Risking Joy

A Palm Sunday Sermon

April 10, 2022

Luke 19: 28-40

And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

Those words have inspired many hard decisions I have made in my adult life. As I was seeking inspiration for what I might say to you today I was reminded of those poetic threshold words penned by Anais Nin – words that encourage us to take the risk we are contemplating -to open ourselves to the world – to leave the comfort of what we know – be vulnerable – and welcome what awaits us.

During the season of Lent we leave our false comforts of life and enter the wilderness with Jesus. We did our best to withdraw from the busyness of the present and our favorite numbing distractions. Sometimes we choose to sacrifice or live with more intention. Always, we meditated and prayed and allowed the protective walls between our sensitive spirit and the complexity and conflict of contemporary life to fall. We let ourselves be vulnerable – if only to ourselves – but hopefully also to God. 

Perhaps we got to know Jesus better – the radiant child King we lavishly celebrated at Christmas. Hopefully, in our Lenten wilderness with Jesus, we let Him get to know us better too – our fear, grief, even rage and yes, our longings, loves and deepest joys. Perhaps we have wept and hollered and let our weakness and exhaustion show in these sacred and vulnerable 40 days. 

For some, the past two years have been an eternal wilderness. In pandemic America, many were forced into long periods of separation, refrained from celebration, and we worshiped in solitude, without the pomp and joy of gathered community. Indeed it has been three years since we last celebrated Holy Week all together. Now as we enter a new & uncertain phase of life amid a pandemic, we are learning how to be together again. Many of us are raw with grief and despair over lost loved ones and broken relationships, lost dreams, and financial hardship. Distrust of those in power runs rampant, strife and division corrode our foundation as a country and a people. And war in Ukraine is taking lives and livelihoods and threatens the stability and safety of the world. It seems like we live in an ongoing crisis, burdened by crosses laid upon us and of our own making. It’s been a while since we have known true unfettered communal joy. 

The people we meet today traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus also bore crosses. Crosses of oppression and poverty, sin and sickness, despair, and death.  In Jesus day, the cross was the prescribed form of capital punishment. Biblical historians tell us that it was common for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses each of them bearing a body. Picture those roadside crosses you pass on Hwy 40 as part of your daily commute, or the ones erected at the 10 Commandments display with a body hanging from them. Anyone who took that way from their home to the market, or from the market to the temple, or from the temple to a friend’s house, would have no choice but to encounter these grim instruments of capital punishment on a regular basis. They didn’t have the privilege of speeding by in the comfortable confines of a vehicle. They walked with eyes turned away, but they smelled the stench, and they heard the horrors of death on a cross.  Imagine the threat and constant terror the Roman Empire instilled in the people who lived in the shadows of those crosses – their lives and hopes shriveled by this unspoken but most deadly of all messages of power. They were also divided by caste and social privilege and lived with suspicion & scorn for one another.  This was the grim reality of Jesus’s day.  

Today we with the disciples step away from our individual realities and join a celebration of our shared walk with Jesus – a triumphal entry into a new way of thinking and seeing ourselves in the world. Today we join the multitudes on the road to Jerusalem and begin the journey of Holy Week. I’ve seen Holy Week referred to as a Holy symphony with four movements. In years past we have observed the first three movements as Palm/Passion Sunday because the church has argued that you can’t have the finale – the resurrection – without first experiencing the triumphal entry, betrayal and death and most people won’t darken the church doorway after today until Easter morning. But this year this week’s Holy Symphony will have its full expression throughout the days ahead.

And I am glad for that. Palm Sunday feels like life to me — rich and full and complicated and contradictory. And so very expressive of those times in our lives when we stand at a threshold with a choice to make. Today we are at such a threshold as we reflect on a series of events that changed the world and even today – changes our lives if we allow ourselves to fully experience the passion of our Lord.

The last days of our friend, Jesus who lived out our human experience to the fullest, whose deeds of power were indeed worthy of our praise, but who also chose to walk, laugh and cry with us and emptied Himself for us so that we may have true life. 

During Holy Week, just as we often do in our own lives, we have a natural tendency to focus on the worst of what Jesus experienced: the betrayal, the agony, and finally his death. But it’s really important for us not to lose sight of the triumphant entry. It is a joyful experience, inspiring feelings of communal gladness we haven’t felt in a while. 

So let’s spend some time here in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheering Jesus on, waving our palms, and throwing our cloaks down before him – all the while acknowledging that many of the very same people we join on that road shouting, “Blessed is He” will be in the ugly mob that cries out “Crucify him” on Friday as this same Jesus, an innocent man, is tortured and executed for alleged crimes against the Empire. There is joy and there is despair. This was and is our human experience.

