“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

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!

One Great Love Story in the Making

All photographs in this post courtesy of Brenda Ahearn. https://brendaahearn.com/

“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”

It’s February, the month of love. As a newlywed who just experienced what I thought was the greatest love story ever told, what else could I write about other than the wonderful, terrifying, miraculous, tumultuous, confounding, thrilling, joyous topic of love?

If you had asked me on the momentous day that I said “Yes” to my husband-to-be on top of a mountain 6 months ago to describe what life together would be like today – almost three months after our bliss-filled-on- top-of-the– world-head-in-the-cloud-nine wedding day, I dare say my response would have been nothing close to the reality that is our life that we now live together today.

Mind you, we did things the old-fashioned way in that we did not live together – at all – before our wedding. November 24, 2018 was not only the happiest day of our lives but it also marked the beginning of a very different kind of living arrangement between two people that had been living quite happily and singly for an average of 31 years.

No, my enraptured response would have been much different than our reality. A response conceived through a culture- skewed filter of what not necessarily perfect love is but what normal love is – especially normal love ensconced in marriage. Despite having grown up with two sets of parents who loved each other – however imperfectly – and seeing couples in our social circles navigating married life with what we assumed was aplomb – we frankly had no idea what normal love in marriage was like. And apparently, our idea of what love is, let alone our idea of what is normal in love, is rather abnormal.

Within three months of our blissful wedding day my husband and I realized after many mutually restless nights and days filled with tormented thoughts that we were both castigating ourselves for not having a normal love-filled married life – although given the number of marriage counselors and self-help / couples-help books on marriage out there – no one seems to have a normal love-filled married life. In one book I read on marriage recently, it was stated that marital counseling, while prolific in our population, is the least successful form of therapy out there. I pity the counselors who must reflect on the numbers of couples they counsel who still end up divorced.

When the tension between us finally became more than we could bear, we spent another sleepless night talking it out into the wee hours of the morning. In doing so, we both experienced a marital epiphany of sorts. While we both had vowed to communicate with one another openly – no matter what – we were both too afraid to put into words the feelings that were brewing inside of us. Once out in the air we realized that these feelings were mutual – and the fact that we both shared the same fear about them seemed to cement our commitment to each other to keep trying. The first lesson of love in OUR marriage learned: communication is key and our love for each other is like no other and will look like no other.

As a culture, we are seemingly obsessed with the romantic run up to and creation of the epic wedding day that epitomizes and celebrates a couple’s love for each other. It would be interesting to compare the numbers on how lucrative the wedding planning and wedding production industry is with the marital counseling industry in all its manifestations – but space and time do not allow for that here. My husband and I kept our wedding celebration very low key and considerably budget minded. We were more interested in professing our love in a way that was true to who each of us was than having the party of the year – yet we still found ourselves getting caught up in the expectation trap.

Perhaps a wiser course on the way to marital bliss would be to recognize that the start of a relationship and its frenzied journey to the altar (or lakeside, or wedding hall, or beach) is not the high point; it is merely the first step in a much longer, more ambivalent adventure. A journey towards understanding our inner selves in relation to the one we love for the long-term that deserves far more attention than most of us would like to give.

When we said our vows, our hopes triumphed over knowledge – love was all that mattered. Knowledge would come later – after the commitment had been made. Knowledge was not intentionally avoided – we went through premarital counseling – we had the deep conversations we thought we needed to have – but nothing can truly prepare you for the far less romantic mundane aspects and minutiae of life together after the celebration is over and real-life sets in.

How, for instance, would each of us who were both very independent spirits, each proud owners of their own homes in which we relished our solitude, react and adapt to sharing that solitude with someone all of the time? Or, how would two people whose only companions within those respective homes having been two dogs (of completely different generations and personalities,) react to having those cherished companions in a constant argument with one another and furthermore have those companions get scolded by our beloved??

Perhaps we should have been talking about how we felt about putting a used coffee cup back in the cupboard since it had only been used once instead of putting it in the dishwasher; or how we interpreted one of us spending their evenings lost in books and music while the other recharges with football on the big screen, or when two people who are used to silence at home are suddenly sharing a home – what happens to the silence and what happens when that silence grows (oh my!) – than spending our precious pre-wedding time searching for a rustic unity candle that exemplified our perfect love for one another!

