Giving Thanks

“This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.” – Martin Luther

As my 50th Thanksgiving dawns and the second, in my life at least, amid a pandemic, I find myself in a very reflective mood. Ah ha! Did I just catch you counting back in your mind to when this all started and how many months have passed?? I had to double-check the dates myself after I wrote that as it seems to me like it should be our third or fourth… but I digress.

Last year at this time, as the initial pandemic panic and ensuing lockdowns subsided, I was preparing for a long wintery drive home to Billings to spend the holiday with my family. The drive was intense in both directions – but just as intense was the need to be with my brother and his wife again. Isolation was getting to me, and family roots were the only thing that felt grounded as the rest of our lives had become one big question mark. This year I am staying home in the Flathead – opting to avoid the bad roads that have plagued every Thanksgiving trip to Billings since time immemorial. The urgency to be together has subsided – a bit – thanks to a couple of trips home this summer and more in-person contact with the human race as a whole has returned. Perhaps it is also a sign of lightening hearts – even as the pandemic continues to impact lives all around us – we have confidence in tomorrow.

I have been very busy of late – all of which I am thankful for – and I am looking forward to the pause Thanksgiving will bring this year. I feel very grateful for that privilege. I know that others will not have that same luxury.

It is curious that this “very busy” state of mine was actually the norm that used to be my life before the pandemic brought most everything to a halt. Now, I find myself being much more selective in what I introduce “back” into my life. Yes, I still tend to overcommit, but I am finding it easier to say no to some things that will distract from, or diminish my involvement in, performance of, and/or commitment to the activities and obligations I have already said yes to.

If any good has come of this awful virus invading our lives, perhaps it is the recognition that none of us are superhuman, and time spent in solitude, contemplation, and rest – is never a bad thing; that less is almost always plenty; and balance is truly beautiful.

But about this busyness – I don’t think I am just speaking for myself here – it seems the world around me is suddenly very busy again – almost frenetic, and I sense an unsettling tension setting in. A quote from a book I read a few years ago, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown resonates with me here as I consider the current state of our collective being: “Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when you’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.”

There seems to be an urge to acquire and be and do things at an intensity I haven’t recognized before, just as the acquiring of things has suddenly grown more difficult due to “supply chain” issues and human shortages. At the same time, after so much isolation – yes- even here in Montana (ironically in order to protect one another) I think the collective “we” has forgotten how to be together. The media and our representatives in government have done a wonderful job of dividing rather than uniting us under the guise of freedom.

Our default has been reset to interpret events in a self-centered manner, expecting that the actions of others align with our own narrow interests. How often do we genuinely try to look at the world from ‘someone else’s shoes’ anymore? Do we make an honest attempt to empathize and understand things from their unique point of view? Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions, can we be earnest in our attempt to give our transgressors an empathic interpretation of events?

I must confess that a trip to the grocery store, a scroll through social media, a passing read of the local paper’s op-ed section, or even visiting the various community “help and info” media pages now require me to put my judgmentalism in check. Our collective sense of what freedom means seems to be highly diversified.

As the late writer David Foster Wallace reminds us in his iconic commencement speech This is Water, we always have the freedom of choosing alternative ways of making meaning from events. This requires us to cultivate self-awareness and the capacity to think critically and question our automatic judgments. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. … The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” (emphasis added)

One recent morning as the sun slowly made its way up and over Columbia Mountain, I spent some precious time contemplating the journey I have been on and thanking God for the life He has blessed me with. What an unexpected life!! It has not been an easy wander through the years, but one that has been filled with experiences I would not trade for anything – including the past 18 months. In retrospect, my life has meaning as a direct result of my search for meaning along the way – I am grateful for the freedom to pursue it.

I am grateful for my parents who gave me life 50 years ago and loved me through 47 more. They raised me with a faith that has been my beacon throughout life – even when I have been terribly lost. They raised me to be hopeful and have courage by letting me experience disappointment, deal with conflict, and learn how to assert myself. They gave me plenty of opportunities to fail and encouraged me to succeed. They listened to my angst, sometimes sided with my critics, and assured me that they never stopped loving me, no matter what. In the end, being loved and knowing how to love is all that matters anyway. I thank God for my big brother and best friend back home, who has loved me through it all even when I was his biggest bother!

So long ago…

I am thankful that my parents had the foresight to add dogs to our family. I have known the unconditional love of a dog for most of my life and am blessed to share my life with the joyful energy of my Brittany Ember now, number six in the Morck family line of the greatest dogs on earth.

25 years ago, God gave me a second chance at life. I thank God for the skilled minds and dedicated and compassionate hearts found in Dr’s. Merchant and Hemmer, and their incredible staff in the ICU wing of the Billings Clinic. They kept fighting for my life when I could not.  I thank God for Remuda Ranch, where I found a new way of living and reason for being. I would not be here today were it not for any one of these individuals. I am thankful God turns death into life – and that I am living proof of this!

I thank God for my church family in Billings that remains steadfast in my life even after being away for 8 years. It was there, in their presence, I came to truly know for myself God’s grace, abiding love, and steadying guidance. Not just through the Word as preached but through the deep friendships I formed with those who gathered with me. It was there that I realized that God truly had a purpose for me. Through their confidence in me, I realized I could lead. Through their acts of love and acceptance, I found a place of welcome and peace.

I thank God for my church family here in the Flathead, who embraced this fledgling lay pastor as I learned how to preach and minister with grace. Without their encouragement I’m not sure I would be continuing in God’s calling on my life. I thank God for standing with me in challenging times. The heartbreaks, losses, and joys I have experienced have made me more authentic and more empathic in sharing the Good News and God’s grace upon grace.

I am thankful for this northwest adventure I embarked on 8 years ago – changing the course of my life, leading me to discover a challenging and fulfilling career I have come to love, and allowing me to work with exceptional people who are more like family than colleagues and yet incredibly professional and passionate about what they do.

I thank God, for every smile that has greeted me and warmed my heart – even more so these days.

I thank God for friendships that cross the miles, for friends that have walked this journey with me, sometimes walking beside me and lending an empathetic ear, sometimes walking behind me pushing me forward through my doubts and fears, sometimes walking in front of me and inspiring me to keep going and growing. I am blessed to know some of the bravest, smartest, most inspired and humble people on earth.

