Resurrecting Life

A sermon on John 21:1-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Seeing Clearly

I love to write. Words are like children to me – they are the physical expression of my thoughts and feelings – birthed deep inside and given life on the page. For all of my life I have delighted to see my words in print or on the screen.  Beginning in first grade when my poem about spring was selected for the school magazine to many years later when my well intentioned civic minded letter to the editor was printed in the Sunday Gazette, I beamed like a proud parent gazing upon their cherubic child. I remember being as thrilled over getting positive remarks on my high school essays as the soccer team was at winning the state championship!

Now I write professionally, pastorally, and for pleasure having consistently maintained a blog for 8.5 years. One would think that with my love for words, birthing them would come easy. But on the contrary, when has childbirth ever been easy???  Indeed, I have labored for hours over opening lines and meaningful metaphors. I approach the blank screen with trepidation – if I approach it all. Just this last weekend with a sermon to write and this newsletter article hanging over me – I suddenly realized with great urgency that my refrigerator needed cleaning out. I scrubbed that baby from top to bottom – pulling out every drawer and shelf and thoroughly scouring away every microscopic bit of organic life. I justified this time-sucking task with the inspiration I knew I would glean from the crisper drawer – but in truth I was willing to do anything to keep me from that frightening blank screen that taunts me with just how empty my thoughts are.

And courage. Courage to “put it all out there” for the world to see. To take a chance that what I have to say might make an impression on someone, touch someone, make someone think. I have to put aside fears of rotten tomatoes, click throughs, and “challenging” remarks. Courage to refrain from comparison – the ultimate thief of joy and creativity – and just write trusting that while my words may not be the most profound or philosophical – they still have worth.

With no divinely-cool inspiration coming forth I continued with dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, and finally taking the dog for a walk – surely, they were out there somewhere – the precise words to perfect my prose. Procrastinate lately – you might be thinking? But I will counter any day with my concept of active percolation – just like brewing the perfect cup of coffee – making words form sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages – takes care and time! 

It is in times like these that deadlines are my friend. At some point I am forced to write something – to put form to the thoughts swirling in my mind. To act. To make a decision and run with it – to take a chance.

As I struggled with words this weekend, I began to see similarities to other areas of my life. You might say my writer’s block was a mega metaphor of my life right now! Struggling with choices and decisions until I am forced by something or some circumstance to finally act. I am as afraid of writing the wrong thing as I am of making the wrong choice. Desperate to be right and win approval, my fear of acting has held me back throughout my life and as I embark on the second half I don’t want to continue being stymied by it.

I’ve never quite understood what is behind this fear but I have always marveled at those who seem to have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there – and then getting there – fears (if they have any) be darned!

Fear of failure has clouded my vision and therefore I have always lacked clarity of purpose and lacked direction in living my life. Oh, I manage to get by alright – some might even think I have it all together – that I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I do best. And maybe that is true – but getting by is not the same as living your best. And living your best takes clarity which turns into courage which turns into action. 

Have you ever felt like something – maybe yourself – was holding you back from living life fully – trusting your choices and believing you are on the right path? What is it? What clouds your perspective and keeps you from moving forward?  What keeps you from living wholeheartedly and with integrity?

In addition to my fear of failure I struggle with:

  • The belief that my past failures will forever haunt any future successes;
  • The illusion that someone else is in charge of and responsible for my life and therefore has the right to direct my life
  • The belief that someone is far more qualified and better than I am for the situation at hand and therefore I am not needed;
  • The unhelpful messages I received and believed about myself in the past and continue to live into;
  • The child inside of me who still just wants to please, gain approval, and meet expectations;
  • The constant need to prove myself to others and therefore being unable to show up for my own life.

Counselors will applaud me for the time I have spent wrestling with all of the above but to be honest it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Kind of like hoping divine inspiration will come from the crisper drawer if I clean it for long enough. The more I focus on the naughts and shoulds of my life the less time and energy I have for simply living life.  What I have come to realize is that there are far too many subjective and fallible things in this world that I have clung to for my own personal sense of worth and meaning and none of them will get me anywhere close to where I want to go – especially for the second half of life.

