Life Just Keeps Getting Better

Thoughts on Today …

Once again, I awoke with a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly 6 short years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh. I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.

As I pulled out of Billings, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that come with saying good-bye.

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free.

Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning. If anything resulted from that epic leap of faith from the nest, I have discovered I can stand on my own two feet. I have faced some of the darkest times of my life in the last 6 years and emerged into the light again with a clearer understanding of who I am.  I have a very independent spirit but a heart that longs to share. I panic with the realization that time slips away quickly, and regret is a very hard feeling to overcome.  Thus, challenging myself, taking a few risks, engaging with others, stepping beyond my comfort zone, and having fun is now my modus operandi. While I refuse to be fenced in, I desire boundary lines I can grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

 

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, and for the new family and friendships, I have found here through my love, my job, my church, and the risks I am taking in life by putting myself out there. I will admit to times of great loneliness and rejoice in times of such happy belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enriches my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventure that lies before me can exhaust a person at times and I gather that is why life is revealing itself to me on an as-needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all comes to a close (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)

Thank you, Lord, for guiding me on this journey, for filling me with the spirit of life, for this very moment I am spending with you, and for giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” – Isaiah 40:31

“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Mountains, Molehills, and the Necessities of Life

If mankind can send men to the moon, surely we can deal with the molehills that become mountains in our lives here on earth. Or so one would think. Six years ago, I pulled up my firmly planted stakes in the ground after discovering a whole new way of experiencing life in the wilds of terra firma. Indeed, the encounter spurred me to pursue a much higher calling – in the mountains of NW Montana and the heaven on earth that is the Flathead Valley and now, the place I call home. As I reflect on who I was then and who I am now, I am struck by how significantly this higher perspective has changed my approach to life. As someone who had spent more than half her life on the urbanized plains of Eastern Montana and the Rocky Mountain front, I was surprised to find such an innate sense of place and a passion in the wilderness and mountain climbing, a pursuit that eclipsed any of my previous past-times.

 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Despite my prairie legs (though some say I have chicken legs – I’ll stick with my descriptor), navigating the wilderness and climbing mountains really wasn’t such a foreign concept to me after all.

 I remember the first time I visited Glacier. I was timid in my steps. I stayed firmly planted in the middle of the Avalanche Lake Trail, I shuddered at the height of the Hidden Lake Overlook, and I clung to the walls of the Highline Trail, afraid to look down for fear that my less than graceful tendency to trip would send me plummeting to my certain death.

 A lot has changed in my life since those early days of exploration. I went from living a rather sheltered life in a place I had known for more than 24 years with lots of friends and family providing a safety net of support to one of the unknown with a new job, a new town, and very new lifestyle. I will admit to suffering serious bouts of doubt in my decision to pull up stakes and head west in the years that followed. Rather than reaching mountain summit after summit with grand views, I found myself, like many people I have encountered on this journey, in a wilderness I had not prepared myself for – the twisting and often hard road of life without the comforts of the home I left behind.

 Losing myself in and climbing the genuine deals helped me realize just how important having the proper tools for navigating the wilderness and climbing the metaphorical mountains of life are. Now, with a few year’s worth of trail dust permanently ingrained in my soul and grander vistas broadening my perspective on life, I am learning to overcome the equally rocky, often steep mountains that tower within me with some key pieces of equipment and a hefty dose of strength and resilience

 A good pair of hiking boots are imperative to my hiking and climbing adventures. I will pay a premium price to ensure that I am walking in comfort and with control. Just like we need a good pair of hiking boots to keep us on solid ground and sure of foot when climbing mountains, we need a foundation of inner strength to keep us upright when we encounter the challenges we face in life. This foundation consists of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness. It can be developed by the practice of our religious faith; the moral and ethical values we were brought up with; and/or the lessons we learn from mentors and friends throughout our life. Your foundation of inner strength includes positive feelings such as calmness, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Your foundation of inner strength is the stable traits that serve as an enduring source of well-being and wise and effective action as well as the contributions you make to the lives of others. A strong foundation of inner strength helps us to be self-directed and self-reflective in our goals and maintain excellence and integrity in our work. When we encounter the unknown, our foundation keeps us focused. It allows us to be humbly aware of our successes; acknowledge areas where growth is necessary and to be courageous in our curiosity for what we might become. Simply put, this foundation is the basis of our identity.