I thank God for new friends in new places, that bring shared joys, fresh perspectives, common conundrums, and a sense of belonging that cures a homesick heart.

I thank God for the wonderful gift of music he has flavored my life with. A gift that provides solace and joy to my weary and wild heart.

I thank God for His majestic mountains and vast open prairies that speak to my soul and call me by name. There I find tranquility and know no boundaries. I am grateful for this Last Best Place I call home.

I thank God, for every tomorrow and the opportunity to start anew each day. His grace is amazing and knows no end.

Wishing you a Thanksgiving rich with the love of family and friends and abundant light in your heart. Give thanks for this beautiful and broken world we share and remember that it is in darkness when your light and the light of others shine the brightest. Share yours today.

May you have happiness in your heart this Thanksgiving

Let your light so shine!

I Believe in Life after Birth

A sermon on Mark 13:1-8

November 14, 2021

Let us pray,

O God, you teach us to hope for a better world and place our trust in you. Give us the courage to keep hoping and trusting even when all seems lost. Give us the strength to carry on even when we don’t know where we are going. Give us patience to wait for your timing. Give us creativity to work towards a better world with You. Surprise us with better days. Amen.

Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

Autumn is by far my favorite time of year. Of all the seasons we are so fortunate to observe, however long or briefly, autumn’s nature feels most promising to me. I relish the hidden beauty in the dying that takes place in this quieting season. Autumn brings a sense of comfort and calm after the rush of growing and maintaining summer’s vibrant splendor. But as is so often the case in life, suddenly the warm days with gold and rust-hued pleasantries disappear. Almost overnight the golden glory in the trees can be stripped away, and the lollygaggers are left to wither and shrivel in a boring brown descent to the dead of winter. The vibrancy of life interrupted by the suddenness of death.

We are midway through the season of autumn, but we have reached the end of the church year, and this will be our last foray in Mark – the Gospel that began with a bang – now we take leave of equally so! In two weeks, we will begin to prepare again for a birth.

Yes, life is a continual series of – endings – that give way to seeds of new life. As writer Parker Palmer puts forth “The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. (Indeed,) what artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses?”

Unfortunately for us, life apart from the rhythms of nature is rarely so poetic.

I remember the day I woke up in the ICU unable to move freely but able to clearly hear the hushed and anguished voices of my parents. I remember the day I lost the job that I loved, that had defined me and given me a place of recognition in the community. I remember the shock of my mother’s death, my father’s cancer diagnosis a month later, and his death a year after that. I remember the day my marriage ended, and I remember (all too well this damp stormy morning) the day I broke my foot – bringing an abrupt end to my life as a long-distance runner.

With each of these events, one of the great temples of my life was thrown down. The stones that I had built my life upon and around no longer stood. My life would never be the same again and in those moments, I felt completely lost. Each stone or pillar that crumbled took away my sense of certainty, identity, and my place in this world.

Believe it or not, whether you have painful Lego bricks underfoot or not, we are all master architects. We’ve been employed in the trade from our first recognition of ourselves as independent beings. Our area of specialty – temples. Temples of persona, relationships, beliefs, institutions, roles, reputations, and dreams, and sometimes even illusions. Stone upon stone we build them with the idea that these great structures will provide us meaning and direction, identity and value, security and order to our life and our world.

The temple into today’s gospel served much of the same purpose to the Jewish people. More than just a magnificent building, it was the center and anchor of Jewish life. It provided identity, structure, and meaning – the same as do our temples of today.

As a quick recap, when we were last in Mark, Jesus had just given new sight to the roadside beggar on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. He has since entered Jerusalem to much fanfare (think Palms and donkeys) but it has been pretty much one confrontation after another with the religious authorities since that festive day. Herodians, Pharisees, and scribes – aligning themselves in various and surprising combinations – trying to trap and discredit him, even at times plotting his death. Jesus has been squaring off with his opponents, sometimes with parables and sometimes calling them out quite blatantly. He denounced the seemingly righteous scribe, called out the exploitive religious leaders of the temple, and raised up the poor widow who gave all she had to the temple coffers, easily exceeding the righteousness of those giving what they thought was just enough to satisfy their obligation.

Now, Jesus and His disciples have  left the temple – for the last time until his trial and execution – and all this disciple can muster in response to what he has seen Jesus do is a “by golly gee whiz wowzers” of an exclamation about Jerusalem’s main attraction: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.”

What the disciple saw was an architectural marvel. Likely the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence he could imagine. Massive stones that held religious memory and bolstered the people’s identity. Like our Capitol building, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and yes even our iron Jesus out front. The massive gold and marble stones served as a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness. What took the disciple’s breath away and likely everything he had just witnessed Jesus doing and teaching as he gazed at the temple, was the sense of religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones displayed to the world.

Jesus doesn’t quite see things the same way. He sees ruins. He sees the rubble, destruction, fragility, and impermanence such trust and value in the temple and its broken systems will bring. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

Today’s passage from Mark is often alluded to as “The Little Apocalypse.” Called the Olivet Discourse, it is but a snippet from a larger teaching of Jesus here on the Mount of Olives where he speaks of the last days and his second coming.

Jesus stuns his disciples with his ominous foretelling of the last days and His second coming. But his words were not intended to lead his followers (including us for that matter) to speculate on when the last day and his second coming would come to pass. Rather, he meant to encourage them and us to live lives in such a way that we are always prepared.

Too often we think of apocalypse as the end of the world – a time of fiery judgment and something to fear. Some might say we are in the middle of one now. It certainly feels that way – earthquakes shake the foundations of our world while fires scorch her surface, floods overwhelm our cities, while water is nowhere to be found. A sense of scarcity leaves us empty and constantly searching, our own nation is turning on itself while wars of power and rightness and the rumors of such wars divide and fragment the unity of our lives and relationships. Some aspects of our modern culture perpetuate the us versus them judgment day belief – think the Left Behind series that was popular for a while or tune into any cable news talk show.

My own concept of apocalypse was formed by family friends who preached fervently the need to repent and that “those” people were surely damned on Judgement Day.  When the TV movie The Day After premiered in 1983 – maybe one of the last movies the whole country watched together – it left the 11-year-old me terrified of the imminent nuclear apocalypse – I was sure that our end was soon, and I was terrified that I might be away from my family when it came. But it was not the end – thankfully our instantaneous disintegration did not come to pass – but many other ends in life certainly have.

