Smiles On Top of Swiftcurrent – a 2020 Sucess Story

I have made my peace with the mountain. Oh, Swiftcurrent – what is it about you that captivates me so??? I first ascended her holy heights and 360 views on the last day of summer in 2014. It was one of those adventures that live on ever grander in your memories – complete with autumn splendor, 2 grizzly encounters, pristine lakes, moose – not to mention being able to see the whole of Glacier from the summit-the highest trail accessible point in the park. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high (still working on that!!!) this mountain top has beckoned me every year. I was turned back the following year by 60 mph winds, by thunder and smoke so thick I should have been wearing a mask on my next attempt, and last year though I made it top I was enshrouded in clouds so thick I felt like I was ascending into an abyss rather than my idea of heaven.

My destination way in the distance!

So being 2020 and all and having to make the ascent from Logan Pass and the 9-mile traffic jam that is the Highline Trail for the coming and going part, I had set my expectations rather moderately. Having meditated on accepting the crowds for what they are – mutual lovers of God’s grandeur – on the drive up, I snagged the last parking spot below Logan Pass as the parking lot was already full (at 7:15 a.m. on a weekday!) and headed out to brave the masses on the mountainside.

I kept a steady pace and made my way through the oohing and aaahing and at times exasperatingly loud and boisterous groups with numerous “excuse me may I slip by you’s?” until I once again remembered the reason I dislike this beautiful trail so much. There is absolutely no safe place to answer nature’s call!! Now making time and getting to the lookout and home before my puppy really had to answer nature’s call became an all-out race to get ahead of everyone and find a forest! You will be as relieved as I was to know that I succeeded. I also met a fellow solo hiker about my age along the way who was keeping a fast pace as well. We shared the trail for a mile or two – she was a film-maker, actress, and freelance producer from New York City on a 6-week vacation after moving in with her mom in NJ in March – (because what else do you do when there is no work and it is dangerous to live in the city?) visiting 18 National Parks. How different her experience of COVID-19 was from mine and it really nailed home to me just how extremely fortunate I am to live where I do and how important it is to broaden your perspective beyond your own little bubble (on so many things!) After sharing with her some of the must see parts of the area, we parted ways and on I went to the top – and the sun was still shining!!

Finally past the final destination for many on the trail this day – the Granite Park Chalet – I was suddenly and quite wonderfully on my own! Arriving at Swiftcurrent Pass from the opposite direction left me rather unaffected compared to the breathtaking views and climb one experiences from the Many Glacier side. From the pass, I made surprisingly quick work of the 30 switchbacks to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain and there my spirit soared. I could see forever – far past the tenuous and trying times of our present state – to times before when life was hard and life was oh so good and I caught a glimpse of tomorrow when life will still at times be hard and oh so good. And in the moment as I breathed in the clear blue expanse of fresh air, as the wind at times took that same breath away, as the sun warmed my face and dried the sweat off my back – I was very much at peace – high above it all – and so much closer to God.

And we were both smiling. 21 miles, 4701 ft elevation gain in 7 hours, 13 minutes.

Let Your Light So Shine!!!

It’s Mine, All Mine!

So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet.  Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!

HOME SWEET HOME!

I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.

This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.

SAYING GOODBYE IN 2013

It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer.  I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.

Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.

EMBER SHINING BRIGHT

I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.

I’M OFFICALLY HOLY!

Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!

REFLECTING ON LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL HERE.

Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.

I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.

“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.”  – John 5:11-15

Let your light so shine.

CELEBRATING MY NEWFOUND FREEDOM!!

Mountain Envy

Five years ago, today I climbed my first 10,000 ft peak. My sentiments shared on Facebook at the time were so filled with life and my hunger for high adventure was piqued. “Well Mount Siyeh, have you stopped giggling yet? What a spectacular day to climb my first 10,014-foot peak!! I am certainly not the same girl I was when I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning. So much to say, so much to share… I will tease you with this – we saw not one, or two but 5 grizzly bears!!” A year later my world was rocked by the death of my mother and as I reflected on this day at that time, my soul was seeking strength: “I was tested and I conquered some major hurdles that day – self-doubt being the greatest of them. What a difference a year makes… God must have been building me up for the year to come. Hope to one day have that thrilled smile again.” The following year my world was rocked again with the death of my father and  I continued to find solace in the mountains, chasing after new heights and daring myself to go farther and deeper – into the mountains and into my soul.

