4:38 p.m.

27

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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A Beautiful Book — Book Review: “Forgiving God,” by Hilary Yancey

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Those of you who subscribe to my monthly newsletter already know that this one was on the top of my to-be-read pile as April began. It took me exactly ONE DAY to read it, and I am re-reading parts of it regularly.

This book is the real deal. Combine a tender heart with a first-class brain, a fierce streak of independence with a humble desire to yield, add to that a stubborn commitment to do it right and do it well, what do you get? Hilary Yancey.

She is young — younger than my eldest grandson. She is SMART — working toward a PhD in philosophy at Baylor. She is a wife and mom — married to author and soon-to-be Anglican priest, Preston Yancey, and mom to Jack and June (short for Junia). Over and around all of that is this truth: she is a force to be reckoned with. Also? She is an earnest, open, willing-to-admit-questions-and doubts follower after Jesus. 

She writes beautifully, with a lyrical style and startling honesty. They tell me poetry and philosophy often go together and this book makes me believe that, big-time. “Forgiving God” is the story of Hilary’s first pregnancy, just six months into marriage. This particular journey into motherhood was difficult, mystifying, troubling, terrifying and ultimately, salvific. It is both humbling and inspiring to see how she and Jack not only survived a troubling pregnancy and a 43-day stay in the NICU, but somehow managed to triumph over every setback, every complication. 

At what was thought to be a routine 18-week ultrasound, her son Jackson was diagnosed with a rare and severe facial deformity. With each week that passed, her now high-risk pre-natal care visits brought more and more difficult news. Teetering between praying for a miracle and trying to learn all she could about how to deal with what could come for her newborn boy, Hilary takes us into her own dis-ease, disappointment, and wonder. She also shares with us some of the pieces of her journey as a graduate student, eloquently positing big ideas about God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge. She does both — the personal story-telling and the philosophical musing — exquisitely well.

I am grateful for this book because of its beauty and power as a ‘good read.’ More than that, I am grateful for it in my practice as a spiritual director. I meet regularly with friends who are dealing with all kinds of issues, some of them extraordinarily difficult. Hilary’s thoughtful, intelligent, and ultimately hopeful words have already helped some of us find solid ground in the midst of what often feels like very fluid terrain.

This is a memoir that is a gift to read — and to re-read. I highly recommend it. Buy it, give it away — and then write a short review at as many places as you can think of. Hilary is not doing the usual big promotion push, so any help we can offer would be grand. 

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Six

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Ephesians 2:1-10, The Message

It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

 

Oh, how I love this!
We don’t do it,
we don’t have to do it,
even though we try hard to do it,
and mess it up thoroughly
when we do.

It’s not about us,
all on our own,
lonesome selves.
It’s about partnership,
it’s about grace,
it’s about living
in the middle of both
those truths.

WE

are

partners in grace.

Astounding!

 

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Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Five, First Sunday in Lent

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1 Peter 3:18-22, The Message

That’s what Christ did definitively: suffered because of others’ sins, the Righteous One for the unrighteous ones. He went through it all—was put to death and then made alive—to bring us to God.

He went and proclaimed God’s salvation to earlier generations who ended up in the prison of judgment because they wouldn’t listen. You know, even though God waited patiently all the days that Noah built his ship, only a few were saved then, eight to be exact—saved from the water by the water. The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesus’ resurrection before God with a clear conscience.

Jesus has the last word on everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s standing right alongside God, and what he says goes.

Here’s a powerful word:
baptism.
No, I’m not a Baptist,

but I am a big believer in
baptism.
For any age, stage, situation.

It is a picture for me,
a powerful,
tactile,
incarnational
picture.

When the babe is doused,
or the youth immersed,
or the old man sprinkled,
we are offering our
own bodies
to the story-telling
we do.

We tell our story with our bodies,
you see.
We eat and drink,
and we get wet.
We celebrate Truth
with all of who we are.
There is a dying,
and there is a rising.
There is darkness,
and there is light.
Thus, we keep
the story going;
we tell it in our way,
in our time,
in ourselves.

 

Please consider subscribing to this series by subscribing to the blog — the box is in the right sidebar. That way, these daily devotionals will show up in your inbox each day of Lent, right up until Easter.

Walking in the Jesus Way: A Lenten Journey — Day Two

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Psalm 25:1-10, The Living Bible

To you, O Lord, I pray.
Don’t fail me, Lord, for I am trusting you.
Don’t let my enemies succeed.
Don’t give them victory over me.

