A Prayer for Those Who Worry

It was my privilege to lead the congregation in prayer this morning. Our texts for the day included Proverbs 3:1-8, 1 Peter 5:5-9 and Matthew 6:25-34. The song just before the prayer was a lovely arrangement of James’ Ward’s “Consider the Lilies,” which is based on the gospel text of the day. 

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“Seek first the kingdom,
keep the righteousness of God in view;
(you better) seek first the kingdom —
he said, all of these things will be added to you.”
                    (from ‘Consider the Lilies,’ by James Ward)

Such truth, Lord. Our songwriter this morning has borrowed the words of our gospel lesson and written truth. Good truth. Necessary truth. But such hard truth for us to live!

“Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you,” says the writer of Proverbs, “bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart . . . Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”

 Again, Lord. Truth. Good and necessary and hard.

And one more time today, we hear your word to us in Peter’s letter: “Cast all your anxiety on him,  for he cares for you.”

 We’re gettin’ it from all sides this morning, Lord God. It seems what it all comes down to is this idea of trust, isn’t it? It’s about getting our priorities in the right order, about paying attention to what we look at, it’s about remembering who we are, and — most importantly — it’s about remembering who YOU are.

Why is that such a tough thing for us to do? We are puzzling creatures, Lord, choosing, time and time again,

     to look in the wrong direction,

     to follow our worst instincts,

     to try like crazy to keep some kind of ‘control’ over our lives,

         our loved ones,

         our plans,

         our minds,

         our circumstances . . .

Yet what we really know to be true . . . what we really know is this: there is not much in this life over we which we have any real control.

You know us so well, don’t you? You know our penchant for anxiety, our desperate need to hold onto the reins, our yearning for all those puzzle pieces to fit together perfectly.

And so you teach us this good, necessary and oh-so-hard truth over and over again:

Trust.         Let go.         Believe in your goodness.

Relinquish our conniving, and all our anxious plotting, and rest in the truth that YOU are the one who sees the end from the beginning. YOU are the one who cares for us, who promises to walk with us, no matter what life throws our way.

We lost a good friend this week, Lord. We loved Arvid and now he is gone from us. Too soon — at least to our way of understanding. And we have other friends who are walking through difficult times, facing things that are hard and that we do not understand. Maybe we ourselves are the ones hearing news we did not plan on and do not want to hear.

And, of course, everything we see in the media causes that anxiety level to mount, from the election carnage to the wars in the Middle East, to the storms threatening the west coast this week, and the continuing, deeply rooted and festering racial tension, prejudice, and fear that rise up like the sins they are and seem to shake the foundations of our union

When these hard things happen, our go-to mode is almost always exactly the opposite of what our song and your word are saying to us today. We do worry; we are anxious. We do forget to trust you, only you, to set things right with this world of ours.

Will you forgive us, please? Forgive our faithlessness and our disloyalty. Forgive us for allowing our fears to push us into trying to manipulate people and circumstances, to pull strings, to work behind the scenes in a feeble attempt to make everything turn out the way we think it should.

Hear our prayer, O Lord!

And help us to bind your goodness and your loyalty and your faithfulness around our necks, like a beautiful, shimmering shawl, one that can wrap our worried hearts and over-anxious minds in warmth and release. One that can help us learn to trust.

For Jesus’ sake,

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!

 

 

 

 

Touching the Holy

Every once in a while, life grants me a transcendent moment. Often, this happens when I am out of doors, gaping at the sea, the mountains, a redwood forest; snorkeling above coral reefs, standing in the wind on the deck of a ship, or staring down at the world from 35,000 feet. These moments are gifts, glimpses of the Mystery, those thin places between earth and heaven, a place/person/? which I choose to believe is much nearer to us than we can imagine, close enough to touch.

And once in a while, we do.

Music is often an entryway to heaven for me. Especially choral music. I’ve written before about my lifelong love for choral singing — listening to it, but mostly, singing it. Standing with a larger group of singers, making Beauty together is a privilege and a joy; I do not take it for granted.

