Where Is God?

Exodus 12:1-14 | Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 18:15-20

Take a moment to breathe. How are you doing? Because there is a lot going on right now.

Even if everything is wonderful for you, there are people in Houston digging through mold and mud. An earthquake struck South America, and now Florida is being battered by Hurricane Irma. There are people directly affected by the DACA decision, and there are also those being persecuted in Myanmar and refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Thanks be to widespread communications, we are aware of what a mess things are right now, and it is a lot. In the wake of so much that seems like death and destruction, we might ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a faithful question to ask, and how we respond to it says a lot about our theology, our understanding of God.

I have heard some respond that God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, that hurricanes or disasters are either given to help us be the strong people we are, or that are some kind of consequence for being sinners. Given this line of thinking, God is at the hand of destruction. So much like in Exodus, God is the agent behind the angel of death that destroys the firstborn in Egypt, unless they have been signified as households of God. We might gratefully wipe our brow and dismiss this as “not our position,” relegating it as a position of Jewish theology, this view of a wrathful God who hardens hearts and sacrifices the living. We separate our good selves from people who attribute natural disasters to some trite meaning.

It’s okay for us to say and believe that we don’t understand–we don’t know–why these horrible things are happening, especially to the vulnerable, to people who don’t have options or the ability to change their circumstances. As people who can rationalize anything, we can assign meaning to anything, too, but I caution myself when it comes to ascribing attributes to God based on my finite understanding of how things work. I don’t know. I can’t know. (Along this line, there was also this response to God and the disasters at hand.)

But I do know this: when I look for God in situations, I find God in relationship with people who are looking for God.

  • God was there in the midst of Pharaoh and Moses, giving Pharaoh the chance to heed the warnings being given.
  • God was guiding the people in their preparations for their meal.
  • God is with the people crying out for protection, help, guidance, and deliverance . . . ALL the people.
  • And God is with us who have the ability to respond to the needs of our neighbors.

As part of my job, I consider it a perk to visit with people who have questions about the church, and I love when people ask what’s truly on their minds because it means we’re developing a level of trust between us, we’re entering a loving relationship. After general questions about what my collar’s made of and about some “Episcopalianisms” being clarified, somehow the topic came up about how part of my role as a member of the clergy, is to bring the presence of Christ. As much as my clericals say “the priest is in,” so also do they signify that a person is present who believes that when two or three are gathered, Christ is here. She asked me sincerely, “So do you think Christ is present now?” Yes, of course. Not just because we were talking about religious things, but because we were giving attention to one another. We were listening to one another share stories of who we are, where we were in our lives and work. Surely the presence of the Lord was with us.

I attended the public discussion about the Confederate soldier statue on the square, along with about 140 others. In that mediated discussion, a room full of people agreed to hear what others had to say, even if it meant hearing an opinion that differed from their own. I heard things that made me smile and things that gave me pause. At times, it felt like my heart seized a moment as I wondered if a person truly meant what they said or understood its implications, and at other times, my heart swelled at truth–even painful truth–being spoken. It was a room of people that was trying to be in relationship, and it wasn’t without times of tension. Even though it wasn’t a religious gathering, I felt that there, too, God was in our midst.

Driving home from the event, I was kind of rushed because I hadn’t yet had lunch, and the Saturday night service wasn’t far off. I take a sort of short cut to my neighborhood through another one. Right in front of the stop sign, there’s a house that almost always has its garage door open and at least five or six kids playing with an adult or two sitting in the garage. It’s an African American family, and I almost always smile and wave at them because I admire that the kids are actually playing outside (something I struggle to get my kids to do), and I am grateful to see people of color living in Bentonville. The diversity in Bentonville today is much richer than it was 30 years ago. (Out of the 140 people at the forum, only 3 black people were present.) Rather than just be the crazy lady who waves at them, I’ve always wanted to stop and introduce myself, but it never seems like the right time. I’m always just driving by. This time wasn’t any different, but so filled was I in hope of dialogue and relationship, that I turned left instead of right and parked my car on the street in front of their house and went up to introduce myself in the midst of the little dog and playing children. I met the youngest of the adult children who helps with watching the other kids. They shared some of their family story, and I listened. I mentioned the dialogue about the statue and the lack of presence of black folks, and he wasn’t surprised. I mentioned racism and prejudice and discrimination, not all at the same time, but throughout the conversation, and he mentioned that he had “been black all his life.” Before I left, I told him I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself as a neighbor who was glad to meet them, and he told me I was welcome to stop by anytime. At the end of the day, it’s all about being a good neighbor, right? Living into the commandment to love one another?