None of those who have faith in God will ever be disgraced for trusting him. But all who harm the innocent shall be defeated.

Show me the path where I should go, O Lord;
point out the right road for me to walk.

Lead me; teach me; for you are the God who gives me salvation.
I have no hope except in you.

Overlook my youthful sins, O Lord!
Look at me instead through eyes of mercy and forgiveness,
through eyes of everlasting love and kindness.

The Lord is good and glad to teach the proper path to all who go astray;
he will teach the ways that are right and best to those who humbly turn to him.
And when we obey him, every path he guides us on is fragrant with his loving-kindness and his truth.

 

It really is all about the path,
isn’t it?

Finding it,
choosing it,
following it
staying on it,
trusting it.
Thank you for showing
the way,
and inviting me
into it.
Thank you for being
the way,

and for leading
the way,
for providing
the way,
and paving
the way,
and loving me
in the way that you do.

 

Please consider subscribing to this series by subscribing to the blog — the box is in the right sidebar. That way, these daily devotionals will show up in  your inbox each day of Lent, right up until Easter.

Book of the Year — A Review and a Hearty Recommendation

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Admittedly, I am way behind on my book-reading and reviewing. Some of that is due to illness, a whole lot to long-term grieving, a smidge or two to laziness. 

But this book, I read.

In one sitting.

And so did my husband.

This is, hands down, my favorite book about church, people, love, living life well and true, community, belonging . . . you name it. I read a lot of non-fiction, good books, finely written books, some of them written by friends of mine. Not one of them comes as whisker close to truth as does this fictional compilation of letters. Maybe it’s because our church was going through its own search for a new pastor at the time I received this slender tome. Whatever the reason(s), this one struck a nerve. Better, it struck THE nerve, that one that goes to the core of who we are and begins to resonate when we find true north.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I simply cannot. It is tender, true, sensitive, heart-warming, and yet challenging, in the very best of ways. Is this the kind of pastor I have been? And want to continue to be, in the limited ways that remain available to me? Is this the kind of congregation my community is, or wants to be? Are we wrestling through the hard questions well? Are we welcoming others — all kinds of others?  Are we listening to the Spirit, together?

Built around the seasons of the church year, these 165 pages consist entirely of letters, most of them written by pastor-to-be, then new-pastor, then seasoned-pastor-approaching-his-first-sabbatical-leave Jonas McAnn. It is what is known in the trade as an epistolary novel and it is a hum-dinger. Herewith a sample — then get yourself to your favorite bookstore (clicking on the picture should take you straight to Amazon) and order up a copy . . . or two or three. This would make a perfect gift for every single member of a search committee or a church leadership board.

Maybe these words from the opening letter, written by a crusty woman member of the search committee to all potential candidates will give you a glimpse of the power and beauty I’m talking about. This one was signed by the entire committee (all 4 of them) after several frustrating months. The one candidate who answered honestly is the one they called:

“We do have a few questions for you. Perhaps we’re foolish, but I’m going to assume you love Jesus and aren’t too much of a loon when it comes to your creed. We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Wendell Berry now and then. Oh, and we like a good guffaw. I’ll be up front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs — we’ll put up with a lot, but that one’s a deal-killer.

“Here are our questions: We’d like to know if you’re going to use us. Will our church be your opportunity to right all the Church’s wrongs, the ones you’ve been jotting down over your vast ten years of experience. . . Is our church going to be your opportunity to finally enact that one flaming vision you’ve had in your crosshairs ever since seminary, that one strategic model that will finally get this Church thing straight? Or might we hope that our church might be a place where you’d settle in with us and love along-side us, cry with us and curse the darkness with us, and remind us how much God’s crazy about us?

“In other words, the question we want answered is very simple: do you actually want to be our pastor?

“I’m trying to be as straight as I know how: Will you love us? And will you teach us how to love one another? Will you give us God — and all the mystery and possibility that entails? Will you preach with hope and wonder in your heart?

“Will  you tell us again and again about the ‘love that wilt not let us go,” not ever? Will you believe with us and for us that the Kingdom is truer than we know — and that there are no shortcuts? Will you tell us the truth — that the huckster promise of a quick fix or some glitzy church dream is 100 percent BS?” — pp. 5-6

See what I mean? Thank you, thank  you, thank you, Winn Collier for telling it true. And beautifully.

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?’

