Opening to the New Year — SheLoves

One of the great privileges of my life these days is my association with the wonderful people at SheLovesMagazine. Today is my monthly day to write for them. You can begin that essay here and follow the link at the end to finish it over there. Please do join the conversation!!

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Stepping into Epiphany is always a mixed bag for me. January 6th means that Christmastide is finished for another year. Now we are headed for Ash Wednesday, which comes quite late in 2017. In some ways, this shift in seasons is a relief — all the red around my house comes down and is packed away for another year. The ornaments are gathered off the tree, the candles are stored in a cool place, the nativity sets are stacked into a plastic bin, each baby Jesus safely secured in a corner somewhere.

Although I don’t relish the work of lugging Christmas bins from house to garage, I do enjoy seeing the cleaner edges of my usual living space emerging from the red, green, silver and gold lavishness of the holiday season. I love Christmas, truly, I do. But I’m glad when it’s time to turn away from the celebrating and re-enter a more ordinary season. My capacity for holiday decorating seems to have diminished with time!

This time, however, it feels like something important is missing as I move more fully into this new year. Since my retirement from parish ministry six years ago, I have gladly embraced a more open schedule and relished the monthly visits from an ever-changing list of people seeking spiritual direction, either here in my small study or via Facetime or Skype. I have also appreciated my monthly opportunities to write for two magazines, one online, and one in print. Occasionally, I even try to fill my own blog space with reflections both prosaic and photographic; the introduction of a monthly newsletter has been a welcome addition to my writing life.

But at this turn of the year, with 2017 opening before me, it feels like my capacity for the good work of direction and writing is larger than the demand for either one. People I thought were committed to my one-on-one work chose to drift away, usually without any formal farewell. A possible temporary job situation didn’t pan out. Both the inner drive to write and the outer call for it seem to have fled the scene.

So what I’m left with at this moment in time is a noticeable sense of emptiness. Maybe openness is a better word; I am open for more in my life . . .

Come on over and offer an encouraging word to those of us talking about this at SheLoves today!

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for Communion, Two Days Before An Election

Our sermon text on Sunday came from the end of the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ words about the narrow way. Pastor Jon did his usual excellent job of parsing and paying close attention to the text and to life. Perfect timing for the morass we find ourselves facing at this juncture in our national history. May grace prevail, no matter the outcome today.

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We’re gathering ourselves around this table again today, Lord God, grateful for it, grateful for the story it tells us, glad to do it together.

And today, we’re going to come to it one by one, a physical and tactile reminder that sometimes, it is good to be deliberate about finding that narrow way, the way that leads to the real, the wonderful.

Please take these simple things in front of us — this torn up bread, this poured out purple — and bless them. Breathe on them and breathe on us with the gift of your Holy Spirit, your Holy Spirit of love and invitation.

Some of us really need to hear the love in your voice this morning, dear Lord. We’ve been listening to so.many.voices. for the past too-many months of electioneering, voices that speak ugly words, voices that tell lies of expediency and excuse, of dissatisfaction and disdain. Help us to hear your strong, clear words of truth, and grace, and acceptance amid the word overdose that clutters our life in this season.

As we listen for your voice of love today, we also ask you to forgive us for giving into fear, for speaking words of judgment, for caring too little for the ones you’ve commanded us to love — the least and the lost. And forgive us for sometimes forgetting that also includes us, Lord. Truth be told, we are all little and frequently lost.

So we ask you to hear now our prayers of silent confession, our prayers for forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short of your dream for us, your call to us.

— SILENCE —

Thank you for hearing, for offering us the grace of forgiveness, and for calling us forward to a better way, a more narrow way.

We also ask you to bless all those whom we love who are struggling this day. And sometimes that group includes us, too. I think it is fair to say that all of us are carrying around a fair amount of grief these days. Will you bring comfort, please? And will you help us to be comfort for one another?

Through it all — all the grieving, the worrying, the wondering, the recognition of our own contribution to the ugly voices all around us . . . and sometimes, inside us, too — in the midst of it all, please give us ears to ear your voice of love, your words of invitation.

Grant us grace to choose, day after day, minute by minute, the narrow way, the way of love, the way of Jesus. 

In whose name we pray, Amen.

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!