Without a strong sense of who we are and what we desire for our lives, the challenges we face will be difficult to overcome as we do not know where we are going or how we define success.

 My hiking boots have seen me through some challenging routes and very long days on the trail. I am confident in their treads to keep me from slipping and their support keeps me pushing forward to the end. Likewise – my foundation of inner strength – knowing who I am at my core – has helped me make difficult moral judgment calls as well as life-altering decisions with confidence rather than doubt. And just like hiking boots need to be maintained and eventually changed as our feet flatten with age (ahem!)  – our foundation is a constant work in progress as we progress through life.

The next piece of equipment that accompanies me on all my hikes are my trekking poles. I used to eschew them as inconvenient hindrances to the free movement of my arms; an unnecessary weight on my pack, and a crutch for the clumsy. That was until I started climbing 10K foot peaks and descending scree slopes that grabbed and tore at my ankles and shins. Trekking poles give us much needed balance when navigating across rocks in a running stream, take the load off our knees on steep descents, and give us stability when scrambling through boulder fields. In essence, they are our friends – not an inconvenient weight on the journey.

 I have always been a bit of an independent spirit – choosing to make my way in life on my own. Certainly, I have friends, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I realized what true friendship is about and how important it is to have that connection with someone. It is important to have one, two, or if you are lucky, several good friends in your life- trekking poles, if you will, who can share your load, give balance to your perspective on things and provide support when the going gets rough. A good friend sees through our tough skins, excuses, and doubts and tells us like it is. They support us even when we don’t think we need support. They provide humor when needed and a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on when the trials of life get dark or endless. Like good friends, trekking poles make the steep summit climbs and descents of life a bit less painful and make the celebrations when we conquer the mountains of life all the more sweet.

 The last piece of equipment that is crucial to your survival on the mountain is your backpack. I have met many a hiker on a trail with just a water bottle clipped to their belt and maybe a fanny pack. I am amazed, not at their scarce need for sustenance and supplies but by their sheer stupidity. Inside my backpack are the tools critical for survival – first aid, food, water, bug and bear spray, extra clothing, matches, a map, and of course my camera! Suffice it to say my backpack contains everything I would need to survive if I couldn’t make it back to my car as planned. The necessities of life. Over time I have learned which items I will always take with me, which items simply add extra weight to my burden, and which items my fellow hikers swear by and I will one day too.

 The backpack you carry with you as you climb the mountains of life contains all the life lessons you have learned along the way, your experiences – both good and bad, and the wisdom you have acquired along the way. Some refer to this carryall as “baggage” in a negative sense. I look at this “baggage” as a collection of tools I have gathered throughout life, experiences in the past that have prepared me for the challenges I am facing now – just as these challenges are preparing me for the next life adventure. I am also learning to let go of some of the past that I have clung to for its familiarity – things that weigh me down or lay claim on my present and future sense of being: negative habits, wrongly help assumptions, and grievances I would be better off forgiving. When I look at my sometimes-heavy backpack filled with life lessons from that perspective, I gladly carry it with me and take comfort in knowing that in it I have the tools necessary to climb and conquer the mountains of life.

 With a firm foundation of inner strength to see you through the longest of journeys, friends you can trust to support you and give you the balance needed when everything else in your life seems off-kilter, and a backpack filled with the life lessons you have lived and learned upon your shoulders, you’ll have the tools necessary for climbing the mountains of life. So far, they have not let me down. The summits I have reached with them have provided life-changing perspectives worthy of celebration.