Here is an example of a small piece of music that was instrumental in my own deeper awakening to the Spirit about twenty years ago. It is an audio recording of a piece that hit me right between the eyes when first I heard it up in the tower office that was mine when I worked on staff in our home church. I have listened to it hundreds of times and always, always  it moves me to tears and wonder. I had the privilege of singing it (though we did not sing it very well, I fear) in the choir I joined last year. This is one piece of nine that are part of a spectacular requiem mass written by Maurice Durufle, a French composer from the early-to-mid 20th century. There are frequently changing time signatures and many different keys throughout the entire mass, but this piece is one of the simpler ones, as written. But it is the most difficult to sing exactly right. Robert Shaw and his famous Chorale got it exactly right. Close your eyes and let this music wash over you.

“Sanctus” – by Maurice Durufle, using the text of the requiem Mass:

Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth,
pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis! Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis!

Holy, Lord God of hosts.
The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He Who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Do you see what I mean? Or perhaps this particular piece doesn’t lead you across the threshold in the same way it did me. I’m willing to bet however, that somewhere in your life there is one piece — or perhaps several — that help you to do just that.

Last week, our choir met again to prepare for our spring concert. We are doing a variety of anthems and folk songs, about five of which we’ve looked at so far. Of those five, two of them, TWO OF THEM, opened that door to the Holy in me as we sight-read them. The act of sight-reading is exhilarating, all by itself. It is one of my favorite things to do in the world: to take a stack of unseen music and work through it for the first time. So fun.

But these two? Oh, glory! The words simply stopped me. STOPPED me. And the close harmonies and moving choral parts? Well  . . . that was three days ago and I am still awash with gratitude and glory.  This first one pretty well sums up what I believe and have experienced with music . . . sing me to heaven, indeed.

“Sing Me to Heaven,” words by Jane Griner, music by Daniel E. Gawthrop

In my heart’s sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poets’ gloss
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute
In response to aching silence, memory summons half-heard voices
And my soul finds primal eloquence, and wraps me in song
If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven
Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure
Touch in me grief and comfort, love and passion, pain and pleasure
Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God
Sing me a love song, sing me to Heaven

And number two? Yes, yes. This is the cry of my heart for me and for all those I know and love who are struggling to see God in the midst of their pain, to believe in the midst of crushing doubt, to take a step into the unknown when it feels dark and murky and above all, lonely. 

I invite you to take steps into the holy, my friends. To look for thresholds in your day-to-day living, to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear. May you find small moments when loneliness recedes and hope rises, rises, rises.

“Even When He Is Silent” – music by Kim Andre Arnesen
          The text for the piece was found in a concentration camp after World War 2:
          The key signature encourages director and singer to set the metronome for 54 per quarter note and adds these remarkable words, ‘with hope.’ Indeed, indeed.
I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Tapestry — SheLoves

The themes over at SheLoves this year have been rich and provocative. This month: fabric. You can begin this meandering piece here and then follow the link over to one of my favorite magazines in order to read the rest:
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This life we live is a woven thing.

Textures, colors, strengths, weaknesses, flaws, beauty, warmth, breathability — a wondrous, complex, sturdy fabric of relationships, experiences, emotions, encounters, learning and un-learning.

Weaving in and out of each of our stories are some glorious threads that glisten and shine; and then there are those others, the darker ones that cannot reflect light at all. Sometimes, the tension between the two can feel chaotic, without design or beauty. We can feel buried under the weight of it all as the loom of life pulls and pushes us in ways we might not choose to go.

When those days come, I try to remind myself that the fabric that is me is only one small piece of the much larger work God is creating across time and all around this universe. And that larger piece is a design of such magnificence that not one of us can even imagine its depth and beauty. Those ‘thin places’ we talked about last month sometimes give us a peek, a hint, of what God is up to in the ongoing creation of life. And that old cliché — the one about seeing only the backside of the tapestry God is weaving? Yup, I think it’s true.

