Love Is…a Confession

Genesis 3:7-21

7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock

    and all wild animals!

You will crawl on your belly

    and you will eat dust

    all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

    between you and the woman,

    and between your offspring[a] and hers;

he will crush[b] your head,

    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman God said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

    with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    through painful toil you will eat food from it

    all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

    and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

    you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

    since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

 

I sometimes really don’t like the subtitles they put on top of the different sections of the Bible chapters. This one I read just now, some have it titled, “The Fall” or “The First Sin and Its Punishment,” The editors of the Bible are presenting their understanding and theology, or the moral of the story to the reader. Its insistence and presumed authority doesn’t sit well with me, but then again I feel like that with most power and authority exercised this way. 

It’s like when my girl is playing. The other night she put on a variety of things on herself as a costume, a karate belt over one shoulder, my scarf on the other, a cape, one of my husband’s slippers on her leg and the other on her wrist. She twirled and said it was a show. And we sat and clapped saying, what a wonderful show! And I said, Jaga (that’s what I call her) is princess, because that’s what she’s been into, and she said, no! This is a “Jaga wears a weird costume show.” I said okay, Jaga wears a weird costume show wow! She handed me a piece of paper, and I said, oh is this the show notes? And she said, No! It’s a bonus card. Oh okay, thank you for the bonus card.

She hates it when you don’t listen to her directions when we’re playing. And when you listen, you find out what’s important to her. I pay attention to what and how she names, the animal, the activity, to find out how she understands the world. And honestly, it’s usually much more rich, beautiful, and fascinating than my cliches and norms. 

Our Kids Church curriculum uses a method called Godly Play, which names stories from the Bible that’s not only easier to understand for children but also in ways that are theologically appropriate. Godly Play names this Genesis 3 story as not the Fall, but “The Falling Apart: The falling apart and coming back together in a new way.” Now isn’t that a better title than “The First Sin and its Punishment?” I think so!

As a pastor, one of my jobs is translating things into today’s context, for our day to day lives. And the language sin and punishment was one way to explain and capture this relationship we have with God, that may have worked, and even worked well at one time, but I would say for me, today, it needs reworking. The title “The Fall,” this concept of things being right, and then when wronged, you fall from the graces, is trying to explain what’s happening. But what if, what if it wasn’t so hierarchical, where God is here, and you are supposed to be here, and when you sin you fall. What if, like the Godly Play title, it’s less about hierarchy and what’s right and wrong, but about relationship, the element of estrangement and turning away, the falling apart of love, and that it can be put back together in a new way. 

Today I want to talk about this, how to come back together in a new way. We’re in the series of talking about Love is…, and I titled it Love is a Confession. And I’m purposely using the “old” language, confession to try for us to go deeper into the word, get through some of the ways it has been used to coerce or control, and redefine it to find the truth of what it was trying to get at–it was never about just coming clean, but coming back. You don’t have to be clean, you just have to come back in a new way.

Understanding God through sin and confession has often been this way: you sin, you confess, and then you’re forgiven and right with God. There’s something about the act of confession that is true, but over the years, it became a ritual, and then a rule, and then just a thing you had to do. 

I think about the catholic tradition. I don’t know much except from movies and things, where you go into a little box and the priest listens from the other side and absolves you of your sin. And the concept of penance, which feels definitely archaic and foreign, even strange, that you should do something because of your guilt or shame. And at the same time, the process of moving from something wrong to something right, does seem like there needs to be some way to make it up. 

During the Reformation, the 16th century when some folks were trying to reform the catholic church, some of these traditions shifted to align with the ever progressing theology of the times. The sacrament of penance was done away with but there still needed to be some way that people could practice getting honest and real with God. So they came up with the corporate confession of sin, changing the “I confess” to “we confess.” And the underlying theology behind it was, not that you must confess in order to receive forgiveness but it became part of the liturgy, the work of the people, a kind of storytelling through declaration in worship. And this is where we got it right. [picture] Jesus is so lucky to have us.

You don’t come to receive worship, you exercise worship. You are doing the work. You are proclaiming and telling the story together. So an act in worship, like a prayer of confession, is less an act of transaction but a declaration, to say we confess boldly and safely because God’s grace and mercy is enough and abundant. By confessing our sins, we confess that God is safe, loving, and compassionate. 

Because if it is not safe, you should not confess. 

A while ago a person emailed me and the other pastors a confession. I’ve gotten their permission to share. Here’s what it said:

I am asking that you continue to keep me in your prayers as I try and gain control over my need to smoke marijuana as well as binge eating. I’ve turned to these unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with my fears and anxiety.  

Although I know that God is with me during the good and bad times… I also found comfort with these unhealthy behaviors. It’s been my dirty little secret that I felt too embarrassed to talk about or ask for prayer. In order for me to continue this path of emotional and physical healing, it’s time to address these issues. 

God has been nudging my soul and telling me that it’s time to break away from these behaviors and it’s okay to talk about it to others. During this season of Advent I’ve been praying for full liberation from the things that are holding me back from finding my inner peace. This past Tuesday, I made a promise to myself that I was no longer going to smoke marijuana or binge eat. I’ve had an eating disorder since I was a little girl. In the past I have seeked help for this but when we went on lockdown last year, my eating disorder came back. 

Today was my second day of not smoking… I was really naive in thinking because I am a light smoker that my body would not crave it if I stopped… Well I was wrong. Today was really rough but I refuse to continue to allow this to have control over me. I am and will overcome this need to turn to marijuana. Not smoking has also helped with wanting to binge eat. I know that I can do this… It’s not going to be easy but it must be done! I can honestly say being back at Reservoir Church has definitely helped in SO many ways. So thank you for all your prayers as I continue this path of finding inner peace and a closer connection with God.

It was a big thing for this person to share. When you feel like you have a secret, it feels like that. And really, we humans, all the ways we lie, cheat, steal, gloat in pride, manipulate and so on. And all that we do to cover it because we feel bad about it only makes it worse sometimes. In fact, I would go as far as to say, often it’s not even the act itself that eats us, but the secrecy and the shame from the act.

That’s why I wanted to share Genesis 3 with you today, despite the gender problematic  language in the second creation story, as opposed to the first one, which pastor Ivy read from last week, “let us make humankind in our image.” You see, the Bible is okay with diversity, even two opposing accounts of the creation. And that is what we have. Please if you’ve never heard about this, it makes a world of difference to our faith to know this one fact.

We have two creation stories. And the Jewish texts were okay laying them right next to one another. Genesis 1 is the first creation account. And 2-3 is the second creation account. We know this because the stories are two completely different styles. In fact they have two different names for God. The first one called God Elohim, and the second calls it Yahweh, which is why the biblical scholars distinguish the two to be one from the Elohist tradition and Yahwist tradition: They come from two different traditions! 

And it just so happens that the Elohist captures the creation of human beings born out of a community, let us make humankind in our image, God created them, male and female. Whereas in the Yahwist tradition, man is created first and then the whole story about the rib and Eve, AND it includes this sin and fall story. 

Honestly I think the second creation story honestly is just someone, a man, trying to explain the reason behind patriarchy with things like, God talked to the man first, and how all this came about because he listened to his wife, which he shouldn’t have, which is why after the fall her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her. Yes, I agree with Yahwists that this is a result of a broken world and that there is a way toward renewed relationship that is sewn back in a new way. There’s more I can and want to say but I’m running out of time. 

I picked text because I have a different point than we should confess. This text doesn’t even have an apology or a confession. Look at the man and the woman, they both shift blame and make excuses. Can you relate? 

But look at what God is doing. Always look at that, in any Bible story, what is God doing? The first thing God does here is ask,

“Where are you?” 

God says,

“Where are you?” 

God is looking for you. And the things that follow, they can be seen as punishment,  but it has also served as stories that explain how things came to be like why snakes don’t have legs. But after that part, how does the story end? God elevates the man-made fig leaves to garments of skin and clothed them.

God looks for you and covers you. 

Where are you?

What have you done? 

There might be some consequences but more importantly, come here, put this on. Let me cover you. Let me protect you. 

This is the work of confession. Confession is a response to God’s love, not a prerequisite. It’s a proclamation of a God that loves you, cares for you, looks for you, wants to bring you back to make things new, and sews us back together with Godself. This is our confession, not what we have done wrong but who God is regardless. Our Confession is actually, not sin, but Love. 

Let me pray for us. 

God of Love who calls us back again and again. Call us back even now, even if we were to say the things that we’re most ashamed of right now, you lift up our chins with your loving hand and say, welcome home. Lead us back to you, no matter where we’ve been, that is what we confess God… Here I am. Deliver us, back to you we pray. Amen. 

Love Is… What Will Save Us

Hey all, I’m Ivy, a pastor here, it is so awesome to be here with you today. 

Today we are still in our “Love Is….” series with next week as our last week – where Pastor Lydia will share some of her thoughts on what love is. For me, this series has been an opportunity to double down on every sermon we’ve ever given.  I mean the heart of our faith, and the hope of any message is really to communicate and invite you into the truth of God’s love.

However, I’ve found it refreshing to shape sermons that start with this truth unabashedly. And I’ve found that it exposes just how hard it is for us to really digest God’s love for us – without exception. It’s hard for us to believe, to remember and to live this out (especially with our “enemies” or those we are in conflict with). 

So this morning I want to talk about how “Love Is… What Will Save Us.” And I will unpack that word “love” a little more, and unpack that word “save” a little more (depending on your faith background, I know the word “save” can be trigger-y…it has been for me). I’ll start with the foundation of God’s nature as love – what that means about us and our essence – and how that unfolds into the world around us.

Along with the qualifier that “love” – as well as “God” – are notoriously difficult to define, (and maybe that’s not really the point anyway), but both are hard to explain, and articulate—and perhaps even harder to embody. And maybe that’s why it’s worth talking about in sermon after sermon after sermon.

Prayer

Well God, we are here for it this morning. We are here for your love. In whatever way you would like to communicate and revive that in us.  For those of us who forget, remind us that all you are is love…and remind us that in your likeness all you can see when you look upon us, when you shine your face upon us – is love. And may that be enough this morning to save us from all the voices that say otherwise. Especially our own. Amen.

At the beginning of this new year, 2022 – along with the Omicron surge, like many of you perhaps, I was just about ready to “give up!” I realized that I had reached a concerning point when I witnessed positive cases rising, hospitalizations off the charts and the decision to close our in-person services once again. And all I felt was numbness.  I couldn’t access all the emotions that I knew were just under the surface – anger, frustration, sadness – I was just numb. I felt defeated. As if the energy, innovation, work, time, thought, care, energy (x2), that I had given out over the last two years (and I know so many of you have too) – to just keep going, with a little hope in my pocket – just didn’t matter.

But somehow, I turned to God in that moment instinctively – maybe as Abel’s sermon suggested a couple weeks ago – like a sunflower turning naturally toward the sun. And I knew to keep going in this New Year that I was going to have to keep God’s face in view – to let God’s face shine upon me if I was going to keep going with any real engagement. And this long-standing practice of “praying the Psalms” came to mind – specifically praying the psalms that focus around God’s face or God’s smile shining upon us. And there are quite a few Psalms that mention this – as a way to “save us.”

I think God knew I needed the Psalms. Because the Psalms are vibrant, and a roller-coaster ride of voices of God’s people, throughout time, who are expressing their rage, joy, confusion, praise, and bewilderment of God’s presence or perceived lack thereof.  Walter Brueggemann, this Old Testament scholar who’s written a lot about the Psalms, says that the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed

by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts….that are at the bottom of our life. And the work of prayer is to bring the boldness of the Psalms and the edge of our experience together… to let them interact, play with each other, tease each other, and illuminate each other.”