 

 

 

 

Remembering Who We Are — a Sermon

Preached at Montecito Covenant Church, Sunday, June 19, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

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Have you ever had one of those days when you wonder, “How in the heck did I get here?” Yeah? Well, me, too. In fact, today happens to be one of those days! How in this crazy world do I happen to be standing here, in this pulpit, struggling to find words that might bring both hope and challenge in the midst of the unspeakable pain, fear, and hate that seem to be exploding all around us in recent days?

Despite the fact that words of all kinds have been flying fast and furious — over the airwaves, across the internet, in conversations by the water cooler or on the street corner — very few of those words have been either hopeful or challenging. Gratefully, I discovered that the words set before us this week in the Common Lectionary are exactly those kind of words: ones that bring both hope and challenge,

You’ve heard three of our four texts already this morning — the beautiful psalm that we sang at the beginning, the one about the longing we sometimes feel for the presence of God; and then the words that Anna Sung so beautifully read for us earlier in the service, those strong words of encouragement in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Galatia, contrasting the work of the law with the work of the Gospel; and the narrative from Luke, the story of the man released from a legion of demons and restored to himself.

As sometimes happens in the lectionary design, all of these readings help to point us in the same direction today — the direction of hope, the direction of transformation, the direction of remembering who we are.

 Well, at least they point us in the direction of who we say we are, those of us who show up in this place on Sunday mornings. We claim to be those whose hearts long for God, people who are set free from legalism, women and men released from all kinds of demons, being brought back, day by day by day, to our best selves.

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And now, Scripture lesson number four speaks to those things as well. For this reading, we turn to Elijah, that wily, wiry, complicated, faithful, sometimes cranky, always interesting old prophet. Elijah is perhaps second only to Moses in the pantheon of great forerunners in the Old Testament. And like Moses sometimes did, our man Elijah finds himself in a hard place in today’s lesson. His world has quite literally gone to hell in a hand basket, and he is feelin’ it.

In the chapters just before the one we’ll look at today, Elijah has been very, very busy. Busy doing the good and difficult work of a being a prophet, and God has looked out for him in some miraculous ways. But . . . here’s the hard truth of this deal: God has also given him a job for which no one is ever thankful. That’s the problem with being a prophet, you see. Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say. Yet, what a prophet says is almost always of utmost importance, can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, can sometimes even change the course of history.

I encourage you to read this saga for yourselves sometime later today — all of Elijah’s adventures in 1 Kings are found in the two chapters preceding the one before us today, chapters 17 and 18. But before you hear today’s passage from chapter 19, I want you to understand this: Elijah is a good guy. His very name means ‘faithful to Yahweh,’ the very personal self-chosen-title that God had given to Moses, so many centuries earlier.

Also important to remember is that Elijah has just come through an experience of demanding spiritual warfare, up there at the top of Mount Carmel, a place where the God he serves showed up, big-time.

In a perfect world, Elijah should have been celebrating at the beginning of our chapter today. He’s experienced some real success as a prophet, working in a dangerous time, with some very dangerous people. But enjoying success is not where the man is. No, not at all.

Listen for yourselves. I’ve invited some friends to read it for us today — open your Bibles to this text, by all means. But for now, just listen. Take in the story.

Insert here a 3-voice readers’ theater version of the morning text.

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 Oh, how I love this story! I really, really do. Why do I love it so? And why do I think it’s an important story for us right now, at this moment in time? First of all, I think it’s important because of two things that are found in most biblical narratives: this is a story that teaches us about ourselves, and, this is a story that teaches us about God.

Most of all, though, I love this story — and I believe it to be a story that is immediately applicable to the current state of the world and of the church — I love this story because it is TRUE. This is a story that is true in the biggest sense of that word. Whether or not what we have here is marked by incontrovertible, historic and factual accuracy or not, (and I choose to believe that it is), this narrative is one of the truest depictions of the human condition I’ve ever read anywhere. It speaks profoundly to our deep need for connection — to God, to ourselves, and to one another — and it also speaks to our need for a sense of purpose, especially when life feels overwhelming. This is a story about flight that becomes pilgrimage, of exhaustion transformed by refreshment, of deep discouragement relieved by renewed purpose.

And underneath it all, it is a journey that is at the same time inward, upward and outward — three words which pretty succinctly describe what is of primary importance for this moment in time, as well as for the old prophet on that long ago wilderness trek.

