Redefining Terms — For SheLoves, May, 2018

Anyone who has read my work for any length of time will know that the content of this month’s essay at SheLoves has appeared, in slightly different form, here and in an ebook I put together about five years ago. It’s a BIG topic for me, essential to my spiritual and emotional health and sanity and I’m happy to have another venue in which to speak it true. I believe this to be one of the most important truths of our faith, one that can help us navigate any misguided theological input from our past. I’d love it if you would click over and join in the conversation at SheLoves.

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When I was a little girl, faithfully attending Sunday school each week, we had a little saying that went like this: “Jesus, Others and You – that’s how you spell JOY.” And I inhaled that sentiment like it was the sweetest of perfumes. YES! We should always be last on the list, giving ourselves away to Jesus and to other people. That’s how you live like Jesus, right? That’s how you are a good girl, a truly good girl.

As I got older, that simple phrase became a little more complicated, and the scent of it a little more cloying. This time, it went something like this: “He must increase, I must decrease,” lifting the words directly out of the mouth of John the Baptist near the end of chapter 3 in John’s gospel. From there, it morphed into, “More of Jesus, less of me,” and the older I got, the more terrified I became when I heard those words.

I didn’t recognize it as terror initially. In fact, I didn’t know how deeply this message had affected me until I began to be interested in spiritual direction. I first learned about direction by reading a series of novels, of all things. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, British author Susan Howatch wrote a great bunch of stories about priests in the Anglican church and I devoured those books when I was in my 40’s. They were earthy, to be sure, but they were also rich and filled with beautiful tidbits of theology and ecclesiology. Throughout the entire series, some of my favorite characters were spiritual directors.

So I began to look for a director, and the first woman I interviewed handed me the beautiful Prayer of Abandonment by Charles de Foucauld. It’s a beautiful prayer, filled with love, joyful submission, and trust. But I could not pray that prayer.

I tried, but I’d get to the word ‘abandon,’ and start gulping great gasps of air. I prayed about it, I talked it over with the woman who had given it to me, and her immediate response to me was this: “Diana, you need therapy. Not direction.” (Did I mention I was in seminary at the time and beginning to hear God’s call to professional ministry? What??? Pastors might need therapy? Well, that’s a great big YES.)

I spent the next twenty years trying to unpack what happened inside me as I read that prayer and, in the process, I have taken a long look at that old Sunday school saying and the use (or mis-use) of that verse from John 3. And I’ve done a TON of personal work on all kinds of important things. . . all because I gagged on the word, “abandon.”

There is lots more to these thoughts — come on over and join us at SheLoves!

A Wide Believing — For SheLoves, April 2018

I took a month off from SheLoves in March, but I’m back in the April edition, pondering some words that I found in the memoir I reviewed here last week — “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey. Come on over to their site to finish this reflection. Click here.

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“If I could ask anything of us, this ragged band of us looking for a way home, crossing the Jordan River, it would be to believe wider for each other.” — Hilary Yancey,
in “Forgiving God: A Story of Faith,” pg.57.

 

I have heard the truth that ‘thoughts and prayers’ are not enough. This is a phrase shouted by voices around the world in recent days, words that flow from the painful experiences of those who are oppressed, victimized, traumatized, ostracized, threatened, abused and neglected. And these words are true. Thoughts and prayers are too often not enough, at least in the way ‘thoughts and prayers’ are so often understood and defined.

I find myself wondering if we have allowed our language about prayer to descend into the realm of cliché because we have not fully grasped what prayer is and what prayer can do. I am in the late autumn of my life and I still do not fully comprehend either the definition or the experience of prayer. It is an idea we use (and abuse) far too easily, I think, a word better saved for deep times of soul connection and firm commitment. It is no small thing to promise someone that you will pray for them; no, it is not.

Hilary Yancey’s words, quoted at the top of this post, are from her new memoir . . .

Please do click this link and come join us at SheLoves. After a month off, I’m back in that good space today with some thoughts about prayer, about widening our understanding, definition and practice of it. Just click here!