And what I’ve found in nearly all 150 Psalms is that at the intersection of the edge of our real lives – and century-old voices, is God. And not just God – but God’s

“steadfast love that endures forever”

as Psalm 136 says. As I pray through the Psalms, I can see people, communities, societies, nations – screaming out at the night sky, asking “where is God?”, saying “I can’t do this anymore,” crying out to be saved. I see the thru-line of hardship, suffering, grief. And I also see the thru-line of God seeking to empower, to inspire and to persuade us in every moment with love… Saving us into love – not saving us from our lives. 

God is actually inviting us to partner with God in the continued creation of our lives. To care about this world to co-create, co-operate, co-labor with God…so that the

“world through us, and God might be saved.”  (John 3:17)

So I want to invite us into a Psalm this morning and see what we experience and discover. But first I want to start with a foundational scripture from Genesis 1:26, that might set us up well for how we can understand our relationship with God and why/how God wants to work with us in this world –versus say powering over us and what that actually means about “the force of love.” It says, 

Genesis 1: 26 (The First Egalitarian Translation)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” 

*There are a few things packed into this one verse that I want to draw your attention to….

  • We see here that God’s selves are already in relation to one another – the use of the plural pronoun “us” gives a nod in that direction.
  • The foundation of God’s self is already in relationship… and that seems important.
  • And so in God’s likeness, in God’s image – ‘we’ – our existence is marked by relationships. 
  • Our very constitution, the way by which we can be the fullest expression of God, is found when we are in relationship to God, the natural world around us, and with one another.
    This is when the fullness of God’s likeness comes into view through us.

And we also see here that our relationship to God – is not just carrying around the image of God within us but it is also responsibility … we are to be stewards of the earth and all that is in it.

Stewardship (meaning not just “to rule and to use”) but to regard our earth and all that is in it with this same relational posture…and to figure out  – how do we give to our earth? Not only consume? 

And in all this what is the nexus of this relationship? Where giving and receiving can be engaged at full force – but will not harm either the giver or the receiver?  Turns out I think it must be LOVE.

Let’s look at Psalm 8 – to flesh it out a bit more. 

Psalm 8

1 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory

    in the heavens.

2 Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

3 When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet – 

7 all flocks and herds,

    and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky,

    and the fish in the sea,

    all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Now there’s some natural flow (and overlap) in this Psalm to the verse we just read from Genesis. And there’s some depth in there that we can explore in just a second.. But I want to press into this verse 2, that perhaps is one that we might be inclined to skip… 

Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

It just doesn’t make sense – at first blush – how does it fit … Babies? And enemies? And Strongholds? 

It’s worth inspecting because sometimes these verses are the ticket to opening up more – not just about this Psalm per se – but the whole message of God and us.

To me, this verse really establishes God as the mother of all love.  

Infants have a trust, a knowing, a confidence that is birthed with them as they enter the world. A confidence in love, that helps them survive the rupture of delivery.  Their first instinct is to search for and be connected to a source that is good – that is nourishing, and sustaining. It is as if they know they are from this infinite God-source-of-love.

*we know that birth stories are all different and the immediate connection can be thwarted or interrupted*

But that force of love within is what guides their first movement and is perhaps in part what their first cry declares – to be returned to that source of LOVE. 

And the thing is there is nothing that is required. All babies have to do is engage in drinking in that goodness… receiving that flow.  There is nothing of their own will power, or effort that is essential for the establishment of this love to exist – it is already given. 

This verse reminds us that this is true for us too, that 

Romans 5:5the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit of God that has been given to us”.

And we are free to engage, to respond to that force within…ignore it, reject it –  as we see fit.

It seems though, as we do engage… that we access this truest source of love within us and know it as God  even before a set of spiritual beliefs might come into play.  This verse invites us to remember that our relationship of love with God is in our very DNA  – powerful and free, requiring nothing of us.

When we can anchor to that – everything we touch, all of our speech will be birthed with praise, “GOD IS LOVE!”  And that praise, that force of love is powerful enough to dissipate and silence any threat – any enemy, avenger that tries to disrupt that fundamental knowing of love.

This is how the moon and the stars were set in the sky… with this love of God.  This is how we are empowered to steward our relationships and this earth… with this love of God.  This is how incredible WE ARE – that we were formed to hold the force of galaxies, goodness  – LOVE within us as well.  

If I had heard this verse in the context of my faith tradition growing up – it would have been translated for me that we are utterly dependent like babies, that we have no power, we are weak – and we need to be obedient to God because God is an all powerful, all-controlling God. The message would be clear that I’m not born with inherent goodness, and that I would need to grow into the knowledge of God’s love, because I don’t have that internal compass.  

So in my experience, I heard that “God was love,” it was just that God’s love had a ladder – with different rungs. And I needed to work pretty hard to get up those rungs because otherwise I would be floundering in my insufficiency needing saving. 

So love in my context of faith – quickly became something that was definable. Traceable around groups of people, where their expression of love was to be legislated against.  Love was something to be controlled and legitimized … “what and where and with whom” love could exist was a constant conversation.  But love within – love as our essence  – wasn’t.

God’s love was something you strove for – for salvation – because humanity was not made in God’s image. Humanity was a train wreck that needed to be whipped back into shape, into order.  With obedience, discipline and an underlying pervasive fear and belief that you weren’t ever going to be good enough for God. 

I learned that love was unpredictable, risky and indeed powerful… toooo powerful in fact – that it needed to be controlled. I started to wonder though, if what we were losing through that lens wasn’t just our souls – but the transforming, redeeming, powerful force of love that God might suggest would be the very thing that could save us. 

This is why bad theology matters. Because if we read scripture, relate to God, live our lives out of the fundamental belief that we are not good… we will constantly be thrown into the deep waters of shame, guilt, worthlessness, the pursuit of perfection – where we will be gasping to be saved.

Bad theology anchors to a God who is all-controlling. It’s easier to coerce, bully someone into a set of spiritual beliefs to play by… than it is to deposit love into the universe as its primary organizing principle and connect it to a bunch of humans. Releasing the form by which that love will take shape – to the work of our hands…(that’s too risky for many, too uncertain). 

But this is what the good news is.. An uncontrolling love in our hands…at our fingertips.

If we can see that the essence of us is love – that God’s nature is love – that God cannot not love.. Then from this foundation we can read the rest of Psalm 8 with eagerness, with empowerment – with inspiration!  We can start to imagine that we …we could create new things in partnership with God that might help us showcase this love in powerful ways.

Psalm verse 3 says,

3  I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

 If we work with that foundation of everything is love, because

“God is love” (I John 4:8). 

“God’s love in us is seeking to love and be loved and to bring healing and wholeness to our world.” (Rohr)

That feels galaxies big, doesn’t it? HUGE! TOO enormous to fathom.

But in these verses we see the infinite stretch of God’s love – in ways that make the stars and moons feel so untouchable to us. So grand, BILLIONS of stars, not one could be “ours” – we understand the sky to be the canopy that envelops all of us – humanity. AND we situate ourselves sometimes in the insignificance, the smallness of being one among billions of peoples.. And we wonder how could GOD love us  – just so?  In a way that greets us personally?

It seems this has been a central question of humanity:

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

The theology of my youth – would say that is exactly right.  We aren’t really that much.

God is so powerful, so beyond reach – God is a God out there…  

I remember that not feeling very compelling to me – a God that was really really far away from me. .. how was love then, supposed to feel close?

But when we start with the primary nature of God as all controlling  –  we can’t fully incorporate a loving God.

‘Because love is uncontrolling’. (Oord).

And so we enter into a very separated experience of God, ourselves, and others.  And separation is not powerful at all –  separation in fact, weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression. A separate God is one who does not seek to relate to you, it is a God who is over you seeking for you to change, to prove your “goodness,” your “discipline,” your “perfection” (which is a figment of the colonial imagination), all in efforts to then be saved. Saved unto what? A grid of rules? Doctrines that are hollow – formed by fear? 

No wonder that the writer of John wrote

“in perfect love there is no fear”.

The opposite of fear is not fearlessness, it is love. In love you can be afraid, but there is something deeper in love than there is in the hollowness of fear. – Padraig O’Tuama

But here in this Psalm we find the depth of love…and the width and the height of God’s love. God established the placement of each moon and each star with care, with love.  It wasn’t just (all) random…not a scatter shot. God embedded in the very design of the universe the energy of love and relationship. Many scientists have pointed this out, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who also was a  Jesuit priest  – that love is

“the very physical structure of the Universe.” That, gravity, atomic bonding, planets, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields,

and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in

a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.” (Rohr)

And the energy is not IN the planets, or IN the atomic particles – the energy is found in the relationship between them. 

It is from this truth that we can shout (as the children and babies did), “HOW MAJESTIC is your name God!”  Not only because God is so powerful   – but because we get it – we get the closeness of this design in everything to be relational… and with Love as the powerful force, it doesn’t seem so far out of reach actually.  In fact, we feel resourced to act and move in our lives with the same far out, creative energy that hangs over our head in the skies  – because then it feels as present as relating to, and loving our neighbor. 

It’s then not too much of a stretch to imagine that “with care, with favor, with delight…. God shines God’s face upon us.”

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet   

God adores us so much that God invites us to partner in caring for, loving and creating this world.  We have much to do. But it is helpful to remember that

Love is not really an action that you do. Love is what and who you are.” (Rohr)

“And time and time again we will forget that this is true – and we will lean into the desperation that accompanies believing otherwise.” (20) – Candice Marie Benbow.

AND this is what we need saving from –  voices that come against this truth – our own internal voices, our history, trauma, experiences – story, society, structures, systems – all these foes and avengers ….but God has called us  – humanity – to be its highest self via this flow of love, and to shake free these voices that demand us to be more

perfect to receive God’s love, because God already loves Godself in us and therefore we are perfectly lovable.” (Rohr)

“A hope, a purpose of theology is to clarify the central, foundational, nature of God, at the center of everything – is LOVE. God has done only one constant thing since the beginning of time: God has always forever, without hesitation, loved “God’s child” (Rohr),

US!,  creation, the moon and the stars … the herds, the flocks, the birds, the fish

 AND! God wants us to be a part of  all of it – not just a separate “part” – but a conjoined partner  …. This is how we create – grow Beloved Community. 

As I sat with this psalm with my spiritual director this week – the first thought to hit me was

“oh no – so much responsibility – so much work..to do on this earth.”

But then I remembered that last Sunday morning on my way into the building, I tried to practice “keeping God’s face in view,” as I had declared at the start of the new year. And I paused outside, it was snowing like crazy, and I heard a bird nearby… singing a song so loud, it was kind of out of place, it was a spring song by a male cardinal.

I stopped and looked for it, and it was in the tree just outside, so gorgeously red – so big and fluffy and full –  in a bare tree with snow falling all around. It was stunning… it hit me squarely in the heart and I smiled – and just stood there for a few minutes . . knowing that that was God and God’s love to me. 

I felt the saving grace of it. I wasn’t in turmoil. But it steadied me for the hours to come where 200 donuts intended for our service were lost and delivered not on this campus, and it saved me from feeling like I was a mess up when I couldn’t get home in time to be part of something on the homefront… and that’s the tiniest and biggest truths about God’s love – so personal and so mysterious.

This is the demanding, powerful force of love that can overcome us – can transform us and everything we touch. And it will be the force that saves us from falling into the characteristics of work here on earth that can become more striving than fulfilling, more of a grind than a passion expressed, more of a meter of our worth than an extension of who we already are.

There are thousands of moments throughout our days that will try to avenge us – tear us down – separate us from God’s love within. But there are also billions and billions of droplets of God’s love that are placed with care (as God does the stars in the sky), with attention, with personal whim… just for you to encounter. So much so that if you could turn around and look at your life you would see a trail of stardust formed in the most beautiful constellation of you and God. We cannot find salvation outside of the powerful force of God’s love.  

Prayer

Save us, O God.

Help us to remember that your name indeed is majestic in all the earth.

