Plans, I Have a Few

I think about now. I think about tomorrow. But I don’t give much thought to yesterday.

Yellowstone

Oh, if only that were true!!! Alas, there is something in my DNA that has predestined me to nostalgic tendencies. No matter how much I try to focus on the future or earnestly espouse the wonders of being “present to the present”- the past occupies an inordinate amount of space in my thoughts.

Perhaps it is because the past just proves to be so interesting – all the twists and turns life takes us on. In the moment, we miss out on some of the extraordinary happenings amid the ordinary, amid the chaos, amid the musts and shoulds of everyday life. It’s only upon reflection that the true meaning and essence of certain events comes to light.

It should be no wonder then that I am frequently surprised by life. If you had told me on New Year’s Eve 2021 what 2022 had in store for me, I would have guffawed at your naivete. I could never have fathomed that I would undergo major surgery in June, that I would have to learn to walk again and then proceed to hike over 200 miles in the months after, that one of my best friends would die, that my dog would be poisoned, and that I would cap the year with a spontaneous crazy adventure completely out of my norm! Nope, I did not see any of those things coming.  As I look back on 2022, I am in awe that I am still standing.

But even the most foresighted among us will find themselves surprised, even stunned by what the headlights suddenly reveal on the road before them.

Robert Burns wrote despondently about the vagaries of life in 1785, ruing the calamity brought upon a field mouse’s carefully constructed nest as an oblivious farmer plowed his winter-ravaged field. Little did the mouse know when she awoke that morning to go about the business of securing nourishment and warmth for the day that her home would be destroyed by a farmer’s plow, upending her little family and no doubt changing the entire course of her existence. Goodness, she had plans!

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,

Gang aft agley, (often go awry)

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!”

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men…. The saying is so familiar to us it rolls off our tongues without a moment’s thought when a change of plans forces us to change the course of our day-to-day existence of our well-planned lives. Think about it. Nature has been messing with even the most-prepared (or so we thought) of us. Brutal storms shut down life as we know it – from blizzards in Buffalo to floods in once fire-ravaged California. Think of all the plans upended.

And of course, there, lurking in the background is an almost three-year long pandemic. Today, it is hard to have well-planned lives when the whims of COVID-19 are at play. COVID-19 brought our mortality to the forefront of our thoughts. In an instant, all our plans went up in viral flames and left us standing in the ashes. We are still trying to get community life “back to normal”.

Sometimes the change of course isn’t instigated by a one-off event at all but a gradual realization that your present life is not what you expected or wanted it to be. Moments and realizations like these often beg the questions: Why even have a plan at all? Who’s in charge here?

Working as I do for a former Marine in the financial planning industry, we have plans or as we call them SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything from scheduling appointments to writing reports to technology breakdowns to managing your portfolios to closing up shop for the day. If the power goes out, I can reference our handy three ring binder to find the SOP for working the old-fashioned way! It is amazing how difficult that can be!

While we like to expect that bull markets will reign supreme, we know that the very nature of our business is a roller coaster ride of change. Do we deviate from our written SOP’s? Certainly. No situation is the same, but by having a plan in place beforehand we have a frame of reference from which to launch our response. This response provides us at least part of the answer to the second question: who is in charge here? We are because we know how to react on our toes. We have well-practiced strategies in place.

Now, I will be honest with you, I have yet to find or write an SOP for life. Some will say the Bible is the only operator’s manual you need for living. While that is an excellent Plan A as a source of divine guidance, I need a Plan B for the business side of life. Thus, I am making sure I have a plan for my life when I am no longer “in control” of it.

One evening over dinner, after listening to a group of us share the goings on in our lives and noting how many of our plans and expectations had changed over the last several months, a dear, wiser, much older friend of mine took a sip of wine and remarked with a knowing smile that one of her favorite sayings was an old Yiddish Proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Of course, this notion frustrates me to no end; yet, I know how very true it is. I like to be in control; but in the end, I know who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to be prepared and react wisely to the changes that occur in life.

My wiser older friend on the other hand was completely satisfied with this concept and her life was richer because of it. The morning after our dinner gathering, I received a call that her husband had gone to bed that night and never woke up. In that moment, all of my friend’s reasoning and carefree logic shared the day before came sweeping over me. As I sat with her later that day, she had a peace about her that was inspiring. We talked about her husband and the joys they shared during their 56 years of marriage.  Employed as I am in the financial planning world, I asked her, somewhat awkwardly, if they had “you know, made plans?”

 “Of course! We settled all of that stuff years ago,” she replied matter-of-factly. And because of those plans, during this sudden change in the course of her life, she could focus on just being Nancy. When Nancy passed away, she had outlived her husband and her son. Another friend of mine was left to “close the books” on her life. While never easy, Nancy had made plans so my friend wasn’t left to guess what she wanted – from the kind of service to where her assets went.

One of the best gifts of love you can give your loved ones is an SOP for the end of your life. Don’t leave the burden of reading your now dead (sorry to be so blunt) mind to your family in order to write your final chapter. Don’t “not give a hoot” because, inevitably, someone who cares about you will be left to deal with the state, courts, and government as they handle your affairs.  I write from personal experience having walked through the aftermath of the seemingly well-planned state of my parents’ affairs and watched my brother handle the affairs of my uncle – who did not make any plans.