What did you feel this morning as you entered the sanctuary and sang that wonderful song of glory to our Redeemer and King? What was in your heart as you waved your palm branches high?   Joy? Surely not a yawn!

The people cheering for Jesus that day abandoned their dignity, not to mention an important material possession by throwing their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus.  They let go of their fear and troubles and were lost in wonder, love, praise, and joy. What did you let go of – if only for a moment?

And what about Jesus? What was He feeling inside? The text doesn’t give us much to go on if we want to know his state of mind during the grand parade. He certainly seemed certain of how the events would play out. I hope He too felt immense joy, don’t you? Then again, a recipient of praise and adoration of this magnitude might also feel uncomfortable – I know I would! 

But Jesus would not have been fully human if he didn’t experience intense joy, maybe even giddy abandon, and yet we rarely picture him that way. I wonder why that is? Do we feel guilty for being joyful amidst a suffering world? Does suffering deny the existence of joy? Does joy deny the existence of suffering?

As I think on the nature of the Jesus I know, I think He wanted the people to feel wonder and joy – to have a taste of the kingdom in which He reigns. To show that joy comes from knowing a love greater than any fear – a joy that can be felt even in the worst of times. And what joy this day must have brought Jesus to see the hearts of his followers, hearts long hardened by fear and oppression, open again to wonder and love! 

Joy in the midst of a politically and personally dangerous time for Jesus. Because this was not a simple parade down a road to Jerusalem. Jesus was committing a subversive act against the powers of the Roman Empire.  Pontius Pilate was on his way to Jerusalem too because this was the feast week of the Passover, the celebration of God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day. This would be foremost in the minds of the Jews in their celebrations of the event.  Imperial Rome generated feelings of hatred and contempt from many of its subjects. Pointing to their feelings, the writer Tacitus said, “[The Romans] rob, they slaughter, they plunder — and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’

Because of this, the Romans distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings such as the one we find celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and it explains why Pontius Pilate and his legions would have left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem. To reaffirm the Empire’s authority and power over the people. Some accounts say it was likely that Pilate was conducting his own triumphal entry upon mighty steeds of war into Jerusalem from the opposite direction while Jesus was making his way through the throngs of adoring. cheering people.

The royal implications of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem are clear in the words of “the whole multitude of disciples” who praised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come. Obviously, this made the Pharisees very nervous. They had warned Jesus before that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now they implored Jesus to silence the disciples. They knew that such a display of royal pretense would bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. They didn’t want to rock the boat. 

But Jesus chose to do the hard thing and the brave thing – He chose to rock the boat – to open the eyes and hearts of his followers and ignite a joy so powerful even stones would shout of it. On a lowly colt, Jesus made Himself vulnerable to the will of the crowd and the events of the days to come. His followers chose the Joy of Jesus that day – they aligned themselves with his authority – not one of oppression, fear, and death – but of compassion, love, and life. They crossed a threshold and took a step forward on the road that would change their lives forever – and they were filled with joy.

And about that crowd – that is after all the role that most of us are taught to play in the passion liturgy – as we wave our palms and shout our hosannas to Jesus and later this week as we join in the calls for Jesus’s crucifixion. 

How is it that we can be so united both in our positive energy and our negative, destructive, even violent energy? We still see this play out in the social, cultural, and political fronts of our lives today. To whose authority are we choosing to live under? 

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks about two ways of gathering or creating unity among people. One is the way of love: “God unites by the positive energy of loving, shepherding, and revealing the divine presence in one’s midst.” Unfortunately, there is another more common and more efficient way to gather people and form group cohesion. “You can either rally around love to unite, or you can rally around fear, gossip, paranoia, and negativity.” Fear and Hate can be as powerful and enticing as Joy and Love. 

Palm Sunday captures much of our human complexity and the observances of this Holy Week before us will show us the fullness of God and humanity. We have many opportunities to gather together, and I encourage you to participate in all of them.

There’s a question I want you to contemplate as we enter this week: will the way we gather here as a people, as the Body of Christ, change the way you gather with others outside of these walls? Will we choose to reflect the Joy we know in Christ, choose to be “good gatherers”, people who unite others based on our best instincts, not our worst? Will you lead others to light or allow darkness and fear to permeate?

In his meditation on how to unite people, Rohr concludes, “There are still two ways of gathering: the way of fear and hate, and the way of love. But do not yourself be afraid, because Jesus is still gathering.”  

Jesus calls us to take the risk of joy. This week of all weeks, we know how great the cost may be when we take that risk and listen to the call of Jesus. But the day has come, when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful and costly than the risk it takes us to blossom. Let’s take that risk. Let’s joyfully walk in the way of love — together. 