Help us to remember that we were created as love.

Help us to establish the work of our hands.

Drench them in your love, reminding us that we hold in our hands the power/the energy/and force to place a star in the sky – and love in the heart of another.

Amen.

Love Is a Semicolon

I’d like to read our scripture first today. It’s a very short excerpt from Isaiah 43 that will launch us into today’s teaching, which focuses on the themes of this whole larger section of Isaiah.

Isaiah 43:18-19 (New Revised Standard Version)

18 Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.

Today’s talk is called “Love is a semicolon.” I love semicolons so much I recently got one tattooed on my wrist. It’s right here. Today’s my shot to tell you why I did that, for me but for maybe for all of us too. 

I love semicolons for nerdy, English teacher reasons. The semicolon is one of the less common punctuation marks – looks like a period above a comma. For different reasons, they’re fun and useful to teach about. You can teach a lot of grammar and usage in the English language by talking about semicolons. 

They’re interesting to use too. The most common use of a semicolon is when you’ve got a sentence and you want to slap another sentence onto it without separating them and without adding any of those little connecting words like “and”, “so,” or “but.” And when you do that, the second part of the sentence, that part after the semicolon, really matters.

A semicolon indicates there is more to say. The thought isn’t over.

This is why the semicolon has become significant as a symbol amongst those who have faced or care about depression, suicide, addiction, or self-harm. The semicolon says that the past doesn’t tell our whole story. There’s always a future story yet to be told. 

The semicolon dares to hope about this future that the best is always yet to come.

I believe this is true, always, which is why love is a semicolon. 

The scripture I read to you is from the portion of Isaiah – chapters 40-55 – written to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. They were among the many ancient peoples who had seemed to face their end. I remember many years ago when Grace and I were in Xinjiang, far Northwest China, a Uyghur friend discreetly said to me, Look around. They are destroying our culture. In the future, will we even exist?

This was the fear of the Judean exiles. Like so many refugees today, they would have faced deaths in their families, other wartime traumas. They lived in a land where they mostly couldn’t speak the language, where they faced insults and discrimination on the regular, and where there was no route back to the better days of their past. 

This Babylonian exile looked like an end to these Judeans.

I haven’t faced war or exile in my life, but I’ve had times where I faced sad endings, smaller ones, but ones that mattered to me. One of those was about 19 years ago this month. I had a newborn child, and I had hit another professional dead end, and I was really scared.

See, when I was younger, I’d been in the classical music scene, and it’s a pretty niche field, but I had a lot of success early. Then, being young and naive and impressionable, I dumped all that to be a young college campus minister. I was underqualified, I was underpaid, and frankly, I kind of underperformed too. I had tried doing Christian ministry to college students because at the time it seemed like something that would make God proud of me or happy about my life or something.

But like I said, I wasn’t great at the work, and it was having a negative effect on my happiness, on my finances and my future, even on my marriage. So I quit, and after a long and awkward bit of spinning my wheels, working odd jobs, dropping out of a graduate school program, I eventually found a job as a public school teacher. And almost two years into that, I thought I had found not just a job, but a career, something I was good at, something I enjoyed, something that really helped other people, and something that over time would help support the family we were having, with this first baby child of ours. 

And then I was laid off. 

I wondered if I’d get my job back, or if this was yet another dead end.

I wondered if I’d be able to support my baby daughter and my wife who was trying to finish her graduate degree as a new mom.

And I was haunted by a fear that had deep roots in me, going back to childhood, that my life – as much potential as it once seemed to have – would end up being a failure. 

A lot of us have been facing what look like dead ends. In my circles, I know people who have faced the death of a loved one and can’t get through the grief. I know kids and their parents whose anxieties and depression and struggles are just relentless and not getting better. I know families that are torn apart over politics, over unhealed conflicts, over unaccountable, bad behavior. I know people whose marriages seem to have entirely run out of joy and intimacy. 

And I know people whose faith in God is hanging by a thread, mostly gone. 

I know you know these stories too. I know that some of you are living these stories. To all of us at what looks like the end of a sad story, what does God have to say to us? 

I look to this section of Isaiah not just because of the story of the exiles it addresses, but because for Chrisitans, Isaiah has been so important that it has sometimes been called the great prophet, or the fifth gospel. Another source of good news. Its poetry about God’s heart for Judeans in the ancient Near East seems to echo down through history with truth about God’s ways in all times and places.

So what does God have to say to us in our dead ends?

Well, Isaiah tells us:

Thus says the Lord,

    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

 I am the Lord, your Holy One,

    the Creator of Israel, your King.

 Thus says the Lord,

    who makes a way in the sea,

a path in the mighty waters,

And then the bit we read at the start:

Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

 

Two things here.

God tells us that we can not go back to the past. The good and the bad – all of it – it’s gone, over. We can’t go back.

For me in my crisis 19 years ago, that meant I couldn’t remake the choices of my early and mid-20s. I couldn’t reach back and grab opportunities I’d passed on. They were gone. I couldn’t rewind my life to a time without financial responsibilities. I certainly couldn’t rewire my family’s story or the story of what was off base in my early years of faith in Jesus, and some of the other things that had set me up for this failure or fear of failure. I carried that with me.

The same with all our dead ends and blocks – we can’t go backwards. 

We can’t go just “back to normal” after two years of pandemic fear and caution. We’re different now.

We can’t go back to the naive faith of our childhood if we’ve lost that. That particular form of faith we lost for a reason.

We can’t go backwards on anything. 

So whether it’s a warm nostalgia for the past, like we see in the whole Make America Great Again movement, or whether it’s a painful fixation on the past, like those of us who live with ruminating regret, trying to recover or fix or return to the past is never going to work. It’s not going to have power to help us move forward. 

What God does tell us, though, is that there is always a hopeful future.

God says,

“I am about to do a new thing… a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” 

Everytime we start to write that period, that ending into our story, God invites us to try a semicolon instead. There’s always a next chapter.

A new thing. 

For me, this meant a new way of thinking about work and failure and my life mission. In my fears that I had somehow reached the end of my vocational and financial future at age 29, I was praying that spring and reading the prophets of exile as inspiration for prayer, and I felt like God was inviting me to think less about my job prospects and more about my identity, values, and aspirations in life. 

As I called to mind who I was and what I cared about most deeply, I remember a particular morning when I went out very early to pray. I awoke in the dark and rode to the ocean to pray at sunrise because I needed hope and vision and had a sense that God would find me with it there. And that sunrise along the ocean, it came to mind with great clarity, like a promise from God:

Steve, you know who you are. Your values, your best desires are clear, and your calling is just to pursue these things no matter what job you’re in. The job doesn’t matter. You are who you are, not what you do. And no matter what happens, no matter what you gain or lose, you will never be a failure. You are not a failure to me, and you never will be.

Friends, I can’t tell you how freeing that vision of my future was. That I am who I am, not what I do. It was time to let go of worrying so much about what job I had and how secure it was. It was time to fully be who God made me to be within any job I had or could find, and beyond jobs entirely too, and the rest would take care of itself. 

This was so freeing and empowering for me, a different way of embracing a very hopeful future.

For Israel too, their return from exile would be different. They weren’t getting their same temple back, their same set of lands, their same way of being in the world. History had moved on from all that. 

But they were getting a hopeful future. Their return from exile under Persian rule allowed them to resettle in and around the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, even while others lived in a diaspora that would continue spreading in the centuries to come. In this new future, things like the written word – what became the Jewish Bible, what Chrisitans call the Old Testament – would take on greater meaning.

Charismatic prophets would slowly take on a less central role in speaking for God, and people’s own lives of prayer would become more important. Israel’s faith that God always does good to the faithful and always does bad to the unfaithful would change and grow – take on more realism, more nuance – less about God’s punishment and rewards, more about God’s presence in all things. Their lives and faith would be less about their own tribe and people and more about their life among the nations, and their call to be blessed to be a blessing to the whole world.

This section of Isaiah and what comes beyond is gorgeous poetry because it is so full of vision and hope for what people who are loved by God and know God can be. And it starts with faith that God is always about to do a new thing, that just now, it is springing forth. Look for it. Perceive it.

I don’t know what it is, but I am confident that in whatever stalled places and dead end places you find in your lives, there too God is doing new things. There is invitation to make some peace with the unchangeable past, perhaps even to grieve and let go and move on. And there is invitation to pay attention to the new possibilities that are available.

Ask God. Search your hearts. Literally or metaphorically, pray by the ocean at sunrise, asking God to discern the hopeful future before us all. 

It is there for you, and for the people you love. I promise you.

The follower of Jesus has the audacity to believe this even in the face of death, that with a God who knows and loves us, and with a God of creative redemption, the best is always yet to come. 

Let’s close with just a couple more words about the pivot God makes with us, the shift God encourages us to make when we turn from the irretrievable past to God’s hopeful future. When we erase that period of finality and doom we feel and embrace how love is a semicolon. 

There are two things here – one maybe surprising and one review. 

The surprising one is this.

To embrace God’s new and beautiful thing, the word of God in Isaiah commands us to renounce idols

That took a strangely ancient, religious turn, didn’t it?

Renounce idols. What does that even mean?

Idols are anything other than the living God that we cling to in our insecurity to tell us who we are or make us feel 100% safe and secure. They can be secular or religious, ancient or modern. But we’re asking them to do things they can not do for us.

So to renounce idols is just to do what Isaiah does again and again. It’s to tell the truth about them. That we can’t trust them to take care of us, and we can’t trust them to love us and make meaning of our lives like God can. 

A couple examples:

Where God met me in my despair over my future 19 years ago, renouncing idols was saying that I am no longer what I do. I am who I am. My job title, pay, security, or success is not the measure of my meaning and worth. It’s not how I measure whether I’m a failure or not. And it’s not what ensures a good future for me. I am who I am – beloved child of God, made for love and purpose that goes beyond the particulars of any job. 

That’s the renunciation of an idol and an embrace of God.

When people say: you’re work won’t love you back, this is what they’re saying. Not that you can’t love your job or work hard, but that your job can’t define you or tell you your meaning or worth. That’s idolatry. 

When it comes to my despair over my children’s struggles, I’ve sometimes been confronted by God to let go of the idolatry of the so-called perfect child. Whatever my dream or vision is of a “perfect child” or whatever lies my culture or community have told me about all a kid needs to be to be happy and successful, I need to let that go in my heart and trust that God loves my kids.

God loves all kids, and God can give them a safe and happy future the same way God does with me – not by everything being successful and easy, but by always doing a new thing, and by charting paths or beauty and redemption even after and through every weakness and struggle.

This is true of faith deconstruction too. If your faith has changed, even if it has seemingly weakened, sometimes we’re called to renounce idols associated with our earlier, more certain faith. Maybe we need to let go of always thinking we’re right. Maybe we need to let go of thinking we can know all the answers. Maybe we need to let go of thinking we’re better than our friends or neighbors or enemies that do not follow Jesus. Sometimes letting go of things that aren’t ours to have helps open up what God can give us. 

What dream, what fantasy I might say, do you embrace of what will make you secure, what will tell you that you are safe and loved, that isn’t real, and that isn’t God? It might be time to let that go. To say to yourself:

I know this isn’t true. I want God to tell me I’m loved and safe. I want to build my future on what’s true. 

And then secondly, the review. To see and say yes to the new thing God is doing, we are called to embrace a novel future, to look for and wholeheartedly go after the best creative possibility that is available to us today, given where we’ve been, who we are, and what our circumstances are. 

God is always speaking hope to us, not vague sentiments of hope, but concrete, hopeful possibilities. Some might argue that this is the primary way God speaks – always luring us, always inviting us to the next best possibilities for ourselves, for our communities, for this earth, even for God. 

Embracing curiosity and attention for what those are, year by year, day by day, moment by moment is the life of hope and faith God has for us.