There is a story in the Bible about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus is met by some Pharisees who warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:31-33)

Jesus knows where He is going, he is clear on His purpose and is not afraid of what is ahead. He doesn’t let the foxes of life deter him – even his impending death.

I want that kind of clarity for my own life. Clarity that encourages integrity, wholeheartedness, and a vision of life that is connected to something beyond me. Clarity that makes living with authenticity, commitment, resolve and discernment my default and not something I have to labor for.

I’m not going to find that if I am constantly battling my fears. The fears I allow to dominate my life are of my own making. They have tamed and impoverished my life. That is not the purpose God had in mind for me. God is much bigger than that.

God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in fear, regret, or despair.  He made that perfectly clear on the cross. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation; He is the source of my clarity and the source of all life. He is my strength and my shield against all that seeks to deter me.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges and all the opportunities they bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living facing challenges and finding new doorways to life.

Clarity isn’t about knowing and seeing everything. It’s about knowing and seeing ourselves as a child of God. It’s about knowing who our heart and our deepest loyalty belongs to. Clarity is about seeing clearly our gifts and abilities while acknowledging our limitations and feeling great about both.  God’s gift of grace and steadfast love frees us to live lives focused on what matters most to us not on what we should have done or who we “should” be. In that freedom is life at its best where there is nothing to fear.

Psalm 27 says it best:     

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rises up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”

Psalm 27: 1-5

Let your light so shine!!

Far and Away

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

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

Stormy skies ahead!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!!

How Will You Run Your Fastest Race?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A moment of stillness at the end of the day.

Let your light so shine!

Take Heart! Get Up!

A sermon on  Mark10:46-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank goodness for Bartimaeus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

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

Dear Friends in Christ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

You Have Worth in Christ

The words came at me like a cleaver, blunt yet cutting, slowly digging into my very core. We were in the middle of a conversation about life, direction, purpose, and personal responsibility.  Was I perhaps too reliant on the Lord in the course of my life?

For as long as I have conceived of morning and night my faith has been a central part of my life. Yes, there was a time I veered away from the concept of church, but the Lord redeemed me during a time of complete brokenness and it was then that I moved beyond just practicing my faith to having a deep relationship with Him.  But every relationship has a dynamic, and not all dynamics are positive. When those words were spoken to me, I was caught off guard. Was my faith simply a crutch to lean on during difficult times?

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10

Later, pondering deeply as I walked alone, I found myself questioning my relationship with the Lord. Had I become too dependent on Him as I made my way through life? This question haunted me for days and weeks!  I felt at odds not only with the person who had brought this idea to light but at odds with my Lord!

Then I began to feel at odds with myself, ashamed for my lack of spiritual integrity. I felt weak in my faith, me of all people, the one who encourages others to look to the Lord for strength, rest, and resurrection, the one who considered going to seminary and still contemplates the possibility of a theological vocation from time to time!  What sort of hypocrite had I become? I should have defended the Lord but instead, like Peter who denied Him, I questioned Him in the face of ridicule. Needing to be identified as the strong woman I am, not someone who was insecure and unsure of my steps or weak and reliant on others (not even my Lord),  I did not defend the One who has been grace-filled and just in my life.

About this time, I was fortunate to cross paths with a man who makes a point of actively living his faith in his life during a conference at 100Fold Studio, a servant-focused architectural firm based in Lakeside, MT.  The firm offers architecture students and graduates a six-week studio internship in which they explore how Christian principles can inform a career in architecture. Speakers from around the country with expertise in design, business, and world missions focused on faith and vocation through lectures, small groups, and one on one mentorship.

Dr. Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Chair of Economics at the University of Virginia was the main speaker and the one who caught me with his message. While he certainly had insight on how these future architects and designers might finance their careers, he shared a far greater message of living out your faith in your daily work and interactions. He encouraged us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Romans, to not be ashamed of the Gospel or the role your faith has in your life.