We begin with inward. I think all the best journeys begin this way — AA, in step 4, calls it ‘taking a searching and fearless moral inventory’ — and it’s tough to do. Hitting the wall is not fun, reaching bottom is, quite literally, the pits. But, oh!, it is so important.

Our friend Elijah is just plain done. And he says so, loud and clear. “I have had enough, Lord!” he cries. “Kill me now!” The man has worked hard, hard, hard. He’s been faithful and true. He’s been obedient to the word of the Lord as he understood it. And Jezebel was one scary queen. She had tremendous power and was viewed as the earthly mouthpiece for mighty Ba’al, the foreign god she and her husband Ahab were encouraging the Israelites to worship. So a threat from her, is a threat indeed. King Ahab didn’t seem to phase Elijah much. But Jezebel? He was outta there.

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Now intellectually, he must surely have known that Yahweh was greater, right? He’d just seen ample evidence of that on the top of Mt. Carmel, in the great battle of the Dueling Altars. Yet somehow, these words from Jezebel — coming to him through the mouth of a ‘messenger,’ we’re told — these are the words that finish him off.

Elijah is isolated, lonely, undone. So he runs immediately for the border, dumps his faithful servant, and then heads out into the boondocks, more alone at this point in time than he has ever been.

Why is it that when we’re feeling most alone, we so often do everything in our power to make sure that we ARE alone? Some scholars see this act as Elijah’s way of making a clear statement that he is DONE with the propheting gig. “See, Lord, no servant. Therefore, no work to do, right?” Whatever his reasons, the man who feels alone, is, now, indeed, alone.

Except.

Something quite wonderful happens. The text uses the exact same word here as the word applied to Jezebel’s servant — mal’ak — messenger. And because this entire story is told in a favorite Hebraic literary form called a chiasm, the double use of the word fits beautifully. A chiasm is an elegant structure that sets up parallels in a story or a poem from beginning to end, so that if you look at an outline of the entire story you can see how each piece from the beginning is resolved at the end.

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So, a messenger — called an ‘angel’ in most of our English translations — meets Elijah right here, in the middle of that vast wilderness, as he struggles to find a little shade under the scrawny branches of a solitary broom tree.

You know, I’ve never seen an angel with wings and a halo. But oh-my-word — I’ve seen lots of angels with flesh on ‘em over the years. Just this weekend, a ‘messenger’ from God spoke to me in a moment of panic and uncertainty. Three times. Three different angels from this congregation sent me single line texts, at exactly the right moment, saying they were praying for me as I worked on this sermon. So no matter what this particular messenger/angel looked like, I believe this person was a divine visitation. And here’s what I want us to pay particular attention to: the angel/messenger knew EXACTLY what Elijah needed most at this moment: he needed rest, he needed something to eat, he needed something to drink.

When we or someone we love — or even someone we don’t know personally, but care about very much, like all those who have suffered from the latest abominable massacre in our country, this horror in Orlando — when people are suffering and struggling, the very first and best thing that we can do is to see that their immediate physical needs are met. That’s why relief agencies step into crises with tangible gifts — water, food, cots to sleep on, counselors to meet with.

What is not needed in that first moment of crisis are words of condemnation, judgment, criticism, or conjecture. Elijah didn’t need that messenger to tell him he was acting like a coward. He didn’t need a voice labeling him an unforgiven sinner. He didn’t need any response other than the one he got: a gentle acceptance of his exhaustion, and the fulfillment of his at-the-moment, most pressing needs.

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And after those first needs are met, what Elijah received next was of equal importance: he heard kind words. Yes, he heard kind words, laced with empathy and understanding: “Get up and eat some more,” the messenger said to him, after he’d had some sleep and some food and some water. “Get up and eat some more, for there is a long journey ahead of you.”

Some translations write that last line this way: “For it is too much for you.”

Exactly.

“It is too much for you.”

What has happened to our LGBT brothers and friends is too much for them. What has happened to our rational, peace-loving Muslim sisters and friends is too much for them. The ugly, hate-filled, side-swiping verbiage happening in our recent political conversation is too much for all of us.

And the best thing we can contribute — after any and all physical needs are met — the best thing we can offer in the midst of exhaustion and hatred is this: kind, sensible, true, loving words.