Friends, as we wrap up and pray, let me say that I am really excited for the spring season of Lent we have before us this year. This year’s Lent, the six weeks before Easter, is called Water of Life. It’ll be all about the vitality, the refreshment and rejuvenation, the healing and abundance, the life that God has for us all.

It begins in three weeks. Guide for personal and community group use will be available in about two weeks. It’s an invitation to vitality, to faith, to hope, to the water of life God has for it all. Pray for what God has for us in that season, and please plan on participating. More on that in the weeks to come. 

Friends, God’s best is yet to come. 

God says to us to today:

Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.

Let’s pray. 

Love Is a Sunflower

Hi everyone, I’m so glad that I get to be with you today.

The text I want to spend some time with today is from Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10:

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

So, before I dive into that text, I want to set the stage with a story from my own life. Back when I first from graduated college, I worked as a high school debate coach for a couple of years. I worked mostly with 8th and 9th graders – my job was to coach people through their novice season and give them a foundation of skills to build on later.

Now, I’ve always been a really effusive person, and I love using endearments and terms of affection for people that I care about. But I didn’t want to be too familiar with my students or make anybody uncomfortable, so I decided to pick a nickname all my own to use. I’m not really sure why I landed on this nickname in particular – but I wound up calling them sunflowers.

They’d come back and tell me they’d won a round and I’d say,

“I knew you could do that, sunflower.”

Or I’d start of practice, getting their attention with the name. When I gave them all little awards for the year, I put a sunflower on their certificates.

Because it was so prevalent, the image has very much stuck with me in the years since, whenever I think of that time, but now the more I think about it, the more I think it was unexpectedly applicable. Today, I want to share why, why when I think of love, I think of a sunflower.

So, to explain, let me share the first thing I always tell a new group of students when I start coaching them. I sit them down, usually at the end of the first practice, after we’ve played some games and I’ve started to get to the know them. I tell them,

if you’re in this activity because you want to win, find something different to do.

Because, no matter how good you are, there will always be someone out there who’s better. That’s not to say you’ll never win or that you shouldn’t try to or that you shouldn’t enjoy winning. But, if you think the only point to doing this is winning, if you measure your identity as a debater, as a student, as a person, by the number of wins you have – it really doesn’t matter how much you win, because there will always be a point at which you lose. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are, somebody, someday will be able to beat you.

Instead, I tell them,

find something about this activity that you love – research, public speaking, whatever – and focus your energy on pursuing that. Wins will likely follow – but, in any case, you’ll be much happier and get a lot more out of it.

I’m pretty proud of that advice.

And I’m pretty terrible at following it. At least in my life outside of debate.

Our text today is often referred to as the story of the rich young ruler and I think I’m a lot like that young man. Well, I’m not rich or a ruler. But, if I imagine someone introducing me like the writer introduces the rich young ruler, I assume they’d say something like: the grad student, the intern, the person with these degrees or who holds that job. Maybe I’d be a bit more expansive: perhaps I’m the wife or the sister or the daughter, but, nevertheless, it’s likely to be something that’s immediately obvious from my Facebook page. I would have a title, a role, a descriptor.

And that’s not really a problem. I am all of those things and most, if not all of them, are good. But there’s a difference between recognizing that I am those things and thinking that they are all that I am.

I did debate for many years and I was good at it. I was a winning debater. But, like I tell my students, if that’s all I am, what happens when I lose?

What happens when I’m a student but don’t make the grade, what happens when I’m an employee but don’t perform and what happens when I’m a sister who fails in my obligations?

I think the rich young ruler sensed some of this tension. I imagine him as someone who was doing just a great job at being a rich young ruler. I mean, he had to be, right, to come out and say, publicly and point blank, that he had kept the entire law since his childhood. Wish I had that confidence.

Except he didn’t, really, did he? If he was so confident in his keeping the law, if he really believed that it was enough, if he thought that he actually was such a perfect rich young ruler – then why is he here, asking Jesus what else he can do? I think he’s here in this story because, despite all his bravado, he doesn’t feel like he’s enough.

He feels like something’s wrong. And whether that’s because he’s failed in some way he’s hiding from Jesus or himself or just because he’s scared he will fail someday, I don’t know. But I feel that way too.

I can keep winning debates as much as I want, but if that’s the most important thing, I will always be scared of the day that I lose.

Let me take this out of the hypothetical. I said that I coached debate after I finished college, but the real story is how I got there in the first place.

I’d been a debater for many years, yes, but that had never been the career plan. In college, I studied math and my plan was to get a career in that field, hopefully in academia. I spent years building my skills and my experiences to that end before it all came crashing down.

The summer before my senior year I was at school, doing math research. During that same summer, like happens to so many young 20-somethings before me, my mental health took a turn for the worse. I suddenly found myself unable to do things that had been, if not easy, then very much within my reach before. I found myself overwhelmed by even the most mundane tasks, barely able to turn in a journal entry or keep up with my emails. I was managing new levels of anxiety on a daily basis.

By the fall, due to side-effects of ineffective medication, I was having at least one panic attack every day. By the time I got that particular chemical imbalance sorted out, I’d missed deadlines for grad school applications and had to pull out of a class I would have needed to be competitive for grad school. While I was lucky – incredibly lucky – to still be able to graduate given the circumstances of the year, I did so without any idea what to do with myself and a resume that no longer fit any realistic career path, at least an immediate one.

I am at a bit of a loss to describe how that all felt. I had defined myself as a successful academic for so long that when I lost the ability to perform to my and other people’s standards, it felt like I was losing myself entirely. My perceived intelligence and standard of academic output was so completely wrapped up in my identity that my brain’s malfunction felt like a betrayal of my being.

I never knew what I’d be capable of on any given day, I didn’t know who I was without those capabilities. I had been a smart student for most of my life and I suddenly found myself a student no longer and without any guarantee that I could even use my smarts, such as they were, any more.

It was this version of myself that found me coaching debate at a high school. A version of myself that was haggard, intellectually and emotionally, unsure of who I wanted to become and even less sure how to get there.

Much like the rich young ruler, I thought I knew what it meant to be me. I had a vision of how to enter the kingdom of heaven. And, quite suddenly, I found that vision wanting.

You know the cool thing about sunflowers? They follow the sun. Like, they move. Over the course of day, they track the sun’s movement in the sky. They don’t just face one way, all certain-sure of themselves; they keep turning, every day, towards the thing that gives them life.

I think there’s a sense in which that’s Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler says,

‘I’ve achieved everything I think I should be. I am the best me that I can be, I’ve picked the best direction to face. How can I make that better?’

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said,

‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”

The rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking what else he can do, since he’s already good. And Jesus makes him question what goodness is in the first place. The rich young ruler says,

‘what can I add to myself now that I am such a wonderful rich young ruler?’

And Jesus says,

‘you’re asking that question because you think that the ‘rich young ruler’ is all you are. Can I invite you to a better way of being?’

I want to be clear; I think Jesus is definitely actually telling this man to divest himself of privilege and give his money to the poor in the most literal sense. I just also think he’s asking for more than a one-time thing. I don’t think that this command would be fulfilled with one day of generous, even extremely generous, giving. It’s not like he could sell everything, then hoard wealth for the rest of his life and Jesus would be like ‘cool.’

No, the point is that Jesus invites the rich young ruler into a new kind of relationship with others, a new way of understanding goodness and what it means to be good. He opens up the possibility of a version of identity that’s not based on how many good actions he’d done in the past, instead based on right relationship with others, as messy and changeable as that is.

That’s what I mean by the sun.

The rich young ruler walked away from this exchange shocked and sad – and why shouldn’t he? I’ve had my identity uprooted the way that Jesus was asking this man to uproot his – and it hurts. But it did give me the chance for something better.

See, when I was coaching debate, something occurred to me. I’d spent so much of my life thinking I was going to do something ‘big and important.’ I thought I was all those big and important things I was going to do. And I realized, one day, that I had had a measurable, tangible, meaningful effect on my students’ lives. Not a huge one, mind you. But not nothing either. I had made others’ lives better in some capacity.

And I realized that that was enough. That if that were the sum total of what my life ‘accomplished,’ that would be ok. That maybe, instead of winning, I could focus my passion for life on that.

Meaningful relationships give me life. They are where my faith manifests. I see God in the faces of the people that I love and I feel in touch with the Divine when I try to make others’ lives better.

Jesus asked the rich young ruler to stop being rich, yes – but he also offered him something in its place. A being based in his relationship to others rather than what he held over and above them. A being based around things that give life rather than everything this young man thought made his life.

And Jesus asks me to do that every day, to keep turning away from all my self-serving, grandiose ideas of myself, from the idea that I need to be successful enough, smart enough, good enough – and towards being in right relationship today.

This turn gives me hope. Like the sunflowers that inspired me, I keep turning towards the sun.

Love Is a Hell, No! And a Heaven, Yes!

Last week, I spent some time at the Mildred C. Haley Apartments in Jamaica Plain celebrating a big win for public housing residents in Boston. I showed up because my friend Beverly Williams was speaking at the event. Beverly is the co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, who’d helped organize this effort. 

And she was giving a speech that day at the mayor’s celebration of 50 million dollars devoted to maintenance and improvement there and some much needed renovations in some other public housing. These long overdue funds are coming because people who grew up in and live in public housing organized together to get what they deserve. And as a co-leader of GBIO, Beverly Williams was one of those people.

In her speech, she talked about growing up in public housing herself and seeing all of the government programs and policies that broke up Black families and communities and blocked paths to economic prosperity for her and her neighbors and her community. 

Bev also had a career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools. And there she saw too many of her Black student’s families and her former students needlessly brought into the criminal justice system, having their paths to flourishing blocked. And at some point, Bev said to herself:

Hell, no! I’ve got to see better. I’ve got to do more.

And so when she retired as a teacher, instead of moving to Florida or kicking back, she became an organizing force – helping lead GBIO’s criminal justice reform campaign, and later becoming our co-chair. Bev’s no to sitting back and her yes to justice for her community has helped change our city, helped change our state, and has helped change GBIO, all for the better.  

And it started with what I’m calling today a hell, no! And a heaven, yes! A frustration, a resistance, a not letting it go anymore – hell, no! And a desire, a commitment to be for something good, to stand for something right, to work for something better – a heaven, yes! 

Love is warmth and kindness and affection and friendship. Yes, absolutely. But love also is a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! Which is the topic of today’s sermon.

Today’s Hell, no! and heaven, yes! love takes us to the Bible’s book of Esther, which is a barn burner of a story. 

I’m drawn to Esther for a few reasons. It’s significant to me. Years ago, I was asked to consider applying for the position at Reservoir I have now. And what turned my initial “hell, no!” to a “heaven, yes!” was a line from the book of Esther, the words “for such a time as this” that I appropriated for that time and place. Aware that God sometimes asks people to do strange things in unique times and places, I became open to how that might be true in my own life, for such a time as this.

Esther, though, is not my story. It’s not even our story, or church’s stories at all. Esther is first the possession of the Jewish people, as it tells the story of genocide averted and of Jewish survival and resilience under the Persian empire, and of so many other empires. Jewish communities still tell this story and celebrate its victory in a holiday called Purim, which is coming up in just a few weeks. There are several synagogues near where my family lives, and we  can hear the raucous Purim celebrations from the streets. They remember and reenact a community’s hell, no! to injustice and extinction and heaven, yes! to survival and flourishing. It’s a great holiday.

I’m drawn to Esther too because of some teaching I heard from a gifted Black pastor named Dominique Gilliard on a Christian justice podcast called Inverse. I’ll put the link to that podcast  in the sermon notes we publish on our website. 

He talks about how Esther’s heroism is born out of complex, generational trauma. I promise you there will be no details in my talk, but a heads up that the story includes racial and cultural and sexual violence and trauma. Here’s the short version of the story, which will include today’s text:

In recent generations, Jews had been subject to a military campaign against them that put them into exile under the Persian empire and subject to campaigns of cultural assimilation, much like Native Americans have faced in this land, for instance.

