The Last Word . . . and the First — A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

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The Last Word . . . and the First
Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
Montecito Covenant Church
Diana R.G. Trautwein

So. Here we are. The last Sunday of the church year, standing on the threshold of the holidays, which are barreling toward us with alarming speed. We’ve just come through — some of us, just barely! — one of the most difficult and vitriolic election campaigns in our national history.

Our pastor of eleven years has left us, heading for parts east. Many of us are reeling from personal pain and loss — illness, injury, surgery, difficult medical treatment, looming divorce, death. Some of us are dealing with school projects that feel overwhelming, or tricky relationships with friends or dorm-mates. Some of us are entertaining friends and family this next week; some of us are traveling to gather with others; some of us wonder how we’ll celebrate at all. By and large, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, of us in this room are carrying around multiple layers of sadness. Maybe even a sense of hopelessness,if we’re honest.

But . . . we’re here. Ready to worship, ready to listen, ready to sing, ready to pray. And, I think it is ALSO fair to say, very ready to hope.

The passage before us this morning is one that is assigned by the church lectionary, that revolving list of scriptures that takes us through most of the Bible over a 3-year span. It’s a text that beautifully expresses the theme of this day in our church calendar. And it is a passage that calls us to HOPE.

Many of the words in our sermon text today — the last six verses, in fact — actually come from what most scholars guess is an old song, a hymn of praise, something that was part of the liturgy used by the early community of Jesus followers when they gathered to worship God together.

It’s a song in two stanzas, with some lovely parallel lines and repeated words between them. And it’s a song that, in addition to its majestic, descriptive language, uses a long string of very small words. Small, but oh-so-important. Please listen for them as I read the passage for you this morning.Those little words are called prepositions. Remember those?

Hear the word of the Lord for this ‘Christ the King Sunday,’ as it comes to us from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, a smallish 1st century city which was moving steadily into the economic backwaters of its day. Somewhere in that town, a group of believers was learning what it means to live out the gospel in truth and love. This small letter was written to that small group sometime in the second half of the first century, so the words we have before us have been around for a long, long time.

They are beautiful and they are remarkable for how well they lay out a complex series of ideas about two central truths: who Jesus Christ is and who the church is. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version and I will actually begin with verse 11, which comes in the middle of an opening prayer for these believers.

These are the words of that continuing prayer:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

And then, beginning with verse 15, we find that two stanza hymn — here it is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 Whether it was the apostle Paul himself or a devoted disciple of his who penned the words of this lovely little letter, no one seems to be completely certain. Whoever it was — and for ease in understanding, I’m going to call him ‘Paul’ –I’m grateful we have this letter in our Bible, and I’m deeply grateful for the powerful truths it contains.

This is a pastoral letter, written out of deep concern for the spiritual health and well-being of a beloved group of people, people who have been visited by some ‘new’ teachers who are introducing some interesting and quite wrong-headed ideas.

Most of the letters in our New Testament were written to try and help a particular congregation through one kind of troubling situation or other, and Colossians is no exception. After the passage before us today, the letter spells out those troubling ideas a bit more clearly. Some of them seem to have Jewish roots, some of them Greek. ALL of them carry the weight of, ‘what you’ve got is not enough.’

“Well, yes, of course,” these teachers are saying. “It’s good that you’re following in the way of Jesus. But you know that’s not enough, don’t you? You need to add a few things — there are some foods which should be avoided, there are some holidays which should be observed, you’re being much too contaminated by the things of this earth and you need to live a far more rigorous lifestyle, and you should definitely be worshipping and placating the angels and the powerful astral powers all around us. You see, Jesus just isn’t enough.”

“Oh yeah,” says Paul. “I don’t think so.”

And this hymn, these lovely, strong words about the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ alone, they are the answer to all of the “Jesus AND” kind of teaching being thrown at the Colossian church. Christ is enough. Christ is MORE than enough. Christ is . . . Well . . . let’s look at what Christ is for a minute, shall we?

The piece of that pastoral prayer that we read at the beginning of our passage today tells us that because of Jesus Christ, we are transferred from darkness into light, that we have the strength we need to endure anything that life may throw at us because we now belong to that light-filled kingdom, where sins are forgiven and we are redeemed.

Then, stanza one of this exquisitely crafted hymn tells us that Christ is the very image of the invisible God, in whom, through whom, and for whom everything was created. Not only that, but Christ came first — before any of what we see around us ever came into being — and he still — right now, this instant — holds it all together.

Digging back into the opening words in the book of Genesis, picking up imagery from the book of Exodus, borrowing from the wisdom tradition in Proverbs and the Psalms, this bold hymn threads all of it together in ways that also resonate with the glorious prologue in the gospel of John. This song is about as powerful as a song could ever be, declaring that Jesus Christ is pre-existent, pre-eminent, and supreme over the entire created order.

So . . . what was that about Jesus and . . .?

As if that wasn’t enough, stanza two adds these ideas: in addition to being the ‘firstborn of all creation, ‘Christ is the firstborn from the dead,’ indicating that by his resurrection, Christ has now ushered in a new creation, called the church, of which he is head, by which he inaugurates a new Age of Redemption and Reconciliation.

As the hymn builds to its conclusion, it begins to answer this question: what is the instrument, the means by which this new creation is made available to us? Where is that place where Old and New meet, where the First Word and the Last Word come together in one weary, beat-up, itinerant preacher? Where is the throne for this grand Cosmic Christ, this King of ALL Creation, old and new?

It’s at the top of a hill, just outside the city gates of 1st Century Jerusalem where the One in whom, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” died the death of a criminal, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them.”  

That dying man on the tree is the very one that Paul is describing in this passage, the very one sung about in this ancient hymn from the early church. Christ, you see, is not the last name of a man named Jesus. Christ IS Jesus. Jesus IS Christ, the King of Creation, the Head of the Church, the one whose blood was shed for you and for me.

And Jesus Christ is more than enough, my friends. MORE than enough.

You know, the world we live in today — the world right here in Santa Barbara — our world no longer believes in astral powers. And it doesn’t put a lot of credence in angelology, either. Most of us aren’t bothered by anyone telling us we need to eat differently, or celebrate different religious holidays or practice some kind of strange ritual in order to be truly safe, truly saved.

But you know what? We all do battle with that same “Jesus and . . .” mentality. That scarcity mindset that subtly or not so subtly tells us we haven’t quite got it right, that there is more we need to do, more we need to know, more we need to become, more.

For some of us, that might mean that we put way too much of our trust and our hope in systems — political and economic systems. Maybe we try to maximize the benefits of those systems in some way. Maybe we believe that if we vote for one candidate or another, the world will change . . . or not change.

Maybe it’s right belief — if we just get a really good handle on this fine point of doctrine — and if we make sure that no one else deviates from it, not even a little bit, then everything will work out well, we will be safe and saved.

Maybe it’s knowledge — if we learn more, if we master this or that technique, if we put our trust in science or psychology or the arts, then we’ll know enough, we’ll understand enough to be okay.

Maybe it’s about spiritual practices and disciplines, adding another arrow to the quiver of techniques to make us holy. If we just add in a little of this or a little of that, then we’ll get it, then we’ll be really saved.

Now not one of these things is a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s what we believe about these possible add-ons that can bring us to the same kind of wrongheadedness that the Colossian Christians were battling. It’s what we believe about these things that can cause us to live as though it’s really about Jesus AND . . . something else, anything else.

And when we find ourselves in that place, there is somewhere else we need to go, somewhere else we need to sit for a while. We need to go back to our baptism. We need to remember that we are buried with Christ in that water, that we are raised up to new life in him as we emerge.

