Aligning Life

“I want my inner truth to be the plumb line for the choices I make about my life – about the work that I do and how I do it, about the relationships I enter into and how I conduct them.”  — Parker J. Palmer

I first heard the term “plumb line” when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was in the process of finishing our basement – building out a bedroom for my then college-aged brother. It made no sense to me then what a purple fruit that little Jack Horner pulled out of his Christmas pie had to do with construction! 

The next time I encountered the term “plumb line” it was in a completely different context. I had just turned 43 and a family friend who was also a personally influential pastor told me about his week-long “Plumb-Line” seminars and how they changed people’s lives. I had not yet started my in-depth studies of the biblical prophets for my Lay Pastoral Associate program nor had I furthered my construction career past hammering my thumb, so this idea was still a fairly new concept to me. I’ve now reached a point in my life where I’m ready to be “plumbed” and once again encountered the concept in a recent reading of mine.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, the prophet Amos spoke of God establishing a plumb line by which the people of Israel would be measured. (Amos 7: 7-17). “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

A plumb line – for those of you who may still be wondering – is a tool used by builders to find the true vertical using the force of gravity and a weight hanging from a cord.  A plumb line ensures the wall or structure you are building is at a perfect right angle to the earth. The plumb line Amos spoke of God setting served three purposes: construction, testing what is built, and destruction – or the casting down what cannot stand. God has always had a plumbline in his hand. God is not a careless creator.

The above message comes to Amos at a time of prosperity and peace – when it seems everything is right; but in reality, all is not well – not well at all. The “wall” is crooked and will fall. Just as his listeners were then, people can be manipulated into believing all is well, but the plumb line – the standard of good – cannot be manipulated and God’s justness cannot be manipulated.

Whether you are aware of them or not (like me for the first 43 years of my life), we all have multiple plumb lines in our lives. The values, qualities, beliefs, and priorities that guide our lives all serve as plumb lines. As a modern-day level shows us when our lines are not straight, our plumb lines serve as minders when our lives are out of whack and off kilter. They help us focus on what really matters and offer us strength and stability.

Plumb lines don’t just apply to or matter to the individual. As with the Israelites in the book of Amos, plumb lines are also communal in nature. Our communities, states, and nations have plumb lines in the form of laws and constitutions.

The plumb lines we set for our lives matter not only for us as individuals but also for our communities and our relationships. At their highest purpose, they serve as relational guides, promoting life and human dignity. In the hands of our flawed humanity, they can also diminish life and human dignity – individually and communally.

I wasn’t ready to hear about the plumb lines of life when my pastor friend shared what his plumb-line seminars entailed. I had just uprooted my life and moved at the time; and frankly, I couldn’t handle any more change in my life, nor did I have the will or the time to examine it – though in hindsight that would have been the ideal time to do so.

Sometimes we choose to reset the plumb lines in our lives. We sense that something just isn’t right – there is a gnawing restlessness bothering our souls. So, we make an effort to change – get away for a while – take a break – perhaps seek counseling – and reassess. Other times we don’t have a say in the matter. Other times events, circumstances, or experiences – pivotal points in our lives – start the plumb line swinging and we are forced to rethink everything. It’s as if there is a reset on everything, including our plumb lines.

Our country, our world, is at one of these pivotal points – just look at any newspaper or news program or social media feed. Grief; suffering; immense loss of purpose, place, and life; chaos and confusion; distrust and insecurity reign. The U.S. Supreme Court alone has provided a wealth of material in just the past few weeks while Congress follows in fast pursuit. Live video feeds capture the consequences of continued gun violence, followed by modern day “prophets” spouting words that are no less destructive. The plumb lines of our country have been swinging wildly and crashing into each other as our ideals and traditions are challenged. From mass shootings and civil & political unrest to economic instability and ecclesial division, who among us today doesn’t feel like he or she is having to reset the plumb lines of life?

But this is nothing new. Resetting plumb lines is a part of every life in every place and in every time. It is how we grow and evolve. Done well, a reset enlarges life – done carelessly it defeats it. Will the standards to which we align ourselves equate to common flourishing, personal responsibility and personal authority or the forces of control, power, economy, affluence, and narcissism?   These are the questions our nation faces in the coming days, weeks, and years.

As anyone who has found their life in complete chaos knows, you can’t do much when the plumb line is swinging wildly about. It would be nice and convenient if we all had the same plumb lines – our world would be a much more peaceful place.  But as it were – we do not.  We might think we share common ideals but our alignment to them will always be unique and even in conflict at times.  Setting and resetting plumb lines is a process  that takes time. It takes reflection, listening, hearing, experiencing, thinking and then, even more thinking. We aren’t, however, left to our own devices and thumb-hammering ways. There are numerous sources offering guidance to wondering souls, but I have a favorite recommendation.

The Bible provides us with adequate plumb line words of wisdom – perhaps the simplest and most concise advice for life in Jesus’ response in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus resets the plumb lines of the lawyer (and us!) who inquired about what he must do to inherit eternal life. The plumb line is revealed in the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” It’s a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” “Who is not deserving of my love?” “Whose life is not worthy of my time and effort?” “Who can I ignore, denigrate, hate, or pass by?” The plumb line Jesus resets declares, “No one.” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 93). No one. These are good plumb-lines to live by and if I may opine – govern a country by.

Our plumb lines reflect where our focus is, where our hearts find succor, and what matters to us. They reveal our aspirations and our fears and they direct the course of our lives. Is your plumb line swinging about? When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What questions are you asking? What answers do you seek? What do your fears reveal? What is number one on your to-do list? As you look back on your life, what used to matter and what matters to you now? Are you enlarging life with each passing day, week, month and year or finding it diminishing?

I’ve been posing these questions to myself of late.

Healing from major surgery has given me the opportunity to quit swinging wildly about, to slow down, and to rest. Both by choice and due to critical circumstances, I’ve had to reset what has gotten out of whack and way off kilter in my life. My desire is for a more meaningful and more purposeful approach to living the second half of my life.

Both endeavors are incredibly hard work! 

Healing from a hip replacement is complex. It requires lots of rest as well as exercise. It requires good fuel and incredible focus – one wrong step and I could mess the whole thing up!  It’s the torture and heaven of physical therapy. It is discipline and grace. It is the constant challenge of knowing your limits, but also not being afraid to test them.

However, the arduous work of excavating one’s life down to its foundation and doing a “reset of the plumb lines” in all honesty, is the most painful, critical and promising work of all. This “new life” of mine won’t just be a replay of my past mistakes.

It’s not all gut searching and wrenching work though. At times, it’s as simple as listening to the bees quiet down as the sun sets on another day. Grateful for nature’s little reminders of the proper order of life and the simple serenity of a quiet summer evening.

Let your light so shine!

Those Big IFs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

Resurrecting Life

A sermon on John 21:1-19

I grew up listening to the late great radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey, every day at noon. I would come home from grade school for lunch and there was his uplifting voice delivering the day’s news – sometimes good, often not so good as this was the 70’s and we were in the middle of a severe economic and energy crisis. Nevertheless, he always ended his broadcast with – the rest of the story – a story about life and ordinary people living it.

That’s how I heard today’s Gospel story – picking up from last week’s climatic closing:

 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John 20: 30-31

Today’s story opens with three descriptive words: After these things… Can you imagine the emotional exhaustion all those things brought on?  It’s been a busy time in the lives of the disciples: Jesus appeared  to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the tomb, and then twice to the disciples in a house in Jerusalem, showing them his wounds, giving them the Holy Spirit, and commissioning them out into the world to proclaim, forgive, and heal: As God has sent me, so I send you and all that great stuff!

When we heard those closing words from John at the end of last week’s Gospel lesson it sounded like we were done. Done with the resurrection stories! But guess what – Happy Third Sunday of Easter!!

John and Jesus will just not let them or us go! John is like me – he loves his words!! 

So now – just as Paul Harvey did so well drawing us into what I thought was the best and most important part of his program – we have the rest of the story…

And it is one of my favorites!  We get a taste of what life in Jesus’ name is all about.

After all those things had happened, we have before us a restless and still uncertain but earnest Peter, a dark night on the sea, no fish and lots of fish, a charcoal fire on the beach at dawn, questions, answers, and Jesus! The scene is a vivid one, and it is one that makes my senses come alive. The salty sea air, the smell and warmth of a charcoal fire on a brisk dawn morning, the taste of fresh caught fish cooked on an open flame – it just makes me sigh.

But this is no ordinary morning coffee among friends and Jesus.  

We are not certain of the amount of time that has passed since that final scene at the house in Jerusalem, but Peter has gone back to fishing and Jesus is still at work.

Perhaps you too have gone back to fishing? Maybe you hooked a few during the Mack Days fishing competition? Maybe you’ve endured a few rough goes on the water – be it a sudden spring storm or nothing at all to show for your efforts.

The disciples have returned home to where it all began. They’ve gone back to fishing – back to their old ways and former lives. They’ve traveled about 80 miles from the place of Jesus’ resurrection to their boats and the familiar waters of the Sea of Tiberias and given themselves to their old routine of fishing. Where the pieces of life fit together and make sense.

Now, I don’t know a dab about fishing. I’ve never baited a hook, cast a line, jigged a rod, or waited hours for a bite.  But I do know well how it feels to be like Peter and gone-a-fishin’. 

After the dramatic and traumatic events the disciples lived through the last three years and especially during the last three weeks of their lives with Jesus – who can blame them for seeking the security of their lives in the before-times. The time before Jesus. 

They are back to doing what they know and do best – fishing off their home shores – except they are not having much success. 

Isn’t that what we all want to do after a dramatic or traumatic experience or when life gets complicated and challenging and we can’t see our way forward?  Sometimes even after the wonderful and exciting events of our lives – who doesn’t catch themselves saying – well, I’m glad that’s over with – now I can get back to normal. Even after the ordinary out of ordinary times we breathe sighs of relief!  Maybe after Lent concluded and the celebrations surrounding Easter were done – you murmured quietly “now I can get back to business as usual – have my Wednesday nights back and not feel so adamant about attending worship on Sunday.”??? The pandemic inspired much pining for the before-times. Many of us are now searching for a new sense of purpose and deeper meaning in our lives. 

When life gets difficult, when we become lost, confused, and afraid, when the changes of life are not what we wanted or think we deserve we tend to run away or seek refuge, comfort. We try to go back to the way it was before – to something safe, something familiar. Even when we do not want to go backwards – backwards always seems easier than moving forward into uncertainty and fleeing humans naturally favor the path of least resistance.

After a long dark night on the sea the disciple’s net is empty and sagging and I imagine their spirits were too. Because no matter how close to home they are, no matter how familiar their daily routines are once again, their lives are not the same.  How could they be? They have spent three years in relationship with Jesus – it was life changing – and then it was over – in the most dreadful of ways!

They are fishing for answers to the piercing questions that sound painfully familiar in our own dark nights adrift at sea: What just happened here? Who was Jesus? Where is he? What have I done? Who am I? What now? Where am I going? What will happen to me? Are you even there, God?

What once gave them purpose and meaning doesn’t do it for them anymore. They are adrift on the water, directionless. Is this what life in His name feels like?

Peter may have left Jerusalem, but he can’t leave behind three years of discipleship, the miracles he witnessed next to Jesus, the love he learned to show, the life of abundance instead of scarcity he experienced. He cannot forget the last supper, the arrest, the charcoal fire, the denials, that crowing rooster that haunts his dreams. He cannot unsee the cross or the empty tomb; he cannot un-feel the fear in the house with the doors locked tight or ignore the echoes of “Peace be with you.” 

In times like these I used to go for really long runs – sometimes really really long runs! Unfortunately, I’m paying for all those mindful marathons now (ha).

What do you do? What do you do when you are searching for meaning, a way forward, a place in life?  Answers? Peace? 

We have all spent time asking the same questions as Peter. Often in the context of the failures, losses, and sorrows of our lives or when our life just doesn’t have much life in it.  When our sense of the way things should be is no longer. When we come face to face with our life in this world and our identity and purpose no longer feel so certain. 

We can leave the places and even the people of our life behind, but we can never escape ourselves or our life. Wherever you go, there you are and all that went on before comes with you. The good news is – so does Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve sensed the power of new life, the promise of the risen Jesus, even the helpful contributions you might make as you returned once again this year – especially this year –  to the Easter story — but you are afraid or too painfully aware of your own shortcomings – you suspect you are disqualified, or unqualified, or in any case incapable of answering God’s call on your life – His call to live in His name. 

Or maybe, as theologian & writer Henri Nouwen shared regarding searching times like these “it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” 

It is in these moments when we come face to face and heart to heart with Jesus. We may not recognize Him at first – just like the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus calling to them from the shore at first. 

Have you sensed something pulling you forward – perhaps in a direction you are not certain you want to go? Where the security and comfort you are accustomed to may not be as certain? Have you listened for Jesus to answer when you realize you “have no fish” in your current state of being, doing what you’ve always done? Do you find it easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own your life than to love life?  Easier to just live your life rather than live your life in His name?

“Children you have no fish, have you,” Jesus calls out to the disciples and us – calling us out of the dark and empty nights, the pain of our past or current circumstances – out from the running away and the fishing on the wrong side of the boat. 

“Cast your net to the right side of the boat,” He says. Run to me. Love me. Follow me.

Jesus calls us – His children – to move from our errant thinking into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. 

When we drift about aimlessly or find ourselves lost in regret or guilt, Jesus, knowing all there is to know about us, calls us ashore and fills our nets with abundant grace; by the fire He warms and unites us with His presence, at the dawn of a new day He restores us to Him, to one another and to ourselves; He feeds us for the Good Way ahead; and He loves us three times over by teaching us how to live.

To our questions and self-doubts and professions of love for Him, Jesus meets us where we are and gives purpose to our life sending us out to feed and tend His sheep: to be leaders in love – yes even you (!), to look out for others – yes you(!), and devote ourselves to finding and building His community. Jesus provides for our most basic human need – a sense of purpose and with that a belief that what each of us does matters. Even when we fall short of our aspirations, disappoint, or transgress- which we will do time and again – Jesus keeps calling us to Him and sending us forward with purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging to something greater than our own cause.

Calling us to live in a way that may not be familiar and not always easy but most certainly transformed.  Resurrected living, you might call it. 

Run to Me. Love me. Follow Me, “ Jesus says, “Live as resurrected people. I’m giving you a new life in my name.”

Amen.

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!!

How Will You Run Your Fastest Race?

The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life. Our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years. And yet what do we have to show for it?  Certainly not a trophy – this race isn’t winnable and yet we keep running it – chasing after the prize just beyond our reach. Certain that with every mile of must do’s, every mile of minutiae, every mile of saying yes – we will garner a prized position on the roster of life. When in truth, in the end, all that is left is the etching of our name and the numerical bookends of our life onto a slate grey stone. Some trophy.

With those enlivening words, I bid you a Happy New Year! As I glance over my shoulder at the year that is now 2 and half weeks in the past, I keep asking myself, wait, what happened to 2021? How is it that another year has passed? How did I manage to run through that year so fast? And how is it that I have run through fifty such turnings of a year?

Actually, I didn’t run all that much. In fact, 2021 taught me that while I may have miraculously made it to 50, I am not invincible. One would think I would only have to learn that lesson once, but alas, 2021 also revealed a hint of obstinance within me. 2021 will go down in my book as the year that knocked me off my feet – more times than I care to count and instead of getting right back up and finishing the race, this time I was forced to limp to the sidelines – if you will allow me to continue the race of life metaphor. Turning 50 reminded me I likely have more years behind me than I do ahead; precious time I do not have to take for granted.

If 2021 had been my bookend year, how would it be remembered? Well, on the bright side, those nefarious maladies forced me to slow down and re-examine the course I have been running for longer than I can remember and instilled in me a hunger for life – real life – not the “settled for instead” life I have for too long allowed to dominate my existence.

Such wisdom only comes with the walk, and I have walked more than ran many miles this year. As I reflect on the year that was and the year to come, I realize I spent most of 2021 reacting to my circumstances instead of navigating them. After the initial shock to my system brought on by relationship upheaval, the pandemic, sudden injury, and illness subsided, instead of thinking about what these instances might be telling me I began figuring out how I was going to keep on doing life like I have always done it – racing through it and avoiding obstacles that might slow me down. Which is how I arrived at the beginning of the New Year feeling ragged rather than refreshed, resigned rather than renewed. How indeed does one satisfy that hunger for really living life instead of enduring the settled for life?

To run a race and finish well you have to be intentional with your training and intentional with your run during the race. Cognizant of those around you and any obstacles you might encounter, in touch with how your body is performing the tasks you are asking it to do, and keeping your focus not just on the finish line but on every step you take – lest you trip on a rock or stumble on a pothole- which I am infamous for!

The race of life is no different. It must be run with intention if you want to finish well and not just settle for having run it.

Living intentionally is not easy especially when faced with the unpredictable, impermanent, and unknowingness of life. We have to be intentional when living in sustained uncertainty, living without knowing, embracing the mystery, and keeping the possibilities that arise from this state of ambiguity open. I don’t rest well with uncertainty as this time of pandemic has so graciously revealed.  Rather, this state of uncertainty impels me to rush with urgency toward an answer – any answer. A life of restlessness is not what I am after, after all, but my ways of relieving that restlessness have simply prolonged it.

Too often, in my quest for a reason for being I have let others define it – or worse – accept what I think others want to define as my reason for being.

Too often, my reason for being is simply a daily reaction to what is happening around me or a rush to get somewhere. I settle into the complacent comfort of taking each day as it comes rather than shaping each day for what it could be. Too often of late when contemplating what tomorrow will bring or what I want my future – even just a year from now – to hold – I find myself responding with “I just don’t know. I just don’t know anymore. “  

In the end, my urgency to define my life has instead only confined it. I’ve settled for not knowing – and as time has worn me out – not caring – or living as if I don’t. And this is not how I want to be – and I don’t think how any of you want to be in this world either. I know God doesn’t want that for me or you.

But, here’s the thing, none of us truly know what our future holds. There is nothing guaranteed about tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. The last two years have made this irritatingly clear. No wonder my ponderings of late didn’t get me anywhere. No wonder they all end the same way. No wonder I don’t know. None of us know our destination until we arrive – and sometimes we don’t even realize we HAVE arrived!

To live with intention and to live intentionally in this ever-present state of uncertainty requires a compass and the patience to use one in the urgency of life.  A compass requires you to be still in order to orient yourself to the direction you want to go. A compass that embodies all the points that provide meaning and direction to life.  A compass provides the way.

Emily Dickinson wrote: “The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can.” 

Martin Luther wrote: “I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my guide.”

By what means are you orienting your life for living rather than settling in?

Who or what is the compass that will lead you through all the unknowns of 2022 and beyond?

  • What are the values and qualities that will direct and guide your life;
  • Whose advice and counsel will you seek and trust;
  • To what principles and standards will you hold yourself accountable;
  • What tenets will help you put shape and form to your life;
  • What deep longings or callings will energize and move you forward;
  • By what practices will you maintain your integrity and authenticity?

And where will you find the stillness and solitude to quiet your mind and orient yourself along these points of life direction?

These are the questions I have tasked myself to ponder at the start of this new year and in this present stillness of my life. I can’t tell you where my life is going but by truly reflecting on what matters most – my compass points – I can trust the way.

What about you?  By what way do you want to go? What are your intentions for the race you are running?  Go and find stillness – welcome it into your life and finish the race well.

A moment of stillness at the end of the day.

Let your light so shine!

Take Heart! Get Up!

A sermon on  Mark10:46-52

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

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

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, as I braced myself in the blasting wind. It felt so good to be here again, a place I had unwillingly resigned myself from in the long months preceding this moment.  The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind, mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for having mercy on me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all face challenging times in life -Jericho road moments you might call them. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual. Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

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

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

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

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

Because I too was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual even-keeled countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The mountains that once called me and the roads I once ran down taunted me;  the little place I called home and took pride in felt like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? 

The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to – namely me, myself, and I – did a good job of silencing me even when I called out to God. Lord, have mercy. 

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

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

Thank goodness for Bartimaeus!

Blind Bartimaeus saw things differently. Already living at the margins of everything, he has nothing to lose and despite the crowd trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place.  “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!

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

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

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

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

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

Nope! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. As Paul writes in his letters to the Corinthians:  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

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

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: We find that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way. When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, suffering stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them. Messengers saying take heart, I am here and I can help you. Take heart, I am here – I see you. Take heart, I am here and I am with you. 

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how it is when Jesus joins you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing light of God’s love.

The kind of love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone and that you matter to someone. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart. Get Up! Jesus is always calling you into His love.

Amen.

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

Spring Cleaning My Soul

The buds of spring cleaning have been bursting out all over at my house of late. I’ve been doing a surprising amount of cleaning lately, cleaning and discarding. Perhaps it is the fact that I have spent considerably more time at home this past year surrounded by stuff – an unbelievable amount of stuff that I have collected over the three and a half years I have lived in my house, and I am tired of looking at it. Perhaps it is because this stuff is holding me back from seeing the potential uses of the spaces I have as I contemplate a few updates I would like to make: new flooring, new kitchen countertops, an addition to house my library and pianos. Needless to say, I am more of a minimalist when it comes to anything but clothing (!!) and books, and this growing collection of stuff is getting to me.  If I don’t make my current spaces clean and less cluttered, any improvements or new space I add won’t be any better – in fact, there will just be more opportunities to add to the clutter. So I have been cleaning and discarding those things that aren’t necessary, that are taking up valuable space that could be used more creatively, and in so doing finding some breathing room as I plan for what needs to be done and can be done to make my house even more my home.

Coincidentally, I just observed a rather significant birthday on the timeline of life that has put me into a reflective state of being. Part of me can’t believe I have arrived at this mile marker already, and then part of me wonders how I even made it to this point given the long and broken road I’ve traveled. I have collected a mighty array of life souvenirs – some becoming permanent scars on my being, some being points of amazing light, and some that have quietly gone from being a passing experience to an entrenched way of thinking and doing life. 50, ahem, years of day in and day out living provides ample opportunities for habits and mindsets to take hold of you. – to add clutter to your life. You don’t even notice them at first until they start diminishing or making your life difficult.

You get so comfortable in doing life the way you have always done life that you live it with your eyes closed – running on auto-pilot and tuning out the flyover territory below. You forget you were created for more than what you can see with your diminished perspective. You begin to compare your life to others and in so doing you lose sight of your own intrinsic value.

After finishing my tidying up chores for the day, I have been taking long contemplative walks along the river and enjoying the sun’s warm reflection on the still quiet water. On one recent evening I abruptly stopped and took a good long look at the 50-year-old looking back on her life as she prepared for the next who-really-knows-how-many years she has ahead of her.  The faint wrinkles of time told stories of smiles and sorrows and sundrenched days of adventure. The eyes revealed an ocean of emotions that are at once tidal waves and tide pools and a hidden wondering from the shore. Missing though, was the sparkle that never dimmed in her youth – despite the challenges she faced even then.

I was tempted to move along and get back to my fast, regimented pace; but instead, I stayed and I looked deeper and asked her some tough questions – not sure if she would ever have the answers – but at least I could perhaps conjure up a challenge to the way she had been doing things and inspire a desire to clean house so that the sparkle might come back.

Here’s what I asked her:

  • What if you focused on what you can do and not what you can’t?
  • What do you value anymore?
  • What happened to the daily awe and wonder of life?
  • Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation for what is in your life right now – not just what once was?
  • Is there life in your heart or are you just existing?
  • Is there life in your daily work or are you just getting the job done?
  • What are you looking forward to? There has to be a reason for tomorrow – what is it?
  • Are you bringing life to your friendships or stealing life from them?
  • Is there life in the way you are living in this moment?
  • Where do you see yourself in the world – not just how you think the world sees you?
  • Are you growing?
  • Are you bringing life to others – do you even seek out others to bring life to?
  • What are you saying yes to?
  • Why are there so many no’s?
  • Finally, I asked her why she wasn’t trying to be the best at her life instead of being the best version of someone else’s life.

I’ll be honest, cleaning the privy can be more enjoyable than sitting with these questions – but having done both I can tell you which I benefited the most from as I set out on the next half of my life.

Those questions weren’t just for the shocked and in denial 50-year-old staring back at me like a watery mirage. They’re for all of us. They reveal what needs to be cleaned up and discarded; habits and mindsets that take up valuable space in your life – space that could be used more creatively and effectively to give your life meaning, fulfillment- sparkle.

As I, as we all, sort through our various souvenirs of living 25, 50, 75 years or even just living through a single pandemic year, one souvenir – our collective mortality – comes to the forefront. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. A cluttered life on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it anymore. Our days should not be flyover territory. Everything and everyone matters. Even you. Nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. Not you, not your breath, not your rising nor your falling. Remember, even though time may fly or crawl by, no matter how many days you have already counted, there will never be another moment like this one. Make sure there is life in that moment. Remember too, that in that precious moment of time, no one can do a better job of being you than you. Happy Spring!

“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Ephesians 2: 1-6 The Message

Let your light so shine!

“It’s Okay Not to Know Things.”

“(B)ecause as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, Dept Of Defense news briefing, 2-12-2002

“It’s okay not to know things.”  – Sesame Street’s Grover, NPR’s Morning Edition, 5-18-2020

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you?” – Jesus

I graduated college with a  B. A. degree in Mass Communications and Political Science. As a former student of Mass Media and requisite news junkie for most of my life, the above two statements would normally be anathema to my ears. How can anyone exist in this world without the urge to know all the answers? It is our civic responsibility to be well-informed citizens of the world, and as one who grew up with dinnertime conversations around current events and reading news magazines and multiple newspapers a day for fun, I like to think that I know more than a few things about being a citizen of the world. But I have to admit, COVID-19 has shaken my well-informed certainty. I don’t know who or what to believe. I have fallen victim to the overload of information, pontification, and supposition that seems to be invading every newscast, social media feed, and friendly conversation.

Crisis moments call for strong, well-informed decisive actions. We want to know that someone is in charge and things are being managed. The trouble is, this pandemic has thrown us into two seemingly paradoxical states of being: disorientated chaos and intentional stopping. Most of us have one foot rooted in something trying to end while our other foot is caught mid-step waiting to land in a thing not yet defined, something waiting to begin. Normally, I like to be the one in control – I like to be the one in charge – at least of my own life – but I would not for one minute want to be the one in charge of managing this crisis for our community, our state, or our nation. I will not even fancy the idea of little ol’ me could doing a better job of handling this spiky red viral ball’s calamitous invasion of our lives.

And so that leaves me feeling rather unstable – not able or willing to control what is happening on the grander scale around me and not able to pursue the things that ground me – or if I am really honest with you – distract me from feeling ungrounded during this time of uncertainty. Nor am I able to rest in the way things are going to be or be okay with not knowing things.

When this pandemic began shutting our lives down and wreaking havoc on our economy and everything we hold dear – like relationships and accomplishments and dreams, I recall feeling unmoored.  I wrote about appreciating how very precious the present moment is. Yesterday has passed us by and tomorrow is going to be very different from today – if we get the chance to see it. The present moment is all we have for certain. And in this present moment we are told it is safer to be still – to not do what we normally do.

Well, we’ve been saying that for over three months now with no real end to the great unknown in sight. How long can we go on living in the present moment not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring? How do we navigate the unknown of today and tomorrow?

First, accept that this present moment is just the place we need to be and trust that what we are doing is enough. When this pandemic began, we hoped our industriousness, busyness, and surges of creativity and compassion would protect us from the difficult reality of COVID-19. We adopted new ways of being with one another, we banded together to celebrate front-line workers and survivors, and we learned to do our work in new and different ways. Even television commercials morphed into feel-good celebrations of a new way of living that none of us were quite ready to embrace. We have done good work but now we are reaching the limits of our own resourcefulness and knowledge. We must be willing to learn new things to replace the old things that have gone away.

This virus has brought chaos to the status quo. But study after study in relation to science and business show that in chaos, the components of living systems self-organize and cause new conditions to emerge. Use the disorientation in your life to your advantage. Rather than clinging to the old ways of doing things, find refreshment in the discovery of the new ways of being emerging in our lives. Letting go of the old way of doing things is painful – but if we cling to structures, identities, and relationships formed in our past we limit, pandemic or no pandemic, who we can become. There are parts in everyone’s lives that just need to die in order for new life, new experiences to spring forth. Take a risk and lean into the opportunity before you to redefine yourself and how you are going to be in this world.

Just as we let go of some of our old ways, we have every right to grieve what we have lost. We have also lost the connection with others that defines us as human beings – the celebrations and rituals that mark our journeys through life together. While difficult, this time of separation can inspire us to make our connections deeper and be more committed to maintaining the friendships and ties that bind us together going forward.

Many of us can no longer participate in the activities that gave richness and meaning to our life. While their absence no doubt leaves a great void in our daily lives, it also frees us to reexamine our lives without the distraction of our normal busyness. We can also reflect on what else we might pursue given the opportunity until we can once again resume that which once and still gives us joy.

Humans cannot exist without meaning. We have defined ourselves for too long by what we do instead of who we are and how we live with another. With every day of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring and what part of normal we are ever going to get back to, I am redefining how I want to be in this world – even amidst the uncertainty of it all. What I do know for certain is who I am – that never changes – a beloved child of God. A child of God who wants to be at peace and can be at peace in a time such as this because I know from where my certainty can come.

Jesus said: “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” (John 14:1-4) “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. (John 14:6)  – The Message

Jesus’ words are part of his promise to his followers before he went to the cross and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. These words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment; the One who took on flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but that we may see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made throughout his life.

Amid the not knowing – amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion, and frustration at how messed up things are – perhaps these words can help you find promise in tomorrow and peace for now.  The God Jesus showed us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word and that this unsettled way we are living is not the final way.

Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. It’s okay not to know things when Jesus is guiding our way. He will help us find our new way of being and give us peace in the way things are going to be.

Let your light so shine!

Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!