There are those days when we catch a glimpse of the front, though. Moments when the glory-light shines in and our lungs feel like they’re breathing heavenly air. In the fabric of my own life, there have consistently been some glittering threads, ones that make me gasp with gratitude and sigh with recognition and relief.

Please come over and join the conversation at SheLoves! Just click on this line.

Book Review & Giveaway! “Tables in the Wilderness”

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Preston Yancey is a favorite of mine. He has an artist’s soul and a deep and wide knowledge of theology and literature. His first book is officially launching TODAY, and I recommend it to you.

As you read, you must come to peace with the truth that Preston is ridiculously young. Yes, he is. He might deny this, but I know it to be true. In many ways, he is an old soul and that adds gravitas to his words, burnishing them with lived experience and grace.  

This memoir slice is the story of a relatively short season of life — the college years. The years of growing up and growing out, of finding lifelong friends, discovering what you love and what you don’t, and maybe, if you’re truly blessed, finding your life partner.

Over the pages of this lovely book, he does all of these things — he grows up, he grows out, he makes (and loses) friends, he discovers what and whom he loves. And in the process, he learns a lot about God — something that he was certain he already knew.

That’s the way with us humans, isn’t it? We think we know so much. And then . . . we don’t. Preston tells us about his faith journey, about the professors who inspired him, about the parents who loved and honored him, about a few girls he dated and the one he married. And he does it in the inimitable Yancey way. . . by talking in beautiful, lyrical circles.

So my primary word of advice is this: carve out a half day and read this book in one sitting. I did not do this and I wish I had — because Preston circles back to where he began more than once, as the quote above boldly tells us. Take it from me that tracking names and relationships can get a little more difficult when you’ve let time elapse between reading spells. 

And the second word of advice is like unto the first: as you read this lovely story, try to remember as much of your own growing up years as possible. If you read “Tables” in one sitting, this remembering will be easier to do. 

Most of us who’ve lived a bit longer than Preston will recognize ourselves as we read. We’ll remember what it feels like to love and lose, to visit strange congregations, to wonder if God has forgotten us, and to discover our faith all over again. 

I think that kind of remembering is one of the primary joys of reading memoir. It’s a good thing to find companions on the way, even ones we’ve never met. And Preston Yancey is a very fine companion, indeed.

I happen to have one extra copy of this book and if you’d like to put your name in the hopper for a chance to win it, just leave me a comment. I’ll draw names one week from today — Tuesday, October 7, 2014 and I’ll post the winner here that evening. Please be sure to leave me your email address!

 

Love and Fear

“There is only one metric for discipleship, only one call: to go beyond being polite, subdued, civil and nice to practicing real, even dangerous, love.” – Pastor Don Johnson, in this morning’s sermon, “Sifted,”
based on 1 John 4:7-21

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Twenty-nine times in fourteen verses — that’s how often the apostle John uses the worn-out, overused, mostly ignored word, “love,” in the 4th chapter of his first epistle.

Twenty-nine times.

I think this guy believes what he says, you know?

And I think he has the street cred to back up his instructions, his analysis, his hopes, his commands.

You remember John, don’t you? The ‘beloved’ disciple, one of three pulled out for special events, the one to whom Jesus gave responsibility for his mother while he was dying on that cross, the one who stayed around through the whole awful crucifixion scene and then showed up early at the empty tomb and immediately believed? 

Yes, I think this man’s words can be trusted. I think John knows whereof he speaks. 

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So from our perch in the balcony this morning (it’s where the scooter fits best), I sat and pondered this tableau of sifting things — fish net, colander, strainer. And as we moved through the sermon, I could see — again! — that the one thing Jesus uses to sift the wheat from the chaff in our souls is love. 

Nothing else works, you see. Only love can separate us from all those things that get in the way of deep and true relationships, that keep us from living out the peace and justice that God asks of us, that infiltrate our spirits and keep us suspicious, reactive, judgmental and jealous. Only love.

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We’ve heard that word so often that most of the time, we don’t even think about what it might mean when we see it, hear it, think it.

