The Only Way is Through

Isaiah 50:4-9a | Psalm 31:9-16 | Philippians 2:5-11 | Matthew 26:14-27:66

If only the passion narrative were a “choose-your-own-adventure” story where we could make the decisions of the many characters and craft a story that wasn’t so heart-wrenching and tragic. If only our faith let us show up for Christmas and Easter to celebrate the glorious news of Jesus Christ’s birth and resurrection. If only all the stories throughout the Bible revealed the joy and faith and hope and love so we could truly celebrate being Christians and share that happiness with others. If only we weren’t so quick to run away or avoid the pain and suffering of reality.

May your hearing of the the Gospel reading today set the tone for and enrich your experience of Holy Week. It’s important that we tell the story year after year. Like our Jewish ancestors who insisted on the telling of the Passover and the observance of holy days that united them as a people delivered, a people favored by God, we, too, must tell our story and observe our holy days: our identities depend upon it. There’s insistence for all peoples and tribes to tell our stories so our children and our children’s children know and never forget who we are and where we’ve come from; it makes us stronger, these common bonds. Sharing our stories within our families and outside our comfort zones has a way of keeping our connection with reality and our dependency upon the grace of God in check.

Consider this:

Sitting with a convict who has admitted to heinous crimes, I can give testimony to the power of God to forgive him, offer redemption and wholeness, if he prays to God with repentance because I, too, have sinned (even if it’s nowhere near his crimes). He sees me as a prosperous woman in society. I must be living life right, so he wants to do what I’m doing. He wants God’s favor to be with him, too, because up to this point in his life, he can’t remember a time that didn’t reek of the stench of smoke and mildew, sweat and blood, and other things he’s trying to be polite and not mention. This makes me feel like I’ve done right, that I’ve shown him the right way. He’s going to be a better person because I’m a better person. I’m going to make him more like me.

But what about this alternative:

Sitting with the same convict, I can listen . . . not just to his crimes but to all the burdens he’s been carrying for some time: where the smoke and mildew came from, whose sweat and blood. Listen without judgment as he recounts the stories of his youth, revealing the dysfunction of his family and his parents’ so-called friends and how he thought he found a sense of belonging with his friends in school, but it turned out to be a re-creation of another mess tied up in drugs and crime. His truth-telling unfolds like a never-ending stream, and I watch as he won’t let the tears fall from his eyes until he sees my tears fall unbidden.

He looks down and away as the truth and tears stream together. All I can tell him is that the only one who knows the depths of his pain and suffering is Jesus. I won’t dismiss his doubts; rather, I share stories of those who have also questioned, “Why me?” I remind him that it’s okay to be wary of those who profess righteousness because even those who praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem stood aside or joined the masses to have him crucified. Who’s to say we would have done differently?

I hardly know what I’m saying because a force greater than myself is flowing through me to him. I trust it to be Spirit, and I feel it to be Love. It must be what living with the mind of Christ is like. I feel small and insignificant but feel like I will never let go of the faith that holds me in the embrace of the Almighty and makes me strong. It’s not my strength that broke the floodgates of the wounded man before me. Only Jesus Christ, who persistently did what no one should have been able to do, what no one was supposed to do . . . Only Jesus Christ who faced, mostly in opposition, all manner of authority and power and still rode into town on a donkey without any sort of defense–not even fear . . . Only Jesus Christ who let us choose what would be done, knowing it meant showing us the way of suffering and death . . . Only Jesus Christ who “holds all things together” (Col 1:17) releases us into the freedom of true Love.

We deceive ourselves if we skip the arduous journey to the cross this week. Yes, we know the full arc of the story, but if we take some time to sit with the stations of the cross or just pray with this reading from Matthew, what do we find ourselves resisting? What do we want to skip over? What do we think we already know enough about? What are we already “right” about?

Jesus, who enters our world through a willing, unmarried young woman, who shows our world that things aren’t always what they seem, brings the divine into our world right smack dab into the mess of things as they are and shows us all how to go through it. We’ll die, yet we’ll live. This is the way of the cross. This is our story. This is who we are as a Christian people.

In Matthew, we are told that Judas realized too late how pointless his betrayal was, how greatly he had been used to no good end. Whatever he thought he was getting out of the deal, it had been an illusion. Things weren’t as they seemed, and he had so completely lost hope, he rejected life altogether. If only Judas had seen. If only Judas had been there. If only Judas had persevered through the despair, he, too, would have tasted and seen the glory of the Resurrection, the power of redemption, and hope everlasting while still in the flesh.