Apocalypse is actually something quite different – not nearly so lethal but at times may be a bit disconcerting. As theologian Debi Thomas writes, “An apocalypse is an unveiling. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.”

Jesus knew how dire the consequences would be for his followers in the days to come and that to reach his followers he had to stun them to impress upon them how important it was not to shore up their lives in something as temporal as the temple. A temple that would indeed fall as would the entire city of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD just 6 years after its completion – fulfilling this prophecy from Jesus and destroying any sense of place the Jewish people had.

Think about the day the walls of one of your temples were thrown down. Maybe it was your own job loss or divorce or the loss of a loved one; a cancer or other life-altering diagnosis. Maybe it was when the tables turned and you became the parent to your own parent. Was it the time someone you loved and trusted betrayed and hurt you? Or that painful day the business you worked so hard to establish closed. Maybe it was the day you realized that you no longer had control of your life but were instead controlled by addiction, fear, anger, or prejudice.

When my certainty in life has been toppled as it was in every one of my own great temple-crumblings – my ensuing bewilderment has always led me into a state of discomfort and disillusionment. In the wake of our apocalypse – we are given fresh sight – we see. See the truth and reality about our self, our life, or our world that we have long denied, ignored, forgotten, or simply refused to see.

In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

It is always a painful process to see our manifestations of self topple and be confronted by the reality and truth revealed in that fall. Any reflection on our past reveals as much and reveals that it will likely happen again. There is always some kind of spectacle that distracts us from what matters, from what’s urgent. We are no different than the four bewildered disciples sitting before Jesus that day, preferring to be the master architect of our next great temple or reconstruct the one that has fallen.

Jesus knows this and so he warns his followers and us not to be led astray, but to be alert and watchful for the allure of those promising instant gratification, easy comfort, or quick fixes. To not let the next shiny thing that makes us feel good or takes away the hurt capture our devotion but rather be present and attentive to what is actually taking place to be aware of what God is doing.

When we sense the stones and pillars of our temples beginning to shake, the temptation is to shore up the foundation, add some mortar, make it stronger. We’ll do anything to avoid the pain, but this inevitably makes the destruction even more painful. Pain does not always mean something bad is happening – (I’m told childbirth is the evidence of this.)

In those moments, Jesus can see what we are not able to. I’m not suggesting God causes or allows death, pain, or disorder to happen to teach us an important lesson or make us better Christians. That is not the nature of the God I know or trust. The God I know has stood with me amid the rubble and the remains – reminding me that this is not the end but the beginning. The unveiling of something new.

Unfortunately for this sermon writer, Jesus announces the apocalypse but does not provide the disciples or us a tidy wrap-up to his teaching. Rather, he tells us disorder must take place, chaos will reign, there will be pain and suffering, and our temples will fall – because they need to fall. He leaves us not with answers but some mighty big questions to ponder:

  • What are the temples of your life that need to fall?
  • What lies and distortions have you mistaken for the truth about yourself, about your world?
  • What truth and reality do you most need to face?
  • How might God be working a new birth in you right this very moment?

We often associate the radiance of springtime with the beginning of life. But something first had to die – come to an end – so that a newer life, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, could come alive in its place. It is in the radiant dying in autumn and the barren sleep of winter, that the seeds for the new life born in spring and lived in summer, are first imagined.

Life is not diminished by its ending. It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient, and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings, the autumns and springs of life remind me that everything is forever being made new.

Everything alive in the world and in us is made up of things that have passed before us. Nature is a never-ending apocalypse.

Apocalyptic days confront us – God never does. The apocalypses of our lives force us to decide between reality and illusion, between life and death. We have confidence that God stands firmly in and for our life. Apocalypses help us examine where we put our trust. Know that God never loses sight of us. The day our temples fall is the day we face our own fallibility and impermanence and see the perfect permanence of God. We face our temporal nature but discover God’s eternal nature. Something must die away so that we can know the joys of the birth pangs. Our God ensures that there really is life after birth!

Thanks be to God!   Amen

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

Jesus Turns Death into Life

A sermon on John 11:32-44 for All Saints Sunday

Let us pray.  Help us, oh God, to become comfortable with mystery, accompany us as we wrestle with stories that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Meet us in our belief and in our questioning, in our hope and in our despair. Share in our grief and show us the new life that is around us always so that we too may say, Come and See the new life, the light of the world, and the glory of God. Amen.

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father.

Death. It interrupts life as we know it and changes everything – for good.

It is the elephant in the sanctuary this morning as we gather to celebrate the saints in our lives – all the saints – those who have died and those who have yet to die.

It is as Isaiah writes, the shroud cast over all people – from our very first breath. 

What do we do with death? What do we do with something that is so prevalent in our lives of late, that we fight against from the moment of our birth, and yet know that no matter what, death is certain. What do we do with that? 

I’ll be honest with you. I was daunted by today’s Gospel story. As I sat with the readings for this morning, I even asked Pastor Pete if the alternate gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark was an option…. Because, how could I offer you the good news of the raising of Lazarus when I myself recoiled at the story in the face of death?

You see, this was the gospel story that my pastor in Billings suggested for my Dad’s memorial service almost one year to the day after my mother’s. It was an awful time of death in our lives as a family and the grief and disillusionment my brother and I felt was immense.  All I could think of at the time was “yeah Jesus, where have you been? If only you had been here, Lord.” 

Fast forward to my final LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat the October after my father’s death and something our leader Pastor Jason said as we went through the section on ministering to the dying, death, grief and the services that follow. He reminded us that the funeral or memorial service is for the living – not the person who has died – for they are beyond the joy and honor any service could bring – they are with God! It is those of us left behind that have to learn how to live with death and go on in the aftermath.

As I sat pondering what I could possibly bring to you today, those words came back to me and I began to see why my pastor had suggested this particular story to my brother and me. It wasn’t because he was super busy and was pulling things out of a pile of proper funeral readings, it was because he knew how broken my brother and I were.  He wanted to help us through our “if only’s” so we could go on with life after death. He wanted us to see our story through the heart of God. 