“You have worth in Christ,” was his opening comment, and because of that, he makes no secret of his faith in the workplace, which for him is the staunchly secular arena of academia.

Listening to Dr. Elzinga speak of his courageously open faith in an atmosphere where such open religiosity raised the ire of department chairs reminded me that while God does not need defending by the likes of me, He does ask me to recognize His place in my life and not be ashamed of it. Dr. Elzinga shared a story of his early years at the University. He had placed a Bible on his office desk and when one of his fellow professors saw it he told him he would never gain tenure with a Bible on his desk. Dr. Elzinga certainly had moments of doubt and career consternation, but his inner certainty of his faith withstood intimidation. He continued to be open about his faith and while he never blatantly proselytized he welcomed discussions on faith. When students came to him with troubles, he listened and guided with love. Often, upon seeing his Bible on his desk students would ask him to pray with them. Soon he began asking the students if he could pray for them. Most of them said yes. In time, even his colleagues turned to him for spiritual support in times of need.

Despite, if not because of, his open faithfulness, not only did he gain tenure but he is now a distinguished chair of the University, regularly leads campus Bible studies and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He admits it was not always easy being unashamed of the Gospel and at times faced harassment, felt threatened in his career, and even felt as if he had failed in his efforts to quietly and gently share the Gospel through his actions, not just words. Yet, looking at his career and record from my standpoint, he certainly came out the winner with his Lord by his side.

Dr. Elzinga spoke about our human tendency to want to control everything in our lives. It is a natural state. It is not easy to go forth in faith – especially for young graduates who have the whole world ahead of them. We like to trust in our own abilities. Because we know our limits and can expect a certain outcome, we place our trust in ourselves and things of a concrete nature. We take pride in accomplishing things on our own.  It is when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we begin to look elsewhere for support. Dr. Elzinga proposed that difficulties in our course of life are God’s way of getting our attention. If we don’t have difficulties in life we start to walk on our own. Many would counter that it is good to walk on our own – that independence is a sign of strength. There was a time in my own life that I felt pretty sure of myself and pretty sure that God did not have His eye on me, nor did I need Him to. I was strong in my own right and thought I had everything under control in check. No need to let anyone into my world. No need to ask for help when I in truth I needed it.

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Alas, the Lord understands our prideful natures, and will occasionally take steps to knock us off our high horse to remind us who is in control. I don’t know about my self- assured friends, but I know I have been bucked off my stallion a few times in the crazy course of my life. Surprisingly, I was able to get up, dust myself off, and walk with my head held high shining in my Lord’s light. Sure my knees were a little skinned and my pride shaken in front of more than a few onlookers, but I did not doubt for one moment my worth in Christ. That is the amazing thing about Christ. He doesn’t ask for much but His gifts are gracious. If we open our hearts to Him and accept Him into our life, He will lead us down right paths and love us just as we are.

So how do I affirm and defend the Lord’s positive role in my wayward life in the face of those who have attained, seemingly on their own, certainty in the direction of their own? How can I not question my trust in Him?

As Dr. Elzinga pointed out in his remarks on being broken and redeemed, we can find the answer written in His Word. Perhaps I should spend more time with the original self-help anthology and less time trying to appear strong and self-reliant. The Lord sees and knows all my strengths and weaknesses. Placing my trust in Him will ensure a steadfast spirit within me.

 But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”   ~2 Corinthians 12:9

A Stillness Soliloquy – The Key to Racing Well

I stood quietly in the breeze gazing down at “Mom and Dad’s Place in this World” and what will likely be mine one day – hopefully in the very distant future. It bears little semblance to the lives they lived or the homes the created over the years. Looking at their names and the numerical bookends of their lives etched into the slate grey stone, I pondered the finite nature of our being and what I am doing with mine.

My brother and I had just taken the final steps to close our parent’s estate. It was a long, almost 4-year ordeal since this sad process began. With the “materiality” of our life as a family behind us, now all my brother and I have left of our parents is the fabric of our very beings. It is an odd feeling – being the last remnants of two remarkable people. There is a loneliness that creeps into the soul and a weightiness in the realization that “this is it” – it all ends with us – this chapter in the “epic” tale of the Morck family.

