“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.
Had I known what this day had in store for me, I would have never left this spot and clung to this moment forever…
This day… UFF DA!!!
I did however, witness an amazing example of grace – grace where most people would have none – and for that I am humbled.
When things go horribly wrong and it is out of your hands – whether you are the client or the service provider or the client of a service provider – extending grace is the much better way to go. The one extending grace had a much better day, today, far less exhausting, far less vexing, far less in need of a censor. I will remember this and learn to breathe rather than steam.
“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
Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God, Our Father!
I recently came across a short story in a book I am currently reading that really hit home. In the story there was an insistent three-year-old who whispered into her newborn sibling’s ear, saying, “Tell me, tell me what it was like. I am forgetting already.” The memory of the safe, cloudless, watery Eden of the womb had already faded from her young mind’s eye. In just three short years her unworldliness had been taken away. If you are sitting here today, you were once that newborn and that insistent three-year-old. Can you remember? Can you remember the feeling the young child was so earnestly trying to recapture and hold onto?
Can you remember when you lived unafraid?
I don’t know about you, but I had lots of fears as a child. I had a vivid imagination and an older brother who had exceptional talent in exploiting it! I am not sure where my fears came from but by age three, I was terrified of going to sleep and being left alone. By age 6, I knew all about death and I feared it. By age 8, I was afraid of ghosts, dolls that walked in the night, vampires (oh the joys of having an older brother!!) and getting a bad grade. By age 9 I was afraid, very afraid of not fitting in, of being the new girl, and of course nuclear war. I could go on. Needless to say, I had a very special light blue “night-night” and a teddy bear that kept me safe in the dark of night. And long after the thumb that went with that night-night was passe, my security blanket stayed with me … I came across it a few years ago when I was going through my parent’s house after their deaths. It is now in a trunk in a storage shed in Billings – I couldn’t let it go. And even though it is a bit threadbare and much smaller than I remembered it being and my present fears much larger, there are times I still need it.
I’ll ask you again. Can you remember the last time you lived unafraid?
When was the last time you lived without fear?
Which words of Jesus stuck with you, today? “Do not be afraid little flock…” or the rest of the story – all the talk about selling what is ours, night, slaves, thieves, knocks at the door, and being alert and ready for action for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I’m reminded of the talks I would have with my dad from the time I was a little girl until I was out of the house. He would do his best to allay my fears or anxieties about whatever decision or crisis I was facing in life but then he would follow up his words of comfort with words of advice that I often heard more as admonition – his way of making sure I stayed in line or even more critical for a Scandinavian – that I wouldn’t get a “big head”. “Do not be afraid, it’s your Dad’s great pleasure to put a roof over your head, but…”
I can’t blame you if your mind settled on the latter part of today’s Gospel. These are odd words of comfort from Jesus and they don’t sit well with most people. The world is a perilous place and I am nowhere near ready to deal with it. My night-night would come in real handy most nights anymore!
We learn to fear in order to survive. How can we not be afraid? Sometimes we are told to be afraid, very afraid. We learn fear from watching others. We learn to fear what is unknown or different. We learn to fear being ridiculed, left alone, not having enough, not being enough and falling flat on our face. We fear change. Across the vast landmass of our states of fear, failure, scarcity, and abandonment are its primary sources…
Is it any wonder that we all have night-nights or security blankets of some sort to numb our anxieties and hide our fears? What are yours? A sizable bank account? A fancy car? Your social status? A Big House? Advanced degree after degree? Fancy title? Clothes, shoes, toys, alcohol, food, exercise? We will go to great lengths to maintain these comforts that help bury our fears.
And yet, no matter what we do, our fear seems unavoidable. It’s always there lurking in the back of our minds, directing our lives as we face the realities of this world. We will always have the rich and the poor. The haves and the have nots. We will always have a party in power and one that is not. And for most of us – in this room anyway – we will always be somewhere in the middle of those poles striving towards or fighting against their gravitational pulls. But it seems as if we never feel successful in our efforts. We can always do better, do more, be more. Failure is not an option. That fear is a powerful motivator. Our politicians know this well and every 2-4 years they attend to our inherent fears with more things to fear.
Jesus knows our fears too. And he knows how much of our lives we give to them.
Before a crowd of thousands, Jesus speaks to those fears while preparing us for times of trouble, indeed, times of great fear – scarcity, failure, abandonment, death – ahead. Jesus instructs us to sell our possessions and give alms. Get rid of those useless forms of comfort and make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, invest ourselves in an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. In other words, even if every item or title you possess was taken from you, you would still have the one thing that matters most. Your identity in Christ. You are still God’s child; you would still have the promise and the reality of new and unending life in Him and nothing – absolutely nothing in this world can take that away from you.