 So, go on, take stock of your equipment and go climb those mountains. If this once timid flat-lander can do it, so can you.

 Let your light so  shine!

 

 

Grant Us Peace

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine’s Confessions

There is an unsettledness all around us. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the words of clients edging ever closer to retirement and those just starting out. I sense it in the groups I sing with and often in the people I worship with. The headlines are unsettling at best and it seems there is no escape from them anymore. You might not see it in Facebook status posts showing lives replete with happiness, but I can read it between the lines in the comments and sense it in my own life when it does not reflect that perceived Facebook reality. Every moment of every day there is a crisis unfolding somewhere in the world, somewhere in our nation, in our state, in our communities, and in our own lives. Conflict thrives on this unsettledness. Contributing to our sense of unsettledness, we also have a natural tendency to go negative – a necessary component of our survival instinct that drives us to avoid danger and unpleasant experiences. In this climate of unsettledness this negativity bias spills over into aspects of our lives that aren’t essential for survival and we soon find ourselves regularly judging and seeing the negatives in ourselves, other people, and events.

 

The source of our unsettledness is most likely not the same. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, an unexpected diagnosis, or in a thousand other ways. It can come from within – busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, the never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  the never-ending need for more, deep disappointment in yourself or another, guilt that will not accept forgiveness, resentment and the refusal to forgive, or cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way. Unsettledness can also come from without – as economic, political, or societal issues upend our day to day being.

Some of us have hearts that are troubled and afraid. Some of us are angry. Some of us are skeptical and cynical about the current state of affairs. Some of us are breaking with compassion and some of us are hardening towards our fellow man.  We have lost our sense of security, of belonging, of relationship. Maybe we don’t have a sense of our own identity anymore – maybe our lives have become possessed by another person or a situation not of our doing. We see differences as a source of danger or contempt – belonging to the “other”. The “other” or “them” become something we avoid. It can stem from comments as innocent as my mother would make when I was a teenager, “It’s not you I worry about, it’s them.”

No matter the source of our unsettledness and the conflict arising therein, we need peace. Desperately. But until we find peace within us, we will not find peace between us.

I often find myself meditating on the words from the gospel of John with this verse, in particular, coming to mind of late: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Which begs the question, “What peace?”

We all want a solution to our challenges and trials – and we want it now! But I think the key phrase here is, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus is not the easy answer nor does he provide the quick fix to everything that troubles us that we have come to expect and demand. He does not promise the absence or cessation of conflict, the resolution of our problems, or a world of oneness – at least not in this world.

The peace Jesus speaks of is more about what is going on within each of us rather than what is happening to us or around us.  Our natural approach to conflict is to seek change from someone else in what they think, do, say or believe. But we have no power over anyone’s heart & mind. Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” rings true here.  Our thoughts, words, beliefs, actions, and heart are the only things we have the power to change and Jesus’s peace aims to do just that – change us.

The book “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” from the Arbinger Institute, shines a light on our behavior towards others.  We justify ourselves for our attitudes and behaviors toward others out of four basic needs: (1) the need to believe that we are better than others; (2) the need to believe we deserve more than others; (3) the need to be well thought of by others; and (4) the need to reduce expectations because of some perceived lack in ourselves. These needs are like boxes in which we are trapped until we recognize their limitations and step outside them to gain a different perspective. A heart at peace sees the other as a human being even in the midst of conflict and disagreement. When our hearts are at peace the hopes, fears, concerns, and needs of others are as real to us as our own. When our hearts are unsettled, however, the other is an object, an issue, an obstacle to our goals, or simply irrelevant to us. When our hearts are unsettled, we cannot clearly see our own way let alone see another person’s perspective.

So how do we go about finding peace from within and without?

First, we must make peace within ourselves. There is nothing we encounter in life or that fills our life – that busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, that never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  that never-ending need for more, that deep disappointment in ourselves or others, that guilt that will not accept forgiveness, that resentment and the refusal to forgive that we cling to, or that cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way – there is nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus. He alone has the power to carry us through times that leave us lost, at war with ourselves and our loved ones and in a constant state of unsettledness. He will heal us, forgive us, and restore us to a life at peace.