As a writer and lover of words, the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel –  I love how John reveals Jesus Christ as the Word through which all things were made.  That God chose Jesus as his messenger to tell us about himself. Jesus is God and the revealer of God the Father. Creation is God’s general revelation and Jesus Christ is God’s personal message to us. 

Today’s gospel reveals something for every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of the loss, grief, and sorrow experienced with all forms of death – not just the loss of a loved one:  the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. But it does something more – it reveals to us the nature of God in Christ Jesus.

I think there is a part of each of us in the characters who experience the power of Jesus outside Lazarus’s tomb. There is Mary – whose heart, wrenched by grief, gives voice to our anguished lament, perhaps even our accusation: “Lord, if you had been here…”  Could Mary represent all those who come to church today heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming?  Because grief has no timeline nor concept of the right time. 

Could Martha be each of us still coming to church after all we have been through?  Martha whose faith seems so incredibly resilient in the face of great challenge and who confessed moments earlier in the verses preceding today’s text that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day “ and then continued her confession in the one who promised her life here and now yet  tarried while her brother died exclaiming: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world!”

And at times we are Lazarus – at least I know I am –  stuck in the tomb of grief,  surrounded by the stench of death, and unable to break free and escape from the ravages of the dying parts of life until he, like we, literally embody the promise of Jesus and the central message of our faith – God turns death into life.

In each of these characters, we see the ultimate miracle at work. God is in the business of turning death into life. And we learn a little bit more about just what the glory of God is all about. It is to be fully alive, to be abundant with life. Jesus said it himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see that God is more powerful than what scares us the most. 

We see the deep sorrow of grief transformed into a most relieved and elated joy. 

We see abiding friendship and deep love.

We see that even when we think we have lost everything –  that there is nothing to live for – it is never too late for a new life with God. 

We know all this by faith and by faith we know that God is love, we know God forgives all our sin, and we know that God turns death into life, and yet…

And yet, we are left with that unspoken uncomfortable feeling of doubt – as we wonder where Jesus  – the one we know works miracles – where is Jesus in the face of our tragedies, in the relentless death march of this pandemic, in the lives of our young people who are so broken by life they chose death? Where was Jesus and his miracle of life for all those we are remembering today? Where is Jesus in this very broken world of ours?

In our questioning, we see that what we most wish for, plead for, long for, pray for so often doesn’t come true. We see that death is still here and death is certain. And we wonder about God’s arbitrary mercy for us.  What do we do with that?

What does the story of Lazarus have to do with the very reality of death in our life? 

Lazarus is not a story about avoiding pain or denying death. Jesus didn’t go about his travels holding walk-in clinics banishing illness, hunger, and general malaise. Jesus didn’t go to Golgotha and cut people down from their crosses of death – nor did he avoid his own. The death rate in our community is the same as it was at the time of Jesus and for Jesus – 1 per person – 100%  of the time. 

Jesus healed, helped, taught, and Jesus loved. And he shows us by raising Lazarus that death doesn’t have as much power as we think it does. 

In the theology of John’s Gospel also known as the story of signs, Lazarus is the seventh and final sign pointing us to who Jesus is,  and through Jesus,  who God is.  

Jesus turns the water into wine and we see that in Jesus we have abundance. Jesus heals and we see that in Jesus we are not captive to our limitations or illnesses. Jesus feeds 1000’s with nothing but scraps and belief and we see that when we give generously to others anything is possible including new sparks of life. Jesus gives sight and we see there is insight and vision to be found in a life with God. 

Lazarus reveals that life in God is more powerful than death. God helps us to go on even when it doesn’t seem possible. When we are in our worst moment, God moves us forward.  Times that should destroy us instead truly do make us stronger. All of us here today attest to this great mystery and promise of our faith in Jesus. We can be broken and whole at the same time.

Even at the grave, life goes on. Yes, we know it does. We cannot escape death nor can we escape God’s promise of life abundant and the power of life over death. Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not just our future but our present reality. Martin Luther reminds us that in our Baptism we with all our sins and evil desires must die daily and that we should daily rise as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Resurrection can only come through death. It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. These dyings are passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more. 

Episcopal priest  Father Michael Marsh writes:

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives, they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives, they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ, they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. (1)

As living saints, we are strengthened by Christ to call those around us who are bound by grief and darkness to new life – with a love inspired by Christ. 

I have grown to love this story. It reflects the truth I know in my own life. Life after death does go on and through it, I have come to know more fully the joy of God. I do not deny the darkness, but I choose not to live in it. I know that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. That is good news. Jesus turns death into life.

Thanks be to God!

Amen. 

Let Your Light So Shine!

  1. https://interruptingthesilence.com/2009/11/01/a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-all-saints/

Take Heart! Get Up!

A sermon on  Mark10:46-52

Grace and Peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father!

It was a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, as I braced myself in the blasting wind. It felt so good to be here again, a place I had unwillingly resigned myself from in the long months preceding this moment.  The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind, mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for having mercy on me. 

You see, a few months ago, I had convinced myself that these cherished mountaintop moments were not the end-all-be-all of my being.  Faced with what I thought was a lifestyle-and-joy-ending – never mind painful – running injury that would not heal while still recovering from a major life upheaval on the home front that left me questioning everything about my life – I had written off my 50th year around the sun, became content with discontent, and was endeavoring to make peace with the cards life had dealt me.

My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, stubborn, thoroughly self-assured, and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. Though my sky had fallen, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way. Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing on with the misguided idea that I had some mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny.

Never mind that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a year and a half long pandemic?  As for much of the world, for me, the last 18 months have been challenging to say the least. The plight of others has weighed heavily on me making my circumstances seem like nothing compared to the pains of the world, a world that has been in crisis for too long. Nonetheless, I had lost my sense of being and purpose. I had lost heart. 

The moment had also been a long time in coming. For Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus had long been kicked to the side of the road, his former life hardly recognizable. After all, blind beggars dwelled near the bottom rung of social privilege in ancient society. He was a sinner through and through – his condition announced that to the world. He was worth only what he could bring in from a day of begging- his value was that of a dropped coin here and there or the amount of pity he might illicit instead of scorn. He had grown used to his miserable circumstances – but then what else could he do? All he had was a cloak that served to keep him warm, protect him from the hard ground and the unforgiving eyes of scorn. Though tattered and dirty, the cloak also gave him a sense of identity. He was one of them. Alienated and outcast to the margins of society.