And just like my dad would often do, Jesus continues with more wisdom asking us to once again reconsider our relationship to our wealth and possessions, for these treasures do not last. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also – and a lot of people are living with heartache these days. Too often, we end up loving things more than we love each other. Too often, we end up loving things more than we love God.
This is all wonderful advice for our lives and would make for a great stewardship sermon. But I’m not giving a stewardship sermon today and the Gospel is always more than advice. There is a deeper, even more important layer to this story.
It is about our relationship to God and who we believe God to be and his motivations for sending us this very unexpected visitor in the night.
That our first reactions to this story are fear and anxiety should tell us something.
The fact that so many in our world hear the word Christianity or church and assume that someone is there to judge, shame, or condemn them should also tell us something.
Not something about God but about who we and they perceive God to be.
It has been said that religion is for those afraid to go to Hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. If our religion serves to keep people in bondage to fear, to tradition, to anything other than what their personal experience with the Word affirms then our beliefs serve only do violence to the soul.
If that is the characterization of our faith, then we are letting fear call the shots and define our God. Is the God we expect or worship that small? Is that the God we want our lives to reflect; one of whom we are afraid?
Why would we think that when Jesus comes to meet us that he would want to harm or shame us or point out our grand failures? Our inadequacy? Fear of the unknown but larger life Jesus calls us to? Why is it that we assume that when the Son of Man comes, He’s going to catch us in the act and reign down God’s judgment on our sins?
None of that is in the story but something in our psyche needs to put it there. It’s what we’ve come to expect as we navigate through life, right?
But Jesus says nothing about harming, judging, or condemning us. He does say to be alert and ready to answer the door when our Master knocks. But why? So He can frighten us, whip us into shape like the dutiful slaves to fear that we are? No!!
These are words of pure promise!
The Master wants to serve us a meal! To feed us and sit with us!
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”
Just as Mary said He would, Jesus turns the ways of this world upside down. The slave is no longer the possession of the Master but a brother or sister in Christ. The Master serves the slave so the slave can rest. The Son of Man brings liberation not enslavement to each and every one of us. Including you.
In addition to our confession that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, I often feel like I am in bondage to fear and cannot free myself. How about you?
You may not think of yourself as a slave to anything – you might even take offense at the imagery – but there are ways of living in this world that feel like enslavement, like we are shackled, trapped, in bondage.
When we feel that our worth as human beings is determined by how much money we have, the car we drive, where we live, the school we went to or send our children to, our professional, social, or marital status, or our physical appearance or prowess – that we will do anything to maintain that image or better facade – from going into debt to harming our bodies – that is a form of enslavement to fear.
When we are so afraid of people who don’t look like us or think like us or come from a different state than us; when we become so convinced that they, like Jesus, are coming to harm us rather than bless us and take what is ours rather than enrich our lives – that we tolerate hostility towards them instead of welcoming and learning from them – that is a form of enslavement to fear.
When we allow our allegiance to a party, a political figure, and all the prolific and divisive isms to come between our friendships, our families, and even our common sense, that too is a form of enslavement to fear.
These are all traps – a bondage to something that is ultimately harmful to us – the fears that narrow rather than enlarge our life. The fears that define and limit us. These fears bring darkness not light, scarcity rather than abundance to our lives. Ultimately, they close the door to our hearts and become our God.
Rather than being alert for the Son of Man’s coming, we worry so much and get so lost in trying to tidy up the mess of our lives that we miss His knock – or are too busy to let Him in. That’s what happens when Fear is our Master. We miss out on the true, freely given life God wants for us!
Thankfully, Our Master is not like other Masters. Our Master is a Savior.
Though we face life in an uncertain world where evil raises its threatening power to make our life a place of fear, Our Savior promises to help us and keep us in a relationship of faith and trust.
Our Savior did not come to enslave us with judgment, but to release us from fear.
Our Savior did not come to collect on a debt but to gather us in, the meek and the lowly, the lost and afraid.
Our Savior did not come to take our treasure, He IS our treasure and we are His.
Our Savior came to break through all the lies, madness, debts, and false promises of this world that are holding you and me captive to fear. It is Our Savior’s joy and delight to forgive our doubts and fears and cover us with His righteousness and unconditional steadfast love and grace.
Our Savior, Jesus, calls us His own and as children of His kingdom, we can live unafraid.
Gracious God, fill us with the assurance of your steadfast love and forgiveness found in your word of hope and promise. In the face of the fears of this life, reassure us with the gift of faith in your everlasting promise of salvation. In your holy name we pray. Amen.
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 afterchurch 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.
“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!
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.
Let us pray. Help us, oh God, to become comfortable with mystery, accompany us as we wrestle with stories that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Meet us in our belief and in our questioning, in our hope and in our despair. Share in our grief and show us the new life that is around us always so that we too may say, Come and See the new life, the light of the world, and the glory of God. Amen.
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father.
Death. It interrupts life as we know it and changes everything – for good.
It is the elephant in the sanctuary this morning as we gather to celebrate the saints in our lives – all the saints – those who have died and those who have yet to die.
It is as Isaiah writes, the shroud cast over all people – from our very first breath.
What do we do with death? What do we do with something that is so prevalent in our lives of late, that we fight against from the moment of our birth, and yet know that no matter what, death is certain. What do we do with that?
I’ll be honest with you. I was daunted by today’s Gospel story. As I sat with the readings for this morning, I even asked Pastor Pete if the alternate gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark was an option…. Because, how could I offer you the good news of the raising of Lazarus when I myself recoiled at the story in the face of death?
You see, this was the gospel story that my pastor in Billings suggested for my Dad’s memorial service almost one year to the day after my mother’s. It was an awful time of death in our lives as a family and the grief and disillusionment my brother and I felt was immense. All I could think of at the time was “yeah Jesus, where have you been? If only you had been here, Lord.”
Fast forward to my final LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat the October after my father’s death and something our leader Pastor Jason said as we went through the section on ministering to the dying, death, grief and the services that follow. He reminded us that the funeral or memorial service is for the living – not the person who has died – for they are beyond the joy and honor any service could bring – they are with God! It is those of us left behind that have to learn how to live with death and go on in the aftermath.
As I sat pondering what I could possibly bring to you today, those words came back to me and I began to see why my pastor had suggested this particular story to my brother and me. It wasn’t because he was super busy and was pulling things out of a pile of proper funeral readings, it was because he knew how broken my brother and I were. He wanted to help us through our “if only’s” so we could go on with life after death. He wanted us to see our story through the heart of God.
As a writer and lover of words, the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel – I love how John reveals Jesus Christ as the Word through which all things were made. That God chose Jesus as his messenger to tell us about himself. Jesus is God and the revealer of God the Father. Creation is God’s general revelation and Jesus Christ is God’s personal message to us.
Today’s gospel reveals something for every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of the loss, grief, and sorrow experienced with all forms of death – not just the loss of a loved one: the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. But it does something more – it reveals to us the nature of God in Christ Jesus.
I think there is a part of each of us in the characters who experience the power of Jesus outside Lazarus’s tomb. There is Mary – whose heart, wrenched by grief, gives voice to our anguished lament, perhaps even our accusation: “Lord, if you had been here…” Could Mary represent all those who come to church today heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming? Because grief has no timeline nor concept of the right time.
Could Martha be each of us still coming to church after all we have been through? Martha whose faith seems so incredibly resilient in the face of great challenge and who confessed moments earlier in the verses preceding today’s text that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day “ and then continued her confession in the one who promised her life here and now yet tarried while her brother died exclaiming: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world!”
And at times we are Lazarus – at least I know I am – stuck in the tomb of grief, surrounded by the stench of death, and unable to break free and escape from the ravages of the dying parts of life until he, like we, literally embody the promise of Jesus and the central message of our faith – God turns death into life.
In each of these characters, we see the ultimate miracle at work. God is in the business of turning death into life. And we learn a little bit more about just what the glory of God is all about. It is to be fully alive, to be abundant with life. Jesus said it himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
We see that God is more powerful than what scares us the most.
We see the deep sorrow of grief transformed into a most relieved and elated joy.
We see abiding friendship and deep love.
We see that even when we think we have lost everything – that there is nothing to live for – it is never too late for a new life with God.
We know all this by faith and by faith we know that God is love, we know God forgives all our sin, and we know that God turns death into life, and yet…
And yet, we are left with that unspoken uncomfortable feeling of doubt – as we wonder where Jesus – the one we know works miracles – where is Jesus in the face of our tragedies, in the relentless death march of this pandemic, in the lives of our young people who are so broken by life they chose death? Where was Jesus and his miracle of life for all those we are remembering today? Where is Jesus in this very broken world of ours?
In our questioning, we see that what we most wish for, plead for, long for, pray for so often doesn’t come true. We see that death is still here and death is certain. And we wonder about God’s arbitrary mercy for us. What do we do with that?
What does the story of Lazarus have to do with the very reality of death in our life?
Lazarus is not a story about avoiding pain or denying death. Jesus didn’t go about his travels holding walk-in clinics banishing illness, hunger, and general malaise. Jesus didn’t go to Golgotha and cut people down from their crosses of death – nor did he avoid his own. The death rate in our community is the same as it was at the time of Jesus and for Jesus – 1 per person – 100% of the time.
Jesus healed, helped, taught, and Jesus loved. And he shows us by raising Lazarus that death doesn’t have as much power as we think it does.
In the theology of John’s Gospel also known as the story of signs, Lazarus is the seventh and final sign pointing us to who Jesus is, and through Jesus, who God is.
Jesus turns the water into wine and we see that in Jesus we have abundance. Jesus heals and we see that in Jesus we are not captive to our limitations or illnesses. Jesus feeds 1000’s with nothing but scraps and belief and we see that when we give generously to others anything is possible including new sparks of life. Jesus gives sight and we see there is insight and vision to be found in a life with God.
Lazarus reveals that life in God is more powerful than death. God helps us to go on even when it doesn’t seem possible. When we are in our worst moment, God moves us forward. Times that should destroy us instead truly do make us stronger. All of us here today attest to this great mystery and promise of our faith in Jesus. We can be broken and whole at the same time.
Even at the grave, life goes on. Yes, we know it does. We cannot escape death nor can we escape God’s promise of life abundant and the power of life over death. Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not just our future but our present reality. Martin Luther reminds us that in our Baptism we with all our sins and evil desires must die daily and that we should daily rise as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Resurrection can only come through death. It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. These dyings are passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more.
Episcopal priest Father Michael Marsh writes:
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives, they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives, they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ, they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. (1)
As living saints, we are strengthened by Christ to call those around us who are bound by grief and darkness to new life – with a love inspired by Christ.
I have grown to love this story. It reflects the truth I know in my own life. Life after death does go on and through it, I have come to know more fully the joy of God. I do not deny the darkness, but I choose not to live in it. I know that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. That is good news. Jesus turns death into life.
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
“I’d say Lord has blessed us all today. It’s just that he has been particularly good to me.”– A River Runs Through It
Let it be so. I could leave it at that sweet word of thanksgiving to sum this wonderful day up – but I am too much in love with words to be so concise. 😊
Go west, young lady, go west.
So west I went and I almost didn’t come back.
Have you ever been so relaxed in God’s creation that you cry? As the miles and hours passed en route to my destination I could have pinched myself. This was not a Glacier Park experience by any means. No 3 a.m. wake-up blasts to beat the maddening crowds, no seeing nothing but red taillights on the road before me, no wondering if I would find a place at the trailhead to park, or a private place on the trail to find a tree, no spiking of my blood pressure or clenched teeth. No, none of that!!!
As this peaceful Sunday morning unfolded, I was transported by Dvorak and Vivaldi into a place and time that I used to know. Pulse quickening anticipation of what awaited me – something new and unknown.
The autumn tapestry before me was like a warm quilt embracing me – not a red tail light in sight – just deep russet berry bushes lining the creek and river banks, rich cinnamon and sienna reds bringing Ember to mind, and leafy golden splashes of soaring light.
It was as if God was in His studio painting away – reading every thought of mine and knowing just the “thing” I needed.
What I needed was joy.
Unadulterated, uncalculated, uncomplicated joy.
Honestly, the whole day seemed to be a simple gift, an answered prayer, a whisper of grace with every step leading me to joy.
Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that a joyful vision of life only can come when we realize just how short an opportunity we have to say yes to God’s love. Poet David Whyte says that to find joy you must become a living frontier. To both I can attest.
It was doomed to fail from the start. My heart set on a cozy evening spent decorating the Christmas tree by the fire with all the warmth and happiness this traditional activity surely evokes. My memories told me as much. Having listened to enough Pentatonix Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Boston Pops Christmas while cleaning the house earlier in the day, my mood was headed in the right direction – or so I thought.
Out came the boxes of cherished crystal figures, lace snowflakes and angels, Christopher Radko mercury glass, and Hallmark Snoopy ornaments – each imbued with special meanings from significant events or the marking of the passing year. Given my age – I have far more than my Hammacher Schlemmer World’s Best Noble Fir 7’ slim tree could ever gracefully hold.
Now all I needed was a good Christmas movie to accompany my nostalgic journey. Alas, the evening’s offerings from my limited TV subscriptions was confined to a repertoire of Hallmark Holiday romance movie sap; and given that my year began in a courtroom dissolving mine, that genre was not on my menu. So, I decided on the “uplifting and philosophical” tale of life as seen and told by a wise, car racing enthusiast dog, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and I was sobbing within the first five minutes.
Bleary eyed already, I began adorning the tree. I have a method – beginning with the least emotion conjuring ornaments that usually decorate the back of the tree and moving on to the more and more tear producing: Snoopy ornaments from Dad, the Mercury Glass from Mom, then the crystal angels and Waterford crystal (!) Snoopys from Mom and Dad, then the family collection of Scandinavian hardanger lace snowflakes, and the hole filling Christmas balls, and finally the pièce de résistance – the delicate crystal icicles that dangle elegantly from each bow amongst the memory mishmash. This time I made it all the way to the Mercury Glass before I could go no further. Maybe it was the movie – the book of the same on my shelf has significant water damage. But alas, I do believe I was once again reacting to the disjuncture of what I had always hoped for and recreated in my memories, and the reality of what my family’s past and my present-day Christmases were; just like the caroling Snoopy under the lamppost ornament was as I pulled it from its “heirloom collection box” – broken, imperfect, and most definitely not Hallmark movie material.
I decided to give in to the movie, the adoring eyes of my puppy, and the tears brimming over my eyes and forgo the tree for the time being. After all – it wasn’t even my mother’s birthday yet – and she had a rule – the tree did not go up (live or artificial) until after her December 6th birthday. So I still had a day to wait. Truth be told, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see my mom and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – more often they were anything but!
Despite my recent attempt to recreate the happy Christmases of the past, 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 beautiful Christmas trimmings, but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom and where I now feel the most at home.
My family always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), after the Christmas light tour, after supper, and after me and Mom played the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle, and my brother – well, I am not sure what he did – but he was and is 10 years older than me so at that time we were in different worlds! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed I would go so Santa could come and fill my stocking. 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 piano or organ for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Finally, she would sit in the soft silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the fire’s embers lost their warm glow. 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 my concept of Christmas changed. Because I saw 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.
My parents are gone now and my brother lives on the other side of this great big state. 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 and this world are! 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 at Christmas because they are now mine too – 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.
I wonder now if that yearly time of reflecting by the fire were threshold moments for my mother and now me. I, like many people I have encountered in the past year, find myself at a threshold, a threshold in life that feels extended and suspended at the same time. As Father Michael Marsh writes, “These threshold experiences are times of change and transition, invitations to self-reflection and growth, and openings to something new and unknown. They are scary and often painful times.” They leave you asking and not knowing whether your life is falling apart or falling into place. As I look back on the year that was and what lays ahead, I am uncomfortable with, afraid of even, this uncertainty and not knowing if I am falling apart or my life is falling into place.
Perhaps this is one of those years when our hindsight will be mercifully clearer and more gracious than our present perspective. A new decade dawned into a darkness none of us saw coming – not just for the individual or unfortunate few but for the entire world. No one has been untouched by this pandemic, the racial strife and recognition of wrongs, and the national political turmoil that came to our streets, our screens, and our relationships. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been lost. Lives and how we live them have forever been changed – some more so than others – some for the worse and some for the better. It was, as I have said many times in passing conversations, the year that kept on giving even without the pandemic.
I have been walking through this trying time in a darkness I didn’t make but a darkness that I needed. This darkness has let my Lord and Savior’s light shine in my life – not necessarily making it easier – but showing me where I need Him – everywhere and in every way! Immanuel – amen!
Maybe instead of fighting the current darkness many of us are feeling right now, we need to sit with it in silence, befriend it, and feel its intense intimacy and holiness. Welcome God to join you. I know in my darkest times that is when God draws near. I was dreading Christmas this year – without even my church family to gather with – and yet as we move closer to that most holy night, I know that this will be the truest, holiest, most powerful – most real Christmas I have had in a long, long time – perhaps not since that first most imperfect and dark and scary one so many years ago – before we muddled it up with our commercialized concepts of good tidings of joy and presents and parties and reindeer and… Let’s sit in this dark silent night and let His radiant light illumine our hearts as nothing else can.
My tree is decorated now. The tears brought on by the longings of the past – of what was and could have been – now dried. It sparkles with hope. The symbols of the past remind me that I have passed through many threshold times, some much more difficult than what I am experiencing now and we are experiencing as a whole. And yet, I am here and so are you and so is Jesus, God, Immanuel.
Yes, 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 I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and my own tears now. Now I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His amazing radiant grace.
Wishing you radiant grace, a deep peace, and a certain knowing that you are God’s Beloved this Christmas!
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 all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 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. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9: 2-7