What does it truly mean to love? To choose love, to practice love, to live in love? Where does it come from? How do we grow it in ourselves?

It is, after all, the one thing that Jesus commands us to do, right? Love God, love one another.

And John picks up the song right where Jesus left off. Pastor Don outlined for us the powerful truths that are buried in this long list of ‘love’ words in 1 John 4 and the ones that stood out to me are these: 

Love comes from God because God is love.

God is therefore the source of love, we are the reflectors of it.

God chooses to use us as instruments of God’s love in our interactions with one another.

Our love for one another is the primary — perhaps even the only — way in which those who do not yet know God can see God at work in the world.

The clearest demonstration of love ever let loose in this world is Jesus.

When love takes over, fear flees.

Loving God and loving others are non-negotiables.

Even though I wasn’t feeling particularly well this morning, I knew I needed to hear this sermon, to ponder it and pray through it and learn from it. For lots of reasons, but primarily because of my own ongoing battle with anxiety and worry. That particular journey is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kinda trip in my life, and I needed to think again on these words: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

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When you think about it, fear is at the bottom of a whole lot of ugly, scary things in this world. Every bomb dropped, warrior wounded, child enslaved, bit of food hoarded — all of it comes back to being afraid of something. Afraid there won’t be enough, afraid we’ll lose face, afraid we won’t get all our wants/needs met, afraid of the nameless/faceless ‘enemy,’ wherever and whoever they are.

I’ve been afraid a lot lately — afraid I’ll never walk right again, afraid I’ll be dependent on others forever, afraid I’ll be . . . what? Defective? Hobbled? Less than?

And yet, I don’t believe that about friends of mine who deal with disabilities of one kind or another. I see them for who they are, I value their insights and their gifts. So what am I truly afraid of?

Maybe that I’ll be less than what I’ve been before. Maybe that I’ll fail to measure up to some invisible, impossible standard of perfection that hangs over my head. Maybe that no one will love me if I’m not ‘together.’ Maybe that I do not and will not love myself if I’m not ‘performing’ the way I think I should. Maybe that God won’t love me if I’m not working hard.

Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I am still doing battle with that ancient enemy, that old heresy, the one that goes like this:

Salvation is to be earned.
Worth is to be proven.
What I do for God and for others is what will force God to love me and will make me more acceptable to myself, too.

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And that is crazy-making thinking, you know? Scroll back up to the list I wrote out from chapter 4. John spells it out, plain as day. LOVE COMES FIRST, God loves us, we respond in love, God’s love flows through us to others, and the pattern is repeated.

Only, we’re really, really lousy at this thing. Just reading through the comments section at some of the more public blogging sites proves that. We can’t even be civil, much less move beyond civility to love. We so often let fear win, don’t we? Way too often.

So tonight, at this end of the day, I want to start again. Again. I want to ask for the blessing and I want to be open enough to receive it. I want to hold my hands and my heart open and let the love of God flow into and through me. I want to live in love, not in fear.

In LOVE, not in fear.

How about you?

I’ll Love You Forever

The longer I live,
the more convinced I am that
the way fathers love their daughters
has a profound impact on the
fabric of society.

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My dad, half-smiling on the outside. Always smiling on the inside.

 

As we have walked this last leg of the journey
with each of our mothers,
we’ve seen this truth in surprising,
and sometimes beautiful ways.

My mother-in-law grew up with an affectionate,
charming, faithful, imaginative, wordsmith for a father,
a man who adored his daughter
and told her so with every breath.
She never once doubted herself,
even as the fog of dementia rolled in

and slowly erased her life.

My mom grew up with a damaged dad,
a man who left his family of origin after 
being cheated by his own father,
and then drank and gambled his way
through mom’s early years.
He seldom had a kind word for 
anyone in that house.
And my mother is riddled with self-doubt,
often convinced that others
believe her to be a terrible person.

I’m sure there are more factors at play than just this one. Basic personality traits between these two good women
are markedly different in several ways.

However, I remain convinced that ‘just this one’
marks out one of the most basic ways
in which our two moms have faced
into their long, last journey in life.