And the book of Esther opens with the great king of Persia, Xerxes, throwing a months-long celebration of his own might and awesomeness. And at the end of all this, there was a kind of week-long afterparty for all the VIPs, so he could further impress his buddies and all the other top people in the kingdom. There was a week-long open bar, with Xerxes showing off everything he could.

Until he realized after seven days that he had just one more thing he hadn’t shown off yet, which was his trophy wife, the most ravishingly beautiful Queen Vashti, whom he ordered to appear at the party and to show off her beauty.

And that’s where we get the text’s first “hell, no!” Vashti on the one hand is a person of privilege. She’s the queen of Persia, after all. But we see again and again in Esther that privilege is intersectional and complex. The most privileged people can still sometimes be put in their place and subject to violence by someone higher up the food chain. And the seemingly least privileged people and communities can still find ways to exercise their voice and power.

Anyway, Vashti – after plenty of experiences of living under patriarchy, faces one more experience of possible sexual assualt, and this time she says, hell, no! But not wanting to see a #metoo movement of women’s voices and strength break out, the ruling men of the kingdom make sure she is put in her place. She’s basically divorced and put into exile in her own land, and the king opens up applications for a new first lady.

That’s where Esther comes onto the scene. As a teenager, she’s drafted into a nationwide beauty pageant, which really isn’t that at all. It’s a round up of young subjects for entrance into the king’s harem, with the faint possibility of becoming the replacement queen.

She’s a child of trauma – she’s been orphaned, she’s part of the Jewish exile community. And her adopted caregiver, her cousin Mordecai, tells her to hide her ethnicity and pass as a Persian, when she goes to the harem, so she won’t get into any trouble. She agrees, and in time, the king chooses her to be his replacement queen. And she takes her place in that role and in that bed, hiding her identity and living in this strange mix of fear and privilege. 

Esther and her cousin Mordecai both prove useful to the king, but for a variety of reasons the king is manipulated by his advisors into signing off on anti-Jewish, discriminatory legislation that becomes a threat to disposses and kill all the Jews in the kingdom. 

That takes us to today’s text, where Mordecai has told Esther she has to out herself as a Jew and use her position as a queen to put a stop to all this, before it’s too late. Esther at first says,

“Hell, no. I may be the queen, but if I step out of line, things will be no better for me. Even I can’t speak to the king without permission.”

But Mordecai pleas for her to change her mind. Which takes us to today’s text, in chapter four.

Esther 4:12-17 (Common English Bible)

12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words,

13 he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace.

14 In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”

15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai:

16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.”

17 So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.

Hell, no! And heaven, yes! This language isn’t in the book of Esther of course. And in case my friend Beverly doesn’t like all this “hell” talk, let me say the hell, no! heaven, yes! language isn’t hers either. It isn’t even mine.

I got it from a psychologist named Dan Allender who uses this language to talk about “nos” and “yeses” we feel and say when we’re called to the courage to make changes in ourselves and in our world. We find the strength of a hell, no! to something that isn’t as it should be, isn’t worthy of us and of God and this good world God made. And we find the courage and love of a corresponding heaven, yes! – a commitment to beauty, and goodness, and truth that is worthy of us and of God and this good world God made.

Here we see a deeper “hell, no!” and a powerful “heaven, yes!” is born in Esther. She comes back into solidarity with her own people and realizes: I cannot stay silent. I will not stand by why my people are dispossessed and rounded up and killed. Hell, no! 

Instead, with Mordecai’s help, she catches a redemptive vision for this privilege she never asked for, probably never wanted. Maybe it was all for such a time as this. Heaven, yes! She can align her voice, her privilege, with God’s purposes. And she says yes to her role in saving her people. 

This past week included international Holocaust Remembrace Day. In the past, I’ve been part of commemoration ceremonies. The Holocaust marks a time in Jewish history, and in world history, where too few people of privilege said hell, no! to the antisemitc violence of that era, too few said heaven, yes! to the justice and love of God. And these commemorations invite us to remember, and to resolve – that in the face of injustice, in the face of things that are not as they are meant to be we will summon courage to say “no” and to align whatever privilege or power we have to a “yes” to God’s better ways, in our own times and cultures and circumstances. 

I shared a bit of my friend Bev’s story, as she faced retirement and reflected on all the youth and families whose paths hadn’t gone like hers, of her hell, no! to the ongoing systemic racism diminishing Black Bostonian lives and communities. And of the heaven, yes! she’s found in using her voice and leadership and relationships to lead in GBIO and secure more justice for Black Bostonians and for all Bostonians and residents of this state. 

I wonder how this voice speaks to us. I wonder how this form of love calls to each of us today. We each have our lives, our circumstances, our one precious, powerful voice. 

Because if God lives with us, if God lives among and within us, and if God sees this world not as it should be, not yet in tune with God’s loving justice, then God has a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! for us all to discover. God’s love includes God’s own passionate hell, no! to all that mars the beauty of what God has made.

And God’s love includes God’s own hopeful heaven, yes! to everything that restores beauty and justice and goodness and truth. And God has people and circumstances in our lives like Mordecai to help us find our hell, no! and heaven, yes! Too. For us awaken to the power of our privilege and the possibility of our voice working for loving justice in our spheres.

Where do we find this? Amidst all that is wrong in the world, and amidst all the ways God longs to make things whole, where do we partner with God? 

Three things come to mind. I think God can call us to align with the love of hell, no! and heaven, yes! In at least three places. In our heartbreak, in our anger, and in our privilege.

The heartbreak angle is where this has been speaking to me. 

Last year at some point I read about the phenomenon of COVID languishing – where you’re not quite depressed, but the losses and interruptions of this pandemic have sapped your energy and hope and left you in kind of a listless, low energy paralysis. 

And I thought: that’s me. So much, so long. And the particular ways I felt that heartbreak, I started asking:

does it have to be this way?

And there some places where I started to feel:

hell, no! it doesn’t. 

And I’m not talking about trivial things, like: I’m tired of having to wear a mask in the supermarket. No, that’s like the most minor of inconveniences. I’m talking about the losses and malaise in the lives of some teenagers in my life. And I’m talking about putting relationships on hold, or the vitality of this Reservoir community going on hold, or wondering if my life mission and life’s joy needed to be on hold. And I thought:

hell, no!

I can take care of my health, and look after my loved one’s health, and participate in responsible public health measures while also starting to interrupt some patterns of malaise in my life and still living. And for a season, I started asking, where can I show up for life today? Where can I show up for hope today, my own or someone else’s? 

For a while I was praying this written prayer each morning:

Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord.” 

For me in that prayer, the sin and adversity language was about drifting toward lethargy and despair. Which I didn’t need any more of. And I started finding that each day I could give time and energy to what this prayer calls “the fulfilling of God’s purpose,” And when I could say “heaven, yes!” to showing up for one of my kids, or one of you, or for work I was made for, or even for a few moments of wholehearted rest and delight, I had more strength and hope. I felt more alive.

It’s a weird thing that for those of us who’ve lived in the West in relative privilege and affluence, the pandemic is calling for two things – it’s calling for surrender – to let go of our illusions of control and accept whatever comes in life. And it’s calling for struggle – to not just cave to the most dire of our fears, but to choose life still and choose hope and purpose each day where we can. Surrender and struggle – an odd combination, maybe – but I think resilience is found in that combination. 

So that’s me finding a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! in heartbreak. But you can find it in anger and in privilege too. Where you’re awakening to anger – anger at what’s wrong in the world, anger at how you’ve been done wrong in your life, anger at the crap that you or others get dealt or need to put up with, that anger is an invitation to disruption. That anger is calling out for a big hell, no! to something that needs to change and a heaven, yes! to something good and redemptive and just in its place.

Anger’s a funny thing. We can feel threatened by our own anger and want to shut it down. Certainly we can feel threatened by other people’s anger. We live in times of a lot of coming into the power and expression of Black anger, Asian anger, women’s anger. And a lot of us – certainly white guys like me can be like, woah, woah, woah, why is everyone angry? Can’t we just get along?

But anger isn’t by itself a threat. Anger is so often the voice of truth and the energy of change if we’ll let it be. When Mordecai went to Esther and was like: you have got to speak up! At first she’s like:

no, no, I can’t, and calm down.

But he isn’t having that. His heartbreak and anger know better. Hell, no to the diminishment and destruction of a people. And Esther listens.

Same with privilege. When people have voice and power and opportunity, that’s not inherently bad. It’s just a problem if it’s hoarded or not used well, and it’s a problem if it’s unearned privilege that is denied to someone else or some other community. Esther has immense privilege. So do many of us. And with privilege comes opportunity, and responsibility.

I think my friend Bev’s heaven, yes! leadership for social justice in Boston has been so powerful in part because it comes out of all three of these places – heartbreak for the conditions in her community, anger at the racism and injustice that’s made that so, and the leveraging of the privilege of her education and relationships and talent.

When you find ways to say hell, no! and heaven, yes! born out of heartbreak and anger and privilege, you’re in a sweet spot there. Watch out and see what’ll happen.

But anytime, in anyway, we say “no” to the ways things are but shouldn’t be – in ourselves or around us, and right with that we say “yes” to the ways God would have it be so, we’re aligned with the purpose and power of God, because we’re practicing a very particular and potent form of love.

Love Is Listening

Good morning everyone! 

I’m Ivy, a Pastor here and we are in a winter sermon series called, “Love is…”
And I want to talk this morning about how “Love is… listening.”  

And maybe some of you are thinking,

“Oh, great! Another anemic word, ‘listening’.” 

And I get it, “love” and “listening” are words that in many cases have been emptied of their meaning – whether it’s because of overuse or abuse.   

However, I want to talk this morning about how we can revive a way of “deep listening” – regard it as one of our oldest, known technologies (technology if we think of it as a way to connect with one another) and one that is still relevant  and holds the potential to not only connect us (to ourselves, God and others) but that can heal us, and the world around us.  

If we are hopeful to live more full, free and loving lives with Jesus – we will need to not only aspire, but to actively cultivate this deep way of listening. Listening is the first step in communication – the very bones of how we relate to one another/community/society/our world. And if we give up on deep listening, if we think,

“aah, what does it matter anyway? It doesn’t change anything…” 

Then how we communicate and the language we use to do so – will be stunted, defensive and anemic as well. 

But, if we can take our lead from Jesus and see how “love is .. listening.”  That listening is indistinguishable from love – and if love is knowing and being known (as Steve shared two weeks ago) and if love can help us all be some parts humble, gentle, patient (as Lydia invited us last week) … then seeking to listen, with and to, the Spirit of God – as we engage with one another, can prove to be an impactful, provocative, and subversive way of being in the world – whoever we are with, and wherever we are.

And may this way of listening be helpful for our own personal flourishing – as well as  helpful for the common good.

So join me this morning in listening – not just to my words – but to the Spirit of God, the voice within you, and to scripture.  I’m hopeful that we can see that listening can be a great expression of loving one another, of clarifying what we are “for” (not just against), and how listening is really the nexus for action & transformation that creates new ways forward in our public life – and Beloved Community. 

Let’s take a  moment now of quiet – in prayer –  to “listen.” Listen to what might be stirring in you – to what you need most right now – listen for what God would love for you to know… just take a moment to prayerfully listen. Amen. 

I’ve talked with so many of you over the last 20 months who are health professionals. Who have donned your stethoscopes and put them close to patient’s chests and backs in hopes of amplifying the internal movement and sounds of organs.

You’ve listened through the sounds of coughing babies and adults  – you’ve listened through shallow breath, crackles and wheezes – in hopes of finding the sounds that can’t be detected from the outside of the body. The internal sound of a steady heartbeat, the small sound of a breezy breath moving through a clear lung – you’ve listened for the sound of life. 