For the last 7 years, my go-to form of solace and therapy has been a mountain trail. And after the last year with the end of my marriage and the throes of a pandemic rocking and shutting down my life, one would think I would be seeking that natural remedy once again for my ailing soul. And yet I am feeling this strange resistance inside of me that I can’t explain. Of course, I should be in the mountains – how can I not be? It’s what you do when you live in the Flathead! Just look at everyone having amazing adventures and capturing exquisite photographs of not-of-this-world scenery,  I scold myself,  just like I have done summer after summer since I first set my eastern MT prairie feet here. What is wrong with me, I wonder, as a rare glorious weekend unfolds and my once always ready to go backpack remains in the hall closet.

My newfound weekend ritual of waking at 4 am, filling my thermos with coffee, checking the weather apps for appropriate clothing, lacing up my dusty boots, and heading out for the wilderness eating my breakfast behind the wheel feels foreign to me this year. Rather, the life I lived before I discovered the wonders of the Flathead has been calling to me.  Before I moved here, I actually enjoyed being home – I did not feel like I had to be on the go every weekend. Weekends consisted of long morning runs, leisurely breakfasts, house chores, yard work, and bike rides. I played piano consistently,  I wrote for pleasure far more than I do today, I read lots and lots of books under the shade of our mature trees – and I was happy. So why do I feel so at odds with the two identities at battle inside of me?

Why do I feel guilty for not “going after it” this year – conquering once again every trail and mountain that I know of?  I was addicted to the high of hiking and “bagging peaks” for so long that I forgot about the rest of the things that make up life – the simpler joys that don’t make for lots of likes and wows on Facebook. My competitive somewhat addictive nature objects to this present state of thinking – telling me there is something very wrong with me for not wanting to join the throngs of people exploring the park and surrounding areas – for not craving a 25-mile day trek that I can post about later on Facebook and enjoy the ensuing accolades.

Maybe, just maybe, I am coming to recognize the dark side of Facebook – it feeds an incessant desire to live a life worth posting about and the unhealthy byproduct of that goal – comparison. Hikers on the Appalachian trail have the motto “hike your own hike”- resist the urge to compare how many miles you cover in a day to how far other hikers are traveling. Nevertheless, the urge to make comparisons is strong. Especially when one’s life has fallen apart and you find yourself struggling to just be who you used to be – even though life has a rule against going backward. Teddy Roosevelt’s well-worn quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” is well worn for a reason. We are living in a time when making one’s unique mark on the world is now done in a very public way – for an audience we hope to please and wow and move – every single day.  Fear of missing out has afflicted me from time to time as has the old favorite – woe is me – more often than I would like to admit. But as I sit here on my patio gazing into the mountains- remembering some downright amazing summits and summit shots, I am trying to find peace in my present moment. The sun is shining, my grass is freshly mown and the weeds invading my garden bed are under control for the moment. Ember just came up and rested his warm head on my lap for a quick pat before heading back to his shady spot under the tree, and I ran 16 miles this morning without pain!

I do not want social media to write the script of my life. I do not want or need to compare my own life with others. I want to get back to and be okay with truly living my own life, fulfilling my true happiness and treasuring each and every moment of time given to me – whether those moments are spent being at home, sharing a conversation, reading a book, elucidating on my latest ponderings, mastering a new song, snuggling with Ember or even climbing a peak. Every moment is time that I will never get back – rather than worry that I am wasting it by not making every day a greater adventure than the last – I want to savor each moment for the simple joy that awaits me in it.  Perhaps one of these days I will even find joy in being me, again.

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!

Peace for the Way Things are Going to Be

A Sermon on John 14:1-14

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

“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.” from the Message

I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand, massaging his calf, willing him to open his eyes just one more time. After the longest, fastest drive I have ever made across the state of Montana, I’d made it home to Billings in time to hear him say my name one last time. His last conscious words were just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. I wanted to remember him waving goodbye to me from the assisted living center when I was home for Easter just two short weeks before. I would never have expected to be in this austere hospital room facing his ending so soon thereafter. But there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. There was so much I needed from my father. 

There was so much living left to do. So many things I had yet to know about him.  So many things left to say. I didn’t want to be alone. I was afraid of discovering what life still held for me without his wisdom and love to see me through it. 

Yes, in the hours before his death, my heart was troubled. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him and at the same time I felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. It was a blessing to share his last breath and lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat.