I believe that a father’s unconditional love is foundational
for each one of us.
But for female children?
It is critical and crucial.
It can sometimes make the difference between
humble self-acceptance and crippling self-doubt.
I also believe that the formation of the female spirit is
critically important for the healthy development of
family, culture, church.

In other words, it’s a big deal for girls/women to have a loving father (or father figure) somewhere in their story.

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Working through some puzzles with our eldest daughter, one of several in our family tree who have inherited his mathematical and logical gifts. I am not one of those.

My own dad adored me.
And I knew it.

All my life, I have been deeply grateful for that truth.

I’ve got insecurities by the bushel basketful,
that is true enough.

But I have never doubted my father’s
deep and abiding love for me.

Not once.

And I believe that sweet piece of my story says a whole lot about who I am today.

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Mom and dad in the 80s.

My father was a school teacher and a musician,
a handyman and a thoughtful, interesting person.

He liked butter on white bread, Buicks,
and playing the piano.

He was quiet, wise, gentle and good.
And he had an absolutely killer sense of humor,
a dry wit that would pop out from time to time,
most likely very soon after you’d decided that he 
wasn’t even really listening to the conversation.

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My beautiful, fun mama.

He was crazy-nuts about my mother,
and they made quite a pair,

she all bubbles and up-front laughter,
he behind-the-scenes deep and sometimes mysterious.

My father’s hands were big enough to span an octave,
plus 2 or 3,

and strong enough to hold a crying baby,
bringing calm and quiet more efficiently than
anyone else I knew.
He loved being a grandfather
and his grandkids idolized him in so many ways.

 

IMG_0224Me, in the 80s – a combo of the two of them, don’t you think?

He gave his testimony in church once,
speaking honestly about his own wrestling spirit,

and eloquently about the truth that his faith was his life.
And if it wasn’t his life —
if it wasn’t changing the way he lived that life —

then it wasn’t worth much, was it?

Dad believed that a Jesus-follower should be steady,
sturdy,

         devoted and
                           careful. 

And more than once,
he gently but firmly reminded me to 

live that way, too.

 

I love you, Daddy.
I miss you every day and,
as you know —
I talk to you with some regularity!
You’ve been gone from this place for
almost a decade now,
and though I’m grateful that your struggles
with health and frailty are behind you,
I wish you —
the healthy, happy you —
were still here with us.

I miss your advice,
your kindness,
your steadiness
and your unshakeable loyalty.
The older I get, the more I realize
how rare those qualities are,
and the more I miss your being here to model them for us.

I’ll love you forever, Dad.
And I thank God for your love every day that I breathe.

Doubters Welcome Here

DSC01761 They call this week “Low Sunday.” It’s the Sunday after the biggest feast in the Christian year, and every associate pastor in the world knows about it. This is a Sunday when associates are often asked to take the pulpit, providing an opportunity for the lead pastor to take a breather after the heavy push of Lent and Easter. And our fine associate stepped right up today.*

On the Orthodox calendar, this Sunday — which comes 8 days after Easter — is also known as the Sunday of St. Thomas, and the usual passage in their lectionary is the very one we used today. We have devised our own lectionary for this past school year, working through the gospel of John, and we are almost to the end. Serendipitously, Pastor Jon worked through these six verses from the end of chapter 20 in this morning’s meditation.

Here are John’s words, in The Message:

But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.”

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”

Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”

Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”

Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

Anyone who’s ever been to church knows this passage, right? That infamous stretch of scripture which has given rise to the descriptor, ‘doubting Thomas?’  How about ‘doubting Diana?’ Or ‘doubting _______ (fill in your own name?’ Because we all struggle with doubt, don’t we?

There are days when I not only don’t know what to believe, but I don’t know IF I believe much of anything at all. And almost everyone I’ve ever walked with on this following-after-Jesus-journey will admit to similar periods of wrestling, of questioning.

Madeleine L’Engle used to call it viral atheism, like a bout of illness. 

