Hope, Unity, & Vision

Exodus 1:8-2:10 | Psalm 124 | Romans 12:1-8 | Matthew 16:13-20

At the Christianity panel sponsored by the Tri-faith Club on Tuesday night, there was a question regarding all the different denominations within Christianity. The question really started out with something like: “What’s up with all the different denominations in Christianity?” We were told there are more than 33,000 denominations, and that number continues to grow. So when our collect mentions a church “gathered together in unity,” I pause. “Unity” doesn’t exactly come to mind when thinking of the whole Church, and therein lies a warning flag for a shortcoming in my living into God’s will. So focused am I on “our” well-being as an appendage to the Body of Christ, that I miss the opportunity to pray with all my heart, soul, and mind this prayer of hope that sees–that visualizes– the potential we have as the Body of Christ to give glory to God.

We are taught from a very early age to look out for ourselves, for our kind. It’s a tribal mentality, and I haven’t tried it, but I imagine that if you look at every conflict throughout history, you can see the battles playing out between an “us” and a “them.” We must protect ourselves for our survival. Certainly we have that within our Christian ancestry. Take this genesis story of Moses. The new king didn’t know Joseph; he didn’t know that it had been Joseph’s leadership that had helped the Egyptians and the Hebrews live through the famine. From his place of power, he saw the others, the Hebrews, growing in number, and rather than do the hard work of learning to live together without fear, without oppression, the king leaned harder into the oppression, motivated by his fear of this strong multitude of people. Where was the king’s hope? We can’t see it for the fear of losing power. What is his vision? For a continued reign unchallenged. Where is his sense of unity? Solely within his kind.

(I’m talking about the ancient Egyptians, remember. People who lived thousands of years ago.)

What about the “others”? The apparently growing number of Hebrews, who, even in their subservient place in society, were also growing in power. Whereas the Egyptians feared the Hebrews, the Hebrews, we are told, feared God. At least, the midwives feared God more so than the king. So when they are told to kill the boys born to Hebrew mothers, they commit civil disobedience. They speak the truth when they say that the Hebrew women are vigorous; they are strong from all the labor they have to do. Are they born before the midwife comes to them? I birthed with a midwife who said the baby always started to come when she stepped away to go to the bathroom. Maybe these midwives, too — Shiphrah and Puah — didn’t get there in time. It can happen like that. We have the names of these midwives. Shiphrah and Puah. They had a sense of where they stood in relationship to God. They had a sense of hope in the blessing of their people, that they dare not defy God’s covenant or work against it. Their hope is in God. Their vision is in a people chosen by God. They know the stories of Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and even more than that, they know the roles of the women in the stories, too. They know the power of the women to continue in God’s work. Their people cannot survive without them. They know they have to work together as a people united to be and stay strong. Out of all of this, Moses is born and rescued–by the cooperation of Egyptian and Hebrew women. Leave it to something innocent, precious, and good like a baby to bring people together, even if they aren’t fully aware of the divine work at play.

We’ll continue with more of Moses next week, but today, where is our hope? What is our vision? Where is our unity?

We, who know the stories of our people, who, like Peter recognize Jesus as the Son of God and are assured the kingdom of heaven, can we kick back and ride out this life on the waves of grace and the assurance of our salvation?

Peter might have been granted this moment of glory with the favor of Jesus shining upon him, but remember that Peter is also the one who denies Jesus three times. Peter is a lot like us in his imperfections, right? He showed us that great faith can get us out of the boat, but our fears can also sink us. We needn’t be so sure of ourselves. We have to know who we are, really.

We have to know where our hope is, and our hope is in the name of the Lord. How many times have we said that? What does that look like in practice? My hope is in God, so even when I’m told to do something that I know in my heart of hearts is wrong, I do not do it. More than that, I say out loud what is true, and if I do what is wrong, I confess and repent and begin again. With the strength of Shiphrah and Puah, I support life and protect the vulnerable, and even if I’m scared, it is hope that I have in God to be with me, behind me, and before me, that I walk in the way of Jesus Christ. Hope in practice looks like living with the marginalized, if not as actual neighbors then as advocates for them. Sharing meals together. Sharing conversations together. Voting on measures that support the poor and silenced. Hope in practice looks a lot like taking the Light of Christ and sharing it with others because it gets stifled and changes when we hoard it for ourselves. We begin to think that the hope and all God’s promises are just for us when we keep hope to ourselves, when we start to enclose ourselves in our echo chambers which are too confined for the Holy Spirit.

Our hope is in the name of the Lord, and our vision is set on the Kingdom of Heaven. Isn’t it? “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” We mean that, right? If we don’t pray this every day, we get distracted. We forget what’s important. Our vision gets short-sighted in the busy-ness of our daily lives, and our hope becomes fixed on making it through the next few hours for me and mine. And we do have to take care of ourselves, making sure that our basics are met so that we can help others. But taking care of ourselves doesn’t mean that we only make sure our basics are met; our neighbors need the basics, too. Do you know when and where the food pantries are in our community? (Here’s a link.) As long as there are people starving, we’re going to struggle to share the vision of the kingdom because people are living in hell. When our basic needs are met, we can imagine the kingdom because we’ve tasted abundance. We’ve known love and safety and stability. There are people worldwide who don’t have those experiences. And it doesn’t mean that God is any less with them than us. Don’t for a second think that God doesn’t love someone who is suffering. The culpability is on us, the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in this world.

Have we become lame? Do we need to be revived?

Yes, we need to be revived, and we must be united as the Body of Christ. Yes, there will be divisions because we do not agree on everything, but fundamentally, we share one Lord, one Word, one Love. As a Church gathered together in unity by the Holy Spirit, we can’t help but show God’s power of Love in the world, and this is work we must do.

There is hope.

Being new in this community, I’m building relationships. Yes, it’s easier to build relationships with people like “us,” but I’m also looking for opportunities to reach out and unite with others for the sake of Love and to the glory of God. Because we have a Light that shines and illuminates for us a vision of the kingdom. The doors are wide open and sometimes we get a glimpse, like when Camp Mitchell announces it’s open for refugees from the hurricane or when another Magdalene House opens up or brings another woman in. And ultimately, we are a people united, not just as Christians but as children of God, as people of humanity. What unites us? Love. The love that involuntarily bubbles forth when we recognize our common humanity. The love that makes us rush into harm’s way to help another. The love that makes us pick up the crying baby from the river.

At the interfaith prayer service Monday night, Dr. John L. Colbert from the Northwest Arkansas Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Council had a speech prepared and threw it to the wind as the Holy Spirit blew in. His heart showed in his eyes and smile as he greeted us with the energy of a black pastor about to lead us in a gospel sing. He admitted that he was overcome by love as the voices from people gave thanks and as we came together as a people united. And he did the thing that we are so dis-inclined to do. He chided us for sitting so far apart, and he told us that we love being told that we are loved. Then he told us to stand up and tell a neighbor that we love them, to look them in the eyes and say, “I love you.” Laughing genuinely, and I’m sure some were laughing nervously, we all stood up and spent the next five minutes hugging one another, telling each other, “I love you.” And we meant it. You know when you look into the eyes of another person whether they are telling the truth. You know when it’s hard. You know when they’re trying. But if you look into someone’s eyes and say, “I love you” with the love of Christ, that love of Christ shines forth from the depth of your being and rejoices that you’ve given glory to God, allowing a connection to be made, for a union to occur. It might be tenuous at first, but with a lot of practice, all our hopes and vision for the kingdom can be realized if we focus on what unites us.

 

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Seeds & Weeds

Genesis 28:10-19a | Ps. 139:1-11, 22-23 | Romans 8:12-25 | Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

A lone thistle from All Saints’ property.

A few years ago, I recall talking with my dad on the phone as he was out checking the cows, and he was complaining in colorful language how there was another … thistle in the pasture, another weed that–given the smallest window of opportunity–would multiply quickly and continue to contaminate the hay field. It reminded me of when Casey and I laboriously tended to our lawn in Conway, the lawn of the first home we purchased. We wanted to be organic, so I pulled weeds by hand on the lawn that Casey mowed in a certain pattern. Someone told me that one weed would spring forth seven more, at least, if not caught before it matured. I couldn’t imagine pulling up a thistle by hand, definitely not without gloves. Any time I would see thistles along the roadside or in a nearby field, I’d think of my dad and his battle with the thistle, his weed archnemesis, and wonder if that landowner felt the same way, exasperated at trying to get rid of them.

So when I picture the scenario of the parable Jesus gives us today, I imagine the servants looking suspiciously at their master as the weeds–and of course I picture thistles–grow above the wheat. “Trying to cut corners, were you?” they might be thinking. He bought the cheap seed, huh? Got a good deal? Because they had only planted what had been given to them. They had done their job right.

But the master isn’t a fool. He knows what’s going on. While everyone was sleeping, the enemy flung the invasive weed seeds throughout the crop. There was at least a 50% chance for the master to get aggressive in getting rid of the weeds. A chance that he would destroy the weeds and crop alike. To let the weeds and crop grow together would require more work and use valuable resources. There’s a chance the whole field would end plowed up, given up on.

The God of Jacob, who promised to be with him and keep him; the God of David, who is inescapable and knows the way that is everlasting; God, who revealed Himself in the person of Jesus as a sower of good seeds, is not a God of chance.

God knows.

The master knew what was up, what the stakes were, what the stakes are.