Next, we can begin looking at the world with a positive bias. Intentionally countering the tendency to “go negative” by turning our attention to what was positive about our experience. Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Then, we can put a pause on our arguing with one another about who is right or wrong and what is the right or wrong thing to do and change our way of being to “the other.” We can recognize that before the others were “them” (you fill in the “them”) they were and always will be human beings created by and in the image of the same God that created us.  We can bring the peace that Jesus has given to the conflicts around us by the way we live and be toward each other.  Giving to others, not as the world would have us give, but as Jesus would.

St. Augustine asked, “Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good?”

I think you know the answer. You.

Let your light so shine!

Roots of Kindness

Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness. 

-Thomas Bailey Aldrich

It’s that time of year when we head to the nurseries for all varieties of flowers, plants, and seeds, and get our knees dirty planting our gardens with zeal and frenzy.  Navigating jammed parking lots, we reunite with neighbors we haven’t seen since last fall emerging from their homes in getups reminiscent of Mr. McGregor of Peter Rabbit fame.  We have expectations that come with our agrarian purchases and efforts – praiseworthy yards, impressive front porches, and garden harvests to come.

If you are lucky, you live next to a neighbor with an amazing green thumb who will share their garden bounty in a few months. You might even want to offer them a hand with that load of topsoil and secure a coveted spot on their favors list.  This idea brings to the fore a question that has been running through my mind lately. When was the last time you engaged in an act of kindness or giving without any conditions whatsoever – that unspoken expectation for something in return?  – The secret expectation you keep hidden in your psyche simply because we are conditioned towards a give-and -you- shall-receive means to an end?

I recently watched a video circulating on LinkedIn of a young man encountering a beggar a few years younger than he on the street. Instead of passing by the rough and tumble looking, cardboard sign holding sidewalk denizen, he did something I think we all ideate ourselves doing at some point in our lives – he offered his hand to his fellow man. The man, who looked as “regular” as you or I, saw to it that his hungry counterpart got his hair cut, had professional clothes to wear; they enjoyed a good meal together at an upscale bistro, and he introduced him to the owner who happened to have a position open in the kitchen. Needless to say, the former sidewalk “lounger” was overwhelmed by the compassion shown him. That is where the video and story end. We can hope that he accepted the job and worked his way up through the ranks to the house manager and someday opened his own restaurant, but why must we expect that outcome? Why not just celebrate the act of compassion the other man showed – with clearly nothing in it for him – except the simple joy of sharing lovingkindness?

I find it ironic that in a world in which we can pay for nearly everything we could ever want, kindness costs us nothing, and yet most of us struggle with this sort of economy. I want to give and do unconditionally (at least that’s what I want on my better days). But to live unconditionally and without strings attached is harder than it sounds. We have been conditioned by a world of economy, exchange, and transaction. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and that is as deep as it goes.

Think about all the ways this give and take happens and how commonplace and acceptable it is.

  • We exchange goods in hopes of a business referral.
  • We feel indebted upon the receipt of a gift to return the favor, or at least send a thank-you note. (Not that this is bad!! Manners do have virtue!) But even our best-intentioned gifts can leave the recipient with an unintended debt of gratitude.
  • And think about how you felt when you did not receive a thank-you note or other acknowledgment after giving a gift. Did you give that gift expecting something for your generosity?
  • What about the dinner invitations you’ve extended? Are you still waiting for your guests to reciprocate?
  • Have you ever sent flowers after an argument? Were you giving a gift or expecting forgiveness?
  • Do you determine whether your charitable gifts are charitable enough to get rewarded with a tax deduction before you give?
  • Have you ever wondered why somebody was doing something for you, wondered what was in it for them? Haven’t we all said or done something as a means to an end?