Making Room for Lament: SheLoves — September 2017

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In the months from April to August of this year, we have attended five funerals and sent a eulogy to be read at a sixth. These were services of worship and remembrance, held in honor of people we loved, people whose lives intersected with ours regularly, even when those lives were very short.

It began with my mom’s death on the 19th of April after a 7-year journey through dementia. At the end of May, we dealt with the shock of an accidental drowning — a 2-year-old grandson in our extended congregational family. That death was followed about five weeks later by the loss of a dear woman friend and leader in our community. She died only 7 months after an abrupt diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

The week we came back from vacation in early August, we attended an emotional farewell for a dear 8-year-old boy who was born with only half a heart, and whose life had a lasting impact on our entire city. At the end of that same week, we listened to parts of a life story we had never heard, as we said good-bye to a faithful woman in our congregation who passed away at the age of 105. In the middle of last month, I received news of the anticipated death of a former colleague and partner in ministry who had a heart attack and a brain bleed while in the physical therapist’s clinic. We traveled 100 miles south to be there for his stunned widow and adult children.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the most self-descriptive word I can come up with these days is, ‘weary.’ Although I ‘do not grieve as those who have no hope,’ I grieve nonetheless. I don’t think I have begun to fully internalize all the facets of my mom’s death, what it means to be an orphan in this world. That truth tells me that there is even less space inside to grieve well for each of the other losses which have left such huge holes in our lives.

So the words I want to amplify in this particular season are the beautiful and necessary words of lament. Those words that speak the pain in us out into the atmosphere, those words that call us to be fully human, acknowledging that it sometimes hurts to be alive when others are no longer breathing beside us. I want to make space inside — and outside — for the tears that bring healing, tears that tell stories, tears that say, “I loved them and I can no longer whisper that truth into their ears.”

So let me say this as loudly and as clearly as written space in an e-magazine will allow: lament is required when we walk through the valley. Imagine that I am using my big-girl, outdoor voice when you read those words, will you? Because this is important: there is no such thing as loss without pain and suffering. The bromides and clichés that are too often bandied about at such times are less than useless. In fact, they can be harmful. People do not want to hear about “God’s plan” when they are in shock, when they are completely exhausted and empty, when they don’t know how they are going to get through the next hour, much less the next year. . . 

Please click here to read the remainder of this reflection and to join the conversation at one of the finest magazines on the interweb.

Let Love Overflow — Transition Sunday 2017

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It’s been a heckuva coupla months. I promised this post almost one month ago and have just today found space to sort it out and edit it for this space. I took a month off from my commitment at SheLoves and my next post there will go live on Saturday of this week — I’ll be back here to set up a linking post later in the week.

But I wanted to get this one done first because that crazy weekend in May was a rich and important one. We said farewell to my mother on that Saturday, with a service, a reception and a dinner at our home, which I wrote about here. The next morning, I led in worship and preached for the first time in a while, although the sermon was more of a homily due to the demands of that particular Sunday in the ongoing life of our community.

We call it Promotion Sunday now — it used to be called Confirmation Sunday, but we added in recognition of all children and young adults making transitions over the summer to a new grade/stage of life. It was rich and wonderful and L O N G, so the sermon, by necessity, was short. The picture above shows off our single confirmand this year, Tyler H, 3rd from the left. And that is our Director of Student Ministries, Anna Beebe on the far left. She has been a spectacular partner to Dick and me as we stepped in to teach 9 students this year. Such a joy that has been for us in a year of change and tumult; we are humbled and grateful to have had this opportunity.

Our Rite of Confirmation includes the reading of a paper by the confirmand(s) on any of the 26 “Building Blocks” in their workbooks. These are the traditional Q & A from the Luther Catechism and Tyler chose to respond to the question: Who is God? He did a wonderful job! Then the confirmand replies to three questions about their faith, kneels to receive a blessing as his family surrounds him. He/she is given a taste of salt and a lit candle as a reminder that they are called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Then a very personal prayer is prayed over them before the charge/homily is given to the entire class. It has long been one of my favorite Sundays of the church year.

There is a video for the song I mention in the opening paragraph of this homily at the bottom of this inset and the lyrics are posted above it. It’s a wonderful and unusual hymn, absolutely perfect for this Sunday or for any baptism or infant dedication service.

“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”
— written by John Ylsvikar

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child,
with a faith to suit you well;
In a blaze of light you wandered off
to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the Word
I was there to cheer you on;
You were raised to praise the living Lord,
to whom you now belong.

If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk ’till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life,
not too old, no longer young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night,
complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in,
and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been
with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry,
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized,
to see your life unfold.

This video was produced by a fellow Covenant pastor and worship leader and reflects his mostly white congregation. It is beautifully done — I wish it were a bit more ethnically/racially balanced, but it is lovely, nonetheless.

Let Love Overflow
Philippians 1:1-11
A Homily for the Confirmation Class
May 20, 2017
Diana R.G. Trautwein
Montecito Covenant Church

That’s a really unusual song we’ve just sung, isn’t it? It’s one I happen to like a lot and so I requested it for this morning’s service. Why? Because this is a special day in the life of our community and somehow, the words of this song touch on some of the reasons why.

Promotion Sunday is a day when we celebrate who it is God is forming us to be — all of us, from little to young adult to mid-life to old age. We’re in this thing together and today is a day for remembering that and celebrating it! We belong to God and we belong to one another.

That’s one of the reasons we include the Rite of Confirmation in a Sunday morning service of worship rather than doing it in someone’s backyard after dinner – because it’s important for the community of faith to celebrate together. It’s a good thing for all of us to affirm the work these young people have done in beginning and in completing this two-year course, this intentional time of learning more about what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ.

Rituals, with set words and actions help us to mark out special events, to set them aside and say, “This is important and we want to remember it.” We mark lots of life’s important moments with rites and rituals, don’t we? Baptism, marriage, ordination, death.

Yesterday, we held a special service called A Witness to the Resurrection, a memorial service for a Christian who has died. This one was for my mother, who left this earth last month. These young people right here in front — there were 8 of them for most of the year — they have walked with me on this journey. They have prayed for her and for me, they have asked me how she was doing, how I am doing, they have shown me understanding and grace in so many ways. Teaching them in this class all year has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts during a difficult time in my own life and I am deeply grateful to each and every one of them.

So it is with joy and an extra measure of satisfaction that I offer a few words to them this morning. A charge, if you will, a brief homily that is directed primarily to this small band in the front of the center section. The rest of you are warmly invited to listen in, of course, but these words are for them.

Dylan read a passage for us just a few minutes ago, way back before we acknowledged the graduates and before Tyler was confirmed. It’s from a small letter in the New Testament called Philippians. Eleven verses only, but eleven verses that contain pretty much EXACTLY THE WORDS I would like to say to each of you today.

One of the loveliest things about this small letter is the overall spirit of it. Those of you who have done the New Testament year in Confirmation might remember that there are a bunch of letters in the that part of the Bible, many of them written by a man named Paul. Some of those letters sound a bit angry at times; some of them are intent on working through some of the more complicated parts of what the newly formed church was coming to understand about who Jesus really was and what he came to do on this earth.

But this letter is gentle, encouraging, marked by the deep love that Paul felt for these people who lived in a busy, very diverse city, in a place called Macedonia, which is now a part of the country of Greece in southern Europe. In this letter, Paul uses the word ‘joy’ more times than anywhere else in all his writing – 11 different times. He also uses the name of Jesus a whole lot, something you’ll hear as we walk through it. Joy and Jesus — they go together well and they’re at the heart of what Paul has to say and what I want to say, too.

We start with a word of greeting. Now letters written 2000 years ago sounded a bit more formal than the emails or texts you guys are used to these days. Listen and you’ll see what I mean:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons :

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 One sentence — a single L O N G sentence — tells us who’s writing the letter, who’s getting the letter and then offers a special word of blessing, a very specific greeting of grace and peace — and not just any grace and peace, but grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 Those of you who have been taking sermon notes here during your time as a confirmation student may remember that our former pastor — and your former teacher — Don Johnson, always began his sermons with exactly those words, didn’t he? “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a grand greeting, don’t you think?

Then Paul goes on to tell these friends how he really feels about them!

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

 I hope you have some people in your life for whom you thank God every time you think about them! I hope there are those for whom you pray with joy. As we’ve grown together this year, you have become those people for me. I thank God for each one of you and I pray for you with joy.

Paul calls his friends ‘partners in the gospel,’ because of how well they worked together, how tightly knit they were to one another, and how they were caring for one another. This was a church that was really clicking, and learning how to be generous. We know this because they sent money to help the big church in Jerusalem and they sent help to Paul when he was in jail.

But you know the line I really love in this part of the passage is the one that talks about confidence. Did you catch that? “. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

 Now this church in Philippi wasn’t perfect — no church is! God chooses human beings to be the church, right? And we humans have this tendency to mess things up from time to time, don’t we? And these folks were no exception to that rule.

But . . . BUT . . . Paul has confidence in them. More accurately, Paul has confidence in God, who is at work within them. Even when they make mistakes, even when they trip and stumble, God is alive in them, completing the work that the Holy Spirit began at the moment they first said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Paul believes in them because Paul believes in the God who is in them.

In his oh-so-good paper, Tyler talked about his experience of being saved at winter camp this year — that’s when Tyler said ‘yes’ to the gospel of Jesus.

Each of you already has or will soon, I hope and pray, say that ‘yes’ yourself. And like Paul, I believe in the God who hears the ‘yes’ you offer, so I believe in you.

The work that begins in you at that moment of ‘yes’ will continue your whole life long and it will be a beautiful thing to see someday. In fact, it already is.

Yesterday, I celebrated with my family and my friends the good work that God did in my mom over her long, long life. Even in her last years, when her mind was so very damaged and her body so frail . . . even then. God was completing the work that had begun in her when she was a teenager, just like you.

God is in the business of finishing what God starts, believe me when I tell you this. And I am confident that the good work God is doing in you, my young friends . . . that work will continue your whole life long, until that day when you see Jesus face to face. Which is exactly where my mom is now. 

Finally, we come to the last few verses of this scripture passage, which get to the heart of it all, and they offer the main point of my charge to each of you today.

Listen to Paul’s words:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound — may overflow — more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

 That is all one sentences, friends and it is a jam-packed one, too.

It all begins with LOVE. The kind of love that comes only from God, the kind of love that changes hearts and minds, the kind of love that changes churches and cities, the kind of love that can change the world, if we let it loose, if we live it, if we grab hold of it and hang on for dear life.

So the most important thing I can say to you this morning, the most important thing I can ever say to you is this:

GOD LOVES YOU.

Not in spite of all the ways you mess up, not even because you need God’s forgiveness and grace. God loves you because you are YOU, a totally unique person created in God’s image, gifted with the ability to choose to follow in God’s way and the basic equipment to receive the power of the Holy Spirit right now.

Yes, you need God’s forgiveness. We all do. But even more basic than that need in you is the truth that God loves you — first, last and always.

It is that love which will make it possible for you to make good choices going forward in your life. It is that love that will gradually — sometimes gently and sometimes not so much — begin to shape you more and more into the image of Jesus himself. It is that love that will work its wondrous way in you, helping you to really learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

Paul prays for his friends that Love will help them to grow in knowledge and in depth of insight. That means head knowledge and heart knowledge, because both are so important if we are to be the kind of people we were designed to be in the first place.

Living life is a process of refinement, like precious metals are refined by fire, like gorgeous gems are carved out of rocks. And when we say yes to God’s love, yes to the gospel, yes to Jesus — that process of refinement leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of other people, it helps us to make good choices, it empowers us to extend grace and peace to the people we live with, those we sit in class with, even to those we work with, when you’re old enough to have jobs.

Love and knowledge and insight go together, but that order is crucial. Start with love. Always, always start with love.

Don’t be afraid of your tenderness, don’t be embarrassed by your concern for those who are on the edges, who are being bullied, who are left out. When you feel their pain, you are letting love win. When your heart is open to God, to yourself and to others, that’s when the ‘fruit of righteousness’ Paul talks about in this sentence becomes obvious.

That big word ‘righteousness’ actually means ‘right relationship’ as much as it does ‘right behavior.’ They go together, you see? When you live in a relationship of love with the God who made you, then you’ll find it easier and easier to do what is right and good to do. You won’t do it perfectly — because, once again — ain’t none of us perfect, right?? But you will do it more and more.

My prayer for you, dear Confirmation Class of 2017, is that one day, someone will say of you what I said of my mother yesterday afternoon:

“What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had. In a heartbeat.’”

Let love abound, my friends. Let it overflow.

Let’s pray together:

Gracious and loving God,

How I thank you for the gift of this morning. For each child and young adult moving forward in life. For each Confirmation student in this year’s class, and especially today, for Tyler, whose kindness and sweet spirit have made our Tuesday afternoons such a lovely experience for all of us.

Will you help these friends — and their parents, and fellow believers around this room — to really take in the power and beauty of Paul’s words this morning?

Open our hearts to receive your love anew, remind us when we step outside of that love, and point us again in the direction of righteousness, of right relationship and right behavior.

Help us to look to Jesus, the one who calls us, who names us as his own, who goes before us and who receives us when we pass from this life to the next.

Amen.

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