and creeds, but I have a solid grasp on the core of my faith.  I truly believe it’s the core of any faith, that God is about Love — love to God, love to self and others through, for, and as God.  This is practiced and appears as compassion, and it is Good.

Thank you for showing us the way of compassion through the great Teachers, Christ and Muhammed be praised.

Bless our home with radical hospitality.  Bless me with strength and healing.  Bless us all who strive to walk in your way, whichever path we take.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

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Flying without a Net

Have I written about faith before? (Sorry, I can’t help the sweet sarcasm!)  I know I have.  I know I’ve mentioned that faith becomes most apparent when we take the leap from security, routine, and stability and plunge into unchartered territory.  Often this happens when we act on our intuition, trying to follow our hearts, trying to live into what we perceive as our “call.”

Well, my friends, we’ve taken that plunge and have been free-flying for a few months now.  There are a few things we have learned thus far.

  • If you thought you knew how you would react if you “failed,” prepare to be wrong. I expected to be bitter, angry, resentful if we spent all our savings and extended our credit to its outer limits.  Thankfully, for the sake of the family, I’m not.  Also, perception of failure is a tricky thing.  Our greatest success in this venture is probably our change of perspective, our new understandings.
  • Expect most of the growth to be within. As mentioned above, most of the changes we have experience are that of understanding, perspective, appreciation and joy.  Our relationships deepened.  What makes our life most rich has become apparent.
  • Attachments are attachments. Mainly I mean attachments to material things.  We get attached to having the biggest and best, fancy this and highest quality that.  We have to let go of some things, deciding what is best for us individually and as a whole — a whole family and a whole world.    We learn what we can live without, and we learn what is truly worth the effort for quality.  Mostly, we want a quality life; this doesn’t always mean we have a top-of-the-line hi-def t.v.  “Live simply that other may simply live” applies to us all.
  • You never go back to where you were before. Even if our daily routine looks the same as it was six months ago, it’s not.  Even if my husband goes back to a “desk job” (in quotes because technically he’s been working at a desk in his “time off”), he’s going back with his new understandings, renewed or even new appreciation.  Once we’ve attained a new level of understanding, once we know something as true, we can’t un-know something.  In time, I’m sure this new level will open other doors for growth as we continue to learn more about the life we live.
  • Don’t underestimate your time. Be realistic about your needs.  Keep track of the bills.  Know how much debt you’re willing to accumulate, how much money it takes to live.  We’ve not been very good about this, honestly.  The lessons above were learned in enough time that we could have returned to the work status of before, before a financial crisis hit.  Be aware of this.  Give yourself a cushion, and if not, be willing to face the consequences.
  • Take responsibility. We choose our way individually.  If we don’t necessarily have control of our environment and what happens, we have the choice on how we respond.  As in my first point, I thought I would choose to be angry if this business venture didn’t succeed at the rate projected.  When it became apparent that deadlines and projections weren’t being met, I had a choice.  For my own benefit and for the benefit of those around me, I choose love.

These are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve taken flight.  It’s been an experience, a defining moment in our lives.  I know that in this past year, I have been pulled, if not called, deeper into my true nature.  Part of the magic of the leap may be that we get a clearer glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like, through the lens of faith and trust.

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