Each of us is unique and every marriage is unique – and our understanding and view of love and what is normal in a marriage will be just as unique. Our ideal of what love is – formed by a culture that romanticizes and materializes every aspect of it – dares to threaten and diminish the love that was so alive at the beginning. The idea that there is a perfect way to love and a perfect formula for marriage is just wrong. But, these conflicting narratives are everywhere – in movies and songs – great forms of literature and greeting cards – even jewelry and breakfast cereal commercials, and they fly in the face of the normal-for-us love that survives and thrives amid our conflicting schedules, tired minds, long workdays, differing fiscal philosophies, and dogs that don’t get along.

As author and founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton, said in a recent On Being interview, “We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.”

Nowhere, other than through firsthand experience, do we learn how love deepens and stumbles, survives and evolves over time. Love is at once a painful and perplexing, touching and revelatory attempt by two flawed but earnest individuals trying to meet each other’s needs in situations of frustrating uncertainty and stubborn ignorance that neither of us had really contemplated before. No one had the nerve to tell us that our feelings of angst and conflict towards one another in the process of loving one another have much more to do with ourselves than what is wrong or right with our partner as we prepared to walk down the aisle.

Nowhere are we taught that love grows in the disappointing and the mundane moments of our day to day life just as much as it grows in the romantic, playful and joy-filled times.  If we all could have that insight, we would be starting our married lives off from a much more generous starting point.

Being a human being and trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship is challenging no matter how well-matched the couple may be; there is no such thing as a perfect match; and every couple will encounter problems. Love is something we have to learn and keeping learning from. What challenges us the most we learn from the best. Love is not just an emotion, it is a skill acquired through time that requires patience, understanding, tolerance, generosity, imagination, courage and hope.

Frederick Buechner’s words on marriage inspire me to believe my husband and I are enjoying one great love story in the making:  “They both still have their lives apart as well as a life together. They both still have their separate ways to find. But a marriage made in heaven is one where they become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.”

Our marriage continues to be a beautiful risk of the heart made with complete confidence in one another. We are learning to appreciate each other’s individuality, flaws, and imperfections as they are every bit a part of the wonderful person we fell in-love with and married. We are triumphant with hope and growing in love and becoming more richly ourselves together than either of us ever could have become alone. May you be blessed in such a way  as well – no matter where you are in your relationship with the one you love.

~ ~ ~

A reading from our wedding ceremony:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

–  Colossians 3:12-17

 

 

 

Make Your Ordinary Extraordinary

Last month as we came to the end of another journey around the sun, I reflected on that which lays claim to our lives – the same old patterns, practices, and negative voices in our head that tend to hold us back from looking and living forward in the freedom of God’s grace.

With the dawn of a new year, there is nothing most of us would like better to do than to break free from the bothers and burdens of life. Aware of our shadows and short-comings, we resolve to change – to be more positive, virtuous, charitable, forgiving. Striving for a more perfected or at least presentable version of ourselves, we set goals for the 365 days ahead determined to make something of our ordinary lives.

Before adding another list of “to do’s” to your daily regimen of being human, I think a good starting point for positive change in our lives is to once again look at what currently lays claim to it, reckon with it, and make peace with it. Rather than close the door on our struggles and burdens – past or present – no matter how difficult, examine them for the lessons learned and the strength gained, and yes, be grateful for them.

Indeed, to be grateful for all of our lives – the good and the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, our successes, and our failures, the rewards we have earned as well as the rejections we have faced, all the parts of our ordinary, everyday life – is what Henri Nouwen calls spiritual hard work. I call it necessary work.  If we don’t make peace with the journey that brought us to this decision point of change and honor the exceptional, uniquely formed being that we are, we just become a busier and more distracted version of ourselves without much space in our lives for something truly new to take hold.

The events, experiences, and people of our past have brought us to where we are and shaped us into who we are in this present moment. They will continue to shape us in the present and as we meet the journey ahead. Perhaps you’re coming off a particularly busy holiday season – one where there were just not enough hours in the day to experience joy. Perhaps you are one of the 800,000 federal workers trying to make ends meet while higher powers hold your income and daily life hostage. Perhaps you just received a raise after months of hard work. Perhaps your child made the winning shot in the basketball game last night. Maybe you just finished a term on a board and are reflecting on your accomplishments and frustrations and wondering what to do next. Maybe a long-time friend or parent has just passed away. Perhaps an important relationship is feeling the strains of dullness, distance, or distraction. Or maybe a relationship just became something much more wonderful.

Look at the ordinary and everyday circumstances of your life – those that bring joy and those that well – don’t. What do you see?  When life has left you feeling lost, who found you? When your workday or circumstances at home have left you exhausted and overwhelmed, how did you overcome those feelings to face another day? When circumstances put a skip in your step or laughter in your heart, where did you find yourself?