Take responsibility now for what you hope never happens but at some point, most assuredly will. Yes, I am talking about having a will and having advanced directives in place – even if you are single with no children. Make sure all your financial accounts have payable on death or transfer on death instructions. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. Did you know, the beneficiary instructions on your accounts supersede what you have in your will? Make sure both accurately state your intentions. Formally state what you want done with your possessions and have it legally documented.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is helping a grieving spouse or surviving children close out the financial chapters of their loved one’s life.  Being able to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that their loved one had everything lined out ahead of time and that all I will need is a death certificate and a few signatures takes a very heavy burden off weary shoulders.

As the year unfolds for all of us, we of course hope for nothing but the best. There is much to look forward to. What that is – who knows? But I am ready to meet tomorrow with open arms, a smile, a skip in my step, and a warm embrace. I have plans!

And, when New Year’s Eve 2023 rolls around, I hope that I am celebrating all the wonderful people in my life and giving thanks for all the good times we had this year.  But I also know that I may be thinking about those I have loved and lost – or God forbid – they will be remembering me.

God may laugh when we make plans, but by having a plan we can laugh, cry or just be at peace right alongside God when our best-laid plans go awry.

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. – James 4:13-17

Whatever 2023 has in store for you, let your light so shine!

Remembering… With Joy!

Christmas 2012

It’s been 10 years since I celebrated Christmas with my family. I had no idea that December 24th and 25th of 2012 would be our last Christmas together but I remember it as one of our best. There were the usual ruffled feathers over Christmas decorating and getting to church on time for the multiple candlelight services we helped with and of course – the very quick supper of Swedish meatballs and potatoes. That was a step up from our supper the year before – when we slurped Campbells New England Clam Chowder with a can of potato soup added to make it “a little more special” before dashing off to church. I intentionally use the word “supper” as dinner would falsely elevate the nature of our Christmas “feasts.”

Once home for the night, I played Christmas carols on the piano for my dad as we awaited my brother Fred and his wife Kathie’s arrival and my mom to finally come down from her last-minute Christmas efforts to join us around the tree. The peanut brittle and nuts, eggnog and hot cocoa were ready to see us through a Christmas Eve that would last until the wee hours of the morning. Long past our dog Tucker’s bedtime – but even he managed to stay alert for anything that just might taste good.

Most of my family Christmas’s had a – let me just say – high emotional content – sometimes hair-trigger level – but not that last one. For once, there was nothing but warmth and love and even laughter. I will treasure that last family Christmas forever.

I’ve had a decade of Christmases since: Christmases spent with an Irish Catholic family three times the size of mine (something I had always dreamed of after watching too many Hallmark Christmas movies), Christmases spent pining for home when I couldn’t get home, Christmases spent with dear friends and their extended families, a first Christmas without Mom followed by a first Christmas without Dad but with a new puppy, a newly-wed Christmas followed by a newly-annulled Christmas, a COVID solitary Christmas, a Christmas spent hiking to a mountain lake by myself, Christmas’s spent with special cousins, and finally this Christmas.

This is the first Christmas I have spent in the present! No, not hiding in a miraculously wrapped package under the tree- but in the here and wonderful now!

The past few years I have lived in the foregone certainty of my past while running through and from my life. The past, you see, really was an idyllic setting. Time and distance do wonders for the past. It’s amazing how good it looks and feels with age! It was a time and place that didn’t know immense grief, betrayal, and most of all constant pain. A place where I had control of life – before things went haywire.

I spent most of the summer recovering from surgery and learning to walk again. As I think about it now, I was also learning how to live again. Being forced to rest and “deal” with my life rather than running through and from it, finally put me on a positive path. I have a whole new appreciation for who I am, and who I can be. I spent time examining my failures and made peace with them. They will no longer control the direction of my life. Period!

That my life isn’t what it used to be or how I had once imagined it would be or what I or what others think (or I think that they think) it should be – makes it no less worthy of living and no less worthy of joy!

This is the first Christmas I am looking back on all those Christmases past filled – not with sadness and melancholy – but with joy and gratitude and awe. Joy for the love planted and still grows within me, gratitude for the good, sad, hard, and lonely times that shaped me, and awe at this ever-surprising gift of life we get to journey through. This is the first Christmas I feel truly content – at peace with who I am and how life is and how I am celebrating the birth of the Light that has always lived in me – shining through it all.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. I am living proof!

May the light of Christ shine as brightly in your life as it is mine – that is my Christmas prayer for you. And a reminder to cherish every moment of life.

Merry Christmas.

Christmas 2022

This Life is the Very Best Gift

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

The things we leave behind…. This time of year always finds me in a reflective state of mind. A state of mind that has become nearly as traditional as all the traditions that bring on such erstwhile musings – the cherished Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas carols from my childhood, the art of writing Christmas letters, watching Rudolph on TV for the 47th year in a row, holiday baking, and wrapping presents “just so”.  It’s hard not to be nostalgic for those rose-colored times of yore when life was simpler, laughter was more frequent, wonder took precedence over skepticism, and I was naive to the rushing, crushing ways of the world.

While yesterday may not have much to be desired for, yesteryear seems downright resplendent! You know, before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before illness, before betrayal, before saying yes, before saying no, before Mom and Dad died, before moving away, before graduating from college, high school, kindergarten… Before, before, before: insert your own “past-tensity” here.