4:38 p.m.

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They tell me there was snow on our mountains for about five minutes this morning. I never saw it, but I believe it was there.

I know in my head that my mother has been gone for exactly one year today, but my heart does not yet fully comprehend this truth.. It seems I am able to believe in the snow without ever seeing it, but unable to wrap my head around tangible things right in front of my face, like a clock or a calendar. 

Even though it is the way of things, even though death comes to every one of us at some point along the journey, even though my mother’s death was, in many ways, the very best way for death to happen, this losing a much-loved mother is hard and it is painful. At times, it still feels strange, unnatural and weirdly disorienting. Tears spring at the oddest times. Some small piece of decor or clothing will catch  my eye and I realize I am smiling sadly, even nodding slightly, as if offering a brief moment of homage to the force of nature who was my mom.

One year today.

We walked her last journey together, she and I, and it was not an easy one. I remember lovely sunlit moments along the way — sitting by the pool at her residential facility, each of us in a large sunhat, drinking in the ocean air, bird sound, and bright blooming vines that surrounded us. I remember laughter, her wonderful, rich laughter. I remember a smile as big as whatever room she was in, welcoming one and all. I remember how beautiful she was, even as age and disease slowly ravaged her.

I also remember deep confusion, the devastation when she no longer knew I was her daughter, her tears of frustration and of fear when she tried to make sense of something that was no longer within the sphere of her cognitive ability. I remember trips to the emergency room, her terror and embarrassment when strapped to a gurney she did not want or need. I remember deep bruises from falls, and the firm conviction that, ‘this is not my room, I’ve never been here before in my life.’ I remember a growing disconnection from things like seasons, days, time itself. 

I also remember her leading my Brownie meetings, teaching my 11th grade Sunday School class, bending over her beautiful stitcheries, and I remember with glee her bawdy sense of humor. I was deeply aware of how thirsty she was to learn, to read, to discuss, to ponder and wonder and observe. I remember how feisty she could be — and how volatile!

I remember how much she worried over me. Oh, my, how she could worry!

Now, at this late stage of my own life, I know all of that was because of her deep love and concern for me, but then? Then, it felt suffocating, limiting, inhibiting. She worried over my height, my weight, the way I walked, the fact that I might be “too smart to ever catch a good man.” She dragged me to multiple dermatology clinics because of my dry and sensitive skin,  she always wanted me to be ‘more social,’ and regularly encouraged me to invite classmates over to hang out. She also wanted me to enjoy athletics, something she was good at and I most definitely was not.

We found our way together, yes, we did. I was her first child — longed for and loved and cherished. As does every first-born, I bore the brunt of her inexperience and the leftover wounds of her own, sometimes chaotic, upbringing. But she was smart, my mom. And she was good. She learned from her mistakes, she apologized easily, she loved deeply and well. We found our way to one another during my adolescence by reading books together and writing each other notes about them. And we laughed. A lot. 

We also shared a deep love of beauty, in all its permutations. Today, on this anniversary, and as my computer clock tells me it is now exactly 4:38 — the moment of her death, one year ago — I want to remember and reflect on that most of all. She was the embodiment of beauty in so many ways — in her face, surely. But even more so, in her spirit. Yes, she could be ugly, too. Aren’t we all? But the beauty of her is what I cling to now.

Gasping at a glorious sunset, tenderly arranging flowers for the dinner table, creating a cake or a sketch, looking for and finding the beauty of others, even eventually encouraging me to reach out past the boundaries she herself had always drawn around me, as a female child. She didn’t fully understand my call to ministry at midlife, but she supported it. She wept when I told her — through my own tears — that I never could have considered going to seminary if my husband didn’t make enough money for its cost to have no impact on any other person in our family. She wept because she knew that wacky belief came directly from her own fears and prejudices, her own false picture of what it means to be female in this world. 

My mother learned. And she kept on learning, right up until dementia moved in to stay. And while she learned, she continued to love us all so very well. I thank God for her every day of my life. And I thank you, my dearest Mom. I miss you more than words can say.