Societal norms expect us to return the favor or reciprocate in some way.  It’s a convenient economy that shields us from the true and revelatory nature of genuine kindness, kindness that has the capacity to transform the suffering that all of us experience in some form into generosity and compassion. This form of kindness is costly – it requires payment in the form of first acknowledging our own weaknesses, struggles, and suffering, and then instead of growing bitter or passing our pain on to others, we offer understanding and compassion because of it.

In her book “Words Under Words: Selected Poems,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written an exquisite poem titled “Kindness”.  In it, she reflects on the gritty origin of kindness and how you must first lose something, see your future dissolve before you, know how desolate and lonely the landscape can be, realize that the person who lies dead next to the road once had plans and breathed just like you, and know sorrow as the deepest thing within before you can know what kindness really is. And once you do, then it is only kindness that can dwell in the deepness of your heart because kindness is the only thing that makes sense anymore.

I’ve tasted genuine kindness and I have known the depths from which it can be born. A kindness that knows no economy. A kindness that can only grow from the depths of my heart. As I plant my gardens this spring, my only expectation is one of myself – that kindness grows deep roots within me – the genuine, revelatory variety that can flourish, despite this sometimes transaction-heavy, economy of exchange world.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gardeners everywhere were nurturing this kind of bounty? Happy planting and growing.

Let your light so shine!

The Light Shines in the Darkness

As part of our Lenten journey, members of my church were asked to share a glimpse of our faith – our beliefs and how we live them out – centered around a Bible passage that has served as an anchor for us or inspired how we go about living this life. Asking me to pick one Bible verse that has influenced my life is like asking which of my 6 dogs throughout my life was my favorite. There are so many that have served as anchors for living at various stages of my life – high school, college, navigating life as a single person, and now as a wife.

  • “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass … Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.” Psalm 37:4,7
  • Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4
  • Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning, for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. Psalm 143:8
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27
  • For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Ephesians 2:10
  • Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. Psalm 25:5
  • Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

I could go on and on! There are also several passages I have turned to for comfort during the darker times in my life.

  • “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” Isaiah 55:8-9
  • “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” Psalm 147:3
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27
  • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Needless to say, picking one verse to share was difficult for me to do. Yet the one I kept turning to and the one that has followed me for as long as I can remember hearing the Word, understanding the Word, and living the Word is:

John 1: 1-7: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 

Not only are the words beautiful, but the opening lines of the Gospel of John have also captivated my imagination since childhood – at least once I was able to spit out the mind-bending sequence of sentences! Seeing Jesus as a glorious all-encompassing light in the darkness was an easy way for me to understand his presence and guidance in my life as a child.

My earliest memories, and later in my teens, my fondest memories, are often from times in church. I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma delighted in telling the story of the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News. She was certain I was going to be a pastor someday. The church helped me navigate the turbulence of adolescence and the many moves my family made to places throughout my youth – giving me a safe place to land and find a good circle of friends.

But to be honest, I believed in God and went to church because my family did – I did not know any other way. Nor did I need to know any other way. I saw my parents make their way through life with their faith as a foundation. I saw them navigate the stressors of life, troubles in marriage, and the deaths of their parents and other family members with a certainty and will to persevere that can only come from a higher power.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Sure, there are times when the relationship and abundant life that God offers me do not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away. Times when my life with God seems no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the “freedom” to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves.  When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could and can be yours.

But you know – the foundation of my life has never left me; God is and always has been there – I just have to let Him into my heart and my life.  As I reflect on my faith journey, especially in the context of this Easter season, I see it as a resurrection story – over and over again. In fact, every day I die in my failings but am given a fresh chance in our Lord.

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 

As an adult, I am quite certain clinging to these illuminating words saved my life during my darkest hours and would later give me hope in the darkness of grief. It was the light of Christ shining in the darkness of the ICU that brought me back to life at age 23, willed me to fight my inner battles and give my life back to God.