And only those words. In the immediate aftermath of crisis, we all need to sit down next to the person who is suffering and offer a kind and loving presence. There will be a time for action.There will. But not now.

And so, having slept, eaten, been refreshed by water, our hero sets off across the desert, heading for the Mount of God, called Horeb in this text, an alternate name for Mt. Sinai, that fabled place where Moses met God, and received the tablets of the law.

When I hit the wall at the end of 2001, while I was serving here as Associate Pastor, I took care of my physical needs first. I was exhausted and discovered I was also anemic. So I began to treat that. I was taking some medicines that were making things worse, not better, so I stopped those meds. And there were a few, not a lot, but a few, friends who called or wrote or visited and brought me kind words, too.

But the single most important thing that happened during those months of recovery was that I began to sink into worship, daily worship, using a big red book called “Celtic Daily Prayer” with an accompanying CD. I loved that book — and I used it so often the cover fell off! Experiencing deep periods of worship was what eventually restored me to myself, and to my ministry here.

And that is exactly where our friend Elijah is headed. He is headed to meet God.

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Forty days and forty nights he traveled, which is an old Hebraic way of saying that this trip was perfect, it was complete. And he heads now on the upward part of his journey, both physically and spiritually — up, up, up, he climbs, landing himself inside a cave — maybe the very cleft where Moses had been lovingly placed for his own protection when HE met God on that very mountain.

And then . . . And then we get this remarkable interchange, this wonderful doubly-done conversation. God asks a simple question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Wow. What a question.

What are you doing here, Diana?

What are you doing here, Jon?

What are you doing here, Jim?

What are you doing here, Linda?

What are you doing here???

 Holy mackerel — the question of the ages, right?

What are we doing here? Are we being the church? Are we loving our neighbors? Are we engaging in spiritual warfare, as our pastor as so eloquently instructed us these last four weeks? Are we offering kind words to one another, and to the world around us? Are we living love, all day, every day? Are we open to the very real possibility that God might be doing something new and powerful in us, in the church, in the world?

What are we doing here?

And Elijah gives answer. And boy, it’s a pretty self-serving answer, isn’t it???

“I’ve done my job, Lord. I’ve done what you told me to do. And these people — the ones you sent me to — these people, they’re the ones who’ve messed up. And now I AM ALL ALONE. I’m the only one. Just me. Just little ol’ me.”

And the Lord is so deeply kind in response: “Go outside your cave, friend,” he says. Stand there before me.”

But I want you to catch something here. The text says simply that Elijah ‘stood there’ in verse 11, just as the Lord begins to ‘pass by.’ But skip over all the drama for a second and look at verse 13. Do you see it there? The wind, and the earthquake, and the fire go by, bringing with them majesty, chaos, destruction, HUGE reminders of the power of God. Yet the text very carefully tells us that God was not in ANY of these. No. After all the bells and whistles, there comes the ‘sound of a gentle whisper,’ or the ‘sound of silence,’ as my favorite interpretation puts it. And at THIS, verse 13 tells us, Elijah wrapped himself in his cloak, and THEN, he stepped to the entrance of the cave.

Unlike Moses, whom the Lord placed into the cave for his own protection, God invites Elijah to come out of the cave and to stand before Yahweh. And somehow, Elijah cannot even respond until . . . the silence is as overwhelming as the loneliness. Isn’t that interesting?

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Now whether this is evidence of Elijah’s superior and astute judgment about what constitutes the presence of God or yet another example of how truly out of it he was, or a beautifully drawn picture of how deep his need was, I don’t pretend to know. The text doesn’t tell us those things.

Whatever got him out there on that ledge, Elijah now stands in the very presence of God and hears God ask the very same question Elijah has already answered: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

And here’s the kicker: Elijah gives exactly the same answer.

There is no sudden stab of insight. There is no increasing clarity or sign of intelligence. There is only, and I use this word very carefully, there is only obedience. The Lord says, “Stand here.” He’s late to respond, but he does it. The Lord asks, “What are you doing here?” And Elijah answers. Again. But I gotta say, something is happening here. I’m not completely sure what it is, but I have a few hunches. Because here is what happens at the very end of our narrative today: the Lord says to Elijah: “Go back the way you came.”

Go back the way you came?