I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But Dad was ready. He knew where he was going, he had walked with Jesus his entire life and I could tell he was at peace – a peace that I longed for – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.

Today’s Gospel from John may have you scratching your head. Didn’t we just celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus? Didn’t we just sing Alleluia  – Jesus Is Risen? Why do we have to go back to the hard realities of that dark night before Jesus’s death? Dare I say that much of our lives are not lived as though we are Easter people? That we are more likely to search for God in the darkness of life rather than our celebrations? And for this very reason,  we need to be reminded of just who this Savior we celebrated 5 Sundays ago – really is. 

We find the disciples in the Upper Room with Jesus at their last supper together. Jesus has washed their feet and He has foretold his betrayal by Judas. He has told the disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come. And just before our reading begins today, He describes in detail Peter’s imminent denial of him. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”“In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

You have heard these words before – even if you didn’t know they came from the Gospel of John or the setting they are said in. They are frequently read at funerals, including my mother’s just a year before my father passed away, and for good reason. Here are promises from Jesus that are profoundly comforting in the face of death. And yet, I’ll be honest with you,  just a year after hearing them there I was again with a troubled, scared, grief-stricken heart – knowing I should believe but like Phillip, so wanting tangible proof and like Thomas – in desperate need of a road map. Painfully frustrated, desperate even, with a deep longing for a tangible sense and experience of the presence of God. 

Oh yes,  I can easily identify with Philip and Thomas, and  I am sure you can too. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Are you kidding me?  The disciples have every reason to be troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and Peter, the stalwart leader among the disciples is on the cusp of his greatest failure yet. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”

Do you think Jesus even knows what is happening in our lives and our world, right now? It’s easy to listen to these words on Sunday morning followed by a reassuring hymn and prayer of thanksgiving. But when we find ourselves at the side of a dying loved one, parting ways with a spouse, receiving a pink slip, or smack dab in the middle of a pandemic that we didn’t see coming with no end in sight – these words can ring rather hollow. When we find ourselves in the middle of yet another culture war over what is essential and what is not, blasted by counter-narratives from the left, right and everywhere, whether to mask up or not, and whether to open our churches or not. We long for the way things were, you know  – two months ago – but even when things do get back to normal, most of us have realized that the new normal won’t resemble the old normal for a long, long time. This is unsettling to our souls.  I don’t think we can look at the pain of the world today, the suffering of a loved one, or our own wounds and hurts and not have a troubled heart. I think it is safe to say that none of us will get through this life without a troubled heart. 

And Jesus knows that. Oh, how he knows. So he tells the disciples there is plenty of room for them in his Father’s house – a place for them in the storms of life. The word often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” is actually a form of the word “abide” and refers to “places of abiding.” In John’s gospel “abide” is another word for “faith.” It speaks of an “abiding” relationship with Jesus that begins in faith here and now in this life and continues in life after death.

Jesus’ words are part of the promise to a-soon-to-be Easter people then and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. Remember, these words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment.  Who took on our flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but so we can see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made that night.  

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. Trust me. I am the way and the truth and the Life.  Hearing these words on the other side of the cross in the clear dawn of Easter light  – as the words of the resurrected Jesus – do they ring truer to you? Amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion – frustration at how messed up things are – do these words sound different to you now?  Do you see Jesus in a different light?

The God Jesus shows 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! That this way we are living is not the final way. This is a God who not only saves but abides with and in us so that we have not just life, but abundant life, in Jesus! 

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. Having faith doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Sometimes we will find ourselves just getting by with our heads barely above water but at other times we will flourish in the most challenging of circumstances. And when we share our lives of faith with one another as we are doing today, it makes things richer, more meaningful, and maybe just a little easier to handle. Trusting – believing in God means that in all times and all places we have the presence of God revealed to us through Jesus. 

When your heart is troubled and the journey seems long, remember that Jesus has already traveled it and is with us on it now. Believe! He really is the way, the truth, and the life, the one who leads us to an abundant life in and through his Father and helps us find peace in the way things are going to be.

Lord Jesus, We have a long road ahead of us, help us to remember that You have already traveled it and accompany us upon it now. Help us to see you always as the way, the truth, and the life, the one who dwells with us and leads us to abundant life. Thanks be to God.

2020 Faith

It (wasn’t) supposed to be this way. The title words of a current New York Times best-selling book, though I haven’t read it, and words that seem to roll off my tongue as easy as my name.

It is New Year’s Eve. By my choosing, I am alone, reflecting in the warmth of my home. The fire is lit, the candles are burning, classical music is driving my thoughts to paper as a nasty winter storm of rain, wind, and snow torments the last night of the year and decade, a decade,  that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before.

I have spent many New Year’s Eves in this reflective state of mind – it’s what I do – my idea of fun – and I have uttered those 7 words far more than I care to admit, of late.  Perhaps it is because I have taken far more leaps of faith in the last 10 years than any time before – leaps of faith that did not transpire in the manner I had fully expected them to. The certainty with which I once approached my carefully constructed life has been upended – 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 – it is all so disconcerting!

 It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!

“No one has ever seen God.” – John 1:18

The few times I have sensed surety, confidence, and purpose seem overshadowed by scenes right out of Paul Newman’s epic story of epiphany, Cool Hand Luke, where in the middle of a thunderstorm Luke yells up to the thunder and lightning, addressing God, “Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.”  It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!

In the last ten years, I took flight, left my career, my family, and my friends behind and ventured west in pursuit of love and my love of the mountains – only to be broken by both.  I found my voice, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career and I made myself a nest in a wonderfully hot and cold apartment above an amazing landlord’s garage.  My dog died. My mother died unexpectedly. I faced a frightening illness that in all rights should have claimed me on a mountainside. Then came my father’s last year of life and death – almost a year to the day after my mother’s – in a manner so unworthy of the life he had lived I still can’t comprehend it. I bought my first home and surrendered my life to it. I brought a new dog into my life. I fulfilled a dream by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And finally, I married and had that marriage abruptly end. This last blow caused me to question who I was and why I was even here.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!

Despite being a “proclaimer of the Good News”, I have felt a huge void between my concept of faith and my God and the whole of this thing I am devoted to called church. I have felt estranged and very much alone.

“All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.” John 1: 3

But it was in this darkness, this void of meaning and being and purpose that I was enduring, that God began to speak to me.  (Side note here: QUESTIONING my faith is one of the greatest things I have ever done to INCREASE my faith and deepen my relationship with God. So, question and doubt away!!)

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:5

I began to realize that God seemed so distant – even absent – because the God I expected to be ruling over me, the God I was at once looking for and hiding from, does not exist. God revealed himself to me in the truth of my broken and difficult circumstances.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”- John 1:14

I was able to see the truth lighting the way to who and what God really is. It was as if He brought me into this void of darkness and despair in order to reveal the true light of God to me.

“From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John1: 16-17

Grace upon Grace.

Grace and truth.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!  

Or was it???

In the last ten years, I took flight, left my career, my family and my friends behind and ventured west in pursuit of love and my love of the mountains – I found both, was broken by both and ventured into both again more determined than ever.

I found my voice and have learned to speak my mind – not what I think my parents would want me to say but what I believe. I found my voice and let it rise in song before audiences I would never have dreamed of having or had the opportunity to have before.

I ventured into the unknown and made the unknown my home and in the process realized that the two feet and skinny legs God gave me weren’t just made for running but made for standing on my own. I began a new career and with it found new challenges and new opportunities to expand my skills and realized that I not only had a heart but also had a brain!

The nest I made for myself in that wonderfully hot and cold apartment above an amazing landlord’s garage was just the place I needed to grow wings and fly. 4 years later, I bought my first home, surrendered my life to it, and now come home every day to my slice of heaven and a safe harbor from the torments of the world around me.

When my beloved dog died leaving my heart hurt and empty, his passing made enough space in my heart for me to give my love again to another wonderful four-legged friend who has literally changed my life for the better in so many ways.

While my mother died unexpectedly, she died in peace on the first day of Spring and the beginning of Holy Week. Though I did not get to tell her goodbye – my last words to her were “I love you more than words can say,” the last time I saw her. Navigating her death during the holiest time of year changed the course of my grief into a celebration of her new life. The timing really could not have been more perfect.

I survived that frightening illness that in all rights should have claimed me on a mountainside – and I now have a greater sense of responsibility for my health and a bit more humility in the wilderness.

Yes, my father’s last year of life and death – almost a year to the day after my mother’s – was indeed in a manner so unworthy of the life he had lived. While, I still can’t comprehend it, I was able to hear him say my name one last time and I was with him as he breathed his last breath in a peace with God that surpasses all understanding.  In his living and his dying, he taught me that no one escapes death. In the end we have no control over how or when we die so I should live and live well while I can.

In the wake of great loss, I fulfilled a lifelong yearning by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now, with each passing adventure, I  can do that ever more authentically!

I was married and had that marriage abruptly end. While I am still going through this difficult ending in my life, I know the truth. God will use this chapter in my life in ways I cannot yet comprehend. I know that God was walking with me as I glimpsed sheer joy and sheer despair, and He is walking with me now as I find grace upon grace upon grace. The truest Light, the One True Love who is greater than any mountain and the One whose light is greater than any darkness, is with me and in me.

“In him (IS) life and the life (IS) the light of all people.” – John 1:4

As a new year and a new decade dawns- I have no idea how things will be or are even supposed to be, but I do have an abiding hope; and I have faith in the things to come as all things are of God, from God, and with God.  I call it 20/20 faith – gleaned from hindsight and the knowledge that my God is a loving, wildly creative, merciful God and He is doing a new thing. I can’t wait to see it fulfilled in me.

It’s supposed to be that way!!!

I pray that His promise is realized in you, too.

 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

Let your light so shine.

“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Grant Us Peace

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine’s Confessions

There is an unsettledness all around us. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the words of clients edging ever closer to retirement and those just starting out. I sense it in the groups I sing with and often in the people I worship with. The headlines are unsettling at best and it seems there is no escape from them anymore. You might not see it in Facebook status posts showing lives replete with happiness, but I can read it between the lines in the comments and sense it in my own life when it does not reflect that perceived Facebook reality. Every moment of every day there is a crisis unfolding somewhere in the world, somewhere in our nation, in our state, in our communities, and in our own lives. Conflict thrives on this unsettledness. Contributing to our sense of unsettledness, we also have a natural tendency to go negative – a necessary component of our survival instinct that drives us to avoid danger and unpleasant experiences. In this climate of unsettledness this negativity bias spills over into aspects of our lives that aren’t essential for survival and we soon find ourselves regularly judging and seeing the negatives in ourselves, other people, and events.

 

The source of our unsettledness is most likely not the same. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, an unexpected diagnosis, or in a thousand other ways. It can come from within – busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, the never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  the never-ending need for more, deep disappointment in yourself or another, guilt that will not accept forgiveness, resentment and the refusal to forgive, or cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way. Unsettledness can also come from without – as economic, political, or societal issues upend our day to day being.

Some of us have hearts that are troubled and afraid. Some of us are angry. Some of us are skeptical and cynical about the current state of affairs. Some of us are breaking with compassion and some of us are hardening towards our fellow man.  We have lost our sense of security, of belonging, of relationship. Maybe we don’t have a sense of our own identity anymore – maybe our lives have become possessed by another person or a situation not of our doing. We see differences as a source of danger or contempt – belonging to the “other”. The “other” or “them” become something we avoid. It can stem from comments as innocent as my mother would make when I was a teenager, “It’s not you I worry about, it’s them.”

No matter the source of our unsettledness and the conflict arising therein, we need peace. Desperately. But until we find peace within us, we will not find peace between us.

I often find myself meditating on the words from the gospel of John with this verse, in particular, coming to mind of late: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Which begs the question, “What peace?”

We all want a solution to our challenges and trials – and we want it now! But I think the key phrase here is, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus is not the easy answer nor does he provide the quick fix to everything that troubles us that we have come to expect and demand. He does not promise the absence or cessation of conflict, the resolution of our problems, or a world of oneness – at least not in this world.

The peace Jesus speaks of is more about what is going on within each of us rather than what is happening to us or around us.  Our natural approach to conflict is to seek change from someone else in what they think, do, say or believe. But we have no power over anyone’s heart & mind. Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” rings true here.  Our thoughts, words, beliefs, actions, and heart are the only things we have the power to change and Jesus’s peace aims to do just that – change us.

The book “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” from the Arbinger Institute, shines a light on our behavior towards others.  We justify ourselves for our attitudes and behaviors toward others out of four basic needs: (1) the need to believe that we are better than others; (2) the need to believe we deserve more than others; (3) the need to be well thought of by others; and (4) the need to reduce expectations because of some perceived lack in ourselves. These needs are like boxes in which we are trapped until we recognize their limitations and step outside them to gain a different perspective. A heart at peace sees the other as a human being even in the midst of conflict and disagreement. When our hearts are at peace the hopes, fears, concerns, and needs of others are as real to us as our own. When our hearts are unsettled, however, the other is an object, an issue, an obstacle to our goals, or simply irrelevant to us. When our hearts are unsettled, we cannot clearly see our own way let alone see another person’s perspective.

So how do we go about finding peace from within and without?

First, we must make peace within ourselves. There is nothing we encounter in life or that fills our life – that busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, that never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  that never-ending need for more, that deep disappointment in ourselves or others, that guilt that will not accept forgiveness, that resentment and the refusal to forgive that we cling to, or that cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way – there is nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus. He alone has the power to carry us through times that leave us lost, at war with ourselves and our loved ones and in a constant state of unsettledness. He will heal us, forgive us, and restore us to a life at peace.

Next, we can begin looking at the world with a positive bias. Intentionally countering the tendency to “go negative” by turning our attention to what was positive about our experience. Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Then, we can put a pause on our arguing with one another about who is right or wrong and what is the right or wrong thing to do and change our way of being to “the other.” We can recognize that before the others were “them” (you fill in the “them”) they were and always will be human beings created by and in the image of the same God that created us.  We can bring the peace that Jesus has given to the conflicts around us by the way we live and be toward each other.  Giving to others, not as the world would have us give, but as Jesus would.

St. Augustine asked, “Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good?”

I think you know the answer. You.

Let your light so shine!

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen

Of Walls and Wilderness

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sister in Christ, from God our Father.

I had a slightly different sermon prepared for you today. For those of you who read my midweek prologue you probably came to church expecting to hear politics from the pulpit or at least the inference of such. Alas, I woke up yesterday morning knowing that the divisions of which I was going to speak wasn’t what I needed to hear right now. Trusting in Pastor Mark Gravrock’s wisdom from 2 weeks ago – I am going to guess that what I need to hear today may just be what you need to hear too.

And so there I lay at 6:30 a.m. Saturday after a night of writing the sermon on walls I had planned for you, restless and a tad weary, I was in need of good news. Frankly the level of angst and division that is polarizing our nation and world has been taking a toll on me. Maybe it is because my job in a financial advisor’s office exposes me to our client’s rollercoasters of emotion as the political and economic frenzy of empire impacts the very thing we manage – their money – on a daily basis. Let’s just say the last couple of weeks of have been especially trying.

Needless to say, the last thing I wanted to hear about at 10:15am on a beautiful Sunday morning is more about the things that divide us -the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them,” whether based on ethnicity, religious, political, or economic views, class, citizenship status, gender, culture, job position, or whatever else of this world that we choose to hang our identities on or take offense at. No, this what I really want to hear is someone saying ‘Erika, on October 1st, your sabbatical starts!” But I digress…

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Jesus tells his disciples upon their return from their first missions without Him -they had preached, they had cast out demons, they had anointed with oil those who were sick, they had called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. In other words, they had been really busy doing some pretty heavy stuff.

Other translations of the bible use the word “wilderness” – come away to the wilderness and rest awhile. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We are lucky to live in a playground of wilderness. Lately, our slice of wilderness is looking very much like the one Jesus and his disciples experienced in today’s Gospel – “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;” Sound familiar? What wilderness?  No matter where they went the masses found them. Bringing with them the immensity of human need and despair.

Mark refers to a wilderness often throughout his Gospel. In fact, he opens his Gospel with John the Baptist appearing as a voice in the wilderness telling of the one who is to come. Jesus spends 40 days in a wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of rest and solace and recreation like that to which Jesus invited his disciples today, it can also be a very hostile place – a place to escape from.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the sermon I was going to preach sounded an awful lot like that kind of wilderness – the hostile one. The wilderness that is played out on the opinion pages of our newspapers and broadcast across the airwaves and social media. The wilderness of empire where politics and power separate us from humanity and hope. The wilderness of “Us vs. Them” and Right vs. Left power plays. The wilderness of broken relationships and broken trust. The wilderness of lives and families torn apart by addiction and violence, of communities divided by hate. The wilderness of loneliness. The wilderness where we are consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead” to the detriment of our spirits, our relationships, and rest.

Oh, my goodness, are we ever living in a wilderness of walls and human despair!  We are just like the masses of lost sheep rushing to Jesus in need of a Shepherd. Living behind walls that separate us from God and one another, longing for the healing of our hurts, wanting to belong, searching for peace.

The scriptures I had read over and over again in preparation for today took on a whole new meaning for me. So perfect for our time and our place in this wilderness – they are full of Good News!  In Jeremiah, we hear of a promised shepherd for the world (the Shepherd in those days -as we learned from pastor Mark last week – was symbolic of a King.) While corrupt leadership had “scattered” the sheep, lead them astray and dashed their hopes, God gathered the remnants of his flock back to him and promised the coming of a righteous shepherd. When we place our hopes and trust in leaders of this world we will no doubt be lead astray and have our hopes disappointed at some point. But God is the good shepherd, and when we place our hope and trust in Him we will always know justice and good care.

We see in today’s Gospel, the stark contrast of Jesus to that of the corrupt King Herod we witnessed last week, as Jesus takes on the role of the good shepherd. Despite having been rejected in his hometown, despite having received news that his comrade John the Baptist has been killed, despite crossing over the sea and the barriers it represents many, many times, despite being tired and hungry and in need of rest, Jesus sees the crowds of people who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion for them and he begins to teach them. They are brought out of their wilderness and healed.

We are reminded by the 23rd Psalm that our Lord will give us all that we need. That in Him we will find a place to rest and restore our broken hearts and burdened minds. We are assured that He will lead us in the right ways – not for fulfillment of our worldly desires but for those of a higher calling. He will comfort us when fear and evil try to separate us from Him. He will stand with us in the face of our enemies and feed us together at His table – no need for a wall here. We are promised goodness and mercy in all our days.  This Lord who is our shepherd is with us always. He goes from being a God above us to one with us, accompanying us in our place of wilderness

And then, we hear of God’s ultimate promise to us from Paul in his letter to the divided people of Ephesus – Christ is our peace. In the ultimate act of shepherding, Jesus went out into the hostile wilderness and gave his life for us – declaring peace and freedom from the shackles of sin on new terms, a peace and freedom forged not by the powers of Empire in its various forms, but in the blood of the Shepherd on the cross. Through the cross, the wall dividing Jew and Gentile, citizen and stranger, those who are us and those who are them, was broken. And that is only the beginning. God in Christ made one humanity of the two.  Not making us uniform but rather uniting us with all our complexities in Christ as Jew and Gentile; citizen and stranger, us and them. This unity is not of our doing. It is out of the grace of God. This is the church and Christ is the cornerstone.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul tells the people of Ephesus – and the words should ring just as true to us today – remember who you were, see who you are now.  Remember when you were dead through your trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us – made us alive together with Christ—by grace we have been saved! Through his great love for us, Christ calls us, his lost sheep, out the wilderness – the wilderness of exclusion and hostility and divisiveness. He alone tears down the walls that we build up around ourselves, walls that separate us from Him and “them.”  Christ calls us to a place where we are united together in Him. This togetherness in Christ – our good and compassionate Shepherd – empowers us to welcome the stranger, to teach and share the Good News, to have compassion and suffer with those who are wandering in a wilderness of their own – not just on Sunday but every day as well as on the opinion pages and our social media posts. Doesn’t that sound like a nice respite from this wilderness of walls we have been wandering in?

We will never know perfect peace or unity in this world. Our defenses and offenses will always be aroused by the sins inherent to humanity. But through Christ we have a place to go where walls are invisible. This place is a daring place where a different kind of power – the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross – is at work.  We can trust this power to undermine every wall that divides us, to heal our hurts, to unmask our defenses, and bring us peace until we are as Paul wrote, “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is hope. Saturday morning, I heard a voice in the wilderness- it was good news – as I relished the extra minutes of pillow-time with the cool breeze wafting in through my window contemplating where in the world my sermon on walls was going to take me. Ye, I heard good news on the news! The Mayor of Branson, MO was being interviewed in the aftermath of the duck boat sinking tragedy where 17 sightseers lost their lives and many more were injured. Her comments are just what I needed to hear this morning and echoed what I hope you will take away from my sermon today: “We are all about taking care of our citizens,” she said, “but what makes us unique is we are all about taking care of strangers too. When you come here we love on you no matter whether you are here as a citizen or as someone we have never met before.”

Yeah, I think she was at a bible study this week. I think she got the message.

There are no walls of division or exclusion with Christ. We will never be alone in the wilderness. We can come to Him and rest awhile. And Erika needs a sabbatical.

Amen.