We can’t let ourselves be fooled by illusion, by quick fixes or cheap promises that guarantee us a bypass over the pain and suffering of life. We can’t succumb to normalcy of oppression and domination. We can’t let ourselves forget our story, that it’s our job, our responsibility, to live our lives in the way of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit — because Jesus showed us that we can, with God’s help.

It’s going to mean reading even more of the Bible to tune our ears to hear God’s guidance and remember God’s power, mostly through the stories of those who walked the way before us. We have to talk to strangers, listen intently to our neighbors near and far, and get outside our comfort zones. Most importantly, living in the way of Christ means loving without judgment, loving and living without fear because we know who truly holds the power of Life.

As we walk through this week, we will open our hearts and minds to remember. We’ll taste hope. We’ll be afraid. We’ll worry. We’ll face death. And we’ll sleep, knowing the Son will rise to greet us Easter morning. But we’ve got to go through hell first.

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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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(Not) Another Gumption Trap

If ever I thought that gumption traps were only for those things that I loathed to do . . . I may have been on to something.

For a moment I thought my current state of discombobulation resulted from a procrastination of that which I am thoroughly excited about and looking forward to.  Alas, getting to the end involves some steps in between, little steps that must be made like outlines and timelines and trips to the store.  Then there’s also the messy phases (where the lack of knowledge is discovered or the dust is revealed) before everything is neatly packed and ready for the next phase.

I am holding on and find myself in another trap.

Not all traps are unpleasant, mind you, just as not all ruts are mucky.  There’s something to be said for comfortable routines, predictable leisure, familiar surroundings.  Then Change comes along, perhaps accompanied by Opportunity, and suddenly nothing is as it “should” be.  Heaven forbid we try to straighten everything while the very foundation continues to shake.  Again, there’s that rumble in my gut.

Even my subconscious knows growth is happening.  At my core, I know it to be good.  There just seems to be another layer to be cracked, even if it’s just a little membrane to split open, before the genuine excitement and sheer enthusiasm can kick in, before the roots grow deep and the branches flower.

Of course, it may not happen soon.  There may be much to hold the layer firm.  Eventually, though, it will.  I’m not one to hold back for long.  Nature will have its way.

So, be still, my beating heart.  Sigh deeply.  Smile.  Let the work begin.  There never was a trap, just a choice to be made.

 

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Let Nature Take Its Course

How can something so sweet and juicy come in a time so hot and dry?  The melon explodes in my mouth – first the dainty cantaloupe ball, sculpted with love by the southern hostess, then the red-ripe watermelon triangle, bite-size for those willing to commit to a full-mouth experience, prepared by aforementioned hostess.  Summer isn’t a time for inhibition.

I’m barely connected to the seasons now.  I mean, I am inevitably and unconditionally, by sheer existence on this planet, but I’m not the joyful participant I felt I was in years past, at least trying to tend the plants and the soil.  I would like to reclaim that connection.

Uncertainty abounds, and like the pesky mosquitos that keep me indoors at night, our financial circumstances have a way of stifling freedom.  We’re afloat at the moment, fortunately, but we would like to be completely unshackled.

I’ve begun my discernment group.  Things could progress much more quickly that I thought.  I have no idea how it will work out.

The most joyful things in life are free in the moment, but there are expenses involved; I cannot deny that.  I have to work with that, and I hope that I will not ever sacrifice creativity.

Nature has a way of ripening into delicious beauty despite seemingly harsh conditions.  I have hope.

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The Ice Melts

The kids are home for their second day, but at least today is a little more unplugged.  I let them watch movies yesterday thinking the power would go off, but it didn’t until almost midnight!
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As the kids settle into various activities, I keep drifting to the windows, looking across the rooftops and at the now-splintered trees.  The evergreens seem to have more resilience, able to take the Dr. Seussian contortions, but the deciduous trees . . . ah, the poor trees.  There’s still the crack and snap and rush of falling ice to be heard as the melting water adds the proverbial straw, adding too much weight to the exhausted wood.  At least, that’s what I imagine.

There are times when I, too, let the elements accumulate upon me, surround me and weigh me down.  I sag and droop, losing enthusiasm and very nearly my hope.  When the sun does start to peek through the clouds, I feel the cold shroud falling away.  Sometimes I cannot help but absorb some of that which burdens me.  Sometimes it’s hard to let it all evaporate, allowing myself to eventually regain my stature.  Sometimes I want to just absorb it all and snap and break and fall away.