And we need a baptized view of reality, one in which we KNOW that Jesus Christ has redeemed creation and is always in the process of reconciliation — reconciling the world to God and us to our right and true selves.

And then, we need to remember that since the time of the ascension, since the day of Pentecost, WE are now the transforming power of God at work in this world. That is who we are, because that is who Christ calls and empowers us to be. Seven verses after the close of the passage before us this morning, we find these life-changing words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

CHRIST IN US, THE HOPE OF GLORY.

There is nothing to add to that, my friends. Not one thing.

Some of you know that a big part of my own journey these days is centered around my aging mother’s struggle with dementia. I’ve written about it quite a bit and have been stunned to discover just how many people are walking this difficult, confusing, sometimes frightening, and very lonely road. Those of you who are on our church email prayer chain will see at the bottom of each week’s prayer list an item called “Ongoing Concerns.” My mom is on that short list.

Her name is Ruth Gold.

She is now 95 years old, severely limited by macular degeneration, hearing loss and physical frailty, which too often results in falling down. About eight or nine years ago, she began to show some alarming signs of deep confusion and she herself wanted a neurological work-up. Those findings resulted in her move to assisted living a little over five years ago, in a sweet little 2-room unit across the street from her original apartment at the retirement community in which she lived in southern California. That move happened soon after we celebrated her 90th birthday in our backyard with about 40 of her friends and family. I am so glad we did that!

Almost four years ago, the director of that unit told me they could no longer manage her care, and my mother was able to agree that moving closer to us was a good idea. So my husband and I began to research different kinds of memory care facilities near us. She chose to go to Heritage Court at the Samarkand and it is a good, good place for her to be.

During that year before we moved her up here at the beginning of 2013, I was completing my training in spiritual direction under the teaching of some fine Benedictine Charismatic Catholics at the Mission Retreat center here in town. One of our lectures that year was on the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ — the very topic of our passage this morning. We did a theological reflection exercise using some teaching from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest who was also a scientist, and who lived and wrote in the middle of the 20th century. His background in the French Catholic church included an idea called the Sacred Heart of Christ, something that was totally foreign to me as a Protestant pastor!

But as I prayerfully tried to think about how the ideas of the Cosmic Christ and the Sacred Heart might have something to say to my own life, the image that God gave me was a picture, a mental picture, of my small, confused mama SAFE in the great, sacred heart of the Cosmic Christ. Safe though her memory is almost completely gone. Safe though she no longer knows who I am. Safe though she no longer knows who she is. She is SAFE.

And that picture, that image, has made all the difference these past four years.

Because here is what I have borne witness to in these years since she moved to Santa Barbara; here is the truth that she teaches me, every time we are together.

Even in the midst of her mental and physical debility, my mother gives evidence to the transforming power of God at work in this world. My mother lives the truth of Colossians 1. Let me tell you how.

She has known Jesus personally since she was a teenager. That’s a long time.When I lived in her home, she read deeply and widely in the Christian classics, and, among other acts of service, taught Sunday school to girls who were juniors in high school for over a decade. I remember seeing her in prayer for them and for our family every morning when I got up. She taught me everything I know about speaking in front of large groups of people, was one of the funniest women I ever met, and she loved her life. She was not perfect, of course, but she was good. And kind, probably one of the very best things any of us can ever be. Her faith in Jesus Christ is a part of her DNA and her relationship to our Triune God is the center of everything.

If you were to see her, you would think she is lovely. And she is. Why?

Because she smiles at everyone she sees. She reaches out and asks, “How are you today?” She says, “My, but you look lovely!” She laughs readily and often. She tells everyone that she loves them. Occasionally, she is even capable of making a wry remark, usually at her own expense. EVERYONE who works in Smith Health Center knows who she is. And they all light up with a huge smile whenever they see her coming in her walker as we go out to lunch twice each week. I even had an administrator tell me that she went by Heritage Court regularly to get her “Ruth fix,” something that helped her get through some of the more difficult parts of her job.

Mom literally sheds light wherever she goes.

My mother has been transferred to the kingdom of light, you see. She has been rescued from the powers of darkness, even when her mind seems dark to me. And she is an agent of light in this world. She is.

Am I?
Are you?

Because that is THE question we need to be asking ourselves as we take in the powerful words of Colossians, chapter one. What kind of a difference do these truths make in the way we choose to life our lives? If Christ is indeed supreme, if Christ is indeed sufficient, if Christ alone is all that we need, how shall we then live?

When our candidate loses the election, do we lament? Yes, of course, we do. When our spouse walks out on us, do we mourn? Oh, yes, we mourn. When we get a diagnosis that terrifies us, do we say so and weep? Yes, we weep and we worry. When we don’t get the grade we were hoping for, when a friend says an unkind thing, when we are misunderstood and feel undervalued, yes, we admit the pain that comes with all of those things. After all, the work of the kingdom is always a work in process, isn’t it?

So yes, we admit the struggle. Our text reminds us to ‘be prepared to endure everything with patience’ – so yes, there is going to be a whole lot of enduring in this life, that is for certain sure.

But then. But then, we live as the light we are.

We are to live as Jesus lived — we reach to the edges, we see those who are unseen, we speak up for those who are not heard, we bring dinner to the park, we write our representatives, we take care of the world that our Cosmic Christ created for us to enjoy and to steward, we work for inclusion, we call out racism, we refuse to tolerate bullying, we seek justice for all, we offer hope to the hopeless, beginning with ourselves.

WE SHED LIGHT WHEREVER WE GO.

And we do it because at the bottom of it all — whatever pain and sadness we are carrying, whatever fear we are battling, whatever difficult life situation may present itself — at the bottom of it all, we are people who hope. We are the new creation, Christ’s very body at work in this world. We are the CHURCH.

 And that is a good, good gift.

Are you ready to shed light, wherever you go? Are you willing to be the church?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fifteen

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The longer I live, the more I welcome and appreciate the celebration of the sacraments — eucharist and baptism. Setting aside everyday things like bread, wine/juice and water, and then inviting the Spirit of God to bless those simple things in an extraordinary way — well, it’s the best thing going, at least for me. Which made my experience of communion this month difficult for me. The truth is — I was distracted. We had guests whom we did not know well seated with us, I was singing in the choir, which required me to to exit my row just before the words were spoken and then take the elements in the balcony, where things were a tiny bit confusing. All of it added up to my not paying attention well and thereby missing the point.

Paying attention is important in lots of ways, it seems.

When I was on retreat in early September, the tiny group of us gathered at Mater Dolorosa enjoyed a small, intimate service of communion together in the beautiful chapel on the grounds there. The goblet and plate pictured above were part of that service.

Sometimes in small communion services, the leader will invite people to go forward alone — to partake when they feel ‘ready.’ Always, always, always — this jars me and I cannot do it. My understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Table is that it is communal — even if the community is as small as one bed-ridden parishioner and one pastor — and that the elements are offered, one to the other. They are received, not taken. That might seem like a pretty fine distinction to some, but for me it’s an important one. So my good friend, Sherry, who was seated next to me (and with whom I’ve had conversations about this very thing) whispered to me, “Would you like to go up with me and offer it to one another?”

And so we did. Then each of the other three opted to receive them from one of us, too. It felt right to pay attention to that small detail and I’m glad we did.

Our church community enjoyed the second sacrament a bit unusually last month. The picture below is of our beautiful baptismal bowl, made for us by the same talented Seattle artist who designed all of our stained glass windows. I love it’s curves, its soft turquoise color and the way the water is both visible and invisible within it. In our tradition, we offer both infant and adult, or believer, baptism. This particular baptism was an ‘adult’ one, but it was for a 4-year old boy. A special 4-year-old boy who had talked it over carefully with his parents and with his pastors and very clearly said that he understood what it meant and why it was important. And so, all of us together, listened to and then spoke the words together, the beautiful words that signify our remarkable passage from death to life, the words that commit us to one another as a body of believers.

And I loved paying attention to every word.

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Liturgy is important in my life. What about you? Do you enjoy beautiful words of worship that are familiar and frequent?

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Telling It Backwards and Forwards — a Sermon Preached at Pasadena Covenant Church

It was a privilege and a joy to rejoin our home church yesterday morning as the preacher for the day. This is the place where we raised our family, where we are known well. They find themselves in another interim period and there was one text among all four for yesterday that just seemed perfect for this time of transition they find themselves in. 

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“Telling It Backwards and Forwards”
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Preached at Pasadena Covenant Church
August 14, 2016
Diana R.G. Trautwein

Listening to the lectionary texts for this week, you might think that today’s sermon would be full of doom and gloom! Jim read for us some pretty discouraging words from the prophet Isaiah, words about God’s Vineyard. Even the gospel reading Melissa did for us sounds a bit harsh to our ears, those particular Jesus-words from the gospel of Luke.

The vineyard of ancient Israel, God’s hand-picked beacon of a people, was disgustingly low on fruit, and God has had it up-to-here with them. Pretty bad news.

And our gentle, peace-loving Savior — talking about bringing swords and fire and all kinds of muck and mayhem. I’m guessing this one is not anybody’s favorite gospel passage. Again, sounds a whole like bad news.

And then, there’s the bad news all around us, all the time, as we look at the world we live in today — which, in reality, is pretty much like any other ‘day’ in history you might choose, I suppose. We’re not likely to see a lot of good news out there either, are we?

It seems that we human creatures have this knack for messing things up, sometimes in spectacular ways. And if the Spirit had pushed me to consider any of the other three texts for this morning, I have a hunch the sermon you’re about to hear would be different from the one that came to me in pieces over the last couple of weeks.

Before my husband and I left on what turned out to be a strenuous (but incredibly beautiful) 18 days of vacation, which took us out of state for most of the month of July, I selected the New Testament epistle reading as the focus for this morning’s primary truth-telling time.

I chose it for a couple of reasons – first of all, I chose it because it is not radiating with what sounds like bad news, though it doesn’t shy away from the realities of life in any way. I don’t know about you all, but I, for one, am more than a little bit tired of the bad news we hear so much about, every minute of every day, in this negative campaign season we are slogging through. It seemed like the words of The Preacher to the Hebrews might provide a bit of a different worldview from what is being televised, broadcast, texted and tweeted on all sides these days.

So that’s one of the reasons for this choice today. But the primary reason I chose this text is because . . . I love it — it’s one of my favorite sections in all of scripture and it has been for a long time. So let’s dig into it, okay?

The book of Hebrews is a curious one. Folded in with the epistles at the back of our New Testament, it reads more like an extended sermon, one written for a congregation going through a tough time. This sermon-in-13-chapters was probably delivered in a pretty narrow time frame, with some scholars guessing at 64 to 70 A.D. The original readers were part of a church of Jesus located somewhere east of Jerusalem and they were experiencing a virulent wave of persecution, with no end in sight.

These Hebrew believers were wondering if it was worth it to hang in there, to ‘keep on believin.’ Maybe it was time to just fold their tents and quietly slip away into the gathering darkness. Maybe it was time to give up the faith.

NO, says the Preacher. No. Remember where you came from, concentrate on where you’re headed, and run the race.

 Run. The. Race.

Despite what some quarters of the church might wish us to believe, we here in the United States of America are not in any way, shape or form being tortured for our faith. Yes, indeed, there are some decisions, values and attitudes which can make us feel sidelined, maybe even occasionally discriminated against — but, in truth, compared to these 1st century believers, we are persecution-free.

Yet, we 21st century believers still struggle, don’t we? Sometimes we, too, wonder if it’s worth it to hang in there, to keep walkin’ the talk. Life can be challenging — and the journey is not guaranteed to be pain-free. In fact, all of us — every one of us in this room — knows what it feels like to be discouraged, to feel weighed down by the cares and concerns of this world, to wade through the morass of personal grief and loss, to wonder if we can actually put our foot out there again, the one that needs to take the next step in the road.

So, despite the differences in our settings, I think this congregation of believers in downtown Pasadena needs to hear these words every bit as much as those wonderers and strugglers somewhere in the ancient middle east.

We step into this written sermon very near the end of it. The Preacher has been doing some heavy-duty teaching about the connections between the Old Covenant and the New, pointing out the remarkable ways in which Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s plan to rescue humankind from our own brokenness and sin.

As the chapter which contains our reading begins, our Preacher gives us a beautiful definition of what the word ‘faith’ means. It’s found in verse one:

“What is faith?” he asks. “It is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us, even though we cannot see it up ahead.”

What follows from that definition is a veritable roll call of people from Jewish history. It’s a specific and fascinating list, containing both men and women, scoundrels and saints, almost all of them introduced by one word in the Greek: pistei – which means, ‘by faith . . .’

Our text for the morning picks up at verse 29 and continues through the 2nd verse of chapter 12. If you have your Bible, please turn and follow along with me. I will be reading from the New Living Translation”

29 It was by faith that the people of Israel went right through the Red Sea as though they were on dry ground. But when the Egyptians chasing them tried it, they all were drowned.30 It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho seven days, and the walls came crashing down.31 It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute did not die with all the others in her city when they refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

32 Well, how much more do I need to say? It would take too long to recount the stories of the faith of Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and all the prophets. 33 By faith, these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight.35 Women received their loved ones back again from death. But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. 36 Some were mocked and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. 37-38 Some died by stoning and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world.39 They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All of these people we have mentioned received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.40 For God had far better things in mind for us that would also benefit them, for they can’t receive the prize at the end of the race until we finish the race.

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends, from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterward. Now he is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven.”

The word of the Lord

 If I didn’t know better, I might suspect that this preacher had some training in the African American tradition. Did you hear the cadences? The rhythms? The litany, the roll call, starts slow, then picks up speed and finally just seems to cry out for a little call and response, don’t you think?

Verse 29 starts out with specific names and events — and I want you to notice a few things about those specific names. Do you recognize them all? Well, David, for sure. Probably Samuel, and if you have a Sunday School background, you’ve likely heard of Sampson and Gideon.

But Barak? In that particular story – at least as I remember it — the hero is a woman, a judge named Deborah. And Jephthah? That guy who made a foolish vow, one that God never asked him to make, and then had to put his gorgeous daughter to death as a result? Yeah, that’s the one.

And then there’s the prostitute on the list! Rahab is also listed in Matthew’s gospel as part of the genealogy of Jesus. No way does Matthew talk about her history of prostitution, however! Yet this preacher takes pains to remind us of that truth. Why do you suppose that is?

Well maybe it’s to remind his listeners that nobody’s family tree is perfect. We’ve all got some wacky cousins out there somewhere, don’t we? And we in the church are no exception. Truth be told, we’re all a little wacky, in our own, unique way, aren’t we? BUT no matter how wacky we may be, every one of us is given the same gifts of grace, every one of us is invited to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, every one of us has a part to play in the telling of this amazing story we cling to.

Dick and I were an active part of this body of believers for 21 years. We’ve been attached to some of you for another 20 years, always happy to read the list of prayer requests, coming to as many memorial services as we can manage, praying for you all regularly. And this last week, we began to make a list of all the wonderful and wacky saints whom we know from this community who are now a part of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ described in this passage. I know we’ve missed a lot of people on our list, so I want to invite you, right now, to help us fill in the gaps. I invite you to call out names of those who’ve moved from this life to the next, women and men who were a part of this family of faith. Let’s see how many we can come up with in a minute or two:

(Names rang out from all around the room and I very quickly read through our list.)

Now stop for just a minute.

Stop.

Hear those names ringing around this room. Close your eyes and see those whom you know and love, see them living their lives of faith, wacky and weird and wonderful as they each were. Breathe in deeply. And say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you,’ for the glorious truth that we — those of us in this room, at this moment in time and history — we had the privilege of watching each of these people live out their faith, imperfections, mistakes and all. These dear people are our witnesses, ones who tell us the story of faith from our past, ones we carry around with us every minute of every day until we are reunited with them in the New Creation. Thank you, God. Thank you!

 

I want to invite you back into the text now, and point out that after this specific list of witnesses from the past, this list of those who were faithful, the sermon shifts gears a bit and becomes much more generic — no more names, just situations from our shared history as followers of Israel’s God. And then, there is another dramatic shift, and this is an important one — there is a shift from positive outcomes of faith to negative ones. And the contrast is stark.

No more battles won, flames extinguished, the dead brought back to life. No. Now we hear of death and persecution, of torture and hunger and pilgrims wandering the world in abject poverty and disgrace.

Both outcomes are possible, friends. Both. There are no guarantees of a suffering-free life to be found anywhere in our gospel. In the reading from Luke, Jesus tells us that truth, too. As we heard, Isaiah the prophet warns Israel of bad times to come.

Even the psalmist in Psalm 80, which is also on today’s lectionary list, asks a heart-rending question, one that feels familiar to all of us on some days:

 “O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.”

There is no room here for health-and-wealth, prosperity-gospel, the power-of-positive-thinking. There is not. But, oh, friends. There is room for joy. There is room for purpose.There is even room for contentment, no matter what the particular circumstances of our lives may be at any given moment. And we find that room in the last transition of the passage before us today. Chapter 12 takes us there, with power and with hope. “Therefore,” the preacher cries out.

Oh, what a powerful word! Therefore, because we have this ‘cloud of witnesses,’ these people from our past who speak to us of faith and endurance, of commitment and completion, we ourselves can enter the arena of life and run the race that is set out before each and every one of us. He’s told us the backwards part of this race — the human foundation upon which we stand, the storyline that is uniquely ours.

Now, he says, enter the fray, secure in your unique place in the line-up of God.

Yes, life can be discouraging, even frightening. Suffering is real and pretty much guaranteed to every member of the human race, but . . . there is a hope which keeps us going. There is a scarlet thread, a bright cord — to borrow the image from the story of Rahab — there is a lifeline. We find it when we turn always and forever toward the future that awaits us. And the best way, indeed, the only way to make that turn is to turn our eyes upon Jesus.

The old gospel song got it right. It’s an oldie that I sometimes sing with my mom, who is 95 years old and suffers from severe dementia. She is nearly blind, almost deaf, hasn’t a clue who I am, beyond the fact that she loves me and enjoys going out to lunch when we load up her walker and head out twice each week. It’s been a tough thing to watch her disappear, and yet . . . there are such lovely pieces remaining. One of them is her deep faith in Jesus, and one of them is music. She remembers the 1st verse and chorus of lots and lots of old hymns! And this one is a favorite for both of us. Maybe you know it, too? Sing it with me . . .

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
look full in his wonderful face.
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
in the light of his glory and grace.”

Pretty much exactly what the preacher is talking about in 12:2, don’t you think?

We need to tell one another the stories of our past, oh, yes, we do. But even more than that, we need always to turn our eyes forward, toward the Savior who beckons us, to look at the One who went before us on this journey. Jesus, who endured such suffering and shame, and yet who radiated the love of God everywhere he went.

Henri Nouwen’s words came into my inbox every day and this last week, these particular ones went right to the center of me:

“Jesus is the savior of the world.
We are not.
We are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words,
to the great things God has done for us.
But this witness must come from a heart that is willing to give
without getting anything in return.
The more we trust in God’s unconditional love for us,
the more able we will be to proclaim the love of Jesus
without any inner or outer conditions.”

 Something about that little paragraph makes me wonder if the ‘entangling sin’ the preacher talks about in that last verse of our text today might be something like this:

an unwillingness to believe that God loves us, exactly as we are, and to trust that God is continually at work within us to form us into whole, healthy, loving, giving people who bear a striking resemblance to our Elder Brother, whose name is Jesus.

We are admonished to ‘strip down’ in these last verses. And if you take all the extras away, that, for me, is the GOOD NEWS in a nutshell:

God loves us as we are, God is at work within us to form us into our truest selves, which will look more and more like Jesus himself. Now WE are called to be the love of God at work in the world.

We are called to live loved.

That’s it, the stripped down version, the ready-for-the-race truth of it all. The best news I know anything about.

It is Jesus himself who leads the way into that stadium, my friends. The ones we love who’ve gone before us are important parts of our story and it is oh-so-good to remember and celebrate them. But it is Jesus who is the pattern, Jesus who is the forerunner, Jesus who is the Savior.

And together — all those who’ve gone before us and all those who will come after us — together, we will be saved, we will be safe, in the best and most ultimate sense of that word.

Because Jesus’ entry into history marks the biggest transition ever recorded anywhere by anyone. Slashing through space and time, our Divine Visitor came to call us home, and with his life, with his death, with his resurrection, he showed us how to get there.

Don’t give up, the Preacher tells those 1st century believers! It’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna hurt, its gonna be hard. But don’t give up. “Look at Jesus,” he challenges them. Remember his life of love, remember how he endured such shame and torture for you, remember how he loves you. Remember that he prays for us, sitting now at the right hand of the Father. Remember that he roots for us as we run the race before us.

Keep telling the story, Hebrew believers.

Keep telling the story, Pasadena Covenant Church.

Yes, tell it backwards — remember who you are and where you’ve been. Celebrate all of it. Give thanks for all of it. And then, tell it forwards. Look to Jesus to lead you, to set the pace, to take you the distance. You find yourselves in an in-between time . . . again. And that’s a hard place to be. But it won’t be forever. The story is not over.

Look!

The crowds are cheering! There are hundreds of us, thousands of us, believing in Jesus and believing in you. God is not done with storytelling through this congregation, not by a long shot. And I can’t wait to see what the next chapter of that story looks like in this good place. Can I get an amen?

Amen!

 

 

 

 

Across the Age Gap — SheLoves, May 2016

We’re talking about FORWARD over at SheLoves this month. And what came to me was the wonderful way older women ‘paid it forward’ in my life and how I want to be an older woman like that. Come on over and join us, won’t you?

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Lucille Peterson Johnston and her sister Betty Junvik MacCreight were the two women who paid it forward in my life (among others!).

I was in my early 30’s, a stay-at-home mom with school-aged kids, actively involved as a lay leader in our church, with more time and energy than I had enjoyed since the babies started coming. A woman who was a mentor to me called one day with an idea: “My sister and I would really like to see something happen for the young moms in our congregation and we thought maybe you’d be willing to head it up for us.”

“Interesting idea,” I thought. “And I’ve got some time these days.”

So we met together and made plans. From that meeting, a semi-monthly morning gathering began in the church basement. For the first two years we met, childcare and snacks were provided by the older women in the church. Can you imagine? Lovely women, who had walked the road of mothering babies years before, gave themselves to the younger women, helping us to start something new and life-giving for all of us. For me, it was a chance to stretch my leadership muscles; for the women who gathered, it was three hours of freedom and fellowship every other Thursday.