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Barbara Brown Taylor’s most recent book, ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark,’ speaks of her wrestling and wondering, of her deep desire to re-define the whole idea of darkness. She asserts that the darkness fairly shimmers with the presence of God Almighty, reminding me that God inhabited the darkness in the opening words of Genesis 1, long before any of the glorious universe we live in was even created.

Yes, there are good things to be discovered in the dark. And maybe, just maybe, doubt is the doorway to some of those good things.

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Today, Pastor Jon also referenced Mother Theresa’s writings, writings culled from her personal journals, writings in which she, too, talked about doubt and an often overwhelming sense of God’s absence.

Interesting, isn’t it? My own devotional reading, conversations I’ve had with a wide variety of people — both IRL and online, and the sermon this morning were all connected, touching on the same basic topic, and providing a week of deep personal encouragement for me.

Why? Because I’m beginning to think that I may be in very good company indeed when I admit to doubt. And now, I find myself wondering what there is to be learned from this particular season of walking in the dark.

Thomas is a fine teacher, that’s for sure. He’s a toucher, is Thomas. A believer in the flesh, the in-your-face presence of another to confirm what his mind struggles to hang onto. He wants to put those hands on the scars of his Savior. He needs to see with his eyes, and touch with his fingers.

The hard part is that Thomas had to wait a while for his Resurrection experience, didn’t he? His friends celebrated right away — they heard and they saw and they touched. But Thomas was absent on that first remarkable day, for some reason, missing in action.

And hearsay was not going to cut it for this man. No way, no how.

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When they gathered again, on that eighth day, Thomas made sure that he was there. And when Jesus appeared — in that mysterious, other-worldly way of his — he turned those laser-like eyes directly in Thomas’s direction.

Read that paragraph in the gospel reading one more time.

Do you hear any word of critique in Jesus’s invitation to Thomas? I don’t. He looks right at him and invites him to come and touch, to come and see for himself.

Caravaggio’s depiction of this scene was on our screens this morning. Look at this painting. Do you see how dramatic this encounter must have been? Look at how the hand of Jesus grips the wrist of Thomas so firmly, directing his fingers straight into that scarred chest.

No wonder Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!” Here is the proof he longed for, the touch he needed.

And then Jesus says something rather amazing. Amazing because I believe that Jesus was speaking those next words directly to me. And to you. And to any disciple who did not have the gift and the privilege of touching the resurrected body of the Lord:

“Blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.”

I cannot touch that wound in the side of Jesus, nor the nail marks in his wrists. But there are other wounds in this body of his, aren’t there?  

So, I wonder where are the scars that need touching today? Because I believe that invitation given to Thomas is wide open for me, right here, right now. “Diana — are you wondering? Are you struggling? Then, come. Touch my side. Touch my hands.”

Here is where I am finding the wounds of the Savior these days: 

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This is the invitation for me right now. She is old. She is frail. She is blind and deaf and increasingly dumb, as words are harder and harder to find. So the touching of the wounds in this place is a primary point of ministry and of obedience these days; not one I chose, but one that is right in front of me, nonetheless. 

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She loves the ocean and she loves to take drives and she enjoys eating pizza once in a while. So today, in the middle of this current bout with doubt, with all this wondering and wrestling, I find myself  looking for the wounds and trying my best to tend them a little.

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We wrestle the walker into and out of the car and we sit across from one another at California Pizza Kitchen. And slowly, with lots of waiting in between, I hear pieces of her heart. I hear the words of old gospel songs. And I hear the phrases that she latches onto with all her might, phrases to keep her going during this terrible time of confusion and loss:

“The Lord’s been good.”

“We’ll just keep praying and believing.”

“Life is like a mountain railway . . . blessed Savior there to guide us.” 

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And so I am refreshed.

I am reminded that Jesus welcomed Thomas, doubts and all.

And Jesus welcomes me, too. 

You can read the full text of Pastor Jon Lemmond’s excellent sermon here.

Joining with Michelle, Jen, Jennifer & Laura this week: