I cannot put into words how much this morning’s run, my first since Christmas Day, meant to me. Recovering from a foot injury has been a long, miserable, mentally debilitating road for this life-long runner. For three months I tried telling myself I didn’t need to run and that I could do other things to find release. That my body would thank me years from now if I quit running because injuries would be far less likely to happen. That I could see and capture beauty better at a slower pace. But none of those mind games kept the anxiety, restlessness, and sadness that can so easily make a home in me at bay. I felt like a shadow of myself. I may sound physically irresponsible – but any injury that comes from running is nothing compared to the strength and solace it brings to my spirit.
When I run, my body becomes one with the road and my mind moves into meditation. The journey I take is far more than a few neighborhood blocks and a country road or two. Running takes me through the twists and turns of my mind. I explore the potholes that trip me up and I run through them. I feel the heart break that threatens to stop my heart’s beating and I outpace it. I thrill at the glimmer of hope that is the sunrise at mile 6 – that warms the coldness this world can bring and melts away the stiffness and rigidity that I allow to rule my days. Running reminds me that I can always do better next time but right now I am doing ok – even great – and I am stronger than I appear or give myself credit for.
Thank you, God, for healing me (though you took an awfully long time!!) so I can once again find and heal myself.
How exquisite your love, O God! How eager we are to run under your wings, You’re a fountain of cascading light, and you open our eyes to light.
“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.
“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.” – Martin Luther
Happy Last Day of 2020!! A year of challenge and growth, of new lows weathered and new heights achieved, of monotony and adventure, of great sorrow and abounding hope, of renewed understanding of the importance of family and finding family with friends – even when socially distanced, and of most importance to me – a closer walk with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
2020 certainly has provided a clearer vision of the uncertainty and fragility of life. If I have learned anything this past year it is that life happens outside of my plans – sometimes the happiest moments were those I never saw coming and yes, most assuredly, the hardest ones too. Nonetheless, no matter where my paths led me – from mountaintop celebrations to tear-filled moments alone with God as my life crumbled apart – and everything in between – life took on new meaning this year. I am wiser and more wondering than before.
Wisdom comes with the walk, and I have walked and run many a mile this year. I know God was with me through all of them even on the darkest and most painful stretches. He was with me, too, gazing at many a spectacular sunrise and celebrating with me my mountaintop moments.
I still have much to learn – I know – hard to believe at my age – but I am well-prepared for the lessons yet to come. I trust that as C.S. Lewis said so well: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” I am ready for this ragged old year to pass and I am looking forward in hope to the promise the new year brings. Indeed, I believe we are each made new every morning and we walk with new life when we walk with God every day. As we close this er – remarkable – year – I wish you a time of reflection and thankfulness for this journey of life. It was never promised to be easy but with Christ as our guide, it can always be hopeful. My prayer for 2021 is that each of you awaken with this hope each morning.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” 2 Corinthians 5:17
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” C.S. Lewis
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
The essence of my mother is here. 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 87th birthday and it is her 4th birthday with our Lord and Savior instead of with me, with us. But 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 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 for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Then she would sit in the silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the 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 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.
Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God our Father!
Ah yes, just the words of inspiration and hope your COVID and election weary soul needed to hear this morning, am I right? As I spent days pouring over the texts preparing for this sermon I kept thinking, aw geez, are you serious, God? Do you have any idea what we are dealing with right now? Well of course He does, it’s an age-old condition of the human story. Why do you think Jesus tells so many parables that leave us rather stunned and wondering what Jesus is telling us no matter how many times we hear them. Stories that leave us with more questions about our questions than before. But maybe this is what we’re supposed to do with Jesus’s parables. Maybe we’re supposed to let their meanings open out, wider and wider as we sit and wrestle with our questions, our discomfort, our wonder. You see the truths the parables reveal are various and infinite; their interpretation as ever-changing as our lives. I preached on these weary and wayward bridesmaids three very long years ago and while the words and the struggle to comprehend them are the same, they sound very different to me now in this time and place.
Quite honestly, the passages of scripture chosen for today could have been pulled right out of one my pandemic nightmares of late. Alas, the call of this Lay Pastoral Associate is not to regal you with my dreams, it is to find the good news – to shed some light on the darkness. So where to begin…
This is one of four parables Jesus uses toward the end of his ministry to prepare his disciples for His 2nd coming, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting – of yes, the good and the bad. Matthew is writing to a community who was dealing with an oppressive government, a rupture from the synagogue, and a delay in the much awaited return of the Messiah.The return of whom we are still waiting for today. Matthew fills his Gospel with judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise. But it is in the harshness and the surprise that the hidden meaning is often found. The surprise this time for the disciples and for us is that the wedding banquet – the return of Christ – is not going to go the way we think it is or WHEN we think it is.