It was the light of Christ that embraced my mother on the morning of Palm Sunday three years ago and led her on her journey to her heavenly home. It was the light of Christ that embraced me and strengthened me against the fierce, cold grayness of death as we laid her to rest in a cold rain that following Good Friday, and it was the light of Christ shining through the darkness of sorrow that helped me rejoice in the promise of her resurrection that Easter Sunday and every single day since.

None of this, however, would be possible were it not for my Dad and his gift of faith to me. I don’t know where I would be today without it for it was the light of Christ that guided me safely along a tear-filled, 465-mile highway of memories as I rushed home to be with my father in his last moments just a year after my mother’s death.

I share this from a daughter’s faith-filled heart renewed by the promise of life in a new day. A promise my dad shared with me. In the days after his death, so many who knew my dad, even only in passing, remarked how happy he always was. As I poured through the photographs of his life, it was hard to find one photo where he didn’t have a robust smile on his face.

Of all the things that brought happiness to my dad’s life – the people he shared it with, his family, his grand-dogs, his colleagues, his career, his past-times – the one constant source of happiness and strength and peace – and I firmly believe the most important source of happiness and life in his last days – was his faith!

I opened his obituary with the Bible passage Proverbs 20:7 – “The godly walk with integrity – blessed are the children who follow them.” My brother and I were surely blessed! And, as I was going through his scrapbook the night before his memorial service, I found another verse – one that meant something to my dad as a 17-year-old in 1949 and one he obviously carried with him throughout his life – Proverbs 22:6, “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I know I am blessed to follow in my dad’s walk of faith. Dad raised his kids in faith, as beloved children of God, and he entrusted his life and ours to the Lord. He encouraged us in our faith growing up. I know it brought him great concern and sadness when I, for a wayward time in my 20’s, quit going to church.  And I know how much it meant to him when I came back. To have my brother and his wife and me willingly sitting in the pew with him again on Sunday mornings in his waning years was the capstone on his spiritual mission in life.

Dad never missed church and thus neither did we. He was always raring to go on Sunday morning – much to my poor Mom’s demise. There were more than a few horn honks and terse words said as we sped to church – but Dad knew he needed church just as I do today. He needed the grace and mercy, the forgiveness and love that our Lord freely gives. As great a man as he was – as kindly and gentlemanly as he was to everyone – Dad knew he was a broken man as we are all broken people – and he knew he needed the Lord.

Every church we were a part of meant so much to him (and there were a lot of them as we moved many times when I was growing up.) The people found inside were so important to him as they are to me today. Keeping a congregation alive meant he was bringing the Lord deeper into his heart and the hearts of others. I feel the same way today. And that is why he and I have devoted so much of ourselves to the church. He never shied away from saying yes to the Lord when He called him to a ministry – be that building a church, leading a congregation, cleaning a bathroom, raising funds, teaching Sunday school, or serving as an usher. Dad served our Lord with a sense of honor, respect, and love. I am proud to follow in his example. As they say, I am a chip off the old block – like father- like daughter in every way.

My dad had a deep, abiding faith, one he nurtured through continued study, service, and sharing and I am so glad he shared his mighty faith in the Lord with me. I can only hope to be half the leader of others to the peace of Christ as he was in his quiet, humble ways. His steadfast faith is the greatest gift, aside from his love, that he could have ever shared with me.

My dad’s faith was a beacon and source of strength for him. A beacon for my life, my faith has sustained me too, through all the opportunities and challenges that have come my way.  Because of the gift of faith my dad gave me – I have faced those opportunities and challenges with a sense of strength that I know comes only from the Lord’s presence in my life. Unlike my dad, I can’t be as quiet about it as he was.

I leaned on my dad an awful lot in life – he was my source of wisdom, of political intellect, of what is fair and what is right. He was my counselor on all matters of living – and he did so with the heart of Jesus. He knew he had done his job well when he saw how deeply I was growing in my own faith.