Look at the people in your life and the relationships you have – the good and the bad – in what circumstance were those ties formed? How have they enriched your life or enlightened you on the qualities you desire in yourself or want to rid yourself of? As long as we separate the times, places, and people in our lives that we would rather forget from those we relish in remembering, we will never accept the fullness of who we are or who we can become.

Ordinary life is our primary practice, so why not make it a spiritual one?  It is in the ordinary of life that we rediscover and reclaim ourselves – where the hard work is done and where good work can shine. It is in the ordinary of life that we must ask the question “Who and how do I want to be in this moment?” This question is about more than just making a choice in your response to an event or deciding between an array of options of who you are going to be today as you smile or frown during your morning mirror time. It is a question we should ponder every ordinary day.

It’s about taking all the lessons you have learned and letting the you that has been shaped and refined by your journey to this very moment in time shine through. Your response to who and how you want to be in this moment will define what you value and set the trajectory for – the course of your life.

Are you a stressed-out parent? A sandwich generation child? A spouse? Are you a rancher, a framer, a cook, a teacher, or bookkeeper? A CPA, a carpenter, a ski instructor, a salesperson, a lawyer, a medical professional? Are you a student, a politician, a police officer, a retired person, an unemployed person? Remember that before you were any of these, you were you – God’s best version of you. And look who you have become!

If you are busy setting goals to make more of your ordinary life this year, make one of them to change “for the better” by honoring ALL that you are right now. Look at your life through different eyes – those of a child of God. Claim the fullness of who and what you are now and share it with those around you. Don’t wait until you are a ‘better version.”

Here’s the extraordinary thing about our ordinary – no one else’s is like ours. Our ordinary is extraordinarily unique! Crafted by the guiding hand of a loving God, your ordinary life is your life to live and give to others as they have given to you in their own extraordinary ordinary way. Our ordinary becomes extraordinary when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life – all of our life – to those we meet in our ordinary days. Our greatest fulfillment, our greatest opportunity to make more of our ordinary days lies in giving ourselves to others.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”                           – Isaiah 43 1-4

Let your light so shine!

 

Overwhelmed by Love

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_o “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have started to write this piece only to delete everything (computers are an amazing writing tool!), walk away, and endeavor to try again when courage is restored. I feel completely inept to write about a subject I have avoided to address in my life for far too long out of a keen desire for self-preservation, feelings that I am not worthy of it, and my tendency toward perfectionism that sways me away from things I know I will ultimately fail at or be rejected by. For certain, it is not out of delight that I feel called to write about LOVE.

While I may not be very good at it, I do not shy away from loving deeply. To be honest, I find it hard not to love everyone. Sharing life with people brings great joy to my heart and things that bring joy are easy to love. But love is about more than sharing life with people. Love is about risk and pain as much as it is about trust and joy.  In the aftermath of a broken heart, the death of my dog, followed by the death of my mother, the very real risks and pains of love made me rethink how much love I could let in to my life anymore. Closing the door on love seemed like a good decision but doing so left a lot of room in my life to fill.  I filled that void with busyness, commitments, complicated scheduling, and mindless wandering where I swore to myself that I would never again allow myself to love too much, too deeply, or too easily – because too much love guaranteed too much hurt when that love was lost.

But fear is not in my nature and not something I take kindly to, especially when it threatens to surpass joy. By closing the door on love, I was closing the door on joy.

summit climbHenri J Nouwen, a Catholic priest and one of the most insightful theologians I have ever come across, encourages us to love deeply and to feel the pain that deep love can cause because the pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. “It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant.” In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, he goes on to say: “Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.”

My fear of failure, rejection, and being hurt has no root in the soil that grows love. The Bible tells us this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) I will never reach a state of perfection in love because there is only one perfect love, and that love has already been freely given to me (and you) by our Lord. By accepting this as truth, His perfect love cast out my fear and changed my heart from one that avoided love to one that wants to know how to love like the Lord loves.  No more will I let my fear of rejection by others become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the more I fear rejection by others, the more likely my actions towards others will cause them to reject me.

“The giving of love is an education in itself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

I write this with a heart that has been overwhelmed by love.  I am ashamed at how selfish my understanding of love was. I have always marveled at the charity of others-  those good souls who give so freely of their hearts and of their lives towards the needs and betterment of others. I never felt qualified and sadly, I told myself I was too busy.  Besides, what could I give that someone else couldn’t provide better than I? Once again, I let my fear of failure keep me from loving others. Now, as my family has been humbled by the graciousness of neighbors and church friends who have given their time and hearts in love to my father as he battled and now recovers from cancer and who have extended their love to me, I understand that there is no measurement for the right way to love.  The only right way to love is to simply do it. Make time for it. Sacrifice for it.