But I don’t.  I guess I’m more like the evergreens I see on the horizon.  I can take it, and I do.  I may be taken for granted at times, even by my very self, but it’s up to me to decide how I weather all storms.

The sun is always there.  We just have to have faith and remember to keep the windows open to our heart and soul.

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All in a Dream

On the radio today I heard two African American mothers suggest that their son could be the next president; one of the sons actually made the suggestion that he could be president.  Perhaps this is part of the hope and change that Obama seeks to revitalize in the USA.

No matter which side you voted for, we have to trust that our nation will move forward, that as a people we can join together, agreeing to disagree on some points, compromising on most others.  Personally, I believe that if we are to make things better for our children, we have to embrace a paradigm shift.  We have to leave our “look out for No. 1” mentality behind and take the “servant-leader” role.  We have to learn how to lead and live with compassion, with awareness and consciousness.  We have to make our homes safe, help people find a right livelihood and genuinely take care of one another.

Do thoughts like these increase the profit margins?  Will it guarantee that we’ll be able to buy all the best and newest things out there?  No, but do we need those things anyway?

If we can take off the layers of messages we receive from corporate media, the layers of expectations built upon us from issues of the past and set forth with a new dream, who knows what can happen.

As Obama did, we can try.  Hope.  Change.  And in the sing-song of Disney’s Pixar Robinsons, “Keep moving forward!”

Martin Luther King, Jr., proudly said he had a dream.  He dared to share his dream.  Look what he sacrificed.  Look how far we’ve come.

What do you dare to dream?

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Unexpected Beauty

Cinderella.  The frog prince.  Angels in disguise.  Tragedy turned blessing.  All our lives we are given the lesson that things are not always what they seem.  Be not quick to judge, for you do not know what lies within or ahead.

destin_beachmoor.JPG.jpgLast fall as news of deaths and stress of life seemed to be our daily lot, I never dreamed of spending Thanksgiving in a beautiful house on the beach. Yet, there we were.  It was almost eighty degrees Fahrenheit, and while I’m partial to my chilly weather and general November dreariness, it was itself a blessing.  Be ye of good cheer.  Enjoy life.  Revel in the source of life, of energy.  The clouds came, the wind and cooler temperature.  Even so, standing on the beach with my toes in the sand, I was grateful for life, for the moment.

It was sunset, and the clouds left a window to assure us of as much, though to the southwest we could see the rain.  The light, the wind, the chill, the laughter — everything was right.  Everything was and is beautiful.  After our summer trip to the beach down the highway, I wasn’t expecting it to be so lovely.  I certainly didn’t expect to see the stingray jumping in the distance.

The next day the ashes of a loved one were released to the ocean, our reason for being there, but I don’t think that means we weren’t to enjoy ourselves.  If our aunt were with us, she would have been having a ball, too, enjoying the place but even moreso the family togetherness, the tradition of food, the sincerity of our lives.

Maybe we like being surprised.  We act with disbelief when something truly good or beautiful presents itself.  Sometimes, even, we blatantly deny or ignore it.  We do not expect to find beauty abundant.

What if we accepted that beauty is abundant, is within everything and everyone?

Rather than hoping for a surprise party, we can search for the treasures we know are there, excavating the golden moments or the silver linings.

destin_beach.JPG.jpgI didn’t have my camera with me to capture the smiles and sunset on the beach (photos are from my mother-in-law’s camera).  All I could do was breathe in the salty air, taking it all in as deeply as I could.  For that Thanksgiving, I was grateful, as ever, for the abundance of beauty, in all its forms, in our lives.  May I go forward expecting to find and experience beauty, even though I do love a pleasant surprise.

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“Intuitive, Brash Hope”

Despite the boys’ bickering noise and the monkey brain I was having yesterday during our priest’s sermon, I managed to listen to most of his message.  One thing he said shined through the rest.

“. . . Live with intuitive, brash hope . . . even though you know you will fail.”

Even today, it makes me sigh, not as in “oh, well, there’s no use,” but in an “okay, full speed ahead” sort of way.

At first I thought of all my activisms — mother-friendly birth, women’s spirituality, sustainability and such.  These struggles are huge and up against great walls of consumerism and ego.  The chances of me doing anything significant are small, almost infinitely so.  Now, as part of the larger organizations I’m associated with, our chances are much greater.  I’m inclined to be more daring, more hopeful.  Now I find another meaning in the words.  I can live with my intuitive, brash hope in these ideal causes because I know they are good ones.  I also know I will fail, my ego will be dissolved in the effort, especially if the obstacles are overcome.  Life is just ironic like that.