It’s easy to get caught up in talking about what to do and leaving ideals in the ideological realm, but I’m more of a mind that we don’t have time for just that. It’s not enough to talk about something. It’s not enough to point out how nice something is for others to do or for theories to exist.

What are we doing now?

As a church we’re signing up to serve, so all of you check out the ministry fair today! We actively serve in our church, a church where everyone is a part of our work and worship. It’s not just about what we do as clergy but what we do as a body. But it’s also not just about what we do in here, within church walls, but about what we do outside. So talk to your neighbors if you don’t already. Bring awareness of the presence of Christ to your midst. If I can do it, anyone can; it just takes getting over that initial barrier outside your comfort zone to find what you didn’t know you were missing.

And there’s something to sharing a meal together. We do it every week here. There’s something about setting a table with intention for nourishment. So, starting next month, I’ll host a “Dinner with the Vicar.” It will be a sign up to come join my family and me for a simple meal, nothing fancy. (I have pets, too, so be forewarned!) Over a meal, we can share our lives together more intimately than just a quick greeting at the back. I’ll continue to meet with folks as much as I can over coffee or wine or at your homes, but I consider this opening a path to deeper relationship. I also consider it an invitation for the church to start a “Dinners for 8” model, where we take turns hosting a meal for folks in our congregation, always open for visitors, so we can share our lives together in a meaningful way, share our stories that we don’t otherwise get a chance to share. Not only for our church family, but I’m opening this up even more broadly by signing up for a People’s Supper. There’s a group that set up a model for “healing suppers” and “bridging suppers,” doing what they suggest in bringing together like-minded folks and then broadening to invite others with a different viewpoint–over a meal.

Wherever we find ourselves, in whatever kind of predicament either good or bad, it’s okay to ask “Where is God in this?” It’s a faithful question to ask because we only ever find what we seek. If we want to find God, look at our relationships. Look at how we care for one another. If we want to find God, look for how we love. If there’s not evidence of love there, maybe it’s up to us to bring the presence of Christ.

 

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A Sensory God

A poem for a sense of God while in discernment.

Inspiration thanks to a prompt given at Arkansas’ Episcopal Church Women’s Summer Quest with special gratitude for St. Luke’s, Hot Springs.

God tastes like a vitamin

Bitter and nasty

if left too long on the tongue

or in the mouth.

Heaven forbid it get

stuck

in the throat.

Best to swallow quickly and whole.

God smells like a spring rain

refreshing and sweet

with the scent of death

not far away or

under feet.

God feels like a 2×4

directly slammed to the head

or heart

but also like

grandma’s arms and chest

wrapped around in full

embrace

          and

                 comfort. . .

assurance that all is well.

God looks like the twinkle

of the eyes

above a smile,

through the tears,

from the heart,

bubbling up from the soul,

unbidden yet persistent.

God sounds like “YES”

when “no” is easier,

like “Here I am”

when nothing’s left to give,

like “I’ll go”

when no clear path appears.

God is Love

when Fear is all around.

To whom would you

         rather go?

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A Pause

A typo almost dictated the title to be “A Oa..”, which made me think of “an oasis.” What is a true pause but an oasis in our day? At least, this pause is for me. This pause is at the end of a comfortably full day, when I got home before dinner was already late, while the sun is still out, and the house still quiet since the fam isn’t yet back from after-school activities. Moms and dads of all sorts know this kind of pause, a sort of calm before the storm.