The thing about this way of  ‘listening’ that I’m talking about this morning is that it helps us detect the love and presence of God – when it isn’t always apparent, isn’t always right there – on the surface of our everyday lives. It helps us press through all of the external “noise,” and find that the source of all life, all goodness, all joy (all possibility) – is still beating within us and around us.   

I find that ‘listening’ is sort of God’s stethoscope. An instrument that God drapes around us,  that allows us to orient to the internal sounds and movement  –  of God, the sound of the genuine within us – even as we are tugged and pulled by the commotion of the news, family, work you name it.

In the scripture, Mark 5  –  we encounter the story of a bleeding woman and Jesus. And we witness what listening looks like in practice… And I want to invite you to notice what sounds and movement you detect as we make our way through… 

Mark 5:25-34 (Common English Bible)

25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years.

26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse.

27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes.

28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.

29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’”

32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth.

34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

Now, we can piece together a little bit about this woman’s reality, given the context of time and history. As a woman, with a physical, chronic affliction – she would have been pretty diminished in this society.  

If not completely invisible. 

There are a multitude of barriers that come against her full existence.

  • Her identity as a woman.With no connection to a man… no husband/brothers/father to give her some inroad/access to resources is a barrier.
  • The purity standards that were dictated under the religious system – would have deemed her impure because of her bleeding. 
  • The cultural norms would have seen her unfit to live within city limits.
  • Her intense pain means her mental/physical/emotional state is likely depleted.

She’s nameless and voiceless.

She had never really been listened to.

The cacophony of external voices that say she doesn’t belong, she’s to be excluded, she is unworthy – are all consuming.  

And as you can imagine the sound of these voices sink beneath the surface of her skin and reverberate inside of her – shaking her own sense of worth, her dignity, her value. 

So she is left without a gridwork for belonging.  To what? Where? To whom does she belong?  

And at the heart of those questions – is a pretty universal/human one – that we might ask ourselves at any given point: 

“WHO AM I?” 

For this woman IT IS REALLY HARD to listen to the sound of God, the sound of love within when the  context of a world around her is constantly shouting

“you don’t matter, you are not loved.” 

A mentoring voice to me, the late theologian Howard Thurman says

“there is but one step from being despised to despising oneself.” (33).

Like this woman, for those who are oppressed and marginalized…it is hard to not become deaf to the true voice that calls out who you really are.  He says, THIS is why it is critical to listen and to cultivate this deep interior space – to anchor to the “sound of the genuine within.”

Now the sound of the genuine is our truest selves in connection and belonging to the love of God.  Thurman says there is so much traffic going on in our minds, so many different kinds of sounds and signals that  float through our bodies – that in the midst of all of this – he says,

“you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? How does the sound of the genuine come through to you… because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that –  all of your life you will spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

But it’s so hard for this woman to detect the sound of the genuine.  And maybe you have felt this in your own life too?  Moments where you’ve wondered if you are just being pulled around by someone else’s expectations – or someone’s loud, authoritative voice? Maybe your voice has been interrupted endlessly – not listened to – to the point where you wonder

“WHO AM I?”

If your thoughts, dreams, way of seeing the world even matter.  

I think this is why it takes intentionality to cultivate ‘listening’ as a way of being in the world.  And what’s at stake if we don’t  – is that we not only lose this grounding, within ourselves. But with that, we lose any possibility of listening to the sound of the genuine in another.…and this is the loss of connection to the source of all love and life.

*I’ve been in a three-year long “conversation.”  And this conversation came to be after a moment of disruption in our relationship, where we deeply disagreed on something that had occurred. 

*Part of what I’ve realized after coming back to this conversation again and again is that I for a long time, *(and maybe this is obvious)*

  • a) I wasn’t really deeply listening to the other person and
  • b) I wasn’t listening to this person, because I was not listening to the ‘sound of the genuine’ within me. 

*I could feel that love had gotten broken in this deep part of me, I was hurt.. But I didn’t really know how to pick up that stethoscope and listen to my own heart – and listen to God say,

“I am here. Love is here, all of what you feel matters.”

And it left me feeling really unmoored.

Part of the work of picking up that stethoscope and placing it right square on your heart is that it requires “quiet.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve “shushed” my kids  – who were always the loudest right when the nurse or doctor put that stethoscope up to their body…

But to really listen, is to invite quiet.  

I tend to not want to embrace too much quiet.  In this 3-year long conversation I did not want to embrace internal or external quiet – I was mad and angry.  And to be “quiet” in either space felt like inaction to me. .. navel-gazing – a waste of time. (There’s too much at stake – too much to solve, fix).

But I’ve been reading this book called, “The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture,” by Kevin Quashie that suggests how vital “quiet” is for listening to the sound of the genuine and also for moving out in our public life. He points to how FULL of movement “quiet” is – he says,

“quiet is often interchanged with the words silence or stillness – but the notion of quiet is neither motionless nor without sound. Quiet, instead, is a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner life – one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities and fears.” (6)  

Quiet, some might say in our inner life, is the busiest intersection- where we get to encounter the love of God, recognize the movement of the Spirit, our own voice and others.

So much of what we do, how we interact, and how we act is shaped by this interior space.

We see Jesus with this bleeding woman  move and act from this “quiet” space. It says in the scripture we just read that he

“continues to look carefully”

in the bustle and noise of the crowd, (and that’s after he’s already turned to the crowd and said, “who touched me?”). He continues to “look carefully” and “listen”. And it’s this internal hush – where Jesus detects that God was present and recognizes that someone who was longing for God’s presence – had touched his clothes.  He listens to this internal space of quiet within to guide him to this woman…which ultimately guides this woman to healing. But there’s a bit of a journey in there…

We can’t too quickly link that the “quiet within” can fix all the unjust systems that this woman represents. If we do, we miss the very components that make any potential for public change possible. . . which is relationship, presence, connection. 

It’s why these 1:1 Relational meetings we are encouraging are so powerful and why our community groups are so valued. Because we know, we feel, something moves within us –  when we can just be listened to, not approached as a subject or a project – just as a human being, (with the divine inside).

Jesus walks across the social, cultural, and religious boundaries here. And it is a notable public expression of pushing against the dominant culture – but Jesus crosses those lines to connect with this woman, to be present to this woman and to listen not to address her as if she is a problem to be solved, or fixed.

Part of the reason – I think – that my three- year long conversation has lasted so long, is that neither of us would settle for “quick fixes,” because we realized that it didn’t heal in the long run. There’s a way that a too quick, “I’m sorry” or a “pat logical explanation” to a hurt reaches and communicates more a goal of equilibrium, to resolve and smooth a way forward … rather than listen, and to see what is opened up in that.  And that’s not really “listening” – it doesn’t change, heal. It doesn’t allow my humanity – feelings, concerns, emotions to be in full view.  And here there is no movement, except more distance and disconnection. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say this is akin to listening with half an ear – listening that presumes you already know what the other person has to say, you already know their position, and you already know the solution.

But this, he says,

“is an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak, or to put your agenda forward.” AND here is where we forget that the  person in front of us is always a mystery, holds the image of the Divine within them, and that that’s always worth listening to…when we don’t we start to label (the process or the person), and in that labeling … we limit.” 

“Poor listening diminishes another person, but deep listening invites them to exist and matter.”

The society around this bleeding woman labeled her ‘unclean’, ‘disabled’, ‘poor,’ etc…diminished her to the brink of invisibility.

But Jesus brings this woman back into her full existence. He didn’t lecture her, try to fix her, but instead he listened. He made space for her to tell her “whole truth,” Her STORY! From her own lens, not society’s, or some external authority – but her own thoughts, her own desires and longings…unfiltered/vulnerable without a threat of  judgment or a rush to “fix”.  And this invited her back to herself  – to detect the sound of the genuine within her.

Thurman would say that at some fundamental human level – this is what we all desire – that we could

“feel that we are so thoroughly and completely understood – listened to, that we could take our guard down and look around us, and not feel that we would be destroyed. To be able to feel completely vulnerable, completely exposed and absolutely secure – to run the risk of radical exposure and know that the (person listening), the eye that beholds our vulnerability would not step on us.” (Spellman address).

A doctor I listened to, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, backs this. She says that to be in pain is so vulnerable, and over and over again as she trains medical students she helps them understand what it is to “TREAT” those who are suffering and  scared.

She says to her students

“Fixing is too small a strategy to deal with pain and suffering”

but “THE POWER of your PRESENCE” of simply being present and listening – of letting that pain/suffering/wrestling matter  … time and time again is the wisdom that is needed to help heal.

It’s why in studies I’ve been reading about stethoscopes – that they are argued to still be so vital in exams. Even while we have ultrasounds and echocardiograms – because it allows the presence of the patient doctor relationship to exist… and it is to value the medicine of connection.

CONNECTION HEALS

Jesus turned to this woman and said,

“Daughter….”

Her identity, dignity, sense of worth – that sound of the genuine is revived, as Jesus calls her by name. He’s saying,

“THIS IS WHO YOU ARE, a child of God,”

and this gives her a pulse again. 

Now the society around her is still fractured and stacked against her. Injustices are everywhere. But to be listened to – is to be loved. 

And the internal movement that occurs for her holds the potential to disrupt and shake unjust systems. She moves from the absolute fringes of society to the very fringe of Jesus’ cloak. To the source of life and love. 

What’s cultivated here is a sense of belonging. That God is with her in all of life.

This heals where love has been broken…and as Thurman says,

“this restoration – stabilizes our sense of self – with new courage, fearlessness, and power.”   

This woman is seen, known and loved. This is the sound of the genuine.
This is the sound of healing.

I stayed in this three-year conversation in part because  I needed to learn what listening really was – IF IT MATTERED –  for myself, as well as with the other person.  

I realize many of you might not have 3 years to hang with a conversation and/ – for many of you the listening you’ve done has suggested that boundaries are the best way to heal – given the dominant culture dynamics you’ve endured. I want to honor that, but maybe you find yourself in the same “types” of conversations that always feel the same and never really seem to go anywhere.. 

This is  tiring – and it’s tiring  to care and to listen when there’s no identifiable change. In a moment of overwhelm I said to this person,

“tell me the whole story again. Can you start from the beginning?”

(and this was 2.5 years in) It was a weird thing to say, I was there at the beginning of this story – I knew how it went.

But as I listened and heard the familiar recounting, I also heard something new.  I heard what and why I was LISTENING. Unattached to the other person, or to the outcome. I heard the sound of my own belief in myself. In love, in the power of connection, of goodness, of humility, of patience…the belief in “possibility” …

I heard what I was “for” – not just what I was against. And that didn’t change much instantaneously – but it did fuel me to stay in it. To keep moving toward healing… and to listen for the sound of the genuine in this other person. 

As this woman who Jesus calls “daughter” knew – and we know too – there is a lot to oppose in our days. So much that grieves us, harms us, so much we want to act to change,  so much injustice to right.  So much so, that our way of being can become primarily against, or  “anti-” something. *for good reason* 

But listening, cultivating this sound of the genuine – allows us to also keep ‘love’ at the forefront – to remember what we are “FOR” as well.  To remember that love endures in us, and with God.  And to balance our protests in the public sphere – with our inner, vulnerable life as well. 

To remember as Kevin Quashie says, that

“the inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness.” (Quashie, 6)

There is a richness to our life, that holds beauty and rest – and resistance and protest  – and they are born from the same spot. Where the love of God, and our true selves connect – the foundation of listening and love –  it’s how we impact all the places where we work, live and play.

As Jesus says to this woman,

”go in peace”

Go! Go change the world. Go act. go love – and may you listen to the sound of the genuine as you do – keeping your own humanity and the humanity of another on full display.   May it be so -for us as well. 

