For God Alone . . .

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 | Psalm 62:6-14 | 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 | Mark 1:14-20

I don’t normally talk about specific theologies, but there’s one out there called “prosperity theology” or “prosperity gospel.” What do you think of when you hear the word prosperity? Success? Wealth? Favor? You’re doing good, right? The main premise, as I understand it, is that if you’re doing good, living right, giving generously (especially to your church), then God will bless you with an abundance of health and wealth. It’s like the really good Good News. Actually, someone sent me an email linking to an article that said one of these prosperity gospel pastors was calling for her congregation to give the equivalent of one month’s salary to the church. I don’t know if this was to tithe or if it was a bonus gift requirement, but the joke was that this could help us shore up the budget at All Saints’. But that’s not what we do or how we do it. Because what happens when you’re doing everything right, and suddenly the wheels fall of? What happens when bad things happen to good people? Does that mean God has rejected you or punished you? When everything’s going right, it’s easy to celebrate abundance. It’s easy to celebrate Nineveh’s repentance and God changing God’s mind. Our Psalm is like a cheerful lullaby, for of course we wait for God alone our hope and strength. And of course the disciples are just going to pick up and follow the charismatic Jesus along his way. All is good! The kingdom of God is theirs. Honestly, this view of doing good and being good and getting abundance and blessing in return sounds conditional and very me-centered. What am I getting out of my living a seemingly godly life?

Anymore, when things seem a little too good to be true or a little too shiny, perfect, or easy, I wonder where the mess is. Because real life is messy and complicated. Real life has uncompromising people and shutdowns, poverty and illness, affluence and addiction. Real life has bad things happen to good people without our understanding why, and if our whole view of God is that we get the good when we are good, then to get reality means that we’re bad. That’s not our theology. That’s not our understanding of God because that’s not what’s been revealed to us in our Scripture nor in the life of Jesus Christ.

Did you hear the reading from Jonah? Was this account from his first call from God? No. It’s the second time…because the first time he got a call from God, he thought it would be a good idea to run the other way; only that plan led him to the belly of a big fish. He ended up in Nineveh anyway. This, the second time, he decided to go ahead and do what God told him to. I imagine him walking across a big city like Little Rock, a three days’ walk across, proclaiming the city’s doom. But the people actually listen and repent, and then what’s God do but see their repentance and change God’s mind! That’s great for the people and God, but where does that leave Jonah? What kind of prophet is he if what he says doesn’t come true? What kind of credibility does he have? Jonah goes into a pretty deep pity party, feeling sorry for himself, and he more accurately reflects the Psalms that describe the doubt and despair than hope and praise.

When we hear about faithful and imperfect lives of people more like ourselves, what do we see revealed about God? How do we read “For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope”? It comes not always from a place of richness and abundance with a tone of rejoicing; we can read the same line from a place of wondering, wandering . . . a place of wilderness . . . a place where we are really hoping there is hope at all.

Maybe we can hear the letter to the Corinthians not as a dismissal of things of this world but of a non-attachment grounded in the assurance of the kingdom of heaven, consistent with love of neighbor and self and God. As we navigate the reality of our lives, we see that it is but for the grace of God that any of us experience the gift of life, let alone that of abundance. And our concept and perception of what is rich in this life truly depends on what we value . . . and not just materially. Jesus’s Way set forth the example of living into a life of radical hospitality and welcome, of invitation and generosity, and of inverting the status quo. I repeat often: this doesn’t mean it will be easy. Jesus shows us the way of life, death, and resurrection; therein lies our hope.

Before we hear about Simon and Andrew, James and John dropping what they’re doing to follow Jesus, we hear that this happens after John has been arrested. John was doing what he did, being the prophet that he was. He had said that he would decrease and that the one to come would increase. We know John doesn’t get a happy ending. Lest we too lightly see the apostles cheerfully following Jesus, we’re given the simple fact that John had been arrested. There is reason for pause. There are risks to be taken. Risks not just in living life as we are given it to live but especially if we are living into who God has called us to be.

Here’s a big clue for whether or not we’re following the way of Christ: who stands to receive the glory? If we are living deeply into a life for the glory of God, it’s God who gets the glory, and that’s not something our ego likes to hear.

But it’s so good for our hearts.

I took the time to hear Scarlett Lewis talk about the Choose Love Movement when she came to St. Thomas in Springdale. Her child Jesse was one of those murdered at Sandy Hook. Rather than be anchored by the weight of the tragedy, she had the presence to notice signs that surrounded her and grace to give her strength that the best thing she could do would be to choose love and to forgive. What an incredible witness to following Christ.

I also know that we’re forming a Faith Voices NWA, a regional group of Faith Voices Arkansas. As a regional group, the intent is to bring together clergy in our area so that we can share a united voice that can be louder and stronger on moral issues of our time. But before we can be united in one voice, we have to build relationships not just between faiths but even between denominations. What can we do to reach across the denominational divide so that we can actually be one Body? Such relationship-building truly requires us to know ourselves and be open enough to let God work through us.

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, there is my hope.

It’s okay to be still. It’s okay to step aside and let the Holy Spirit move through us. Because isn’t the hope for us all that God’s dream for us be manifest, that the presence of Christ be realized in, through, and by us and our neighbors? That’s our invitation. Jesus, in inviting the apostles to follow him, is likewise inviting us. “Follow me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people,” he’s saying. Follow him, and we’ll learn how to be caught up in the net of unconditional love, grace, and mercy of God. Therein lies our hope.

