Trust & Lament

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18 | Psalm 27 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35

Maybe you, too, have an uncle or family member who has shared a similar thought: I vividly remember him telling me that the harder he tried to do good and actually did acts of kindness, the worse things got. This comes to mind in a week when I’ve invited us to reflect on gratitude this week as part of our Lenten journey. When we’ve made it through the wilderness, through times of trial, what is it we’re grateful for? What are we grateful for in this moment? Each week in our Prayers of the People, we offer thanksgivings for our blessings, and since there’s not enough time to name each one, we at least pause in a moment of thankfulness. Intensely focused on what is good, what is going well, we come to late Thursday evening or maybe Friday morning with the tragic news of the mass shootings in New Zealand. In mosques. In places of worship. An outright hate crime. 49 dead. At least 40 more wounded. What does that do to our sense of gratitude?

I suppose it depends on who we are and how we choose to react in situations of adversity, when it seems like the Adversary is making an outright attack. I made a quick decision not to click on any links to videos or manifestos so as not to feed more attention to the horrendous crimes that were intentionally set up to grab media attention and go viral. I let our Muslim community here know of our support and solidarity with them. I am genuinely thankful for them. I went to one of their Friday prayer services, where I listened to their prayers spoken and chanted in Arabic. They reminded me of the Ramadan calls to prayer I heard when I was in the holy land. I wore a scarf I bought in Israel, where tensions run high between Christian, Muslim, and Jew, yet they live side by side and have for millennia. I listened to the lecture from the leader who spoke about anger being a natural reaction but one the faithful are not inclined to embody, lest they sound like a braying donkey. I continue to be grateful for faith witnessing to peace.

What in my faith, as a Christian, led me to wear a scarf and go sit among our female Muslim neighbors and some of their children? Sincere love of neighbor. Compassion. Compassion sees suffering and shares in it. That suffering might be anger, grief, or deep sadness. With empathy, we can feel what one another feels. My faith response to trial and grief is to turn to prayer first, so in support and solidarity, I offer not only my own prayers and condolences, but I go and sit with those who are scared, angry, and/or sad.

And what of our prayers? Are they always “Lord, have mercy,” “thank you,” and “thy will be done”? They can be. That’s enough. But my experience is that life is more complicated than that. Our tradition shows us that prayers to God get challenging, but they are nothing that God can’t handle.

Take what we hear in our lesson from Genesis today. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. This is before Abram is Abraham, before he’s fathered a child, and that is the focus of this encounter. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of many descendants, but so far the only children in his household are those born to slaves, not his children (this is even before the birth of Isaac). Much time has passed since Abram first had this promise from God, so here in Chapter 15, God speaks to Abram not to be afraid because Abram is afraid that the promise isn’t going to come true. Abram fears that something isn’t right, that the promise won’t be fulfilled. Abram offers his lament to God, and God responds, renewing his promise, making a covenant with him–that’s what all that business with the animals is. The original promise is made and even more is promised, with the land being promised, too. God heard Abram’s lament and responded, not with the actual fulfillment yet but with promise for even more. And Abram believed. And the LORD reckoned it as righteousness. In faith, Abram trusted that God was remaining faithful, that the covenant made would be kept.

Most of us don’t have direct encounters with the word of God. For most of us, we have a more one-sided prayer that mirrors that of the psalmist’s, which again portrays great faith and trust in God yet is not without lament. The psalmist speaks of trouble and enemies, pleads for mercy and attention, and begs not to be forsaken and to be delivered. There is physical, emotional, and spiritual turmoil present for the psalmist, a holistic view of someone in distress, crying out to God in pain and suffering and yet with faith and trust that “the LORD is my light and my salvation,” “the strength of my life.”

This psalm speaks to me deeply, to my great faith and to times of trauma in my life when it feels nearly like an out-of-body experience. Yes, my faith is strong, but, O God, this reality can be too much to bear. The worst thing imaginable in that moment is to be forsaken even by God when all that I know and have evidence of seems to have turned against or away from me. The trust of the psalmist is that the LORD will sustain us, won’t abandon us, will be our comfort, and is our salvation.