And still, you may have questions of – how do I actually cultivate this way of listening? We’ve been offering these Listening workshops first Sunday of every month. Next up –  Feb. 6, 1 pm – 2:30 pm on Zoom. 

Link to RSVP is above so check it out if you’d like.  

Love is…Mussing Up Someone’s Hair

I’m coming to you from my house, pre recording this sermon because, surprise, I’ve been exposed to Covid. Hope you are all well, and getting through these times with some sustained energy. 

We just started a series called Love is… and all I can think of is, “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me~” Sorry, it’s an old movie reference, called A Night at the Roxbury, if you don’t get it.  

The question is legit though. It is THE question. What is love? 

When I started developing crushes, this was a very important question for me. 

I remember being in the 4th grade, and there was this kid named Robbie, who was just so cute, even gave me a hand written Christmas card, and no we weren’t doing an activity in class where we had to write a card to everyone, it was just to me. 

I got the card and it said, “I stole this card from my sister. Merry Christmas!” 

And I thought, is this love? 

Often when I had questions, I’d go to the library to find answers. And there was this one book that I still remember to this day, that guided me along these heart wrenching times, called ‘Love is… walking hand in hand’ from the Charlie Brown and the Peanut gallery. Each page gave me real examples of what love was, that were clear and defined. One page said that “Love is meeting someone by the pencil sharpener.” And that year I sharpened my pencil a lot.

Today I want to specifically talk about, as pastor Ivy showed us in our Spiritual Practice, Love is Mussing Up Someone’s Hair. 

I saw this kind of thing happen during Christmas, with one of my friend’s kid, a 10-year-old boy who has selective mutism, who didn’t really know how to interact with my son, a 1-year-old baby. And he would just come up and touch his hair, it was so cute. 

I’ve also been watching this reality dating show on Netflix. Don’t judge me, it’s not as trashy as you’d think, being a reality show. It’s called Single’s Inferno, where a bunch of single people are placed on an island, kind of like Survivor show style.

They’re sleeping in a tent and have bare minimum to eat and not much to do except date. They have some games and prompts that if you win, you get to pick your partner to go to “paradise” with, which is literally a hotel and resort called Paradise, and you get to stay in a suite room with room service with the date of your choice for one night. 

And it’s so hilarious and cute how small things matter so greatly when there isn’t much else to do except think about feelings for each other. When someone decides to sit next to someone at the bonfire, when someone takes a walk with this person as opposed to that person, or when someone touches someone’s hair while talking–the drama!

One guy starts falling for a girl because she said to him, “you look nice in pink. Pink is my favorite color.” Or another guy pointed out how cute it was that someone said to him, “hurry hurry go up!” while they were walking behind them on the stairs. But one of the biggest sacrifices one makes for love, or show of affection here is that they would rather stay in the Inferno (the island) rather than go to Paradise with another person. 

You know why I call myself Christian? Because I am enamored by God’s grand gesture of love. Pastor Ivy put it really well recently. She said,

“God comes to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocks on our human hearts and says, ‘May I come in?’ ” 

God decided to leave paradise, all that’s associated with being a divine being, gave it all up to be with us and one of us. 

Philippians 2 says that Jesus “Instead, gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position, was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form.” 

And when God decided to do this, I think God came to mess up our hairs a bit. God came into our space, got in our realm, and began to shake things up a bit. That’s what’s compelling to me about Jesus. Christian theology says,

What does God look like? It looks like Jesus, who came into this world as a helpless baby, born not in a palace but a manger, rode not on a high horse but a humble donkey, and instead of exercising all his might, humbled himself actually to death. 

Who is God? What does God do? Who is Jesus? What did Jesus do? There are many things we can say, that have been said, that Jesus died for our sins, or God saves us, or God protects or Jesus cares  or whatever. But at the end of the day, why, why did God do any of these things? 

1 Corinthians 13 talks about prophecies, fathoming mysteries and knowledge, and faith to move mountains, giving all I possess to the poor or surrendering bodies to the flames, and says all that is nothing, if you don’t have love.

All of theological debates can be ended with, God is love. God did all that because God loves you. Why do we care about justice, welcome the refugees, normalize pronouns to expand our concept of gender binary, include the outcast, why do we confess our sins, why do we gather together as a community, why do we bother to do any of these things, because of love! 

How have you been enamored by God’s love? There are many different kinds of love that can help us understand the love of God and romantic love is definitely a metaphor that’s used even in the Bible. Song of songs is all about love, sensuality, flirting, and even sexuality, and it’s been included in the Bible as a way for us to know God’s love for us.

So think about romantic relationships or love interests in your life. Think about your dating life. I think it’s interesting to think about dating love because love after marriage is one thing, but when you’re dating, things kind of heightened, like the show I was telling you about. Like first walking into their apartment. Or the first time you have a misunderstanding. At every step of the way you’re looking and aware, and asking, could this be love? There are seasons in our faith journey where our relationship with God can feel like that. You’re looking and seeing, God, are you speaking, are you initiating, do you love me?

  • And how have you involved God in your life?
  • How have you been open and vulnerable, inviting God into your messy room or seen you without your makeup?
  • Or have you ghosted God?
  • Have you invited God to parts of your life that you’re not so proud of?

Would you believe it if I said, God sees that insecure, dark, shamed parts of you and still loves you and moves closer to you? And calls you back for the next date? 

Or even if you’re thinking about a long-term relationship, after a long season of unemployment, depression, or physical illness, maybe even years after, they don’t go anywhere, but says I’m here, I love you, no matter what. 

How have you developed lovey dovey relationships with God? How has God messed up your hair and got all up in your space, every nook and cranny of your life? Do you even expect that from God? Or is God far off in a distance, perfect, and you only go near God when things are good? 

1 John 4:16 says that God is love.

Whatever you think love is, or love should be, or the love you hope for, that, that is God. 

And it goes on to say in

verse 19 We love because God first loved us.

20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a sibling is a liar. For whoever does not love their neighbors, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Because God loved us first, let us love one another. 

And what does it look like to love one another? Honestly, it’s really hard. 1 John and other New Testament writers wrote a lot about this, loving one another, because they ran into problems of actually not loving each other well! In Ephesians, Paul is writing to a church in Ephesus with some words of encouragement. But they weren’t just words of encouragement, they were pleas and discipline.

Chapter 4 starts with,

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

You don’t beg someone to do something when they’re already doing it. He was begging because they were acting up. He is petitioning them,

verse 2, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.

I want to spend the rest of our time talking about this 2nd verse and I’ll close. 

These were his tips and advice on how to get along, because this church, they weren’t getting along. The content of Paul’s letter lets us know that there were factions and divisions happening, external influences to the church that were causing problems, there were marital and family problems. He gives this wisdom to, please please you guys, I’m begging you, be humble, gentle, patient and bear one another. 

Now I don’t want to use this verse just to tell you, be more humble. Be more gentle. Always be patient! Because that’s not preaching, that’s nagging. And frankly, churches and systems have used this verse to tell people to know your role, get in line, and obey. Again I’d like to remind you that Paul didn’t write this as an instruction on how to love at all times. He was RESPONDING to conflict with these invitations.

And they are good advice generally. Yes, lead with humility and gentleness. Let’s be patient with each other. And then there are times when we need to be strong, confident, and urge one another. What I’m saying is that when you try to love one another, be a community and be a church, conflict is bound to happen. In fact I’ll go as far as to say, that’s what it means to love, to engage in conflict, to like I’ve been saying, mess up someone’s hair? That’s really vulnerable.

It’s getting entangled with one another. It’s sharing space to show your faults or weaknesses. It’s putting yourself out there and leaving the possibility of getting hurt. It’s caring too much that sometimes you might get disappointed or angry. Cause if you didn’t care? You’d be indifferent. If you didn’t care, it’d be perfect. If you didn’t love, your hair would be perfect and no one would mess it up. The most important thing that I want to point out from this verse actually is, BEAR. Bear one another. 

Bearing is holding up a burden. Bearing is tiring. Bearing means that there’s stress and struggle. It’s not free of difficulties. And you know what else it means? It means, you stay. You show up. You engage. You endure.

You know, showing up to church, even logging onto Youtube, it’s not ideal. It’s not the easiest thing sometimes. Engaging in a relationship, texting someone not knowing how they’ll respond, it’s work. 

I’ve been alluding to the metaphor of dating in talking about love today. Love is… Not breaking up. Even when things get hard. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not condemning breakups or divorce. Sometimes there is, when you’ve done all the humble, gentle, patient, and bearing, a time to give up. A time to heal. A time to change. And all that, we do it for love. Love of God, love of others, and love of self. That’s the work of love, trying and being there, showing up, again and again. 

We’re so isolated these days. It’s hard to engage even with church with all these restrictions in place with masks, can’t see any smiles, can’t sing sometimes, can’t even sit next to or hug someone. And well we definitely can’t mess up each other’s hair.  Maybe let’s find our way somehow, to figure out how to do that.

Let’s get in each other’s metaphorical spaces. Let’s call them. Let’s face a new person that you don’t know. Let’s Zoom as dreadful as it feels sometimes but it’s a nice tool. Facetime someone. Show up on someone’s porch even if it’s a sad wave from the stairs. One of you did that last week for me, dropped off a covid test and waved and it meant so much. 

I know many of you are tired of this pandemic. And I am too. But you know what, we’re strong. We’re resilient. We must bear through these times, and we can. To live is to endure. Endure one another. We must. 

So I beg you, much like Paul begged the Ephesians, let us bear one another. Let’s get in there, even if it’s easier to just check out. 

Steve’s been telling you about the relational meetings in last week’s email and through the blog in your inboxes. Check it out. Give it a try. Like downloading a dating app and creating your profile for the first time, it’s hard at first. But put love out there. You can fill out this form in the chat and get matched with someone. Maybe you’ll go to paradise together! You never know! May we, reach out, and love one another, because Jesus first loved us, with sweatpants and messy hair don’t care, and hop on a Zoom call. May we love one another, especially right now. 

Let me pray for us. 

Good and gracious God, do you see us right now? Maybe with a messy bun, no shave, maybe not even a shower. Do you see us, kneeling maybe in a pool of our own loneliness and depression tears, or at the top of our arrogance and ego? Do you see us busying about the best we can, as we work from home in this pandemic? Do you see us, afraid to get vaccinated no matter the pressures we feel? Do you see us, waiting on vaccination for our little ones? Do you see us? We cry out to you. 

The God of our friend Jesus, who has shown us that he sits with the outcast, eats with the poor, heals the broken, —be with us now. Sit with us. Heal us, we pray. May we be open to the love that you are pouring into us, open up and maybe even let that love overflow to this dry land we find ourselves in these days. Wash over us we pray these things in your love. Amen. 

Love is Knowing and Being Known

For this week’s Scripture, click “Download PDF.”

Well, happy new year again, my friends. I hope you had a safe and happy and healthy first week of the new year. If so, you are doing pretty great. Give yourself a little pat on the back. And if not, we’re here for you in that too.

Somewhere around New Year’s Day, one of my kids saw me playing a word game on my phone. I’m usually not a games on the phone person. I had downloaded this one sometime around Christmas Day. And my kid was like: hey, Dad, you’ve been playing that game a lot. And I thought: maybe that’s so.

So I checked the game stats they showed, and I had played that game of scrabble like 119 times. I had mostly won it, so… but I thought that’s a lot of hours in one week. Think about all the accumulated stress that’s driving me to that much distraction, that much distraction that isn’t life-giving or restorative for me at least at all. So I deleted the app and figured I’d look for some other ways to find peace, life, and purpose in the new year. 

We’re still in a vortex of unknowns, facing many of our personal and collective limits, living with all kinds of tensions we’d rather not have. New year, old fear. So I find myself asking

How can I live? What is my way forward?

And as a pastor in this community, I find myself asking that question for us as a community.

What’s our way forward? 