Yes! The journey is reversed. The inward and upward journey is now, once again, the outward journey. Much like walking the prayer labyrinth, we walk in, and we walk out. But it is what happens right there at the center that makes the difference.

What we don’t see in the text of the morning is what comes next — and it’s important, too. God gives Elijah new marching orders — basically, he is re-commissioned as a prophet. BUT, this time, he is to find and anoint his own successor, so Elijah knows there is an end game in view.

And then — and oh, how I love this little add-on — and then, God carefully and clearly says to Elijah, “Oh by the way, you are not alone. You have never been alone. There are 7,000 — count them! — seven zero zero zero others who have been faithfully worshipping me all this time.”

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How gracious is this whole conversation? One worn-out, burnt-up old prophet, wrapped in his cloak, still feeling old and tired and done. And one remarkable God, who sees Elijah — all of Elijah — and says, “You belong to me, old man. Warts and all, weaknesses and all. And I am not done with you just yet. No way, no how.”

God calls Elijah to remember who he is. In the midst of his sorrow, even in the midst of his inability to truly see the goodness that is right around him, in the midst of it all, God says, “You. You right there. I’ve got work for you. Good work. So, take a deep breath, take a good look at me. And remember who the heck you are, okay?”

Oh friends. When we face days where we wonder how the heck we got here, can we remember this?

Can we remember the goodness of God?
Can we remember the truth that we are NEVER alone?
Can we look for angels in the faces of the people who help us?
Can we go deep into worship, seeking the presence of the Living God?
Can we climb whatever mountain is in front of us, confident that we won’t be alone                            there, either?
Can we reach out in love to individuals and groups who are being unjustly treated                              and persecuted?
Can we engage in spiritual warfare with the only real weapon we’ve got, the ever-                                present, all-inclusive love of God?
Can we be ready to answer that ages-old question: What are you doing here?

Can we remember who we are?

Oh, I hope so. I pray so.

Let’s begin by singing, with courage, the powerful words of the song in our bulletins —

             “Through it all, my eyes are on you, through it all, all is well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering to Ask — for the Covenant Companion

Every other month, I get the remarkable job of writing a column for our award-winning denominational magazine. I love who we are, our history and our identity. Like many Christian denominations, we sometimes struggle as we seek to follow the Spirit’s lead, but we have one important distinctive that is highly valued: we agree to disagree on any doctrinal issue not considered central to the message of the Gospel. (One example: as pastors, we are ordained to baptize both infants and adults, depending on the convictions of the individual family.) We are small but, with God’s help, we are also ‘mighty.’ My contribution to our current issue was highlighted today at the online version of the magazine. Here’s a piece of it with a link to connect you to the entire piece:

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Everyone has a story. Everyone. You do, I do, the cranky checker at the supermarket does. The profanity-prone cabdriver, the arrogant teacher, the shy first-year college student, the exhausted gray-haired pan-handler on the corner — everyone has seen more, done more, experienced more than we can imagine. We haven’t a clue what another person has had to deal with in their lives, or even in the last ten minutes!

And yet, we so often act as if we’ve got it all figured out, that life is simple rather than complicated, that easy answers are readily available for any and all situations. We wonder, silently or aloud, why the one moving slowly can’t pick it up a little bit, why the one who is angry can’t put a cork in it, why the one in tears doesn’t pull him or herself together, why the one we can’t agree with is so dense and uninformed. We’re embarrassed, or we’re frustrated; we’re anxious or we’re judgmental. Too often, we default to defensiveness and reactivity rather than breathing in for a few seconds and remembering to ask this all-important question, a question I heard articulated perfectly by one of my pastors in a recent sermon. He gives his wife credit for this one, and I am grateful to both of them for it:

What don’t I know?

What DON’T I know? Truth be told, we don’t know much, do we? Some days, it feels like we know less and less about who and how people truly are. The pace of life in the twenty-first century doesn’t leave much space for easy conversation during the course of our days. We have to move on to the next appointment, tick-off-the-next-errand, tackle the task that nags at us from the back of our minds. We have no time for stories, no interest in distraction . . . unless, of course, the internet calls our name. . .

Come on over and finish it at the magazine . . .

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.

Inspiration

Do you all know Seth Haines? He’s written one of the best books I read in 2015, “Coming Clean,” (reviewed here on this blog) He also writes an occasional Tiny Letter and was one of those who inspired me to begin writing my own version of that. In the last few of those letters, he has begun to do what he once did for a small group of email friends — provide inspiration for writing on a topic. Today’s letter inspired these thoughts and THIS  is what I need in my writing life right now. I’ve been tired, lethargic, uninspired for many months now. I’m sure that enervating fatigue is connected to the stresses of the last eighteen months or so, from foot surgery and recovery to emergency hospital stays, to a major move across town, interwoven with the continuing disappearance of my mother into the mists of dementia and the inevitable toll of a long life on the bodies and psyches of both my husband and myself. But today, his own reflection (which is stunningly gorgeous – go over to his blog and sign up for his letter right this minute!) invited me to just sit and reflect on the presence of God in the ordinary. My response to that invitation:


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The clouds are low to the ground this week, hovering over our city like a pale gray shawl, hiding the view, softening the noise, slowing my breath. Today’s clouds carry water, gentle but steady, trundling its way down the drainpipe behind the bedroom wall, glistening on the ground outside the sliding door.

I’ve just come from a long lunch with a friend, someone I trust, someone I love. And I heard such sadness, sadness I knew nothing about. And my eyes well with tears for her . . . and for me, because I did not know. And I did not ask. Until today.

The gray dampness of the day seemed appropriate somehow. And the Beauty in the midst of that gray was her lovely face, sincere, concerned, honest, receptive. We talked long past the 90 minutes of free parking and I left a more generous tip than usual. Story-sharing costs us something, you know? It is never cheap.

When I returned home, driving up the winding hill with the wipers going full tilt, I shared the saddest parts with my husband. He, too, was hit hard. He, too, feels that pull to re-commit to friendship, to share the load, to pay something for the privilege of inclusion, even if it costs nothing more than time and empathy. Those are never cheap, either, are they?

I made myself some tea, a new flavor – Peppermint Chocolate – and settled into reading and writing for a while. But my eye was caught by some new blooms on the vine that covers our low-slung back fence, the one over which we usually have a soaring city and mountain view. The wide view is unavailable during this grayness, this shawl-covering season. But the narrow one is always there.

I took my camera out into the gentle rain and aimed it toward those gold and lavender throated cups that were pointing every which way along the rail. The drops of water somehow multiplied their loveliness and I gasped as I gingerly stepped from concrete to grass to flagstone pavers. I snapped the pictures and I remembered a truth I too often neglect or downright forget: there is Beauty everywhere. Everywhere.

Even on a gray day, even when friends are sad, even when I forget to ask.

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Where are you finding Beauty in the midst of the grayness, in the humdrum of day-to-day life?

Sing It Out!! — for SheLoves in December

We were asked to write a shorter-than-usual reflection piece for SheLoves this month, reflection on a character in the Christmas narrative. My choice was a bit of a ‘cheat,’ because I picked two of my very favorites. See if maybe you see the same things I do in this lovely piece of our story. You can start here and then finish it over at SheLoves:

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There are two of them in the story, two of them in the same boat.

And such a strange and wonderful boat it was.

One young, very young. The other, older, maybe ten or even twenty years older. Cousins the story tells us, they were distant cousins.

Both of them pregnant — unexpectedly, miraculously, stunningly pregnant.

And they came together at a crucial moment, offering each other gifts, gifts that took the shape of words, words that sing out with hope and promise, with surprise and jump-for-joy abandon.

That younger one was full to the brim with Spirit-joy and more than a little bit of wonder, and I’m guessing, more than a few questions. When she knew she was with child, she went running, right on up the dusty road, up to the hills, looking for that familiar face, that familiar cousin-voice, so hungry for a companion on the way.

And the older one? Well, she was smack dab in the middle of her own wonderment. For years she cried out to God, begging for a baby, a baby who never materialized, leaving her aching and isolated. When she was beyond hope, God answered! Now there was a wild-souled boy-child growing inside her.

Their meeting is a picture of the life-giving power that is possible when women who share affection and esteem support one another. Mary, overwhelmed by that heavenly visitation and its remarkable aftermath, headed straight into the arms of someone who knew her well, someone who knew God well, someone who could help her make some sense of all the craziness. She headed for Elizabeth.

Hop on over to SheLoves to see what happens next!

“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.