To say that the last four years of my life, that my life as a whole has been a blur is an understatement – but somehow I have lived through it and came out a much different person than I was the last time I felt my mother’s embrace, heard my father say my name one last time and reckoned with changes to my life I never before could have fathomed. Where did all the time go? What have a truly accomplished that if I joined Mom and Dad today I would be satisfied with how my book of life ended, with how I finished the race?

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

Of course, we leave more than etched stone behind when we are no longer racing across the starting line – it is by the why that we ran and the how that we finished that we will be remembered. It’s similar to a novel – it can have a great title and opening line – but if the plot and closing sentence don’t leave you thinking deeply and feeling better for the time you have spent in relationship with the characters, it will remain just a title among the masses longing for greatness searching for a reason for being written.

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

The race of life is no different. It must be run with intention if you want to finish well.

Living intentionally is not easy especially when faced with the unpredictable, impermanent, and unknowingness of life. As I wrote in December, sometimes we have to be intentional in living in sustained uncertainty, living without knowing, embracing the mystery, and keeping the possibilities that arise from this state of ambiguity open. But one can get lost their own Delphian world of suspended reality. This state of questioning impels me to rush with urgency toward an answer – any answer. A life of restlessness is not what I am after, after all. But this urgency to define our lives will most certainly confine our lives.

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

Too often, my reason for being is simply a daily reaction to what is happening around me or a rush to get somewhere. I settle into the complacent comfort of taking each day as it comes rather than shaping my being each day for what it could be. For years I have pursued achievements due to my underlying feelings of inadequacy based on what I thought others expected of me and yet I still feel restless – casting about without a why. How many accomplishments does a person need to finally have a reason for being? It certainly won’t be found in chasing after other’s definitions of me.

It takes a concerted effort to define our own lives – to live with intention and to live intentionally requires us to do one thing. One thing that can seem abhorrent, even irrational, in our quest reason, in our quest for greatness – we simply must be still. Stillness is how we connect to ourselves and others, not by rushing from one engagement or yet another commitment to the next. A life in constant motion is rushing blindly towards a life lived more in death than enjoyed before the book ends. We waste years of our life chasing happiness and greatness through achievement but there is no greatness that is not at peace and there is no peace if we cannot simply be: being simply at one with stillness and being simply at one with what is inside of us rather than what is coming at us.

Stillness can be uncomfortable, even scary to those of us used to running through the noise rushing around us. We try to outrun it – the noise and pulsating thoughts of things to do and those left undone, the feelings that we don’t want to feel, the commitments made that we struggle to keep. But no matter how quick our cadence the noise seems to keep right in step with every beat of the heart if not passing us by and taunting us at the end. Often, it is those very thoughts and feelings we are running from that hold the key to unlocking the answers we seek – our reason for being – the greatness we are capable of – if only we could be still enough to ponder it.  As Blaise Pascal put it, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.”

We live in a world of constant motion and rush for reason – we are pulled away from our innermost self and encouraged to react and look for answers instead of being still and listening to the questions. We have no time for inner rest – no time to let our questions, problems, and concerns mature into intention and reason.

Stillness grants us breath amid the breathlessness of life. Stillness calls forth our inner voice so we can hear and follow it. Stillness invites us into a place of rest and reflection instead of rapidity and reaction. Stillness stirs us to contemplation which births intention.

It is that intention that I pondered in the stillness at Mom and Dad’s place standing in the cool stiff breeze and reflecting on what was “left” of my parents. What will I do with the fabric of my being that will carry on after me? What is my intention for what happens before the book-ends are engraved for my life – before I cross the finish line?  Will I have mattered as much as these two did and still do? Will I finish the race well?

What are your intentions for the space between the book ends? Will you define them before your book does indeed, end?   Go and find stillness – welcome it into your life and finish well.

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

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!