Pentecost — One Week Late!

DSC04430As I noted in today’s newsletter (you can subscribe below), this is a crazy-making time in our lives. We’ve got a major move underway and a big family vacation right in the middle of it all. And I’m still (at least, partially) in recovery mode from several weird medical experiences of the past few months. So this post is about a week later than I had hoped it might be.

Through it all, we keep on truckin,’ by the grace of God and a whole lotta stubborn determination. One week ago we traveled south to be present for our middle daughter’s oldest son’s confirmation. Wesley is 17, just finished his junior year in high school and is contemplating college, right around the corner. How in the heck did that happen? Wasn’t he just a tiny kid who looked almost exactly like his mama?

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While we were there, we managed to sneak in basketball games for each of Wesley’s two younger brothers and I had the shopping joy of browsing a JC Penney, a store which my town hasn’t had for years. They have definitely upgraded their women’s clothing section!!

But the true highlight of the weekend was that Confirmation Service. We always love worshipping at Knox Presbyterian in Pasadena CA, and are regularly inspired by their creative worship and solid preaching. It’s been a good home for our kids and that makes this particular set of parents and grandparents very partial and very grateful.

It was Pentecost Sunday — a great day for welcoming young adults into full membership of the church. Two of the five kids were also baptized — a wondrous splashing of water from a beautiful wooden font.

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But the standout surprise moment for us happened during the children’s sermon. Pastor Matt invited the confirmands and about 3 of the littler kids to take hold of round, disc like objects which he had stashed up front. They were in shades of red, orange and yellow and as the kids began to handle them, I could see that they were circles of crepe paper streamers.

And here’s what we did with them. The kids tossed them out as far as they could, then the congregants picked them up and tossed them behind themselves until the back pew was reached. Then the back row tossed them toward the front until all the rolls were completely unspooled. It looked fabulous!

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Then we were instructed to raise those streamers above our heads and stomp our feet as fast as we could. “And that,” said Pastor Matt, “is just a small picture of what it must have been like when the Spirit showed up at Pentecost.” Wind and fire. Oh, YEAH!

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It was the perfect set-up for the kids’ vows and the gentle reading of a piece of their own personal credos, each one reading a portion that wove together into a modern version — a confirmation student version! — of the Apostle’s Creed. 

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At the end of the service, some helpful ‘stage hands’ moved forward a large white easel and a table spread with colored (washable) paints. And during the singing of the last hymn, we were invited to come forward, dip our thumbs into red, orange or yellow paint and make a mark on the sketched-in flames drawn on the easel.

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Everyone was involved, a bodily experience of community that I found profoundly moving.

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It’s not the most gorgeous piece of art you’ll ever see, but it is a lovely representation of this particular fellowship of believers and their commitment to be in this thing together.

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In the quiet space after the service, I snapped a photo of the finished flames, set against the draped cross. And I thanked God for this motley, crazy thing called ‘the church.’ We are far from perfect, but sometimes . . . sometimes, we get it right.

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Joining this with Jennifer, Lisha, Laura.

When the Bottom Falls Out


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Lovely flowers, brought to me by my fine son while in the hospital this week.

It has been a strange and difficult week, one that I wrote about in detail in my newsletter, which went out on May 1. If you’d like to read that account, simply subscribe, using the link provided at the end of this reflection, and I’ll be sure to send you a copy.

But in this, more public space, I want to spend a few minutes reflecting on what often feels like the capriciousness of this life we live in our earthbound home. 

Sometimes things happen suddenly, coming from left field and slamming into your gut, throwing you completely off balance, leaving  you stymied as to what in the heck just happened. I cannot even count how many times in the last six days I have uttered the words, “I cannot believe this has happened.” 

And I can’t.

Except it did — I was hit with a sudden, life-threatening condition, putting me in the hospital for 48 hours and sending me home to rest and move slowly for about a month. Say what?

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The beautiful new hospital wing I was privileged to stay in, as seen from my window.

The combined effect of the event itself, the powerful pain medications I was forced to take to survive, and the complete disorientation of being in a hospital and then coming home again, unable to do the things I do every single day of my life — well, it’s a more than a little bit unsettling.

Who am I? In my own mind, I’ve always been the strong one, the capable one, the one who takes charge and gets ‘er done. I’ve said it before in this space — I’m a large person, an increasingly confident person, have been known to be ‘bossy’ in my time (though I’ve worked on that quite a bit!), and I like to be the person who is helping others, not so much the one in need of help.

