“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis
The things we leave behind…. This time of year always finds me in a reflective state of mind. A state of mind that has become nearly as traditional as all the traditions that bring on such erstwhile musings – the cherished Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas carols from my childhood, the art of writing Christmas letters, watching Rudolph on TV for the 47th year in a row, holiday baking, and wrapping presents “just so”. It’s hard not to be nostalgic for those rose-colored times of yore when life was simpler, laughter was more frequent, wonder took precedence over skepticism, and I was naive to the rushing, crushing ways of the world.
While yesterday may not have much to be desired for, yesteryear seems downright resplendent! You know, before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before illness, before betrayal, before saying yes, before saying no, before Mom and Dad died, before moving away, before graduating from college, high school, kindergarten… Before, before, before: insert your own “past-tensity” here.
When present times are difficult the past is a much more inviting place to reside – and with each passing day, the past becomes longer and more encompassing. In the comfort of the past, you have seen it all and you know how to make it through each day. You are, in fact, living proof of that certainty, you tell yourself.
The past few years I have lived in that foregone certainty. It really is an idyllic setting. Time and distance do wonders for the past. It’s amazing how good it looks and feels with age!
A time and place that didn’t know immense grief, betrayal, and most of all constant pain. A place where I had control of life – before things went haywire. Ironically, 5, 10, or 15 years from now I will probably be saying the same thing about today.
Last year as I was decorating my Christmas tree, I was in tears – longing for the one gift that could never be mine – the past. There was just too much wrong with the present and the future was too unknown to be hoped for.
The unhappy person is never present to themself because they always live in the past or the future. – Soren Kierkegaard, Danish poet, author, philosopher, and theologian.
Kierkegaard said that the more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes.
When you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived the very past you long for. Your past has prepared you for your present and your present is laying the foundation for tomorrow- whether you are aware of it or not. While our present can only be realized by surviving the past, our future depends on the now.
Indeed, in my Yuletide tears of yore – as recent as last Christmas – I could not have fathomed how different my life would be today. This realization struck me as I was hanging the last of my mother’s and now my heirloom lace snowflakes on my Christmas tree – my past melancholy had melted away. My present was my present!
Well actually, there are many gifts this year that steered me to my present – gifts that may not have been perceived as such at the time – like a deteriorated hip which led to a total hip replacement and a huge medical bill, not to mention the complete loss of “control” and independence that comes with recovery from major surgery.
I spent most of the summer recovering from surgery. I liken it to time spent in a cocoon. Sounds like a great time, right? Certainly not! Or so I thought. But in truth, the pause in daily life as usual I was forced to observe gave me life – not just my life back – but gave me life. Being forced to rest and “deal” with my life rather than running through it as my modus operandi had always been finally put me on a positive pathway. I have a whole new appreciation for who I am, and who I can be. I also learned to trust again – seeing that others wanted to and did come through for me – including the Health Care Sharing ministry I joined years ago but never “tested”. At some point in my life I lost the ability to trust others – having been used, hurt or betrayed one too many times. Trusting beyond the boundary of myself again opens so many doors to life.
I missed out on so much life because I was just trying to manage my physical and mental anguish in ways that were not helpful. Not everyone gets a second chance at life – this will be my third. They say the third time’s the charm. I’m not going to waste it!!
In the months since my metamorphosis, I have been revisiting past joys and embarking on new adventures. I haven’t had this much outright FUN in ages! I pondered all of this as I hung that last heirloom snowflake. I realized that I was happy – that I am happy in all its wonderful present tense-ness. Who I am is who I am.
That my life isn’t what it used to be or how I had once imagined it to be or what I think it should be, makes it no less worthy and no less worthy of joy! I am also no less worthy of rest, no less worthy of respect, no less worthy period. I am a survivor of life – a divinely inspired one – every bit as much as you are.
Theologian Henri Nouwen gave words to my moment of divinely inspired contentment, (emphasis mine):
“I know that, alone, I cannot see, hear or touch God in the world. But God in me, the living Christ in me, can see, hear and touch God in the world, and all that is Christ’s in me is fully my own. His simplicity, his purity, his innocence are my very own because they are truly given to me to be claimed as my most personal possessions… All that there is of love in me is a gift from Jesus, yet every gesture of love I am able to make will be recognized as uniquely mine. That’s the paradox of grace. The fullest gift of grace brings with it the fullest gift of freedom. There is nothing good in me that does not come from God, through Christ, but all the good in me is uniquely my own. The deeper my intimacy with Jesus, the more complete is my freedom.”
It is frightening to contemplate how much of our lives we cede to despair, pain, frustration, anger, sorrow, contempt, fear, control, etc., I could go on. If only we could always be mindful of God’s gift of grace in our life and leave those other things behind.
I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to dare to know myself again, to dare to live again, and to hope again – that we might all see, hear and touch God in this world, always.
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard
Wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas filled with all the joys and grace of this most wonderful life.
Recently, I was reacquainted with an old classmate of mine from high school through our Class of 89 group on Facebook. It had been 33 years since I had seen him. He looked very happy in the photos he shared of himself with his family, but the photos also gave me pause. Have I aged as much as he had?? I mean I look in the mirror every day and though I definitely have mornings when I glance painfully at my sight and just want to go back to bed, I really don’t see a marked difference from day to day. Was I missing something?? You can save me from the compliments later. 😁 But truth be told – most of us just get up and do life – we take each day as it comes unaware of the changes taking place within us and happening to us with every experience because we are too busy experiencing it! It’s only when we have some distance from the moment that we become aware that something has changed. The more life we have behind us, the less aware we are of just how adept we are at encountering and adapting to the world around us. It just happens – that is how life works – until it doesn’t, and you realize something is amiss.
Something was amiss when God made a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. All would know God from the least to the greatest with their iniquities forgiven and their sin remembered no more. God wanted to be sure nothing came between God and God’s people.
Something was amiss 505 years ago tomorrow, when Martin Luther found it necessary to nail his 95 Theses to the castle doors calling for an end to the separation of the people from God, this time by none other than the Church.
Today, Reformation Day – we celebrate and give thanks for God’s continued reformation and renewal of the Church and our relationship with Him, especially when things go amiss.
Something was amiss in Jerusalem where we join Jesus today. He has been teaching in the temple about his identity as the light of the world. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) The Pharisees push back, questioning his authority. So not wanting to let a good opportunity to challenge us go by – Jesus turns to his followers who – we are told – still believed in him – and tells them that their faith alone does not make them his disciples. It’s as if he wants to be the unpopular guy.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Yes, they may be believers, but if they are to truly become his disciples, they must remain in His word.
Now – we know that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, the Word God speaks and, through whom God created the world. Jesus embodies, reveals, and teaches God’s word. The word continue is translated from the Greek “meno” which means to abide in or remain with. Therefore, those who want to be His disciples must remain in Jesus and allow His words to govern their actions. Only then will they know the truth that frees.
We hear & know God’s word through the Gospel. We describe “Gospel” in a variety of ways – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life. Today’s passage adds another way to speak of the Gospel – truth and freedom. The kind of words to write on your heart. Inspiring words, good words. But they are also hard words.
Hard because they all assume need and we don’t like to admit to needing anything. The one who values salvation knows that he or she needs saving. The one for whom grace is important is aware of the need for grace. Forgiveness implies sin. Life implies one is not really living. Freedom means we need to be made free. Truth – well what is this truth? We have lots of truths!
Jesus promises his followers that if those who believe remain in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free, but as is so often the way in the Gospel of John, Jesus is misunderstood. Just as the Samaritan woman at the well thought that Jesus was talking about literal water rather than living water, His listeners immediately assume that He is suggesting that they are slaves who need to be freed from their earthly masters.
Their response is one of perplexity, indignance. What sounded like Good News, a positive development – now clangs loudly on the ears.
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute, wait a minute! What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?
“We are free. Nobody tells us what to do. We’re in charge of our own lives. Why do you think we need you to make us free?” Confident of their heritage and identity, they are sure that they are already free.
Now, admittedly there is a certain absurdity to their reply. The entire book of Exodus centers on their enslavement. The most central part of their story hinges on God leading the Jewish people out of slavery through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the promised land. It would seem his followers have developed blind spots to their history of enslavement and are oblivious to what enslaves them now.
Jesus promptly challenges their claim, pointing not to their heritage but to their actions: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Because they have followed their own desires instead of God’s word, they have become slaves to sin.
But here’s my question: are we really all that different? Which words of Jesus stuck with you, today? Those that spoke to Truth & Freedom or of Sin & Enslavement.
When have you lived without sin? How does it feel to be called out as a slave to it?
How often do we honestly admit that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect? When was the last time you willingly admitted you were wrong, or for that matter, your need, your hurt, your brokenness?
Especially today, when there is so much cultural pressure to be right – all the time – to act as if you have it all together – a great life, excellent job, wonderful relationships, a brilliant future. Greatness is an expectation for just about everything. You know the relentless pursuit of happiness and all…
And when we look in the mirror, we are much more apt to say things that might sound familiar if you were here last week… God, I thank you that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers, snobs, fakes, conservatives, liberals, democrats, republicans, those invading “onians…” reckless spenders, greedy financiers, creation plunderers, snowflakes, wokes, racists, communists, socialists, fascists… or whatever is so “obviously” your opposite.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as righteous, we just happen to know that we are right. It is so much easier to justify ourselves and blame others for our circumstance than to admit that there is room not just for growth and improvement but also a need for help, repentance, and forgiveness.
When we look in the mirror, we fail to see our own shortcomings and our own participation in systems and ways that cause harm to others. Our blind spots hold us captive. We fail to see the truth.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Freedom, as a state of being, is something to be celebrated. But being made free… well that declares that we are not free already. That we are not our own person, that we are not in control, that we are enslaved.
Much like the Jews who insisted to Jesus that they had “never been slaves to anyone,” our current reality looks nothing like slavery. Thanks to our United States Constitution and the amendments that reform it freedom is in our DNA.
We like our freedoms and for that matter, our truths (emphasis on the plural). What’s more, we like them on our terms.
We don’t need to be “set free” because “duh” – we already are. We are free to make our own decisions, free to define who we are by our standards, and free to manifest our own destiny. We are even free to choose our own truths and get on with our life just as we always have. What more could we want?
Take a look in the mirror again and this time look deep. How about an honest, deep, and abiding relationship with God?
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
At its core, sin is not about immorality; it is not about bad decisions or bad actions or even inaction. Sin is not what we do, but the reason behind why we do it. Sin is a condition of our soul. And the underlying condition of our sin nature is the desire to be in control. Or, put another way, sin is the desire to claim “freedom” from God’s control. Sin is about estrangement from God. The absence of God in our lives.
The freedom Jesus is speaking of is not a freedom from oppression but rather – freedom from our estrangement from GOD – our enslavement to sin.
You may not think of yourself as a slave to anything, especially sin – but there are ways of being in this world that feel like we are shackled, trapped, in bondage. When we follow our own truths and pursue our own desires instead of God’s word, we will inevitably become slaves to sin.
When we align ourselves to dogmas, practices, addictions, parties, political figures, or any of the prolific and divisive isms that pervade our culture and society; when we rest securely (or not so much) in our retirement accounts and gold holdings or real estate then we’ve placed our trust in someone or something other than the righteousness of God.
If our ways lead us to seek power and superiority over others rather than being on the side of the weak, the ostracized, and the cast out – then we are captive to the systems of control and oppression of this world over the compassion and mercy of God.
When we ensconce our identity and sense of worth in the cultural and social trappings of this world – how much money we have, where we live, our professional, social, or marital status, our professional or athletic accomplishments, or our physical appearance – we are slaves to believing the mistruths of this world instead of God’s Truth.
We think our many “truths” and freedoms are the essence of our identity; we think they give meaning and control to our life but in reality, they are traps – they shackle rather than enlarge our life.
As long as we continue to live as if who we are is rooted in what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain trapped by judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that the only way we can ever experience true freedom is to claim our identity as beloved children of God.
The substantial freedoms that any of us enjoy in this world quickly pale in comparison to the ultimate freedom that Jesus addresses with his teaching and through his life, death, and resurrection. Because when it comes to what is most important in the scope of eternity compared to what we hold as important in the brokenness of now, we are not free at all. We are slaves.
Slaves to a world that wants to define our worth on its terms. Slaves to control, doubt and the self-defeating cycle of proving ourselves worthy.
When we turn away from God and the ways of Jesus, the world will gladly step in and take over. We don’t even notice it happening at first, but as time goes on – we cede more and more of our truth, more and more of our freedom – to sin. And then all of sudden it hits us – we look in the mirror and don’t recognize or like what we see. Something is amiss. We’ve lost direction. We are estranged from God.
Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus Christ. Really knowing Jesus. We can study a person’s teachings and know all about their life, their habits, and their history, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. To know them we must spend time with them, listen to them, and share ourselves with them. As Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
We become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us; reform and renew us.
This is what makes Jesus’ promise of freedom a bit of a mixed blessing. Because to claim the good news of Truth and Freedom we are first made to acknowledge that we on our own are not free. To be free we must first be honest with ourselves before God through God’s merciful free gift of returning to Him – repentance.
Before God and one another we humble ourselves and we confess that we are captive to sin and we cannot free ourselves; realizing again and again that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves free from the forces of sin and death, from the forces in the world and in ourselves that defy God and defy God’s ultimate power and divinity and we ask for and receive God’s mercy.
When we genuinely confess each week, we become painfully aware that we need so much – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life, truth and freedom. We need the Gospel. We need God’s Truth.
Jesus is God’s truth. He exposes the hatred, the selfishness, and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he liberates us from them, making us free to follow him instead, emulating his love and compassion and grace and mercy for all people.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
When we acknowledge that we are captive to the cycle of sin then Jesus’ words beam with the bright light of hope for eternity. When we are humble enough to recognize our true circumstance, these words sing of gospel truth and the great good news that it is.
For those of you looking for freedom in this place of worship, look to the cross of Jesus Christ. The Holy Cross and all that was shown and offered and accomplished through it is the one and only symbol we need of our surpassing and eternal freedom.
For those of you searching for identity you will find it most clearly in the baptismal font where you were drowned to sin and raised to live again, claimed and named as a redeemed child of God – the most important truth any of us could ever hope to profess.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
Still searching for the true truth and real freedom? Look in the mirror – Jesus has claimed and freed you. Nothing can come between you and God.
45 years ago, I gleefully & boldly – as every five-year-old does – illegally crossed the border at my grandpa’s border patrol site in Eastern Montana. On a recent Saturday, still without a passport, I did it again at the opposite corner of the state – with some very fine friends – new and old!
Ember really pushed the limits of border security and went for bird – in fact the whole hike for him was one big grouse fest!! I held back a few feet across the border – straight and narrow as I am, you know – somewhat daunted by the vast wilderness before us. Nothing but mountains filled with bears, big cats, wolves and other wild things as far as the eye can see.
Not only did I cross physical boundary lines, but I also let go of a few mental ones too. The sense of freedom from letting go of my literal fears of falling and failing that have held me back since my hip replacement surgery and the confidence I gained in holding my own with some of the best mountaineers out there is huge. We covered 13.5 miles and climbed 2 mountains with 9400 feet of elevation gain – much of it off trail in under 6 hours!!! I just might have my mountain goat groove back!
I also realized – ironically while in that wandering place of mind you happen upon in the wilds – that I feel “at home” again – after years of feeling placeless- unsure of where home was – despite my stuckness. I’m not sure what this means beyond this moment in time – but it feels good.
Thank you, God – for moments of wonderful wonder and reflection in your grand creation!!! This stanza from In Christ Alone sums it up perfectly:
“In Christ alone my hope is found He is my light, my strength, my song This cornerstone, this solid ground Firm through the fiercest drought and storm What heights of love, what depths of peace When fears are stilled, when strivings cease My comforter, my all in all Here in the love of Christ I stand.”
Yes, right here, in the love of Christ – I most surely stand. He is my home, my solid ground – no matter where I wander.
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ from God our Father.
Let us pray.
God of embrace, you free us from ourselves. You open a path to celebration. Turn us always to you and from you to our neighbor in service and in love. Amen. (Dirk Lange – Luther Seminary)
I’m a counter. I like to count things. I’ve been counting things from the time I understood the concept of numbers. Presents under the tree, the number of French fries and – woe is me – the number of Brussel sprouts on my plate; marks on the chalkboard; the straight A’s my parents paid me for; the number of books I have read, miles run, peaks climbed, jobs done, calories consumed, Scrabble games won… For some reason I have this innate need to measure myself against the world.
I grew up in an old-school Scandinavian family – before the Hygge lifestyle was the way to happiness. Love was never questioned in my family, but esteem and approval were hard to come by. Praise was rare and hard won. I did well in most things – even great sometimes – but I could always do better. At least that is how I interpreted my parents’ absent expression of pride. Mom and Dad were afraid that praise might go to our heads and my brother and I might think too highly of ourselves. Thankfully, both of my parents softened in their stern parental roles as we grew into adulthood and they shared their true feelings of love and pride in my brother and I, but the seeds of unworthiness and hunger for approval were planted. I am a perfectionist and still long for their approval after all these years.
Somewhere along the way, it became hard for me to trust that I am loved without having to first earn that love. That to deserve love I must be accomplished first. Therefore, in order to measure myself against the world, I count things and hope that if I just do more, do better, work harder, sacrifice more – that will count for something! Maybe I will be noticed and loved.
When I moved to the valley from the plains of Eastern MT almost 9 years ago, I immediately came down with the mountain bug. I went from traversing the flat prairies to climbing 10,000 ft peaks every weekend. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society and soon got wrapped up in the counting bug too – religiously recording miles logged on each hike with my GPS system because, as we all know, if it isn’t recorded the hike didn’t really happen. Soon we were comparing peaks bagged in a day and tallies of trails for the year. It became a competition to see who came out on top – and less of an adventure for the sheer joy of being in God’s creation. At some point I realized I was burned out – it stopped being fun. No matter how great my day on the mountain was – someone else always had a better one.
Now there is nothing wrong with competition. Competition is fun – and it drives us to better ourselves on many levels. We seek higher education, we practice more and refine our talents, we are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and sometimes even celebrated – with success and acclaim. For certain, we are a culture that glorifies winners- from sports to summits, poker to politics. But what about when it stops being fun – the counting, comparing, achieving and winning? When the divisions between winners and losers, the ones on top and the ones who are not, become walls – barriers to joy – barriers to trust- barriers to life – barriers to relationships and love? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.
There is a way of being in the world where everything becomes a competition. We measure everything we do against what others do so we can compare. We simply want to be – need to be – on top – be right. And it isn’t necessarily because we are spiteful or conniving – it’s not because we want to gloat over our accomplishments or make others feel less than – well most of us don’t anyway. It’s just that many of us believe that we simply are not enough. Not enough in the eyes of others and not enough in our own eyes. We want to be able to look in the mirror like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley and not just say but know that gosh darn it – my life matters and I am doing the right things – and people like me – and here’s the proof just in case.
In a world where identity is confirmed by likes and followers, proclamation and protest – so many people long for approval – a good word that affirms our place in the world – that we are doing good – that on any given day the work we do is appreciated – that we are seen and not taken for granted.
When we aren’t – when we feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted, we build walls of defense and division and search for something that shows “I did that” and they didn’t; or “I am right” and they are wrong. Meanwhile inside those walls – all we see is what we didn’t do, where we went wrong, how badly we failed, and how left out we are.
Today’s Gospel lesson continues our Lenten journey of repentance and what that really entails. As I ventured into this well-known parable of the prodigal at first glance, I found it to be a simple story of repentance and forgiveness, what was lost is found; as the fiery preachers of old would exhort – it’s never too late to get up and repent and return to God. God will welcome you – as long as you follow the rules.
We find Jesus responding to his critics, namely the bishops and priests, pastors and deacons of the day – someone like me for instance – who are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law – and as such they have a problem with Jesus coloring outside their carefully established boundary lines of righteousness – by liberally welcoming and eating with tax collectors, rule-breakers, and the like.
Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about a man who had two sons. His youngest son turns out to be dishonorable, selfish, and impudent. He has disgraced his father first by asking for and then receiving his inheritance before his father has died, then gambles it all away, brings shame to the family name, and loses every ounce of respect and everything he relied on to be somebody. He finds himself hungry – very hungry. Hungry for the good life he once had in his father’s house. He turns to his best form of defense. He devises a plan to win himself back into his father’s good graces and sets off for home. He knows what he wants but he doesn’t expect what awaits him – an exuberant father over the moon happy to see him! After all the wrong the young man has done the father thinks nothing of it! The father runs out to greet his wayward son – before he even has a chance to execute his plan. Not only is he welcomed home, but he is also celebrated with the party of the year!
This made my perfectionist-rule following ears perk up. Like the young son, despite and maybe because of all my efforts to do and be right, I have been and at times still am demanding, selfish and self-centered. I have made mistakes that hang over me like a black cloud. I have found myself in a pigsty of my own making – ashamed and afraid and hungry for anything but my current life. I’ve been raised to and want to believe that I can pull myself up by the bootstraps and make things right and so I like the idea that I have some say in how God feels about me. If I can finally win approval and love by simply repenting – I can choose to do that – right? And look at the celebration I’ll receive!
BUT the story doesn’t end there! We have the older son to contend with – the one who stayed. He has built a life of stability and honor through hard work and living right. And yet he does not seem very happy. Nor does he seem secure. He seems to be very alone in the world – as if he has intentionally separated himself from the others. In my mind, he has every “right” to be resentful even before his younger brother’s celebratory return. I recognize that sneaking resentment that creeps in when we find ourselves left out of the party and unnoticed by the world despite all we have done to make our lives matter. I want to shout right along with him – what about me? But like him I instead suffer in silence and keep being right all the while seething at the unfairness of the world, feeling completely unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. He is just as hungry and desperate as his brother – it’s just that his younger brother’s hunger is easier to see.
Look at everything we have done! Doesn’t any of that count?
It depends on whose game you want to win. If you are clamoring for a place in this world, if you are hungering for the kind of love derived from status – well maybe – maybe not. This world’s proclivity for belonging is fickle.
If a father’s love is like an inheritance – something that can be divided, invested, gained or lost. If a relationship is like that of a landowner to a hired hand where everything has to be earned – then those things should matter, should count in the grand scheme of things. The older brother should get credit for being good and the younger brother left to wallow in his own mess.
That is how the world works, right? Sadly, there are many families, relationships, and systems that operate this way. I am sure most of us have felt at some point in our lives like we had to earn someone’s love and approval and have worried that we could lose it all at any time by being a disappointment. I am also sure we have sat on the judgment side as well.
And that’s the problem we face when we forget, or worse, don’t even know whose child we really are. Whose child we have always been and always will be.
Jesus makes it clear – keeping count is fine for competition but has no place in love; no place in relationships of trust; and certainly, no place when it comes to God.
Jesus shows us a Prodigal Father who runs out to meet the wayward us the minute He spies us coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He dashes down the road in a way no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself and meets us where we are in the middle of our broken road Not only that, He doesn’t even give us a chance to sputter or explain or deny or repent but instead embraces and restores us immediately. This is disgraceful behavior but our Prodigal Father doesn’t care because He’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs we have done but only celebrates extravagantly when we come into His arms.
And if that’s not enough, Our Prodigal Father goes on and does something any self-respecting individual would never do a second time when he leaves the celebration He is hosting to seek us out – even in our seething spite and raging resentment. He pleads with us to come into the party, to soften our hearts and change direction. Because before Our Prodigal Father is a Landowner, King, and Creator, He’s a Parent who loves His children more than anyone can measure.
Your value as a person and your place in the family cannot be measured by the sum total of your good graces, your wins and losses, your acclaim and defeat, your rightness and your sin. It cannot be measured, period!
We are not loved because we are always loveable, right, or “on top” of the leaderboard. We are loved because God is love. That is the only thing worth counting on.
We are so used to making things count, so used to keeping score and measuring up in this world, we feel we must hold something before God – something that we have done or not done – to tip the scales in our favor, to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s love. But God’s grace and God’s love don’t come with prerequisites. There are no scales, there is no contest, no reward for best disciple in this life.
Only the same extravagant party of abundant life and everlasting love our Prodigal father has been throwing for us from day one. The one where everyone is invited and everyone has a seat at the table. There is no need for counting because there will always be enough and you are always enough.
Ultimately, it is not about us and everything we do to define or prove ourselves, to matter. It is about a God who forgives us — and our neighbors — even before we repent. It’s about God’s generous grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life1. A life that is both humble and grateful, with our hearts turned not inward but outward toward our neighbors, the community, and all of creation.
It is about God and God’s loving heart and you being God’s beloved child. It is about turning away from the old system of scorekeeping, counting, and judging and embracing our father’s unconditional, undeserved, unbelievable welcome into His immeasurable love. That’s a love you can count on.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” – Isaiah 9: 2
We are in the waning days of December and for me, it is the time of Advent – a time of waiting, anticipation, and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior and what used to be my favorite time of year – Christmas!! A time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you probably feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. And as luck would have it – this year takes the cake for high emotional content.
You see, I am feeling a bit at odds with myself and the machinations of the season – because this is my 50th year – this is my 50th Christmas – and what have I made of it??? It should be a spectacular celebration – no?
I love Christmas, I have from my earliest memory. I readily admit to getting wrapped up (pun intended) in the spirit of the season, merry-making galore. Before moving to the Flathead, during the months of November and December I would spend days adorning my parent’s house with lights, so much so that when I flipped the switch the rest of the neighborhood dimmed. Always alive in me was the real reason for the season, the coming celebration of the birth of my Lord and Savior. My family has a strong Scandinavian heritage and I learned at a very young age the art and technique of making lefse and krumkake, traditional holiday food offerings found in any Norwegian home. I was rolling perfect rounds of lefse by the time I was five and have been eating it with delight ever since – a fact of which my grandmother would be immensely proud.
Our home was always filled with music: piano, guitar, and good old-fashioned records on the turn-table! I started Christmas caroling and singing in choirs in my teenage years -I loved bringing the message of good news in song to the hearts of people I would never otherwise know. I have sung in choirs ever since – at times singing in 4 different show choirs at once! My Christmas goodwill has always been focused on spreading cheer to those far and near, through music, acts, words, and gifts. I truly believe we are God’s light in this world and this was my way of sharing that message brightly.
Looking back, I long for what now seems like such a simple but wonderful way of celebrating the holidays. I long for my childhood wonder and acceptance of the way we did things simply because that is how we did things. I don’t recall my parents being as stressed out around the holidays as I have allowed myself to become today. Of course, they didn’t have social media reminding them what everyone else was doing prompting them to wonder “how do we compare?”
But this year is different. My schedule remains empty of umpteen rehearsals and choir performances and aside from the occasional potato I haven’t baked a thing! Christmas cards remain unwritten and I’ve barely touched the piano keys. Sure, the house is decorated as it “always” is but the rest has fallen by the wayside – victims of the pandemic and my own malaise. I find myself in a liminal state of fatigue, fatigued by having nothing to be stressed about and fatigued by the thought of actually doing something. And this has me feeling all out of sorts – guilty for feeling as I do.
Expectations are high when it comes to celebrating the holidays. Social media highlights all that we don’t have in our lives – be it time, money, relationships, a happy home, a social life, health, you name it. Advertisements tell us we are going to “Win the holiday” by patronizing such and such retailer; “You got this!” they exclaim as a family stands back and admires perfection personified in Christmas lights. Who doesn’t want to “win the holiday” but in reality, who can? For the longest time, I tried but I always ended up feeling defeated and depleted.
All these images of happy traditions have a way of coloring our own expectations of peace and happiness around the holidays. It is indeed a wonderful time of year in which we focus on making and spreading joy, a time I have always cherished and looked forward to. But I have also experienced the emptiness inside after too much money is spent, all the presents are given, and life just goes on the next day. I have felt my heart break when my high expectations of the perfect family gathering went up in the smoke of a blazing argument. I have collapsed in illness from the stress of over-extending and over-committing myself to every activity that came my way. Most acutely, I have felt the cold sting of loneliness at a time when love and family sparkles in the lives of all those around me. This year I’m not sure what I am feeling – suspended, perhaps?
These are the dual realities of the holidays that approach. A time when both joy and sadness, quiet and commotion compete for a presence in our lives. My own experiences with both the light and dark aspects of the holidays have heightened my emotional sensitivities and my empathy for others who also struggle at this time of year.
Alas, here we are, Christmas comes whether we are in the mood or not and another journey around the sun is almost complete. Inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time cannot be repeated, ever again. And yet, year after year we close out another chapter of our lives and begin a new one with timeworn traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future! How strange!! No wonder I can’t get in to see a counselor until February!
Everything we anticipated and planned for ourselves this year and in our life thus far has either come to pass or it hasn’t. Too often, I find myself wandering in the wilderness of what was rather than journeying forward to what will be; focusing on the “what hasn’t” instead of contemplating on the “what has.”
In his collection of essays, The Spirituality of Living, Henri Nouwen writes:
“In the world there are many other voices speaking – loudly: “Prove that you are the beloved. Prove you’re worth something. Prove you have any contribution to make. Do something relevant. Be sure to make a name for yourself. At least have some power — then people will love you; then people will say you’re wonderful, you’re great.”
He goes on to say: “These voices are so strong. They touch our hidden insecurities and drive us to become very busy trying to prove to the world that we are good people who deserve some attention. Sometimes we think that our busyness is just an expression of our vocation, but Jesus knew that often our attempts to prove our worth are an example of temptation. Right after Jesus heard the voice say, “You are my beloved,” another voice said, “Prove you are the beloved. Do something. Change these stones into bread. Be sure you’re famous. Jump from the Temple…” Jesus said, “No, I don’t have to prove anything. I am already beloved.”
Perhaps that is the truth God wanted me to see after all the years I’ve spent wrapped up in the busy-ness of the season. None of it matters!! Yes, the twinkling lights shine in the darkness, yes it feels good to give gifts in pretty packages and bake yummy things while carols are playing and snow softly falls beckoning you out to build the perfect snowman. But in the end – all of those things disappear as quickly as the lights come off the roof, the gifts are forgotten amid all the discarded wrapping, the snow melts, and the yummy in your tummy ceases to feel or look so good.
This truth comes to us from, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be and hold sway in our lives – be they political, economic, or status oriented. Calling us to escape the wilderness by letting go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow. Calling us to turn away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. Calling us to freedom – because our broken relationships, our broken hearts, our harsh and critical voices, all the things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none, NONE are more powerful than God.
God wants us to know there is nothing to prove. He came to us because of the sorry state we were and are in, not because our houses were beautifully decorated and our kitchens were full of merry making! That you didn’t achieve all your goals for this year – perhaps you even failed miserably – hear this – it doesn’t matter! You are quite simply and profoundly beloved by God and because of that you can BE love. The true joys of the season and of life are not found under trees or in shopping carts or even along glowing roof-lines. In this beautiful yet broken world filled with terror and tradition, competition and caring, winning and wonder, the joy we seek can only be found in our hearts and the hearts of others. True joy comes only when we accept that we are from the beginning beloved by God and freed to love.
When we share God’s light and love with those of every walk we encounter, be it the hungry at the shelter or the stressed-out mom in line behind us, that is where we find joy. When you hold the door to the post office open for a package-laden distressed style maven and they sputter their surprised gratefulness, that is joy. When you extend your snow-blowing to your neighbor’s section of the sidewalk, that is joy. When you hear an “I am so glad you called, I needed this talk so much” on any day in May because you took the time to call instead of text someone you are thinking of – that is joy magnified. By releasing ourselves from our high expectations of celebration and need for showing how well we can live our lives we free ourselves to find joy in actively and expectantly living in the One, Our Savior, who has already come and whose true light shines in the darkness and brings peace to our hearts.
None of us knows what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. But, imagine beginning the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for you – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seeming improbable the future is. That gives me courage to quit wandering in my wilderness.
I pray that you are able to open and live into the gift already given to you – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come. Let go of all the things you think you have to do and the past that you cannot change no matter how hard you try. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love for you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.
Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a bright New Year!!
It had been a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.
The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, and the wind blasting and bracing. The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for knocking me off my pedestal of independence and caring enough to prove me wrong.
Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing along with the misguided idea that I had a mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny. My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, obstinate at times, and thoroughly self-assured and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. I am not one to seek or ask for help – knowing that I know what is best for me. My sky had fallen, and as per my usual modus operandi, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way.
But that wasn’t working. Deep in my heart I knew who I was trying to be and what I was trying to do wasn’t my reality, nor was it good for me. But I fought with all my might the notion that I might be wrong again – that this wasn’t the path I was destined to follow, that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a pandemic?
We all face challenging times in life. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual – sometimes beyond our control. Each of us will respond as best we can – we simply do – even if it does not appear that way to others.
Unlike when we face a public tragedy – like the death of a loved one or a serious illness and are the focus of sympathies – these struggles are the ones we don’t share, they go too deep.
Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.
The inner conflict I was experiencing became so intense I was seriously contemplating changing the course of my life altogether – the mountains that once called me now taunted me, the roads I once ran down were now streets of unmet desire; the little place I call home began to feel like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? I considered leaving everything I have here – my home, my church, my choirs, my mountains, my friends, and yes, even my job – behind to find a new course – one that fit my “turned over a new leaf” lifestyle. It just seemed easier that way. It was the best thing I could think of doing – because I had to do something.
Yes, you might say I was in a desperate state of funk! A state my usual countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to, namely me, myself, and I did a good job of hushing me even when I called out to God.
Perhaps that is why I identified so easily with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark during a recent reading. Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life – but was cast to the side of society by his blindness and condemned to his cloak of impoverishment. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but begging was the best he could do. Then he heard that Jesus was passing through town and was coming his way along the road on which he begged. Mustering his courage despite the crowds trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place. He persevered despite the voices yelling at him to be quiet.
But there was one voice that spoke louder – to both of us.
“Call her here.” Jesus spoke over the cacophony in my head. Just as he did to Bartimaeus. And that cacophony in my head stopped! What filled the silence was not wholly unexpected given my lifelong following of Jesus, but it was certainly one of those “long-time no-hear pal” assurances. “Take heart! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49
Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction my life was going in and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my ways or the highway for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.
And so, like Bartimaeus, I did! I threw off my heavy cloak – I had grown so accustomed to wearing – even comforted by – and went!
In the story of Bartimaeus, Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” Boldly, Bartimaeus responds, “Let me see again.” And Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately, he receives his sight – but he didn’t go. Instead, Bartimaeus followed – followed Jesus on the way – the way that leads Jesus to the cross.
So, were all my struggles gone just like that? Have all my years of being a “good Christian” finally paid off? Have I finally merited some mercy here on earth?
Nope! That’s not how it works.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” -2 Corinthians 12:8-9
As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.
Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: Who knew that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way? When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them.
God led me to seek out a caring listener who helped me sort through the cacophony, take a 30,000 ft view, a 10ft view, and a heart level view of my lot in life, and plan a course of action for living life fully right where I am rather than chase off looking for it.
God walked with me into the office of a physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again! No! She said that together we would get me running again and running better! Together!
Not stopping there, God showed me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead shining her truth in His light.
And in recent days, God has shown me how I can walk alongside others who need someone to walk alongside them. My challenges have become vessels for me to share God’s love.
God loved me through my desperate funk. He used my worst moments to show me just how much He loves me. And I truly believe God will do the same with you. I will believe that for you – when it is too dark for you to see that light.
That’s how it is when Jesus gets to join you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing afterlight of God’s love.
The love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone – even when you make your way through life by yourself. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” ISAIAH 43:18-19
Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it. -C. S. Lewis
“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.
We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.
The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging? Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head. I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.
Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing! Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.
As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?
How was COVID for you?
I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.
Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”
My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!
I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.
It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?
Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?
We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?
If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, my mind has turned repeatedly to two things – my family who are far away and what I have done with the gifts bestowed upon my life in the past year. Both of which are triggered by the back-page stories in the newspaper – one of the few reasons I still subscribe to a local paper. I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…
Obituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.
I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation, whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in Matthew’s Gospel in the parable of the talents.
Imagine if you will:
Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time. He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, Goodwin, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed. Then Jesus went away.
Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.
Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Steve to Paul and relinquished his life to Him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took that compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.
But Goodwin, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and finally, because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with anyone else. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, Goodwin thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.
Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.
The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.
Jesus was very pleased. He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”
Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.
Then it was Goodwin’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his hay crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked. “Hello Goodwin,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room except for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”
“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”
“Goodwin, please, it is time. Let’s talk.”
Goodwin stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until Goodwin cracked.
“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”
Jesus raised an eyebrow.
Goodwin’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”
Jesus stopped him mid breath. “Goodwin, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes, I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”
Goodwin continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”
And that could have been the opening line to Goodwin’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, Goodwin gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him? Nowhere. Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.
That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.
Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.
(The story continues)
Goodwin walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail cache and phone that never rang.
He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.
“Jesus! You came back!”
“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at Goodwin. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much? “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”
Jesus put his hand on Goodwin’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back. Goodwin closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.
“You say they call this a church?”
“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know. There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”
On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”
Goodwin and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that He came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment. A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.
Goodwin felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, Goodwin, might live fully. And so, by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the very living body of Christ – who would continue to hold him and each other in love while encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.
Wishing you a Thanksgiving that is abundant in life and absent of any fears – whether you are spending the holiday with family or staying apart out of love.
In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. – John 16:33
September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.
Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!
Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away. I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time. Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!
Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back. And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!
The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.
All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.
Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.
Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being. As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many. Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.
There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes? As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.
Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before. – Joel 2:23
So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet. Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!
I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.
This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. 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 was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.
It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer. I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.
Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.
I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.
Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!
Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.
I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.
“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.” – John 5:11-15