These parables ARE challenging ciphers at times but I always find it helpful to try and identify with the characters whether it is the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the old woman who lost the coin, or the servant who buried his talents rather than risk investing them.
I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids. The good girl. Always prepared. Always having a plan for every moment of my day and always making sure I had more than “enough of the good stuff in my lamp – you know good works and faith.” Quite simply I have used perfectionism and control to a fault to get me through life. Spontaneity is not my strong suit.
And though I have been a lifelong Lutheran saved by grace and not by works, my parents did a good job of “raising me right” instilling in me the importance of perfect church attendance, giving regularly a portion of my allowance and later income, holding leadership positions within the church, including two stints as a council president, a call committee chair, and Vice Chair for a million dollar church building campaign, not to mention adding my voice to every church choir that I could come across. (Can you imagine my utter chagrin as I heard the words of Amos today? But I digress…) So yes, I envisioned myself as one of the wise, firmly holding onto my lamp and my stores of the requisite oil in the dead of night.
And to be sure I was saying the right things to you today I immediately turned to my considerable collection of outside resources: Bible commentaries, different Bible translations, word studies, and on and on. I needed to consult all the outside experts and then share THEIR wisdom and insights of this challenging text because I am not one to trust that I have it in me alone to correctly share the Good News of today’s Gospel with you. Because you see, I also have this terrible tendency to doubt, especially with regards to my inner qualities and abilities.
Ah, but wait a minute! Isn’t that what the five foolish bridesmaids did in their midnight quest to go buy oil – you know the good stuff for their lamps? Doubt? Doubt that their presence alone was what the Bridegroom desired?
But hey, none of this would have happened had the Bridegroom been on time in the first place so I definitely identify with him as I am always running late!
In truth, what drew me into this parable this time is the startling idea that despite my best efforts in life, on that much awaited day when God’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and our broken earth is restored and made whole, just as Scripture promises – that God wouldn’t know me.
I mean how could that be? He knows every hair on my head! I was made in His image?
It reminded me of this dream I had recently about my father. It began as I was preparing to fly to Washington D.C. for a theology conference – yeah, I know – a nightmare inside a dream right there! I hate flying under normal circumstances – road trips for the win any day!! – and despite all the reports saying it is safe to be on an airplane there is no way I am flying anywhere right now.except of course in a nightmare. The plane landed at Dulles International Airport – but when I got off the plane I was in Billings and was headed to my old house on Audubon Way. Of course the weather was terrible – dark, gloomy, rainy and the wind was howling as it always does in Billings even when the sun is shining. When I pulled my Santa Fe – which came along on the plane with me – into the driveway, my brother Fred and his wife Kathie were there as were the neighbors from across the street. There was a lot of activity as there always is in dreams and everything was so alive – including both of my parents who have been with God now for over three years. I could see the glow from inside the house as I ran from my car to the front porch in the pouring rain. I was all set for the much anticipated big hug from Dad that always awaited me when I came home – but instead all Dad said to me was “I don’t know who you are.” A wave of sickness and grief washed over me and I woke up shaking.
My Dad and I had an extremely close relationship – he inspired me in my walk in faith and guided me through the rough patches of life with an earnest faith. We golfed together, went to church together, discussed politics and relationships. We even served on church council together. I didn’t hide much from him – not that I could if I wanted to – nothing got past him – and I always tried to live up to his standards and expectations of me. But now that he s gone, I have come to realize that there is still so much I don’t know. There is still so much I need to know and tell my dad and my mom but my questions can’t be answered now and I wonder how much closer and richer our relationship could have been had I only taken more time to ask the questions – if I had been more vulnerable at times and really opened up. I wanted to be perfect in their eyes – what child – deep in their hearts doesn’t – even as adults?
I got to thinking about how that might be how it is with God. He longs to know you but will you let him and trust him? What does it take to be known by the Lord? Digging into one of my word studies, the word “know” in our passage today is oida. This word can simply mean “to have information about,” but it also has the meaning, “to be intimately acquainted with or stand in a close relation to.”
We often say that we know the Lord but do we ask ourselves if we do? Do we live in close relationship to God? Do we let him in? Examine your relationships in life – your friends and family and casual acquaintances. How well do you let yourself be known to them? We have surface level relationships – we know each other’s names, birthday, favorite foods, occupation, likes, dislikes. And then we have those critical deeper trusting relationships – ones in which you can share your deepest secrets, confess your darkest thoughts, and expose your greatest struggles. You can trust them with the real you.
If you are like me – you probably think you have a good relationship with the Lord – you know with all your church doings – but how much of you do you trust to God? How much of God do you let into your life? Into your uncertainties, Into your waiting? Does your waiting reflect a confidence in God? Do you still wait for God? We have been doing a lot of waiting lately and I wonder where you find yourself?
I am not good at waiting, are you? And I am definitely not good at letting go of control in my waiting.
Waiting carries many emotions — anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss. Of course, our emotional response will be determined by that for which we wait and our time of waiting will be experienced differently depending on that which we expect.
In truth, most of what we wait for is not guaranteed.That prolonged uncertainty can bring out the worst in us. We act out in fear, anger, distrust, or simply fade away losing hope. What we wait for can leave such a void in our lives that we attempt to fill with busyness, excessive work or spending, substance abuse – anything to block the discomfort, anxiety, or emptiness that waiting can cause. And perhaps we have let our waiting for Christ’s return affect us in the same way – we turn to doubt or skepticism because we have grown tired of waiting. Maybe your heart for Jesus’ has grown cold with impatience.
Speaking of which, I don’t much like the fact that the story leaves five women out in the cold. Especially after they waited late into the night for the bridegroom to arrive. I don’t like how their fearful quest out into the dark of night for external sources of light led them to be excluded from the wedding feast and denied by the bridegroom.
But it reveals to us a harsh truth.
And this is the nugget of light I found this time as I waited for divine sermon inspiration from on high. More often than I would like to admit I have been a foolish bridesmaid. I know how hard it is to stick around when my “light” is fading and my reserves are low. To this day I scramble for perfection, insisting on having my ducks in a row before I show up in front of God, or the church, or the world. How about you? Do you put God on hold so you can put your game face on? How is he ever going to know you?
There will come a time when we face darkness, when we are not ready, when the unexpected takes our light away. Doors close. Chances fade.Time runs out. Words go unsaid. Friendships end. Debts are called. Addictions break us. Wounds grow deep.. Courage flees. Justice is too hard. Bitterness sets in. Faith ebbs. Life closes down.The opportunity ends.
It is in these moments of darkness – often our darkest hour – when our faith has all but expired and our attempts of perfection and doing for the Lord rather than getting to know the Lord have left us exhausted – that the bridegroom comes. Darkness is the greatest revealer of light. God comes when we least expect it with a glimmer of light – signs of a better way to wait – a better way to live.
Allow me to share a little bit of my oil with you – yes this uncertain Lay Pastor has oil to share afterall – lingering in the dark when your woeful wick is flickering, your once-vigorous faith is vanishing, and your sodden soul is filled with nothing but doubt and pain and grief and weariness – that my friends is when God knows you best and when you come to know the fullness of God.
Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and created in God’s perfect image. God delights in you — not what is in your lamp – not what you prove to the world.
Have the will to wait, have the courage to question, have the faith to doubt. The God whose deep and unconditional compassion,with light and oil to spare, who finds your messy and imperfect presence is of intrinsic value will meet you there. As baptized children of God, His presence was never in question – learning to live in His presence is our lifelong quest.
My favorite theologian, Henri Nouwen writes – “People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim 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. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”
In these anxious, uncertain, judgment-filled times of waiting we are experiencing take time to let God know you and strive to live into the joy of His presence. Remember, your light doesn’t have to dazzle. God created light. God is light. And Jesus is the light of the world. That your lamp is flickering isn’t the point. You are. So stay and wait in the good news of God knowing you and let that be the light that sustains and inspires you to love and serve the world.
The words came at me like a cleaver, blunt yet cutting, slowly digging into my very core. We were in the middle of a conversation about life, direction, purpose, and personal responsibility. Was I perhaps too reliant on the Lord in the course of my life?
For as long as I have conceived of morning and night my faith has been a central part of my life. Yes, there was a time I veered away from the concept of church, but the Lord redeemed me during a time of complete brokenness and it was then that I moved beyond just practicing my faith to having a deep relationship with Him. But every relationship has a dynamic, and not all dynamics are positive. When those words were spoken to me, I was caught off guard. Was my faith simply a crutch to lean on during difficult times?
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Later, pondering deeply as I walked alone, I found myself questioning my relationship with the Lord. Had I become too dependent on Him as I made my way through life? This question haunted me for days and weeks! I felt at odds not only with the person who had brought this idea to light but at odds with my Lord!
Then I began to feel at odds with myself, ashamed for my lack of spiritual integrity. I felt weak in my faith, me of all people, the one who encourages others to look to the Lord for strength, rest, and resurrection, the one who considered going to seminary and still contemplates the possibility of a theological vocation from time to time! What sort of hypocrite had I become? I should have defended the Lord but instead, like Peter who denied Him, I questioned Him in the face of ridicule. Needing to be identified as the strong woman I am, not someone who was insecure and unsure of my steps or weak and reliant on others (not even my Lord), I did not defend the One who has been grace-filled and just in my life.
About this time, I was fortunate to cross paths with a man who makes a point of actively living his faith in his life during a conference at 100Fold Studio, a servant-focused architectural firm based in Lakeside, MT. The firm offers architecture students and graduates a six-week studio internship in which they explore how Christian principles can inform a career in architecture. Speakers from around the country with expertise in design, business, and world missions focused on faith and vocation through lectures, small groups, and one on one mentorship.
Dr. Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Chair of Economics at the University of Virginia was the main speaker and the one who caught me with his message. While he certainly had insight on how these future architects and designers might finance their careers, he shared a far greater message of living out your faith in your daily work and interactions. He encouraged us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Romans, to not be ashamed of the Gospel or the role your faith has in your life.
“You have worth in Christ,” was his opening comment, and because of that, he makes no secret of his faith in the workplace, which for him is the staunchly secular arena of academia.
Listening to Dr. Elzinga speak of his courageously open faith in an atmosphere where such open religiosity raised the ire of department chairs reminded me that while God does not need defending by the likes of me, He does ask me to recognize His place in my life and not be ashamed of it. Dr. Elzinga shared a story of his early years at the University. He had placed a Bible on his office desk and when one of his fellow professors saw it he told him he would never gain tenure with a Bible on his desk. Dr. Elzinga certainly had moments of doubt and career consternation, but his inner certainty of his faith withstood intimidation. He continued to be open about his faith and while he never blatantly proselytized he welcomed discussions on faith. When students came to him with troubles, he listened and guided with love. Often, upon seeing his Bible on his desk students would ask him to pray with them. Soon he began asking the students if he could pray for them. Most of them said yes. In time, even his colleagues turned to him for spiritual support in times of need.
Despite, if not because of, his open faithfulness, not only did he gain tenure but he is now a distinguished chair of the University, regularly leads campus Bible studies and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He admits it was not always easy being unashamed of the Gospel and at times faced harassment, felt threatened in his career, and even felt as if he had failed in his efforts to quietly and gently share the Gospel through his actions, not just words. Yet, looking at his career and record from my standpoint, he certainly came out the winner with his Lord by his side.
Dr. Elzinga spoke about our human tendency to want to control everything in our lives. It is a natural state. It is not easy to go forth in faith – especially for young graduates who have the whole world ahead of them. We like to trust in our own abilities. Because we know our limits and can expect a certain outcome, we place our trust in ourselves and things of a concrete nature. We take pride in accomplishing things on our own. It is when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we begin to look elsewhere for support. Dr. Elzinga proposed that difficulties in our course of life are God’s way of getting our attention. If we don’t have difficulties in life we start to walk on our own. Many would counter that it is good to walk on our own – that independence is a sign of strength. There was a time in my own life that I felt pretty sure of myself and pretty sure that God did not have His eye on me, nor did I need Him to. I was strong in my own right and thought I had everything under control in check. No need to let anyone into my world. No need to ask for help when I in truth I needed it.
Alas, the Lord understands our prideful natures, and will occasionally take steps to knock us off our high horse to remind us who is in control. I don’t know about my self- assured friends, but I know I have been bucked off my stallion a few times in the crazy course of my life. Surprisingly, I was able to get up, dust myself off, and walk with my head held high shining in my Lord’s light. Sure my knees were a little skinned and my pride shaken in front of more than a few onlookers, but I did not doubt for one moment my worth in Christ. That is the amazing thing about Christ. He doesn’t ask for much but His gifts are gracious. If we open our hearts to Him and accept Him into our life, He will lead us down right paths and love us just as we are.
So how do I affirm and defend the Lord’s positive role in my wayward life in the face of those who have attained, seemingly on their own, certainty in the direction of their own? How can I not question my trust in Him?
As Dr. Elzinga pointed out in his remarks on being broken and redeemed, we can find the answer written in His Word. Perhaps I should spend more time with the original self-help anthology and less time trying to appear strong and self-reliant. The Lord sees and knows all my strengths and weaknesses. Placing my trust in Him will ensure a steadfast spirit within 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 12:9
Holy Saturday, a day in-between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now, we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. In better times, this day would be filled with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood – Easter Snow-bunnies. Others will go about the day as if it were any other Saturday – doing household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we are lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work or a trek into the hills.
And why not? It is difficult to dwell in grief and uncertainty; to live with the darkness a day like Good Friday brings into our being. We want to move on – quickly – to the joys of life we know and are coming. We want to live in the triumphant brass and bold joyous singing of Easter morning and drink in the “Good News” of Easter. Anything to distract us from what this day in the Christian belief system represents – Jesus Christ’s death and descent to hell and the numbness and fear felt by Jesus’s followers after the horrifying events of the previous twenty-four hours. A day where a suddenly and frighteningly unknown future pierces the heart.
I know this day well, as I suspect many of you do too. I lived it after the deaths of my parents and the ending of my marriage. Anyone who has been on the journey of life for a good distance is cognizant of what a great loss can do to upend your world. The day after death. The day after your heart is broken. The day after the divorce. The day after the job was lost, the day after the diagnosis, the day after a dream was shattered, the day after a part of your life has died. The day after a part of you has died. Today is the day after, where putting the pieces of life back together seems unimaginable; when the sheer shock of catastrophe that muted our feelings and sheltered us from the raging storm has worn off.
Today is the hard day. Today is the painful day of initiation by reality. The time after the funeral when the calls and visits stop. The uneasy time between your diagnosis and treatment, when there is absolutely nothing you can do. Today embodies the loneliness and the nothingness that invade the soul after the divorce, miscarriage, or loss of livelihood when friends no longer check-in and life is supposed to get back to normal – or at least they have to get back to living their normal lives. And isn’t that what we all really want to do – just get back to living our normal lives?
But the thing is, great loss changes you, forever. Normal will never look the same again. Great loss forever unsettles you from the life you once knew. Life won’t be the same. You won’t be the same. Today you are in the shadow of The Cross.
And that cross will transform you.
It may harden you, it may fill you with bitterness or remorse. It may soften you and make you more present. In whatever manner, it will change you.
In this time of global pandemic, we are living in a prolonged Day After. A prolonged Time In-Between. As the entire world struggles with the great unknown – where lives seem to be snatched away on a whim, parts of our lives may be lost forever, and life as we know it has been suspended, we rightfully struggle through the absolute uncertainty of what our future might possibly hold.
We have gradually adjusted to restricted lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, stretched our life-saving entities to a crisis point, incurred great financial losses, and lost trust in our government. It’s as if we have been isolated and entombed with hardly a sliver of light coming in.
And yet… From our tombs, in those slivers of light, we have seen amazing acts of solidarity and love in this transformation of our lives. For the love of our neighbor and the stranger we have restricted our lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, incurred great financial losses, and worked together to feed the hungry, defended those fighting for us with sewing machines and 3-D printers, helped our business rivals endure, and lifted each other up in prayers and with songs.
Indeed, without the horrors of The Cross and the bleak uncertainty that reigns over This Day, we would not have the hope and promise of a new life tomorrow – Easter Day – reigning in our lives as I write.
Remember that new life sprang from The Cross and in the tomb, a history-changing transformation began.
Our world and our lives won’t be the same after this pandemic – and there will be a day after.Just like today. How will you live in it and how will you live it? How has the shadow of the cross changed you? Have you let it change you?
As we try to carry on with our lives – however unsettled and uncertain each day may be – remember the One who endured this Day After, this Time In-Between. Trust that God is neither absent nor inactive. We know that God was preparing to raise Jesus from the dead and provide the turning point for time immemorial. God was creating a future that none on that Saturday after Good Friday could imagine and God is not finished yet – He is never finished. God never stops creating in us and He never stops loving us.
Today, God is at work – redeeming and restoring the whole of creation with His mercy and grace. Let this be so. Let His will be done.
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. ” – Colossians 3:1-4
Oh God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am AGAIN! Do you think this “masterpiece” of yours will ever find her way? As I begin the much too steady march toward the half-century mark, one would think I would have some inkling of purpose, some sense of Your plotline, something more than a faint goat trail leading me along the cliff edges of life… And yet this work in progress just continues to evolve – my life is Your whimsy – and while I am often more bemused than amused with Your sense of humor, I do trust. I trust the twisting, turning, sometimes jagged, often bumpy road I have traveled is exactly the way I was meant to go. And with each turn, I grow closer to You. In every darkness, You are there leading me on towards the light. Sometimes those rays of hope seem far out of reach and that is when You send beams of light into my life. You never stop creating in me and recreating me. Thanks, God. Thank you for not giving up on me – once, twice, again, and again.
The words I speak and write of You come straight from my heart. Perhaps, indeed, that was and is Your plan all along. Here’s to another year in Your light – all I ask is that Your will is fulfilled – and that I might shine brightly again.
“You’ll sing God’s praises to everyone you meet,
testifying, ‘I messed up my life—
and let me tell you, it wasn’t worth it.
But God stepped in and saved me from certain death.
I’m alive again! Once more I see the light!’
“This is the way God works.
Over and over again
He pulls our souls back from certain destruction
so we’ll see the light—and live in the light!” Job 33:27-30
The ashes I wore on my forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday weighed heavy on my thoughts and heart. I left our evening service feeling as dark and broken as the ashen cross smeared across my forehead.
I have been filled with much sadness, regret, guilt and shame since my brief but once so blessed marriage was annulled. There is heartbreak, a sense of deep loss, and a distinct absence of belonging – belonging to someone and finally belonging in a world that doesn’t always include the individual who is alone. I failed. He failed. We failed. Our relationship didn’t work. Our marriage was not the kind of marriage reflected in our vows before God and to one another. When one is more alone in marriage then they were when they were alone in life, the way forward is hard to discern. Trusting that God brought us together and trusting that He would see us through no matter the path we chose, we let each other go.
And yet, I could not let it go. For I was afraid. Not afraid of being alone – though that saddened me greatly – no, I was afraid of God – the retributive God that I had minded all of my days. How could I – me the ever faithful, chaser of God’s own heart- walk away from a covenant I made before God?
And so I wrestled, mightily. My life forever changed – condemned to a darkness one who believes should never know. I let the darkness get the better of me. I felt compelled to share the darkness of our situation and in so doing I gave more life to it. In hurt, anger, and shame I said things better left unspoken. I regret that. That is not who I am. I brought myself down and away from God. God knew the truth and that should have been enough for me.
I have felt separated from God and the life God intended for me ever since. I have transgressed from the way I have always strived to live my life – with perseverance and honor – striving only to share hope and shine God’s light into this world. Not dwell in darkness.
Yes, the ashes of Ash Wednesday felt heavy on my soul – long after they had been washed away. For a few hours, I bore the cross of Christ for all to see – while hanging on to my own cross of shame, regret, sin – at least that is what I thought my cross was about.
Later, as I was reflecting on the Words of Ash Wednesday, I realized that I seem to have forgotten the very faith that I profess, the very faith of which I preach the Good Life Saving News.
“God at the margins,
We have wandered far from your home;
again and again, we lose our way.
We turn inward, afraid of the world around us.
We forget that you have saved your people before
and promise to do so again.
Do not remember the deeds of our past,
but turn our faces toward the future,
where your forgiveness is sure,
your welcome is clear,
and your love overflows.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.” – from Psalm 51
Oh me, of little faith! The cross I bear is of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life. I am the one who separated myself from God – He has never let go of me. God did not bring my marriage to an end but He will use every moment of that union and dissolution for good.
I have let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regret, disappointment, and wounds control my life. God did not put these stifling parameters on me. I let my brokenness embody my spirit rather than let the Holy Spirit embody me. I have let life go by me – afraid of what might come at me next.
The ashes 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. He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my and your baptism. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. God is not my source of condemnation. He is my strength and my shield.
From the ashes God calls forth a question -Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? Well, if God can quote Mary Oliver – then so can I – I will pay attention, I will fall down into the grass, I will kneel down in the grass, and I will be idle and blessed – and revel in His presence. with a pure heart and a renewed steadfast spirit within me.
Strengthened I can let go of what I cannot change and focus on every single wild and precious day that lays before me. That is the life God wants for me and it will be good, Changed and strengthened – transformed by pain and redeemed by grace.
The light has shined in the darkness. Lord, have mercy on me.