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In Praise of Light — SheLoves, October 2017

The theme of the month at SheLoves is ‘LIT.’ This is what came to me as I reflected on that interesting word.

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I love lights — strings of lights. I have about four long ones, composed of large, clear globes in three colors, strung across the arbor outside the back of our home. Every day at about 5:00 p.m., I turn the switch so that their blue, green and white sparkles can be enjoyed as the evening covers the day.

My sister-in-law gave me a string of lights hidden inside colorful paper umbrellas. I loved that little string so much, I immediately hung it above my baking counter in the kitchen.

Just last month, I found a new website that specializes in inexpensive strings of solar-powered white lights. I have woven 5 strands through the low hedges that demarcate the back edge of our property. Every evening, I wait for their twinkling to begin and every evening, I smile as I see them.

Don’t even get me started about Christmas lights, okay? I’ve got bits of light spread all around my house from early December through Epiphany — on the tree, to be sure. But also? Across the mantle, on a smaller counter-top tree, stretched along the top of my china cabinet, around my front door.

Yeah, I love lights. They make me smile, they lift my spirits, they give me hope when I’m feeling down, they remind me that the darkness does not and cannot win, even when all around me says otherwise.

I want to be a person of light, too. Someone who shines, even in the darkness, who holds on firmly to hope and joy, no matter what set of curve balls are being tossed at my head. I want to be someone who is lit from within, someone who carries light with me into every dark and difficult place life’s journey brings my way.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, not so much. I wrote last month about lament and I sometimes think that I could write about that topic no matter what the theme-of-the-month might happen to be. After all, life is hard, people get sick and die, relationships fall apart, addiction is real and sometimes deadly, failure is endemic to the human condition. And our scripture gives us a language for these seasons of sadness.

But.

It is also important and necessary to acknowledge the flip side of that language of lament. It is good to sing songs in a major key, too, and doing so can help us acknowledge the presence of the Light, even in the midst of some dark and scary times.

So today, I want to sing a song in praise of light, to say thank you for the people and places, events and circumstances that have brought light into my life:

To see my list (and to add some of your own, in the comments) please follow this link and join the conversation over there.

31 Days of Photo Journaling: Day One – An Introduction

At the beginning of September, I had such high hopes for this year’s 31-day series. I wrote the introductory theme piece several weeks ago and never got back to add more. So I have decided to change course! I will be joining Kate Montaug’s 5 Minute Friday 31 day group, writing on a particular theme each day of the 31 days of October. Hopefully, it will happen each and every day this month. Time will tell, right?

So here is the intro piece to the first series I planned to write. Who knows? Maybe I’ll try this series idea next year!

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It’s (almost!) October again, and for the sixth year in a row, I am joining Crystal Stine’s 31 Day Challenge, choosing a theme to write on every day of the month. I am trying to be just a tiny bit more intentional about this blog space again, despite the loss of subscribers I experience every time I write here!

This space has been an important part of my life for the last decade and I’d like that to continue. One way for me to do that is to be disciplined about writing short, hopefully pithy, posts on a daily basis whenever the invitation arises. And this invitation is a big one! So . . . “once more, into the breach,” right?

The theme I’ve chosen for this year is Photo-Journaling, something I love to do and can easily transfer here. I take pictures a lot. A lot. And I always have — even before the invention of phone cameras! It’s a way of documenting, remembering and reflecting on my life. My photo folders tell our story as a family, my story as a pastor and as a child of God/wife/mother/grandmother/friend. I have often used my photos to organize my blog posts or my newsletters, weaving words around the pictures as I go. Something about the combination of the photo and the words tells the story more completely.

So here are a few thoughts for day one of our journey together this year. The photo above was taken on one of the walks I take several times each week. My husband and I have headed for the marina in our town quite a lot during the last few weeks and always see something fun/interesting/educational/inspiring when we do. This particular late afternoon was an interesting one. The fog had rolled out about midday, sitting like a lurking giant just beyond the breakwater. It was a low roll, however, leaving space for the clear blue skies which had become our predominant view just a few blocks further inland.