And in this pause I choose to write because it’s been a while since I’ve journaled or blogged or written anything other than sermons. While sermons are a treasured part of my ministry, there’s so much unsaid in a sermon, even as I hope to have said enough, trusting Spirit to fill in the gaps.

Pausing for a moment to write grants me the opportunity to see, to open my eyes and gaze with wonder what’s going on around me, let alone what’s going on within me. Pausing for a moment to write helps me realize where my prayers manifest, especially the prayers left unsaid.

This Lent has been a time of prayer: long and intentional, short and rushed, whispered, sung, listened to, promised, and hoped for. My breath prayer this Lent has been

Let me abide in you, O God.

One night driving home it took on the tune to the Taize hymn “Bless the Lord my soul,” and it has stayed with me since then–not that I’m ready to let it go.

If Lent is about realizing our dependency upon God and increasing our awareness of God’s presence, I believe this Lent I learned more about the opposite. I find myself returning to my breath prayer as an escape from all the constraints I put on myself, mostly, and all the anxieties I hold onto when I know full well it’s out of my control. I have seen how much more I depend upon my timing and my management (even though I know how horribly that works out most times!) and see just how messed up things are in the world through our microcosm of a community, rather than trusting in God’s perfect timing and dream for us all.

Preparing for Holy Week, this insight is rather perfect, for once we know something, it’s hard to ignore or pretend it doesn’t exist. (I’ll try to be sincere in my gratitude for this knowledge as I keep thinking, “Those to whom much is given, much is required.”) What has God revealed to me in the desert that I can take into the Easter season? What have I learn that, gilded with Resurrection, illuminates not only my ministry but even more importantly, God’s presence in the world?

I think I need more pauses to decipher the answers to those questions, but I know that Easter has much to say about God’s timing and God’s dream for us. In this pause, I can almost feel it in the anticipatory silence surrounding me.

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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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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 21 . . .

Right.  I know.  There are not enough posts between my last and current to count to 21, but I do have several prayers penned in my moleskine.  When I get more than 10 minutes, I’ll enter them on my blog.  For now, tonight was too momentous not to mention right away.  So let this count for Day 21.

Dear God,

Keep teaching me.  Keep infusing me with your Spirit.  Keep surrounding me with those who share wisdom, just enough so that they don’t even know they’re doing it.  This life is amazing, and I give my humblest thanks.

I am trying to walk the path to best serve your will.  I am trying, discerning, and I know I could not do it alone.  My path has converged with so many wonderful people; I have been blessed with a tremendous family and unimaginably compassionate friends.  Of course, each of us has a flaw or two, and from them we learn the most about ourselves.  I can’t imagine it any other way.

As I’m continuing along, help me to be mindful.  Help me not waste a dozen or more waffles because I forgot about them keeping warm in the oven.  I have enough, but there are so many without.  Help me be present to recognize the needs of others and to pay attention to what is at the heart of the matter.  Help me to hear the truth in my own heart.

And always, dear God, help me be grateful – for your love, for the gifts you’ve given me, for my friends, and for the gifts of others.  Help me remember how sweet these tender moments are with the children and how wonderfully supportive my husband is.  May they know my love for them is unconditional and greater than I will ever show.  Help me at least try to embody unconditional love.  I think I’d like to try.

Grant me the strength to do the work set before me, and may all the glory be yours.

Amen.

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Day 12

God bless Brenda Ueland; may her soul rest in peace.  Her words from decades ago resonate loudly to me, reminding me why I do what I do, putting in print the cries of my soul.  Sit a while, Sara.  Dream.  Write.  Gaze into the distance and feel.  That’s what my soul says, and I think Brenda would nod approvingly, maybe even give a sly little wink.