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Anticipation & Presence

Isaiah 64:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 | 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 | Mark 13:24-37

Quite unlike our January 1st New Year’s Day, we in the Church have a less festive way of celebrating our turn of the calendar year, for this is a new year. If you’re keeping track of readings, we’re in Year B now, a year we’ll get to read lots from Mark, and for the Daily Office, we’re starting Year Two. But I doubt many of you stayed up until midnight to mark the occasion–no fireworks, singing, or festive parties. Then you come to church (you faithful lot), and solemnly light one candle and proclaim to you to KEEP AWAKE since second coming may be nigh. What does it all mean?

We say “keep awake” as we enter the darkest time of the year. The last thing I do to keep awake is to turn out all the lights and let things get quiet; that’s actually the perfect setting for really good sleep. We do need good sleep. We’re tired and weary from all our worries and concerns and trying to get everything done. We need rest. We need our basics to be taken care of. So “take care of you” is what I often say. I might have borrowed it from Pretty Woman, but the words get at the oft-forgotten need to truly care for ourselves. When we are rested up, taken care of, safe, and prayed up, there’s something about entering into darkness, letting things be shadowed. We’re aware and alert, appreciative for the intensity of the darkness, grateful for our safety in the unknown, and incredibly sensitive to the liminality of space and time when we just don’t know what might happen next.

Liminal times seem to sneak up on us but are pretty predictable. We find them in our traditions. They have a way of taking us out of chronos, out of chronological, sequential time, and putting us into that no-time and all-time, the moments of kairos time. I was fortunate to be able to attend my friend’s funeral this past week. It was an unexpected death, though we all know we will one day die. Hugging his mother outside the church on the beautiful sunny day, she said, “Good morning,” though it was afternoon, and then laughed through grieving eyes as she said she really didn’t know what time it was. I held her arms and smiled, knowing that in birth and death and all times marked by deep love, these are particular times when the separation between heaven and earth and all dimensions seems so very thin–that if we just closed our eyes, we could reach into the unknown. As we listened to the Word, the music, and the homily, our hearts open and vulnerable, the distance between us and our beloved was not far, and the connection between each of us gathered was nearly palpable.

After the funeral, on the way back home, I opted for the road less traveled. But you know how when you gotta go, you gotta go? That was me. Let me tell you, there aren’t many amenities to choose from in the Ouachita Mountains between Hot Springs and Russellville, but there is a campground at Hollis. If I had listened to my body the first time, I could have stopped at the nice visitor’s center, but I didn’t (that’s another lesson: listen to our bodies!). At the Hollis stop, there was what looked like little yellow Post-It notes on the bathroom doors. I thought it was weird but maybe a new thing to leave notes for folks. (You never know what the new trend is!) Bringing my keys and phone with me, I realized that it wasn’t notes but yellow duct tape over bullet holes that went through the door; the ones that didn’t go through just dented the door and removed the paint. Glad I brought my phone with me (because this is obviously how scary movies get made), I also realized there is no light inside this old-school forestry cinderblock outhouse.

When I got out and stepped back into the fresh air, I was caught in a pause. Maybe it was the fresh air tinged with smoke from the forest fires; maybe it was the twilight. Maybe it was the stillness . . . the stillness of being in the woods when I stop walking along making all manner of noise because it feels like I’m the one disturbing the sacred silence for the lives of those all around me. It’s a feeling of being watched, knowing I’m not alone but also of being unafraid. It’s still. I’m keenly aware, with heightened senses, actually. Looking around expectantly but also waiting patiently because I know I don’t know, but I might just feel the presence of Spirit in my goosebumps or in the swell of my heart or a deep sigh or in an even deeper knowing, though I can’t quite put my finger on it or words to it. It’s a connection to a deep mystery in a brief moment.

I pondered this concept of alertness in stillness and silence and found myself taking a seat at Crystal Bridges in one of my favorite sections of art. Having just been outside, I knew that darkness had settled all around. The lighting in the museum is soft, almost hushed, intentionally angled to highlight pieces, to invite illumination and shadow. We need the light and the dark to see the relief, the detail in the sculptures, the shadows in the painted compositions. It’s amazing and to me conveys the energy the pieces bear. The pieces themselves are alert and vivid but perfectly still . . . silent . . . waiting for the next person to round the corner and engage and notice so that the hidden meanings, the random strokes, every shade and hue can reveal itself to the reaction of another–be it fascination, disgust, or ambivalence. We need light to see, but we don’t need light to feel. We only need relationship, consent to engage one another that we might reveal to the world our beauty of creation, including our shadows, which are part of our beauty. We’re just waiting for the light to come and fully illumine us, that we might be restored in full relationship with God, one another, and ourselves. We yearn to be restored to the fullness of this Holy Presence.

“Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

We think we have to go someplace, do something special, say magic words, but as we say in our Psalm (and will say in our prayers Sunday morning), we need only the light of God’s countenance to be saved . . . from ourselves, from resignation, from the sin of turning away from God, losing ourselves in darkness void of Light. How God’s countenance is shown to us–where it manifests–will be many and varied and in moments and places we might otherwise miss, if we’re not anticipating the Presence to be there. The only thing we have to do is consistently be. Maintain wakefulness. Stay alert. Be aware. So that when we encounter those holy moments, we don’t miss them. Let our lights be dim at home this season. Turn off the notifications on our phones. Make space in our calendars to sit in silence or at least to seek stillness. (There are apps to help — Headspace and Calm are a couple.) Listen to the 1A podcast about silence from Thursday morning. Be alert enough to notice what surrounds us.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning in our own chaos, let’s not miss the Presence calling us into wholeness, casting out a cord of light, of hope so we don’t lose our way. This Advent season is about God restoring us through Christ, but we have to be open and alert to hear the message. It helps to slow down and get quiet to hear that still small voice. It’s okay to sit in the darkness, light a single candle, and wait in anticipation for the light to shine in expected and especially in unexpected ways. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, in this moment and the next. We’ve just been trying to get the timing and the light just right to illuminate what’s there all along: God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.

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