C.S. Lewis believed that those who fear direct their focus inward and worry about what will happen to them if they fail or are rejected. Those who love direct their focus outward towards caring more for others than themselves. The more you look outward the less time you have to dwell on your fears.  Martin Luther called the love of neighbor the highest and most important form of love aside from loving God. He went as far to say that those who do not love their neighbor could not love God. Luther believed that to know God was to understand that He is nothing but an active and self-giving love. Therefore, if you do not have faith in God, or do not love God through faith, you will not be able to do any truly good deeds.  While Luther believed we are saved by grace and not by works, this does not lessen God’s greatest commandment to us – to love one another as He loved us. Luther calls us to act in love, to be reflections of Christ in the lives of others.

Still, works of love take courage. Works of love make us vulnerable but maybe that vulnerability in the end makes us stronger, our lives fuller, and our hearts happier. C.S. Lewis wrote that the only place outside heaven where you will be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. Have you ever noticed how full of joy and full of life those who love through their works are? They have brought a small part of His kingdom down to earth and are blessed to live in it.

Nouwen sums this up nicely: “The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. They will become part of yourself and thus gradually build a community within you. Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community. The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you. Those who are alive within you will recognize those who are alive around you. The wider the community of your heart, the wider the community around you. Thus, the pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.”

12657168_1145106078847322_6415618807933147334_oThis Valentine’s Day marked one year since I last saw my mother alive. She did not like me to take risks in life – she wanted to protect me from being hurt. This was a constant source of frustration between the two of us. The love a mother has for her daughter is something I will never personally know but I do know how very much this daughter loved her mother. That I said goodbye to her on Valentine’s Day holds a far greater significance in my heart than I ever dreamed it would as we parted that last time. In honor of her love, I am going to go take a big risk and start loving deeply again – in new, fruitful, active ways. That will mean I will have to sacrifice some of that “busyness” I used to fill the void when I closed the door on love but I am okay with that. If you are living in fear rather than love, I invite you to  have courage and join me. I expect we will be overwhelmed by love as we do love and maybe, just maybe walk in His perfect ways in a small part of His kingdom here on earth.

Let your light so shine!

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A Different Christmas

“God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.”
~ 1 John 1:5

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Christmas Eve 2015. I sat by my window in my lonely LOG (loft over garage) watching the snow continue to fall, as it had for days and days. Its pristine beauty and sound softening aesthetics belied the frustration it brought to my spirit. Winter had lain claim to my plans for a Christmas trip home to be with my family for the holiday for the first time in three years. And last year more than any, I needed to embrace the warmth, understanding, and love of my family. To be with my mother and father who had had a difficult year and a brother and sister in-law whom I had not seen enough of in 2.5 years.

For sure, it would not be a traditional Christmas for my family even if I had made it home. My mother, who was seriously ill and hospitalized in a state of confusion and despair would be our point of gathering – we would not be going to Christmas Eve candle-light services before looking at Christmas lights and gathering around a brightly lit Christmas tree at the hearth of our home to open presents, share stories and eat peanut brittle.

I too, found myself navigating a new chapter of my life, quite alone and feeling quite broken.  For sure, my heart was not filled with the joy of recent years. There were no stockings hung in my LOG, no gifts under a tree – I was supposed to be in Billings- and Christmas carols were making me cry. Sadly, I was not alone. Around me a marriage had crumbled, trusts were broken, another’s child sat in jail, suicide had claimed a family’s idea of forever, and others treasured every moment of what would be a last Christmas with a loved one.

The world around me felt distraught – plunged into a darkness where even acts of charity were questioned for their ultimate goal. Hunger, strife, terror, desolation, and frustration tore at our nation’s unique fabric- once bound together by common beliefs and goals – now seemed to be splintered across a dark abyss.

A year later, not much has changed in the world – some would claim it has become even more divided, darker, even doomed. In this darkness, we try to make do.

Christmas brings to a culmination, our humanly efforts to cast away the darkness in the world – engaging in the wonderful merriment of holiday festivities, attempting more perfect lives for this special time of year until our perfect plans and family gatherings go awry and our high expectations for the holidays go unmet.

And yet, despite our quest for perfection in our holiday celebrations- our desires to reflect the storybook Christmas traditions we have grown to expect and claim as our own – Christmas came to be in the most IMPERFECT WAY.