I imagine his expression was hard to read as he waited for Jesus to make his way through Jericho. The crowd called this Jesus a teacher and Bartimaeus had heard of His healings, but deep down inside he knew he was more than that. Bartimaeus was certain Jesus was his one and only chance for life again. Was there a smile of hope, a grimace of uncertainty, a frown of worry that the blasted crowd would conceal him?

And yet, his position on the side of the road could not have been more perfect.

It is believed that Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. And it is on this long-traveled road out of Jericho that we hear the cry that has been the cry on every human heart across the span of history.  Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy.

The same cry that crosses our lips amid the fires of hate, violence, and division. The same cry heard in the anguish wrought by a pandemic and from the hearts of those beaten by oppression. The same cry heard in the aftermath of natural disasters, and in the desperation of broken dreams and broken lives. The same cry from parents of children who made tragic choices with tragic consequences. The same cry that emanates from our own struggles with fear and doubt and guilt and shame. Have mercy, we cry as we lose hope. Have mercy, we cry as we lose heart.

We all face challenging times in life -Jericho road moments you might call them. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual. Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

These struggles are the ones we keep hidden, they go too deep to share.  They aren’t the ones we speak of. Certainly, nothing we would want to be displayed before a king. At least that is what the world tells us and we tell ourselves. 

How often do we silence others, convinced that their cries for mercy are not worthy of our nor God’s attention? How often do we silence ourselves, convinced of the same?

Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but instead, he was trapped by them, silenced. What thoughts rested on his heart and in his mind? Can you imagine? What kept him going day after day? Did he still have hope for a future? If I were him I would be in a desperate state of funk!

Perhaps that is why I can identify with Bartimaeus and why he gives me hope.

Because I too was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual even-keeled countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The mountains that once called me and the roads I once ran down taunted me;  the little place I called home and took pride in felt like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? 

The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to – namely me, myself, and I – did a good job of silencing me even when I called out to God. Lord, have mercy. 

Bartimaeus was expected to keep silent. To keep his voice down, so he wouldn’t cause a disruption in a very controlled and contrived world. I did too. What about you?

Goodness knows what would result from an utterance that would tear apart that which we carefully constructed to keep out the truth – to keep out the what or the who we don’t want to see, hear, or acknowledge? 

Thank goodness for Bartimaeus!

Blind Bartimaeus saw things differently. Already living at the margins of everything, he has nothing to lose and despite the crowd trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place.  “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!

And then there it was. The one voice that spoke louder than any other voice in the abyss of despair – to both of us.

“Call her here,” Jesus spoke over the voices in my head stopping them  – just as he did to Bartimaeus when his voice stopped the crowd. 

“Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Hear those words again, “Take heart! Get up. He is calling you.” Isn’t this what we all want in this life of ours? We want Jesus to stop in front of us; we want Jesus to notice us in this big messed up world of ours; and we want Jesus to say to us, “Take heart. Get up. I am calling you.”  Those of us who love God need God to come to us and help us when we are discouraged, when we have lost our way, when we have lost heart. When, like Bartimaeus, we are kicked to the side of the road, at the bottom of our ruts, we want to hear the voice of Jesus directed at us. 

There are many times when I have lost my inner desire to get up and go. I just want to give up. I’ve had enough and been tested enough. I dare say, you are the same way. There are times in your life when you are overloaded, over confronted, over your head with life and feel completely unseen. You are short of time, short of energy, short of what is needed to face the challenge at hand.

In that moment, we need Jesus to say, “Take heart.” 

Those words must have been an infusion of energy to Bartimaeus as he took that giant leap of faith forward, threw off his cloak and with it all the encumbrances of his life and went  – I know they are to me. 

Jesus heard his cry for mercy. Jesus took notice, and Jesus called. That is the Gospel for blind Bartimaeus, that is the Gospel for you and it is the Gospel for me.

Take Heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction of my life and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my “my ways or the highway” insistence for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

The messenger bearing those life-changing words not only opened the door for hope saying take heart – he also said, get up – it was time for Bartimaeus to move into God’s future for him –  to do more than just sit by the side of the road. And Bartimaeus did! Without question. In fact, he left everything behind and went boldly to Jesus before he was even given his sight back.

I have to admire Bartimaeus here. It’s a scary thought – letting go of our lives – trusting God. But that is what saved him. That is what the Word of God does. It moves us to get up and not just go but let go! Our ancestor Martin Luther proclaimed that the Word is a living Word, it is full of Christ and bears the living Christ into our midst and equips us to get up and announce God’s love for the whole world.

We can sometimes hear this Gospel story as a miracle healing tied directly to the strength of one’s faith. We shouldn’t. Bartimaeus was moved by God’s Word into an active faith. Bartimaeus was made whole when Jesus called him. His renewed sight was just icing on the cake you might say  – the renewed sight of a life seen by Jesus. 

So, are all my struggles gone? Is that what faith does for us? 

Nope! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. As Paul writes in his letters to the Corinthians:  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

Because Jesus is here with us, we are empowered to get up and move into this broken world with our broken messed up, sometimes painfully afflicted lives – to take heart and have hope in God’s future for us. 

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: We find that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way. When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, suffering stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them. Messengers saying take heart, I am here and I can help you. Take heart, I am here – I see you. Take heart, I am here and I am with you. 

Messengers like the physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again – like others had- but instead said that together we would get me running again and running better! 

Messengers like the caring listener who helped me take a 30,000 ft view and a heart level view of my lot in life and helped me set a course of action for living life fully rather than despairing of it.

God continues to show me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead of shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how my challenges can become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God uses our worst moments to show us just how much He loves us.

That’s how it is when Jesus joins you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing light of God’s love.

The kind of love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone and that you matter to someone. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart. Get Up! Jesus is always calling you into His love.

Amen.

Take Heart

It had been a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, and the wind blasting and bracing. The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for knocking me off my pedestal of independence and caring enough to prove me wrong.

A few months ago, I had convinced myself that moments like this were not the end-all-be-all of my being. I was ready to write off my 50th year around the sun as a year of contentment with discontent. In fact I even wrote it down as such – albeit framing it as turning over a “new leaf” and embracing a “new way of thinking and living.” Faced with what I thought was a running career- and-joy-ending injury and still recovering from a major life upheaval – I was setting “a new course” and making peace with the cards life had dealt me.

Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing along  with the misguided idea that I had a mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny. My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, obstinate at times, and thoroughly self-assured and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. I am not one to seek or ask for help – knowing that I know what is best for me. My sky had fallen, and as per my usual modus operandi, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way.

But that wasn’t working. Deep in my heart I knew who I was trying to be and what I was trying to do wasn’t my reality, nor was it good for me. But I fought with all my might the notion that I might be wrong again – that this wasn’t the path I was destined to follow, that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a pandemic?

We all face challenging times in life. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual – sometimes beyond our control. Each of us will respond as best we can – we simply do – even if it does not appear that way to others.

Unlike when we face a public tragedy – like the death of a loved one or a serious illness and are the focus of sympathies – these struggles are the ones we don’t share, they go too deep.

Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

The inner conflict I was experiencing became so intense I was seriously contemplating changing the course of my life altogether – the mountains that once called me now taunted me, the roads I once ran down were now streets of unmet desire; the little place I call home began to feel like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? I considered leaving everything I have here – my home, my church, my choirs, my mountains, my friends, and yes, even my job – behind to find a new course – one that fit my “turned over a new leaf” lifestyle. It just seemed easier that way. It was the best thing I could think of doing – because I had to do something.

Yes, you might say I was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to, namely me, myself, and I did a good job of hushing me even when I called out to God.

Perhaps that is why I identified so easily with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark during a recent reading. Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life – but was cast to the side of society by his blindness and condemned to his cloak of impoverishment. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but begging was the best he could do. Then he heard that Jesus was passing through town and was coming his way along the road on which he begged. Mustering his courage despite the crowds trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place. He persevered despite the voices yelling at him to be quiet.

But there was one voice that spoke louder – to both of us.

“Call her here.” Jesus spoke over the cacophony in my head. Just as he did to Bartimaeus. And that cacophony in my head stopped! What filled the silence was not wholly unexpected given my lifelong following of Jesus, but it was certainly one of those “long-time no-hear pal” assurances. “Take heart! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction my life was going in and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my ways or the highway for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

And so, like Bartimaeus, I did! I threw off my heavy cloak – I had grown so accustomed to wearing – even comforted by – and went!

In the story of Bartimaeus, Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” Boldly, Bartimaeus responds, “Let me see again.”  And Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately, he receives his sight – but he didn’t go. Instead, Bartimaeus followed – followed Jesus on the way – the way that leads Jesus to the cross.

So, were all my struggles gone just like that? Have all my years of being a “good Christian” finally paid off? Have I finally merited some mercy here on earth?

Nope! That’s not how it works.

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” -2 Corinthians 12:8-9

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: Who knew that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way? When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them.

God led me to seek out a caring listener who helped me sort through the cacophony, take a 30,000 ft view, a 10ft view, and a heart level view of my lot in life, and plan a course of action for living life fully right where I am rather than chase off looking for it.

God walked with me into the office of a physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again! No! She said that together we would get me running again and running better! Together!

Not stopping there, God showed me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how I can walk alongside others who need someone to walk alongside them. My challenges have become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God loved me through my desperate funk. He used my worst moments to show me just how much He loves me. And I truly believe God will do the same with you. I will believe that for you – when it is too dark for you to see that light.

That’s how it is when Jesus gets to join you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing afterlight of God’s love.

The love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone – even when you make your way through life by yourself. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” ISAIAH 43:18-19

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going West

“I’d say Lord has blessed us all today. It’s just that he has been particularly good to me.” – A River Runs Through It

Amen.

Let it be so. I could leave it at that sweet word of thanksgiving to sum this wonderful day up – but I am too much in love with words to be so concise. 😊

Go west, young lady, go west.

So west I went and I almost didn’t come back.

Have you ever been so relaxed in God’s creation that you cry? As the miles and hours passed en route to my destination I could have pinched myself. This was not a Glacier Park experience by any means. No 3 a.m. wake-up blasts to beat the maddening crowds, no seeing nothing but red taillights on the road before me, no wondering if I would find a place at the trailhead to park, or a private place on the trail to find a tree, no spiking of my blood pressure or clenched teeth. No, none of that!!!

As this peaceful Sunday morning unfolded, I was transported by Dvorak and Vivaldi into a place and time that I used to know. Pulse quickening anticipation of what awaited me – something new and unknown.

The autumn tapestry before me was like a warm quilt embracing me – not a red tail light in sight – just deep russet berry bushes lining the creek and river banks, rich cinnamon and sienna reds bringing Ember to mind, and leafy golden splashes of soaring light.

It was as if God was in His studio painting away – reading every thought of mine and knowing just the “thing” I needed.

Joy.

What I needed was joy.

Unadulterated, uncalculated, uncomplicated joy.

Honestly, the whole day seemed to be a simple gift, an answered prayer, a whisper of grace with every step leading me to joy.

Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that a joyful vision of life only can come when we realize just how short an opportunity we have to say yes to God’s love. Poet David Whyte says that to find joy you must become a living frontier. To both I can attest.

Amen. Let it be so.

A September of Sighs

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I was driving back to my current home after visiting what will always be my home for a long holiday weekend. Living as I do in MT with my current home in the NW corner of this great big state and the place that will always be home on the far southeastern side – my drive was a long one – filled with long, deep sighs.

I love a good solo road trip – especially on the lesser-traveled backroads of MT. As the mountains give way to miles and miles of great big spaces, the familiar but always changing scenery usually takes me away from the daily stressors that fill my day-to-day experience. But not this time. In addition to the unexpected, unusual, and truthfully – unwelcome traffic – so many things weighed upon my heart and mind – decisions awaiting me, regrets, hopes, frustration, forgiveness, uncertainty, worry, homesickness, and the feeling that my soul was just tired. I sighed so much I almost got light-headed!!

Truth is, I find myself sighing more and more these days. I wish I could say they were all sighs of delight as I watch a glorious sunrise or sighs of contented rest as the last light of day paints the sky. No, these sighs have the hint of a whimper if not an all-out groan.