As we walked out on that concrete barrier that protects millions of dollars worth of yachts and fishing boats, a small sailboat was cutting across the water at exactly the right angle for me to capture both the fog and the blue, blue sky behind it. Something about that image grabbed my heart. I saw myself as that little boat, sailing across the vast mystery that is our life as followers of Jesus. Sometimes thick fog blurs my view and feels as though it is limiting my options. But what I need to remember during those times is that the blue sky is still there, somewhere just above me, encircling both my small boat/life and the fog bank, no matter how huge it may appear to be at any given moment. And that boat is heading straight for safe haven, making a bee-line for the harbor entrance. That’s where I want to be — en route home.

Can I hear an ‘amen?’

Charlottesville: No Words — SheLoves, August, 2017

Do you find yourself at the limit of things right now? I do. Here are my reflections for SheLovesMagazine this month — you can begin this essay here, then click over to join the conversation there. I hope you will!

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I like to think of myself as a person of words. I love to read, talk, preach and write — all of which require some facility with language. I even had a dear friend whisper in my ear a week or so ago, “You know what I love about you? Your vocabulary!” My what?? Well, okay, I’ll take it!

But at this particular moment in time, in the aftermath of the horrors of Charlottesville this past weekend, I find myself at a complete loss. I discover very few words anywhere within my usually active brain. I feel unmoored, uncertain, frightened and deeply, truly sad.

I am a person who does not understand cruelty. So deep is this lack of comprehension that I often feel powerless and rudderless in the face of it. I’ve known a few people in my lifetime whose currency is cruelty. Blunt, thoughtless, critical remarks are their stock-in-trade, and every time one of those remarks is directed toward me, I stutter and stumble around, trying to find a comeback, a simple sentence that will stop the flood of vitriol.

Nada. Nothing. No words.

What is with that??

It’s not that I want to be cruel back. Honest and true, it is not. It’s that I simply do not know what to do in the face of it. If it’s directed at someone else in the circle, I can sometimes muster an objection or a clarification, but I never make it as far as a firm, clear, push-back that stops the ugliness. More often than not, I beat a retreat as quickly as I can and then ponder it all for days and days. What could I have said? What could I have done? What should I do next time?

Today, I am past pondering. I am done. And the one word that keeps coming back to me, over and over again is this one: ENOUGH. Stop. Just stop. Put away your swastikas, burn them all. You may have a legal right to your misguided opinion, but you do not have the right to name-call, bully, harass, or drive your automobile into a crowd of folks who disagree with you, and are brave enough to stand up and say so.

There are no more cheeks to be turned, my friends. None. And I refer you to the fine work of Walter Wink, written decades ago, about the subversive nature of the words of Jesus that have been so abused in the centuries since they were uttered. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile were acts of resistance to an intolerable government and they are beautiful things when rightly understood. They are not useful as tokens, bromides, or any other sugar-coating of evil words and deeds. Evil demands resistance. Full stop.

And what we witnessed this past weekend, what we’ve seen over and over and over again in the systematic killing of people of color, is evil. It is an evil that has its roots in fear, the ‘elephant in the room’ I wrote about last month, but it is evil, nonetheless.

Continue reading at SheLoves today, friends. I’d love to hear how you’re doing and, even more importantly, what you’re doing about our national sin and need for repentance. And if you are not a resident of the USA, your comments and insights are always welcome — we clearly need help. Just click right here.

Baby Steps — For SheLoves, March 2017

It must be the second Saturday of the month because I’m live at SheLoves again today! You can start this reflection here and then follow the links over to that good place to join the conversation. Our theme for March is “Be Bold for Change.”

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Several members of our family taking ‘baby steps’ on a hiking trail near Palm Springs last week.

Bold is a great big word. Only four small letters, but oh, my! — such freight. I don’t use it often, to tell you the truth. About 90% of the time, my use of the term is limited to clicking Command-B on my computer keyboard! I seem to be more willing to occasionally make a written word stand out than to actually be bold in my day-to-day life.