That group was called The M & Ms — for Mary and Martha, of course. This was a long time ago — the late 70s and early 80s — when about 90% of young moms could (and did) choose the stay-at-home route. I led them for about five years, then moved sideways into leading Bible studies for both women and men in the evenings, before finding the courage to enter seminary in 1989. The group continued to meet for about a dozen more years, with other slightly further-along-moms stepping into leadership, until the need for a day-time getaway-for-moms largely disappeared.

It was the right idea at the right time, and it started with older women ‘paying it forward.’ They saw a need, got creative about how they might meet it, and then stepped right into the middle of it with their own loving presence. What a gift!

This is just one story, one picture of intergenerational connection, about learning from and leaning into one another across the age gap. Even though sociological evolution has changed the dynamic of many families today, the principles that undergird this example are still valid.

We need connections to our past in order to move forward with wisdom and integrity. And we need connections with our future in order to be open to the Wind of God at work in the church. We need each other.

Please hop on over to SheLoves to finish this essay and to join the conversation about leaping across the age gap! Click right here.

“The Communion of Saints”

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That line from the Apostles’ Creed is a favorite of mine. And All Saints’ Sunday is, too — that Sunday when we remember those saints who are ‘absent from the body, but present with the Lord,’ all of whom are forever part of the church triumphant. And there are so many. So many. The writer of Hebrews describes them as a ‘great cloud of witnesses,’ and on this special Sunday, I can almost see them, surrounding us as we worship.

IMG_6236We used an adaptation of a litany from the Book of Common Prayer on Sunday, listing off saints from years/decades/centuries gone by, leaving space to mention more recent saints, ones whom we know and love. Each communal response: “Come, and stand beside us.” And in a powerful way, I could sense them all, standing there with us, as we spoke and sang together.

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I helped with worship leadership while our senior pastor was out of town, and as always, I found that solemn procession of our gathered body intensely moving. At least 200 people went forward to pick up a lighted candle in memory of a loved one, placing it on the altar or the communion table.  Two mothers who each lost a son too early held one another’s arms as they walked back to their seats. Several congregants who lost loved parents in the last year walked by me, tears in their eyes. I placed a candle for my dad and my brother and my son-in-law; Dick placed one for each of his parents. They were glistening and guttering throughout the rest of the service, literally surrounding us with light and warmth. As that silent crowd moved through the chancel, we sang through all the verses of “For All the Saints.” We needed every single one to accommodate the crush of people who chose to remember and rejoice. 

Yes, I love this Sunday.

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Pastor Jon preached a rich sermon on the Lazarus text in John 11, taking a different tack than most: Lazarus, dead and stinking, as a model for discipleship. Oh, so SPOT ON. Why? Because Jesus is in the habit of resuscitating those who are dead. Ask me how I know.

We spend far too much time trying to prove ourselves worthy when all that is asked of us is to respond to the Word of invitation: “Come out!” And then, we are asked to help one another shed those grave clothes, to uncover our faces and let go of all that entangles and trips us. And that includes our ever-lovin’ need to save ourselves, rather than simply allow the grace of God to flow through us and then out again, into the worlds in which we each live. I needed that reminder, that kind of good truth-telling. Maybe you do, too?

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Forty-eight hours later, I had lunch with my mama, whom I love and whom I miss, both at the same time. In many ways, it would have been appropriate to carry a lit candle forward for her on Sunday. Because the mama I have known all my life — at least, most of the mama I have known — is no longer here. What remains is beautiful, that is true. But what remains is also so terribly confused.

Each time we are together, I am less able to decipher what she is talking about. The sentences are complete (most of the time) — they just don’t connect with one another. Nor do the pronouns she liberally sprinkles into each phrase have an easily discernible referent. It is always a guessing game, one that I am less and less able to play very well.

IMG_6307My sweet mama loves to go to the balcony overlook at the Mountain View Cafe in the Life Center building at the retirement community where she lives. She loves to look out at the mountains and the clouds, even though she can see only the barest outline of the landscape due to severe macular degeneration. She has now conflated some of her diminishing memories and it’s increasingly difficult for me to pull apart the tender threads and make any kind of sensible response to the running commentary she offers.

But we always smile at each other. And we laugh, wherever and whenever we can. And we enjoy our food. It was colder than usual at lunch and my mother is always cold. So she wore two jackets — hers and mine — and sipped on hot tea until it was no longer hot. And she ate the first half of her cheeseburger with sighs of delight over every bite. Then, a few minutes later, I asked if she’d like to eat the other half. And she looked at it. And she looked at me. And she asked, with a worried tone, “What is that??”

“What is that?”

Oh, mercy me.

“That’s the other half of your sandwich, Mama. The one that you said was so good.”

She picked it up, thoroughly confused as to which end was which and at the words ‘so good,’ immediately said, “Yes! It was good.”

And she began to eat.

I battled tears on the way home, missing her so much. Not wanting her to leave, but somehow wishing that neither of us would have to lose any more pieces of her before she goes home to Jesus.

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It was a glory day today , and that helped. A true central California fall day, just about the first one we’ve enjoyed thus far in these six weeks of autumn. 

I took her back to her room, sat her in her recliner, with her feet up, and covered her with the cozy fleece blanket our daughter gave her for Christmas a couple of years ago. She was happy, calm, content.

And then I went home. Grateful down to my toes for the communion I enjoy with this saint in my life — the one I have today, and the one who is no longer here.

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Here is the prayer I shared at the communion table, working from Jon’s description of his sermon earlier in the week. It wove its way nicely through the words that he shared. It never ceases to amaze me how the Spirit does that with our words — weaves them together, even when we are unaware of it.

A Prayer for Communion — “All We Like Lazarus”

Sunday, November 1, 2015; All Saints’ Sunday; Montecito Covenant Church

Here we are again, Lord. Gathering ‘round your table,

this place where we are reminded every month that we are bodily creatures.

Yes, indeed, all of us here have bodies — young, old, healthy, sick, strong, weak. We have these bodies that eat and move — some more easily than others — with minds and mouths that think and pray, and wonder and argue. Sometimes, these bodies even dance and sing.

Right now, they are sitting still, and we’re trying to focus our wondering, wandering minds on the good truths Jon has shared with us from your word this morning.

We’re here, Lord. At the table now. We’re here because you asked us to be here. Long ago, you invited us to take these simple things, this bread and this cup, and to eat and drink them together.

Together.

There’s something important about that part, isn’t there? And on this Sunday, we’re reminded more strongly than ever that when we gather these bodies of ours in this place, it’s not just we who are here. On this Communion Day, this All Saints’ Communion Day, we are more aware than we usually are of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ to which we belong as earthlings. Thank you for the saints who have gone before us, thank you that in some way we cannot begin to fathom, they are still with us.

All of us together – saints on earth and saints in heaven – want to take just a moment to set aside these table gifts this morning. First, we want to thank you for them. To say thank you for the simplicity of them, for the everydayness of torn up bread and lukewarm grape juice. And second, we ask you to bless that ordinariness, and to infuse this simple ritual, with its familiar words, to infuse it with your presence, your holy presence that sees us, exactly as we are, and welcomes us here, nevertheless.

Help us to hear your call to ‘come out,’ dead and stinky though we may be. And help us to help each other loosen those grave clothes — all those things that bind us and hinder us from fully following after you.

Yes, Lord, even as we eat this blessed bread, and drink this set-aside cup, remind us that we do it together.

Lazarus is our model today, will you help us to learn from him? And there are other saints who can teach us, too. Saints whose lives tell the story of your powerful restorative and transforming work. And the truth is, sometimes, those saints are us. You are doing that good work in us.

Help us to tell our Lazarus stories to others, and help us to hear them from others, too. Too often, we forget to do either — to tell or to listen. Forgive us for that, Lord, and for the too many other ways in which we falter and fail, we fumble and flail.

But as this table so beautifully reminds us, your grace is more than a match for all of our faults. For this is a table of life! Even as we remember your death, Jesus, we do it in light of the resurrection. And all that is dead and dying in us can be redeemed, called out to newness of life.

Glory!

Hallelujah.

Amen.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 8 — Looking for the Good

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Let me tell you about my friend, Lucille. Please. Let me tell you.

We met in 1975 when my family began attending Pasadena Covenant Church, where Lucille and her then husband Harold had been leading members for decades. She was the head honcho of the woman’s organization in the church and she was GOOD at it! Gifted organizationally and an exceptional cook, she had vision and energy to spare. At this point, she was 58 and I was 30.

If you’re any good at math, then you’ve figured out that she is now 98 years young. She has some trouble walking these days, but overall, she is still amazing. In fact, I would say, Lucille is a real pistol! In the very best way.

God put this good woman in my life at precisely the time I needed to be inspired and encouraged. She saw gifts in me and she patiently drew them out over the 21 years we worshipped and worked together in that community. She always saw the good in me. Always. And she told me about it, in ways both direct and indirect. She was, in many ways, a third mother to me — my own mom and mother-in-law being the first two. And I even looked a little bit like her daughter (and like her, too). 

Can I just tell you what a gift it is to hear from another adult whom you admire that you are a good and gifted person? It is life-changing, as a matter of fact, and I will be grateful to her and for her until the day I die.

She now lives in assisted living at the same retirement community where my mom is located. Because my mother’s condition has been so demanding, I’ve had little time to visit with her of late, but I’m making an effort to change that. Why? Because I love her. And because I’m grateful for her. And because I don’t know how much longer she’ll be here for me to sit with and smile at.

When I went to see her new little apartment (her third in this place – she started in a HUGE one with her second husband . . . which is another beautiful story I will tell some day . . . and then downsized to a still lovely smaller one when he died. And just last year, moved into assisted living. Her same beautiful things are still there and that smaller space radiates her beauty and grace in every corner.

When I went to see her, she asked me to go get a box out of one of her closets and bring it to her. Inside were some lovely needlepoint zipper bags that she had made and she insisted that I take one. “My daughter is coming soon and she’s bringing me new ones to do. I love to do it while I sit and look out the window or watch television.”

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Her beautiful handiwork sits now on my bedside table, a glorious reminder of someone I love who took the time and made the effort to see and speak the good in me. Thank you, Lucille. And thank you, Jesus.

So, where are you looking for the good in others these days? And who has seen and named the good in you?

Just Wondering

Asking: Am I ‘All In?’

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I was invited to participate in worship leadership yesterday, the first time in a while I’ve been asked, and the first time in a longer while when I felt I could reasonably say ‘yes.’ We enjoyed a relatively quiet weekend for the first time in too long, so there was space, both on the calendar, and in my spirit, to think creatively about a passage of scripture and attempt to lead God’s people in prayer.

The sermon was from a short text in Ephesians 6 — the two verses immediately following that long list of ‘armor’ that every follow of Jesus needs to live fully, carefully and creatively in this world of ours. The verses that talk about Paul being an ‘ambassador in chains,’ the ones that talk about being  full-out followers of Jesus, the ones that encourage us all to be people of prayer. . . all-the-time prayer, not just special-event-as-the-needs-build-up prayer.

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As always, the altarpiece helped us to ‘see’ the passage, and Pastor Don’s sermon unpacked those words very well indeed. After the sermon, the worship team led us through 3 rounds of that wonderful, small Taize chorus, the one that goes:

O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
When I call, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer; O Lord, hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.

And then we prayed a community prayer in three parts, the first and last from me, the middle one from Don, with the chorus sung liturgically between each part. It was good to lead in prayer again; I’m grateful.

We’ve heard a word from you today, Lord.
A good word, but also, I must admit,
a hard word.
It’s hard because today you’re asking us to be ‘all in.’

All of us, all the time, everywhere.

Gulp.

Somehow, it’s easier for us to be partly in, you know?
Especially on days like today, when we can come here,
to this beautiful space, and specifically focus on you —
on who you are, on who you call us to be.

It seems simpler for us to do that when we gather with your people,
when we sing the songs and pray the prayers and hear the words.

But today, your word is asking something else entirely.
And that something is important, and inclusive,
and — let’s be honest here — more than a little bit demanding.
It feels uncomfortable, maybe even disorienting,
because you’re asking us to be ambassadors, out there, in the world.

The world we live in, and study in.
The world we shop in, and work in,
the world where we converse with other people, all kinds of other people,
some of them really difficult.
The world where too many problems seem to have no answers,
where ugly things happen — things that scare us and overwhelm us.

But that is the world you made, the world you have set us in, the world you love.
And if we’re going to call ourselves your friends, then that’s the world where we must be.

Will you help us, please?
Lean in close and whisper words of truth and courage,

remind us of the depths of your love,
tell us the truth of who we are as your called,

and gifted
and empowered
representatives.

We have good news to share, to live, to offer.

Make us bold in our living, wherever we are,
from the kitchen to the boardroom,
from the study hall to the golf course,
from the baby nursery to the retirement home.

Wherever we are, whomever we’re with,
help us to radiate your love and grace,

in every conversation,
transaction,
encounter,
and circumstance.

Help us to be all in.
Lord, hear our prayer.

Part Two.

Lord, we confess that we are not always prepared for the battle.
We expect things to be nice and polite and to go our way.
We confess that we get wounded too easily and fight with others too harshly.

And the weapons we use to do battle just don’t get the job done.

So today, O God, would you re-arm our lives with your full armor?

  • Would you belt our lives with your eternal truth?
  • Would you cover our hearts with your breastplate of righteousness?
  • Would you put on our feet those fast shoes that spread the gospel of peace and reconciliation anywhere and everywhere we go?
  • Would you put in our hands that strong shield of faith that can absorb and quench the fiery attacks that often undo us?
  • Would you cover our heads and minds with that strong helmet of our salvation that cannot be taken away?
  • And give us your sword, your Word, anchored in our hearts, that Word which can fell and undo Satan and all his lies.                                                                     Lord, make us strong.                                                                                                     Hear our prayer.

Part Three

Some of us, Lord, have been doing this discipleship thing for a long time now.
Others of us are newer to the journey.
But all of us still have so much to learn about prayer.

About settling into that place where we do what the epistles call us to do with that impossible sounding phrase: “pray without ceasing.”

Maybe we find prayer difficult because we’ve misunderstood the richness of this gift, this means of communion with you.

Maybe we’ve been stuck in a rut of list-making,
and detailed itemizing.

Or maybe we think prayer is some strange specialty that’s better left
to the pastors and the wordsmiths.

Whatever the reasons, Lord, will you help us, right here and right now,
to just relax?

To sit here, in your presence, and say as little as possible.

Maybe a, ‘thank you!’
Or a, ‘bless them.’
Or a, ‘you’re amazing, Lord!’

Because that’s at the heart of it all, isn’t it?
Moving through our days with an awareness of you,
with a spirit of gratitude,
with an eagerness to find you, already at work in the midst of the details
that fill our time and our minds.

So as we sit here in this quiet space, and as we sing this lovely small song,
will you help us to unkink,
to let go of our need to be ‘good’ at things,
and just discover the simple joy of
being quiet, with you?

Thank you, Lord.
Bless us, Lord.
Praise you, Lord.

Amen.

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We visited with some old friends and met a few new ones, too; we picked up some mail at our former home, and then we turned the car around, drove further than we’re used to on a Sunday morning, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the quiet beauty of our new space. I sat on a chaise lounge, in the sunshine for two hours, just being grateful for the ways in which we have been blessed in this life of ours. Not many words were said. And I was happy to be ‘all in,’ if only for an afternoon.

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Pentecost — One Week Late!

DSC04430As I noted in today’s newsletter (you can subscribe below), this is a crazy-making time in our lives. We’ve got a major move underway and a big family vacation right in the middle of it all. And I’m still (at least, partially) in recovery mode from several weird medical experiences of the past few months. So this post is about a week later than I had hoped it might be.

Through it all, we keep on truckin,’ by the grace of God and a whole lotta stubborn determination. One week ago we traveled south to be present for our middle daughter’s oldest son’s confirmation. Wesley is 17, just finished his junior year in high school and is contemplating college, right around the corner. How in the heck did that happen? Wasn’t he just a tiny kid who looked almost exactly like his mama?

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While we were there, we managed to sneak in basketball games for each of Wesley’s two younger brothers and I had the shopping joy of browsing a JC Penney, a store which my town hasn’t had for years. They have definitely upgraded their women’s clothing section!!

But the true highlight of the weekend was that Confirmation Service. We always love worshipping at Knox Presbyterian in Pasadena CA, and are regularly inspired by their creative worship and solid preaching. It’s been a good home for our kids and that makes this particular set of parents and grandparents very partial and very grateful.

It was Pentecost Sunday — a great day for welcoming young adults into full membership of the church. Two of the five kids were also baptized — a wondrous splashing of water from a beautiful wooden font.

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But the standout surprise moment for us happened during the children’s sermon. Pastor Matt invited the confirmands and about 3 of the littler kids to take hold of round, disc like objects which he had stashed up front. They were in shades of red, orange and yellow and as the kids began to handle them, I could see that they were circles of crepe paper streamers.

And here’s what we did with them. The kids tossed them out as far as they could, then the congregants picked them up and tossed them behind themselves until the back pew was reached. Then the back row tossed them toward the front until all the rolls were completely unspooled. It looked fabulous!

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Then we were instructed to raise those streamers above our heads and stomp our feet as fast as we could. “And that,” said Pastor Matt, “is just a small picture of what it must have been like when the Spirit showed up at Pentecost.” Wind and fire. Oh, YEAH!

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It was the perfect set-up for the kids’ vows and the gentle reading of a piece of their own personal credos, each one reading a portion that wove together into a modern version — a confirmation student version! — of the Apostle’s Creed. 

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At the end of the service, some helpful ‘stage hands’ moved forward a large white easel and a table spread with colored (washable) paints. And during the singing of the last hymn, we were invited to come forward, dip our thumbs into red, orange or yellow paint and make a mark on the sketched-in flames drawn on the easel.

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Everyone was involved, a bodily experience of community that I found profoundly moving.

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It’s not the most gorgeous piece of art you’ll ever see, but it is a lovely representation of this particular fellowship of believers and their commitment to be in this thing together.

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In the quiet space after the service, I snapped a photo of the finished flames, set against the draped cross. And I thanked God for this motley, crazy thing called ‘the church.’ We are far from perfect, but sometimes . . . sometimes, we get it right.

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Joining this with Jennifer, Lisha, Laura.

God Is in the Business of REDEMPTION! Can I Get an Amen?

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I WANT YOU TO HEAR ME WHEN I SAY THIS, OKAY?

I want you to hear me in my preacher-voice, my emotional voice, my truest voice. I want you to hear me cry out with conviction, to see me raise my hands in benediction and thanksgiving, to believe me when I tell you this powerful, life-changing, life-saving truth:

OUR GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION!

Can I hear an ‘amen?’ Maybe a ‘hallelujah,’ even if it is the middle of Lent? Oh, yes. I’m standin’ in the need of a great big hallelujah over here tonight.

I have felt God moving me toward this declaration for a few days now. I think maybe it started with these flowers, these dying flowers. They were headed for the trash can, after many days of gracing our table with their beauty and color, twisting their pretty heads toward the light, bending and dipping in the breezes created by people walking by. The sunlight on their last day happened to catch them in all their radiant, lingering, grace-filled glory. And I was reminded that even death is a beautiful thing in God’s world. A hard thing, yes, yes. But beautiful in its own way, bringing with it a reminder of our mortality, our inevitable end, the cessation of life as we know it now, in this place.

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Oh, yes. Even dying things carry the beauty of creation and the mark of redemption-in-process. Even dying things.

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And I am a dying thing, too. I don’t mean to depress you (or me) with that pronouncement), only to underline the truth of the matter. We are all dying. We forget it too easily, I think. From the moment of our very first breath, we are headed in only one direction. For some of us it will come painfully early. For others of us, it will feel too late. But it will come — it is part of us, every day. 

We have lost this truth to our peril, I believe. We need it near us, we need to hold it inside, like a precious gift, a coming reality. These bodies that carry us around are dying, they are fragile, they are not meant for eternity as they are now.

BUT — these bodies also carry within them the seeds, the heart, the soul of that forever place, our home-to-come. Case in point: healing and recuperation. It’s a miracle, I tell you. An incredible, day-by-day, minute-by-minute miracle, no matter how limited, no matter how slow, no matter how frustrating. When healing happens, it is a dang miracle, every single time. 

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I posted this picture on Facebook in the afternoon of February 21st of this year. I was in the emergency room after a terrible fall, face-first, onto asphalt while walking strongly across our local cemetery. I spent a night in the hospital and I was frightened. Hence, the picture-posting and the heartfelt request for prayers — which were quickly forthcoming, bringing hope and peace and rest — thank you all so very much.

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This picture was taken two days after I got home, with the bruising in full bloom. It hurt, it looked frightful and I felt every bit of this. At the time, I was very nearly convinced I would carry these colors around with me for the rest of my life. But day-by-day, minute-by-minute, things began to improve. Color is fading, swelling is gone, stitches are out, scars are smaller.
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The remnant remains, and will be around for a few more days, I’m sure. I’m thinking that perhaps the color will last as long as the post-trauma watchfulness period of one month required for every person on blood-thinning medication who experiences trauma to the head. Only one week left for that.

But here’s the point I want to make: I carry within me the seeds of eternal life, you see? And so do you. The body’s ability to heal itself is amazing. There is no other word that will cover it.

Both the flowers and the face are leading to the real story I want to tell you tonight. The most powerful picture of redemption, of healing, of God’s Spirit made real — the most powerful picture that I have seen in a long, long time was on display in our sanctuary tonight. It’s a grand tale, filled with woe and brokenness. But at the end? Victory! Challenges met, lives turned around, healing from the inside out. These bruises may not have been as visible as the ones on my face, but they were every bit as real, every bit as painful, every bit in need of deep, deep healing.

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This night, our church was fortunate enough to host the graduation service for four women and eleven men who have successfully completed the one-year residential program at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission. My dear friends, if you want a visceral, heartfelt reminder of the ongoing work of God in this world of ours, I strongly encourage you to find such a service wherever it is you live. The work of rescue missions in this world is one of the surest ways to experience the power of grace and the goodness of God that I know anything about. 
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These photos were taken during the closing moments of a 90-minute celebration of worship that gave testimony to God’s redemptive power at work. Our small sanctuary was filled to the rafters with excited, supportive, grateful people. People who don’t look a bit like the usual crew that fills these pews. Muscular men, covered in tattoos, gloriously redeemed women with high, high heels and even higher hair. Skin tones across the rainbow, very mixed educational levels, not one thing homogenous about this congregation. 

AND IT WAS CHURCH. Church like we rarely experience it. Loud hollering, clapping, stomping, singing. I mean LOUD. I got up to offer a word of welcome and an opening prayer after the graduates had walked in to the tape-recorded music of “Pomp and Circumstance,” each one greeted like a rock star by friends, family, alums of the program, staff and co-residents. I asked the entire center section to please consider coming to our worship service in the morning because — I’ve gotta tell you! — we’ve never heard anything like that before. 

Now if you’ve read this blog before, you know that I love our church. I love our worship times, I enjoy the preaching, I’m grateful for the community. None of that is changed by my experience tonight. I love who we are and who it is we are in the process of becoming. 

But tonight, I got a glimpse of something we don’t see very often. I got a peek behind the curtain, a look a the work of the Wizard, the kind of work that isn’t nearly so dramatic in our usual community. That usual work is real and deep and I’m grateful for us. And yes, I see God’s redemptive power in all kinds of ways and places in the midst of our life together.

Also? I’m grateful, right down to my toes, that I don’t have a story like the ones I heard tonight. Yes, I’ve lost loved ones and friends to addiction. But the stories I heard tonight are not part of my day-to-day life. And yet. . . 

I need the stories that I heard tonight. I need to be reminded that God is about so much more than what happens in my world, my very small and intimate world. I will write again about God in the details, God in the everyday, God in the goodness and beauty of creation, God in the midst of my own personal story. This is the truth of my story — I love it, I live it, I share it, I’m grateful for it.

But these stories? Oh, my. Out-of-the-pit kind of rescue stories, finding salvation in the midst of death, jail, addiction, estrangement, abuse stories. Oh, my friends. GOD IS IN THE BUSINESS OF REDEMPTION. May we shout it from the rooftops once-in-a-while!

Hallelujah, thank you, Jesus. PRAISE YOUR NAME.

And may we all stand shoulder to shoulder with the people who carry these stories around inside them, offering our hands/arms/hearts in blessing, solidarity, encouragement, thanksgiving. Because these are our stories, too, aren’t they? All of us who claim the name of Jesus are related to the people in these photos, all of us are sinners, standing in the need of grace. All of us are broken up, broken down, torn-up, messed-up, needy people WHO ARE REDEEMED. Every single one of us. Praises be!

 

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Added one day late — photos of the altar piece, which was planned to go along with the scripture passage for Sunday. And which — and this is SO like God! — fit perfectly with the celebration we enjoyed on Saturday night:

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Because each member of our current pastoral staff was committed to other activities on this Saturday evening, I was invited to stand in for them in welcoming the Rescue Mission crew to our facilities and to open the service with prayer. Don kindly sent me an description of the altar piece in advance and I was able to help the 400+ people in attendance understand why they were looking at a collection of ‘dead’ branches and broken pottery. Our Sunday morning text was superbly preached on by Associate Jon Lemmond today — the story of the birth of the first board of deacons in the early church. Out of brokenness (the immigrant widows were being ignored), came beautiful service (members of that immigrant community were ordained and commissioned to be the careful servants of those in need). Out of brokenness, comes new life!

And these are the words God gave me yesterday afternoon as I prepared for the opening prayer. As always, God provides what needs to be said, graciously picking up threads that even I don’t know are there:

Our great and good God, maker of heaven and earth,
the one who calls us from darkness to light and brings us from death to new life, we greet you tonight with full hearts and open arms.

Thank you for showing up in the lives of these graduates, for walking with them, and with all of us, through the tough stuff of this life and for redeeming every single struggle that we’ve somehow, by your grace, managed to survive. We know that the grace that brought us to this evening’s festivities continues to prepare us for the promise of new life to come.

Thank you, Lord God, for each graduate,
for each family member,
friend, loved one,
staff member, cheerleader,
trusted sidekick;
for those who’ve shown tough love when it was needed and have shown your love, no matter what.

Thank you for the gift of hopes realized,
of dreams come true, 
of a future where once there was none.

Thank you for calling us to celebrate,
for always inviting us to the table of your grace,
for clothing us in the righteousness of your Son, Jesus,
and for filling us with the fresh Wind of the Holy Spirit.

We give tonight’s service to you as a gift of love and worship, and as we do, we want to remember
who we are:

We are, every single one of us, your children,
          deeply loved,
          highly valued,
          and richly gifted.

We are the beloved.

Help us never to forget that, to cling to that strong statement
like the lifesaving, world-changing truth that it is.

And help us, through the words, music, prayers, tears, laughter and love shared tonight to see you in the faces of one another. Because you promise us that is exactly where you can be found.

All praise to the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whom we know and love because of Jesus, Amen.

An Advent Prayer: Week Four, 2014

We were looking at Mary this morning in worship. A POWERFUL sermon by Pastor Jon Lemmond, and I was asked to lead in community prayer. I am out of practice, that is for sure! But I’m grateful for the opportunity to think through the text and then pray in light of it.

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A Prayer for Advent 4 — 2014
written by Diana R.G. Trautwein
for worship at Montecito Covenant Church
December 21, 2014, 10:00 a.m.

We’re almost there, Lord.
Almost.

We’ve walked through this season of waiting,
this season of songs in a minor key,
and we’re grateful for it.

This year, more than many, feels heavy,
confusing, and terribly sad.
The world around us is rife with tension,
with pain and loss and too many people living with heartache and fear.

And some of those suffering are friends inside this circle,
sisters and brothers of our community.
Some of that heartache and fear are even inside of us.

So these four weeks that we set aside
to wait, to look for your coming,
to remember the story that centers us —
these four weeks are a gift
in the midst of all that is not right,
all that still needs the redeeming work
of a Savior.

But now the end of Advent is in sight,
just a few more days until Christmas
and oh! — we want to be ready this time.
We want to be ready
for that tiny baby,
for that holy family,
for those shepherds and wise men,
for those heavenly singers,
the ones that lit up the night sky
with a song of good news!

So on this day, Lord,
on this fourth Sunday in Advent,
as we wait here together,
in this space that is so lovely,
with these people whom we care about,
will you help us to look for that angelic light?
And to look for it with hope,
and with expectation,
and most of all, with grateful hearts.

Yes, Lord — in the midst of the busyness,
the gift-wrapping and the baking,
the family gatherings and the carol-singing,
in the midst of our own personal struggles and worries,
will you help us to
hang onto hope?
To grab hold of gratitude?

We confess that sometimes we forget.
We forget to say ‘thank you,’
to slow down,
to look up,
to look around
and tell you and one another
that we are grateful.
We are so very grateful for this story of ours.

We are thankful for its life-changing power,
and we are thankful for its grittiness.
For ours is a story that fairly reeks of
real life — life as we know it,
life as we live it,
and as we see it in the world around us:
families living under oppression,
poverty,
homelessness,
the murder of innocent children,
an unexpected, even scandalous pregnancy.

And this is the story that you — our Great God,
Creator of the Universe —
this is the story that you
deliberately chose
to step right into.

You chose to experience this life,
this human life here on planet earth,

in all its crazy mixed up-ness.

And you chose a girl like Mary,
and a man like Joseph to be the ones
who would help to tell the story,
to live the story.

So we thank you for these good people,
these good parents.
And we ask you to open our hearts,
settle our minds,
and learn what they have to teach us.

Today, we want to learn from Mother Mary,
from that wisp of a girl who
was braver than she knew,
that girl who was pleasing to you,
the one who lay on the straw
and pushed a King out into this world
on a  dark and lonely night,
far from her home.

As we learn from her today,
help us to remember that Jesus learned from her, too.
She was his first teacher, after all,
the one who helped him to grow up,
the one who walked this earthly road with him, right to the end.
I think she has a lot to teach us.
Help us to be good learners today.

And help us to walk into Christmas with open hands and open hearts,
to follow Mary’s example,
and to let you be born in us,
again and again.
“Let it be unto us according to your word.”

Amen.