I sigh over all the things I had planned for this summer that didn’t happen and the ones that unfortunately did. I sigh over the rapid changes that are taking place in the two communities I call home – changes I don’t much care for.  I sigh when even the good-news news feeds I subscribe to struggle to find good news. I sigh at the struggles I see taking place in lives far different from mine – and yet no less important. I read the news and sigh. Haiti, Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, racism, refugees, border closures, businesses closing, workers losing their homes, local, state, and national political divisions, and the relentless bickering over everything and anything! I sigh because things just don’t make sense, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Smoke-filled skies.

I sigh over our collective loss of civility and mutual respect for one another. The ongoing pandemic with its mask mandates, school closures, parent protests, vaccine mandates, hospitals being overwhelmed, fear and falsehoods spreading as fast as the virus itself, not to mention the weekly if not sometimes daily word of someone I know dying from the virus feels in itself like one great big life-sucking sigh.  I sigh as I reflect on the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 – wondering at how that passage of time is even possible and wondering again at how much things have changed. I sigh when I realize how little things have changed. I sigh when I catch myself turning to old patterns of living or thinking and don’t give a darn anymore. I sigh when agendas and individual agency become more important than love.

At times it feels like all I can do is expel a deep, groaning, relentless sigh.

What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Although I often feel very alone in my sighs, maybe we are sighing over some of the same things. Maybe I just made you take one big head-shaking sigh!

We sigh for lots of different reasons. Scientifically speaking, sighs are life-sustaining. It’s suggested that when we sigh, the action serves as a biological reset button, bringing on feelings of relief. Sighing allows an extra burst of oxygen to enter our lungs, which leads to improved blood flow, feelings of relaxation, and lowered levels of stress.

But what if our sighs were more than just biological but a spiritual awakening. What if our sighs serve as a revelation to us that we have encountered a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life? In a passage from the Gospel of Mark, the people of a region Jesus is traveling through brought him a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Jesus encounters a man who is physically closed off from the world, unable to hear or speak but with the sigh and command from Jesus, the man is opened to the world.

How many of our sighs come at times when we cannot hear or feel the peace of God in our lives or speak the words of His truth – because we frankly find them hard to believe?

I think most of us think of our sighs as a form of surrender – we accept that this is just how things are going to be. In doing so, we close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. With that tired breath out, we resign from life.

But what if our sighs are not just a surrender to the way things are going to be but instead, a continuation of the creation story – that with each sigh we release, God breathes into us new life? With each sigh released – God gives us a glimpse – however momentary – of the good things, of the openings God intends for us?  And for that life-sustaining moment, we relax, we rest, we see clearer, and feel a bit more alive.

When I look at the sighs in my life – and especially those that rode shotgun on my recent road trip – I can see my actions and reactions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my dreams and hopes, and my vision for how life should be. My sighs are a reflection of all of those things as they play out in my life.

When I sigh a little longer and breathe in a little deeper, I also see the closed parts in me – the parts that don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say. The parts I’d rather not put into words.  The parts of me I need to release from deep within. Those sighs tell me that I still have work to do, and they point me towards healing as well as opportunities for growth.

If we sit with our sighs – let them linger in the air for a while – before hurriedly moving on, maybe we can learn something important about ourselves. We might see what is not right with us and maybe just maybe feel a spark of something new – something better… After a summer of smoky skies closing in upon us – I am ready to be opened by a breath of fresh air from God leading me towards a better way to be.  Where are your sighs leading you?

“Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo.”

– Rainier Maria Rilke  (Letters on Life)

A true sigh of delight as morning breaks in eastern Montana.

Let your light so shine!

20 Years – Marking Time

20 years ago I didn’t have Facebook to help me drown in my sorrows or inflame the anger that flared beneath my shocked surface shell. I spent the evening in literal shock at what had just occurred in my beloved country. Nestled away in the safety of Montana I felt raw but naively relieved. What happened there couldn’t happen here. But what happened there would not be forgotten here. Within days the citizens of Billings were standing united in lines to get our United We Stand T-shirts. The store I worked in became a distributor and we could not keep them in stock (the shirts were also printed in town by Sutton’s). Flags flew everywhere. The skies were eerily quiet for days, despite living under a flight path. Our churches were full again.
 
Our lives had been forever changed – the extent of which none of us could fathom at the time. We lost so much.
 
In the 20 years since 9/11 so much has changed – in the world, in our country, in my life. Our lives have gone on – we have gotten on with life. While not the same, I can relate to the losses of those who loved people who died that day. I can relate to the broken dreams that would never be realized. This sad marking of time has been jarring to me this year for reasons I am not sure of. Perhaps it is because the life I swore I would never take for granted feels so unworthy of the sacrifices others made and continue to make around me. How might I change that? What difference could my life make?
 
Last night as I watched National Geographic’s 9/11, I was reminded just how much we lost as a nation that wretched Tuesday. I was also reminded of the amazing courage and love and steadfast unity that embraced our country. However briefly…
 
We must have darkness before we can see the true brilliance of light and in the days that followed that dark, dark Tuesday, the light did shine.
 
That light barely flickers now. Yes, we see it from time to time in the eyes of those who will never forget that day and have sacrificed their lives so that we may continue to seek the light of freedom and live in unity and peace.
Sadly, what they fight for seems to be understood in a very different way by those who benefit from their sacrifice. Who are we anymore, as a nation? We have become so focused on the individual, on the pursuit of singular ideals, and protecting what the individual has. We are no longer united by anything, rather we exist in fractured societies that appeal to our personal desires.
 
What amount of darkness will it take for our nation to once again seek and see the light?
We have become numb to the horrors of that day 20 years ago. We look at one another with suspicion, distrust, judgment, and self-supremacy. We fail to see value in disagreement and compromise and instead feed and thrive on division. What will it take for our nation’s heart to feel again? Obviously, the loss of well over 650,000 lives in less than 2 years won’t do the trick…
 
I pray that God once again quiets the minds of those who survived the attacks on 9/11 and those who mourn the dead on that day. I pray that they at least know that their loss has not been forgotten. I pray that our nation will survive the darkness we have created from within and be strong enough to defend against the darkness that seeks to forever destroy the beacon of light our founders confidently believed was possible.