In the last few minutes I had with Dad, we shared the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we spoke of how he let his light shine so that others could see the good works of God, and how I hoped and prayed that I may do that as well and as purely as he did.  Finally, we spoke about letting God’s perfect will be done. My dad had found the peace that surpasses our understanding – and while at the time I was not willing to let him go without a fight – I was able to – as that same peace began to wrap around me.

Being Neil Morck’s daughter was a pretty honorable position to be in and how I most often identified myself to others!  Dad prepared his children well for life – to forge ahead in our own identities accompanied all the way by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, the godly do indeed walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them. I happen to know that the godly also walk in happiness and as my dad’s favorite daughter, I am eternally blessed and happy to walk in his footsteps too, guided out of the darkness by the shining light of Christ.

I know that not only am I Neil Morck’s daughter and a child of God but a woman who lives for God. It was the light of Christ that set me on a new course in life that would semi-culminate last summer with me becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate in my church. Now, in my spare time, I chase sunrises on my runs in the summertime and cry at sunsets whenever one paints the sky knowing that I am seeing the light of Christ.

My hope in sharing my faith story with you is that you too will know that the most amazing gift you can give or receive is that of knowing the Lord and living a life in faith. For as each of our days come to an end, it is your relationship with God and knowing His peace that will carry you through.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Happy Easter!

 

My prayer this Maundy Thursday

Lord,
Forgive me for the times that I too have been Judas. One cannot betray unless you’ve first been given something to betray. You entrusted Judas to be one of the twelve. You entrusted to me love, friendship, trust, confidence, responsibility, a call – promises and gifts that I have left unopened, broken, or thrown away. This Maundy Thursday, I recognize that I am not deserving of your gracious love.
But you are Jesus. Your economy of grace is different than mine. You washed Judas’ feet just like the other disciples. You loved him with the same love that you loved them. Oh, what wondrous love is this? I want to love like You. I want to live not just for You but like You.
Help me, Lord. In your name, I pray.

Everybody’s Story

A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.

Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path?  Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.

And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…

The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”

Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right –  He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.

Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.

“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”

The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?

Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.

“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind.  You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”

“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.

“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”

“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”

“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.

“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”

“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.

“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”

“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”

“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them!  It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”

“I am happy…”

“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”

Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that!  God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”

Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.

“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”

Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.

“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.

“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.

“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”

Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”

“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours.  Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”

Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.

And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.

As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Amen.

Bittersweet Spring

Today marks 3 years since you found a new Springtime and a new life with Jesus, Mom. The first day of Spring will always be bittersweet for me. Not only does it mark the end of the dying season, but it is also the day you died. I know that death has no grip on you – but for me left to live with it, it is hard to shake free from death’s cold hands. The absence of your presence is no less today than the day I held your remains one last time – and yet you are always with me. My heart aches with longing to see you, to hear your voice again, and feel your loving arms around me – and yet I do – every time I hear a bird sing or feel the warmth of the morning sunshine on my face. I love you, Mom – more than words can ever say.

 

March 20, 2016 – As I walked through the woods yesterday I could hear the promise of Spring- of new life- in the songs of the birds… My mother loved to watch the birds and the squirrels, and of course our four-legged family members – the little joys the Lord gave us to make our lives richer, more joyful, more wonderful here on Earth. These blessings made her life sweeter and more joyful these last several years; our conversations always included a synopsis of Tucker, squirrel, and bird activity of late.

As we enter this Holy Week, a time when we look to the promise of resurrection and life everlasting with our Lord, Jesus Christ and rejoice in His conquering of death so that we may all live free from its bonds through Him, I take comfort in knowing that my beautiful mother has conquered her earthly bonds and now lives free with her Lord and Savior today. Her spirit left us peacefully this morning, through an open window, perhaps following the song of a bird calling her home. One of her favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. I know He is watching her shine and sing once again.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy; 
I sing because I’m free; 
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings. 


And when I do, I will sing because I know you are now happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. And I will smile at the sight of every sparrow, because I’ll know you are still with me.

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!