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?

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!”

A Prayer for Communion, Two Days Before An Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— SILENCE —

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

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

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

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

In whose name we pray, Amen.

This Broken Life

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It began with a glorious sunrise, pinks and purples spreading across the landscape, a low layer of fog sitting right over the city below us. We moved to this home, this new-to-us-home, because as we gazed out at the future, we began to see . . . brokenness, the brokenness that comes to each of us as we age, as we wend our way through space and time. The great gift that landed in our laps when we chose to step into rather than avoid that inevitable kind of broken is this: this view of mountain and sea, of city and sidewalk, of sky, sky, sky.

A few hours later, the glory of early morning gave way to a sweet, crisp clarity at midday. I slipped behind the steering wheel and drove down the hill to my mama’s ‘home,’ that room-with-a-bath in the dementia unit, the only home she has had for the past four years. “I’ll take her down to the beach today,” I said aloud, to the closed chamber of my Honda CR-V, maybe saying it to God, as well. “She’ll love that.” 

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Mama and I have been living in the middle of a whole lot of broken for a long time now, the kind of broken that cannot be mended, this side of heaven. Our twice-weekly lunches out make her smile and because she cannot remember anything further back than the last two minutes, each trip is brand new to her, and therefore, quite wonderful. 

The conversational themes for this particular outing are a trio of repeated questions: “How did you come to find me and take me out today?” “How long has this place been here?” “Do you live near here somewhere?”

I pray for patience as I answer each query, over and over and over again. “I found you because I know you, because you are my mother and I love you.” “This town has been built over the last 250 years of so, Mama.” “Yes, Mom, I do live near here. Just a little ways up that hill.”

She is surprised, as she always is, that I am her daughter, that I have always known her. On this day, she does not turn to me with that anguished look and ask, “What is wrong with me, that I don’t know that??” This day, I don’t have to carefully tell her that her memory is broken and cannot be fixed. This day, I don’t have to see the sweet relief flash quickly over her face when she takes in the truth that something really is broken, broken beyond repair.

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There is a table available, right on the concrete that abuts the sand at Leadbetter Beach; I carefully steer her walker towards it, pulling out the plastic chair, being careful to seat her exactly right and then pushing her safely beneath the table. She spreads her hands out in front of her, crying out: “Oh, lovely, lovely! The sun is so warm! I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for bringing me!”

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And just like that, the broken fades away for a moment and I can drink in her delight. Ann Voskamp, in her beautiful new book, “The Broken Way: a daring path into the abundant life,” talks about, “losing the day in love,” and finding a way to “break brokenness” by letting it fully come. 

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to let the brokenness of aging come. I see it in my mother, I see it in my husband, I see it in myself. And I am asking the kinds of questions that Ann asks: 

“Why are we afraid of broken things? . . . Why are we afraid of suffering? What if the abundance of communion is only found there in the brokenness of suffering — because suffering is where God lives? . . .What if I made a habit of every day pressing my wounds into the wounds of Christ — could my brokenness be made into a healing abundance for the brokenness of the world?” – pg. 34

I do not want to be afraid of aging, I do not want to be afraid of dying, I do not want to be afraid of the brokenness that is part and parcel of who we are as human creatures. I want to learn more about embracing the broken bits, about discerning the differences that Ann references between ‘good’ broken and ‘bad’ broken; I want to live into my identity as the Beloved for as long as I breathe. And then I want to celebrate the goodness of God in that place where every bit of our brokenness will be redeemed, transformed, burnished to a high gleam and offered as a gift of gratitude to our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — Father, Son, Spirit.

Mom and I enjoyed our lunch, even though, as soon as she withdrew her hands from the warm sunlight in the center of the table, she became vividly aware that the breeze was cool. At least three times she asked me if the visor I was wearing was helping me to stay warm by blocking that breeze. Three times, I tried to explain that a sun visor only works against the sun, not the wind. Finally, I took the visor off of my head and put it onto her lovely one. And she relaxed, convinced that now she would be warm enough.

On the way back to her unit, she began to sing, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Most of the time, I join with her as she sings in the car. But this time, I listened. And I thanked God that broken as she is, my mother knows who she is. She no longer knows her own name, nor any of the details of her story. But she knows who she is — she is a friend of Jesus.

And there is nothing broken about that. Not one thing.

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I received an Advanced copy of Ann Voskamp’s book in exchange for writing about it and featuring it on social media. It is my joy and privilege to invite you to read this book for yourself, to take your time with it, to read with a pen in hand and with fingers ready to turn down a page here and there. This one is a keeper.

A Prayer for Those Who Worry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     to look in the wrong direction,

     to follow our worst instincts,

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

         our loved ones,

         our plans,

         our minds,

         our circumstances . . .

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

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

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

Trust.         Let go.         Believe in your goodness.

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

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

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

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

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

Hear our prayer, O Lord!

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

For Jesus’ sake,

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I loved paying attention to every word.

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

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Ten

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Yes!! Love IS ingenious! When we are living out of a place of love, creativity soars, diversity is welcome, old truths take on fresh new meanings. I love this small line of text, maybe because it is surprising. “Ingenious” is not an adjective often applied to the noun “love,” but somehow it is perfect, don’t you think?

Jesus was a person of surprises. Teaching the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, touching lepers, welcoming children — even telling us to be like children if we truly wish to know God. He told stories, he did not pontificate. He was not afraid of truth-telling, but as Eugene Peterson so beautifully used Emily Dickenson’s gorgeous line, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant. . . ,” Jesus always told that truth sideways, upending expectations and astonishing listeners.

Do we astonish others regularly? Do we do so out of that centered place of living loved and living love? I do believe this is the only way forward out of any morass in which we might find ourselves.

Love-centered ingenuity! I love it!

And this surprising oasis-like fountain surround by palm trees at the base of the San Gabriel mountains is a picture of what it can look like. A beauty spot, right there atop a middle-class suburb, inviting one and all to stop a while, to pay attention, to savor the ingenious love of the creator, given expression by the willing hands and hearts of human artisans. 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Nine

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Do you see that lovely arch out there? It is the source of the name of the state park in which it is located – Natural Bridges. We drove out there from our retreat center fairly early in the morning of our first full day. Discovering that it would cost us ten bucks to drive onto the campground, we opted to go in the opposite direction, toward the parking lot right at the edge of the cliff that overlooks this rock. From that viewpoint, this is what we saw:

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Do you see any sign of that lovely arch from this angle?

Nada. Zilch. Nope. 

Your point of view, your perspective, your position makes a huge difference in what you can actually see. I’ve had days, I’ve had seasons, I’ve had YEARS when parts of my life looked like a solid, dark wall. And then, a simple shift in my viewpoint, a slight difference in my perspective, a new angle of vision made all the difference in the world. 

At no point in time can we see every possibility that exists in a given situation. WE don’t have the power, the ability, the intelligence, the vantage point to make such a thing possible. But . . . there is Someone who does. There is Someone who can. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is to wait. To trust that with the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience, the gathering of more facts, the readiness to engage in more of those ongoing conversations in life, we will begin to see an old, impossibly bleak problem with freshness and new insight. Maybe that blank wall has a lovely big hole in it! Maybe we can sail our small craft of a life right on through it and come out the other side with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of a brand new view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Run. The. Race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now stop for just a minute.

Stop.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are called to live loved.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep telling the story, Hebrew believers.

Keep telling the story, Pasadena Covenant Church.

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

Look!

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

Amen!

 

 

 

 

My Hair, Myself — SheLoves, August 2016

A fascinating theme this month — the single word, ‘hair.’ Well. What came to me, as I was traveling nearly 2500 miles on an epic road trip last month, was this bit of stuff about my grandmothers and me. I’d love to hear your thoughts/responses to that topic! Come on over and join the conversation!

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My paternal grandmother, Pearl Scott Smith Gold, at about age 80 (1960ish)

My Gran had long, thin, gray-and-white hair which she wore wound in a bun on the back of her head. It was a style reminiscent of the 1880’s or 90’s, and somehow suited her. For several years after my grandfather died, she would stay with us for two to three weeks at a time and shared my bedroom when she did. Every night of her stay, I would watch, fascinated, as she wound up chunks of that long, thin stuff around leather strips, which served as wave-setters while she slept. Then, in the morning, she would expertly comb and position every strand into a perfect loop, holding it in place with long hairpins.

My own hair at that stage of my life was the bane of my existence. It was almost as white as it is now, as my brother and I were complete towheads until we hit puberty, and it was thin and very, very straight. My mom thought it would be nice to have a curly-haired daughter, so she would periodically put me through the process of a permanent wave, which I considered to be nothing less than torture. The irony was, it never worked. Never. I would end up with frizz on half my head and stick straight hair on the other half.

32

My brother Tom and I at about ages 3 and 5 – 1950ish — see?
Stick straight around the bottom, weird curls on top. Oy vey.

I think about us now, my elderly grandmother and my young self, and realize that what we think about, do with and understand about our hair say a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from. I come, on one side of my family, from that tall, thin, southern schoolmarm who married later than most and carried a lot of racial prejudice deep in her bones. On the other side, there was Nonnie, who was almost as wide as she was short (4’11”), lived with serious heart disease for half of her life (which extended 101 years despite that handicap), and began her own, very successful, business in her late 50s. She was an immigrant from Canada, and a very strong woman, though she hesitated to let that strength show, preferring to work underground in ways that were sometimes detrimental to the health of her family. While I knew her, Nonnie’s hair was short and curly.

IMG_0360

My maternal grandmother, Elsie Thompson Hobson, about 1980. She would have been 84 that year.

At this stage of my life, as I am staring at the last leg of my own journey on this planet, I remember with love and gratitude the contributions of those two women to the richness of my story. Gran would be shocked to discover that I served as a pastor in mid-life. I choose to believe that, after some thought and prayer, she would have been proud. She died when I was 18.

Nonnie, on the other hand, died the first year of my ministry life here in Santa Barbara. And as I commuted from the LA area for the first few months of that ministry, I would stop and visit her in the rest home which became her final stop. She grabbed my hand on one of those Thursday mornings and told me, through tears and with a fierce quality to her voice, that I was continuing the journey she never finished, a story I had never heard before that moment. She was headed to Winnipeg at the tender age of 19 to enter ministry training with the Salvation Army when she chose instead to marry the older, handsome man who had admired her singing on the street corners of Vancouver. That sweet moment of revelation provided one of the strongest benedictions of my life.

Each of my grandmothers survived difficult marriages, had their own particular set of strengths and weaknesses, carried within themselves deep intelligence (one educated, the other not) and pretty decent people skills. And Gran’s old fashioned hairdo and Nonnie’s more modern style said something about who they were.

I wonder, what does my own hair say about me?

Read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today, won’t you?