Every blessed moment when plans change or tragedy strikes or life seems all off-kilter, we still have a choice.  Thank you for providing us with this choice.  Sometimes I do just want to be a hedonistic sloth or wallow in self-pity.  Thankfully, I don’t prefer this for long.  What it does provide me with is a broader perspective and a greater appreciation for when those other holy, enlightened moments of peace and contentment come.  These aren’t the same as the moment of ecstatic joy (though those are lovely, too).  Moments of peace are like when you realize you’re floating on the water and relax into the flow.  Life is good.  All is well, and I feel it in the core of my being.

I’m convinced this peace does dwell within and through us all.  Our awareness of it is what changes, blinding us with ignorance of its presence.  Help us to know and to feel.  Help us to show this peace to others . . . and to see it in them, too.  Awaken us to the Peace that surpasses all understanding.

Thank you for the rain.  Thanks for protecting my children and animals (yes, even the chickens).

Continually guide us all onto the path that lives into the greatest compassion for everyone, however great or small that may be.  Hear us, O God, in our time of need.

Thanks and glory to You, now and forever.  Amen.

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Day 11

Wow.

This life is so full.

I fill a page with a schedule for the children for the day to come.  Nearly every minute is occupied, even if with the designation of “free time.”  Every moment of my day is occupied, too, from early morning to late at night.  Even then the unexpected tasks get wedged in between the standing commitments.

I’m reminded of the demonstration of the jar being filled with rocks (the obvious priorities), then smaller pebbles (the commitments and responsibilities), then sand (the everyday stuff), and just when it looks like it’s full and can hold no more, then you add water (I think of this as Spirit).  There was still room for water, a necessity of life.

Somehow in my daily life I still have room for prayer.  I need it.  I need to take the calls from friends.  I need to do the healing work, the holy listening.  I need to play a supporting or even a leading role in various ministries.  These nurture me and in some delightful way, it can help others.  It helps keep me balanced.

Today I felt out of whack.  It could be because I didn’t get up when I should.  I didn’t start the day with prayer.  It could be the whacky weather.  It could be our family routine being turned upside down.  It could be stress.  It could be the striking images I saw in the magazine of the most significant photos of the past 100 years – space, science, society (the Challenger, a growing baby en utero, starving children, a lynching).  It could be any combination of these things or of other things I have yet to consider.

There is so much in this life.  Dear God, I know you don’t expect me to hold it all, to understand it all, so help me to let it go, all of it.  Cleanse the thoughts of my heart . . .

And I give thanks for the rich life I lead.

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Day 10 . . . Again

Day 10 I honestly didn’t do anything.  I rested the whole day, and for that I truly give thanks.

But if I take into consideration what I have done this day, may I remember that today is a feast day.  The Transfiguration.  Today I watched seven women become baptized members of the church.  I felt the Spirit move between and among us.  We got to wait in quiet contemplation and in a little uncomfortable silence.

Lord, bless these women.  Help them in the paths that lie before them.  I don’t know what choices they’ll have to make, what obstacles they have to overcome, but I give them love, though this love I extend compares naught to the infinite power of Yours.

Our community is so small, but I hope the impact of all the little acts of kindness, the abundance of tender mercies, and the radical hospitalities that appear when we least expect it radiate a greater power than the sum of all that is done outside of Love.  May goodness overcome all evil.

Thank you for all my blessings.  Bless my family and my home.  Bless all those I love dearly and those I love whom I shall never meet.  The glory is Yours.

Amen.

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Days 8 & 9

This feels like it might be pushing it a bit, but I’ll count it anyway.  🙂

Thursday, Holy Eucharist at the noon-thirty service at St. Martin’s, the UA Episcopal campus ministry.  I enjoyed my lunch in silence, staring out at the ivy.  Prayer is mostly listening.

Friday, I retrieved a child from camp.  In so-doing, I got to attend the mountain-top chapel service at Camp Mitchell, our diocesan camp grounds.  Yes, it was already over 90 degrees F at 10 am, but it was lovely to be with all the youth and witness all the sweet reunions.

Many petitions for rain, for safe travel, and for enough.  Our wants are many, but may our needs provide enough through Your abundance.

Amen.

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