Confessions of an Extremist

Having completed 50 evolutions around the sun, I expected this year to be my shining moment – that perfect balance of life experiences which would in turn inform a wealth of new discoveries. I have indeed learned many valuable life lessons up to this point in my life but the new discoveries I am making in this 50th year aren’t the grand adventures I was hoping for – just more hard lessons. My parents decided against naming me Grace for a reason and I am finally seeing that there was more to that reasoning than my affinity for tripping on my shadow.

Perfect balance

You see, balance is not my forte. You will not see me standing on one leg for any length of time – nor making it across a rushing creek by hopping rocks – without getting soaking wet.  “Better, Stronger, Faster”, “No Pain, No Gain”, and “A Jane of all trades, is a master of none…” (my adaptation) were the mantras I followed for much of my life – believing that I could always be better – I was never enough; that pain was just a part of the deal, and once I found something I was good at I had to be the best at it and I went all in – all or nothing. Sure, these are all noble ideals when part of a well-rounded life-style buoyed by a healthy self-image or specific goals – but dangerous when they become coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges and travails of living.  Everything in moderation is a nice concept but putting it into practice has never occurred to me. 

Balance – in many facets of my life – has eluded me. I have always marveled at gymnasts who can twirl, leap and spin on a plank no wider than my hand; athletes who never seem to falter; dieters who manage to find the perfect combination of health and pleasure in their meals; professionals who have a successful career and an equally fulfilling personal life; climbers who can leap from ledge to ledge with full confidence in their footing; couples who can’t get enough of each other and yet celebrate their individuality… I could go on.

As the office administrator for a financial advisory firm – readers can take comfort that I have at least succeeded in mastering a balanced checkbook and have never once carried a balance on a credit card. But for most everything else in life I tend to go to extremes.

Take my running. I am a runner. Period. It is who I am. People who I’ve never met before greet me as an old friend in the grocery store saying  “Oh, you’re the runner we see every morning.”  For 35+ years I have started every day with a run. Nothing got in the way except for when I was physically incapable of doing so and even then – running injured became a badge of honor. Just like the Olympic gymnast who wins gold with her blown ankles wrapped to keep them stiff, I chased mile after mile through stress fractures, shin splints, migraines, and fevers. I was driven to log more miles than the day before – even in a blizzard. Don’t ask me why – it was simply ingrained in me to start every day that way – always going a little bit farther then the day before. I even ran 8 miles on the morning of my morning wedding. And God help me and those around me if I couldn’t run… it wasn’t pretty.

And this is where the hard lessons have finally come to light  – to use an old adage – again adapted  – the chicken running with her head cut off finally came home to roost – because this year I finally couldn’t. I couldn’t run any more.

It took a broken foot and the ensuing overcompensation injuries that followed to lead me down a path of discovery I never wanted to go on. And yet what a discovery it has been! I realized just how out of balance my life has been. Not that I didn’t already know it – I was just finally forced to come to terms with this tidbit of truth. More is not always better – and choosing balance is a lot harder than chasing the single-minded ease of excessiveness – of going to the extremes.

Extreme runners know they should cross-train but it is so much easier to fall in step with the farther-faster mindset and seek that addictive runner’s high rather than balance their daily training with strength and restorative work. This will inevitably come back to bite us somewhere down the road when an overtraining, overuse, or overcompensating injury sidelines us – as I learned the hard way this year. There I was, sidelined from my greatest coping mechanism of all time – running – during one of the most stressful, challenging times of my life. While I never ran from a challenge, running helped me through them. Now I was forced to not only come to terms with the challenges of life but I also had to shift my identity.

Letting go of running has been quite daunting and challenging – I literally built my life around it. What was I supposed to do with my Saturday mornings now that a 17-mile run was off the schedule let alone – how do I face each day? My well-meaning friends didn’t help matters when they also chimed in with “but what will you do?” What will I do?  As if the only thing I was truly capable of was a good run!

I was filled with anxiety. I became depressed. My serotonin levels – naturally elevated by endorphins – plummeted. I had a hard time sleeping. Adjusting from a daily half marathon of exertion to virtually no activity at least at the time of my broken foot left me feeling like I was bouncing off the walls.

This would never do. And then I discovered chair cardio.

Friends, this is not the “Sit and Be Fit” your 90 yr. old grandmother enjoys before playing Bridge at the senior center. No, this was an intense set of core workouts I found through the wonders of YouTube led by a runner and trainer who had also broken her foot and needed an outlet during recovery. She was also an extremist when it came to fitness – the operative word being WAS.

One of her favorite mottos is: More is not better – better is better. Having a balanced approach to exercise is a lot more work and a lot harder to do than going to the extremes.

I came to realize the coping mechanism that had been so valuable to me through the ups and downs and the joys and the griefs of life had become a prominent roadblock to my growth. My rigid my-way- is-the-only-way-for-me thinking had not served me as well as I thought – in more ways than just running!  I branched out to cross-training, high-intensity interval training, lifting weights, and doing a cross between Pilates and yoga. And I discovered that a fast walk works your legs more than an easy sprint – without the pain! Who knew?

I won’t say that I don’t long for those long Saturday morning runs and the exhilaration of a fast sprint to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” … Indeed, I am having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that my running days – that my life as a runner – may be behind me even as I realize that my running also brought me pain – pain that has kept me from enjoying the other parts of my life.

As I learned that running wasn’t the only thing I could do to stay fit and actually enjoy doing because it feels good, I began to grow stronger in mind AND body. I am finding a new place to anchor my identity – not in the extremes of my miles logged and my performance but in the wholeness of my being – created and loved by God

One of the primary difficulties of a lifestyle change – or any major change in thinking – revolves around our attachment to our identity. Although we can clearly see it is an obstacle to our growth, the loss of this part of our identity is daunting. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the loss of an old and tired or detrimental feature of our identity may provoke a deep sense of loss. The uncertainty of new terrain invokes discomfort – even disingenuity – as we encounter surprises and maybe feel a bit less confident as we learn new things. Embracing new ideas and new ways of living takes work and perseverance. But when we let go of our disserving coping mechanisms, rigid thinking, or extreme ideals and break free of old, worn-out encumbrances we give way to higher forms of ourselves. We are coping. We are thinking not just following the easy path because it affirms us. We are stronger and able to see anew.

I can’t help but think there may be a lesson in this for our politics and our times.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

Memories of the miles…

Let your light so shine!

 

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness