Those Big IFs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

Ashes for My Birthday – Amen to that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ‘

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

“When Death Comes” -Mary Oliver

Let your light so shine – especially through the ashes.

Christmas Eve – 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1: 1-4

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

It’s Not Christmas, Yet!

I tried to decorate the Christmas tree last night, after all I had taken a three day weekend in order to “get a jump on” Christmas but I couldn’t do it. Yes, I have the white lights up on the house outside, the candles are in the windows, and garland adorns my old Baldwin Acrosonic upright. But the tree remains bare. Bare because yesterday was December 5th and not December 6th. For as long as I can remember the rule was no Christmas until after Mom’s birthday… As life went on and life got busier and children grew up and got jobs and the decorating had to happen early or not all, there was a bit of lenience to that rule  – except for the Christmas tree. And even that rule was broken a few times much to my mother’s chagrin.  Alas, last night as I brought out the box filled with 50 years of Christmas treasures, I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t December 6th. Mom deserves to be celebrated and so that is what I will do tonight. My mother loved Christmas – in its time-  and so it will be. Me, the tree, and memories – of my mother.
 
 
Because more than any other time of year – my mother comes alive in me now. In the waiting and wondering and preparing the way of the Lord – and preparing myself for the Lord. Today would be her 88th birthday and it is her 5th birthday with our Lord and Savior instead of with me, with us.  And yet, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see her and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – quite often they were anything but! I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in conservative yet beautiful Christmas tidings; but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom.
 
My family has always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), Christmas light tours, supper, and me and Mom playing the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle and my brother – well I am not sure what he was doing! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed we would go so Santa could come and fill our stockings.
 
 
It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). She would sit in the silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the embers lost their warm glow. We had REAL fires in the fireplace when I was young.  As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that I will forever see my mother – weeping.
 
 
I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.
 
 
Now as I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.
 
 
How very much in need of a Savior I am and this world is! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!
 
 
I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears – of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.
 
 
At times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But now I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom, and I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His radiant grace.
 
 
 
Happy Birthday, Mom… carrying you with me today and always in all ways with love.
 
Let your light so shine.

Giving Thanks

“This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.” – Martin Luther

As my 50th Thanksgiving dawns and the second, in my life at least, amid a pandemic, I find myself in a very reflective mood. Ah ha! Did I just catch you counting back in your mind to when this all started and how many months have passed?? I had to double-check the dates myself after I wrote that as it seems to me like it should be our third or fourth… but I digress.

Last year at this time, as the initial pandemic panic and ensuing lockdowns subsided, I was preparing for a long wintery drive home to Billings to spend the holiday with my family. The drive was intense in both directions – but just as intense was the need to be with my brother and his wife again. Isolation was getting to me, and family roots were the only thing that felt grounded as the rest of our lives had become one big question mark. This year I am staying home in the Flathead – opting to avoid the bad roads that have plagued every Thanksgiving trip to Billings since time immemorial. The urgency to be together has subsided – a bit – thanks to a couple of trips home this summer and more in-person contact with the human race as a whole has returned. Perhaps it is also a sign of lightening hearts – even as the pandemic continues to impact lives all around us – we have confidence in tomorrow.

I have been very busy of late – all of which I am thankful for – and I am looking forward to the pause Thanksgiving will bring this year. I feel very grateful for that privilege. I know that others will not have that same luxury.

It is curious that this “very busy” state of mine was actually the norm that used to be my life before the pandemic brought most everything to a halt. Now, I find myself being much more selective in what I introduce “back” into my life. Yes, I still tend to overcommit, but I am finding it easier to say no to some things that will distract from, or diminish my involvement in, performance of, and/or commitment to the activities and obligations I have already said yes to.

If any good has come of this awful virus invading our lives, perhaps it is the recognition that none of us are superhuman, and time spent in solitude, contemplation, and rest – is never a bad thing; that less is almost always plenty; and balance is truly beautiful.

But about this busyness – I don’t think I am just speaking for myself here – it seems the world around me is suddenly very busy again – almost frenetic, and I sense an unsettling tension setting in. A quote from a book I read a few years ago, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown resonates with me here as I consider the current state of our collective being: “Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when you’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.”

There seems to be an urge to acquire and be and do things at an intensity I haven’t recognized before, just as the acquiring of things has suddenly grown more difficult due to “supply chain” issues and human shortages. At the same time, after so much isolation – yes- even here in Montana (ironically in order to protect one another) I think the collective “we” has forgotten how to be together. The media and our representatives in government have done a wonderful job of dividing rather than uniting us under the guise of freedom.

Our default has been reset to interpret events in a self-centered manner, expecting that the actions of others align with our own narrow interests. How often do we genuinely try to look at the world from ‘someone else’s shoes’ anymore? Do we make an honest attempt to empathize and understand things from their unique point of view? Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions, can we be earnest in our attempt to give our transgressors an empathic interpretation of events?

I must confess that a trip to the grocery store, a scroll through social media, a passing read of the local paper’s op-ed section, or even visiting the various community “help and info” media pages now require me to put my judgmentalism in check. Our collective sense of what freedom means seems to be highly diversified.

As the late writer David Foster Wallace reminds us in his iconic commencement speech This is Water, we always have the freedom of choosing alternative ways of making meaning from events. This requires us to cultivate self-awareness and the capacity to think critically and question our automatic judgments. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. … The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” (emphasis added)

One recent morning as the sun slowly made its way up and over Columbia Mountain, I spent some precious time contemplating the journey I have been on and thanking God for the life He has blessed me with. What an unexpected life!! It has not been an easy wander through the years, but one that has been filled with experiences I would not trade for anything – including the past 18 months. In retrospect, my life has meaning as a direct result of my search for meaning along the way – I am grateful for the freedom to pursue it.

I am grateful for my parents who gave me life 50 years ago and loved me through 47 more. They raised me with a faith that has been my beacon throughout life – even when I have been terribly lost. They raised me to be hopeful and have courage by letting me experience disappointment, deal with conflict, and learn how to assert myself. They gave me plenty of opportunities to fail and encouraged me to succeed. They listened to my angst, sometimes sided with my critics, and assured me that they never stopped loving me, no matter what. In the end, being loved and knowing how to love is all that matters anyway. I thank God for my big brother and best friend back home, who has loved me through it all even when I was his biggest bother!

So long ago…

I am thankful that my parents had the foresight to add dogs to our family. I have known the unconditional love of a dog for most of my life and am blessed to share my life with the joyful energy of my Brittany Ember now, number six in the Morck family line of the greatest dogs on earth.

25 years ago, God gave me a second chance at life. I thank God for the skilled minds and dedicated and compassionate hearts found in Dr’s. Merchant and Hemmer, and their incredible staff in the ICU wing of the Billings Clinic. They kept fighting for my life when I could not.  I thank God for Remuda Ranch, where I found a new way of living and reason for being. I would not be here today were it not for any one of these individuals. I am thankful God turns death into life – and that I am living proof of this!

I thank God for my church family in Billings that remains steadfast in my life even after being away for 8 years. It was there, in their presence, I came to truly know for myself God’s grace, abiding love, and steadying guidance. Not just through the Word as preached but through the deep friendships I formed with those who gathered with me. It was there that I realized that God truly had a purpose for me. Through their confidence in me, I realized I could lead. Through their acts of love and acceptance, I found a place of welcome and peace.

I thank God for my church family here in the Flathead, who embraced this fledgling lay pastor as I learned how to preach and minister with grace. Without their encouragement I’m not sure I would be continuing in God’s calling on my life. I thank God for standing with me in challenging times. The heartbreaks, losses, and joys I have experienced have made me more authentic and more empathic in sharing the Good News and God’s grace upon grace.

I am thankful for this northwest adventure I embarked on 8 years ago – changing the course of my life, leading me to discover a challenging and fulfilling career I have come to love, and allowing me to work with exceptional people who are more like family than colleagues and yet incredibly professional and passionate about what they do.

I thank God, for every smile that has greeted me and warmed my heart – even more so these days.

I thank God for friendships that cross the miles, for friends that have walked this journey with me, sometimes walking beside me and lending an empathetic ear, sometimes walking behind me pushing me forward through my doubts and fears, sometimes walking in front of me and inspiring me to keep going and growing. I am blessed to know some of the bravest, smartest, most inspired and humble people on earth.

I thank God for new friends in new places, that bring shared joys, fresh perspectives, common conundrums, and a sense of belonging that cures a homesick heart.

I thank God for the wonderful gift of music he has flavored my life with. A gift that provides solace and joy to my weary and wild heart.

I thank God for His majestic mountains and vast open prairies that speak to my soul and call me by name. There I find tranquility and know no boundaries. I am grateful for this Last Best Place I call home.

I thank God, for every tomorrow and the opportunity to start anew each day. His grace is amazing and knows no end.

Wishing you a Thanksgiving rich with the love of family and friends and abundant light in your heart. Give thanks for this beautiful and broken world we share and remember that it is in darkness when your light and the light of others shine the brightest. Share yours today.

May you have happiness in your heart this Thanksgiving

Let your light so shine!

Take Heart! Get Up!

A sermon on  Mark10:46-52

Grace and Peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father!

It was a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, as I braced myself in the blasting wind. It felt so good to be here again, a place I had unwillingly resigned myself from in the long months preceding this moment.  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 having mercy on me. 

You see, a few months ago, I had convinced myself that these cherished mountaintop moments were not the end-all-be-all of my being.  Faced with what I thought was a lifestyle-and-joy-ending – never mind painful – running injury that would not heal while still recovering from a major life upheaval on the home front that left me questioning everything about my life – I had written off my 50th year around the sun, became content with discontent, and was endeavoring to make peace with the cards life had dealt me.

My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, stubborn, thoroughly self-assured, and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. Though my sky had fallen, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way. Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing on with the misguided idea that I had some mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny.

Never mind that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a year and a half long pandemic?  As for much of the world, for me, the last 18 months have been challenging to say the least. The plight of others has weighed heavily on me making my circumstances seem like nothing compared to the pains of the world, a world that has been in crisis for too long. Nonetheless, I had lost my sense of being and purpose. I had lost heart. 

The moment had also been a long time in coming. For Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus had long been kicked to the side of the road, his former life hardly recognizable. After all, blind beggars dwelled near the bottom rung of social privilege in ancient society. He was a sinner through and through – his condition announced that to the world. He was worth only what he could bring in from a day of begging- his value was that of a dropped coin here and there or the amount of pity he might illicit instead of scorn. He had grown used to his miserable circumstances – but then what else could he do? All he had was a cloak that served to keep him warm, protect him from the hard ground and the unforgiving eyes of scorn. Though tattered and dirty, the cloak also gave him a sense of identity. He was one of them. Alienated and outcast to the margins of society.

I imagine his expression was hard to read as he waited for Jesus to make his way through Jericho. The crowd called this Jesus a teacher and Bartimaeus had heard of His healings, but deep down inside he knew he was more than that. Bartimaeus was certain Jesus was his one and only chance for life again. Was there a smile of hope, a grimace of uncertainty, a frown of worry that the blasted crowd would conceal him?

And yet, his position on the side of the road could not have been more perfect.

It is believed that Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. And it is on this long-traveled road out of Jericho that we hear the cry that has been the cry on every human heart across the span of history.  Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy.

The same cry that crosses our lips amid the fires of hate, violence, and division. The same cry heard in the anguish wrought by a pandemic and from the hearts of those beaten by oppression. The same cry heard in the aftermath of natural disasters, and in the desperation of broken dreams and broken lives. The same cry from parents of children who made tragic choices with tragic consequences. The same cry that emanates from our own struggles with fear and doubt and guilt and shame. Have mercy, we cry as we lose hope. Have mercy, we cry as we lose heart.

We all face challenging times in life -Jericho road moments you might call them. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual. 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.

These struggles are the ones we keep hidden, they go too deep to share.  They aren’t the ones we speak of. Certainly, nothing we would want to be displayed before a king. At least that is what the world tells us and we tell ourselves. 

How often do we silence others, convinced that their cries for mercy are not worthy of our nor God’s attention? How often do we silence ourselves, convinced of the same?

Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but instead, he was trapped by them, silenced. What thoughts rested on his heart and in his mind? Can you imagine? What kept him going day after day? Did he still have hope for a future? If I were him I would be in a desperate state of funk!

Perhaps that is why I can identify with Bartimaeus and why he gives me hope.

Because I too was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual even-keeled countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The mountains that once called me and the roads I once ran down taunted me;  the little place I called home and took pride in felt 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? 

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 silencing me even when I called out to God. Lord, have mercy. 

Bartimaeus was expected to keep silent. To keep his voice down, so he wouldn’t cause a disruption in a very controlled and contrived world. I did too. What about you?

Goodness knows what would result from an utterance that would tear apart that which we carefully constructed to keep out the truth – to keep out the what or the who we don’t want to see, hear, or acknowledge? 

Thank goodness for Bartimaeus!

Blind Bartimaeus saw things differently. Already living at the margins of everything, he has nothing to lose and despite the crowd 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.  “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!

And then there it was. The one voice that spoke louder than any other voice in the abyss of despair – to both of us.

“Call her here,” Jesus spoke over the voices in my head stopping them  – just as he did to Bartimaeus when his voice stopped the crowd. 

“Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Hear those words again, “Take heart! Get up. He is calling you.” Isn’t this what we all want in this life of ours? We want Jesus to stop in front of us; we want Jesus to notice us in this big messed up world of ours; and we want Jesus to say to us, “Take heart. Get up. I am calling you.”  Those of us who love God need God to come to us and help us when we are discouraged, when we have lost our way, when we have lost heart. When, like Bartimaeus, we are kicked to the side of the road, at the bottom of our ruts, we want to hear the voice of Jesus directed at us. 

There are many times when I have lost my inner desire to get up and go. I just want to give up. I’ve had enough and been tested enough. I dare say, you are the same way. There are times in your life when you are overloaded, over confronted, over your head with life and feel completely unseen. You are short of time, short of energy, short of what is needed to face the challenge at hand.

In that moment, we need Jesus to say, “Take heart.” 

Those words must have been an infusion of energy to Bartimaeus as he took that giant leap of faith forward, threw off his cloak and with it all the encumbrances of his life and went  – I know they are to me. 

Jesus heard his cry for mercy. Jesus took notice, and Jesus called. That is the Gospel for blind Bartimaeus, that is the Gospel for you and it is the Gospel for me.

Take Heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction of my life and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my “my ways or the highway” insistence for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

The messenger bearing those life-changing words not only opened the door for hope saying take heart – he also said, get up – it was time for Bartimaeus to move into God’s future for him –  to do more than just sit by the side of the road. And Bartimaeus did! Without question. In fact, he left everything behind and went boldly to Jesus before he was even given his sight back.

I have to admire Bartimaeus here. It’s a scary thought – letting go of our lives – trusting God. But that is what saved him. That is what the Word of God does. It moves us to get up and not just go but let go! Our ancestor Martin Luther proclaimed that the Word is a living Word, it is full of Christ and bears the living Christ into our midst and equips us to get up and announce God’s love for the whole world.

We can sometimes hear this Gospel story as a miracle healing tied directly to the strength of one’s faith. We shouldn’t. Bartimaeus was moved by God’s Word into an active faith. Bartimaeus was made whole when Jesus called him. His renewed sight was just icing on the cake you might say  – the renewed sight of a life seen by Jesus. 

So, are all my struggles gone? Is that what faith does for us? 

Nope! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. As Paul writes in his letters to the Corinthians:  “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

Because Jesus is here with us, we are empowered to get up and move into this broken world with our broken messed up, sometimes painfully afflicted lives – to take heart and have hope in God’s future for us. 

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: We find 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, suffering stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them. Messengers saying take heart, I am here and I can help you. Take heart, I am here – I see you. Take heart, I am here and I am with you. 

Messengers like the physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again – like others had- but instead said that together we would get me running again and running better! 

Messengers like the caring listener who helped me take a 30,000 ft view and a heart level view of my lot in life and helped me set a course of action for living life fully rather than despairing of it.

God continues to show me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead of shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how my challenges can become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God uses our worst moments to show us just how much He loves us.

That’s how it is when Jesus joins 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 light of God’s love.

The kind of love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone and that you matter to someone. 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. Get Up! Jesus is always calling you into His love.

Amen.

Take Heart

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.

A few months ago, I had convinced myself that moments like this were not the end-all-be-all of my being. I was ready to write off my 50th year around the sun as a year of contentment with discontent. In fact I even wrote it down as such – albeit framing it as turning over a “new leaf” and embracing a “new way of thinking and living.” Faced with what I thought was a running career- and-joy-ending injury and still recovering from a major life upheaval – I was setting “a new course” and making peace with the cards life had dealt me.

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

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A September of Sighs

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I was driving back to my current home after visiting what will always be my home for a long holiday weekend. Living as I do in MT with my current home in the NW corner of this great big state and the place that will always be home on the far southeastern side – my drive was a long one – filled with long, deep sighs.

I love a good solo road trip – especially on the lesser-traveled backroads of MT. As the mountains give way to miles and miles of great big spaces, the familiar but always changing scenery usually takes me away from the daily stressors that fill my day-to-day experience. But not this time. In addition to the unexpected, unusual, and truthfully – unwelcome traffic – so many things weighed upon my heart and mind – decisions awaiting me, regrets, hopes, frustration, forgiveness, uncertainty, worry, homesickness, and the feeling that my soul was just tired. I sighed so much I almost got light-headed!!

Truth is, I find myself sighing more and more these days. I wish I could say they were all sighs of delight as I watch a glorious sunrise or sighs of contented rest as the last light of day paints the sky. No, these sighs have the hint of a whimper if not an all-out groan.

I sigh over all the things I had planned for this summer that didn’t happen and the ones that unfortunately did. I sigh over the rapid changes that are taking place in the two communities I call home – changes I don’t much care for.  I sigh when even the good-news news feeds I subscribe to struggle to find good news. I sigh at the struggles I see taking place in lives far different from mine – and yet no less important. I read the news and sigh. Haiti, Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, racism, refugees, border closures, businesses closing, workers losing their homes, local, state, and national political divisions, and the relentless bickering over everything and anything! I sigh because things just don’t make sense, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Smoke-filled skies.

I sigh over our collective loss of civility and mutual respect for one another. The ongoing pandemic with its mask mandates, school closures, parent protests, vaccine mandates, hospitals being overwhelmed, fear and falsehoods spreading as fast as the virus itself, not to mention the weekly if not sometimes daily word of someone I know dying from the virus feels in itself like one great big life-sucking sigh.  I sigh as I reflect on the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 – wondering at how that passage of time is even possible and wondering again at how much things have changed. I sigh when I realize how little things have changed. I sigh when I catch myself turning to old patterns of living or thinking and don’t give a darn anymore. I sigh when agendas and individual agency become more important than love.

At times it feels like all I can do is expel a deep, groaning, relentless sigh.

What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Although I often feel very alone in my sighs, maybe we are sighing over some of the same things. Maybe I just made you take one big head-shaking sigh!

We sigh for lots of different reasons. Scientifically speaking, sighs are life-sustaining. It’s suggested that when we sigh, the action serves as a biological reset button, bringing on feelings of relief. Sighing allows an extra burst of oxygen to enter our lungs, which leads to improved blood flow, feelings of relaxation, and lowered levels of stress.

But what if our sighs were more than just biological but a spiritual awakening. What if our sighs serve as a revelation to us that we have encountered a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life? In a passage from the Gospel of Mark, the people of a region Jesus is traveling through brought him a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Jesus encounters a man who is physically closed off from the world, unable to hear or speak but with the sigh and command from Jesus, the man is opened to the world.

How many of our sighs come at times when we cannot hear or feel the peace of God in our lives or speak the words of His truth – because we frankly find them hard to believe?

I think most of us think of our sighs as a form of surrender – we accept that this is just how things are going to be. In doing so, we close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. With that tired breath out, we resign from life.

But what if our sighs are not just a surrender to the way things are going to be but instead, a continuation of the creation story – that with each sigh we release, God breathes into us new life? With each sigh released – God gives us a glimpse – however momentary – of the good things, of the openings God intends for us?  And for that life-sustaining moment, we relax, we rest, we see clearer, and feel a bit more alive.

When I look at the sighs in my life – and especially those that rode shotgun on my recent road trip – I can see my actions and reactions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my dreams and hopes, and my vision for how life should be. My sighs are a reflection of all of those things as they play out in my life.

When I sigh a little longer and breathe in a little deeper, I also see the closed parts in me – the parts that don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say. The parts I’d rather not put into words.  The parts of me I need to release from deep within. Those sighs tell me that I still have work to do, and they point me towards healing as well as opportunities for growth.

If we sit with our sighs – let them linger in the air for a while – before hurriedly moving on, maybe we can learn something important about ourselves. We might see what is not right with us and maybe just maybe feel a spark of something new – something better… After a summer of smoky skies closing in upon us – I am ready to be opened by a breath of fresh air from God leading me towards a better way to be.  Where are your sighs leading you?

“Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo.”

– Rainier Maria Rilke  (Letters on Life)

A true sigh of delight as morning breaks in eastern Montana.

Let your light so shine!

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Dreams of Happiness

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

As I put my ponderings to paper, we are, unbelievably, more than halfway through the first month of the new year. More a date on the calendar than the reality of our lives and the world, the new year heralds a time of change, transition, and closure. Perhaps more so this year than any other new year I can remember, (I have had 49 of them and I still have not perfected the art of change) there was a universally felt glee with which we kicked 2020 to the curb and slammed the door on it for good measure. Some have gone as far as to refer to the cataclysmic, destructive, really bad dream that was 2020 half-jokingly as THE Apocalypse. And did so without realizing how right they were! The original definition of apocalypse – as one of my New Testament professors, Bart Ehrman, explains: is a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge. In religious and occult concepts, an apocalypse usually discloses something very important that was hidden or provides “A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.”

As I sit here with a little more than two weeks of distance from the year past (and in 2020 and apparently 2021, A LOT happens in two weeks) I dare say that the events and circumstances of 2020 were indeed great revealers; not just on global, national, political, and social levels but personally as well. 2020 gave me glimpses of truth that helped me start to make sense of my own reality.  Solitary confinement does wonders for engaging in the practices of self-reflection and self-rejection if you spend too much time in that “fun” house of mirrors. But it also provided a safe environment for soul searching and soul pruning – which when you are truly honest with yourself can be a particularly challenging and painful process. 2020 revealed how necessary deep and intentional reflection is and how difficult it is to sort through those revelations, both internal and external, to discern a truthful and positive way forward.

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.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself spending a lot of my time this past year longing for the time before – the time before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before I said yes, before I said no, before Mom and Dad died, before I graduated kindergarten, insert your own past tense 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 just as the future grows dim.  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. And those days of yore seem so much brighter and clearer too, don’t they? The unknown before us does not feel too inviting. There are too many ifs, too many chances to fail, too many chances to be hurt again; the days ahead are just too unsettling compared to the days of before that you know.

And yet, those happy times that kept coming back to me over and over again this past year weren’t making me happy. On the contrary, they just made the present seem more depressing and the days ahead even more obscure. Truth: You cannot remember the future. Keep trying and you will not have one.

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  ~ Jeremiah 6:16

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. My 2020 reflections helped me realize that I survived life. I know that sounds obvious from a 30,000-foot perspective, but when you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived that very past you long for.

The past I long for is what brought me to the moment I am in. Yes! At some point in my life, I had dreams and I chose to pursue them.

It was my dream for what could be that brought me to the point where I am today – searching in longing for the dreams I once had – or better – daring to dream the dreams I did that set me on the journey to today. When I was dreaming, my eyes, ears, and heart were open to the world around me, discovering things I had not known before and feeling safe despite the uncertainties that come with the unknown being discovered. Where did I get that feeling of security that allowed me to even dare to dream and where did it go?

In the fierce light of now, I find myself grounded in a reality more real than the illusions of what I dreamed of – searching for the hopeful, faith-filled, purpose-driven, and truly happy person I once was. My circumstances in 2020 exposed my fear of change, fear of losing control, my inability to trust, and my low opinion of myself. The dreamer I once was has since given too much power to the voices of the world to determine if I am admired, successful, attractive, courageous, and valued enough to be loved, to be worthy, to matter – to deserve to dream. The conditional nature of the world’s approval keeps me in a constant state of doing – trying and failing and trying again only to fail again because the conditions always change – the goalposts keep moving. I will never be enough by the world’s standards –  and the keyword here is BE. I am so busy doing that I have lost my sense of being and with that, my ability to dream. I forget that from my first breath to the core of my being, I was and am someone’s beloved. I was beloved in those rose-hued days long ago and I am beloved in the messiness of right now – without any doing on my part. Not a single condition is attached to this belovedness  – the only strings attached are the apron strings of God. And with God, I am free to dream.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139: 13-14

With God I do not have to be afraid, I do not have to grasp for and hold onto the only life I know, unwilling to change. With God, I do not have to believe in the ways of the world. With God, I can dream of tomorrow.

As Father Michael Marsh, of St Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, TX wrote recently, “Dreams come to us.  We go on searches.”

Dreams urge us to go where we have never gone before and do what we’ve never done before. We can only search for what is already familiar and known – something we have lost or the life we used to have.

2020 served as a mirror for me to see the dilemma I have put myself in – stuck in my search for the way things used to be rather than how they might be; searching for what can never be again – instead of dreaming for what God has in store for me next. A hard reflection to find myself in at the moment – but it has given me a positive goal to work towards in 2021.

I will close with two guiding principles that will guide me through the uncertain days of dreaming ahead:

“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.”  – Martin Luther

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis

Perhaps you might want to do some dreaming in 2021. Dream of a life yet to be revealed and trust that it is possible. Let go. Get up and go in faith. Dream!  Dare to dream! Happier days are ahead.

Let your light so shine!