We struggle with omniscience. Because if God knows all, what does that mean about our free will? What kind of choice do we have? But if we listen carefully to our treasured parable today, we hear that the Son of Man is the sower of good seed. God, creator of all Creation, saw from the beginning that Creation is good. And that God knows everything means that God knows all variations on a theme of our choosing–from a reality where Adam and Eve stay obedient to a reality where only giving of God’s self brings redemption to the world. The great I AM knows all that is, has been, and will be, even though our human brains cannot even compute the infinite possibilities of the infinite variables at play in the actions and reactions taking place in all the world throughout the cosmos. And Creation is Good.

But what of evil? THE enemy?

Are we Episcopalians even supposed to be talking about evil and the devil? Yes. Because when were the seeds of the evil one sown? When everyone was asleep. When no one was aware. When no one was paying attention. Not until the deed had been done did anyone notice, and did you notice how quick everyone was to put the blame on the master? You planted the bad seed, didn’t you? It’s your fault. We want to do that, too, don’t we? When things go wrong, when life gets hard, we want to say God did it. Or if we’re trying to maintain a sense of faith, we’ll say, “God has a plan.” But it is so out of our hands that we’re just the innocent servants in the field, doing what we can with what we have. We’re just objects in the cog of the machine. Where here, God’s there, and if we’re doing everything right and staying faithful and obedient, evil is nowhere near us.

(If this is what you practice in your life, we need to sit and visit and hash out our theology a bit more.)

Every bit that God is faithful and devoted, inescapable and everlasting: God is Love. This Love is not only all-knowing, but it is also ever-present. So we can lay our head on a rock in the desert and receive a dream that blurs the distinction between heaven and earth and know that the LORD is in this place. We can bare our heart and soul, fears and doubts, joy and praise, and the unconditional Love never fades. We can hope with all hope and stand in the midst of the field when danger is all around and know that we are ultimately okay.

In the goodness of Creation, there was from early on the ability to be against God, to disobey, to interrupt the relationship of unconditional love. That we can do anything means we have choice, and love fully lived into is of free will, otherwise it is not unconditional, true, wholehearted love. And when Jesus tells us to love our enemies, it’s yet another example of Jesus telling us to do what God has already done.

God knows this. But the Devil doesn’t understand Love. The Devil doesn’t understand the devotion of a loving Creator who will go to great lengths–even through death and resurrection–for the sake of the good seeds that have been sown.

Does that mean that the weeds are automatically to be burned in the fiery furnace? We are so hasty to point out the faults of others, to label “us” and “them,” and to judge in general. Given texts that have language of reaping and burning, weeping and gnashing of teeth, we have an arsenal to broadcast fear. I want to be a righteous one, not an evildoer, and if being a “good seed” is too hard, well, I may as well not care at all. Why believe in something that dismisses me out of hand? The Enemy is clever, right? Is apathy worse than fear? It’s not any better. But if we think we are castaways, why bother?

Do you hear what our God who knows is saying today? I won’t hurt the seeds, even those sown by the enemy. I’ll let them grow. My workers will tend to the field, as I command them. The choices that are made will create the end result. Never am I not here. Never have I dismissed them out of hand. Even my enemy’s children have the option to choose love.

While I was in seminary, I had the privilege of being close to Nashville where Becca Stevens began the Magdalene House, a place for women to escape drug addiction and sex trafficking, lives on the streets. The founding principle is that love heals, and I have a couple of shirts and stickers of my own that promote Magdalene House and the social enterprise they started to give the women opportunity to learn and work. As many of you probably know (since we have models based on the Magdalene House in our state), the enterprise is called Thistle Farms. In addition to bath and body products, Thistle Farms sells paper products like greeting cards. In the handmade paper are bits of thistle, particularly the flower. The very weed that was the bane of my dad’s pasture is the very flower sought out by Becca and the rest of the Thistle Farmers. Becca says,

“To me, being a thistle farmer means that the world is our farm and our job is to see the beauty in the areas that have been abandoned or deemed unworthy of cultivating. Our fields include alleys, lots behind malls, railway clearings, and the poorest sections of town. When we harvest a thistle, we see the beauty in all of creation and that nothing should be left to be condemned.”

When she speaks to groups in Tennessee, she’ll often say that if we notice a place where thistle are growing, to let them know. Whether she’s talking about the thistles or the women who need healing, it’s hard to say, but God knows.

And we know, thanks to Jesus Christ, that we bear the burden of responsibility not to judge what is good seeds or bad weeds but to keep our focus on what is of Love. We stand in the midst of the field and know that there is so much more to this life that we don’t know than what we do. We believe even when we can’t fully understand that the boundaries between the realm of the angels and the depths of hell are not that far apart and that the promise of an end of an age happens more often than we realize and continues to happen only as God understands until the reality we perceive matches God’s dream for the kingdom to come. A dream where love is the pervasive reality, a place where love not only heals but also where love always wins and grows among us all.

 

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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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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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