Heading Home: Walking with Jesus to the Cross — Day Thirty-Six

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Matthew 22:23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God,  ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

Always trying to trip Jesus up. If it wasn’t the Pharisees, then it was the other important group-within-a-group, the Sadducees. They were the ones interested in ‘the law,’ sometimes described as ‘teachers of the law’ in scripture. And they did not believe in a bodily resurrection. So they decided to hone in on that doctrinal issue and see if they couldn’t stump the teacher.

No such luck. They took a fine point in the law – the levirate marriage succession, wherein a widowed woman became the wife (or the property?) of her former husband’s brother – and came up with the most complicated scenario they could devise, sure that they had finally found a way to make this popular teacher fumble and bumble his way to an answer.

As always, Jesus turns the tables. He didn’t just do it literally, you know. He did it all the time with these pesky questions, and today’s little vignette is a particularly interesting example of that technique. Not only does Jesus affirm his belief in a resurrection, but he fills in some blanks about that transformative new life that awaits us after death. Not sure if this means we’ll be asexual or just unsexual, but it’s surely different from this life, isn’t it? And then he pulls the rug right out from under them and asks, “Why do you keep talking about the resurrection of the dead?? We serve a God of the living!”

And that is just about the finest and simplest expositions of the doctrine of bodily resurrection I’ve ever read anywhere.

Thank you, Lord, for the promise of eternity. We don’t understand it — something we share with the Sadducees of the first century! But we trust that you DO understand it and that you’re speaking truth to these trouble-makers. Thank you for always telling the truth, even when we try our best to trip you up. Thank you for making it simple and for keeping the main thing, the main thing.

31 Days of Paying Attention — DAY THIRTY-ONE!!!

We made it! THIRTY-ONE DAYS IN A ROW. My deep thanks for those who have followed along on this daily journey, and my sad farewell to some who said, ‘enough,’ and unsubscribed. I have really enjoyed this year’s challenge and I hope those of you still reading have enjoyed it, too. Here’s the last one:

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Yesterday, we had a party. A really big party. Our church community gathered to celebrate our senior pastor and his wife. They have been with us for eleven good years and yesterday was their last day with us. They’re making a big move, in two parts, to get themselves closer to retirement in a few years. We will miss them very much, but are grateful for their service, commitment, good humor, skill, and love.

A small steering committee gathered to plan this farewell — for which we had only about five weeks notice — and had a grand time figuring out gifts for them that might bring them happy memories of their time with us. We had that photo up there blown up BIG, got a special write-on-able mat for it and then invited everyone to sign it on their way into luncheon and a fun program following our farewell worship service.

We chose this photo because Butterfly Beach became a favorite place for both of them —  especially for Don, who used this glorious spot for his own private swimming hole on a regular basis. They are now heading for work in Minnesota (for him – interim work) and establishing their new, permanent home in North Carolina (for her — a beautiful setting, to be sure . . . but one without a glimpse of the ocean to be found anywhere). 

There were other gifts as well, things we came up with as a group of friends who have tried to pay attention to what moves them, what makes them smile, what brings them a feeling of satisfaction. I hope we paid attention well.

Giving gifts can be a risky thing, you know? We hope we’ve guessed right. But I’ve learned over the years that sometimes that is really tough to do. So money is a fabulous smooth-over-the-unknown-spots kind of gift and we did our best to gather up a bit of that as well. 

Godspeed, Johnsons! We’re grateful for you, we bless you, we send you off with love and thanks.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Thirty

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The last of our ‘touring quartet’ of would-be poets was a woman I’ve known for the last several years. She is a Catholic nun, currently residing with and caring for her aging father. She is feisty! Smart, efficient, well-organized, she was often the only female in the retreat center where she was the resident director for almost twenty years. That’s how I knew her initially — she was the check-in person when I resided at that Mission retreat center for two weeks each of the two summers I was in training to become a spiritual director. Sister Susan was a no-nonsense, quick-to-smile, energizer bunny in that setting.

And then we were classmates at a writing seminar I went to earlier this year. I hadn’t seen her in about five years and it was an absolute treat to get to know her in an entirely different context. So when I walked into that library at the Museum of Natural History last month, I was delighted that she would be in the same walking group I was.

