When Fear Is the Master

A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

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.

A Love You Can Count On

Where will God meet you?

A sermon based on Luke-15:1-3;11b-32-3

March 27, 2022

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ from God our Father.  

Let us pray. 

God of embrace, you free us from ourselves. You open a path to celebration. Turn us always to you and from you to our neighbor in service and in love. Amen. (Dirk Lange – Luther Seminary)

I’m a counter. I like to count things. I’ve been counting things from the time I understood the concept of numbers. Presents under the tree, the number of French fries and – woe is me – the number of Brussel sprouts on my plate; marks on the chalkboard; the straight A’s my parents paid me for; the number of books I have read, miles run, peaks climbed, jobs done, calories consumed, Scrabble games won… For some reason I have this innate need to measure myself against the world. 

I grew up in an old-school Scandinavian family – before the Hygge lifestyle was the way to happiness. Love was never questioned in my family, but esteem and approval were hard to come by. Praise was rare and hard won. I did well in most things – even great sometimes – but I could always do better. At least that is how I interpreted my parents’ absent expression of pride.  Mom and Dad were afraid that praise might go to our heads and my brother and I might think too highly of ourselves. Thankfully, both of my parents softened in their stern parental roles as we grew into adulthood and they shared their true feelings of love and pride in my brother and I, but the seeds of unworthiness and hunger for approval were planted. I am a perfectionist and still long for their approval after all these years.

Somewhere along the way, it became hard for me to trust that I am loved without having to first earn that love. That to deserve love I must be accomplished first. Therefore, in order to measure myself against the world, I count things and hope that if I just do more, do better, work harder, sacrifice more – that will count for something! Maybe I will be noticed and loved. 

When I moved to the valley from the plains of Eastern MT almost 9 years ago, I immediately came down with the mountain bug. I went from traversing the flat prairies to climbing 10,000 ft peaks every weekend. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society and soon got wrapped up in the counting bug too – religiously recording miles logged on each hike with my GPS system because, as we all know, if it isn’t recorded the hike didn’t really happen. Soon we were comparing peaks bagged in a day and tallies of trails for the year. It became a competition to see who came out on top – and less of an adventure for the sheer joy of being in God’s creation. At some point I realized I was burned out – it stopped being fun. No matter how great my day on the mountain was – someone else always had a better one. 

Now there is nothing wrong with competition. Competition is fun – and it drives us to better ourselves on many levels. We seek higher education, we practice more and refine our talents, we are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and sometimes even celebrated – with success and acclaim. For certain, we are a culture that glorifies winners- from sports to summits, poker to politics.  But what about when it stops being fun – the counting, comparing, achieving and winning? When the divisions between winners and losers, the ones on top and the ones who are not, become walls – barriers to joy – barriers to trust- barriers to life – barriers to relationships and love? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.

There is a way of being in the world where everything becomes a competition. We measure everything we do against what others do so we can compare. We simply want to be – need to be – on top – be right. And it isn’t necessarily because we are spiteful or conniving – it’s not because we want to gloat over our accomplishments or make others feel less than – well most of us don’t anyway. It’s just that many of us believe that we simply are not enough.  Not enough in the eyes of others and not enough in our own eyes. We want to be able to look in the mirror like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley and not just say but know that gosh darn it – my life matters and I am doing the right things – and people like me – and here’s the proof just in case.  

In a world where identity is confirmed by likes and followers, proclamation and protest – so many people long for approval – a good word that affirms our place in the world – that we are doing good – that on any given day the work we do is appreciated – that we are seen and not taken for granted.

When we aren’t – when we feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted, we build walls of defense and division and search for something that shows “I did that” and they didn’t; or “I am right” and they are wrong.  Meanwhile inside those walls – all we see is what we didn’t do, where we went wrong, how badly we failed, and how left out we are.

Today’s Gospel lesson continues our Lenten journey of repentance and what that really entails. As I ventured into this well-known parable of the prodigal at first glance, I found it to be a simple story of repentance and forgiveness, what was lost is found; as the fiery preachers of old would exhort – it’s never too late to get up and repent and return to God. God will welcome you – as long as you follow the rules. 

We find Jesus responding to his critics, namely the bishops and priests, pastors and deacons of the day – someone like me for instance – who are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law – and as such they have a problem with Jesus coloring outside their carefully established boundary lines of righteousness – by liberally welcoming and eating with tax collectors, rule-breakers, and the like. 

Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about a man who had two sons. His youngest son turns out to be dishonorable, selfish, and impudent. He has disgraced his father first by asking for and then receiving his inheritance before his father has died, then gambles it all away, brings shame to the family name, and loses every ounce of respect and everything he relied on to be somebody. He finds himself hungry – very hungry. Hungry for the good life he once had in his father’s house.  He turns to his best form of defense. He devises a plan to win himself back into his father’s good graces and sets off for home. He knows what he wants but he doesn’t expect what awaits him – an exuberant father over the moon happy to see him! After all the wrong the young man has done the father thinks nothing of it! The father runs out to greet his wayward son – before he even has a chance to execute his plan. Not only is he welcomed home, but he is also celebrated with the party of the year!

This made my perfectionist-rule following ears perk up.  Like the young son, despite and maybe because of all my efforts to do and be right, I have been and at times still am demanding, selfish and self-centered. I have made mistakes that hang over me like a black cloud. I have found myself in a pigsty of my own making – ashamed and afraid and hungry for anything but my current life. I’ve been raised to and want to believe that I can pull myself up by the bootstraps and make things right and so I like the idea that I have some say in how God feels about me. If I can finally win approval and love by simply repenting – I can choose to do that – right? And look at the celebration I’ll receive! 

BUT the story doesn’t end there! We have the older son to contend with – the one who stayed. He has built a life of stability and honor through hard work and living right. And yet he does not seem very happy. Nor does he seem secure. He seems to be very alone in the world – as if he has intentionally separated himself from the others. In my mind, he has every “right” to be resentful even before his younger brother’s celebratory return. I recognize that sneaking resentment that creeps in when we find ourselves left out of the party and unnoticed by the world despite all we have done to make our lives matter. I want to shout right along with him – what about me? But like him I instead suffer in silence and keep being right all the while seething at the unfairness of the world, feeling completely unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. He is just as hungry and desperate as his brother – it’s just that his younger brother’s hunger is easier to see.

Look at everything we have done! Doesn’t any of that count? 

It depends on whose game you want to win. If you are clamoring for a place in this world, if you are hungering for the kind of love derived from status – well maybe – maybe not. This world’s proclivity for belonging is fickle.

If a father’s love is like an inheritance – something that can be divided, invested, gained or lost. If a relationship is like that of a landowner to a hired hand where everything has to be earned – then those things should matter, should count in the grand scheme of things. The older brother should get credit for being good and the younger brother left to wallow in his own mess. 

That is how the world works, right? Sadly, there are many families, relationships, and systems that operate this way. I am sure most of us have felt at some point in our lives like we had to earn someone’s love and approval and have worried that we could lose it all at any time by being a disappointment. I am also sure we have sat on the judgment side as well.

And that’s the problem we face when we forget, or worse, don’t even know whose child we really are. Whose child we have always been and always will be. 

Jesus makes it clear – keeping count is fine for competition but has no place in love; no place in relationships of trust; and certainly, no place when it comes to God. 

Jesus shows us a Prodigal Father who runs out to meet the wayward us the minute He spies us coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He dashes down the road in a way no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself and meets us where we are in the middle of our broken road   Not only that, He doesn’t even give us a chance to sputter or explain or deny or repent but instead embraces and restores us immediately. This is disgraceful behavior but our Prodigal Father doesn’t care because He’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs we have done but only celebrates extravagantly when we come into His arms.

And if that’s not enough, Our Prodigal Father goes on and does something any self-respecting individual would never do a second time when he leaves the celebration He is hosting to seek us out – even in our seething spite and raging resentment. He pleads with us to come into the party, to soften our hearts and change direction. Because before Our Prodigal Father is a Landowner, King, and Creator, He’s a Parent who loves His children more than anyone can measure.

Your value as a person and your place in the family cannot be measured by the sum total of your good graces, your wins and losses, your acclaim and defeat, your rightness and your sin. It cannot be measured, period!

We are not loved because we are always loveable, right, or “on top” of the leaderboard. We are loved because God is love. That is the only thing worth counting on.

We are so used to making things count, so used to keeping score and measuring up in this world, we feel we must hold something before God – something that we have done or not done – to tip the scales in our favor, to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s love. But God’s grace and God’s love don’t come with prerequisites. There are no scales, there is no contest, no reward for best disciple in this life. 

Only the same extravagant party of abundant life and everlasting love our Prodigal father has been throwing for us from day one. The one where everyone is invited and everyone has a seat at the table. There is no need for counting because there will always be enough and you are always enough. 

Ultimately, it is not about us and everything we do to define or prove ourselves, to matter. It is about a God who forgives us — and our neighbors — even before we repent. It’s about God’s generous grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life1. A life that is both humble and grateful, with our hearts turned not inward but outward toward our neighbors, the community, and all of creation.

It is about God and God’s loving heart and you being God’s beloved child. It is about turning away from the old system of scorekeeping, counting, and judging and embracing our father’s unconditional, undeserved, unbelievable welcome into His immeasurable love. That’s a love you can count on.

Thanks be to God. 

Amen.

  1. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/26/lost-and-found-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-4
Let your light so shine!

Far and Away

While contemplating a drastic career change and his current uneasy place in life, a fellow writing friend of mine shared a thought that resonated deeply within me and yet disquieted what I thought was my own pleasantly planted sense of being: For those who were meant for changing horizons security can feel like imprisonment. The soul seeks freedom.

My pilot friend had reached a point in his flying career where he found himself dreading the very thing that he once dreamed of becoming. His seemingly round the clock job and forced quarantines away from family for weeks on end (he flies out of Hong Kong) with little end in sight was making him sick. He was at a precipice wondering what had become of his life and what he could do now after all these years of flying. He also had a family to consider – how would he support them? He knew he had to make a change but he couldn’t see himself doing anything different. Flying has been his life and he couldn’t imagine his future without it – even as dismal as his present state was. 

Stormy skies ahead!

We don’t always end up where we intended in life. Long before reaching our final destination, life happens and we are forced to change course. My naive college vision board at 18 and the “seasoned” 26-year-old me’s long-range plans seem almost foreign to me now a quarter of a century later. I’ve always admired those who had a dream at a young age and made it happen, and then kept realizing it and living it. In truth, I think that happens to only a very lucky few.

Other times we do “arrive”, attaining everything we had destined for ourselves but the journey leaves us with nothing more than a longing – for what – we don’t know. This is a scary place to be. It leads to second guessing our values and doubting the person we have become.

A recent BBC article posits that we should think more about whom we’ll be in the future – because doing so has profound consequences for our health, happiness and financial security.

Really? I thought to myself. Hasn’t the trending pop-psychology of the day hailed the virtue of remaining in the present? After all we have been through – after all I have been through the last 5 years – how can I even begin to think about the future? Frankly, I have found it much more delightful to relive the past – at least there I know what to expect!

The article goes on to say: “Some people have a vivid sense of their future self, which feels very close to their current identity. These people tend to be more responsible with their money and more ethical in their treatment of others; they are keen to act in a way that will make life easier in the years ahead”.

I would give anything to have a “vivid sense” of my future self.  I can’t even plan the current years’ worth of vacation days let alone what life I have left!  Alas, I seem to fall into the second cohort the article mentions: Those who “struggle to imagine their future self as a continuation of the person that they are today… It’s almost as if they see their future self as a separate person that has little connection to their present identity.”  These individuals, the article states, tend to be less fiscally responsible and less concerned with the long-term consequences of their actions in nearly every sphere of their lives: health, career, money, relationships.

While I struggle with seeing my future life as a continuation of today or seeing it at all for that matter – I certainly don’t envision myself a stranger to who I am today and I take issue with the claim that I am less responsible than the visionaries among us. On the contrary, it is because my future seems – at least right now – “unrevealed” – that I am so careful with what I have and what I do. It is an interesting concept however, to ponder. And as I said before, I have the utmost admiration for those who live life with such long-term certainty.

Creating a vision for the second half of our lives is not as easy as it would seem.

The questions of “Who am I” “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, and “How am I going to get there?”  have leveled up a critical notch to “What have I become?” and “What have I done with my life?’ and “What do I do now?”

When the future was a long way away, the answers seemed so easy. Heck, we could be anything we wanted anywhere we wanted (for the most part.) Dream away! But when we have less of a future ahead of us than we do our past, there is far more at stake – or so we tell ourselves. 

You’ve been cruising along, doing life as you have always done it – and most likely at a comfortable level at that – or you would have stopped or been forced to stop long ago. Something had to have been working, right? You are at a place that you worked long and hard to reach. You have a certain level of security. The thought of change – of making a course correction – of coming back to earth and climbing back up again – is daunting -no doubt!

And so is finding contentment in the now – because for all our visioning and planning – the now is all we are guaranteed. The last 2+ years have monotonously and morosely reminded us of that over and over and over again and perhaps may have even been the inspiration of this piece!

And yet…

And yet, how fortunate we are to live in a time and in a country where these meaning and purpose of life thoughts, as dilemma-inspiring as these are, can be had! This freedom is almost too easy to come by and we take it for granted – we become complacent in our relative comfort, assured that no matter what, tomorrow will come. So what if it is the same as today and yesterday? What passes for even a miserable life for this audience, would be an absolute dream for others on this very same earth.

Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.

Why then, is it so hard to envision a future different from your past or present – if that is indeed the dilemma you are facing? What lessons from life do you hold on to? Which ones do you need to let go of in order to move forward?

As we emerge from this pandemic, many of us are reevaluating where life has brought us and who and how we want to be. Maybe it is just to be content with life, finding awe in the present or maybe it is striking out in a new direction and new way of being. As I work through these questions myself, I will leave you with these two thought provoking quotes:

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal” – Paul Coelho

“People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre’ Gide

Let your light so shine!!

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

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

Dear Friends in Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Dropping the Mask

As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal?  Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?

The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested.  And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land –   the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high!  Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself! 

The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send?  What would I do?

The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display.  And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.

This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?

What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me?  How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time?  What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?

The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them.  If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.

Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.?  Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.

Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.

As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.

***

And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment.  Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.

“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “ 

– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message

LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!

September Ponderings

A smokey afternoon by the river.

In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.  – John 16:33

September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.

There is supposed to be a mountain in this scene!

Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!

Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away.  I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time.  Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!

Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back.  And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!

The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.

All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.

Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.

Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being.  As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many.  Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.

There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes?  As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.

Be glad, people of Zion,  rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers,   both autumn and spring rains, as before.  – Joel 2:23

A new day dawns.

Let your light so shine!