My Chrysalis

Last year at this time, I sat quietly by the fire reflecting on yet another year of growth through grief. But, as I mourned the deaths of my mother and father, a transformation of sorts was underway – I like to think of it as my chrysalis. I began to let go of the parts of my life that were dead – the comfort of darkness that kept me from the challenges and opportunities in life, my fears, my insecurity as to just who I was and my place in this world. As I sat watching the fire flicker, I knew I had a choice – to succumb to living a life in sadness or to learn to fly again. As my father’s daughter – there was only one choice – to let the parts of me that needed to die away do just that so that the beautiful parts that make up the life I would come to live this past year could take flight.

And take flight they did.

Emerging from my cocoon of grief, I embraced life with vigor. I said yes to opportunities not knowing how the journey would end but trusting that no matter what it would end well.

I committed myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He led me. My faith was transformed from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love. As the year unfolded, I completed my lay pastoral studies and found myself spending my summer and fall immersed in the Word- writing sermons, leading worship, and hopefully leading my congregation in a closer walk with God. Graduating and then serving as a Lay Pastor in years past would have been plenty to make this the capstone year in my adult life, but my metamorphosis still had a ways to go – I still had beautiful wings to grow.

Taking wing like I never have before, I soared into the arms of a love and a friend like no other – and now as I write this – my journey is solitary no more. There were times I never thought I would find someone to share my life with. In fact, I had grown quite comfortable with the idea of navigating life on my own – it was easier that way. This year I said goodbye to a sheltered but safe heart and I took another chance – on love. This time, fully trusting that God had good things in mind for me – even arranging our first date – I was reminded that love always wins. Who would have thought that I would not only find God’s purpose for me, but His greatest gift to me in 2018.

I began to realize anew how wonderful life is when it is shared with someone. Love is wonderful. And yes, true love will hurt at times, but true love also grows through those hurts with tenderness, appreciation, and trust with each passing day. This love filled the caverns of my heart and brought light to my life.

That I found my way – albeit roundabout – to the amazing moment where I stood before the man I will love forever – professing my love before God and all those who love and support us – was a dream come true. It delights me to no end that we will spend the rest of our lives together. And to think – this all began with the tiniest spark of life and hope flickering within.

Last year, as I said goodbye to the year that I said goodbye to my Dad and began testing my wings, I didn’t want to let the year to go – severing, even more, the connection I had with my father. I promised to make my Dad and my Mom proud and find the happiness they always wanted for me as another year dawned. I kept my promises. I could not have fathomed just how magnificent my flight would be. Thank you, Lord, for rebirth, for the chance to live life anew again. Thank you for showing me that faith, hope, and love do conquer all.

His light shines in the darkness. My light has never shone brighter.


Wishing you and yours, a very blessed New Year. May your life take flight in ways you could have never imagined – inspired by faith, hope, and love.

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Leaving Jesus

A sermon based on John 6:56-71 

Well, here we are at the end of the loaf. Over the last four weeks we have had a crash course on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the true source of life to the hungry masses; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven to truly nourish us; and last week Jesus professed that He will give us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to be one with us in relationship to sustain us on our journey into eternity. Pretty heady stuff if you ask me.

In today’s Gospel reading, we come to the end of heady bread. Jesus is met with disenchantment. Even his closest followers are having a hard time comprehending what Jesus is telling them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Sensing that he was losing some if not many in his audience, rather than changing his message to an easier one to grasp, he asks them if they will understand when they see him, the Son of Man, ascend to the heavens. He further explains that it is the Spirit, His spirit, that gives abundant life; the flesh and will of man is useless in this regard.

Ironically, Jesus finds himself speaking to an emptying room, as He was preaching in the Synagogue, the place where his followers expected to at least draw near to the presence of God. And yet, when God offers them more than just nearness but oneness with him, it is more than his listeners can handle.

You would think that by their initial reaction that Jesus had just stated his position on the upcoming election rather than offering an invitation to an abundant life in relationship with him. Yet many leave him – many who had followed him steadfastly, who had witnessed and believed in the miracles he had performed. What he was proposing was just too much. No longer was he simply feeding and healing and meeting their needs for survival; Jesus was asking them to reject this life and come to Him, to think beyond the literal, to imagine life in abundance, life beyond measure. Life beyond their control. They don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted them the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in them, it is already theirs if they will only believe.

A life beyond our control. We don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted us the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in us – it is already ours if we will only believe.

From our enlightened perspective on this happening of some 2000 years ago, you would think we would “get it.” But, we live in a reality of belief and unbelief And, with our enlightened perspective comes lives that are complex, perhaps even intellectualized. We live in chaotic times governed by money, power, status, profession, principles, policy, and possessions; times focused on individualism, validation, and justification.  times demand logic and reason. We deal with this chaos and busyness and brokenness on a daily basis – living it, fleeing from it, sometimes thriving on it.

Deal with life long enough and sooner or later you realize that one aspect of life is complicated, even scary at times – that of relationship. It is at once something so inherent and vital to human life and yet something that can cause so much pain. Relationship opens us up to vulnerability, the unknown. Which is why it is so much easier to place our trust in that which we know, that which we can control – the self. Reason tells us so. But God is asking us to reject this kind of thinking and come to him. To cast the burdens of this world onto Him and live in abundance with him. And we so want to, don’t we? We try. But sometimes this world gets the better of us.

There are times when this relationship that God offers us may not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away – during the dark of the night, perhaps, when our failings and insecurities replay in our mind, or by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, wondering why?  Or maybe in the early morning,  when you wake up alone and wonder why your spouse has left you or why no one wants to be with you? Or in the waning light of day as home beckons and you think about your family – the “family that won’t speak to one another” – or the friend who let you down again – and you wonder why things have not turned out the way you hoped. You wonder if they ever will.

Because sometimes our lives with God seem no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the freedom to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves. Whether it is our family life, our jobs, our money, the things we do for fun, our sports, our health, our relationships, our time, our goals, our goals for our kids – we don’t just trust these things to anyone and when we don’t trust these things to anyone, someone, God – these things become our god.

I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. My earliest memories are often from times in church. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma used to delight in telling the story of seeing the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News and singing Holy, Holy, Holy at the top of my lungs. I had a zest for life and a love for the Lord right up into high school. But then things began to change. In my senior year life started getting complicated. The friends I had run with had graduated, getting straight A’s didn’t seem to cut it anymore, there was disorder in my family and disorder in the church, we were moving once again, my life seemed to be out of control – and Jesus seemed very far away.

I loved to exercise though, and I was good at it – from lifting weights to running and everything in between. I found some solace from the chaos that I was fleeing in those activities. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed a sense of control. At that point of my life, food and exercise seemed to be the only things I could control, and I succeeded.  I was good at something again! I became so focused on that feeling of success and control that I didn’t need my family, my friends, or the church that was once my life, or God.

This is how betrayal works, at least according to John. As John scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real. Betrayal is that which causes you to believe that this life is for everyone else but you. Betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.”[1]

Yeah, I knew God loved the world, but me? No not anymore, no, I was a special case, not worthy of the kind of indiscriminate love that came without demands or stipulations. I believed that rejection and marginalization was simply my lot in life; that real relationship lived only in my hopeful imagination. Real relationship? That meant belonging, intimacy, want, desire, mutuality, reciprocity, nurture, safety. That kind of relationship exists only in books and movies. The same books and movies that tells us that God manipulates instead of promises. That’s the kind of God the disciples were expecting and in which the world still wants us to believe.

When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours. And so, like Judas did, I walked away. I went away to a place that only I could control. I couldn’t deal with the perfection I thought a relationship with God required nor could I handle the unknowns of life that requires us to trust in God!

We all have the proclivity in us to walk away from this relationship, to leave Jesus.  As Lewis writes, “Judas’s betrayal (in John) is fundamentally a rejection of relationship, but it is also an unwillingness to receive life beyond measure, an inability to accept that abundant life could be true, a reluctance to envision, to dream, to picture that when God said God loves the world that it actually meant him – and means you.”

By age 23, I had become the master of my sorry destiny. Until I died twice, once in my bedroom when my heart stopped beating and again in an ambulance. I found myself at rock bottom, in ICU with tubes sticking out of every cavity of my body and wires taped to my chest.  I remember hearing the doctor tell my parents that my 54-pound body was dying and if things didn’t turn around drastically I would be lucky to make it another 4 weeks. In that moment I realized that all the control I thought I had gained through mastering my body had, in reality, brought me to the gates of hell.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost until it is gone – and I had lost everything.

Oh Lord, to whom can I go??

But you know – the foundation of my life had never left me, God was always there – I just had to believe again – to let him in.

There was no altar call, no rapturous music, no radiant light – just the beeping of monitors and the hushed hospital hustle outside my curtained off room and the promise of a better life, a more abundant life – waiting for me. When I gave my life back to Jesus – including the food and the control – he fed me with the Bread of Life – and there was peace in my heart again and a renewed will to live. I entered a residential treatment program in the desert of Arizona that was grounded in Christ. Through equine therapy I learned how to trust again and grow in relationship with someone other than myself. Most importantly, l discovered what a relationship with God was all about. It wasn’t one of manipulation or control. It was a relationship of grace and love. To this day there isn’t a moment that I do not thank Him for the breaths I take and the abundant life I have in him.

This is what the closing of John 6 talks about. Peter knows the truth. When asked if he too will walk away he answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter has experienced Jesus, sat around the fire and eaten with Jesus, and he believes that Jesus is who He says He is. God in the flesh. God committed to relationship and wanting to be in relationship.

And yes, we do know that Peter experiences his own crisis of belief later in the story – just as I still do from time to time, but in John, Peter does not deny who Jesus is, Peter denies who Jesus wants him to be.

We forget just how vulnerable we are when in relationship. Relationships mean being known and knowing. Not wanting to be known for what we really are we acquiesce to fear and walk away especially from our relationship with God. We walk away before he gets too close. We trust only certain aspects of our lives to him, sometimes just our dying. We temper God’s desire for relationship with us in our living, never mind that He came to us in flesh and blood to be one with us, to know our joys and our pain, and to die for us so that we may have him in us for all time. We put the truth of His incarnation in a box as if it was only a temporary moment in God’s time and not meant for our time.

But now, knowing the truth – knowing what it is to be in relationship with God and to live with Him in me – it is with joy and humbleness that I am reminded every Sunday in The Bread and Wine of the Spirit that lives in me, leads me, and sustains me.  And it is an abundant life with Jesus, the intimacy of the relationship with God – that I want you to know. You too are fed with the Living Bread of Jesus – His choice has been made, all you need to do is say yes Lord, count me in, I believe.

 

Amen.

[1] Not Just Bread Anymore, Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3676

 

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013 were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

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

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

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free. I had no idea what awaited me in the year and years to come. Yes, I expected change but nothing as dramatic as the changes to the entire dynamic of my life that would unfold. Little did I know that those last moments with my family in the early dawn light would be one of the last times we were all together and filled with happiness and hope.

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

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning five years ago. I realize now that I am a very independent spirit with a heart that longs to be shared. My treks into the mountains seeking ever-higher peaks and grander vistas reflected the journey I was taking personally. After years of living a regimented work-a-day life, I discovered this crazy, wonderful, selfish desire to play! I still panic with realization that time slips away quickly and I wasted a lot of it in the past doing every-day, comfortable, and safe tasks rather than challenging myself, taking a few risks, and having fun. While I refused to be fenced in as I grew into this new sense of self, I desired boundary lines I could grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

In the five years since that moment of independence was celebrated, I have come to know the joys and sorrows of self-discovery. The things I once valued in life have been tested. I have come to know the depths of grief and heart break and had to navigate the roughest waters of my life on my own. I questioned my direction, my reason for being, the quality of my character, and the choices I made. In the wake of more loss than I had ever known in my life, the light that had always filled me was put out in the storm. I walked in darkness but fought for the light. I never doubted that God had a plan and purpose for this proving period of self-examination and self-revelation.

Eventually, I found my way again – led by a light that was so much brighter than the darkness that had enshrouded me. I learned to accept the compassion of others and as my spirit healed my horizons brightened and expanded.

Today, I walk stronger and surer of who I am – a child of God, a woman of faith, and journeyer of the heart. I am pursuing my passions and callings with a confidence  acquired through the fires of life.  Learning to share my heart again is where I am now. The independence I embraced 5 years ago bears little resemblance to the freedom to be, to love, and to grow that I live everyday now. Relationships matter so much more to me than the need for boundary lines and control. Each day presents an opportunity to enrich a life and mine in doing so. Yes, I get caught up in the chaos of life – one that is more wonderfully chaotic than I could ever have imagined it being when I pulled out of the driveway on that morning five years ago – yes, I can be overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenged by my choices – but the essence and outcome of both are positive growth and deepening commitment.

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, my Flathead friends, who are more like family, who gathered around me as I learned to live again after deaths of my parents, and for my brother and sister-in-law who remind me of where I am from and what I am made of.

While I have known times of great loneliness in this adventure of independence,  today, I rejoice in the wonder of love and such happiness and belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enrich my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

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

Thank you, Lord for sustaining me through this journey, for filling me with the bread of life, and giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143-7-12

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

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“So, I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Let your light so shine!

Of Walls and Wilderness

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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

I had a slightly different sermon prepared for you today. For those of you who read my midweek prologue you probably came to church expecting to hear politics from the pulpit or at least the inference of such. Alas, I woke up yesterday morning knowing that the divisions of which I was going to speak wasn’t what I needed to hear right now. Trusting in Pastor Mark Gravrock’s wisdom from 2 weeks ago – I am going to guess that what I need to hear today may just be what you need to hear too.

And so there I lay at 6:30 a.m. Saturday after a night of writing the sermon on walls I had planned for you, restless and a tad weary, I was in need of good news. Frankly the level of angst and division that is polarizing our nation and world has been taking a toll on me. Maybe it is because my job in a financial advisor’s office exposes me to our client’s rollercoasters of emotion as the political and economic frenzy of empire impacts the very thing we manage – their money – on a daily basis. Let’s just say the last couple of weeks of have been especially trying.

Needless to say, the last thing I wanted to hear about at 10:15am on a beautiful Sunday morning is more about the things that divide us -the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them,” whether based on ethnicity, religious, political, or economic views, class, citizenship status, gender, culture, job position, or whatever else of this world that we choose to hang our identities on or take offense at. No, this what I really want to hear is someone saying ‘Erika, on October 1st, your sabbatical starts!” But I digress…

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Jesus tells his disciples upon their return from their first missions without Him -they had preached, they had cast out demons, they had anointed with oil those who were sick, they had called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. In other words, they had been really busy doing some pretty heavy stuff.

Other translations of the bible use the word “wilderness” – come away to the wilderness and rest awhile. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We are lucky to live in a playground of wilderness. Lately, our slice of wilderness is looking very much like the one Jesus and his disciples experienced in today’s Gospel – “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;” Sound familiar? What wilderness?  No matter where they went the masses found them. Bringing with them the immensity of human need and despair.

Mark refers to a wilderness often throughout his Gospel. In fact, he opens his Gospel with John the Baptist appearing as a voice in the wilderness telling of the one who is to come. Jesus spends 40 days in a wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of rest and solace and recreation like that to which Jesus invited his disciples today, it can also be a very hostile place – a place to escape from.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the sermon I was going to preach sounded an awful lot like that kind of wilderness – the hostile one. The wilderness that is played out on the opinion pages of our newspapers and broadcast across the airwaves and social media. The wilderness of empire where politics and power separate us from humanity and hope. The wilderness of “Us vs. Them” and Right vs. Left power plays. The wilderness of broken relationships and broken trust. The wilderness of lives and families torn apart by addiction and violence, of communities divided by hate. The wilderness of loneliness. The wilderness where we are consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead” to the detriment of our spirits, our relationships, and rest.

Oh, my goodness, are we ever living in a wilderness of walls and human despair!  We are just like the masses of lost sheep rushing to Jesus in need of a Shepherd. Living behind walls that separate us from God and one another, longing for the healing of our hurts, wanting to belong, searching for peace.

The scriptures I had read over and over again in preparation for today took on a whole new meaning for me. So perfect for our time and our place in this wilderness – they are full of Good News!  In Jeremiah, we hear of a promised shepherd for the world (the Shepherd in those days -as we learned from pastor Mark last week – was symbolic of a King.) While corrupt leadership had “scattered” the sheep, lead them astray and dashed their hopes, God gathered the remnants of his flock back to him and promised the coming of a righteous shepherd. When we place our hopes and trust in leaders of this world we will no doubt be lead astray and have our hopes disappointed at some point. But God is the good shepherd, and when we place our hope and trust in Him we will always know justice and good care.

We see in today’s Gospel, the stark contrast of Jesus to that of the corrupt King Herod we witnessed last week, as Jesus takes on the role of the good shepherd. Despite having been rejected in his hometown, despite having received news that his comrade John the Baptist has been killed, despite crossing over the sea and the barriers it represents many, many times, despite being tired and hungry and in need of rest, Jesus sees the crowds of people who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion for them and he begins to teach them. They are brought out of their wilderness and healed.

We are reminded by the 23rd Psalm that our Lord will give us all that we need. That in Him we will find a place to rest and restore our broken hearts and burdened minds. We are assured that He will lead us in the right ways – not for fulfillment of our worldly desires but for those of a higher calling. He will comfort us when fear and evil try to separate us from Him. He will stand with us in the face of our enemies and feed us together at His table – no need for a wall here. We are promised goodness and mercy in all our days.  This Lord who is our shepherd is with us always. He goes from being a God above us to one with us, accompanying us in our place of wilderness

And then, we hear of God’s ultimate promise to us from Paul in his letter to the divided people of Ephesus – Christ is our peace. In the ultimate act of shepherding, Jesus went out into the hostile wilderness and gave his life for us – declaring peace and freedom from the shackles of sin on new terms, a peace and freedom forged not by the powers of Empire in its various forms, but in the blood of the Shepherd on the cross. Through the cross, the wall dividing Jew and Gentile, citizen and stranger, those who are us and those who are them, was broken. And that is only the beginning. God in Christ made one humanity of the two.  Not making us uniform but rather uniting us with all our complexities in Christ as Jew and Gentile; citizen and stranger, us and them. This unity is not of our doing. It is out of the grace of God. This is the church and Christ is the cornerstone.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul tells the people of Ephesus – and the words should ring just as true to us today – remember who you were, see who you are now.  Remember when you were dead through your trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us – made us alive together with Christ—by grace we have been saved! Through his great love for us, Christ calls us, his lost sheep, out the wilderness – the wilderness of exclusion and hostility and divisiveness. He alone tears down the walls that we build up around ourselves, walls that separate us from Him and “them.”  Christ calls us to a place where we are united together in Him. This togetherness in Christ – our good and compassionate Shepherd – empowers us to welcome the stranger, to teach and share the Good News, to have compassion and suffer with those who are wandering in a wilderness of their own – not just on Sunday but every day as well as on the opinion pages and our social media posts. Doesn’t that sound like a nice respite from this wilderness of walls we have been wandering in?

We will never know perfect peace or unity in this world. Our defenses and offenses will always be aroused by the sins inherent to humanity. But through Christ we have a place to go where walls are invisible. This place is a daring place where a different kind of power – the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross – is at work.  We can trust this power to undermine every wall that divides us, to heal our hurts, to unmask our defenses, and bring us peace until we are as Paul wrote, “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is hope. Saturday morning, I heard a voice in the wilderness- it was good news – as I relished the extra minutes of pillow-time with the cool breeze wafting in through my window contemplating where in the world my sermon on walls was going to take me. Ye, I heard good news on the news! The Mayor of Branson, MO was being interviewed in the aftermath of the duck boat sinking tragedy where 17 sightseers lost their lives and many more were injured. Her comments are just what I needed to hear this morning and echoed what I hope you will take away from my sermon today: “We are all about taking care of our citizens,” she said, “but what makes us unique is we are all about taking care of strangers too. When you come here we love on you no matter whether you are here as a citizen or as someone we have never met before.”

Yeah, I think she was at a bible study this week. I think she got the message.

There are no walls of division or exclusion with Christ. We will never be alone in the wilderness. We can come to Him and rest awhile. And Erika needs a sabbatical.

Amen.

Do Not Fear, Only Believe (Jesus Changes Everything)

A sermon inspired by Lamentations 3:1-33; Mark 5: 21-43

The call had come. The call I had prepared myself for but was not anticipating – I thought things had stabilized for my Dad, but my brother’s voice on the other end of the line some 475 miles away –  said everything without needing words. My Dad, who had had a couple of bumpy days after falling and hitting his head had just moved into his new residence at St. John’s Nursing Home – into the skilled nursing wing – a transition in life we didn’t plan for but knew was for the best. He lasted there 4 hours when the chaplain that stopped in to visit alerted the staff that something didn’t seem right. When my brother called, Dad had already been transported to ICU. Fred didn’t know what was going on with him, but I had better come. Don’t try to drive tonight – he said – just get here.

I knew this highway well – the one fraught with panic, emotion, tears, and farm machinery that pulls out in front of you and robs you of any polite composure behind the wheel. That I was making this dreaded drive across Montana again so soon after my mother’s death left me desperate for answers that were not forthcoming from God. WHY? Why was he doing this to my Dad, a man that had given so much of himself and deserved so much better. WHY was he doing this to our family?

From Lamentations – “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

I was angry. I was desperate. I felt guilty for living so far away and attending to the ends of my parent’s lives from afar – detached from the wasting away of life that comes before death. I was afraid. Afraid of what saying goodbye would be like – I hadn’t had that chance with my mother – I was afraid of what death would feel like as it overtook him. I was afraid of living without him. I was afraid of life without my dad. My heart was pounding, and my ears were rushing and the pit that grew within my stomach began to overwhelm me as I drove on. And then Jesus heard me.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

It was up to God now – like it always had been. Even though my faith was my foundation, it had been very hard for me to wholly trust and not try to control God – to make my ways His way. This ending, this sending – this story of the greatest man I had ever known was not supposed to end like this.

You see, the amazing thing about Jesus is when I finally gave Him my will and fully trusted my Dad to Him, a certain peace came over me. My heart quit pounding, my ears quit rushing, and while my tears didn’t stop flowing, my eyes could see clearly again. His grace is amazing.  Jesus changes everything.

The Lord’s mercies are new every morning, but sometimes we have to experience the darkness of night to appreciate them – and sometimes those nights can be pretty dark if not downright scary.

We are in good company when we find ourselves searching for God, feeling abandoned by his presence, feeling forsaken and heart broke. The Bible is full of stories of suffering and sorrow, ire and isolation, fear and frustration; full of human struggle and seeking – Adam, Eve,  Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Naomi, Job, David, Jeremiah, Jonah – all the great ones with great but in no way always happy stories.

The words of hope we heard this morning in the reading from Lamentations came from an author who wrote, in the 2 preceding chapters, verses of incredible mourning for the once great and promised city of Jerusalem now in ruins, her people slaughtered, and the Lord’s temple destroyed. Words of hope preceded by words of mourning not only for what had  become of Jerusalem but, like many of us who have had our lives turned upside down and our greatest hopes dashed – for the special beauty of that life. He grieved not only for the past that was lost but for the future he had expected and hoped for. And, he like we, searched for a God who, in the midst of such immense, even violent suffering, seemed to be a stranger.

Those people knew God to be steadfast in his mercy and in his wrath. Their circumstances of suffering were a direct result of their sin. They navigated in a wilderness of their own making. And they lived in fear of God, rather than in relationship with him.

There are times when we too, find ourselves in a wilderness. Alone. Afraid. Angry. Questioning the goodness and presence of God amidst the messiness of life. Who hasn’t wondered if there even is a god?

Afraid that if we get angry with God –  if we let Him have it –  voicing the injustices in our lives and the world –  he will utterly reject us; or perhaps it is more a sense of fear of losing control of the situation –  afraid of relinquishing to God the outcome we desire.  In so doing, when we hold back on God with our anger – AND OUR TRUST, we construct our own barriers to an authentic relationship with him as well as saying that God’s power and mercy is finite.

Walter Brueggeman, a renowned and quite popular on YouTube, Protestant, Old Testament scholar and theologian, says that you can’t have an authentic relationship with God If all you can do is praise Him.

Luckily for us, our God whose wrath is measured, is also a God whose mercy is unmeasurable. And so, to know the weight of the sin that is of this world and to better know us, he sent his Son to bear with us and to ultimately bear our sin.

And Jesus changed everything.

Let’s take a look at what an authentic relationship with God, our Lord and Savior Jesus looks like – one in which we put voice to our lament,  where we let God in on the matters at hand, and trust that  every morning is new and full of mercy:

There was a woman, suffering for 12 long years with an affliction that made her unclean – that cast her out of her community – that she could do nothing to resolve or control. She longed to be well and had tried everything physically possible to be well. Seeing doctor after doctor, spending all she had but nothing worked.

Imagine her frustration with a body that wouldn’t function as it was supposed to – that caused her pain –  that had betrayed her and bankrupted her.

Imagine her loneliness – isolated; cast out by societal rules for something she could not control.

Imagine her loss of hope as doctor after doctor failed her.

From Lamentations – “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.”

She cried out to Jesus – she made her plight known and Jesus changed everything.

She had hoped for healing. She got so much more.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

For so long fear and illness had defined her – they still had their grip on her. But Jesus’ gives her more than she could ever have imagined. She is no longer just “a woman,” but a “daughter.” Jesus claimed her as his own and restored her to community as one whose “faith” has “made her well”.  Promise and peace have been added to the new reality in her life. The healing of her disease comes as almost an afterthought.

There was a father, a religious leader in the community, who was bereft and urgently seeking help for his dying daughter – who finds help but is put aside by other pressing matters and then that help comes too late. His hopes are dashed. His faith shaken.  Gone is a life that had yet to begin, that held so much promise and had brought so much joy. He was a leader in the community and yet he still was met with suffering.  Pain knows no boundaries, but it appears that sometimes faith does.

Imagine his despair as he ponders the unfairness of this broken world – that his little girl should die while he is left behind to mourn.

Imagine his anger that he of all people could not protect his daughter from the ravages of her illness.

Imagine his broken heart –  that he would never hear her jubilant laughter or watch her dance again.

From Lamentations – “He has made my flesh and my skin waste away and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.”

Jesus sees beyond the doubt. Jesus changes everything.

“Do not fear, only believe.”

 Jesus says and with those words, resurrects a life out of fear and doubt into one lived in trust and faith.

There was a man who walked among us, who brought the dead to life and helped the blind to see. Who for a time was celebrated and followed for the things he did and the words he spoke. But like so many of us – just when we are at the top of our game – he got knocked down, he found himself alone – he felt utterly rejected by his friends and his Father – as he bore within his body and spirit the physical manifestation of the sins of the world.

Imagine his terror as he contemplated his fate.

Imagine his sense of abandonment as he waited through the darkest hours of his life alone among sleeping “friends.”

Imagine his sheer sadness and heaviness of heart over the sins of this world.

Imagine the agony He endured on the cross – the mocking and scorning, the pain and the death just so that he could be one with us, to know our struggles and deepest hurts, and so that we of all people, could have everlasting life – freed from the sin that keeps us in darkness, and a life filled with the light of new mercies every morning.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases his mercies never come to an end.

Jesus changed everything. He came to be with us to bear with us in our darkest hours and give us all that we need. His mercies are there for us each morning – if we seek him and trust that he will see us through. Saved by grace, we are given Jesus’ strength, wisdom, guidance, power and discernment to get through every moment of every day.

Jesus changed everything for me. I made it home in time to hear my Dad say my name one last time. He passed from my arms into the arms of Jesus the next morning. Death was not as I had pictured it would be – at once rather matter of fact – at once incredibly holy.  The fear I expected was instead a quiet peace. The cries of my heart were not out of anger or abandonment but out of relief and acceptance of an end and a beginning. Jesus changes everything.

Since that day that he brought peace to a heart filled with anguish, I have known times of darkness again. But I have not faced it alone. His mercies are there every morning –  giving me just what I need – not always what I want or expected – but always what I need.

From Lamentations – “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Look to Jesus. Do not be afraid. Believe and go on living as He leads you – with faith.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness, oh God.

He is there for you too.

Amen.

The Gift of Courageous Vulnerability

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”  ― Brené Brown

“Listen to me!” we demand.

“Why won’t you listen to me?” we cry out.

“Now listen here, cowboy.” We reply with defensive offense.

We all want to be listened to. As I wrote last month, listening is at the heart of all relationships. To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. The act of listening taps into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. In that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of another, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Listening, really listening, is not a passive activity.  To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one being listened to know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what the other has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear his own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

In short, being a good listener takes work. It can be an emotional exercise and a cathartic experience for both parties. It can also be a frustrating exercise.

Yes, we all want to be listened to, but are we cognizant of how what we are saying (or not saying) is being heard?

The act of listening requires someone else – the transmitter-  being willing to share –  to give of themselves – to be vulnerable – to be honest with themselves and their listener if they want the listener to understand what they are trying to express.

Do you cross your arms in defense while hoping your partner will take you into theirs? Are you feeling lonely and withdrawn but instead of sharing this you tell someone you don’t care for crowds? Do you hide your discomfort in a situation with laughter rather than stating you are uncomfortable with that kind of language or direction of the conversation? If you are feeling pain but instead express what seems to be joy, your listener cannot help but misread your conflicting messages or miss your need to be listened to in the first place.

If we want to be heard so badly, why do we struggle so to share? For one, it is scary! Readily letting down our walls of defense sets us up for hurt, humiliation, denunciation, and personal attack – at least that is what experience has taught us.  Secondly, being vulnerable, opening ourselves up – exposing our fears and frailties – is not a natural part of our societal customs. We are taught to be brave, to carry ourselves with esteem, to put on a good front, and make a good impression.

For myself, even though I came from a loving and supportive family – I was raised to not be a burden on others, to not let my troubles become a focus for anyone else. My brother and I were raised to be “good, solid kids” and as such, though life could be hard and even unfair at times, we faced our struggles on our own –  it built character. It wasn’t until much later in life, after most of my human “frailties” had been exposed in ways far more telling than any conversation could lay bare, that I found myself seeking someway to share what was really on my heart. The trouble was, I didn’t know how.  Fortunately, the church I attended at the time offered a course entitled “Non-Violent Communication.” Ironically, the class name was later changed to Compassionate Communication – because none of the attendees wanted to admit that they communicated violently or were recipients of violent communication! In truth, we were all victims of and participants in this form of “communication” and we were all hurting, badly, in the aftermath of communication gone bad.

Indeed, communication – both the acts of transmitting and listening – has incredible power – the power to heal and the power to maim. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them – feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking.

Likewise, those who demand to be heard but fail to be honest in their expression and  then cast offense or blame on those around them when they fail to read their mixed signals invite the exact opposite response to their need to be heard.

Communication can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil when done poorly or not at all. We all have the capacity to engage in violent communication – that which inflicts pain – and compassionate communication –  that which heals.   We are born with the tools to communicate but not the skills to use them. Thus, we learn as we go. The environment in which we learn to communicate will shape us and the nature of our relationships for life.

We all have been bruised by communication failures – some bruises naturally go much deeper than others. What each person brings to the dance of understanding is the great enigma of our past communication experiences. Learning to dance with one another to  music of the spoken and the understood heart is the secret to communicating with compassion.  It means having the courage to lay aside our need to be right as the listener and the courage to be vulnerable so that we can be lifted up and understood as the listened to. True strength is hidden in our mutual vulnerability.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. But there is another gift of equal value – that you the courageous vulnerable one can give the good listener – your trust. When both are given freely, you will find yourself in the sacred space of giving and receiving, the place where true healing and true relationship are found.

Let your light so shine.

In the Wind

Thank you, Lord
For burning through
For piercing the clouds heavy with woe
As if to say, no darkness can mask my power or hide my light.

Thank you,
For the bracing wind that takes my breath and drives me to you
Becoming one with me and within me
Easing my way as I relent.

You dwell in the emptiness – the emptiness I allow the world to occupy. You yearn for a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. Oh let it be so that trust, surrender, and openness to your way would be carried on this breeze.

That fear could be transformed by your light to faith.

Has no one has ever seen You?

Your Word is written in every expanse of sky, heard in every breath of the wind, felt in the warming rays of the sun, and felt as your tears wash over brokenness making all things new.

Lord, help me to embrace you as the source of all – life, love, and light.

~

Let your light so shine.

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“This is what the Lord says—  HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

We will all eventually die. Learning how to live in this mortal truth has transformed me from my soul to my song.

I have known death from a young age as I watched grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and yes, dogs – die. And, for a long long time – even though my faith was strong –  I was so very afraid of death –  not so much the thought of me dying – for my faith was and is strong –  but the thought of the living on after that must follow when those we love leave us. That inescapable truth was made resoundingly clear in my life this year. Fear and love are forever intertwined – life teaches us this, death makes it real.

It is not an easy truth to grasp – even for those who have watched loved ones die. When my mother died last year, I was not with her. Her death seemed surreal to me – still does at times. One moment she was there –  as I knew she always would be – and the next – I was on the other end of a phone call no one wants to make. Her death journey during Holy Week made it even more, how shall I say it, awe-some? That our ever-loving God would call home his sweet sparrow on the first day of Spring – Palm Sunday, that we would memorialize her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life with Jesus on Easter Sunday seemed so fitting -and yet her death and our journey through it is one I still have difficulty grasping. Perhaps because we didn’t have the chance to mourn.

I was with father when he died, just over one year later. His death remains very much alive in me – almost as much as his life continues on in I me. I was there for his last breath, I saw the light leave his eyes, and felt the life leave his body. It is a feeling that has accompanied me to bed at night, in the pews at church, but mostly when I am out walking. That my Dad would die after a hard-fought battle with cancer and the rages of sudden onset Alzheimer’s left me numb and yet completely aware of every whisper of his life. The greatest man I had ever known was gone. With his death, I was awakened to the reality of life.

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our life as individuals ceases. When a relationship ends – a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. And yet, with each of these deaths we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Indeed, in this year I have experienced many deaths. It has been the most sorrow-filled time of my entire life. I have never been one who could let go of people or things –  I am loyal and committed to the end – sometimes to my detriment. Saying good-bye does not come easy for me –  and I have had to say goodbye so many times to so many people and things this year (good grief I even sobbed when I closed the door on my apartment for the last time!) but sometimes we have to say good-bye to live again.

During my journey through grief this year I stumbled upon a gem of a book: “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” by Henri Nouwen. The title strikes me tonight, this eve of a New Year and the end of year that has left my heart ravaged and my life unfamiliar, because I have found myself dancing, yes DANCING this year away!  I am dancing once again as I reflect on a year of fear and love and the new life borne of them.

As I mourned my mother and father, I made peace with who I am now –  I can be no other than the daughter and woman God created through them 46 years ago. They raised me to shine a light in this world and shine it in honor and love for them I will!  This year, I found my voice and my place. Never have I felt so fulfilled and so right then when I am sharing God’s love and the Good News through Word and Sacrament.

Committing myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He leads me, has transformed my faith from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love.

As I said goodbye to my family home of 25 years in Billings and my little nest of 4 years in Whitefish, I embarked on a journey of independence and responsibility I hadn’t yet known – proud Columbia Falls home ownership – all in one month!

As I let go of one I was holding on to because I do not fail at love –  I discovered what self-love is all about –  the door to giving and receiving more love to others.

As I struggled with despair and loneliness, I was humbled before God and found that life is far richer when shared with others and that meant letting go of my need to control and my fear of failing and not just share my life with others but give my life to others.

And most of all, I learned yet again that sometimes with great sacrifice comes great reward –  that life is more than great running times and a good night’s sleep –  that puppies are worth lost mileage and every sleepless moment. That out of the ashes of life and death comes new light, new life, and great love. The Ember of my heart.

So yes, as another year passes, as another season of life dies away – I am carried into the new year by the melodies of new life showing me how good it is to dance once again.

Thank you, dear Lord for the lessons of death and the light of new life –  there for us each and every day.

May God bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you with mercy and grace and give you peace, joy, and new life in the New Year!

Let your light so shine!