When present times are difficult the past is a much more inviting place to reside – and with each passing day, the past becomes longer and more encompassing.  In the comfort of the past, you have seen it all and you know how to make it through each day. You are, in fact, living proof of that certainty, you tell yourself.

The past few years I have lived in that foregone certainty. It really is an idyllic setting. Time and distance do wonders for the past. It’s amazing how good it looks and feels with age!

A time and place that didn’t know immense grief, betrayal, and most of all constant pain. A place where I had control of life – before things went haywire. Ironically, 5, 10, or 15 years from now I will probably be saying the same thing about today.

Last year as I was decorating my Christmas tree, I was in tears – longing for the one gift that could never be mine – the past. There was just too much wrong with the present and the future was too unknown to be hoped for.

The unhappy person is never present to themself because they always live in the past or the future. – Soren Kierkegaard, Danish poet, author, philosopher, and theologian.

Kierkegaard said that the more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes.

When you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived the very past you long for. Your past has prepared you for your present and your present is laying the foundation for tomorrow- whether you are aware of it or not. While our present can only be realized by surviving the past, our future depends on the now.

Indeed, in my Yuletide tears of yore – as recent as last Christmas – I could not have fathomed how different my life would be today. This realization struck me as I was hanging the last of my mother’s and now my heirloom lace snowflakes on my Christmas tree – my past melancholy had melted away. My present was my present!

Well actually, there are many gifts this year that steered me to my present – gifts that may not have been perceived as such at the time – like a deteriorated hip which led to a total hip replacement and a huge medical bill, not to mention the complete loss of “control” and independence that comes with recovery from major surgery.

I spent most of the summer recovering from surgery. I liken it to time spent in a cocoon. Sounds like a great time, right? Certainly not! Or so I thought. But in truth, the pause in daily life as usual I was forced to observe gave me life – not just my life back – but gave me life. Being forced to rest and “deal” with my life rather than running through it as my modus operandi had always been finally put me on a positive pathway. I have a whole new appreciation for who I am, and who I can be. I also learned to trust again – seeing that others wanted to and did come through for me – including the Health Care Sharing ministry I joined years ago but never “tested”. At some point in my life I lost the ability to trust others – having been used, hurt or betrayed one too many times. Trusting beyond the boundary of myself again opens so many doors to life.

I missed out on so much life because I was just trying to manage my physical and mental anguish in ways that were not helpful. Not everyone gets a second chance at life – this will be my third. They say the third time’s the charm. I’m not going to waste it!!

In the months since my metamorphosis, I have been revisiting past joys and embarking on new adventures. I haven’t had this much outright FUN in ages!  I pondered all of this as I hung that last heirloom snowflake. I realized that I was happy – that I am happy in all its wonderful present tense-ness. Who I am is who I am.

That my life isn’t what it used to be or how I had once imagined it to be or what I think it should be, makes it no less worthy and no less worthy of joy! I am also no less worthy of rest, no less worthy of respect, no less worthy period.  I am a survivor of life – a divinely inspired one – every bit as much as you are.

Theologian Henri Nouwen gave words to my moment of divinely inspired contentment, (emphasis mine):

“I know that, alone, I cannot see, hear or touch God in the world. But God in me, the living Christ in me, can see, hear and touch God in the world, and all that is Christ’s in me is fully my own. His simplicity, his purity, his innocence are my very own because they are truly given to me to be claimed as my most personal possessions… All that there is of love in me is a gift from Jesus, yet every gesture of love I am able to make will be recognized as uniquely mine. That’s the paradox of grace. The fullest gift of grace brings with it the fullest gift of freedom. There is nothing good in me that does not come from God, through Christ, but all the good in me is uniquely my own. The deeper my intimacy with Jesus, the more complete is my freedom.”

It is frightening to contemplate how much of our lives we cede to despair, pain, frustration, anger, sorrow, contempt, fear, control, etc., I could go on. If only we could always be mindful of God’s gift of grace in our life and leave those other things behind.

I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to dare to know myself again, to dare to live again, and to hope again – that we might all see, hear and touch God in this world, always.

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

Wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas filled with all the joys and grace of this most wonderful life.

Let your light so shine!

Food For the Journey

It’s that time of year again.

What do those words conjure up for you? Excitement, stress, joy, dread? Maybe you have already partaken in long held traditions heralding the arrival of the most wonderful time of year or perhaps your tradition is the unwelcome arrival of the blues. Perhaps nostalgia takes hold with thoughts of better times or maybe this present time is the best time of your life for which you are in full celebration mode!

My email in-box is rife with consumerist fodder appealing to my seasonal emotions and the necessity to buy into the tradition of buying. It is also filled with reminders of how little time I have left to get my act together if I want to have perfect holiday celebrations.

As I write, I am listening – though not intently – to the host and guests of the radio show The Splendid Table discuss the impending tradition-rich Thanksgiving holiday. Food and family are the essence of this holiday. And while the original Thanksgiving holiday probably didn’t look, taste or feel anything like the “traditional holiday” we practice today – we hold fast to the sentiment that gathering around food – especially with those we love – imbues.

Indeed, food and family are the essence of life. None of us would be here today had we not spawned from a family of some sort and we could not survive without food. That I am writing and you are reading this missive means we have both succeeded in coming from a family and found enough food to eat. Yay!

And yet these two basic necessities for life can make life fraught. Food. Family. Ugh.

Our culture has a complex and conflicting relationship with both.

We value the abundance of both and yet most of us at some time or another have endured times of scarcity or suffered from over indulgence; likewise, we have likely experienced times of loneliness or immense homesickness and times when we wondered how we came from the same gene pool.

Our lives are governed by the foods we choose or choose not to eat, and our identity is borne from the family life we have or don’t have.

We hunger for satiation while being told or feeling compelled to restrict, we venerate the family ideal while many families are broken or at the breaking point.

We bring all of this complexity and conflict to the Thanksgiving table every year on the 4th Thursday of November – whether we are surrounded by two, ten, twenty, or none at all.

I am blessed to say that I bring all of the above life experiences to the table. How about you?

I have experienced the immense joy of generations of family around a common table saying grace, sharing a never-ending basket of soft, steaming Parker House rolls, vying for the turkey drumstick and trying to politely pass on the bitter cranberry relish. I have found community in a church fellowship hall filled with laughter and the chaos of two turkeys, 2 hams, and all the fixings being prepared by us for us on Thanksgiving Day, not on some other day so everyone can “still celebrate the real day the right way” because we were all most of us had – all 50 of us – to be with on Thanksgiving Day. 

Our last Thanksgiving with Dad.

One year my mom fixed toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for the four of us on the big day. I have had Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers by myself more times than I care to reveal right now. I have witnessed doors slammed and I have slammed doors on this day of blessing.  I have seen tears shed over a shattered heirloom casserole dish and shed tears at the realization that the last Thanksgiving dinner of my father’s life had just been eaten – barely so. For most of the last 10 years, my Thanksgiving tradition has been to be a part of someone else’s traditions or none at all.

I planned and brought forth Thanksgiving for my family 3 times in my life – it was wonderful. I savor those memories – rose-colored as they may be – as life is very different now.

Some years I have longed to be surrounded by family and friends without an invite or way to get home, others years I have politely declined invitations to join others in order to have one day of peace and reflection all to myself amid my working life’s chaos.

Perhaps you, like me, in certain seasons of life, have wondered, if only in the confines of your weary, stressed, dejected, scarcity-stricken mind, why? Why do we do this to ourselves every year?

It would be so much easier – if not healthier – to just chill for the day. And I am not by any means ruling that out!! Despite what the hosts with the most and all the gathering experts promulgate across the airwaves, social media, magazine covers (taunting me as I stand in the grocery line with my sliced bread and pasta sauce) and blogosphere, there is no “right” way to celebrate or observe this day.

As I reflect on the 45 of the 50 Thanksgivings that I can remember celebrating, I find it is the complexity and conflicting realities of my life that give Thanksgiving its true meaning. God does amazing things with darkness and chaos – just look at the earth and all of creation. 

The Thanksgivings that have garnered seats at the table of my memory and my heart are not the ones that came off with aplomb, epitomized tradition, or were even all that tasty. In fact, I can count on one hand the turkey breast, stuffing or dessert I can remember raving about.  The ones that stick with me are the ones where God’s grace shined through the chaos and conflict, through the fraught and frenzy, and through times of immense loneliness and loss. When the dancing glow of candlelight broke through the darkness at the table.

As someone whose life was stolen by the hands of a vicious eating disorder for 10 years many years ago, I used to dread this day of food and family. Freed from that death sentence, I now see Thanksgiving as a meal of and for life – celebrating the life I once had, honoring my current perfectly imperfect life, and providing nourishment for the journey ahead. It is an opportunity to give thanks for those I have shared and share life with, the lives of those reading these words, and those who don’t know I exist but someday might.

It is a day we can and should pause with a gratitude that goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is pure gift. It is a day that provides fuel for, as the esteemed poet Mary Oliver penned, “(Our) work of loving the world” and spending our days living more fully into that job description.

No matter how we gather (or don’t) this Thanksgiving, no matter what is on the menu, for all of that and all of life’s glorious complexity, challenges, consternation, and curiosity, I will be giving thanks not just with my words but with my life. Will you join me?

“In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Wishing you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving.

Let your light so shine!

Imagine that…

Today was one of those days – haven’t had one in a while – where a red light or smidgeon of blue sky in the inversion-bleh sky could make me cry. It was as if Mom and Dad had just died. The grief just washed over me and I felt completely alone – orphaned in this great big world – even alone in this place I call “home”. Not even a full week into the never-ending darkness and my “woe is me” was at a critical level.

But tonight, I mustered all the courage I had and gathered with a group I once called “my people” before annulment, before covid, before pain took all joy from my life – and I made an astounding discovery! They are still “my people” – and not only that – they were happy to see me!! All my social anxieties about being alone and going somewhere alone and being wondered about because I am alone were for naught!

I wasn’t alone once I joined in.

My God! I thought – imagine that???

I can climb mountains without a thought – but facing the world as I am – that’s a daunting endeavor that terrifies me.

As I left, I felt a wee bit stronger in my own boots and so grateful for the community and the kind souls that welcomed me in. You have no idea how much light your “small” kindness brought to me. Thank you. It feels good to “be back”.

Let your light so shine – always – you never know who might need it.

When Things Go Amiss

A sermon for Reformation Day 10/30/2022

John 8:31-36 Jeremiah 31:31-34

Recently, I was reacquainted with an old classmate of mine from high school through our Class of 89 group on Facebook. It had been 33 years since I had seen him. He looked very happy in the photos he shared of himself with his family, but the photos also gave me pause. Have I aged as much as he had?? I mean I look in the mirror every day and though I definitely have mornings when I glance painfully at my sight and just want to go back to bed, I really don’t see a marked difference from day to day. Was I missing something??  You can save me from the compliments later. 😁 But truth be told – most of us just get up and do life – we take each day as it comes unaware of the changes taking place within us and happening to us with every experience because we are too busy experiencing it! It’s only when we have some distance from the moment that we become aware that something has changed. The more life we have behind us, the less aware we are of just how adept we are at encountering and adapting to the world around us. It just happens – that is how life works – until it doesn’t, and you realize something is amiss. 

Something was amiss when God made a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. All would know God from the least to the greatest with their iniquities forgiven and their sin remembered no more. God wanted to be sure nothing came between God and God’s people. 

Something was amiss 505 years ago tomorrow, when Martin Luther found it necessary to nail his 95 Theses to the castle doors calling for an end to the separation of the people from God, this time by none other than the Church.  

Today, Reformation Day – we celebrate and give thanks for God’s continued reformation and renewal of the Church and our relationship with Him, especially when things go amiss. 

Something was amiss in Jerusalem where we join Jesus today. He has been teaching in the temple about his identity as the light of the world. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) The Pharisees push back, questioning his authority. So not wanting to let a good opportunity to challenge us go by – Jesus turns to his followers who – we are told – still believed in him – and tells them that their faith alone does not make them his disciples. It’s as if he wants to be the unpopular guy.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Yes, they may be believers, but if they are to truly become his disciples, they must remain in His word. 

Now – we know that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, the Word God speaks and, through whom God created the world. Jesus embodies, reveals, and teaches God’s word.    The word continue is translated from the Greek “meno” which means to abide in or remain with. Therefore, those who want to be His disciples must remain in Jesus and allow His words to govern their actions. Only then will they know the truth that frees.

We hear & know God’s word through the Gospel. We describe “Gospel” in a variety of ways – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life. Today’s passage adds another way to speak of the Gospel – truth and freedom. The kind of words to write on your heart. Inspiring words, good words.  But they are also hard words. 

Hard because they all assume need and we don’t like to admit to needing anything. The one who values salvation knows that he or she needs saving. The one for whom grace is important is aware of the need for grace. Forgiveness implies sin. Life implies one is not really living. Freedom means we need to be made free. Truth – well what is this truth? We have lots of truths!

Jesus promises his followers that if those who believe remain in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free, but as is so often the way in the Gospel of John, Jesus is misunderstood. Just as the Samaritan woman at the well thought that Jesus was talking about literal water rather than living water, His listeners immediately assume that He is suggesting that they are slaves who need to be freed from their earthly masters.

Their response is one of perplexity, indignance. What sounded like Good News, a positive development – now clangs loudly on the ears.  

“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute, wait a minute! What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’? 

“We are free. Nobody tells us what to do. We’re in charge of our own lives. Why do you think we need you to make us free?” Confident of their heritage and identity, they are sure that they are already free.

Now, admittedly there is a certain absurdity to their reply. The entire book of Exodus centers on their enslavement.  The most central part of their story hinges on God leading the Jewish people out of slavery through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the promised land. It would seem his followers have developed blind spots to their history of enslavement and are oblivious to what enslaves them now.

Jesus promptly challenges their claim, pointing not to their heritage but to their actions: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).  Because they have followed their own desires instead of God’s word, they have become slaves to sin.

But here’s my question: are we really all that different?  Which words of Jesus stuck with you, today? Those that spoke to Truth & Freedom or of Sin & Enslavement.

When have you lived without sin? How does it feel to be called out as a slave to it? 

How often do we honestly admit that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect? When was the last time you willingly admitted you were wrong, or for that matter, your need, your hurt, your brokenness? 

Especially today, when there is so much cultural pressure to be right – all the time – to act as if you have it all together – a great life, excellent job, wonderful relationships, a brilliant future. Greatness is an expectation for just about everything. You know the relentless pursuit of happiness and all…  

And when we look in the mirror, we are much more apt to say things that might sound familiar if you were here last week… God, I thank you that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers, snobs, fakes, conservatives, liberals, democrats, republicans, those invading “onians…” reckless spenders, greedy financiers, creation plunderers, snowflakes, wokes, racists, communists, socialists, fascists…  or whatever is so “obviously” your opposite.  

We don’t like to think of ourselves as righteous, we just happen to know that we are right. It is so much easier to justify ourselves and blame others for our circumstance than to admit that there is room not just for growth and improvement but also a need for help, repentance, and forgiveness. 

When we look in the mirror, we fail to see our own shortcomings and our own participation in systems and ways that cause harm to others. Our blind spots hold us captive. We fail to see the truth. 

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Freedom, as a state of being, is something to be celebrated. But being made free… well that declares that we are not free already. That we are not our own person, that we are not in control, that we are enslaved. 

Much like the Jews who insisted to Jesus that they had “never been slaves to anyone,” our current reality looks nothing like slavery. Thanks to our United States Constitution and the amendments that reform it freedom is in our DNA. 

We like our freedoms and for that matter, our truths (emphasis on the plural).  What’s more, we like them on our terms.  

We don’t need to be “set free” because “duh” – we already are. We are free to make our own decisions, free to define who we are by our standards, and free to manifest our own destiny. We are even free to choose our own truths and get on with our life just as we always have. What more could we want? 

Take a look in the mirror again and this time look deep. How about an honest, deep, and abiding relationship with God?

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

At its core, sin is not about immorality; it is not about bad decisions or bad actions or even inaction. Sin is not what we do, but the reason behind why we do it. Sin is a condition of our soul. And the underlying condition of our sin nature is the desire to be in control. Or, put another way, sin is the desire to claim “freedom” from God’s control. Sin is about estrangement from God. The absence of God in our lives. 

The freedom Jesus is speaking of is not a freedom from oppression but rather – freedom from our estrangement from GOD – our enslavement to sin.

You may not think of yourself as a slave to anything, especially sin – but there are ways of being in this world that feel like we are shackled, trapped, in bondage. When we follow our own truths and pursue our own desires instead of God’s word, we will inevitably become slaves to sin.

When we align ourselves to dogmas, practices, addictions, parties, political figures, or any of the prolific and divisive isms that pervade our culture and society; when we rest securely (or not so much) in our retirement accounts and gold holdings or real estate then we’ve placed our trust in someone or something other than the righteousness of God. 

If our ways lead us to seek power and superiority over others rather than being on the side of the weak, the ostracized, and the cast out – then we are captive to the systems of control and oppression of this world over the compassion and mercy of God.

When we ensconce our identity and sense of worth in the cultural and social trappings of this world – how much money we have, where we live, our professional, social, or marital status, our professional or athletic accomplishments, or our physical appearance – we are slaves to believing the mistruths of this world instead of God’s Truth.

We think our many “truths” and freedoms are the essence of our identity; we think they give meaning and control to our life but in reality, they are traps – they shackle rather than enlarge our life. 

As long as we continue to live as if who we are is rooted in what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain trapped by judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that the only way we can ever experience true freedom is to claim our identity as beloved children of God. 

The substantial freedoms that any of us enjoy in this world quickly pale in comparison to the ultimate freedom that Jesus addresses with his teaching and through his life, death, and resurrection. Because when it comes to what is most important in the scope of eternity compared to what we hold as important in the brokenness of now, we are not free at all. We are slaves. 

Slaves to a world that wants to define our worth on its terms. Slaves to control, doubt and the self-defeating cycle of proving ourselves worthy. 

When we turn away from God and the ways of Jesus, the world will gladly step in and take over.  We don’t even notice it happening at first, but as time goes on – we cede more and more of our truth, more and more of our freedom – to sin. And then all of sudden it hits us – we look in the mirror and don’t recognize or like what we see. Something is amiss. We’ve lost direction. We are estranged from God. 

Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus Christ. Really knowing Jesus.  We can study a person’s teachings and know all about their life, their habits, and their history, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. To know them we must spend time with them, listen to them, and share ourselves with them. As Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

We become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us; reform and renew us.

This is what makes Jesus’ promise of freedom a bit of a mixed blessing. Because to claim the good news of Truth and Freedom we are first made to acknowledge that we on our own are not free. To be free we must first be honest with ourselves before God through God’s merciful free gift of returning to Him – repentance.

Before God and one another we humble ourselves and we confess that we are captive to sin and we cannot free ourselves; realizing again and again that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves free from the forces of sin and death, from the forces in the world and in ourselves that defy God and defy God’s ultimate power and divinity and we ask for and receive God’s mercy.

When we genuinely confess each week, we become painfully aware that we need so much –   salvation, grace, forgiveness, life, truth and freedom. We need the Gospel. We need God’s Truth. 

Jesus is God’s truth. He exposes the hatred, the selfishness, and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he liberates us from them, making us free to follow him instead, emulating his love and compassion and grace and mercy for all people.

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

When we acknowledge that we are captive to the cycle of sin then Jesus’ words beam with the bright light of hope for eternity.  When we are humble enough to recognize our true circumstance, these words sing of gospel truth and the great good news that it is.

For those of you looking for freedom in this place of worship, look to the cross of Jesus Christ. The Holy Cross and all that was shown and offered and accomplished through it is the one and only symbol we need of our surpassing and eternal freedom.

For those of you searching for identity you will find it most clearly in the baptismal font where you were drowned to sin and raised to live again, claimed and named as a redeemed child of God – the most important truth any of us could ever hope to profess. 

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.

Still searching for the true truth and real freedom? Look in the mirror – Jesus has claimed and freed you. Nothing can come between you and God. 

Thanks be to God and to God be the glory!

The Vast Eternity of Now’s Uncertainty

I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come?

So begins the Song of Ascents, Psalm 121, and a question that may be familiar to you – or not. Surely, you have looked to the horizon in search of answers at some point in your life.

I have been asked to include this Psalm in funeral services I have presided over and people of the Jewish and Christian faith often read it at the beginning of a variety of journeys – as a form of assurance in the face of uncertainty, grief, longing, and anxiety that come on the road of life. It is often found framed in the delivery rooms of Jewish hospitals where newborns begin the daunting journey of life. In times of economic and political instability when we all want to make a run for the hills – perhaps it would suit us better to take a deep breath and dwell on these words.

From my dining room window, I can lift my eyes upon Columbia Mountain and gaze for hours and ask that very question- ‘From where will my help come?”

Just four short months ago I was doing just that – along with the questions: Just how long is it going to be; what is going to happen to me; what if this isn’t the right choice? What if things don’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong? What if I am not as strong as I need to be? What if I am not who I think I am? What if You, God, are not who I believe you are? Yes, even THAT question!

At the time, I was preparing for a significant “life-event” you might call it. Total Hip Replacement. Just saying the words seemed so unreal. I was too young for that sort of thing! I didn’t have room in my life for that kind of disruption! While I was thankful I could prepare for the surgery rather than have it suddenly forced upon me, the whole process raised significant questions, unsettledness, and apprehension within me. For someone who boldly professed her conviction in the things unseen and her hope for things to come – the state of unknowingness I found myself in had me completely untethered.  My life felt suspended and I wondered if I would ever feel grounded again. Uncertainty reigned within me – me, the consummate control freak.

What if the things to come are not what I intended? (As if we have any control over that!) What if my choice was wrong? What if this changed me – what if I changed – CHANGED (gasp!!) forever?

Such questions are natural — whether one is contemplating a geographic journey through dangerous territory, a journey through the many ups and downs of a lifetime, or a spiritual journey seeking one’s true self and/or a reunion with God.

It’s dangerous out there – outside of our well protected selves. It can be dangerous within our overly protected selves too!  Disease, injury, accidents, war, or illness threaten our bodies. Natural disasters, recessions, depressions, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, and theft rock our foundations. Doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, and outright untruths vie for our allegiance.

The big what ifs that accompany so much of life – what do we do with questions like that? What do we do amid the vast eternity of now’s uncertainty???

The rest of the Psalm provides the answer – if we are so inclined not to just listen but also hear.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Not from escaping to the mountains and hiking away my troubles and anxieties as I so frequently do. In the weeks following my surgery – weeks that seemed like eons – I could only dream of hiking in the hills, forests and mountains again – but I rested in the arms of their Creator and help did come. The metaphoric mountains of life by their very existence bear witness to the hand of our Creator. It is often in the steepest of climbs and darkest of valleys – our most challenging times – that we grasp for a higher power and His existence is revealed.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

As I slowly gained my freedom I was met with new anxieties – what if I fall, will my strength ever come back, will I ever sleep again? I stumbled and I fell – figuratively and literally. As my life began to return to “normal,” I found myself repeating old habits that I had eschewed in light of my diagnosis and prescribed remedy. But I was able to overcome them and step forward in new directions. Revealing again that God is a keeper. God protects, shields, watches over, guards, and keeps like a Watchman keeping guard over a city or a bird shielding its young in the shelter of Her wings.

God kept watch over me when I wasn’t watching out for myself. I remember one evening midway through my recovery when I realized I had pushed my limits too far and walked much further than I should have. I was starting to panic as my legs got weak and I was 2.5 miles from home. Of course, I would not call for help – but as if on cue to my prayers of consternation – a friend pulled up beside me on the road and said “Hey there – you look a little tired. Want a ride?“

The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

These words of promise by no means imply that those who walk in the shelter of God will not face harm or that nothing ill will come their way. On the contrary, the writer knows all too well the nature of this world we live in is not for the faint of heart – that we will meet with opposition and evil – not at every turn – but enough for us to grow weary and wary.

If my faith were as certain as my hindsight – I would have no trouble in life. But I’ve lived enough and long enough to know that the very essence of this life is why I/we need this psalm – these words of promise – to get us through the vast eternity of now’s uncertainty.

Since my surgery four “short” months ago, I have returned to the mountains with a passion and with a new appreciation for the mountains of life. Not only have I successfully and blissfully crossed physical boundary lines, but I have let go of a few mental ones too.

  • My fear of falling and failing that has held me back since my surgery and, quite honestly, throughout my life, has started to diminish and been replaced by a sense of freedom and confidence even amid the uncertainty of life.
  • I am who I am – not just who I think I am.
  • I am strong – by a standard much different than my idea of strength.
  • And, I am assured, not by what God promises to do but what God does. What God does for those who rely on Him when life turns upside down and your light is turned to dark, when the journey ahead is not the one you mapped out, when nothing makes sense in the moment, when uncertainty reigns within you. 

God guards you as you go on your journey of life and as you return home. As you go out and come in. As you face the vast eternity of now’s uncertainty forevermore.

Let your light so shine!!

The Times, they are a Changing!

Are we finally seeing the light?

That I may never pass this way again and see things as I saw them then…

There has been a lot written, tweeted, and talked about the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting of late. And if you, like me, find yourself on hold for unacceptable lengths of time when service in “the before times” used to be “quick” and exemplary, or waiting to be helped or served anywhere from the grocery store to the local diner, and even the doctor’s office if you can get in – then you may be more than ready to grumpily jump on the frustration band-wagon. “Where have all the workers gone? “ We shout along with the headlines. Even politicians are using the phenomenon to bolster their economic positions – on both sides of the debate.

While labor productivity has declined since the pandemic surge – the reason is not a sudden outbreak of generational laziness. It is that record-high rates of job switching have created an inexperience bubble in the service sector and many new workers aren’t fully trained. I’ve experienced this myself dealing with the service end of an institutional financial brokerage house.

Furthermore- the phenomenon seems to me to be more hype than reality reveals. Most people have not suddenly quit working – as unbelievable as that may seem from trending stories and our own experiences. According to Gallup (who also used their numbers to make headlines) the decline in worker engagement is only 2% in a year but it has grown 6% since 2000. See the graph below:

I’ll stop there with the economic data and my amateur analysis of our workforce. There are plenty of highly professional financial analysts out there who will gladly discuss those details with you!

But I do want to delve further into this quiet or great quitting phenomenon. It is something that seems anathema to me as one who entered the workforce when jobs were scarce and you were grateful for any offer that slightly resembled a job in your field of study. The idea of doing anything but over-impressing and gladly working overtime wasn’t even a consideration.

That is not the case in this post-pandemic time. As Derek Thompson explains in his “Progress” column for the Atlantic: “A lot of workers are seeking an efficient way to describe the colliding pressures of wanting to be financially secure, but not wanting to let work take over their life, but also having major status anxiety, but also experiencing guilt about that status anxiety, and sometimes feeling like gunning for that promotion, and sometimes feeling like quitting, and sometimes feeling like crawling into a sensory deprivation tank to make all those other anxieties shut up for a moment.”

A lot of words to describe the very real emotions and psyche exercises experienced by individuals wading through the complexities of the economy of life.

What is going on in our hearts and minds right now? What do we do with that status anxiety, guilt, pressure to achieve, pressure to attain, and the desire to flee and give it all away that comes with work?

I think most of us struggle to make sense of our economic lives. We struggle to find that perfect balance between not enough and too much work, not enough and too much money. Wait – can anyone have too much money??? We all think so except for ourselves!

Continuing on… We all struggle at times with not enough and too much time and we struggle to make good decisions and strive to make good use of our resources of all types. That’s the key to flourishing – but there is only so much of each of us and external factors limit what we can control – the last 14 years have certainly proven that.

During the final crisis of 2008 and the roller coaster highs and lows since, people’s lives were taken for a ride right along with their bank and retirement accounts.  During the pandemic many people saw the frenetic pace of their lives shut-down and, as life gets back to normal, we are reassessing what is important to us.

Whether those same people know it or not – they are carrying out the teachings of Jesus. Could quiet quitting and the Great Resignation actually be biblical?

Our relationship to wealth and the acquisition and management of it is complex. And, while the bible is full of guidelines for living well and proper stewardship of our resources – it won’t offer you a quick sound bite-worthy financial maxim. However, I’ll lift up a few of Jesus’ words on the economy of life.

  • “Where your heart is there your treasure will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, Luke 12:34,).
  •  “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.  I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. (Luke 16: 8-9) 
  • “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

From this – we can glean a few key concepts:

  • Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility.
  • Wealth – along with status, power, and privilege – is fleeting.
  • We are placed on this earth to love and care for each other, not to separate ourselves from each other with wealth, status, or privilege.

We all like to think we have mastered the first – we are blessed to be a blessing to others – and many even consult financial advisors in order to be responsible stewards. However, we have also learned the hard way that wealth is often, if not repeatedly fleeting, and we haven’t done a very good job of not separating ourselves. The pandemic along with the politics it bred have magnified this glaring truth.

The truth is, we live in a world that is profoundly interconnected — and profoundly compromised.  Even the tiniest financial decisions we make — where to shop, how to invest our money, what to eat or wear have far-reaching consequences. Again and again, Jesus reminds us to hold this complicated reality close to our hearts and our consciences all the time. The great thinker St. Augustine asserted that God gave us people to love and things to use, but we all too often have a penchant to confuse those two, loving things and using people. That is a costly way of living in more ways than just monetarily.

We’ve been told – even by some in the church – that we can have it all – both God and money – relationships and money – love and money. The thing is – money and its acquisition can be as much of a drug as alcohol. Both must be managed responsibly or they can ruin an otherwise very fortunate life.  We do need money; we do need to participate in the economy of life – we just can’t let ourselves fall prey to it.

And so, perhaps we are finally awakening to the Gospel truth – that there is more to life than our status, our careers, our wealth. The fact that this awakening is causing such system wide disruption speaks to the pervasive presence money and its acquisition have on all of our lives. I can’t think of a better disrupter than the calling to live as children of light in a world that sorely needs grace, forgiveness, and freedom – spiritually, socially, and economically. May we enter that calling with our whole hearts and minds with creativity, urgency, shrewdness and compassion.

Thank you, Lord, for the challenges of life and for the changes that make one appreciate all that was, all they have, and give hope for what yet will be.

Let your light so shine!

It’s Good to Be Here…

There are places I’ll remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever, not for better

Some have gone and some remain…

It was hard work getting to this place – if only for a moment – where the torrents inside softened to an ebb and flow as mellow as morning’s first light. It’s a place that I’ll remember as life rushes on in its capricious way.

It is good to be here.

I want to stay.

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.