Amen

Let your light so shine!!

Seeing Clearly

I love to write. Words are like children to me – they are the physical expression of my thoughts and feelings – birthed deep inside and given life on the page. For all of my life I have delighted to see my words in print or on the screen.  Beginning in first grade when my poem about spring was selected for the school magazine to many years later when my well intentioned civic minded letter to the editor was printed in the Sunday Gazette, I beamed like a proud parent gazing upon their cherubic child. I remember being as thrilled over getting positive remarks on my high school essays as the soccer team was at winning the state championship!

Now I write professionally, pastorally, and for pleasure having consistently maintained a blog for 8.5 years. One would think that with my love for words, birthing them would come easy. But on the contrary, when has childbirth ever been easy???  Indeed, I have labored for hours over opening lines and meaningful metaphors. I approach the blank screen with trepidation – if I approach it all. Just this last weekend with a sermon to write and this newsletter article hanging over me – I suddenly realized with great urgency that my refrigerator needed cleaning out. I scrubbed that baby from top to bottom – pulling out every drawer and shelf and thoroughly scouring away every microscopic bit of organic life. I justified this time-sucking task with the inspiration I knew I would glean from the crisper drawer – but in truth I was willing to do anything to keep me from that frightening blank screen that taunts me with just how empty my thoughts are.

And courage. Courage to “put it all out there” for the world to see. To take a chance that what I have to say might make an impression on someone, touch someone, make someone think. I have to put aside fears of rotten tomatoes, click throughs, and “challenging” remarks. Courage to refrain from comparison – the ultimate thief of joy and creativity – and just write trusting that while my words may not be the most profound or philosophical – they still have worth.

With no divinely-cool inspiration coming forth I continued with dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, and finally taking the dog for a walk – surely, they were out there somewhere – the precise words to perfect my prose. Procrastinate lately – you might be thinking? But I will counter any day with my concept of active percolation – just like brewing the perfect cup of coffee – making words form sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages – takes care and time! 

It is in times like these that deadlines are my friend. At some point I am forced to write something – to put form to the thoughts swirling in my mind. To act. To make a decision and run with it – to take a chance.

As I struggled with words this weekend, I began to see similarities to other areas of my life. You might say my writer’s block was a mega metaphor of my life right now! Struggling with choices and decisions until I am forced by something or some circumstance to finally act. I am as afraid of writing the wrong thing as I am of making the wrong choice. Desperate to be right and win approval, my fear of acting has held me back throughout my life and as I embark on the second half I don’t want to continue being stymied by it.

I’ve never quite understood what is behind this fear but I have always marveled at those who seem to have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there – and then getting there – fears (if they have any) be darned!

Fear of failure has clouded my vision and therefore I have always lacked clarity of purpose and lacked direction in living my life. Oh, I manage to get by alright – some might even think I have it all together – that I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I do best. And maybe that is true – but getting by is not the same as living your best. And living your best takes clarity which turns into courage which turns into action. 

Have you ever felt like something – maybe yourself – was holding you back from living life fully – trusting your choices and believing you are on the right path? What is it? What clouds your perspective and keeps you from moving forward?  What keeps you from living wholeheartedly and with integrity?

In addition to my fear of failure I struggle with:

  • The belief that my past failures will forever haunt any future successes;
  • The illusion that someone else is in charge of and responsible for my life and therefore has the right to direct my life
  • The belief that someone is far more qualified and better than I am for the situation at hand and therefore I am not needed;
  • The unhelpful messages I received and believed about myself in the past and continue to live into;
  • The child inside of me who still just wants to please, gain approval, and meet expectations;
  • The constant need to prove myself to others and therefore being unable to show up for my own life.

Counselors will applaud me for the time I have spent wrestling with all of the above but to be honest it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Kind of like hoping divine inspiration will come from the crisper drawer if I clean it for long enough. The more I focus on the naughts and shoulds of my life the less time and energy I have for simply living life.  What I have come to realize is that there are far too many subjective and fallible things in this world that I have clung to for my own personal sense of worth and meaning and none of them will get me anywhere close to where I want to go – especially for the second half of life.

There is a story in the Bible about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus is met by some Pharisees who warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:31-33)

Jesus knows where He is going, he is clear on His purpose and is not afraid of what is ahead. He doesn’t let the foxes of life deter him – even his impending death.

I want that kind of clarity for my own life. Clarity that encourages integrity, wholeheartedness, and a vision of life that is connected to something beyond me. Clarity that makes living with authenticity, commitment, resolve and discernment my default and not something I have to labor for.

I’m not going to find that if I am constantly battling my fears. The fears I allow to dominate my life are of my own making. They have tamed and impoverished my life. That is not the purpose God had in mind for me. God is much bigger than that.

God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in fear, regret, or despair.  He made that perfectly clear on the cross. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation; He is the source of my clarity and the source of all life. He is my strength and my shield against all that seeks to deter me.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges and all the opportunities they bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living facing challenges and finding new doorways to life.

Clarity isn’t about knowing and seeing everything. It’s about knowing and seeing ourselves as a child of God. It’s about knowing who our heart and our deepest loyalty belongs to. Clarity is about seeing clearly our gifts and abilities while acknowledging our limitations and feeling great about both.  God’s gift of grace and steadfast love frees us to live lives focused on what matters most to us not on what we should have done or who we “should” be. In that freedom is life at its best where there is nothing to fear.

Psalm 27 says it best:     

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rises up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”

Psalm 27: 1-5

Let your light so shine!!

Ashes for My Birthday – Amen to that!

“Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

Such fitting words as I mark the beginning of another year around the sun or as today will remind me, another year closer to my Maker.

They don’t always fall on the same day – my birthday and Ash Wednesday. The last time Ash Wednesday occurred on March 2 was 1960  – way before my time – but this year the juxtaposition of these two days is not lost on me. Today we begin the journey to the cross. On my birthday I will wear a cross of ashes reminding me of my life saved from eternal death

This morning, my coworker asked me how I was celebrating my birthday. Deep in thought, I said.

Yes, of course I am deep in thought today. It is what I do and who I am – from the very dust particles of my being. I am a deep thinker and feeler. The last several weeks even more so, as so many of the things I have clung to in life besides the One I should – have fallen away as everything eventually does. In the process I have come to know myself better – my TRUE Self. It’s an eye-opening, lay awake at night, unsettling process. I came to realize how heavy I have let this little life of mine become. Weighed down by the weight of my own being – buried in a very lonely place.

The crosses I bear are of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life.

Yes, the ashes of this day weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now.  God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret or despair.  He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my baptism and on the cross I wear today. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation, He is the source of my life. He is my strength and my shield.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges – even a possible hip replacement and the changes that will bring.  A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living through life’s deaths before death as well as giving life to life. 

And so today I won’t be celebrating with birthday candles on a cake – but ashes on my forehead. Celebrating life  – the life given for me and the life breathed into me by Jesus. The life I still have yet to live. The life I want to live.  

 ‘

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.

“When Death Comes” -Mary Oliver

Let your light so shine – especially through the ashes.

Changing Course

We don’t always end up where we intended in life. Long before reaching our final destination, life happens and we are forced to change course.

I wrote those words a little over a week ago, oblivious to just how prophetic they would be in the coming days. I’m not sure why the sudden pothole I fell into came as such a surprise – perhaps it is because I have been living in denial.

Denial that despite what the Social Security Administration has in their official records on me – I can’t possibly be a year past 50. Denial that though most of my high school friends are celebrating 25 years plus of marriage and have kids who are now getting married – I am still living a carefree single girl’s life. Denial that my body is a human body, nothing more, nothing less – and not a spectacular specimen of immortality.

No, I should not have been surprised. In fact, in my free wheeling days leading up to the “news” I had finally made out my will and detailed how I want my life to end if I am unable to have a say in the matter. A sobering exercise if there ever was one, made even more so by the fact that ‘ll likely have no one other than my churches and charities to leave whatever riches I have left to – and no one to carry on my legacy let alone see to my needs in my last days – all documented in official legalese. But even that did little to change the reflection I chose to see in the mirror every day – the one to whom the laws of the universe don’t apply.

I ran across an “old” acquaintance from high school the other day on Facebook. He had posted a picture of his family – and for a minute I thought he must have taken the picture of his dad with the rest of his family but then it dawned on me that the balding man with more than just flecks of grey in his beard and deep lines on his forehead was actually my classmate! Wow, I thought to myself, I wonder what happened to him? He looked happy, but old.

But not me! No, I’m the one who faced down death at 23 and had a completely unnerving brush with death at 45 but laughed in the face of it both times – assured that God still had plans for me on this great earth. I’m the one who the devil rolls his eyes at as I bound out of bed for my daily 10 mile runs at the crack of dawn come rain, shine, blizzard, or below zero temperatures. Who didn’t let a sprained ankle or broken toe stop me. Who, once I discovered that God inhabited the summits and hugged me with the sky, repeatedly climbed mountains and hiked 23 miles a day back-to-back every summer. I’m the one who has proven time and again that my body can heal itself. Throughout all of life’s travails, I have always believed that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

That has been how the world has seen me and what I saw every morning in the mirror – despite the pain.

The damn pain that just would not go away. No matter what I tried – physical therapy, deep massage, changing my diet, and of course stopping the very activity that gave me life -running – the pain just kept coming back, malingering in the background – taunting me to pay attention to it.

I don’t know when I finally became cognizant of the fact that I no longer had control over my life – that I had ceded my days to pain. It crept its way into my being – shadowing my bright spirits – sapping life from me little by little. Honestly, I didn’t notice at first how much it was controlling me as I just pushed through it – to the point that pushing through was taking all I had until I had nothing more to give. I no longer recognized myself in the mirror.

And so, I gave in and finally made an appointment with a doctor – something I am loathe to do. Lucky for me I only had to wait 4 weeks to get in to see an orthopedist – surely – I convinced myself – this was a simple stress fracture – another 6-8 weeks of rest and I’ll be back. Alas it didn’t cross my mind that it would have to be one heck of a stress fracture to make my whole body hurt. I was certain of the point of pain though. What started with my broken foot led to over- compensation and poor muscle strength in areas no one pays attention to until their physical therapist points out just how weak they are that threw my stride off and thus threw my hip out of joint. I’m great at self-diagnosis. I’ve been around the block enough times to know exactly what was wrong, after all!

The doctor ran a gamut of x-rays and then came in for the “exam”. I gave an excellent presentation of my theory and said in finishing – “So if you could just get my hip to pop back into place, I know that will fix my problem.”

She tilted her head to one side and replied, “Well let’s have a look at the pictures…”

And there it was in black and white – well more like gray and white. My problem. There would be no simple popping my hip back into its socket. The damage was done. My hip socket is a mess. I’m walking around with bone on bone.

“You have significantly advanced arthritis,” she said. “I’m surprised to see this much damage in someone your age. I’d recommend a hip replacement – but you are too young. Do you have any questions for me?”

Literally – those were her very words. Do I have questions?? Of course I have questions!!! So, what does this mean? How are you going to relieve my pain? Are there alternatives? What caused this?

While athletes sometimes develop arthritis, especially after injury, she said not all do. People who are sedentary also get arthritis. For the most part it is idiopathic (unknown in cause) but does have strong ties to your genes. I watched my mother suffer from arthritis and saw her give in to it. I swore that would never be me and that is one of the reasons I stayed so active -to avoid the same fate. Apparently, my efforts were for naught.

What does this mean? I am not entirely sure. There is no easy fix, no magic pill. Pain will continue to rule my life for the foreseeable future – learning how to manage it will be my goal. Don’t put on weight, she said. Ha! First doctor who has EVER told me that!!! A steroid shot would be too invasive with a considerable risk of infection. She would be happy to prescribe a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory but when she described my options and the risks, I decided I want to stay away from those for as long as I can.

As for running – what once gave me life? She said if I get past this season of pain and want to try – fine but I am setting myself up for more pain – meaning less life. So, I am trying to be “fine” and make it my goal to hike fifteen miles a day come summer. That is all is want…

I am trying to keep this in perspective. I received a life-altering diagnosis not a life-taking one. For that I am thankful and almost ashamed by the state of despair I am in. In truth, it does feel like my life is being taken from me – chasing sunrises and sunsets on foot, losing myself in miles of thought and meditation, taking on mile after mile of adventure.

Or has it? I still believe that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I will find my way through this. I will also ask for help to do so. I am determined to ensure that my present pothole state is not my new reality. I am strong because of my past and I am stronger still because I always believe in tomorrow.

In that same post from a week ago I wrote: “Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.”

I AM still here today having faced many a challenge before this one; I am prepared to meet this the same way – with faith that God still has plans for me, that He isn’t done with me yet, and I will rise above this season of pain and learn to shine anew.

“but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.”

Isaiah 40:31

Let your light so shine.

How Will You Run Your Fastest Race?

The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life. Our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years. And yet what do we have to show for it?  Certainly not a trophy – this race isn’t winnable and yet we keep running it – chasing after the prize just beyond our reach. Certain that with every mile of must do’s, every mile of minutiae, every mile of saying yes – we will garner a prized position on the roster of life. When in truth, in the end, all that is left is the etching of our name and the numerical bookends of our life onto a slate grey stone. Some trophy.

With those enlivening words, I bid you a Happy New Year! As I glance over my shoulder at the year that is now 2 and half weeks in the past, I keep asking myself, wait, what happened to 2021? How is it that another year has passed? How did I manage to run through that year so fast? And how is it that I have run through fifty such turnings of a year?

Actually, I didn’t run all that much. In fact, 2021 taught me that while I may have miraculously made it to 50, I am not invincible. One would think I would only have to learn that lesson once, but alas, 2021 also revealed a hint of obstinance within me. 2021 will go down in my book as the year that knocked me off my feet – more times than I care to count and instead of getting right back up and finishing the race, this time I was forced to limp to the sidelines – if you will allow me to continue the race of life metaphor. Turning 50 reminded me I likely have more years behind me than I do ahead; precious time I do not have to take for granted.

If 2021 had been my bookend year, how would it be remembered? Well, on the bright side, those nefarious maladies forced me to slow down and re-examine the course I have been running for longer than I can remember and instilled in me a hunger for life – real life – not the “settled for instead” life I have for too long allowed to dominate my existence.

Such wisdom only comes with the walk, and I have walked more than ran many miles this year. As I reflect on the year that was and the year to come, I realize I spent most of 2021 reacting to my circumstances instead of navigating them. After the initial shock to my system brought on by relationship upheaval, the pandemic, sudden injury, and illness subsided, instead of thinking about what these instances might be telling me I began figuring out how I was going to keep on doing life like I have always done it – racing through it and avoiding obstacles that might slow me down. Which is how I arrived at the beginning of the New Year feeling ragged rather than refreshed, resigned rather than renewed. How indeed does one satisfy that hunger for really living life instead of enduring the settled for life?

To run a race and finish well you have to be intentional with your training and intentional with your run during the race. Cognizant of those around you and any obstacles you might encounter, in touch with how your body is performing the tasks you are asking it to do, and keeping your focus not just on the finish line but on every step you take – lest you trip on a rock or stumble on a pothole- which I am infamous for!

The race of life is no different. It must be run with intention if you want to finish well and not just settle for having run it.

Living intentionally is not easy especially when faced with the unpredictable, impermanent, and unknowingness of life. We have to be intentional when living in sustained uncertainty, living without knowing, embracing the mystery, and keeping the possibilities that arise from this state of ambiguity open. I don’t rest well with uncertainty as this time of pandemic has so graciously revealed.  Rather, this state of uncertainty impels me to rush with urgency toward an answer – any answer. A life of restlessness is not what I am after, after all, but my ways of relieving that restlessness have simply prolonged it.

Too often, in my quest for a reason for being I have let others define it – or worse – accept what I think others want to define as my reason for being.

Too often, my reason for being is simply a daily reaction to what is happening around me or a rush to get somewhere. I settle into the complacent comfort of taking each day as it comes rather than shaping each day for what it could be. Too often of late when contemplating what tomorrow will bring or what I want my future – even just a year from now – to hold – I find myself responding with “I just don’t know. I just don’t know anymore. “  

In the end, my urgency to define my life has instead only confined it. I’ve settled for not knowing – and as time has worn me out – not caring – or living as if I don’t. And this is not how I want to be – and I don’t think how any of you want to be in this world either. I know God doesn’t want that for me or you.

But, here’s the thing, none of us truly know what our future holds. There is nothing guaranteed about tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. The last two years have made this irritatingly clear. No wonder my ponderings of late didn’t get me anywhere. No wonder they all end the same way. No wonder I don’t know. None of us know our destination until we arrive – and sometimes we don’t even realize we HAVE arrived!

To live with intention and to live intentionally in this ever-present state of uncertainty requires a compass and the patience to use one in the urgency of life.  A compass requires you to be still in order to orient yourself to the direction you want to go. A compass that embodies all the points that provide meaning and direction to life.  A compass provides the way.

Emily Dickinson wrote: “The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can.” 

Martin Luther wrote: “I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my guide.”

By what means are you orienting your life for living rather than settling in?

Who or what is the compass that will lead you through all the unknowns of 2022 and beyond?

  • What are the values and qualities that will direct and guide your life;
  • Whose advice and counsel will you seek and trust;
  • To what principles and standards will you hold yourself accountable;
  • What tenets will help you put shape and form to your life;
  • What deep longings or callings will energize and move you forward;
  • By what practices will you maintain your integrity and authenticity?

And where will you find the stillness and solitude to quiet your mind and orient yourself along these points of life direction?

These are the questions I have tasked myself to ponder at the start of this new year and in this present stillness of my life. I can’t tell you where my life is going but by truly reflecting on what matters most – my compass points – I can trust the way.

What about you?  By what way do you want to go? What are your intentions for the race you are running?  Go and find stillness – welcome it into your life and finish the race well.

A moment of stillness at the end of the day.

Let your light so shine!

Christmas Eve – 2021

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Isaiah 9:2-4,6

Tonight, I will read those words and be reminded that Jesus Christ came to be the light of the world and light our way to a new way of being – of living in His light and in the freedom of His almighty love.

Dear heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son, a light that shines even brighter in the darkness that has found its way into my life this year.  Thank you for your grace and for showing me the truth: that You are far greater than my troubles, far worthier of trusting than the inner voices that beckon me. For I know that with you, all things are possible and with you, I am never alone. Thank you for directing my path and my heart.

As I write this, a beam of sunlight just broke through grey snow flurried skies. The light really does shine through the darkness – and it shines brightly in my heart in a new way this Christmas. Thank you, Lord, for your redeeming grace, your mighty love, your wonderful ways.

For those who are struggling this Christmas – wondering where this Prince of Peace is – longing for a sign of His love in your life – know that He is there, quietly working His ways for you. Persevere in faith. It does get better. A new day will dawn.

May this Christmas Eve have a special significance for all of us— broken people in need of a Savior, who comes to us tonight just as we are….

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

“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.” John 1: 1-4

Let your light so shine!!!! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

The Gift of Just Being – Love

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.” – Isaiah 9: 2

We are in the waning days of December and for me, it is the time of Advent – a time of waiting, anticipation, and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior and what used to be my favorite time of year – Christmas!!  A time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you probably feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. And as luck would have it – this year takes the cake for high emotional content.

You see, I am feeling a bit at odds with myself and the machinations of the season – because this is my 50th year – this is my 50th Christmas – and what have I made of it???  It should be a spectacular celebration – no?

I love Christmas, I have from my earliest memory. I readily admit to getting wrapped up (pun intended) in the spirit of the season, merry-making galore. Before moving to the Flathead, during the months of November and December I would spend days adorning my parent’s house with lights, so much so that when I flipped the switch the rest of the neighborhood dimmed. Always alive in me was the real reason for the season, the coming celebration of the birth of my Lord and Savior. My family has a strong Scandinavian heritage and I learned at a very young age the art and technique of making lefse and krumkake, traditional holiday food offerings found in any Norwegian home. I was rolling perfect rounds of lefse by the time I was five and have been eating it with delight ever since – a fact of which my grandmother would be immensely proud.

Our home was always filled with music: piano, guitar, and good old-fashioned records on the turn-table! I started Christmas caroling and singing in choirs in my teenage years -I loved bringing the message of good news in song to the hearts of people I would never otherwise know. I have sung in choirs ever since – at times singing in 4 different show choirs at once!  My Christmas goodwill has always been focused on spreading cheer to those far and near, through music, acts, words, and gifts. I truly believe we are God’s light in this world and this was my way of sharing that message brightly.

Looking back, I long for what now seems like such a simple but wonderful way of celebrating the holidays. I long for my childhood wonder and acceptance of the way we did things simply because that is how we did things. I don’t recall my parents being as stressed out around the holidays as I have allowed myself to become today. Of course, they didn’t have social media reminding them what everyone else was doing prompting them to wonder “how do we compare?”

But this year is different. My schedule remains empty of umpteen  rehearsals and choir performances and aside from the occasional potato I haven’t baked a thing! Christmas cards remain unwritten and I’ve barely touched the piano keys. Sure, the house is decorated as it “always” is but the rest has fallen by the wayside – victims of the pandemic and my own malaise. I find myself in a liminal state of fatigue, fatigued by having nothing to be stressed about and fatigued by the thought of actually doing something. And this has me feeling all out of sorts – guilty for feeling as I do.

Expectations are high when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Social media highlights all that we don’t have in our lives – be it time, money, relationships, a happy home, a social life, health, you name it. Advertisements tell us we are going to “Win the holiday” by patronizing such and such retailer; “You got this!” they exclaim as a family stands back and admires perfection personified in Christmas lights. Who doesn’t want to “win the holiday” but in reality, who can?  For the longest time, I tried but I always ended up feeling defeated and depleted.

All these images of happy traditions have a way of coloring our own expectations of peace and happiness around the holidays. It is indeed a wonderful time of year in which we focus on making and spreading joy, a time I have always cherished and looked forward to. But I have also experienced the emptiness inside after too much money is spent, all the presents are given, and life just goes on the next day. I have felt my heart break when my high expectations of the perfect family gathering went up in the smoke of a blazing argument. I have collapsed in illness from the stress of over-extending and over-committing myself to every activity that came my way. Most acutely, I have felt the cold sting of loneliness at a time when love and family sparkles in the lives of all those around me. This year I’m not sure what I am feeling – suspended, perhaps?

These are the dual realities of the holidays that approach. A time when both joy and sadness, quiet and commotion compete for a presence in our lives. My own experiences with both the light and dark aspects of the holidays have heightened my emotional sensitivities and my empathy for others who also struggle at this time of year.

Alas, here we are, Christmas comes whether we are in the mood or not and another journey around the sun is almost complete. Inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time cannot be repeated, ever again. And yet, year after year we close out another chapter of our lives and begin a new one with timeworn traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future! How strange!! No wonder I can’t get in to see a counselor until February!

Everything we anticipated and planned for ourselves this year and in our life thus far has either come to pass or it hasn’t. Too often, I find myself wandering in the wilderness of what was rather than journeying forward to what will be; focusing on the “what hasn’t” instead of contemplating on the “what has.”

In his collection of essays, The Spirituality of Living, Henri Nouwen writes:

“In the world there are many other voices speaking – loudly: “Prove that you are the beloved. Prove you’re worth something. Prove you have any contribution to make. Do something relevant. Be sure to make a name for yourself. At least have some power — then people will love you; then people will say you’re wonderful, you’re great.”

He goes on to say: “These voices are so strong. They touch our hidden insecurities and drive us to become very busy trying to prove to the world that we are good people who deserve some attention. Sometimes we think that our busyness is just an expression of our vocation, but Jesus knew that often our attempts to prove our worth are an example of temptation. Right after Jesus heard the voice say, “You are my beloved,” another voice said, “Prove you are the beloved. Do something. Change these stones into bread. Be sure you’re famous. Jump from the Temple…” Jesus said, “No, I don’t have to prove anything. I am already beloved.”

Perhaps that is the truth God wanted me to see after all the years I’ve spent wrapped up in the busy-ness of the season. None of it matters!! Yes, the twinkling lights shine in the darkness, yes it feels good to give gifts in pretty packages and bake yummy things while carols are playing and snow softly falls beckoning you out to build the perfect snowman. But in the end – all of those things disappear as quickly as the lights come off the roof, the gifts are forgotten amid all the discarded wrapping, the snow melts, and the yummy in your tummy ceases to feel or look so good.

This truth comes to us from, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be and hold sway in our lives – be they political, economic, or status oriented. Calling us to escape the wilderness by letting go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow.  Calling us to turn away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. Calling us to freedom – because our broken relationships, our broken hearts, our harsh and critical voices, all the things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none, NONE are more powerful than God.

God wants us to know there is nothing to prove. He came to us because of the sorry state we were and are in, not because our houses were beautifully decorated and our kitchens were full of merry making!  That you didn’t achieve all your goals  for this year – perhaps you even failed miserably – hear this – it doesn’t matter! You are quite simply and profoundly beloved by God and because of that you can BE love. The true joys of the season and of life are not found under trees or in shopping carts or even along glowing roof-lines. In this beautiful yet broken world filled with terror and tradition, competition and caring, winning and wonder, the joy we seek can only be found in our hearts and the hearts of others. True joy comes only when we accept that we are from the beginning beloved by God and freed to love.

When we share God’s light and love with those of every walk we encounter, be it the hungry at the shelter or the stressed-out mom in line behind us, that is where we find joy. When you hold the door to the post office open for a package-laden distressed style maven and they sputter their surprised gratefulness, that is joy. When you extend your snow-blowing to your neighbor’s section of the sidewalk, that is joy. When you hear an “I am so glad you called, I needed this talk so much” on any day in May because you took the time to call instead of text someone you are thinking of – that is joy magnified.  By releasing ourselves from our high expectations of celebration and need for showing how well we can live our lives we free ourselves to find joy in actively and expectantly living in the One, Our Savior, who has already come and whose true light shines in the darkness and brings peace to our hearts.

None of us knows what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. But, imagine beginning the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for you – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seeming improbable the future is. That gives me courage to quit wandering in my wilderness.

I pray that you are able to open and live into the gift already given to you – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come. Let go of all the things you think you have to do and the past that you cannot change no matter how hard you try. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love for you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a bright New Year!!

Let your light so shine!!

Happy Thanksgiving

Sometimes I forget to count my blessings. I am not proud of this. It is easy to do when the light of life grows dim, when days are hard, nights lonely, questions go unanswered, and bones ache…
But I am never far from God’s grace – because not a day goes by that I am not blessed, that I am not reminded of His presence be it in the kind words of someone just doing what they do or the wiggly talkative joy I am met with from Ember after a long day. In the smiles that didn’t have to be shared but were or the sunrises that awaken me to the sheer unexpected awe that is all of life.
That we all experience this existence of ours so uniquely – and yet share so much; that this world can seem so broken and yet be so beautiful and whole – is a wonder.
As I contemplate this, my 50th Thanksgiving, my heart is full. I am grateful for all who have blessed my life in their  own special way. Thank you for opening your hearts and in doing so – opened my eyes. My unexpected life is rich because of you.
Happy Thanksgiving!

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!