But what about my life as a whole?  Two stories came my way yesterday.

One was as I shared this bit of the sermon with my husband.  He said, “Yeah, (our friend) said his wife devoted her life to activism, and then she died.”  Was I to take this as a sort of dramatic foreshadowing?  Or could it be emphasis to the point I mentioned earlier?  Would I change my lifestyle, do anything different if I knew I wasn’t to live much longer, or would I live even more brashly?  (When I think of “brash,” I think of it more as without shame.)

The second story came from a woman in my writing workshop class (yes, I made it to another one!).  She said that us younger women needed to write while we were young and full of passion, that opinions grew less potent as we age.  She said that a friend told her once she reached 57 that she wasn’t as full of fire as she had been when she was younger.  “Write now.  Write while you have these strong opinions.”  Was she really telling me this?

It felt like a long weekend, and to receive so much in one day leaves one much to consider.  So here I am, writing, sharing, learning and hopefully growing.  I continue in my activism, and my activism is fueled by my intuition.  With a deep breath, I go forward from here.  I’ll consider it a blessing to have my ego die, and when it comes the day for my body to die, may it be said that I lived with “intuitive, brash hope” that good would prevail.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

The wonderful thing about journaling, about writing for where you are in life at the moment, is that you can reflect on where you’ve come from, see if your thoughts are well-founded, see if your visions come true.  I wrote this entry almost two years ago.  Our sidewalk ended.  We leaped into the grassy field and wandered and faltered until we’ve eventually come back to where we were before.  Our gains were in experience and life lessons.  We’re still walking.  How does your path go?

Visiting with an acquaintance at the grocery store, catching her up on our goings-on, I found a good description for where we are right now.  “It’s like we’re right here where the sidewalk ends, and it’s going to take a leap of faith” to determine which path we make for ourselves.  So here we are.  Brace yourself.

For some reason, things have to come in clusters for us.  Having a baby would be enough excitement, but we also chose to homeschool the same year, build a bread oven in the backyard (starting right around the due date), and change jobs — the latter being the main reason the sidewalk ends.  Our path has never really been the well-maintained, paved walkway, more the broken, uneven, weedy, less-traveled path anyway.  However, now for some reason, my husband feels compelled to leave the corporate realm he’s been a part of since we’ve been married.  He, too, seeks authenticity, and I admire that.  He’s also the monetary provider for our livelihood, though, and there are quite a few of us these days to feed, making his decisions weighty.  Before truly following his dreams, we have to make sure there are assets, something to rely on to pay the bills.  It will take time, a transition period, perhaps, that will be less corporate but still techy.

Responsibility doesn’t have to mean certain doom.  We can have our families and our dreams; it just takes some juggling, fine-tuning and budgeting (in most cases).  I know I can’t afford a housekeeper, baby-sitter and all the craft supplies I want!  I can keep journals, especially ones that honor my ideas and dreams.  I can carve out time for me on good days.  We can take our kids to events we feel passionate about or at least take turns going.  When need be, time will be spent to provide the monetary necessities.  Interestingly enough, we can create money.

When we are in a good balance, the Universe has a way of providing.  So here where even our rough old sidewalk ends and we have to jump to our next path — probably the dirt trail through the grassy field and shady wood — we have to be balanced before we can thrive, and we have to trust ourselves and the Universe to support our decisions.  Everything will fall into place.  May the Universe Shower blessings and creativity upon us just as the Leonids shower the heavens.  I may not be able to see them clearly because of the huge clouds in the way, but I know they’re there.  When we are in vulnerable times in our lives, I believe it is ultimately important to listen to the still small voice that offers guidance, gives creative ideas, tells you to rest or to work.  We all need Divine help to find balance, and it’s a lot easier to jump if we feel we’re going in the right direction.  We do love our walks in the woods, and I’m loving my abundance of creative energy — it may just provide the bridge or net we need right now.

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Girl Power

I received an e-mail from a friend, forwarding me to a website.  I have to admit, I’m intrigued by the name “Girl Effect,” but the video speaks volumes into one aspect of good we can do in our world.  I had to share.  If you don’t think you can do anything, try contacting the Heifer Project, at least.  Do a search for loan programs for women in developing countries, also known as micro-credit loans.  I’m sure there’s something we can do.

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