This tree was her silent selection as we made our way from point to point on our metaphor-seeking journey. Look at it closely and tell me what YOU see there. This is what I saw:

Scars
long,
short,
open,
closed
each one a story,
a souvenir
of life,
well-lived

We all bear scars, don’t we? Life isn’t life without making marks on us, all kinds of marks. I’m working on seeing my particular scars as lovely things, reminders of a lot of living — some of it pleasant, some of it not so much, but all of it . . . GOOD.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty-Eight

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We had an entire school day with these lovely ladies earlier this month! Because we are the grandparents who happen to live in the neighborhood, we sometimes get to enjoy their company when there is a school holiday for them which their parents do not get. This was Columbus Day, I believe, and they came sleepily into our living room at a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. 

Whenever they come, I try to plan some easy treat for us to make together. That day, we made Rice Krispie Pinwheels, which are messy, fun and delicious! I gave them those aprons for Christmas and their mama knew enough to pack them in their carry bag, so on they went. So cute.

I have so enjoyed paying attention to my grandchildren through the years. They are each themselves, totally unique individuals. Yes, we bear a strong family resemblance to one another, but their interests, talents, accomplishments, struggles are all distinct and quite wonderful. Our eldest is now 25, making his way as a cinematographer in the Hollywood scene; his next younger brother is in grad school in PA — in mathematics! The next two — one a freshman in college and the other a senior in high school — have very different interests and majors in mind. You get the message, right? Every one of God’s children is their own, special person and our task, as adults in their lives, is to help them realize and celebrate those uniquenesses.

The older of these two sisters is artistic, loves to read (for hours on end, much like I did at her age!) She is also quite good at tennis (not like me in the least, thank you, God) and has a long list of friends. The younger is more energetic, flitting from one thing to another, loving it all. She especially loves playing small-cramped-house with Poppy when she comes to visit:

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Poppy is laughing hysterically because trying to get into this space was just about as much as his almost 75-year-old body could manage! But he did it — bless him! — and they had a ball. We love the opportunity to be with these wonderful creatures and feel it a God-given privilege to be able to point them toward their best selves and to encourage their gifts.

Are there children in your life to whom you feel called to pay attention? Tell me a little about them!

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty-Three

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And then, it was my turn to point to something as we walked in the gardens of the Natural History Museum during that poetry workshop last month. I went immediately to this potted plant, which was drawing both humming birds and bees to its blooms. I was attracted to its vibrant color first of all — if you haven’t figured this out already, I happen to love clear, bright colors. It sparkled in the sunlight of the late afternoon and I could see why the hummers and the bees found it appealing.

But as I stared at it for a minute, and waited for the words to come, the metaphor to take shape, I was struck by this particular bloom, which was more than half gone. So am I. That is both a hard truth to acknowledge and a lovely piece of truth. My journey is more than half done. 

But there are parts of this half-done plant that are still vibrant, colorful, and attractive to God’s creatures. Yeah, that’s what I want to be, please God. That’s what I want to be:

magenta bracts
gray-green leaves
reaching every which way
blooming,
fading,
dying
all in place —
hanging on,
hanging on.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty

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And then there was this magnificence! On our way north to the retreat, we saw a small sign when we stopped for gas: “Pinnacles National Park, 9 miles.” National Park? we wondered. So I looked it up. Pinnacles was recognized and set aside as a National Monument in 1916 — a good long time ago — but it wasn’t made into a National Park until 2012. Score! A new park, one we had never seen before.

So we made a mental note to take the road out to see it on our way home three days later. It was SO worth the trip, even though the road was narrow, twisty and steep and we were almost two hours later getting home than we had originally planned.

This particular terrain needs to be seen to be believed. Strange looking rock formations thrust their way out of the earth in an area barely 45 square miles wide. There is no road through the park, but there are two entrances, one on each side. The one available to us took us to a new Visitor Center which featured this view in its backyard. And then, we discovered a picnic area two miles further. So we drove, down, down, down and stopped there for about 90 minutes. We pulled out our fruit, cheese and crackers and just savored the view.

Sometimes paying attention means discovering things that have always been there, yet you’ve missed them. This was one of those times. One of our daughters used to live in the Monterey Bay area and we drove north to visit her little family regularly. The Camp we went to on this retreat is a spot I’ve driven to probably ten times over the past twenty years.

Yet we had never seen that sign.

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Paying attention to small things can sometimes produce miraculous results! The sign was small; the park was glorious. Now this is a park for hikers, which we are not. And for spelunkers, which we also are not. But it’s also a space that can be appreciated for its beautiful strangeness — and that, we can do! We are appreciators of beautiful strangeness from way back!

This particular set of rocks is the result of a massive earthquake many thousands of years ago which caused a 200 mile shift in both directions. The strange chemical make-up of these crazily shaped rocks is only seen in one other place in our state . . . 200 miles to the south. But those don’t look like these physically — in fact, there is nowhere else on earth that looks quite like this place. 

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The flowers here are the ones of late summer and early fall. Can you imagine what it must look like in the spring? California’s wildflowers are one of the most beautiful things on this earth. Now, because we caught sight of one small sign, because we took one small risk and went down a new road, we have discovered a brand new place to go looking for them.

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You know, that gas station we chose to pull off the road and visit was not a very nice one — not clean, had only outdoor toilets because their well had run dry and it was not well-maintained.

But. That sign nearby it? Absolutely priceless! 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Six

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The week before my husband and I attended that retreat for retired pastors/spouses, I was given the gift of two days away at a Catholic retreat center in Sierra Madre, California. It is one of my favorite places to go to be quieter than usual, to think more deeply than usual, to absorb some of the beauties offered by our Catholic sisters and brothers, beauties which always encourage me to pay attention to my life.

This retreat house is owned and operated by the Passionist Order, which was founded by St. Paul of the Cross. This is how they describe themselves on their American website: 

The Passionists are a global order of Roman Catholic priests, brothers, nuns, sisters and laity who proclaim God’s love for the world revealed through the Passion of Jesus Christ. Founded in 1741, today we continue to carry a message of compassion and hope to 59 countries throughout the world.

It is a place of great beauty — I wrote a photo essay about one of the gardens on their grounds here. Another spot on those grounds had four lovely granite pillars engraved with the names of a long list of donors. Interspersed throughout that list were some thought-provoking quotes from their founder and I took pictures of several of those. I’ll be interspersing them throughout this series, challenging myself to think about them more deeply — paying attention to the words and the thoughts behind them. Here is the first one:

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Do you believe this? Do I? Oh, I hope so! Because I think it is one of the most deeply true sentences ever written. Love is the best teacher in the world. It is at the heart of creation, at the center of the gospel, and is the distillation of everything Jesus came to do, to teach and to be. According to him, LOVE is the greatest of the commandments — love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. 

Why then, do so many of us who call ourselves Christ-followers engage in so many un-lovely, un-loving actions, words and thoughts? Perhaps because of what I wrote in the paragraph just above this one — because it is at the center of who we are called to be. Staying centered in love requires vigilance, humility, honesty, patience and openness. And our enemy knows exactly how to derail us as we seek to follow after Jesus. Bigotry, cruelty, and all the isms you might care to list are tools in that Enemy’s kit and WOW, do we let him have a field day in our deepest selves.

My prayer today, and every day, is for more love. I pray for an interruptor — an inner Voice to call me back, again and again, to who I am called to be, who I am designed to be: one who lives loved first, and then one who lives love.

That’s where it has to start, with living loved. If I forget — even for an instant — that God loves me, cherishes me, delights in me — then I am vulnerable to the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred that fuels so much of the vitriol that is flooding our world. When I do not stand tall in the truth of my own belovedness, then I am unable to live love out in the dailyness of my life. 

More love, Lord. More trust in the truth of who I am. More ability to live in the center of that truth in ways that reflect my Jesus.

 

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Some Fine Books on Marriage — a Book(s) Review

Three of them, to be exact — each one unique, each one valuable for different reasons. One is a daily devotional guide that provides thoughtful and humorous reflections on the realities of married life, one is a memoir about a difficult marriage, one that ultimately did not hold together, and one is a lovely apology for marriage and fidelity in an age when neither is of high value to the larger culture.

First up, “Love at First Fight,” by Dena and Carey Dyer. A disclaimer here — Dena is a dearly loved friend of mine and member of an ongoing Facebook small group that has prayed faithfully for one another for over four years, so I am a tad prejudiced. She and her husband are both talented singers, entertainers and writers and their book displays that talent beautifully (except for the singing – though a search of YouTube yields golden examples of that, as well!). Designed to be read by couples, this is a thoughtful and well-written daily guide to the ins and outs of living side-by-side with another human person, one to whom you’ve spoken words of commitment in a public setting and who then proceeds to drive you absolutely crazy on a regular basis. Humor is sprinkled heavily throughout this little book along with some pretty solid advice. They gently tackle topics like family of origin differences, personal quirks, differing energy levels, disagreements about everything from raising kids to who does what when. Both Dena and Carey are honest, sincere, funny and ultimately, kind to the core. And that is a rare gift in this crazy world of ours.

The second book was a best seller before it was released, “Love Warrior,” by Glennon Melton. I am grateful for Glennon’s presence on the web, impressed by her good works and huge readership, a group of thousands which has become a generous sister warrior community. She is outspoken, intelligent, and a clear voice for those who are marginalized and suffering. She is also a recovering alcoholic, someone who has known her share of personal sorrow and struggle. This book takes an honest look at a marriage that was troubled from the beginning and walks the reader through her husband’s infidelity and how they made their way back to some kind of wholeness in the aftermath. Just before the book’s release, however, she announced that they are now living separately (on the same street) and will soon be divorced. The writing is raw, and sometimes hard to read, but most of those who are fans will undoubtedly love every bit of it. I did not. That is a highly personal response and does not mean much, to tell you the truth. Oprah loved it, however, so what do I know??

The third book is a gem. “Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity,” by Katherine Willis Pershey is rich with personal story-telling, a case study or two, and some lovely thinking about why marriage matters and what covenant keeping looks like. Katherine is a fellow former writer for Deeper Story, a website which I miss to this day, so we have had some internet connection over the years. I also loved her first memoir, “Any Day A Beautiful Change” — a favorite read several years ago. This second book does not disappoint.

No less a figure than Eugene Peterson — my absolute favorite pastor-who-also-writes (also — Barbara Brown Taylor, so maybe not absolutely absolute!) — has this to say about the book: “. . . without question, the very best book on marriage I have ever read — and I have read many.” He also writes the forward for this book — that alone is reason enough to purchase and read it, at least in my opinion.

I need to tell you that I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review, but I would happily buy it — and I will. It will be a pleasure to give it as a gift for anyone I know who is either planning on getting married or struggling to decide if their marriage is worth salvaging. There is a winsomeness to Katherine’s writing — she is honest, admits their areas of struggle, is strongly in favor of good marital counseling, and doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of the marriage journey. But throughout every page of this book is a strong, almost palpable sense of joy and gratitude, a thread that pulls the reader along on a gentle wave of gladness. That is a gift, one that I appreciate and celebrate. I am ‘very married’ myself — for 51 years on the 18th of December this  year, and I found myself nodding with recognition all along the way. For a long list of reasons, this sweet book comes with a high personal recommendation — it is definitely worth reading.

31 Days of Aging Gracefully: Day 22 — Stepping Down

I haven’t prayed in public for over a year. And I gotta tell you, I had a case of nerves this weekend that coulda stopped a truck! I am badly out of practice! But this topic, these passages — well it was a privilege to be asked to pray into this particular service. And it fits the topic for today — the whole idea of ‘stepping down’ is completely counter-cultural . . . and completely Jesus.

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A Prayer for Worship
offered after a beautiful brass medley of:
“Amazing Grace,” “Just As I Am,” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”

October 18, 2015
Montecito Covenant Church

After reading all three scripture passages for the morning — which were incredibly rich! sometimes the lectionary outdoes itself — Isaiah 53, Hebrews 5 and Mark 10 —
this prayer somehow got a title and this was it:

The Great Reversal

Ah, Lord of Grace.
We hear these strong, joyful instruments
singing out about that great gift you
bring to each of us and to all of us:
the gift of your love,
your miraculous love,
that becomes real for us and in us
only because of your grace,
your amazing grace.

Grace that sees us exactly as we are,
and says, “Welcome. You are home here.”
Grace that invites us to take a good, long look at love,
the kind of love that you have for us,
the kind of love that you call us to live out,
the kind of love that Jesus tells us about
in all those red letters in our Bibles,
in the actions of his life while
he walked among us, as one of us,
and in the powerful ways he both invites and
empowers us to live lives that are . . .
well. . . lives that are
completely cattywampus
to what everything else in this world tries so hard to teach us.
Grace . . . that says, “Do it this way,
the different way,
the upside down way that is also sometimes the difficult way —
do it my way.”

The scriptures we’ve heard this morning,
and the one we’ll look at in just a few minutes,
they all speak about this upside-down-ness, this backward way
of living lives that truly matter,
that make a difference.

The two lessons we’ve heard already each give us word pictures
that remind us that the way of grace
is not what we expect.
Not at all.

Because we confess, Lord, we like moving up.
We like being in charge.
We like feeling successful.
We like having people look up to us,
look out for us,
and count us as one of the ‘in’ crowd.

So when we hear these words today,
we have to admit that they’re more than a little bit
jarring and disturbing:
the one who saves us and heals us
is the very one who is wounded and despised?
The one who intercedes for us with the Father
is the one who learned how to be obedient
in the midst of great suffering?

Doesn’t sound like the status quo we understand. Not at all.

And in just a few moments,
we’ll dig into the gospel lesson.
Oh my goodness!

Well, yes.
Exactly.

Oh. My.

Goodness.

And goodness trumps being part of the ‘in’ crowd, every single time, doesn’t it?
Jesus tells us directly that we are to be people who model things like:
servanthood,
humility,
gratitude,
counting others better than ourselves.
That we are to happily start taking a back seat, not a front one,
that we must simply chuck the whole idea of
‘moving up’ —
in fact, we must embrace exactly the opposite
kind of lifestyle.

Oh Lord, we need help here.
This does not come naturally to us.
Your upside down ways
reach right down into the heart of us
and shake us up.
And make us think.
And make us aware of how far we are
from practicing the grace we have received.

So we ask for your help.
We ask first that you will help our pastor to tell us this truth
in ways we can wrap our minds around.
Bless him as he brings us this hard yet wonderful word.

And then help us to take what we learn and live it this week.
And next week, too.
Help us to embrace the backward,
upside down call of your son,
and our brother, Jesus.

And oh, Lord God!
Breathe your Holy Spirit into your body,
the church, both here
and all around this aching, broken world of ours,
and teach all of us this truth,
again and again —
it is in losing our lives that we gain them,
and it is in serving that we become leaders.

Forgive us for the ways in which we
forget, ignore, refute and too often,
actively counteract
the subversive power of your grace.

May we have eyes to see,
ears to hear,
and hearts to understand.
For Jesus’ sake,
for Jesus’ sake,
Amen.

Don preached well, the congregation was engaged, and after the sermon, we sang, “All Who Are Thirsty,” and were invited to come forward and dip our hands into the baptismal font, reaffirming our baptismal vows, agreeing — once again — to live this countercultural life, this upside-down, cattywampus life.

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Where are you learning more about living upside down these days?? 

Just Wondering

A Lenten Journey: The Wilderness Trail — Day Thirty-Two

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John 12:1-11, The Living Bible

Six days before the Passover ceremonies began, Jesus arrived in Bethany where Lazarus was—the man he had brought back to life. A banquet was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus sat at the table with him.Then Mary took a jar of costly perfume made from essence of nard, and anointed Jesus’ feet with it and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with fragrance.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples—the one who would betray him—said, “That perfume was worth a fortune. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor, but he was in charge of the disciples’ funds and often dipped into them for his own use!

Jesus replied, “Let her alone. She did it in preparation for my burial. You can always help the poor, but I won’t be with you very long.”

When the ordinary people of Jerusalem heard of his arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus—the man who had come back to life again. Then the chief priests decided to kill Lazarus too, for it was because of him that many of the Jewish leaders had deserted and believed in Jesus as their Messiah.

‘Let her alone.’
An extravagant act,
welcomed by 
the very one
who defines 
extravagance.

Mary knew something.
She intuited it,
she understood it,
she acted on it.

She knew Jesus was leaving,
he was dying.
And she wanted to 
show her love.

I am sure she helped the poor,
over and over again.
But this day,
she saw ‘the poor’ in Jesus,
her master,
her friend,
the one who was dying.

And she made the truest
possible response.

Ah, help me be true, Lord.
To you.
And to the poor.

 

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