The mosaic on the altar in Jerusalem in the chapel where the Lord wept.

I would like to think that we wouldn’t have to have times of trial and despair to experience the tremendous love of God, but in the times when we feel most abandoned, when we hunger and thirst most for fulfillment, that is the feeling that I imagine gets closest to the yearning that God has for us, the desire to share that unconditional love, the desire that Jesus expressed as a longing to gather “children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Why could Jesus not gather the children of Jerusalem together? Because they “were not willing.” They didn’t have the trust or desire to partake in the work of God that Jesus presented, yet Jesus is entirely about doing the will of God, not bending to the powers that be or even protecting his bodily interest.

As the letter to the Philippians emphasizes, our being Christian and following the way of the cross, the way of life through Christ, is not about self-preservation, self-fulfillment, personal glory, or materialism. Our Way of Love through Christ is bigger than any one of us, and, like Paul, we experience sadness when others suffer with despair, without recourse to a broader network of faith, hope, and love.

Like the image of the good shepherd seeking out even the one lost sheep, the image of the hen gathering all the chicks under her wing gives us a glimpse at an aspect of God we might not expect or might shy away from. The image of a hen protecting her chicks is not only intimate but also vulnerable, yet is it no less vulnerable than a man hanging on a cross, an image we might also rather shy away from, preferring instead the resurrected Jesus, full of Light and Glory?

God knows our trust and our fear, our faith and our doubt, our joy and our lament, and God does not shy away from them but stands all the stronger in the midst of them, especially in our weakness. How can I continue to breathe through my racing heart and shallow breath in times of great fear? How can I continue to live in the face of great tragedy, especially if it is someone I love so deeply? Because we are so loved. Because we have been so loved, so are we called to love others, regardless of what evils we face, what persecution we experience, what fears we have in this body and this life.

There is so much we don’t know, that we can’t see, that we can’t describe. Yet we have experienced an ineffable, unexplainable presence of God working in our lives that has changed us into people who live into our faith, not without trials or doubts or suffering, but with resolve to act in ways of love. Our belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior and the understanding of our relationship with Jesus and thus with God enable us to be incredible witnesses to the love of God. How we act day to day may evangelize more than anything else we say because we never know who is paying attention. We do what we do out of love, without expecting anything in return, because we already know that we are loved by God.

But when we return the gesture of love, isn’t there great joy? When we are the stranger at the mosque and are welcomed with a smile . . . when someone replies with gratitude for a kindness offered . . . for me that seems to get close to what it feels like willingly to be gathered into mutual love, to be enfolded in the embrace of sheltering arms or wings. We need not hesitate to live into our faith and trust. We don’t need to hold back when we want to rage or lament to God, even against God. God can take it. God won’t drown in our sorrows or tears or be tossed about by the tempest and chaos of our lives and actions. As the psalmist instructs the reader to wait patiently for the LORD, trusting that God fulfills promises faithfully in God’s time, God waits for us with infinite patience and perfect love.

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What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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Christmas Lessons

Isaiah 9:2-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-20 | Psalm 96

My children asked me earlier this week what my favorite Christmas carol was, and I couldn’t think of which one to choose. There are so many, and each one of them highlights a different aspect of the nativity (except for the ones you hear on the radio’s stream of Christmas music that seems to have nothing to do with Jesus and everything about a different sense of the word “baby”). That’s the thing, isn’t it? Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child and everything that entails. The birth of a child changed our world, and imparted upon us themes that recur not only in the music we share but the stories we tell. These are some of the themes I’m picking up on this season:

    • God’s timing is God’s timing. If Mary had her way, they would not have been traveling to Bethlehem in her final days of pregnancy. If Joseph had his way, Mary would not have been pregnant to begin with. If the powers that be had their way, there would not be a game-changer entering the playing field. But God’s timing is perfect as it is mysterious, and it is beyond our understanding. We realize this when circumstances in our life send us reeling. We won’t always know–we can’t always know how or why things happen the way that they do, but we walk in the way of peace and trust that there is a greater wisdom in our midst.
    • There’s no room at the inn. My modern interpretation of “no room at the inn” is that scene in Forrest Gump when he’s looking for a seat on the bus, and kids repeat “seat’s taken” over and over again. He eventually finds a seat, as Joseph and Mary eventually find a place to stay, having been rejected. No one seems to want to welcome the stranger, the poor, the suspiciously unknown. No one wants the mess of birth to happen in their space. It’s all rather inconvenient, discomforting, and disruptive. How true that making space for Jesus in our lives is all of this.
    • You gotta trust the process. After all the rush, there comes a time to be still and wait, when all we can do is to trust the process. We might rush to make it to Bethlehem for a census only to wait for office hours; rush between inns, pausing for contractions; and finally remain in place while the process overtakes the body for new life to emerge into the world. Such trust requires strength and perseverance, and faith helps to keep us moving forward in the process.
    • We depend upon one another. Mary doesn’t give birth alone. She likely learned a great deal from Elizabeth, maybe even witnessed John’s birth to know what to expect. Joseph remains with her, and hopefully he was able to fetch the local midwives to attend, though we’re not surprised not to hear about them. Someone provided the stable. God doesn’t tell us how to love one another, leaving our specific actions up to us, but we need to love one another, to be in relationship with one another to make manifest God’s love for us.
    • God pays attention to all. The stories from the past are often told by those in power, and often it’s the family lore that sustains the stories of unsung heroes, of everyday miracles that impact our lives directly. Our Christian family birth story tells us that God recognizes the weak and vulnerable: a young woman, an ordinary man, and commonplace shepherds. We have a gracious, loving God who recognizes us all as worthy, even if we’re not worthy: that’s why it’s called grace and mercy. That God works miracles out of the ordinary, our hope knows no bounds.
    • God needs us to witness. Goodness bears telling and sharing! The angels didn’t hesitate in their rejoicing, and the shepherds had to see the miracle for themselves, maybe not quite sure what was going on. We, too, get to share the good news of Jesus’s presence. Like yesterday at the Miracle on 14th Street, when 436 families came through for groceries and gifts. Like on Wednesdays for the past few months when folks have come together to have conversation on difficult topics like racism, prejudice, and sexism–not just to talk but also to listen deeply and respectfully, with compassion for self and other. Like how we are a church with doors open to all, and all truly means all, regardless of any demographic we use to categorize ourselves. We are about being in relationship with one another in Christ, and that doesn’t just happen in church; it happens over coffee, in the prison and jail, in the hospitals, on the street corner,  . . . and everywhere when we realize that Jesus Christ is present in our thoughts, words, and deeds AND we give voice to that presence with thanks to God. It’s not fake. It’s not always out loud. (We Episcopalians might have to work on giving thanks in our out-loud voice.) We can extend a hand to someone in need or promise to pray for a family in distress and recall Christ’s presence in our midst, maybe even offer the peace of the Lord to a stranger.
    • We can only go through. Mary became mother having gone through pregnancy and birth. The shepherds became heralds themselves having journeyed to see for themselves and sharing the glad tidings of the angels. God broke into our earthly abode through the flesh of Jesus, and our way to God remains through Jesus Christ. Truth be told, even dramatic moments of conversion are part of a longer story, as we reflect on our relationships with God and one another throughout our lives and through all time. We don’t shortcut, sidestep, or outsmart God (see “God’s timing” above). If we are being true to ourselves and to God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by going through the process of living a life in the Light of Truth and Love of Christ. It is that Light that shows us the way, guides us, directs us, enlightens us, especially when things start to get dark.

So it’s appropriate that the birth story of our Lord starts in the dark, that we might notice the Light more clearly. May we ponder on these things in our hearts, as Mary treasured and pondered the words of the shepherds. Her story and their story are our story, shared in the songs we sing this holy season. But the light of the Son of God is not limited to one night alone. When we leave tonight, may you leave touched by the light of Christ. May you carry that light into the world, witnessing to the good news of love and peace we know because the Christ child is born.

 

P.S. My favorite carol is “O Holy Night”. . . at least for this year.

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Flying without a Net

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

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

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

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

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