Grant Us Peace

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think you know the answer. You.

Let your light so shine!

My prayer this Maundy Thursday

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

Everybody’s Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am happy…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Make Your Ordinary Extraordinary

Last month as we came to the end of another journey around the sun, I reflected on that which lays claim to our lives – the same old patterns, practices, and negative voices in our head that tend to hold us back from looking and living forward in the freedom of God’s grace.

With the dawn of a new year, there is nothing most of us would like better to do than to break free from the bothers and burdens of life. Aware of our shadows and short-comings, we resolve to change – to be more positive, virtuous, charitable, forgiving. Striving for a more perfected or at least presentable version of ourselves, we set goals for the 365 days ahead determined to make something of our ordinary lives.

Before adding another list of “to do’s” to your daily regimen of being human, I think a good starting point for positive change in our lives is to once again look at what currently lays claim to it, reckon with it, and make peace with it. Rather than close the door on our struggles and burdens – past or present – no matter how difficult, examine them for the lessons learned and the strength gained, and yes, be grateful for them.

Indeed, to be grateful for all of our lives – the good and the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, our successes, and our failures, the rewards we have earned as well as the rejections we have faced, all the parts of our ordinary, everyday life – is what Henri Nouwen calls spiritual hard work. I call it necessary work.  If we don’t make peace with the journey that brought us to this decision point of change and honor the exceptional, uniquely formed being that we are, we just become a busier and more distracted version of ourselves without much space in our lives for something truly new to take hold.

The events, experiences, and people of our past have brought us to where we are and shaped us into who we are in this present moment. They will continue to shape us in the present and as we meet the journey ahead. Perhaps you’re coming off a particularly busy holiday season – one where there were just not enough hours in the day to experience joy. Perhaps you are one of the 800,000 federal workers trying to make ends meet while higher powers hold your income and daily life hostage. Perhaps you just received a raise after months of hard work. Perhaps your child made the winning shot in the basketball game last night. Maybe you just finished a term on a board and are reflecting on your accomplishments and frustrations and wondering what to do next. Maybe a long-time friend or parent has just passed away. Perhaps an important relationship is feeling the strains of dullness, distance, or distraction. Or maybe a relationship just became something much more wonderful.

Look at the ordinary and everyday circumstances of your life – those that bring joy and those that well – don’t. What do you see?  When life has left you feeling lost, who found you? When your workday or circumstances at home have left you exhausted and overwhelmed, how did you overcome those feelings to face another day? When circumstances put a skip in your step or laughter in your heart, where did you find yourself?

Look at the people in your life and the relationships you have – the good and the bad – in what circumstance were those ties formed? How have they enriched your life or enlightened you on the qualities you desire in yourself or want to rid yourself of? As long as we separate the times, places, and people in our lives that we would rather forget from those we relish in remembering, we will never accept the fullness of who we are or who we can become.

Ordinary life is our primary practice, so why not make it a spiritual one?  It is in the ordinary of life that we rediscover and reclaim ourselves – where the hard work is done and where good work can shine. It is in the ordinary of life that we must ask the question “Who and how do I want to be in this moment?” This question is about more than just making a choice in your response to an event or deciding between an array of options of who you are going to be today as you smile or frown during your morning mirror time. It is a question we should ponder every ordinary day.

It’s about taking all the lessons you have learned and letting the you that has been shaped and refined by your journey to this very moment in time shine through. Your response to who and how you want to be in this moment will define what you value and set the trajectory for – the course of your life.

Are you a stressed-out parent? A sandwich generation child? A spouse? Are you a rancher, a framer, a cook, a teacher, or bookkeeper? A CPA, a carpenter, a ski instructor, a salesperson, a lawyer, a medical professional? Are you a student, a politician, a police officer, a retired person, an unemployed person? Remember that before you were any of these, you were you – God’s best version of you. And look who you have become!

If you are busy setting goals to make more of your ordinary life this year, make one of them to change “for the better” by honoring ALL that you are right now. Look at your life through different eyes – those of a child of God. Claim the fullness of who and what you are now and share it with those around you. Don’t wait until you are a ‘better version.”

Here’s the extraordinary thing about our ordinary – no one else’s is like ours. Our ordinary is extraordinarily unique! Crafted by the guiding hand of a loving God, your ordinary life is your life to live and give to others as they have given to you in their own extraordinary ordinary way. Our ordinary becomes extraordinary when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life – all of our life – to those we meet in our ordinary days. Our greatest fulfillment, our greatest opportunity to make more of our ordinary days lies in giving ourselves to others.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”                           – Isaiah 43 1-4

Let your light so shine!

 

The Gift of Grace

“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

As I contemplated the dearth of topics I could pontificate on for my end of year offering to you, I considered sharing my year in review, but then if you are a regular reader you already know how completely blown away I am by what has transpired. With that said, I will spare you the details of that novella until I get my feet under me again. Let me just say that if you had asked me last year at this time what would come to pass in 2018, I dare say that none of the life-changing happenings that made this year the paramount chapter of happiness in the book of my life were even being contemplated, let alone hoped for as 2017 came to a close.

We are approaching the waning days of December and for me, as a Christian, it is the time of Advent – a time of anticipation and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior. It is also a time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you may feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. Everything we anticipated and planned for has either come to pass or has not.  Another journey around the sun is almost complete and inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time can never be repeated, ever again. And yet, we have been here before – year after year we close out a chapter of our lives and open a new one with traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future. Do we look forward with satisfaction at a year well-lived and with hope for what is to come or do we remain focused on a past that we cannot change mired in judgment and/or regret?

When you look at your past what do you see?  What thoughts and feelings arise? Is it a painful memory, one of grief for lost loved ones, an opportunity lost, a heartbroken, a chain that binds and confines your soul? Or perhaps the past brings about a smile of gratitude, puts a skip in your step over a goal achieved, or triggers a longing for the good old days. For me, it is a mixture of the two. Following the deaths of my parents, I struggled to see the good amid the sorrow and to let go of the past and look forward to the future. It’s not that I didn’t want a fresh start on life (one that we are promised every day, by the way) or wish that my life could be transformed from one that seemed stuck in the same old familiar patterns, telling the same story, and hearing the same old voices (usually the critical ones). But for a time, moving on from grief felt like I was dishonoring my parents and moving farther away from their presence in my life. In addition, the past was known to me – familiar – I was used to and longed for the way things were.

Sometimes we can be so focused on holding on to the past – the good, the bad, and the what-could-have-been – that we get lost in the wilderness of what was.

Regardless of how our past plays out in our minds, regardless of what did or did not happen back then, our past has made us who we are today but it does not have to define us, it does not have to lay claim to your life.

We are about to celebrate again the birth of the One who broke through the wilderness of what was to give us the promise of what could be and what is – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – God incarnate. We are told of His coming by a wandering figure – not someone sitting in a royal palace or government seat or even a religious authority.

No, the Good News came to John, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be that hold sway – be they political, economic, or status oriented. John tells us to escape the wilderness – to let go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow and calls us away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. He speaks of a transformer who will overcome our broken relationships, our broken hearts, and our harsh and critical voices. All of these things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none are more powerful than God.

John tells us to wake up to, break free from, and deal with these fraudulent powers that claim our souls so we can have a new life claimed by God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love of us.

None of us know what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. In the closing days of 2017, I certainly could not have fathomed preaching would be a regular part of my summer and fall schedule of events let alone meeting the love of my life and getting married nine months later!  I wish I had opened and lived in the gift already given to me – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come and letting go of the past that I could not change no matter how hard I tried.

We can face the unknown with the same old patterns, practices, and voices in our head or we can look forward in the freedom of God’s grace. Imagine starting the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for us – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seemingly improbable the future is.

What would your life look like each day if you let God’s grace – faith, hope, and love have primary claim? What opportunities might you take? What doors might open for you? How might your relationships prosper? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up each morning with the courage to face the day knowing that you have been healed from the brokenness of yesterday through the redeeming grace of God’s love? Well, you can.

As you look back on 2018 – look back and be satisfied that your life was worthy no matter what did or did not get accomplished and, as you look forward, rejoice in the freedom given to you to start fresh with hope – every single day.

My Christmas prayer for you is that you find God’s gift of grace that is waiting for you under your tree and that you will open your heart to it. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love of you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and your happiest New Year ever!!

Let your light so shine!

 

“When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best…”

Tis the season of gratitude and the Hallmark Christmas Channel with a record 34 new merry movies guaranteed to move you between this Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong –  I love a good movie and I love the occasional good cry –  but to be perfectly honest with you – I watch the Hallmark movies for the commercials. Hallmark Greeting Card commercials rank right up there with the Budweiser Clydesdale’s Super Bowl commercials on the tear-jerk scale for me.

This year you can spend “Christmas in Evergreen” or “Christmas in Graceland” or even “Christmas at the Palace” for all you royal wedding buffs. You can be “Home for Christmas”, have a “Homegrown Christmas”, “Mingle All the Way” to “Merry Matrimony”, be “Just in Time for Christmas”, find “A Family for Christmas”, make “Christmas Cookies” or a “Christmas Connection”, share “Christmas Joy”, get cozy in the “Christmas Cottage” or find “Christmas Love” just to name a few.

But the one movie that takes the cake for me is getting “Hitched for the Holidays” because … well… I AM!!! (Well technically over Thanksgiving – but the two holidays seem to merge into one another anymore anyway.)  Never, never in my life did I think I would be the subject of a Hallmark Christmas Movie, but then again, as of late,  I have lived through all the requisite movie making ingredients: calamity, tragedy, sorrow, heartbreak, new home, new puppy, getting snowbound, surprise guests, a new chapter in life,  and now a fiancé for the holidays – someone I had pretty much thought didn’t exist for me (see the plot thickening already!!) not even 9 months ago – and if you are reading this story on November 17th  I will be walking down the aisle in my holiday best just 7 short days from now!

Now it wouldn’t be a Hallmark-worthy story without a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure and so as I sit here during one of my less frazzled pre-wedding evenings – doing what I do best – remembering times gone by while paging through old photo albums and sharing Facebook memories – it has become obvious that Thanksgiving was NOT a photographic holiday in my family!!! I found 2 – TWO! pictures of my family at Thanksgiving – all taken in the last 6 years and one in a photo album. This is probably because I can recall many Thanksgivings when calamity reigned over peace in our kitchen and our meals were not always bubbling with joy. Broken casserole dishes, dry turkey, watery green bean casserole, arguments over Christmas lights – and when we could turn them on, and who was or wasn’t coming for dinner. Oh yes, we had separate Thanksgivings and silent Thanksgivings, soup for Thanksgiving, and yes, WONDERFUL Thanksgivings.

The last Thanksgiving my whole family was together was 2012. I never dreamed that would be the last one we celebrated together but it was. Illness, inclement weather, plans elsewhere, and death came between us in the following years. The last Thanksgiving we had with my Mom we didn’t have with Mom as she stayed home in “one of her moods” while the rest of us went to a relative’s house for the feast.  No, I never claimed we were a perfect family – but we loved each other even in the mess.

The year after that would be the last Thanksgiving I would have with my Dad and last year was the first one my brother and I had without either of our parents.

Every Hallmark Movie has a moral to the story and my morality lesson goes right to our mortality and the finite essence of life. I have learned that nothing – nothing can replace relationships – nothing is more important than family – and I must do a better job of nurturing the bonds I have with the people who have found their way into my life going forward. Love everyone at your table despite any irritations they might inflict and cherish every moment you have with them. Life is fleeting.  Forgiveness is a gift that should not be given sparingly, and as Eleanor Roosevelt once said – “The giving of love is an education in itself.”

This year I will be feasting on memories and giving thanks for lives well lived and a life still worth living. I will be celebrating the joining of two families as my fiancé, John and I become one of our own. We will be busy little premarital mice putting the finishing touches on our Scandinavian wedding day while entertaining out of town family for Thanksgiving. The turkey dinner has been ordered – so no drama will ensue in the kitchen this year but we will have plenty of opportunities for epic hilarity as burlap and wheat, lefse, lingonberries, and lox get thrown around the church fellowship hall.

We will have many romantic Hallmark-worthy moments and some not so memorable or romantic ones to come in the days and years ahead but one thing I know for sure – Getting Hitched for the Holidays is going to be the best story either of us will ever tell.

Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving!

Let your light so shine!

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

 

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded 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 source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen

God Always Wins – And So Does Love

Holy Saturday, a day in between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. Some fill it with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood –  making Easter Snow-bunnies – others just go about the day as if it were any other Saturday –  household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we were lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work.

While I have several of these non-celebratory doings on my to-do list today, I can’t get past how the suspended feeling this day evokes so markedly reflects how I have been living my life the past year. The 2 years leading up to today have been the most emotionally wrought time of my life – with more grief than I thought possible.  The deaths of my parents – whose love accompanied me all the days of my life even before I took my first breath – left me casting about – alone and unsure of my foundation. That I would also face the death of a relationship that changed the course of my life and showed me how wonderful and painful love can be, left me hardened and shamefully bitter. While the immensity of the pain has waned, the aftermath of bitterness remains. Never in my life would I have associated the word bitter with the essence of who I am. But as I sit here reflecting on The Cross, I am well aware of the darkness I have allowed into my life of late.

I have faced the bitter cold of winter with verve and relished the bitterness of a strong cup of coffee, but I never, ever would have allowed bitterness to find its way into my life in times past and yet somehow it has made a home for itself in my heart. Anyone who has quaffed their morning thirst with a bitter jolt of coffee knows that bitterness has staying power –  it will stay with you no matter how you try to mask it. Despite my attempts to fill my life with diversions, flavor, busyness –  that bitterness has lingered.

I have seen glimpses of my former self – the strong, joyful, sentimental, independent, naïve, happy as a lark child of God from time to time – but inevitably the sweetness fades and the bitterness once again grips me and I am left wondering if I will ever allow myself to love deeply and be loved again.

Yet, if I let bitterness win, then I have no business reflecting on the Cross today. This bitterness is a selfish gift from darkness, one that encourages self-absorption, self-preservation, selfishness. It comforts me with a solitude of sadness and impassable independence. It eats away a life that is precious to God and denies His power to redeem and restore. It scoffs at the opportunities of today and the promises of tomorrow. It destroys faith and drowns hope.

But I am a Child of God. I AM a Child of God! This bitterness will not have the last word. God did not rescue me from the grips of death 24 years ago to spend however many precious days I have in this admittedly broken but beautiful world absorbed by bitterness and selfishness. As I have moved through Lent and journeyed to the Cross this last week, I have felt both numb and alive. Numbed by the overwhelming battle for my heart going on inside of me and alive because I know who is winning!!

God always wins – always! The outcome is His alone and this Easter I am once again relinquishing my life to Him – totally and uncompromisingly.  Bitterness be gone! I am letting go of you – and letting go of the pain that brought you into my heart.  I am letting forgiveness move in and embracing the same Easter joy I felt 2 years ago when I laid my mother to rest on Good Friday and celebrated with great joy her new life on Easter Sunday. While God did not promise me an easy road ahead that day, and the following days and months were anything but, He did promise that He would never leave me. I somehow lost sight of that. It is easy to do when you shutter yourself away and allow darkness and bitterness a place to stay.

With God, what have I to fear? He created us to love one another. It is the way of His kingdom on earth.  To love is to live in His light. Imperfectly. Deeply. With compassion. With abandon. This Easter I am embracing life anew in His Light and in His Love.

God always wins and so does love.

Happy Easter!

Jesus said- “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” – John 15: 9-17

Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

As I continue in my Lay Pastoral Associate studies,  I am growing more certain of the course my life is taking in answering His call.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me but as Martin Luther said, “well do I know my guide.” Or at least I am getting to know Him better!

Living an authentic life is powerful stuff. I have never felt more like I am who I am, than when I am studying, thinking about, interpreting, and sharing the Word. Do I have doubts? Oh yes, self-doubt is inherit to my nature. Questions? Oh yes! I will admit that reason messes with my faith more often than not. And then my faith messes even more with reason, and I feel stronger in my walk for the questions I ask.  Do I worry I will lead others astray? Absolutely. The weight of responsibility that I feel behind the pulpit is great. When someone comes to church, they come to to find God, to find welcome, to find peace. They come to be fed and to sort out the events of their life in sanctuary. I don’t ever want to mess that up! I don’t ever want someone to walk out of church feeling worse for coming. I pray every time I sit down to write, that my words reflect the shining light, the way, and the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ  and that they touch someone, in ways I may never know or need to know.

There will always be risk but even greater reward. 

***

Sermon: Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

Romans: 8: 26-39

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father.

Oh, those words!!! How many of you felt your heart leap, your spirit soar, your cares ebb as Krista read Paul’s powerful words from Romans today?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We so often hear these words in the context of a funeral or memorial service and they bring us great comfort, knowing that nothing has separated our loved one from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.  Having completed their earthly journey with all their joys and sorrows, talents and flaws, deeds and sins behind them, we have confidence that our loved one lives on with the Lord.

But consider for a moment, who Paul was writing to and consider all of his words, not just the triumphant final three verses of this pivotal chapter. Consider for a moment that these words written to all of the Romans, not just the saints or the church as many of Paul’s letters were, he meant them for everyone. Give them serious consideration, as they also apply to you today, alive and well, on this beautiful, summer morning because I don’t have any plans right now to be giving your funeral sermon– I want you take these words with you for your life!

For when your life is not easy. When life seems to be made up of one crisis after another. When life separates you from joy. When life feels very lonesome. For when life takes your plans and throws them into the fire.  For when life feels like death. For when life challenges your confidence and exposes your weaknesses, your doubts, your fears, and your sins. For when life brings achievement and disappointment, celebration and regret, great success and great suffering. For when life hands you hardships that threaten to undo you –  hardships and failures in the present, from the past, and in the future. For when you feel distress, shame, stress, and opposition. For when your foolish choices, public failures, personal disappointments, and ever-present sin cause you to forget who you are and whose you are. For when life makes you question who’s in control and for when life brings you to your knees but you don’t know how or for what to pray for. These words were written for those times.

What does Paul say about these things, these times that try our souls??

Romans 8 is a powerful chapter with a powerful ending, smack dab in the middle of 16 chapters explaining the Christian life to the Romans – chapters filled with what Martin Luther called the purest gospel … a bright light almost sufficient to illuminate the entire Holy Scriptures.” Many theologians say the verses you heard today –  that caused you to take a deep breath and rejoice in your baptismal promise of salvation – are the key to the whole Bible – the summa theologia – the summary of the Gospel.  Paul’s last letter; a letter written at the height of his ministry – some 30 years after his conversion – is a powerful summation of what he has been trying to say all along – the grandness of God’s grace and the power of his uncompromising love are yours.

Paul is seasoned. He writes with conviction and authority and passion what he knows to be true. His missionary life has not been easy.  He has endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, constant harassment and strong opposition – just as God promised he would shortly after his conversion – that he would suffer much as he witnessed for the reign of God’s kingdom.  A kingdom, as we learned in today’s gospel reading, that can be much different than it appears. A kingdom that challenges what we value and what we think is good. Though sometimes obscure, the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that God’s love is unconditional and inseparable.

Despite his suffering, Paul was convinced of this and you should be too: we have a sovereign and loving God who has searched our hearts, who knows our minds – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and get this, He still loves us. Loves us so much that he sent His only Son to die for our sins and destroy the curtain of sin and death that separated us from Him. And then, through the promise of the resurrection sent His Spirit to forever dwell in us and intercede for us.

In the midst of desperation over a sudden illness, as you yell at the kids as the toilet floods, as your boss tells you your position is not needed anymore, as your spouse slams the door one last time, as you feel the need to cover your indiscretions yet again, as you look in the mirror with disdain after another let down or as anything that life deals you separates you from that confidence in God’s love – you might say, yeah right – a loving God – What kind of God let’s suffering happen? If all we had were the first few chapters of the Bible to understand the Christian life, some might believe that God really was against us. But Paul shows us the lengths that God went to save us from His wrath and equip us for victory over sin and death and the trials and storms of this world with the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ and the gift of His Spirit.

The letter Paul writes to the Romans is about living life with the Spirit in us. It is for these times that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”  When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit who searches our heart,  intercedes with sighs too deep for words. He guides our prayers according to the will of God.  That’s the kind of God we have. Given that, who can doubt that God is for us?

Have you ever been insulted? Have you have been taken advantage of or hurt by someone else? Has someone ever wished you ill? I remember well, being the new girl in town – the new girl from back-woods Montana (even though eastern MT didn’t have much forest to speak of) when we moved to Fairfax, VA just before my 6th grade year. Fairfax was a middle-class suburb of Washington, DC where most of our neighbors were military brass or some other mid to upper level government office holders like my dad.   I soon found that I had landed in a trough of military brats who in turn found me to be a prime target for bullying with my odd style of jeans (hey, they were hip in Billings!) and last year’s shoes. That I was a shy tom-boy didn’t help matters with this catty bunch of snobby girls and I was subjected to having mashed potatoes further mashed into my hair at lunch time, tables emptying when I came to sit down, snickers when I walked down the hall, kicked shins, and nasty notes slipped into my locker. Even Mrs. Johnson, my assigned sixth grade teacher made me feel like an odd ball – singling me out when, to my utter horror, my Snoopy lunch box slid off my slanted desk and crashed to the floor. I was forced to stand and apologize for distracting the rest of the class – who were already making plenty of noise ahead of lunch time. I was completely humiliated. I had left a home in Montana where I was the kickball queen who giggled – a lot- and moved to a place where I was afraid to ride the school bus and I would be sick before going to school every morning. I had never felt so alone in all of my 12 years and to this day, I still have moments of self-doubt and flashes of utter fear before meeting new people, wary of what they will think of me and the pain I know I am about to experience.

As that school year progressed, over-crowding forced the school administration to add another sixth-grade class that was housed in a portable classroom – separate from the main building. They hand selected the students who would move. Providence was mine and Mrs. Shaw- a true southern belle with beautifully painted fingernails that scratched the chalkboard when she wrote, became my teacher. She quickly showed her students how special it was that we were brought together to this new space – and that we were going to be the top sixth grade class in the school – if we worked together. We did and we were! Tops in grades, tops in field day events, and tops in learning how to make do with what life handed us.  She turned what could have been my worst year ever – if I even survived – into a year of new friendships, gained confidence, and a renewed trust that people are good.

Paul writes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In moments of desperation we wonder how any of this can be for the “good” of God. We feel abandoned. We feel weak with the forces of the world closing in on us. Even at the tender age of twelve, I wondered where God was and why, oh why He was letting these awful things happen to me. I was made well aware of the evil in the world, and I didn’t understand why our move to Virginia had brought this evil into my life. Was I being punished? Worse, was I being punished by God?

Mind you, I was not the innocent angel I am now. I once pushed a girl into the creek behind our house in Billings when she made fun of my mother’s shoes, and I took off on my Schwinn banana seat bike many a time to explore the wilds beyond our neighborhood without letting my parents know where I was going.  But back to my misery. If ever there was a time to ask where the good was in what was happening to me, this victim of bullying certainly had found it.

Paul makes it clear that the “good” which God brings about is His ultimate good for us. God never causes evil or harm to come our way –  that is the work of the fallen world – but God will use our suffering as a result of that evil to bring us closer to Him. God made an enduring promise to those who love Him – if we persist in faith, He promises to see us through to glorification. He alone has the power to work all things, not just some things, not just the things we associate with the “good” like health, comfort, and success, but all things, together for His ultimate purpose.   “All things” includes our suffering and our groaning. It includes our weakest moments when we don’t know how or for what to pray. It includes our times of sorrow and sickness and death. Just look at the ultimate good He worked through the storms, struggles and death of Jesus Christ!

This is why Paul commanded in his letter to the Thessalonians, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Looking back some 30 years later, I know that the suffering I faced as a bullied 6th grader, while not God’s doing, was redeemed by God giving me a deeper level of empathy for others and a streak of independence that continues to strengthen and serve me well today.

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Our lives are governed by laws and regulations, worldly judgements, class, party, and rank. We can be deceived by moral superiority and cast away from the church.  Legalism and reason test our belief.  These things serve only to crush our spirit, bring us sorrow, and encourage us to ask how God can be for us if we have failed Him with our errant ways. But God wants to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son, and that entails persevering through all things in life.

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul makes a clear distinction between godly and worldly grief (in today’s language:  guilt and shame): “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:9-10) The kind of sorrow, grief, guilt and shame God wants us to experience and yes you will experience it, leads us away from sin and results in salvation.

But, if we love God and we strive to live in the ways of Jesus Christ we can be secure in our belief and assured of God’s love. Again, we have the promise of the resurrection. God’s gift to us – Jesus Christ.

God did not promise that our lives would be free from suffering and hardship but he assured us in our baptism that our lives in Christ Jesus have been freed of judgement and condemnation. In Baptism, God defines and claims you as His own – forever, a relationship that no matter what you do, you can’t screw up! When you were baptized, God proclaimed His unconditional promise to accept you as you are, adopted you into His family, and forgave all your sins including those you have yet to make! Martin Luther, a man who suffered greatly from doubt and guilt himself, urged his followers to remember their Baptism daily,  to wash themselves in God’s unconditional love daily. But relationships take two to tango – God’s unconditional love cannot be one-sided. Indeed, the only thing that can separate you from the love of God, in Christ Jesus is YOU.

When the hardships, ills, judgements, sorrows, struggles, and guilts of this world threaten to steal your confident trust in Christ, rather than turn away from Him, let the Spirit intercede for you, strengthen you, and carry you until you can believe again.

A good friend of mine who has seen a lot of life in his life including surviving a severe motorcycle accident out in the middle of nowhere alone with a broken femur and later, a head on collision with a drunk driver. He served as a missionary with Young Adults in Global Mission and as a youth leader and camp counselor at a Lutheran bible camp. He pursued outdoor ministry, photography, and plans to go back to school this fall to finish his Secondary Education degree. Last year he started his own business as a handyman doing painting and construction work and it was this success that now threatens to undo him. Scaffolding collapsed on one of his jobs causing him to fall and this time shatter his femur and his knee. When I told I was praying for him and asked how I could pray for him, he shared with me that he no longer walks in faith, hasn’t for a long time. He has separated himself from God.

I don’t know what to say to my friend. I don’t have the answers to his loss of faith or the life changing circumstance he now finds himself in. All I can do is pray for him. MY faith tells me he will get through this crisis and because I know his heart, I know he will be stronger in the end. My faith tells me that God is with him right now even though my friend is not with God, and God WILL use this momentary pause in my friend’s life for His ultimate good.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Take Paul’s powerful words home with you today. Let them live in you and guide you through your day and week ahead. Remember your baptism. You are a child of God. A loving God whose ultimate purpose, whose ultimate good for you, is to preserve you pure and holy.

Dear Lord, thank You for giving us Your Spirit as our constant companion who, in the depths of our desperation, is present to help us when we have no idea how to pray, with sighs too deep for words. Thank you for your uncompromising and unconditional love. Help us to keep our hearts and mind open to You as we walk faithfully in your name. Amen