In fact, as I thought about writing for this month’s theme, I began to wonder if I have ever been a bold person, someone who steps out and speaks up and makes a change. I know I am not bold physically — I KNOW this. I don’t like high places, I am terminally uncoordinated, any size or shape of sports-ball coming my direction is a source of terror. I have a friend — one of my dearest friends — who is brazenly, maybe even crazily, bold physically. She learned to kite-surf in her 50’s and is now an expert. Last year, she and a friend hiked from the Alps of Switzerland to the shores of the Mediterranean in France. This week, she left for Nepal to climb to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Yes, really. The base camp of Mt. Everest.

Uh, no thank you. Much as I love and admire her, that kind of bold feels cray-cray to me. Just plain c r a z y.

Then I began to broaden my horizons and think about other bold women I have known. I soon realized that there are lots of different ways to step up, to step out, to take a chance, to risk failure, to make a difference. Some of those other bold women are the ones I’ve met here at SheLoves — Idelette, Tina, Kelley, Kathy, Helen, Bev, Erin, Cindy, Claire, Heather, Sarah, Michaela, Bethany — too many to list. Each of them, women who have had the courage to dream and the stick-to-it-ive-ness to realize those dreams — often despite fear, hardship, and loss.

Guess what? There are lots of ways to be bold. And every single one of those ways begins with a single step. One decision. One moment of courage. One instant of recognition that this — this idea, this project, this act of grace, this stand-up-and-be-counted moment — is do-able. These women — and so many others — believed in possibilities and then they walked those possibilities into reality.

Every bold step begins with a baby one. Dramatic change does not happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime — even more than a lifetime. Really bold change only happens when lots of different people take lots of different kinds of baby steps, all of them heading in the same direction.

Come on over and read the rest of this piece and tell me about some baby steps of your own, okay?

Heading Home: Walking with Jesus to the Cross — A Lenten Journey

It is Ash Wednesday.

Again.

Thanks be to God.

Oh, I need this season. Each and every year, I need to walk the road that Jesus walked. I need to remember, to choose to let go of a thing or two that gets in the way of my remembering, to pray with added emphasis, to give of my abundance. Alms, fasting, prayer — the holy trinity for this season: giving away, giving up, giving to God. To help myself stay faithful to all that giving, I need reminders. Do you?

So I will provide a few along the way — for myself and for you, starting with now. Why? Because today, we walk into Lent — six weeks of remembering who Jesus really is, why Jesus really came to this earth, and who we are truly called to be.

Will you walk with me? Each occasional reminder will feature a photo, a scripture from the lectionary list for the day, a brief reflection, an even briefer prayer. There will be questions here and there and gentle reminders to stay vigilant and keep on truckin’. We will walk through parts of Holy Week together and then end this series with a proper Easter Sunday Celebration!

We’re heading home again, my friends. I’d say it’s time, wouldn’t  you?

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Isaiah 58:1-12
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

These words are read each and every year on this date. These words are ones that I would do well to read each and every OTHER day of the year, as well. Such powerful truth, such a strong reminder of the heart of our God and the heart of our faith. Fasting for the sake of inducing suffering is not what it’s all about. Fasting for the growth of our souls and the good of others — that’s what it’s all about. I love the fact that fasting and almsgiving have been traditionally linked together in this season. Because, as Isaiah reminds us, the truth of it is this: we cannot effectively give up without also giving out. 

My own fasting discipline this year will involve technology as well as food, with a step back from Facebook during the week. What about you? From what will you abstain during these weeks, remembering that each of the Sundays in Lent is a break-fast day?

And what will you give to others? My small list includes these occasional reflections. But of course, these are a gift to me, as well.

Oh, Giver of Good Gifts — enlighten and encourage us as we seek to reflect your goodness into our world. May we make wise choices, ones we can stick with, and may you be glorified through the decisions we make. 

The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

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?