In those questions and prayers, a few things keep coming back to me. They’re all versions of something I saw a fellow pastor post on Twitter the other day. They wrote: If we want a good year we probably can’t count on 2022 being good. But we can create goodness in our immediate proximity through prayer, kindness, generosity, and friendship.

If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on this year being good. That’s true every year, really. But we can welcome goodness, pay attention to goodness, create goodness. This pastor listed a lot of ways toward that goodness: prayer, kindness, generosity, friendship. All of which are great. 

I’m drawn to a slightly different list, when in the New Testament, we read that in a world where everything falls apart, faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love. Love never fails.

We have been unabashed here at Reservoir about the centrality of love in the way of Jesus and of the power of love to uplift and transform every area of our lives and every corner of this world. Three years ago, our new year series was called Training in the Studio of Love. It was a good one, I think. 

This year, we begin the year with a series we’re simply calling “Love is…” And today, we’ll think about how love is knowing and being known. Love is about relational knowledge, the process of knowing another and of becoming known by another, to another as well. 

Let’s read the two scriptures that will anchor this teaching. First, from the gospel of John – the Bible’s fourth and latest set of stories about the life and teaching of Jesus. 

John 1:9-14 (Common English Bible)

9 The true light that shines on all people

    was coming into the world.

10 The light was in the world,

    and the world came into being through the light,

        but the world didn’t recognize the light.

11 The light came to his own people,

    and his own people didn’t welcome him.

12 But those who did welcome him,

        those who believed in his name,

    he authorized to become God’s children,

13   born not from blood

        nor from human desire or passion,

        but born from God.

14 The Word became flesh

    and made his home among us.

We have seen his glory,

    glory like that of a father’s only son,

        full of grace and truth.

This poem calls Jesus three things – Word and light and flesh. It’s a refashioning of the Bible’s very first poem, the story of God, where we hear God spoke, Let there be light, and there was light. And God speaks into being life after life. Some have read this on the surface – as an account of creation out of nothing that climaxes in this earth and our species. Others now read it as living, loving energy which encouraged that ball of dense matter some 14 billion years ago to explode into ever expanding, ever more beautiful and complex life, you and me included. Word, light, flesh – all a miracle.

John is so taken by how Jesus speaks and what Jesus reveals that he reframes the story of God to center Jesus. Jesus the word – the embodiment of God’s communicating presence – speaking love and possibility and guidance and truth to all creation. Jesus the light – a life-force, a truth teller, someone who helps us see better. 

And then this third word, not just the creator but the created, that word flesh – human, muscle, blood, brain, heart, sinew, one of us, living among us. Word and light with a heartbeat. 

The climax of this poem is that moment – the Word became flesh and made his home among us. As the late Eugene Peterson wrote – moved into the neighborhood. The story of God – word and light of God become flesh. Love of God saying to us all:

Let’s be neighbors. 

We’ll come back to this.

Our second scripture is more mundane, just a little bit at the end of the longest letter of the New Testament, the one called Romans. It goes like this:

Romans 16:21-23 (Common English Bible)

21 Timothy my coworker says hello to you, and Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my relatives.

22 I’m Tertius, and I’m writing this letter to you in the Lord—hello!

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, says hello to you. Erastus the city treasurer says hello to you, along with our brother Quartus.

I got this from a talk on loneliness that Andy Crouch gave a few years ago. That this little list of names, what seems like a footnote, is one of the most stunning passages on love and justice and community in the whole Bible. 

Paul, the writer, sends greetings, as does his partner Timothy and then some of his relatives. And then there are two really prominent Roman citizens living abroad with Paul. There is Gaius, this Roman-named person wealthy enough to host a good sized meeting in his home. On my kids high school sports teams, back when we had parent gatherings and potlucks and all, the same wealthy parents tended to host them all – because they were the people who could fit 50 or more people in their home and hire cleaners to spiff the place up and pay for all the wine 50 parents can drink.

That’s Gaius, and Erastus is just like him – another professionally successful, prominent Roman. They send their greetings to the friends in Rome. But so do Tertius and Quartus, whose names literally mean third and fourth. Kids born to families so poor, of such low status, that their kids are merely named for their birth order. Number two, number three, number four. Kids destined to be slaves like their parents were, people of no account in the world. 

But here they are in the scriptures – brother Quartus, and writer Tertius – getting to pen for the apostle Paul some of the most famous words ever written in any language ever, the book of Romans. Where brother Tertius gets to say hello, mattering, belonging as much as Paul or the city treasurer or that family with the huge living room or anyone else. It’s beautiful. 

There are two things I want to draw out of all this for us in this new year.

I want us to notice what the love of God is like, and I want to invite us into a very particular way to express beloved community in our church over the next two winter months.

What is love?

Along with many Christians of my generation, I was taught the love of God has a word, a Greek word, agape. This comes from a long line of Christian teaching that says there are many types of love. There is stroge love, which is familial affection. There is philia love, brotherly and sisterly love between friends. There is eros, erotic love, the sensual, romantic love of lovers.

And then there is God’s love, agape love – the self-giving, self-sacrificial love that seeks the good of the beloved regardless of feeling or circumstance. That is God’s love, we were taught, and that is the model for our love as well. There were related slogans. Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a fact. Or love is a decision. 

Well, there’s some truth in this. It’s good to keep choosing love, even when we’re not feeling it. But there are a lot of problems with this way of defining love too.

This dispassionate, disinterested picture of the love of God doesn’t speak to the heart, it doesn’t heal, to think God may or may not particularly have affection for me or desire for me, but God will seek my good nevertheless. That doesn’t actually feel like the greatest of gifts.

And it doesn’t empower great love among people either. For instance, feminists note that this kind of teaching – often by men – encourages women to stay devoted to men who neglect or abuse them. Ignore your feelings, stick with your decision, stand by your man. Religion that empowers abuse is bad religion. Ideas about love that empower abuse are not love.

Scholars of love have shown that all love, including the love of God, is bigger than this. Roberto Sirvent has written about how healthy love has a wider palette. When he surveys love, he talks about four qualities of love. 

The first is “love as robust concern.” Love as robust concern is the parent’s longing to see a child have great outcomes in life, for no particularly self-interested reason, simply because. This aspect of love is the most similar to Christian teaching on agape. God becomes flesh out of God’s robust concern for you and me. 

The second quality is “love as value.” Love as value is a parent’s longing for the flourishing of a child because the parent sees and believes in the child’s worth and special qualities. God becomes flesh because God thinks we are worth it. God values us. 

Love as union,” the third quality of love, is about developing a shared identity. In love we surrender complete autonomy; ourselves and our freedom aren’t lost, but they’re constrained. A lover desires reciprocity and makes decisions not just for oneself but for the relationship. Love as union is a parent’s intimate connection with a child as members of a shared family. Love that seeks connection and even reciprocity isn’t a lower form or love but a more invested one. From birth we are looking for this kind of intimacy of union. We are looking for a face who is looking for us. God becomes flesh because God wants to be one with us, intimate with us. This too is God’s love.

And lastly, “love as emotion” speaks to how those who love are responsive to one another and changed by one another. Love as emotion shows us why happy children make happy parents and vice versa. God becomes flesh because God feels for us, because it makes God feel better when we feel we are loved. 

The God made flesh in Jesus has robust concern for all of creation, you and me included, and is interested in the greatest possible flourishing for all humans and all other life as well. The God made flesh in Jesus highly values the worth of all of creation, measuring each human life to be of inestimable worth and finding saving value in other lifeforms as well. The God made flesh in Jesus seeks intimate connection, even union, with all of creation through the ongoing participation of God in the life of the world. And the God made flesh in Jesus has profound emotional investment in the well-being of human life and the life of the universe as well. All of us matter deeply to God. When we search for God, we are looking for someone who is already looking for us. 

This is why God moved into the neighborhood. This is how God is saying to us all today:

Kids, I love you. Let’s be neighbors.

So the first thing I invite you to do in this new year is to remember every single day that you are loved by God, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are not just loved by a God that seeks your good, and who is invested in you, who knows you and wants to be known by you, and wants you to experience that you are known and deeply loved. We’ll practice this at the end of the talk.

Secondly, I want to invite you into a particular expression of love in this community, to our own expression of that Romans 16 experience that every one of us matters.

Some of us are Gaius and Erastus types – we have wealth or big houses or are professionally accomplished. And some of us are more like Tertius or Quartus. We were born to people who didn’t believe in our future, or into a county or culture that didn’t see and validate us. Some of us are poor, are disabled, are dismissed by others in any number of ways. Some of us, frankly, are both, or somewhere in between. 

None of that tells us how much we matter to God, though, and none of that tells us how much we matter to one another. 

Here’s a way to practice that. I learned it from our involvement in the interfaith social justice collaborative we’re in called GBIO. 

It’s called a relational meeting.

A relational meeting is where two people meet – in person, over zoom, over the phone, it doesn’t matter. Two people meet for between 30 minutes and an hour to simply know part of each other’s stories. That’s it. To matter to one another. 

It’s a one-time thing. There’s no obligation to have a follow-up meeting or conversation unless that happens naturally. There’s no obligation to become good friends. It’s simply a practice of knowing and being known, of forming a wide network of people in your life that you know and care about in some way, and who know and care about you in some way. 

In GBIO, we have these relational meetings a lot because they form networks of people who’ll show up for one another when we need each other. 

In a church we do this because it makes us more of a church too, a place where we know and are known, where we all matter.

You’ll be hearing throughout the month about our community groups, which are our primary way of knowing and being known at Reservoir, of having acquaintances and eventually friends here, of having people you can show up for and who will show up for you. 

But we’re also inviting you to have three 1 on 1 relational meetings this winter – between now and the end of February – with another member of the Reservoir community you don’t know well already. You’d say to someone else in this community: hey, the church is inviting us to have three relational meetings. Can we have one? Or someone will ask you that. And then here’s what you do.

  1. Anyone is free to say yes or no. Some of us are more introverted. Some of us are busier.  Some of us won’t want to participate in this for whatever reason. All that is fine. 
  2. If you ask someone and they say yes, or if someone else asks you and you say yes, set a time and how you’re going to talk – over the phone, over google meet, outdoors on a walk, whatever. Plan on 40 minutes to an hour.
  3. And then when you have the time, each of you just share a little bit of your story with the other. You can respond and ask questions and all – it’s meant to be a natural conversation. But each of you share. 
  4. If you’re not sure what to talk about, here’s the prompt I encourage you to use. Share something about where you come from, something about where you are today, and something about where you think you’re going. These could be very concrete – like talking about the town or city you lived in as a child, and where you live today and what that’s like, and where you hope you’ll be in a few years. Or it could be more abstract – like some significant event in your past, and how you’re feeling about some part of your life today, or a dream or goal you have for your future. Whatever you’d enjoy sharing. However it is you’d like to be known.
  5. And just thank each other for your time and for sharing and that’s it. Keep the conversation to yourselves. It’s not meant to be a point of gossip or anything.

If we each have three conversations like this, so together we have hundreds and hundreds of them, Reservoir will end our winter a stronger, more beloved community, and lots of us will experience a few more opportunities to know we matter and to convey that to someone else as well. 

I invite you to get started today by reaching out to one person you’ve met and talked to before here. I’ll post about this on our blog this week and we’ll announce it again next week. And if you have no idea who to ask, how to get started, we’re posting a link in the chat now where if you don’t know anyone at Reservoir, we’ll help match you with someone else who’d like to have a relational meeting.

There’s a lot that’s wrong in our world right now, friends. So much. If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on 2022 being good. 

So let’s welcome the goodness of God. Word and light and love made flesh to us. Love of God glad to know us, glad to be known, eager for us to know how known we and loved we are as well. 

And let’s extend these circles of knowing and being known in this community as well, practicing the loving connection beyond our current circles that has been some of the magic of the people of Jesus for two millennia now.

Let’s take a minute to pray together, let this soak in.