Those Big IFs

“It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  John 10: 22-30

Yes, Jesus, just how long is it going to be? Yes, Jesus, just what is going to happen to me, to us, to all of us? Yes, Jesus, just tell me, show me… because, you know, what if?

What if this isn’t the right choice? What if things don’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong? What if I am not as strong as I think I am? What if I am not who I think I am? What if You are not who I believe you are?

What do we do with questions like that? What do those questions reveal about the questioner and whom we question?

I am preparing for a significant “life-event” you might call it. Total Hip Replacement. Just saying it seems so unreal. I’m too young for this sort of thing! I don’t have room in my life for this kind of disruption! While I am thankful I have the opportunity to prepare for it rather than have it suddenly forced upon me, the whole process is raising significant questions, unsettledness, and apprehension within me. For someone who boldly professes her conviction in the things unseen and her assurance in my hope for things to come – the state of unknowingness I find myself in has me feeling untethered; as if I need to suspend my life until I can feel grounded again – if I can ever feel grounded again. I wonder if I am ungrounding my life by taking this leap of trust and why ever would I want to do that – because – WHAT IF?

What if the things to come are not what I intended? (As if I have any control over that!) What if my choice was wrong? What if I am not as strong as I need to be? What if I am changed – CHANGED (gasp!!) forever? Why, Lord, won’t you answer me these things?? I need facts, certainty, vision, reason – give me the straight talk!

When have you asked these questions? When have you wrestled with the discomfort of uncertainty reigning over your circumstances?  Life in the world today is fertile ground for questions of this sort. Perhaps you are facing a decision or a conversation you feel unprepared for or fully inept at making or having? Maybe you are facing a difficult or painful change. Maybe your career, your finances, your health, or your family are at a critical crossroads. This is the stuff of life. The choices and decisions we make determine our course. It is a daunting position to find ourselves in.

No matter how the questions arise, they ultimately reflect our spiritual condition. It’s more about what’s going on within us than around us. And yet most of us would much rather deal with the circumstances – the facts of the matter – than the swirling dervish inside ourselves.

Of course, I tell myself I have no choice than to deal with myself – because I. Am. It. in this go around. The fiercely independent, keeps things close, doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone – me, the me who always commands control of her situation longs to believe – no, make that knows – that it is all up to me. I have learned enough hard lessons in life to know all this is true. And I have absolutely no faith in myself right now.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus ever had questions like this as he made His way through this broken world. As the Messiah, surely, He believed as I do, that it was all up to Him. Yet He was questioned over and over again by those He sought to convince of His truth. Did those questions ever chip away at his grounding and conviction? Was he not fully human?

In 1946, in a lecture given by Victor Frankl, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust, the Austrian neurologist, philosopher and writer posited: “We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life.”

The Stoic in me recognizes that our lives are made of a series of questions – each requiring answers. Every adversity or challenge presents to us an opportunity to find meaning – to think anew – start anew – live anew.  It is how we go about answering these questions and responding to events that challenge us and change us that we find our purpose and meaning. We are refined and strengthened in the process.  We become our authentic selves – separating us from the crowd.

Over and over again Jesus was tested – by Satan himself and cajoled by the crowds and the religious leaders to prove himself – and yet he remained steadfast in moving towards his goal. How did He do that? How did Jesus walk the straight and narrow?

The Jesus lover in me wants the simple answer of faith. Faith. But there has to be more, right?

Throughout His life, Jesus used every occasion he was presented as a lesson for his followers. Some were tests of his identity, some were simply the potholes of life – but with each gave a new perspective, a deeper knowledge of who He is and who we are. Each lesson brought him closer to fulfilling his work of salvation and love. He showed us who He is by staring down Satan in the desert – rising above temptation for “glory” and rising to the occasion of Messiah; in the midst of a grand social foo-pah He changed water into wine; when commerce and gluttony threatened sanctity He cleansed the temple; in the face of hunger He fed five thousand with a scant collection of bread and fish but abundant hope; in the shadow of sickness he enabled a lame man to stand up, take his mat, and walk and gave a blind man his sight; in the wake of scandal he forgave the woman caught in adultery; against the sting of despair and doubt He  raised Lazarus from the dead. And at Easter, He showed us that life comes out of death.

With that in mind, I now see Jesus as the greatest Stoic that ever lived, died, and lives! And I take great comfort that He calls me, in all my independence, His own. Now, if I would just accept that that is indeed enough.

Ultimately, my BIG IF questions get right down to my ultimate need for security and sense of being – both of which will be completely disrupted by this surgery – but will also have the opportunity to be bolstered as well.

I am determined to make the down-time ahead of me worthwhile. I am being presented with a challenge – and yes – a learning opportunity. Not only am I terrible at asking for help and allowing people to help me – which I am being forced to do – I am terrible at resting in God’s plan. I profess that I do – but trusting in His plan for me? No, I tend to hold on to the reins a bit too tight.

As theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: “(I)t seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I am mortified by this – but I have come to realize that in many of my approaches to life I am the God of my life! I cannot give up control. And yes, it is easier to control people than to love them! Our society and politics magnify this blatantly (but our politics are a reflection of the people which is me and you.) It takes a lot of chutzpah to put that into words – but we need to – I need to. And finally, there is a big difference between owning and loving life. I can have all the control of and security in myself that I can muster – but if I do not have meaning and belonging – that isn’t much of a life and there is not much to love.

So, maybe God is using this down-time in my life – literally and figuratively – to remind me yet again that I already belong – to Him – and to show me that only He can fill the void that my incessant going and moving and doing and seeking keeps me from attending to. To teach me that letting others help me may actually help them and show me that I can rely on – even trust – others to care for me. To make me stop and listen – to His voice and hear what He is saying.

I am quite certain I am going to go insane not being in perpetual motion but what a lesson this will be – not being in perpetual pain and resting in real truths. In a sense I am going on a fast – to help me appreciate the other gifts I have in life and hopefully enjoy life for its truest pleasures once I am able to again. 

Where will your questions lead you? May the answers always be life changing.

“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

Let your light so shine!

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!!

Far and Away

While contemplating a drastic career change and his current uneasy place in life, a fellow writing friend of mine shared a thought that resonated deeply within me and yet disquieted what I thought was my own pleasantly planted sense of being: For those who were meant for changing horizons security can feel like imprisonment. The soul seeks freedom.

My pilot friend had reached a point in his flying career where he found himself dreading the very thing that he once dreamed of becoming. His seemingly round the clock job and forced quarantines away from family for weeks on end (he flies out of Hong Kong) with little end in sight was making him sick. He was at a precipice wondering what had become of his life and what he could do now after all these years of flying. He also had a family to consider – how would he support them? He knew he had to make a change but he couldn’t see himself doing anything different. Flying has been his life and he couldn’t imagine his future without it – even as dismal as his present state was. 

Stormy skies ahead!

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. My naive college vision board at 18 and the “seasoned” 26-year-old me’s long-range plans seem almost foreign to me now a quarter of a century later. I’ve always admired those who had a dream at a young age and made it happen, and then kept realizing it and living it. In truth, I think that happens to only a very lucky few.

Other times we do “arrive”, attaining everything we had destined for ourselves but the journey leaves us with nothing more than a longing – for what – we don’t know. This is a scary place to be. It leads to second guessing our values and doubting the person we have become.

A recent BBC article posits that we should think more about whom we’ll be in the future – because doing so has profound consequences for our health, happiness and financial security.

Really? I thought to myself. Hasn’t the trending pop-psychology of the day hailed the virtue of remaining in the present? After all we have been through – after all I have been through the last 5 years – how can I even begin to think about the future? Frankly, I have found it much more delightful to relive the past – at least there I know what to expect!

The article goes on to say: “Some people have a vivid sense of their future self, which feels very close to their current identity. These people tend to be more responsible with their money and more ethical in their treatment of others; they are keen to act in a way that will make life easier in the years ahead”.

I would give anything to have a “vivid sense” of my future self.  I can’t even plan the current years’ worth of vacation days let alone what life I have left!  Alas, I seem to fall into the second cohort the article mentions: Those who “struggle to imagine their future self as a continuation of the person that they are today… It’s almost as if they see their future self as a separate person that has little connection to their present identity.”  These individuals, the article states, tend to be less fiscally responsible and less concerned with the long-term consequences of their actions in nearly every sphere of their lives: health, career, money, relationships.

While I struggle with seeing my future life as a continuation of today or seeing it at all for that matter – I certainly don’t envision myself a stranger to who I am today and I take issue with the claim that I am less responsible than the visionaries among us. On the contrary, it is because my future seems – at least right now – “unrevealed” – that I am so careful with what I have and what I do. It is an interesting concept however, to ponder. And as I said before, I have the utmost admiration for those who live life with such long-term certainty.

Creating a vision for the second half of our lives is not as easy as it would seem.

The questions of “Who am I” “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, and “How am I going to get there?”  have leveled up a critical notch to “What have I become?” and “What have I done with my life?’ and “What do I do now?”

When the future was a long way away, the answers seemed so easy. Heck, we could be anything we wanted anywhere we wanted (for the most part.) Dream away! But when we have less of a future ahead of us than we do our past, there is far more at stake – or so we tell ourselves. 

You’ve been cruising along, doing life as you have always done it – and most likely at a comfortable level at that – or you would have stopped or been forced to stop long ago. Something had to have been working, right? You are at a place that you worked long and hard to reach. You have a certain level of security. The thought of change – of making a course correction – of coming back to earth and climbing back up again – is daunting -no doubt!

And so is finding contentment in the now – because for all our visioning and planning – the now is all we are guaranteed. The last 2+ years have monotonously and morosely reminded us of that over and over and over again and perhaps may have even been the inspiration of this piece!

And yet…

And yet, how fortunate we are to live in a time and in a country where these meaning and purpose of life thoughts, as dilemma-inspiring as these are, can be had! This freedom is almost too easy to come by and we take it for granted – we become complacent in our relative comfort, assured that no matter what, tomorrow will come. So what if it is the same as today and yesterday? What passes for even a miserable life for this audience, would be an absolute dream for others on this very same earth.

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.

Why then, is it so hard to envision a future different from your past or present – if that is indeed the dilemma you are facing? What lessons from life do you hold on to? Which ones do you need to let go of in order to move forward?

As we emerge from this pandemic, many of us are reevaluating where life has brought us and who and how we want to be. Maybe it is just to be content with life, finding awe in the present or maybe it is striking out in a new direction and new way of being. As I work through these questions myself, I will leave you with these two thought provoking quotes:

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal” – Paul Coelho

“People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre’ Gide

Let your light so shine!!

You were my age once??

God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.  ~Voltaire

I was thinking today about your life, Dad. About what it was like to be you – a prairie kid at heart with a constant longing for the big wide open, an appreciation for the lovely and simple things, a love of companionship, an ethical drive for professional success, financial prowess without excess, and a desire to be involved and lead. How did all these characteristics come about? In your daughter’s eyes, you were always that way.  What was it like for you to marry and have children and watch those children grow and learn as you yourself continued to grow and learn and become the leader that you were? It’s funny to think that I always saw you at the same ageless age in real-time and even now in my memories.

By the time you were my age now, you were in the upper echelons of the United States government. You rubbed elbows with diplomats and made your way through the great halls of government in our nation’s capital. You testified before Congress and people scheduled conferences for you! You developed plans that would be reviewed by the president of United States!  You were idolized by a daughter who loved the sounds of her heels clicking on the marble floors of the monumental Interior Department building when she came to visit your historic office from time to time. Quite the change of scenery for the long-ago little boy from the dot of a town in the northeast corner of Montana.  

That you were my age now in this memory floors me and puts my own life into a very different perspective. I am more in awe of you now knowing just how hard you must have worked, how much sleep you must have lost… You navigated life amid the same challenges and far greater ones than I have faced – and did it so well. I took for granted just how blessed I was to have the family I did and the experiences that you and Mom provided for us. It wasn’t easy or pretty at times – I feel a bit ashamed now looking back at the temper tantrums you put up with. I have a new respect for the difficult decisions you had to make – whether to uproot our family – yet again – whether this change was the right change. Once the decision was made though, you always moved forward with optimism, appreciation, and faith.  I hope you know you made the right decision every time. My life is so much richer today for the decisions you made, even though sometimes they made me cry.

I still see you as my hero, a cowboy at heart, an executive of the land we love, and best of all – my father and the very best kind of friend. Thank you for opening my eyes to the world beyond me. I wish you were here with me now, giving me your grounded optimistic perspective through which to see and live.  I love you more than words can ever say and miss you more with each passing day.