At this moment in time, that is no longer true. It is not even close to being true.

My amazing adult children rallied this weekend. Both of my daughters brought their youngest sons and they shopped at Costco and cooked in my kitchen all day yesterday. I now have two fridges full of home made chili, salmon chowder, delicious quiches and bunches of good, packaged salad mixes plus an enchilada tray from the Big Box store we all hate to love. Our son and his wife came over for dinner, bringing their lively, fun girls and I could listen to everyone having a great time together — best medicine possible. I was even able to be up with everyone for dinner, and that was a gift. But I was not the one doing meal prep or clean-up. I cannot be right now.

As I struggle to recapture some sense of balance and wholeness, I take deep joy in thanking God for the lovely slingshots of grace amidst this chaos — our son’s fine medical instincts which sent us back for a second ER visit and ultimate stay; the care of the best medical team I’ve ever seen, the loveliness of our new hospital and its nursing staff, the grace of business colleagues who have extended some deadlines for us, and the sheer fact that I am here, breathing and upright (some of the time!)

Here is the deepest truth I am learning right now: we simply do not and cannot know what is around the next bend in the road. For me, that bend was the simple act of rising from bed on a Tuesday morning. We plan, we program, we research, we scout out contingencies. But we are not in charge of our own lives, at least in any ultimate sense, are we?

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The other view from that window in the hospital room. There IS a bigger picture.

I am not downplaying planning — believe me! We have done some good, healthy planning and we are in good shape for this last bend in the road, this last leg of the journey. But we assumed it would be an easier leg than it has proven to be — and those assumptions now need to be set aside.

A good friend said to me on the phone this morning: ”This is the new normal, Diana.”

Yes, it is. The new normal is the unexpected, the sudden, the quick drop in the pit of your stomach when you realize the entire universe is shifting on a very tiny pivot. Very tiny indeed.

But what I’m trying to remind myself — sometimes from moment to moment — is that none of this is a surprise to God. And I am not alone in the midst of the terror and the pain.

I am held, I am cherished, I am seen.

And that makes all the difference.

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Doubters Welcome Here

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

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

Here are John’s words, in The Message:

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

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

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

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

Thomas said, “My Master! My God!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read that paragraph in the gospel reading one more time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Lord’s been good.”

“We’ll just keep praying and believing.”

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

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And so I am refreshed.

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

And Jesus welcomes me, too. 

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

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

What’s In a Name?

It’s been quiet around here of late. I’ve written around the blogosphere at several different places in the last few weeks, but not terribly often here, in my space, just writing for me, and whoever might stop by to see whatever words I’ve gathered.

We had a quiet weekend, celebrating Dick’s birthday in several small gatherings. On his actual day, just he and I went out for lunch and to a matinee. On Saturday, our son and his family surprised us with a drop-in, take-out dinner from our favorite local Mexican hang-out. And on Sunday, after church, we met our eldest daughter and her husband and youngest son at BJ’s in Ventura. We love s t r e t c h i n g birthdays out as long as we can — and three days was just about right.

My guy was hungry for ribs, and BJs never disappoints. And to finish things off very well indeed, he was served his own individual Pazookie, complete with candle! Do you know what a Pazookie is? Just one of the divinest desserts ever invented, that’s what. A freshly baked cookie (several choices – he picked peanut butter), fresh from the oven, topped with a scoop of Haagen Daaz vanilla. Heaven in a small aluminum pan, that’s what.

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The drive south took us past this lovely spot, looking down on Summerland Beach. The day was breezy and the water a little bit wild — always fun to see. And somehow, the celebratory mood of day and meal and family seemed fitting and right after a profoundly moving worship experience earlier in the day.

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This was our fabulous worship band-of-the-week jamming after the service was over. Our Director of Worship Arts, Bob Gross, planned a perfect combination of songs for the theme of the day, including a masterful arrangement (his own) of,  “Lord, I’m Amazed by You” with The Doxology. The entire opening sequence brought me to tears more than once — filled as it was with what we do best: contemporary and traditional music, both poured through the inventive mind of Mr. Gross. We sang that old favorite, “Holy, Holy, Holy” this way – verse 1, totally a cappella (and we can SING the harmony in our community!), verse 2, full band with quiet percussion, verse 3, up a key, adding the most moving slow roar of the drums I’ve ever experienced, and verse 4, straight ahead and gorgeous. Oh, my.

DSC01241As always, the music, the prayer, the readings from Old Testament and New coordinated well with the preaching text of the morning, which this week was taken from the last eleven verses of John 16.

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God spoke powerfully through Pastor Jon about what it means when we pray in the name of Jesus. Here are a few highlights from that passage:

“My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name . . . I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God . . .  A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me . . . I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

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These few verses contain some mighty huge ideas, ones that linger and permeate. Ideas like these:

The name of Jesus is strong, redemptive, life-changing. It is not magical.

There will be suffering in this life — which should come as a surprise to precisely no one. But because of Jesus, because we are given the inestimable gift of praying in his name, we are never alone, no matter what. 

Praying is not about words alone. In fact it is more often about silence . . . or it is experienced in action. We pray in Jesus’ name whenever we offer comfort/aid/solace/provision for another.

We pray with our bodies, not just in them. WE are the continuation of the Incarnation as we allow the Spirit of our Lord to work through us, as we live out what it means to be the Body of Christ. 

Praying in the name of Jesus touches on one of the foundational truths of the Christian faith — we serve a Triune God, Father, Son, Spirit — One in Three, Three in One. 

We do not ask Jesus to pray for us, so as to somehow buffer the space between us and God the Father. Too much of the church has painted a picture of a scary God, one that Jesus saves us from, a God that cannot be approached by the likes of us. But Jesus says clearly and beautifully, “. . . I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you  . . . “

“Take heart,” Jesus says. Immediately after predicting that all his friends will desert him in his hour of need, that they themselves will have their share of trouble. “Take heart,”  he says. TAKE HEART?  Yes. And not only that, but because of that name, that powerful name, they — and we — will have peace, the kind of peace that makes room for this truth: the One in whose name we pray has overcome the world.

I carried these pieces of grace with me as we drove down the coast, as we laughed and ate a good lunch with our daughter’s family, as we came back home and prepared for the week ahead. Turns out there’s a lot, a LOT, in a Name. I am grateful

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A Sacramental Faith


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It’s been a rough week. A niggling ankle injury turned out to be a seriously shredded tendon, which may require surgery next month. In the meantime, I’m wearing a boot to try and immobilize it and encourage healing.

My mom took a nasty fall, splitting her fingers apart and bruising herself all along one side of her body. Fortunately, nothing was broken, but she is tired and more confused than ever.

My husband and I tend to take our worries out on one another, at least initially, and so we’ve been doing more than our share of sniping and growling. We’re moving back to center again, and I am glad.

I sit, with my foot iced and propped, encased in a serious boot, surrounded by too.much.stuff, all of which needs sorting. I wonder how and when to set aside enough time to do more than the basics. Meal prep, laundry, keeping appointments, writing – these seem to fill all the blanks on the calendar — and in my spirit — and there isn’t much room left. 

I went to worship almost reluctantly yesterday. We’d missed the week before and I came close to missing again. I was tired, anxious and sore, not eager to make conversation with anyone, unsure about a lot of things.

Which, of course, is EXACTLY when I need to be there, sitting and standing with the community, offering praise to God in the middle of the mess and listening for the Spirit’s breathy voice in the midst of the sanctuary. 

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As I perused the bulletin before the service began, I saw that there would be space this week for prayer and anointing. This is not a usual occurrence for us, but as soon as I saw the words, I knew why I was there.

Turns out, a lot of people had the same response.

Even after all the years that church has been part of my life, even after almost 20 years of professional leadership in the church, I am still amazed at how and when the Spirit blows across a room full of people. It stuns me every time.

And every time it happens in this particular community of believers, there is something sacramental happening in the service. Eucharist, baptism, renewal of baptismal vows, anointing.

These physical signs of spiritual truths, these tactile things — they are the pieces that the Spirit of God uses in our midst to move us, shake us out of the pews, stir our hearts. I don’t understand it, I just recognize it when I see it.
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It’s a powerful thing to see people streaming down the aisle to be touched by a pastor. We encourage prayer for healing after every single service, and very few people take advantage of those opportunities. But add oil? Make it part of the service itself?

They came by the dozens. And I went right up there with them.

The sermon leading into this event was built around a text in John 12, Mary pouring a large jar of pure, perfumed oil, spreading it lavishly all over the feet of Jesus. Pastor Don asked us to think about fragrances, how powerful they can be — for both good and ill. And the communion table featured trailing vines of jasmine, sending sweetness into the first few pews.

This is a story close to my heart. The very first sermon I ever preached in my life came from Mark’s version, and I preached on John’s text last year. (I wrote an abbreviated reflection on it during Holy Week.) And the closing line of my own reflection was right in line with yesterday’s theme: “. . . the surest sign of a true disciple is the delicious aroma that permeates every corner of the house.”

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We had two kneelers in place, two pastors with vials of oil, and we sang. Oh, how we sang. “Holy Spirit, Come,” as printed on the screens and one or two others that rose spontaneously as we listened to that Breath of Life within us.

One of the joys of our worship is the participation of lay people in the service each week — in the reading of scripture and the offering of community prayer. Yesterday’s prayer was written and offered by one of our resident poets, Professor Paul Willis, whose words always slow me down and make me think. The ones he chose yesterday were strong, muscular, maybe even hard to hear at points. But they were exactly what we needed. 

I invite you to pray them along with us as you read, because this prayer walks right with us, from the sanctuary of togetherness to the sanctuaries that we inhabit all around the city in the days between our gatherings. And those sanctuaries — our homes, places of employment, dorm rooms, school classrooms — these are reminders, too. Reminders that we are, indeed, a sacramental people, body, soul and spirit. . . of a piece.

Lord, so often we are satisfied with mere deodorant
to cover up our stinking selves. 
What would it mean to learn a new fragrance,
to be a new fragrance,
to offer that fragrance to you? 
What would it mean to take pure nard
from the farthest reaches of the Himalayas
and to pour it lovingly over your feet—the feet of our Savior? 
What would it mean to bathe ourselves from head to toe
in the fragrance of our Savior’s blood?

Lord, make us each,
remake us each,
into that aroma which will consecrate us,
each one,
into that individual fragrance of holy service
you have uniquely set out for us,
each one of us,
a path of service and holiness
that you have marked out for each of us,
whether that path lead into the High Sierra
or into the lower East Side of Santa Barbara,
whether it lead to the front of the classroom or to the back,
whether it lead to changing laws in the legislature
or changing diapers in the nursery.

Lord, right now we’re stinking it up. 
We always have been. 
Fill us with your redeeming fragrance,
and let us offer it back to you. 
Amen.
            — Paul Willis, February 9, 2014

IMG_3918Sunlight through the poppies when we had lunch with ‘the moms’ after church.

Linking today with Michelle, Laura, Jen and Jennifer

 


Philip or Andrew?

I am indebted to the fine homiletical work of our pastor Don Johnson for the thrust of this reflection. His sermon this morning was dead on, and so very important. Please read the gospel lesson, the Word of the Lord for the saints in Santa Barbara this morning:

John 6:1-15, NLT

After this, Jesus crossed over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. A huge crowd kept following him wherever he went, because they saw his miraculous signs as he healed the sick. Then Jesus climbed a hill and sat down with his disciples around him. (It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration.) Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked,“Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?” He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip replied, “Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!”

Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. “There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?”

“Tell everyone to sit down,” Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.) Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples,“Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves.

When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.

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It was hot, dusty, flies and people milling about,
buzzing, buzzing.

Over 5000 folks climbed that hillside with the water view,
oldsters and children, men and women,
seekers and hangers-on —

wondering and wandering and wanting to see
what the rabbi might do,
to hear what he might say.

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Jesus was the newest ‘show in town,’ and everyone was curious.
They had seen (or heard) about the healings, the ‘signs,’
and they wanted to see a few for themselves.
So they hoofed it, out into the countryside, hiking up the hill by the lake,
hanging around, waiting for the show to begin.
The star of the show, however, gathered his closest friends and went to
the tippy-top of that hill and . . . what?
Gathered the props for a magic show?
Laid out a careful plan for crowd management?
Discussed what the format for the day should look like?

None of the above.
None of it.
Oh, there is a sign coming —
and a doozy of a sign, too.
And the crowd will be pleased,
so overwhelmingly convinced that Jesus
is the latest hot number,
that they will succumb to mob mentality
and try to force the guy to become
their next Grand Poobah.
(Something which Jesus will have NONE of.)

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No. There is no talk of technique or teaching,
there is a simple lesson in faith, told to two particular disciples.
Rather than a story about the crowd.
or even a story about a ‘trick’ or a sign,
this is something else entirely.

This is a story about 
contrasting worldviews,
personal invitations,
scarcity and plentitude,
faith and doubt.

This is a story about possibilities
and whether or not those who follow Jesus
are open to them.

This is a story about Philip and Andrew.

IMG_3602 And this is a story about giving what we have,
no matter how small it might look to us,
to the gentle, prayerful care of Jesus the Christ,
and then waiting to see
how too little
becomes more than enough.

That is a barley loaf in the pictures above.
Poor people’s bread in 1st century Palestine,
the bare minimum for a day’s calories.
Crumbly and salty, even tasty, when you get used to it,
what a mother might pack for her son
for a picnic by the lake.

A far cry from Philip’s anxious bean-counting,
(“Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough to feed all these people!”)
and the only small thing that Andrew could dredge up 
in his cursory survey of the crowd.
A boy’s lunch basket.
That’s all he had.

And it was more than enough.

Neither Philip nor Andrew could see that more-than-enough
when they looked at that little lunch.
But Andrew had a hunch, just an inkling,
and he wasn’t all that sure about it, either.
But he brought that small bag of food,
and he gave it to Jesus.

What small thing can I bring to the top of that hill today?
What paltry gift can I bring?
Can I take my eyes off of the need that seems to 
surround and overwhelm,
and look only at Jesus?
Only at Jesus.

Can I resist the attitude of scarcity that oozes out of Philip,
can I turn away from my proclivity for anxiety rather than trust,
my inclination to look at the crowd rather than at Jesus,
my unholy need to control outcomes
rather than let the Holy-Spirit-power-of-my-Redeemer
have its way with the little, the last, the least and the lost?

Ah, Jesus. Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Help me to be an Andrew.
Not quite sure, but willing.
Wondering about outcomes,
but handing it over,
no matter how small it looks.

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After church,
after lunch,
after a deep breath and a deep sigh,
we piled my 92-year-old mom into our car
and headed 80 miles east toward her 90-year-old sister,
who is dying this week.

When pastor Don asked us to write down the small things we have,
the things that we find when we search our hearts
and our calendars and our commitments,
the things we need to bring to Jesus —
these two were on the top of my list:
my writing
my mother.
And today was a day for my mother.

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It was a hard day, a tiring one, filled with confusion
and fear and grief.
It was a day when I had to pray for grace and for patience
every second of every minute of every hour.

I had a hard time looking at Jesus
in the midst of this particular crowd.
I had a hard time sitting down on the grass
and partaking of the bounty that comes
from not enough when it is given over to the Savior.
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But there were glimpses.
There was beauty.
There was grace.
My beautiful cousin, looking at her mama with so much love.
My beautiful aunt, rousing just enough
to grab her sister’s hand and cry, “Ruthie! Ruthie! It’s you, it’s you!”
My beautiful mother, having to meet her grief
over and over and over,
as she forgot who the woman in the bed was,
and then remembered when I gently repeated,
“This is Eileen, your sister, your best friend.”
And the beauty of old songs, sweetly sung.
“On a hill far away. . .”
“For God so loved the world. . . “
“Away in a manger. . .”
“I come to the garden alone. . . “
Every word sung by the sisters and the cousins,
every word an offering of love to each other,
and to the God who gives us songs to sing.

Every word, a reminder that when we give it to Jesus,
the little things are more than enough.

An update, late on Tuesday night: my much-loved, delightful, charming, fun-loving Aunt Eileen
moved into the arms of Jesus at 9:46 p.m.
Thanks be to God and peace to her memory.

Offering this small thing to Laura, Michelle, Jen, Jennifer, Ann and Emily this week, grateful for the ways in which they each point me to Jesus and away from the crowd.




Tuesday’s Read, Read, Read! (a book review and a synchroblog to celebrate Sarah’s new book!)

First, the book review:

Every once in a great while, a voice arises that speaks truth in love for an entire generation of Jesus-followers. Sarah Bessey is such a voice. I began reading her blog three years ago, and quickly discovered a Soul Sister. Sarah has the heart of an artist, the skill of a surgeon, and the grace of a dancer when she begins weaving words together. And she has woven them into a masterpiece with this beautiful, heartfelt, lyrical book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

With a foreword by Rachel Held Evans and a stunning manifesto by Idelette Mcvicker leading the way, Sarah dives into her topic with an extended version of a popular blog post, “A Bonfire on the Shore.” All of us — egalitarians, complementarians, feminists, non-feminists — are invited to join her around that bonfire, to listen to one another in love and to share stories, life lessons, observations, and most especially, questions and answers that we have lived in the everydayness of life as well as wrestled with in our minds. “I want to tell the truth, but first I want to live the Truth,” she says; “I won’t confuse critical thinking with a critical spirit,” she promises.

And then she dives into the whole Big Topic, declaring that yes, she is a feminist — but only because she is following after the ways, words and actions of Jesus, her savior and friend. She is learning from Jesus what it means for each of us to be a human person, whether male or female. Never discounting the differences between men and women, Sarah makes a strong case for her position without alienating those who might disagree with her. She stakes out her place: “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity. It never was; it never will be.” But she leaves room for conversation: “I don’t think God is glorified by tightly crafted arguments wielded as weaponry.”

Telling pieces of her own story all along the way, Sarah looks at the whole of scripture first, most especially at the words and work of Jesus in the gospel narratives, refusing to allow the ‘problematic passages’ to take precedence over what she sees happening in Jesus’ relationship with women. She does this, however, without ever discounting the power and authority of the biblical message. She works hard to sift out the cultural specificities from the timeless truths, always with an attitude of appreciation and respect for the Word of God.

Sarah gives testimony to the partnership she enjoys in her own marriage, making a beautifully strong case for mutual submission. She makes room for single women at the table of full-personhood without diminishing the joy she has found in being married and birthing babies. And she calls the church to open-handed, open-hearted sharing in the work of kingdom living, inviting us to reconsider traditional ‘women’s ministries’ in the light of all that needs doing in the wider world.

This is a joyful book, an honest book, a welcoming book. I don’t know if you will find yourself proudly wearing the, “I am a Jesus feminist” badge when you finish it. I hope so. But I do know that you will be glad you read this book, that you will wrestle with the questions she asks and the stories she tells, and that you will stand up and cheer when you read the opening invitation and the closing benediction. Because Sarah writes truth, with a capital “T” — but she never tells it without love. And YOU, yes, you, are so very welcome here.

I received an advance release digital copy of this fine book from Simon & Schuster Digital Sales, Inc, in exchange for my honest review. This is it – and it is an honor. But I highly recommend that you purchase a hard copy of this one – it needs dog-earring and marking up. I compiled a 7-page document of favorite quotes and ideas, some of which are my own response to Sarah’s thinking in these pages. Now, that’s a good book.

And now, the synchroblog — my own reflections on why I am who I am:

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 They came streaming down the center aisle on Sunday morning.
Men, women, children.
Students, grandmothers, professors;
building contractors, retirees, babes-in-arms.
Down they came, moving slowly beneath the chandeliers,
bending low over the basket,
taking a morsel of bread
and dipping it into the offered cup.

“The body of Christ, broken for you.”
“The Cup of peace, given for you.”

And, once again, I remembered who I am.

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 It was All Saints Sunday, a day of remembering.
And we did exactly that.
We re-membered ourselves,
all of us — past and present — in litany,
in prayer, in memory.
The presence of those who led the way
to where we now are was palpable,
breathing out of the wood and stone and stained glass,
echoing in the guitars and piano,
standing right there in the worship center with us,
shoulder to shoulder.

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 We lit candles to help us remember.
And we thanked God for friends and family
who have left this physical realm,
this place-in-space that only partially reveals the truth of who we are.

And we sang!
Oh, how we sang,
joining our 300 voices with the sound
of saints and angels
around the world and across time,
remembering who we are.

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 This is our home, these are our people,
this is our song.
I am a woman, yes, I am.
I am glad to be female,
grateful for the power of my body,
the gift of child-bearing,
the ability to nourish.
But I am also a human being.
First and foremost, I am that.
And I am blessed to be part of a community
that celebrates both truths,
that doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge
the ways in which my femaleness
brings wholeness to the image of God
in the midst of the sanctuary.

 For the last forty years, this is the truth my husband and I have lived:
we are partners.
We are equal before God.
We bring different gifts and abilities
to our shared table,
but we are, each of us, seen by God for
who we are,
ALL of who we are:
sinful,
broken,
loved,
redeemed by Jesus,
gifted by God,
called and filled by the Holy Spirit,
commanded to love God, others and ourselves,
sent to a world that hungers for grace.
Both of us.
BOTH OF US.

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The candles were still gleaming Sunday evening,
as a small group of us gathered to worship Taize style.
Sung prayer, lectio, and once again,
a shared table.

But this time, a litany of silence.
Silence.
Deep enough to hear the bread tear,
quiet enough to hear the purplish fluid being poured out,
every last drop.

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Dark enough to exhale.
To fully exhale all the worries of the day,

the carbon dioxide of doubt,
the staleness of fatigue.

It is within this context that I can say yes,
I am a Jesus feminist.
In the center of worship,
in the midst of the congregation,
in the place where I am known.

And in that powerful, life-giving truth,
I rejoice!

My deep thanks to those who lead our congregation in worship that is real and rich – Don Johnson, Jon Lemmond and Bob Gross. It is Bob’s voice that you hear, along with his composing and arranging skills, in the Taize songs I have linked in this piece.

I am joining this post with Sarah’s synchroblog, with Michelle’s weekly invitation and with Jennifer’s storytelling.

31 Days of Giving Permission . . . TO SURRENDER

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If he, who has surrendered himself on our behalf
can be so very generous,
then we, too, must learn of surrender.
For it is, as St. Francis said so many years ago,
“in giving that we receive.” 

Even as the trees surrender themselves
to the changing of the seasons,
to the dying that bright color signifies,
so we, too, are invited to come and die.

In the very best sense — we die to our sinful selves,
and live to Jesus Christ.

BLESSED SABBATH, FRIENDS. 

“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these?
If God is for us, who can ever be against us?
Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all,
won’t he also give us everything else?
Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own?
No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself.”

-Romans 8:31-33, New Living Translation

Full to Overflowing . . .

Jesus is an interesting dude.
Full of surprises, un-pin-down-able, a fascinating amalgam of
human and divine, comforter and cattle prod.

Take the leap-off-the-bridge-into-the-chasm story in John 2, for instance.
In this narrative, Jesus is standing on a precipice.
Oh, it doesn’t look like much of a leap — he’s at a party, not a smack-down.
A wedding party, one of those 7-day deals in the ancient Middle East,
where everyone hangs around, eats and drinks and talks
and then eats and drinks a little more.

He’s just called his first five disciples, and is growing ever more surely into
his own sense of himself and his destiny. Jesus is getting ready to inaugurate
what he will soon call the Kingdom of God.
But other than some heartfelt conversations with his new followers,
he hasn’t done anything yet.

I’ve always found it fascinating that in John’s gospel, Jesus’ ‘coming-out’ party happens in
a small, country town at what was most likely a family gathering. 
I mean Luke has him in a synagogue, at least. And Matthew has him up on a hill, doling out powerful teaching by
the bushel basketful. Mark, who’s always in a hurry, leaps right into exorcism
and multiple healings.
But John?
In a backwater town, at a party.
And one where his mother is scurrying around, trying to make sure the tables are full,
the guests are happy, the details are being covered.

We’re moving slowly through the gospel of John at church this year, creating our own lectionary, reveling in the meatiness of this last-written of the stories of Jesus.
And the pastoral staff has called for ideas — literary, artistic, reflective —
to help us consider the story of Jesus as John presents it to us.
Yesterday, one of the resident poets  in our midst read this wonderful
reflection on the opening verses of this story: 

Mysterious Ways

    “They have no wine,” his mother said to him.
       He rolled his eyes.  “Not now,” he whispered.  “Mom,
       please.”  She didn’t care about his secrets.
       Why bear the Son of God if all he does
       is keep it to himself?  Here was a time
       to make the promise good—and please the neighbors.
       “Forget it.  Absolutely not.  You don’t
       have any idea what you’re asking me.
       Woman, no.”  And he rebuked her with
       a godlike gaze.  But mildly she turned
       and told the servants, “What he tells you, do.”
              – Professor Paul Willis (originally published in The Christian Century,
                      reprinted here by kind permission of 
the author) 

 You have no idea how validating it was for me to hear that poem!
I have an interesting relationship with my own son,
one that involves eye-rolling from time to time,
and whenever I read this small gem of a story,
I, too, see the eyes roll and hear the sighs heave.
But what I really love here? That off-handed comment to the servants.
Complete confidence that eventually this son would come around
to his mother’s way of thinking.

And so, with a series of simple imperatives — fill, take, bring —
Jesus steps out into the New World, the one where scarcity is no longer the norm,
where abundance surges forth from the most surprising places.
Water into wine, and not just any old wine, either.
The finest wine of the entire week of feasting,
the best stuff showing up at the last minute.

And then, like a seamstress picking up a sparkling piece of golden thread, John weaves this story together with the overarching theme of the entire book: GLORY. 
“What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (verse 11)

Overflowing wine, delicious wine, the BEST wine — 
yet only the servants and the disciples know its source.
Doesn’t sound all that glorious, you know?
The crowds are not pressing in with words of acclaim,
the sky has not opened, the lame do not walk, the lepers are not cleansed.
But John tells us that GLORY happens here,
in the side patio of a sleepy town, where a party is winding down.
GLORY.

Most of the time, I live a pretty ‘small’ life.
I stay home a lot, I entertain and/or visit with family, I write notes on Facebook.
I like my smaller world these days, yet I don’t often think of anything I do
as somehow a reflection of GLORY.
But I’m rethinking that this morning.
I’m wondering if maybe we sell ourselves short,
or more importantly, if we sell God short.
Maybe it’s part of the scarcity mindset, the fear that we don’t have enough,
that we aren’t enough.
Wherever it comes from, I find myself praying today that I can
move away from scarcity thinking to reflecting on, remembering, celebrating,
and even reveling in the abundance that is mine.

Because the truth is this:
NOTHING is small in God’s economy,
NO ONE is forgettable in God’s memory.
And if Jesus can usher in the kingdom with no one
knowing it but the servant and five rag-tag disciples,
maybe we can be kingdom-bearers
in the middle of the dishwater,
the lawn that needs mowing,
the wiping of noses and the changing of diapers,
the attention we give to our school work,
the ‘hello’ we offer to the guy in the next cubicle,
the kindness we show to the salesclerk,
the interactions we have with neighbors,
the time carved out to be with aging parents,
the offering of hospitality even when we may not think we’re ‘ready.’

After all, Jesus hesitates for a moment in this story.
“Not yet!” he tells his mom.

And then, he turns to the servants. 

Joining this with Michelle, Jennifer, Ann and Emily this week:




The Welcoming Sound of Vowels: A Photo Essay

There was just a small spot of light on the pew, the one just below the open window.
The window made of green sea foam glass,
through which the strong Hawaiian sun filters itself into softness,
becomes invitation.
The breeze welcomed us to worship as the service began,
offering gentle reminders of the wonders outside the building
as we enjoyed the simpler ones within.

We’ve been to this place before, five years ago,
and remembered the gentle, sometimes befuddled, kahu (pastor).
He was sitting in the tiny choir loft
as we walked into this beautiful old wooden building,
the one so often featured on postcards and travel brochures;
he was pulling notes together,
readying himself to lead.

But Sunday morning is not a time for postcards,
and there is no paragraph about what happens here in any brochure I’ve ever seen.

Sometimes we need reminders that real people live in this place, this paradise.
Real people, with jobs and families, worries and hopes and dreams.
To sit with them, to sing and pray and listen,
to watch the keiki (children) hurry to the front to meet with the kahu
and then make a quick exit to the open-air Mission Hall for music and stories;
to hear the sweet sound of ukeleles and Hawaiian voices during the offertory;
to watch the graceful hands and hips of two middle-aged women
offering a hula at the same time . . .

All of this reminds us of how much we share even though the details may differ.

The sermon was not exactly a sermon,
at least not a sermon using the seminary definition of same.
No biblical exegesis, no story-telling.
Rather, a collection of verses around a theme,
a series of quotes found online,
a bit of stumbling here and there in the delivery.

But you know what?

It was a wonderful theme, and some of the quotes were funny and memorable.
And the pastor was sincere and kind.

“Show proper respect to everyone . . . ” I Peter 2:17 = guiding verse.

And these were the 5 main points:

When you speak, be tactful not just truthful.
When you are served, be understanding and not demanding.
When you disagree, be gentle and not judgmental.
When you share your faith, be respectful, not rejecting.
When people are rude to you, respond politely.

And these were some prime quotes for each point:

“Being tactful is making people feel at home when you wish they were at home.”
“Why are we most disrespectful to the people we’re closest to, our families?”
“We are not morally superior to anyone.”
“Righteousness does not equal rudeness.”
“Don’t be a blowtorch with your faith witness, all you’re asked to be is a light.” 

No, it was not the intellectual challenge that we’re used to,
that we enjoy on Sundays in Santa Barbara.

But here’s the thing:
the pastor knew his people,
and the people knew their pastor;
every person in that room was glad to be there,
every person in that room was friendly,
every person in that room exuded gentleness of spirit,
thoughtfulness before speaking,
and a deep gratitude for the presence of visitors.
Out of a worshipping congregation of about 120,
approximately 25 were 1st time visitors —
and every one of them got a handmade flower lei.

And over and around everything,
from the printed bulletin,
to the unison prayers,
to every song sung but one,
there was the soothing sound of this language,
this mellifluous, lilting language,
these words composed of so many vowels.
Only 8 consonants and each one must be followed by a vowel
or a double vowel.
Something about hearing it is soothing, welcoming.

 Aloha is more than a word in this part of the world.
It is a way of life,
and we are grateful for it.

For the first time in a long while, happy to be joining with Michelle and Laura:

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