Imagine Mary’s despair, being fully pregnant and having to travel 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph by donkey for a census of all things! Talk about the best laid pregnancy plans going awry! Of course, once there they find no guest rooms available because everyone is in Bethlehem from afar to be counted. And then as if on a very bad cue, Mary’s labor starts and they find shelter in a stable where she gives birth to our Savior and places Him in a manger. A manger of all things!

In the most imperfect and darkest of circumstances a Savior, my Savior, was born. Is there a subtle message for us in that lowly beginning? Jesus’ birth was certainly different than what I am sure Mary had planned! If there were storybook traditions for birth, Jesus’ certainly didn’t follow one.

I am finding less and less truth in the storybook Christmases I remember “having” as a child and those that I perceive others around me having. Yes, the joy and love that comes alive in the hearts of many this time of year is real but the lives that love and joy manifest in are far from perfect. We grasp on to holiday traditions that we carry over year after year in an effort to reclaim that perfection we remember. Straying from those traditions or losing one here and there brings us heartache – as suddenly the Christmas we are celebrating is different from how it is supposed to be.

The Morck family Christmas traditions have been carried on from year to year – decking the halls, arguments over which halls to be decked, lighting the angel chimes, trimming the tree, presents for the dogs, slammed doors on the way to church, gritted teeth in the pews, peaceful and happy moments by the tree as we open presents late into the night on Christmas Eve – fueled by hot chocolate and peanut brittle as the rest of the world slumbered. But the last three  Christmases in my life have been different. Except for last year when life changed for our family, the Morck family traditions were carried out in Billings without me and I found myself trying new ways to celebrate. It wasn’t easy. Christmas wasn’t perfect. Christmas was different and Christmas was beautiful. Yes, you read that right. Beautiful!

“The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
~ 1 John 2:815250853_1394939560530638_2397082385538831720_o

You see, despite all our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; despite our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; despite the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR COMES! BECAUSE of our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; BECAUSE of our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; BECAUSE of the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR CAME!

Christ came in the most imperfect way to give us LIGHT! Last year, as I faced Christmas alone, He brought light to me as I was longing for home and the traditions that were missing from my life. I found His light as I sat “alone” in church, listening to the Christmas Eve sermon. But I really wasn’t alone – I only made myself out to be. I was surrounded by people experiencing their own Christmases, some equally as different as mine.  I saw tears glistening on cheeks other than mine. I realized I was sitting with people just like me. Each of us imperfect and each of us a masterpiece, made in His image and given newness in Christ Our Savior’s LIGHT.

Into my very different and dark Christmas, my Lord and Savior shined His light on the people that have crossed my path and made a difference in my life and at once I felt at peace, felt heart aching joy, and I no longer felt alone! Looking back, I realize that my “different” Christmas was the greatest gift I could receive at that difficult time of my life. I had been set free from the chains of tradition that made my heart ache in their absence and found the most beautiful peace in my “different” Christmas. And this year I am making a different Christmas my new tradition.

Christmas will be very different for me and my family this year and I am okay with that. My mother has gone ahead of us to celebrate Jesus’s birth with Him and shine her light in the stars above. Once again, I will find myself away from family but I will not feel or be alone. My life is full of the Light of Christmas and filled with awe inspiring, imperfect people making their way through life and through their own Christmases.

I thank my Lord for each of you, for in some way, my Lord is working through you to impact my life and I pray that in some way, I have been a light in yours. I wish for you the beauty of a different Christmas this year. I pray that you find His peace and His glory, that you feel His presence in your heart, that His power guides you through your journey, and that His love and light shines brightly on you even in the most different of circumstances.

May this Christmas have a special significance for all of us— imperfect people in need of a Savior, who comes to us just as we are in many different ways and walks.

Let your light so shine, as His light shines in the darkness.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!

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A Different Christmas Morning – 2015

The Eleventh Day of Advent

Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Courtesy: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Bible is the revelation of God’s love. To love one another is the greatest commandment given to us and yet in our fallen world it seems we cannot. As human beings we seek to find love and give love but we want to choose who we love and we want to tell others how they can love. God calls us to love everyone as he loved us, including those who hate us and those who are different from us.

We strive for perfection – in order to be loved, to know love, and to give love. And we will fail, because there is only one perfect love,  God. God is love and only God loves perfectly. He does not measure if we are worthy, there is nothing we can do to merit His love aside from loving others. Once we have received God’s love he expects us to love.”Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” ( 1 John 4:8 ).

Let you light so shine as His Light shines in the darkness revealing his perfect love.